The books made rules of their own. My store was always full but never crowded, and when the time came, I sought the agreement of my neighbouring stores, and placed more tiny round bistro tables outside, first under the awning, and then, later, under the tree, on the triangular paved area where the high streets met. I hired a waiter and a waitress, two young people from my home village, and I taught them some - not all - of what I knew. Conversation flowed, and there was laughter. The sun shone. Birds sang in the tree.
The spires. It was all so gosh-darned, predictably, boringly, successful that for a while I pretended not to notice the illicit trade in magic beans that had sprung up around two of the tables in the back. And for an equally long while, I contrived not to notice that the intelligence services of three countries had concealed microphones in crevices and corners where they imagined that I would not find them. My store - my cafe - had become a meeting point in a city that had itself become a meeting point, between cultures and nations, on a river that flowed between continents. No, this was not Trieste. But it was a place of freedom, and the uninhibited clash of ideas.
You never came to my cafe, not back then, not that one, but if you had, you would have sat outside and watched, downhill, the tourists massing to visit the famous mosque that had been a cathedral. I would have come out to join you, and pointed also to the spires uphill, and to the just-visible flags of the embassies above the linden trees on the long, wide avenue. But you would have been amused by the tourists, so un-knowing of their surroundings, queuing to see, and perhaps to breathe, the reality of the pictures in their guidebooks. You wouldn’t have wanted to waste your attention on the dreamless sophists.
Passage. Remember Venice? Torcello? I know; I was there. But back to my story. In time, I began to suspect that the deception inherent in the microphones, the illegality of the magic-bean traders, was beginning to taint the cafe. My cooking was off, somehow, and even on the brightest of days, the bracelets and charms in my display windows were failing to catch the sun. When a customer, a tourist, died in convulsions on the floor of the cafe (remember how we used to dispose of the bodies, back in the day?) after eating one of my butter croissants, I decided that the time had come to act. But what to do?
Luck - of a sort - was on my side. I had just replaced the rug over the trap door to the secret passage leading to the grate that gave access to the subterranean drain that carried the city’s and my inconvenient, ah, waste to the river; I had just raised the shutters and gone to flick the ‘Closed’ sign to ‘Open’ - when I happened to see a travelling band of Brexit negotiators passing by on the other side of the street. Ragged they were, and dejected. Inspiration struck. I went across and offered them the use of a table in the back for their discussions about tactics. You would have warned me, I know, but - in no time, they were hard at work: coffee means coffee, they agreed, but decaffeinated could be included in the definition if - I stopped listening and just gave them coffee.
Metal teeth. Oh, that was a hard morning. I lost many customers that day. But the monotony of the Brexit negotiators’ discussion proved a match even for the surveillance states, as I had hoped. Some time around 11am, a shabby, elderly man, wearing a raincoat on a sunny day, shuffled into the cafe and began sticking a screwdriver into cracks in the panelling. “You win,” he said, when he’d finished, and I made him an espresso. We stood at the counter together as he drank it.
“How long will you let them stay here?” he asked me quietly, looking across at the table where the Brexit negotiators were discussing a seating plan. He had looked everywhere, I realised, except at the magic-bean traders. And at one other table. I made a note of that.
“Shouldn’t take more than a week,” I told him.
By lunchtime, a large man with metal teeth had been in with a screwdriver, as had a woman dressed entirely in leather, with extremely sharp-looking spike heels and an AK47 slung over her shoulder - and a screwdriver in her hand. I made them both espressos and watched their eyes. That afternoon, in a slack moment, I went to the three tables that had been ignored, and removed the last three microphones. I gave no explanation for what I was doing, and nobody asked, although one regular customer, as he was leaving, did say to me, “They’ll be gone soon?” I nodded.
Validation. It took three days. As the Brexit negotiators talked, I could feel the magic draining from the cafe. Oh, that was hard. By the morning of the third day, a pall of depression hung over the cafe, the street, the city. The Brexit negotiators were still talking, although somehow none of us could hold the meaning of their words in our heads. The few bracelets I had left out in the display cases were tarnished and grey. Everything was becoming one-dimensional; birds were dropping from the tree.
Finally, realising what was happening, resigned to the steady draining away of magic from the beans in front of them, the no-longer-magic bean traders packed up and left. They were, of course, gunned down on the street outside, but it was just for form’s sake; with the Brexit negotiators continuing to talk, even the gun battle seemed desultory.
I made myself a celebratory ristretto, raised the cup - and nothing changed. Yes, you would have warned me, and yes, I should have known. Looking across at the Brexit negotiators, I felt a moment's nostalgia for the spies and the criminals. That book you were always quoting - The Sophistries of Rational Men, was that the title? - I never did find a copy. The negotiations continued. The light dulled. Outside, a smog formed over the city.
I remember the moment when I realised I would have to do something. A dinosaur the size of a tall building, roaring loudly enough to break windows, came wading upriver to the suspension bridge, menaced the city for a few seconds, then changed its mind and went striding back out to sea. At the same moment, the volcano above the city belched smoke and flame then extinguished itself with a damp sizzle. Clearly I wasn’t finished yet. I thought for a while, and then took my last functioning crystal ball from the lead-lined trunk where I had concealed it, and carried it over to the Brexit negotiators’ table. “I know this would only be an informal validation procedure,” I told them, “but it does work.”
After an entire day of discussions about process, they were ready. The first formal crystal-ball test of a Brexit strategy was scheduled for 9am the following morning. An even deeper hush fell over the city as residents programmed their alarm clocks not to wake them up and tour companies went into voluntary liquidation. But I was optimistic - and sure enough, the dismay at the Brexit negotiators’ table was immediately palpable.
Sheets. Over the course of the morning, as they demonstrated, even to their own satisfaction, that whatever solutions they tried, however many referendums they held, however deviously they constructed strategies for leaving that felt like staying, and vice-versa, the future would still be ignoring them, because the future’s a far too intricate mechanism, affected by far too many factors, to be bothering with the simplistic dictates of bureaucrats - over the course of the morning, as they slipped away one by one to nurse their bafflement, the city and my cafe came alive again.
The sun shone, the birds sang, the volcano rumbled and the dinosaur poked its head up out of the water. I made a note on my order pad - maybe get some interesting criminals for the table in the back? - and scribbled it out. The bell tolled as the door opened and in walked a regular customer.
“Are they all gone?” she said.
“Normal service is resumed,” I told her, and our eyes met: we’d once debated the word “normal” for more than a few moments in the course of a long afternoon spent on white sheets in a borrowed apartment overlooking the river. Yes, I was remembering; she smiled.
“What can we talk about today?” she asked me, the smile still in her voice, as I sprinkled a cinnamon Mona Lisa onto her cappuccino.
“Anything you like,” I replied. “It’s a free country.”
She hesitated. I had taken her by surprise.
“People don’t say that any more,” she said.
“Doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
And we discussed.
Yes, I know it’s raining outside, and I know the people handling the navigation aren’t really up to the job, but are we really going to ignore those passengers floating past the windows? Seems to me that when the electorate votes down the prevailing political consensus, there might at least me some scope for questioning our own certainty. The outcomes, not just the answers, are so clear-cut and inevitable? And we’ve got the right one? Good to know. Funny, even.
History is not full of stories in which the crowd - the mob, the revolutionaries, the electorate, call it what you will - marched up to the gates of the Bastille, say, or the Winter Palace, and then packed up and went home again. Social media has not changed human nature to the point at which “no” rises to the surface in whatever is its present form - leave, Trump, Macron, that party in Germany - and then submerges again forever, satisfied that it has made its point.
We’ve started out all metaphorical, so we might as well stay that way. Thought for today is: there’s something in the water.