Its 11 am. I am installed at the local coffee shop. I actually have a choice of coffee shops to go to from Tracey’s house, what a luxury. She lives on the 5th floor of a rather nice, and well known, condo just five minutes’ walk from the Mall. At one end of the street is a small but delightfully intimate café. It has a cosy feel to it and they make wonderful coffee. There is a small outside area, the balcony at the front of the café, but it doesn’t have that intimate feeling and is really only for a short visit. Three minutes in the other direction there is a larger establishment called Coffee Haven. It’s on the way to the mall and currently overlooks a rather desolate wasteland. Bare earth, graded in a haphazard manner, bordered on the back side by what look like ant hills for very large ants. Regimented rows of mounds, three deep and twelve wide, stand forlornly, mini tornadoes forming at their tips as the cool breeze arrives.
Twenty needle thin pillars of grey concrete poke up from the ground like some sort of tortured weed determined to survive. No, it’s not pretty. I’m not sure how much better it will be once the next stage of this massive condo complex is completed, but they do at least make an attempt at creating social space, pleasant outlooks, and modern conveniences. The Coffee Haven is just one of those social spaces. It is set in a little oasis of green. Sit with your back to the mall and all you see is the wasteland across the street and the equally, albeit greener, barren plot that sits beside, belonging to no-one it seems. Used as a sort of car park, dumping ground, it’s the last unkempt bit heading away from the mall, then you are into the first stage of the condo complex that was completed some six or seven years ago I think. But sit with your back to the abandoned lot and you can believe you are in a trendy place. Running water almost covers the constant roar of the cars and motorbikes on their way to and from the shopping haven that the mall has become. I sit on the balcony at an imitation rattan outdoor set, white plastic trying hard to look authentic. Big, squared, chairs and a sofa for two adorned in bright orange cushions surround a matching coffee table with the requisite sheet of glass on the top.
The coffee is great but if you order it iced try not to look too surprised when your delivery arrives in a small glass jug complete with straw. Hey, I’m not complaining because the coffee is big and it’s good!
I sit outside because Missy generally comes with me on these little excursions. If we get here early-ish we can often snag one of the sofa and coffee table spots. Today I was here in time, or the locals just thought I was nuts for wanting to sit outside when there is air con inside. The staff seem to take pity on this slightly eccentric foreigner who has taken to hanging out on their balcony and they give me a fan, sometimes two, to keep me cool as I bang away on the keyboard. Missy lies panting in her travel bag, poking her head out to investigate newcomers and decide if she approves them. Some get an eager wag of approval, tongue lolling in the heat but body alive and vibrating. Others seem to evoke a complete withdrawal to the back of the bag, small and quiet. The odd arrival calls for a deep growl and a little bark, heaven help them if they decide they want to pat her, she backs into the dark corner of the bag growling fiercely. She really does think she is an Alsatian and in charge of my protection, which has an adorable factor. The café staff love her, she’s yet to make up her mind about them.
The coffee is on endless stream if that’s what you want, so I can sit here for a couple of hours and while away some time in the man-made breeze the fan crates. They have Wi-Fi, if you want it, but I tend to opt for the non-connected when I come here. I have the time and space to just sit and think. The staff has limited English so they don’t stop for a chat, and to most of the clientele we appear as an object to be stared at, at their leisure, an oddity for viewing not interacting with. This suits me well as this is usually the spot I come to write a little and here I am pretty sure of the solitude to do that.
Place is an aspect I have been thinking about since reading Professor Bruce’s discussion of ‘Place’ in a great article he wrote (posted yesterday) At Gower’s Tomb: Historical Fiction and the Place(s) of Character, and why he stayed in the less salubrious part of London in order to feel a sense of place. For the reader, which is what I am, place is very important. I love to read a well-crafted story that makes me feel I am transported. Those that do it well seem to capture even the smell of a place. I had not really given a lot of thought to the writer’s role in this, other than knowing when it was good and when it was not done ‘so well’. But as I sit tapping away at the Coffee Haven I realize that I write quite differently when I come here. Perhaps I feel less constrained by sitting outside. Of course I can be pretty sure that anyone that sits near, or wanders by, is unlikely to be able to read what I am writing and so I can tap away merrily saying whatever takes my fancy. I write a lot about my current location, but nothing that I choose to post at this time, most of it will have to wait to be shared …
Today I am seeing my spot with slightly different eyes, is analysing it going to spoil its ambiance in the future? No, I don’t think so, and it’s really quite interesting to try to describe it. Once again I grow more respectful of those that do it well, it’s not easy. You want to evoke the feel and smell, without resorting to tied old phrases, and to make it sound as it feels. How much detail does one need? Should I include a description of the shoulder high stack of rusting metal forms that are laid end to end, and side by side, before they pour the concrete floors. The massive sheets sit drooping off two inadequate wooden pallets, an attempt I assume to keep them out of the water during the rainy season. Should I describe the huge billboard against which these sheets rest? Six tall concrete posts support billboards placed either side of the road like two tacky guard posts announcing your arrival in the condo complex. Both billboards scream their message, ancient Thai script delivering that message in flowing elegant swirls against a background of ultra-modernism. An artist’s rendering of the glass, wood, metal, and stucco monoliths soon to sit like jewels in the wasteland, all bright colours and elegance. Clean, regimented and offering tree lined spaces to sit and catch whatever breeze there is to be found, natural or man-made.
Do I describe the gaggle of men and trucks working in the blazing sun, without the aid of a fan, on a Sunday? They are adding more of those tortured concrete weeds to the wasteland. OHS Departments throughout the western world would have a collective heart attack to watch the goings on of these men. They raise each pillar with the aid of a crane that appears to have been added to a truck surely too small for its task. One man sits on what looks like a tennis refs chair located just at the back of the cab, he’s the crane operator. He has no protective clothing, no cage around him, he just sits aloft in his shirt sleeves, a fag hanging from his mouth, receiving yelled instructions from those standing below him either on the ground or toward the back of the truck. The man at the back of the truck loops a not very substantial looking chain around the belly of the pillar and the raising begins. One man on the ground guides the pillar left or right and obviously believes he will be able to stop this concrete needle from swaying too far in the ever increasing breeze. I’m no engineer but even I think a stiff gust of wind will send this fellow flying. Other than the actual lifting everything else is done by hand it seems, men like busy worker ants running to and from to get this new weed set safely in its hole. The whole process takes less that 10 minutes and they drive to the next hole and start all over again.
Just how far does one need to go in describing place? Would such descriptions move the story along, perhaps if it was the story of the workers and not a mere observer it would. But it is a part of what this space is and is perhaps necessary to create the feel. As the morning draws to a close and the lunch hour approaches the place begins to fill up. I am once again the object of stares, probably some conversation too, and the solitary feel of the place begins to ebb, time to think about packing up and heading for home. Missy feels it too, she sits at the opening to her travel bag drinking in the breeze that has suddenly picked up and is a welcome addition to the fan. The clouds are approaching and there is suddenly a muggy feel to the air, it’s not supposed to rain till tomorrow but who knows if it will hold off so long. I welcome it, it does cool things down a bit, but the muggy build up is very unpleasant. Your skin begins to feel sticky, the breeze a welcome respite to the slight burning sensation suddenly making itself felt all over your body. Your face takes on a glow as the perspiration levels rise, innate instincts kicking in to lower your core temperature. Definitely time to go, this dress will show the sweaty spots …