The only thing spoiling the indifference of a flat lining horizon on a dull yet moderately temperate February morning in Flanders was a small town in the near distance. An overwhelming desire for caffeine sucked us in like filings to a magnet. Sure enough we discovered there a dishevelled café/bar placed uncomfortably in a drab street of architectural post war nightmares, forgivable I suppose, in an area that has been twice flattened by tanks and bombs this past 100 years.
Being close to lunchtime we figured the place would be open. Initially we thought we had guessed wrong for the door we tried was firmly locked and bolted. Almost dejected we were about to make off when we heard someone untangle a myriad of security devices and beckon us inside. Plainly we had tried the wrong entrance. At the bar was a cluster of men. Checked shirts and denims that had not seen the inside of a washing machine for some little time. I hastened a guess they were farm hands of one kind or another. Shirley agreed. From the hush and the looks of bewilderment I presumed that the sight of a couple in long dark coats, the woman donning a knitted black beret and red framed sunglasses; the male with the fedora and a silver ring on each finger was rare in this deliciously rough and ready place.
The sublime dark roast coffee was surprisingly cheap and most certainly hit the spot. A lady of indeterminate age sat on a bar stool to our left asked in perfect English if we were English. She had a world weary smile about her yet a smile nonetheless. My gregarious wife and the lady got talking about this and that. She told that long ago she once had travelled to London and had seen Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. As with the drift of the idle conversation one coffee led to another. The lady, still smiling and without any hint of a plea for restoration or explanation of the circumstances told us that she had lost her husband and four children in recent times and that she was dying of a cancer she was not inclined to name. It was for this reason she advised that she sought solace in the much exalted, yet unnecessarily strong Belgian beers she sipped and American cigarettes she chained smoked. She was still on the cusp of sobriety when imparting this knowledge. In this day and age I found the blue, grey haze nostalgic. A torn at the edges professionally taken monochrome photograph of her dead husband was passed to Shirley. She asked if we knew of him then immediately retracted the question realising that that was improbable.
It was time for us to move on. Shirley kissed her cheek; I purchased her another beer as would a traveller pay the ferryman, for this woman had taken us on a brief journey to the island haven of her world. Unlike the ferryman she had not insisted upon a fee. Also, she sought not pity and none was proffered.
Outside my wife and I got talking. It was clear that the one who had befriended us did not care a jot if she died this instant or tomorrow. Her time was well worth a kiss and a beer.