The face in the mirror

A little procrastination for a Daily Inkling prompt from a few days ago.


She always sits in the same seat at the same table, to the back of the cafeteria by the window. I see her most lunch times, every lunchtime maybe. She has a way of crossing her legs so they stick out into the aisle, a way of colonising the chair next to her with her coat and bag, spreading out a magazine on the table, personal objects, that discourages anyone encroaching on her space, or even walking past. She creates a void around herself, a cordon sanitaire, and behind it, her face wears an expression of armed peace that says, as much as the physical barrier, keep your distance.

Today, occasional gusts of wind lash rain across the window. The pavement is black and slick, people hurry, trotting by, umbrellas bob, rain bounces. The woman’s gaze turns from the watery blur to the busy cafeteria, same hurried movements but in the warm and dry. Her gaze is bland, uninterested, until the shabby woman piles in, shedding rain and the outside cold from her inadequate clothing.

There’s a whiff of unwashed human as she shuffles past, looking for somewhere to sit. Eyes slide away, bags are thrust onto empty seats. The shabby woman shuffles past, hesitates at the woman’s table—four seats and only one occupied. She sinks into a seat and sighs, stretches out her feet, pushes her carrier bags out of the way.

The woman sits up straight and motions to the waitress, beckons her over.

“Get her out of here. This isn’t a soup kitchen.”

She glares about her, defying anyone to defend the shabby woman, with her smell and her wet coat and the unmentionable things in her carrier bags. Nobody speaks, nobody looks in her direction at all. The waitress looks about helplessly.

“She hasn’t ordered anything and she stinks.”

Silence, punctuated by exaggerated chatter.

“I think you’d better leave.” The waitress’s eyes say, ‘please’. “I don’t want to have to get the police.”

Joe pokes his head around the kitchen door. “What’s the problem, Matty?”

“Nothing. This lady is just leaving.”

“I can pay,” the bag lady whispers. “A coffee. I have the change.”

She takes a purse out of her pocket and tips a mountain of tiny coins, strands of tobacco and bits of greasy fluff onto the table.

“Oh my God! You’re surely not going to touch that?” The woman cringes and throws another defiant look around. We all keep quiet, hoping the bag lady will just leave quietly.

I get to my feet, a weight compressing my chest, making breathing difficult. I open my mouth, fumble in my repertoire of revolutionary phrases, never uttered, but can’t grab the right one. People are looking at me, as if I’m some kind of accomplice. They frown, perhaps they’ll recognise me another time, say, she’s the one who tried to bring a stinking homeless woman in here.

I thrust my arms into my coat and grab my bag, turn my back on the scene, and catch the eye of the man at the table across the aisle. We exchange a glance of complicity, wrinkled noses and eye-rolling. I turn my back on the scene, the shabby woman being encouraged to her feet and the other, the woman I finally recognise as myself.


Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

13 thoughts on “The face in the mirror”

  1. NIMBY–not in my backyard–that’s the term they use here to describe liberal minded people who want to make things better for those “less fortunate”, but not if it impacts their own comfort. It’s easy to be indignant when it doesn’t affect you. We’re all guilty of it to some extent. (K)

    1. That’s probably what the Jews thought in 1930s Germany. We all have difficulty standing up for what we know to be right, if it puts us at risk in any way. There aren’t too many heroes among us.

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