‘So, what’s it like?’
My coffee has gone cold in front of me. I watch as a barista puts two and a half spoons of coffee granules into a mug then hands it to her manager who snatches it from her and mutters something in Turkish. The espresso machine hisses. Above their heads, a TV flickers to some music channel where a blonde babe wiggles her hips and boobs. The empty sugar sachet I’ve been twisting with my sweaty fingers disintegrates and I put it with the other three that I’ve ruined, on the far-right side of the table. Behind us a toddler babbles as he bangs his toy lightsaber against his buggy. Why are coffee shops always so loud?
‘What’s what like?’
I try to sound casual, to disguise the fact I’ve answered a question with another question. Great. The first girl who’s agreed to go for a coffee with me and I can’t even talk to her properly. Not that I can talk to anyone properly.
‘You know.’ She leans forward and whispers: ‘Being on the spectrum. I’ve always wanted to know.’
I frown at the clock above her head. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well,’ she says and leans further forward so I lean back. ‘There was this boy at my primary school – Divine, he was called – and he always used to say weird things and spin around or jump on the spot. The teachers used to hate working with him because he was an absolute nightmare. Like, if some other kid set him off he would scream until someone, usually his mum, came in to calm him down.’ I can sense her amused little smile. ‘But you’re not like that at all. You’re... Well, you’re normal. And you’re a girl.’
‘Normal?’ The toddler taps the back of my head with his lightsaber and his mother says, ‘Sorry,’ to me but I’m too confused by all the noise to even think about saying anything back. ‘What do you mean “normal”?’
‘Well,’ she says. ‘You’re not like Divine was. You’re a bit shy but you’re calm and keep to yourself. But then I guess Divine was a bit further up the spectrum than you are. Or however you phrase it.’ She puts a finger to her chin, bringing my attention to her scarlet lips. ‘Come to think of it, he shouldn’t have been at my school at all. He would have probably done better in some special needs school or something.’
I shrug and drink my coffee even though it’s cold.
‘So, what’s it like?’ she asks again.
At the counter, the barista drops the mug and somebody’s coffee splatters over the linoleum. The breaking crockery makes me want to cover my ears.
‘What’s what like?’ I watch the barista’s face turn crimson as her boss glares at her.
‘Being on the spectrum.’ She sighs. ‘Have you not been listening to a word I’ve said?’
‘Not really.’ Her face tells me that I probably shouldn’t have said that. ‘No, I mean— I just— Sorry.’
‘It’s fine.’ Now her tone is flat, making it impossible to tell if she’s angry, annoyed or upset with me. Probably all of them.
‘Sorry,’ I say again. ‘It’s just... I don’t like that question.’
One of her eyebrows shoots up. ‘How come?’
‘Because, it’s like—’ Now the toddler was tapping the back of my chair. I do my best to ignore him. ‘It’s like asking a stick insect what it’s like to be a stick insect. It’s always been a stick insect and doesn’t know what it’s like to be anything else because it has never been anything else. Being a stick insect is all it’s ever known. But if it became a ladybird then went back to being a stick insect, it would know what being a stick insect is like because it’s been a ladybird too so it’s got something to compare it with.’
I pick up another sugar sachet. This one’s full this time but I squeeze it anyway, making all the granules slide from one end of the packet to the other.
‘I see,’ she says at last. ‘At least, I think I see.’ She puts her arms on the table. ‘Listen. Do you want another coffee?’
‘Uh.’ I look at my watch. ‘I have a lecture in thirty minutes so I—’ But her smile is infectious and, for the first time since sitting down, I can’t take my eyes off her. ‘Actually,’ I say. ‘I’d love to.’
Matt Gregory was born Kent, lives in Kent and will probably die in Kent. He has an MA creative writing, spends a lot time talking to himself and writes a lot of stories about animals. He's just finished his first novel and intends to be published. One day.