FICTION | The Place Where Old Friends Go

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer

28/6/2022

There is a place where old friends go. It’s a café, near that bookshop you like and that restaurant you hate. It has no name: whatever words were painted on the drab wooden sign that hangs outside and flaps in the whistling wind have long since worn away. I call it the Café Where Old Friends Go, because, well, that’s who’s inside.

 

The first time I stumbled upon the Café, I saw Priya, my old school pal. She also lived in my neighborhood and used to come over to my house so often my parents joked about adopting her. I attended her wedding, but after she got married, had a kid, and moved abroad, we drifted apart, and hadn’t met in many years. And yet here she was, back in town again (without telling me), sipping a latte, and laughing with her companions.

 

And that girl she was with – another nostalgic face – Li Sia, another school friend I hadn’t seen in ages. But wait, that guy with them, wasn’t that…Thomas? That didn’t make any sense. Thomas was a former colleague of mine. They didn’t know each other…did they? But there they were, the three of them, together.

 

Step inside the café and you’ll find it’s filled with old friends. On this table is a former tennis group. Here’s a friend you fell out with and you don’t know why, with a friend you fell out with and you do know why. Here are friends who met through you but who now apparently hang out together – without you.

Here are friends who met through you but who now apparently hang out together – without you.

A note on the food and drink there: it always tastes like something you’ve had before. The meatloaf there tastes like the meatloaf at your old school cafeteria, the pie like the pie at that bakery you loved that, for some unfathomable reason, closed down six years ago, the coffee like the coffee you once had on holiday in Naples.

 

You’ll never find the Café on purpose. Oh, you can try and try, but you won’t be able to. You can go back to the street you think it’s on and walk up and down and up and down, but somehow you’ll keep missing it; search for it in the warren of wynds that snake through the area, but it won’t be there, not for you, not then.

 

But, one day, when you’re alone – only when you’re alone – when you’re, say, just passing through on the way to somewhere else, or just out for a stroll, you’ll turn the corner and there it’ll be, as if it was there all along. Which, of course, it was.

 

The sun is never shining when you chance upon it. It could be a sunny day, but if you happen to turn the corner and find yourself at the Café, you’ll realize the weather’s now overcast, cold, the hinges of the establishment’s old sign squeaking in a bitter wind. Inside the Café, though, the lighting is bright, its patrons (who are your old friends) animated, sitting together in combinations ranging from the expected to the improbable, but together, always together, just as you are always alone.

It could be a sunny day, but if you happen to turn the corner and find yourself at the Café, you’ll realize the weather’s now overcast, cold.

You can go inside the Café, and your old friends will look up as you enter. Approach their table, though, and the conversation will drop, as if they were just talking about you, or about something they don’t want you to hear. Some will look embarrassed, as if you’ve caught them at something. Some will studiously ignore you; others will sneer at you as you pass by. “Oh, hey!” some will say, as if they’ve only just noticed you, as if this is a pleasant surprise, smiling frozen smiles as they make agonizing small-talk, make painfully-insincere promises to catch up. Whatever the case, they never invite you to join them, and so you make your way to your solitary table, eat, drink, leave.

 

Or, you can stay outside, in the gloom, peering into the bright Café with its tables of old friends. Some are reminders of a past mistake, a promise broken, a faith betrayed. Some remind you only that entropy is the natural tendency of the universe, that time ends all things, that things fall apart. Pull your coat around you and watch your old friends as they natter on, oblivious. What are they saying? What are they talking about?

Share Me
Tweet Me
Mail Me