A COUPLE of years ago, a bunch of Serbians appeared in our neighbourhood and opened up a cafe. It is on the corner, with plate glass windows over the main drag on one side and the street where my brother lives on the other. It has three tables inside, two outside on the street on warm days, and a back room with a counter where five or six people can sit.
I arrive at 9.10am clutching my paper and ordering my cappuccino, having walked my child to school. The back room is already full of dark men in leather jackets with sad, dangerous faces. They sit alone, talking Serbo- Croat into mobile phones and smoking, or they sit in a group and argue hotly, smoking. We, the customers, imagine that they are planning revolutions and civil wars. We don't know whether they are refugees or war criminals. The waitresses are good- looking, slightly tense but friendly. The male customers wonder hopefully whether perhaps it is a knocking-shop. The owner is tall and bearded, genial when he remembers to be. What is his story? We dare not ask. We think of wars and rumours of wars, and count ourselves lucky.
Once, I asked one of the girls what language they were speaking: "Yugoslavian", she said. I seem to remember there is no such language. They sell Serbian cheese pie and Serbian white bean soup. And pots of honey for pounds 5, and blanched almonds and cans of tomatoes which nobody ever buys. And chocolate croissants. And excellent coffee.
Some mornings, I sit with another mother from the school gates and we discuss love, divorce and alcoholism. Sometimes I find myself discussing the exact same subjects with total strangers; with only three tables, you end up sharing. Usually, my friend Clare sees me through the window and pops in to say good morning on her way to the station. My brother's children stick …