I’m waiting for my cappuccino in the Brochstein Pavilion. Brock-steen. The menu advertises various American mysteries, such as sliders, heros and root beer. The air conditioning is set to Siberian winter.
‘Latte,’ barks the barista. Somebody scurries forward and swipes it off the counter, before retreating into a corner, in order to consume it at a safe distance from predators.
There is another girl ahead of me, waiting for an order. She’s wearing baggy denim shorts, practical rubber sandals and a striped t-shirt. Her thin blonde hair is coiled on top of her head in a neat topknot. There are goosebumps on her pale arms.
On the sound system, a warbly soprano with bad Italian diction sings a familiar melody. She is accompanied by some nebulous string-orchestra sounds, punctuated by intermittent episodes of classical guitar-twangling. The occasional clave plinks. There are no hooks, or countermelodies, or clarity of any kind. But I do know the melody.
It’s Whitney Houston’s ‘And I Will Always Love You’. In Italian.
Your favourite popular hits, as you’ve never heard them before. Perfect for relaxing at home. Add a touch of class to your dinner parties, or ‘soirees’, as they say in Paris, France.
Slight swell. Pause. The soprano heaves. Key change. Still no cappuccino.
I rub my forearms for warmth, glance at my watch. Here comes the octave leap. I clench involuntarily. The soprano hoots gamely.
‘Americano.’ The blonde girl leaves.
The General MIDI accompaniment hovers at a fermata, and the singer navigates the final flourish carefully. She sings the melisma as a set of exact semiquavers, before landing squarely on the tonic, like a matron lowering herself into a chair. The strings squelch their way to an unimpressive final cadence. There is a brief moment of silence.
‘Cappuccino’, shouts the barista. I grab it and make for the exit. The strings groan into life again behind me; the singer gives an introductory moo. I close the door firmly.
I take a seat on the patio outside. The heat makes my throat constrict. The air settles on my skin like a wet cloth.
The door is flung open again. An orientation guide crashes onto the patio, roaring at his frightened charges, who follow him mutely. They arrange themselves into a clump around him, avoiding eye contact.
He is short, square, blocky, with a lanyard around his neck. He stands with his feet shoulder-width apart, his head held slightly back. Barrel-chested. His face bears the scars of recent teenage acne.
‘The coffee here is very expensive,’ he yells. He drags the ‘very’ out for at least two seconds, widening his eyes. Inside the glass, the staff glare at him from behind the counter. I look dolefully at my cup. ‘But the sandwiches are awesome,’ he adds, inserting a glottal stop before ‘awesome’ for emphasis. He pinches his thumb and forefinger together, hand close to his lips.
The final orientee to exit the pavilion closes the door after him. ‘Yeah, now that we’re outside,’ he bellows, ‘I can tell you that there are better places on campus for coffee.’ One of the baristas, inside the glass, rolls her eyes.
He’s backing onto the lawn.
‘Welcome to the second academic quad. By the way, squirrel!’ He points at a squirrel on the grass. It looks up, alarmed.
Somebody giggles. A middle-aged woman with a greying bob starts visibly. She looks at the squirrel, looks back at the guide. She frowns, confused.
‘Squirrels are awesome, right?’ He looks around the group. Nobody responds.
‘So anyways, this is the second academic quad, and it’s got some cool sculptures and stuff’ – he pronounces it ‘sculptors’ – ‘cos every so often an artist comes and goes, wow,’ – he throws his arms out wide – ‘it’s so pretty, I wanna build you, like, a thing,’ – the word ‘thing’ gets an audible capital T – ‘so Rice goes, cool, knock yourself out, and they build stuff, and it’s awesome, and that one over there is meant to be some kind of study area I guess, it’s like two seats facing each other, except it’s abstract and stuff, but I’ve never seen anybody study there, and I’ve been here a long time, like two years, so I’m not sure what’s going on with that, but I guess maybe they’re just not very comfortable, since it’s art an’ all, but anyways…’
As he holds forth, he’s leading them across the lawn, walking backwards, beckoning, as though luring them into a trap. His charges shuffle reluctantly towards his retreating form.
By now, my computer keyboard is hot to the touch. The fan roars into life. My shirt is already beginning to stick to me. I retreat into the café. I consider whether it’s worth sitting down, or if I should get back to work.
Il Divo take a deep collective breath before launching into the shirt-button-popping, vein-engorging Italian-ised climax of ‘My Heart Will Go On.’
The library it is.