People watching – Master and apprentice.

I’ve got a black-belt in people watching, been doing it all my life, peering into the lives of others, seeing how they live, dress, speak and act. And when given a chance, talking to the target, probing to get a feel for how their mind works.

In the cafe, I sit there reading my book, the same line over and over. It’s the mask of the observer. Some times it’s a notebook. I draft a short story in the front of the book, but flip to the back to record snippets of conversation, perfecting dialogue for characters, not yet created.

Yes, I’m a writer and the people-watching is research. Others eavesdrop, collecting secrets, feeling the power they will exert as they spread gossip or try their hand at blackmail. That’s not me. I want to blend the secrets into my characters and stories to entertain others. I thirst for a bigger audience than the gossip. I don’t want to score points by maligning an individual when I can use the words and knowledge of a few to create a character my readers can love or hate.

I went to Arak, my local coffee shop. In times of social distancing, I wore a mask and chose a seat alone at a table a good two meters from any other client. Sipping coffee and reading, “Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul,” I watched – 4 men, one woman, aged 25 to 40, young and beautiful, not an ounce of fat on any of them and indestructible, so no one wore masks. Two men were standing, talking French, inches from each other, whispering words so only they would hear, not wanting to disturb others, friends sharing a common interest. The other three beauties sat at tables alone, two cross-legged, feet up on the seats, agile, engaging with technology, hand-phones, laptops, living in another world, not here.

The Town-crier arrived with her listener. Masked up, they sat at a spare table inside. I’ve seen them here before and so have some others. Three of the young ones slipped in earbuds, not wanting intrusions into their peaceful world. The TC boomed out her stories as if on stage. Maybe she’s going deaf. The listener looked bored, no doubt wondering if he’d ever have time to speak or perhaps he’s heard her stories. Who’s today’s target? I wondered and didn’t have long to wait. “He’s such a dreadful gossip. Needs to be careful,” and she droned on. Pot calling the kettle… I thought. “They came to my house. G’s bipolar, you know. Must be off her meds…” and on and on she went. How can you ever glean drops of gossip, if you never listen? I pondered. What an interesting character she’ll make in my new book, but I’ll change her gender and give her a caring underbelly that surfaces sometimes.

People watching. What a treasure chest of inspiration. They will appear as characters in one of my stories or books. They won’t be themselves, I’ll blend their traits to create new interesting people.

Tell me a story.

Bayu and I play a game called, ‘Tell me a story’. It began way back, over 10 years ago. We’d go to a restaurant or cafe and get distracted by the surrounding people. Initially, it started with Bayu asking, “What are you looking at?” The master wove a story about the people at a nearby table, some of it obvious truths, told by their clothes and body language, and some fiction springing from my imagination. “How do you know?” he asked, and I admitted to story telling. The apprentice caught on quickly and took little encouragement to invent his own tales.

Last week, we went to Biku in Petitenget for lunch. Seated at an outside table, we socially distanced ourselves from the other eight patrons scattered throughout the restaurant. I watched Bayu’s eyes dance as he focused on people arriving and being seated at a table a few meters behind me. I couldn’t see them. Our food arrived, we took photos, tasted each other’s dish to satisfy food envy, and settled down to eat. Bayu regularly glanced past me, watching the newly arrived. Sated by delicious food, I finally said, “Tell me a story.”

He took a sip of his tropical punch, swallowed, inhaled deeply and began. “There’s five of them, all Indonesian middle class, spending daddy’s money, four women and one man. Casual clothes, neat hair.” He described them in minute detail so I could see the jeans, skirts, tops, long hair pulled back, and gems in rings, earrings and bracelets. “They’re speaking Javanese, not Indonesian. Probably Muslims, but no head scarfs.” He’s got an eye and ear for detail.

“Tell me about the guy,” I said.

“Casual chic. Grey linen slacks. Black open-necked shirt, linen or cotton, exposing a gold chain. Bet he works in the fashion industry. Wears his own brand. Advertising. Works out every day at the gym. Has a fitness instructor. His clothes fit well, hug his muscles. Good body. A bit of eye makeup, I think. Subtle. Him and his boyfriend own the fashion house.” And on he went, spinning a captivating tale.

It’s time for Bayu to start write again, I think to myself, but say nothing. It’s got to be his idea. He’ll start again when he’s ready, when the story pushes its way out of his head, to his fingers and onto the keyboard. And when he finally starts, I suspect the apprentice will become the master. I think I’ll be pleased, but I’m not sure.

Do you people watch?

Do you build your observations into your own stories?

Tell me about it. I’d love to hear.

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