Watching The World Go By

The cafe window was a large single sheet of glass. It was streaked with smears on the inside and streaked with dirt on the outside. Joe Bowden sat in the chair at the far and of the bar that ran the full length of the window. He always sat there. It was his place.
The window looked out on to a parking area. There was room for two cars, side by side. Hardly anyone ever parked there. The owner of the cafe used the space to put out a couple of tables and some chairs whenever the weather was fine. Hardly anyone ever sat there. The parking space was accessed by a dropped kerb at the edge of a pavement on a busy through road. Across the road was a pub. The pub was up for sale. It had been for sale for a long time. Hardly anyone ever went there.
Joe lived by himself. His wife had passed on years ago. The cancer took her and left him alone. Joe was a good age now. He was old enough to have seen all his brothers and sisters and most of his friends buried. Most of the friends who were still alive didn’t know him these days. The few that were still sensible didn’t want to know him. Joe was sensible enough to accept that. He was happy in his own company anyway. That was all the company he got.
Soon after his wife had died, Joe had moved out of the big old family house into a small flat around the corner from the cafe. He’d chosen the location for convenience. It was close to shops and bus stops and the pub. He didn’t go to the pub these days, though. He’d just decided one day that he didn’t like the taste of alcohol any more. So he came to the cafe instead. He liked their tea. It was hot and strong. And the waitress, Kylie, she didn’t mind if he just stayed there after he’d finished his drink. Joe supposed it made the place look occupied, which it usually wasn’t. 
Joe liked his seat. He liked watching the world go by. Little old ladies shuffled past pulling trollies with nothing in them. Schoolchildren appeared at lunch time, grouped together, dropped their litter and moved on. Workmen came in the morning and ordered bacon sandwiches from the cafe. They parked their vans across the pavement, and the little old trolleyed women had to totter around their vehicles. Young mothers with small children promenaded up and down the road on their way to and from the nearby park. The way they dressed these days, Joe had to turn his gaze away from the window sometimes. 
One young mother stopped outside the window to talk to a friend. Her daughter was a round, smiling, blonde thing at the end of a halter. The daughter became quickly bored. She turned around and saw Joe. She saw Joe smiling at her. What she did next made him cry.
The girl didn’t shy away and hide behind her mother as most small children do. She just stood there, looking at him. She tilted her head to one side. And then she smiled. Her smile was perfect. Small dimples appeared in her cheeks. Her eyes squeezed up a little, making them twinkle. The girl inclined her head forward just a degree or two. She looked up from under an angelic brow, a picture of beauty. But the most touching thing about the smile, the thing that speared Joe’s heart, was that it was so pure. She had smiled at him just because he was smiling at her.
A minute later her mother finished her conversation and walked on. The little girl was gone.
Joe didn’t move. Tears rolled slowly down his face. He did nothing to wipe them away. He just kept looking through the big glass window. After a while Kylie appeared at his side.
“What’s the matter, Joe?” she said. “You all right?”
Joe looked at her. He didn’t see her, though. He knew she was there but he wasn’t with her. He wasn’t in this moment.
“I’ve just realised something,” he said, to all the world. “All these years, the way I’ve been with everyone, what I’ve done, what I should have done. It could have been so much better. I could have been better. But I wasn’t, and what’s worse is that I don’t really know why. I know this, though, and it’s breaking my heart. Now, finally, two steps from death’s door, I’ve realised that I’ve wasted my whole life.”

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