Portobello Puff - Chapter 6

Hannah and Geoff aren't your typical Notting Hill dwellers. Hannah lives above Poundland in Portobello Road in a rent-subsidised flat, barely bigger than a Bran Flakes box. She freelances from home for a Health and Well-being website, suffers from panic attacks and the psoriasis on her left elbow is spreading rapidly. Her best mate Geoff has had three novels rejected, can't afford to liberate his only suit from the dry cleaners and survives on a diet of fried egg sandwiches...

I'm sitting on a midnight blue bucket chair, waiting to see Dr Ling about the panic attacks. Posters plaster the wall around me, advertising weight loss programmes, anti-smoking services and the delights of sexually transmitted diseases. In my bag is a half-finished article for the website.

The subject 'The world is your mirror' (suggested by the editor) is proving a bit beyond me. The basic idea, I think, is that the state of a person's relationships and immediate environment reflects the state of their inner Well-being. Apparently.

I glance around me. If the latter's true, then my inner well-being is looking pretty rickety - what with the cheap bucket chairs, the scary STD posters, the big black coffin-shaped coffee machine and the piles of tattered magazines.

My phone rings.

'Help, I'm having a panic attack,' says Geoff.

'Not funny,' I say.

Geoff continues to impersonate someone hyperventilating. 'What do I do?' he gasps.

I sigh. 'Just breathe,' I say, imitating the American life coach who talked me through a recent panic attack. 'In. Out. In. Out. In. Out.'

'Genius,' says Geoff, instantly dropping the panicky voice. 'All better now.' He then launches into a mid-level rant against the Notting Hill couple he's just driven to Heathrow airport.

'How's your inner Well-being today?' I ask, when he's finished.

'You don't want to know,' says Geoff and hangs up.

I abandon the article and pick up an old National Geographic. On page 9 I read that the gestation period for a hammer headed bat is 15 weeks. Two pages later I learn that at birth a panda is smaller than a field mouse. I'm just trying to reconstruct the length of a newborn panda with my thumb and forefinger when a young-ish man with dark curly hair enters the waiting room.

Passing me, he glances over and smiles before sitting down. I smile back then stare at the National Geographic again to look busy. But I can't concentrate because I can feel him watching me, so I stand up and head over to the coffee machine.

I slot in my money, pop a polystyrene cup beneath the nozzle and press the button for a cappuccino. Nothing happens. I press the button again, still nothing - so I bump the machine with my shoulder to get things going. There's a whirring and clunking and the cup fills with beige liquid.

I remove it, but the liquid's still flowing so I place another cup there. That one fills up too.

I shove a third cup under the nozzle which is now dispensing watery cappuccino with alarming generosity.

'Need some help?' says the man walking over.

I nod as the overspill splashes onto my shoes and the blue waiting room carpet.

'Stand back,' he says in a mock disaster movie voice, 'this could get nasty.' He slams a hand against the machine and it shudders to a halt.

'Phew,' I say. 'We nearly drowned in shoddy coffee there.'

He grins then glances at the polystyrene cup in my left hand. 'I assume that's for me?'

To be continued next Friday...


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