I was sitting in the darkness of a new, and moody Starbucks waiting for my sausage-and-egg thing to cool, when a shadow sat down in the deeper darkness of the room’s corner at the next table. Ordinarily, although intrusive, this would have been a non-event if it hadn’t asked to borrow one of the paper napkins I had piled neatly in front of my steaming coffee in the event of a spill. Given I could feel the proximity of her steady, unrelenting gaze, I felt I had no option but to acquiesce, so I carefully sorted through the pile and handed her some relatively uncreased ones from the middle of the pack while she watched.
“That’s very kind of you,” she said, admiring the unwrinkled offering. “I was wondering which one you would choose for me.”
I didn’t quite know how to respond to that, so I risked a quick glance at her shadowed face for clues. But there were none that I could use. In fact it remained hidden in a cloud of shadows like the moon on a stormy night.
“Most people just grab the top two or three napkins without really looking at them, and hand them over,” she added.
I sensed that she was smiling, but just in case, I shrugged as if I always search the pile for the best one. “Do you often have to borrow napkins?” I ventured, thinking I could cover my embarrassment with humour, I suppose.
Something in the darkness shifted a bit -as if the question was more interesting than funny to her. “I never know quite what it will be needful to do or say,” she answered -but slowly and carefully, as if she was thinking about the sentence construction as she spoke.
“Well, anyway, I wanted to make sure that I hadn’t spilled coffee or something on them… and in this light, I…”
“There’s no need to justify a kind decision,” she interrupted, and I could almost feel her smile again.
“I…” Now I really was embarrassed. “…I’m sure you would have done the same, had I been the one to ask,” I mumbled, tripping a bit over my words.
“There are no strangers…” she whispered, almost as if she was reminding herself of something.
“Pardon me,” I said, uncertain whether or not she had been addressing me.
The darkness around her jiggled again. “It’s only with strangers that we can judge the extent of our morality, isn’t it?”
Her seriousness caught me off guard. “I… I was just doing what…”
“…What you thought I would have done, you said,” her words interrupting me again. “But why would you even think I would have?” she added, not unkindly.
I fiddled with my slowly cooling coffee, uncertain whether or not to answer.
“You didn’t know -and that’s the most important thing isn’t it?” she concluded, after thinking about it for a further moment.
I felt like I was in Ethics 101 at university -or church… What do you say to a shadow that challenges you to introspect about napkins in Starbucks? I loved it actually, but I wasn’t at all sure how far I should push the dialogue. So I decided to move into it slowly. “You mean that it is important that I have a functioning conscience, which forces me to respect social conventions, even with a stranger?”
“Forces…?” The woman in the shadow was obviously used to rhetorical duelling; I wondered if she was an academician.
“Well, how about enables them, then…?” I countered, easing into the thrust and parry of the match.
“You could only enable something if it’s already there.” I could hear her reach for her cup as the shadows moved once again. “And something that you’re willing to use…”
“Even if no one else is watching,” I finished for her.
I felt the smile again, although whether leading, or trapping me, I couldn’t tell. “The all-seeing, moralizing God, who punishes if you transgress, you mean?”
I sat up straighter in my chair at that, and sipped at my coffee. “Surely ethics don’t require that a God be watching all the time for them to work…”
The shadow stayed silent for a time. “Don’t they? What else is a God for?”
She had a point, I had to concede. I mentally riffled through what lectures I could remember from university, and the only examples I could think of to bolster my point were the really primitive religions -my professor had call them proto-religions, in fact. “Well, the gods in some of the earlier religions -the polytheistic ones at any rate- seemed more intent on whether or not they got sacrifices and presents, rather than on what we might have to do to cobble them together. I don’t think they were terribly concerned with morality…” I found myself shrugging at the weakness of my rebuttal.
This time, I think I actually heard her sigh, but she was polite enough to pretend to think about what I had just said. Then, after a suitable pause, she spoke again. “Even the lesser gods had a more powerful leader, remember? In the ancient Greek pantheon, it was Zeus and for the Romans he was called Jupiter…” I could just make out her putting her cup back on the table after, sipping it for a moment. “And perhaps they were the mono-themes: early attempts at consolidating all the various duties of the disparate gods and all the panoply of beliefs, into monotheisms… Times have changed for all of us,” she added -a little sadly, I thought.
I just knew I shouldn’t have attempted to argue with her.
“So, there’s no longer a god of napkins to judge me?” I thought it was funny when I said it, but she didn’t laugh -in fact it merely produced another polite sigh.
“I’ve judged you,” she answered, but I couldn’t be sure if she was being critical, or simply trying to reply in kind.
The conversation was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable, and I wondered if I really was being judged. At any rate, what little coffee remained in my cup was getting cold, and the English muffin that had attempted to preserve its cargo of sausage, egg and cheese was beginning to dissolve, so I thought I’d get a refill. “I’m going to get another coffee,” I said, scraping my chair back. “Could I get you another cup -and maybe a few fresh napkins?” I shouldn’t have added that, I guess, but it was out before I could stop myself.
“Thank you… no,” she answered after a moment’s hesitation. “I have some more work to do before I risk another beverage…”
I assumed she was going to pull out a laptop and work at her table while I was at the counter, but by the time I returned, she had gone -although for a moment, I thought there were still some shadows moving in the corner.