So, with half an hour to kill, I park the car and head for the canal, taking the path past the gasometer and along by the hut where the sea cadets meet. I'm not sure I know what a sea cadet is, nor why they'd want to meet in a hut by the gasometer; it seems an awfully long way from the sea.
I side-step a cyclist, who’s pedalling head-down fast towards me, just before I shout out indignantly, I realise that I've strayed onto his designated half of the path. With a quick “sorry” I step back to my side of the lines and follow the route into the centre of town. Then, just like all the other people who find themselves too early for a meeting, I head for the nearest coffee shop.
I hadn't expected it to be quite this busy – it's not just time-whittlers like me, or workers grabbing a take-away on their journey into the office, there are people sitting down with breakfast and the papers, reading a book, glaring at the hard surface of a kindle while they sip at their coffee, or bite into jam-spread croissants. I wonder whether these people have jobs to get to, whether this is a regular stop on their way, or if this is the start of a different sort of day altogether – a prelude maybe to strolling round the shops, a pause to gather their thoughts before a big interview or a dreaded appointment, maybe even a venue for a secret assignation.
As I sit with my coffee, a woman comes in with a young child in a pushchair. What brings them out this early when they could be snuggled up at home? Perhaps this is a regular ritual before nursery, some time together before Mum goes to work. I think back, to when Megan was still at play-school; I'd just started working in a Chartered Accountants' office, four mornings a week, five minutes from home. The time would fly past as I typed and filed, added up time-sheets and made cups of tea. I'd finish a few minutes before lunch and dash across the square to collect her. Even now, I can almost feel her small hand in mine, tugging at my arm as we’d head for home, saying “hot sossidge roll Mummy?” Then I’d nod and smile and we’d go to the bakers; it was never the healthiest lunch, but always the loveliest ritual.
Now, sitting in Starbucks, I wonder what it would be like to go somewhere for breakfast on a weekday. I know there’s nothing at all to stop me, I could do it any day if I really wanted to. But I don't. Instead, when I set off for work, my only thought is to get there as fast as I can. Everything else is just a distraction - the motorway congestion, the stop-start jams caused by school drop-offs, I mark the journey in miles and minutes, calculating and re-calculating what time I'll arrive, what I'll do first when I get there.
Thoughts of work send me reaching instinctively for my phone, and when I flip open the cover I realise it's almost time for my meeting, so I pull on my coat, tighten my scarf and sling my bag over my shoulder. I know that the day will still fly past; lost in a blur of meetings and decisions, e-mails and reports, I know it won't seem any time at all until I'm back in the car and heading for home. But as I manoeuvre my way past the pushchair and out of the coffee shop, I think I'd give almost anything to know my working day would end with a little girl holding my hand asking for a "hot sossidge roll."