One morning many years ago at one of my favourite cafes, I became enamoured with a customer I’d not seen before. She was an older lady, with a sleek, silvery-white bob and giant turquoise reading glasses. Her outfit was humble but screamed style.
She began frequenting the cafe and we slowly became friends. We’d sit at adjacent tables, each with a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald open to the puzzles page, each doing as much of the crossword as we could before trading answers. She always got more than me.
Antonia, surname then unknown, didn’t talk about herself in great detail, but over time I learned snippets about her life. She was a working writer; she grew up in New Zealand; she had two daughters.
But when she casually mentioned she’d worked at British Vogue through the 60s, 70s and 80s, I almost spat out my coffee. I knew exactly who she was.
Known for her exceptional wit, guts and punk approach to everything, Antonia Williams was one of the most revered fashion journalists of the 20th century. She was also an editor, an author, an art critic, an art collector, a literary reviewer, an authority on architecture and design and a total badass.
She had collaborated with Issey Miyake, shadowed Andy Warhol and hung out on the set of Monty Python films. Once on assignment in Russia, she sent an unsigned postcard to a family friend who just happened to be the head of New Zealand intelligence. The mysterious card, reading simply “From Russia with love”, sparked a flurry of activity in Kiwi intelligence agencies, who thought it could be a message from a Soviet spy trying to defect.
And I believe she did it all in giant turquoise reading glasses.
She had lived, to put it mildly, quite a life. And now she was my friend.
I have a habit of making friends in cafes. As a freelancer who already worked from home pre-pandemic, I used to break up most weekdays with a working coffee or meal at one of my local caffeine providers.
Most of these friendships are extremely casual, mostly played out as long chats when we happened to be sitting near each other or if the cafe was quiet and the waitstaff were bored. But that’s not to say they weren’t significant.
A lovely manager, doing a post-graduate degree herself, was my one-woman peer support group for the final year of my master’s.
A manic pixie dream waiter provided a few nights of platonic fun and reckless abandon when I badly needed to have fun and abandon things recklessly. I’m not entirely convinced I didn’t imagine him.
And an old Italian man who seemed to live on a stool outside a cafe I once lived near would tell me what were clearly epic lies about life in the old country when I’d take a break from caring for my sick mum.
Beyond the smashed avo stacks and the turmeric lattes can lie real human connection and the heart of a community
However, a few latte-based friendships ran deeper.
I met my best friend of 10 years in a cafe where she was a barista and I a regular, drawn together by a mutual love of fashion and the Mighty Ducks movies.
Then there’s the cafe owner with whom I bonded over mental health struggles. We could always tell when the other was having a rough time and we’d often confide in each other.
And of course, there’s Antonia.
(Full disclosure: I also befriended a girl who conned me out of $2,000 and a real-life Patsy Stone who turned out to be a raging antisemite. But two bad poached eggs shouldn’t spoil the lot.)
I haven’t sat in a cafe with my laptop since Covid-19 took the world hostage, but I do still get a takeaway coffee most days to support my local cafes.
Even though in Sydney we’re now allowed to dine in, I’m erring on the side of caution and dining out minimally until this thing is over, if it ever actually ends. And although I can easily forgo cafe food, some days I do kind of miss the characters. And their dogs.
Cafe culture is now such an intrinsic part of urban Australian life and one easily written off as pretentious and wasteful. But beyond the smashed avo stacks and the turmeric lattes can lie real human connection and the heart of a community.
In this way, cafes are no different to corner stores, fish-and-chip shops, pubs, clubs and other places where locals congregate. Everyone has their Cheers, their Sams, Norms and Frasiers.
There are a million things worse than not being able to hang out in cafes and I feel the weight of my privilege in even saying it’s something I miss. But being able to do so again will mean we’re through the worst of this waking nightmare and I look forward to that day.
I began to notice Antonia’s hands trembling and movements slowing. As her speech suffered and she struggled to fill in her beloved crossword, I understood what was happening. My late father had Lewy body dementia, which presents as much physically as it does mentally.
I didn’t say anything, waiting for her to bring it up if she wanted to. Eventually, she told me she would be moving to a “smaller place”, which I imagined was somewhere with proper care. I helped her sell some furniture and then she was gone.
Earlier this year, while bushfires raged and Covid-19 was still other countries’ problem, I received a call from her youngest daughter. Somewhere along the way we’d discovered I actually knew Theo from school but she’d been living in London for a long time. Knots in my stomach, I answered the phone, fearing the worst.
Antonia Williams died on 7 February 2020, aged 79, surrounded by her family. An enfant terrible who will forever inspire me, her death leaves a giant hole in the world’s stocks of style and substance. I’m so glad that of all the coffee joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walked into mine.