Lunchtime in the City. It is not the blasé, liquid affair it once was — but neither have City workers quite manacled themselves to the desk yet. The Arcade — hidden around the back of Liverpool Street station — is a wonderful spot to watch a City lunchtime unpack itself.
Enter from Old Broad Street, and the aroma isn't of food, but leather; it's coming from the bar-like shoe repair shop, run by two chipper chaps. When asked for his picture, one — completely poker faced — asks if he's wanted with his kit on or off.
Lunchtimes, of course, aren't just for filling the stomach but for getting those weekday chores ticked off. A couple of customers perch on stalls and chat about the weekend while their shoes are re-soled. Another picks out fresh laces; little chores like this make good excuses to get out of the office on a Monday.
The theme of leather continues nearby, where new watch straps are fixed, mechanisms mended, on two tiny worktops at City Watch Services. "People come from London Bridge sometimes," we're told; as similar businesses close, customers come from further afield. Still, in their many years here, they've never advertised once — the shop window is all the marketing they need.
Across the arcade, dry cleaned shirts await pickup, while an array of ties on one wall attempts to lure in officer workers with a cheeky Monday purchase.
Those who don't mind risking a ticklish neck for the afternoon pop into Edward Holland for a haircut. Here, City workers have come for quarter of a century, squinted awkwardly at themselves in the mirrors and worried if their colleagues will comment on their new 'do when they return from lunch. Once trimmed and blow-dried, the staff stand you up, give your shoulders the once-over with a stiff brush and help you back into your jacket. This is, after all, not just a haircut. It's a haircut in the City.
Other lunchtimers are at The Arcade for a different kind of personal modification; they appear blinking into the promenade, fresh from getting new lenses fitted.
As for those present-buying chores (and somehow, there always seems to be one on the list) these are accomplished in the flower shop (by 1pm the tulips are all but sold out). For more important anniversaries, there's the jewellers a few doors down.
There are two places in The Arcade that demand queuing as part and parcel of the experience. The currency exchange offers some of the best rates in the City — people will queue for a good 20 minutes to save themselves a few dollars or yen. We almost fainted from hunger here once.
The other line is formed for the Thai red pork curries and spicy minced pork salads of Oie Thai. Only a few people can squeeze in to make their order at any one time.
Many of The Arcade's newest additions are in the food trade; eye-watering spicy Japanese soups are offered up next to halloumi and lamb wraps, and sourdough toast spread with peanut butter. There's the feeling that the food is slowly taking over from the more traditional outlets.
For those who really can't afford the time, there's a branch of M&S, mere feet away from the other two branched in Liverpool Street station, and not nearly as busy. There's even patio furniture outside (something to bear in mind next time you don't fancy sitting on the Liverpool Street concourse).
For dessert, there is chocolatier Leonidas — under siege just before Valentine's and Mother's Day, and a peaceful little boutique/cafe the rest of the time.
Punters shoot post-lunch espressos down their throats, before darting back out into the world of work — all very Italian, even if the chocolates are Belgian.
Others grab a Mars bar on their way back into Liverpool Street Underground. "Everyone buys from the supermarkets," we're told, although there will always be that passing trade for 20 Marlboro reds and a spearmint Extra chaser.
While some shops confront their future, others are already non-existent. An ersatz butchers — painted hares strung up in its window — has an air of theatricality about it. Opposite, fake red lobsters peer out from a fake fishmongers window. We guess these are ghosts of the shops that once were.
By around 2pm, things in The Arcade are dying down. The next rush won't be until gone five tonight, when everyone suddenly wants their dry cleaning. But there is only one golden hour a day in The Arcade — that hour when the City takes a brief break from itself.