Love In The Time of Corona 2



Weekend 21st - 22nd March


The whites of the doctor's eyes double in size as he says:


You need to get out of this room right now. 


I grab my rucksack and bolt out of the surgery. A minute earlier while assuring him it was nothing like the dry Corona cough I'd read about, I mention all the symptoms of a common cold have been afflicting me for a fortnight. Once outside on the street he calls me. We still don't know what the exact symptoms of this virus are. You could easily be carrying it without knowing. My shame surprises me.


Over the weekend the streets in central are quiet but not ghostly. It is brilliantly sunny and strange for it. As if with everything going on you can't enjoy it as much, but also savour it more than ever. As if you always took the world for granted and now it's off and you're stealing a last look.


Sores are appearing on my right hand from all the scrubbing. We spend most of the day in the flat. Getting outside restores us but inside we are safe and out there is where the virus lives, so we are tentative. Matilda and I walk along the canal in the fading light. The sun is low and the temperature drops fast, an eeriness marks the evening.





My mother keeps texting, encouraging us to come up to the countryside. My father emails to say it is not ridiculous that we have abandoned him in the Pampa... it is a sin. We decide to leave London the following day by bicycle. Nothing exposes a 36 year old without a driving license more than a pandemic.


Monday 23rd March


335 deaths. Another sun-blanched day. A doctor friend of Matilda's says if we're careful it isn't so dangerous so we decide on a taxi. Matilda is terrified of infecting my mother. At midday I run around the marshes and stop by the honeysuckle bush, a single flower from last June is still hanging on giving off its faint sweetness.


I make sure to wipe the sweat from my brow with my sleeve, then with a different part of my sleeve, until I run out of sleeve, then with my top, and stop, a sweaty mass of uncertainty, still not understanding if I can infect myself or if I'm being a tool. I leg it home.


We pack bags with what we might need for who knows how long. I worry my plants will die. Away from the city we fly. As we cross into the Vale of Aylesbury Boris enforces the lockdown.






Tuesday 24th


The red kite hovers on the wind outside the window, the daffodils dance, for the first time we hear no sirens in the night. Yesterday feels like 72 hours ago says the radio woman. Each morning brings a tsunami of media. I've had enough of it, says my mother. But she is happy to have us. She explains some house rules from 2 metres away as we walk in the garden. 


I shout to my brother out of a window from across the yard, where he and Victoria and Mary are living. We have a family kick about and I do 43 kick ups. In London it stared us in the face every day but out here it is easier to forget somehow, which feels funny but not haha funny.


On the radio the man's voice cracks, his dog-walking business is all but lost. An author says he has been self-isolating for 28 years and can't tell the difference. Trump bellows out a tweet. WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. I wonder what it is we will be cured of. A celestial thumb holds down the command key and hits R.


Wednesday 25th


465 deaths. 


In the afternoon I run the circuit.


It is calm. I feel half the world away. The knuckles on my right hand are parched from the soap and two are bloodied. I run along North Marston road past the copse of trees on the outskirts of the village where all those years ago the man stopped me. 


He waved me over with his hand and put his finger to his lips. From far above came the repetitive thud of something against the wood. I built a house for it once. It came back, he whispered. For a few minutes we stood there together in silence with our necks craned up, listening to the sound echo through the trees. The man didn’t look at me once. When I finally said goodbye he said nothing, just remained stock still, staring up through the branches. As if I had never been there.


Thursday 26th


578 deaths. The Oving village newsletter quotes Maya Angelou: A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. At 8pm the nation beat on frying pans and hoot and clap together in song to the Health Service.


In the house we shout to one another through closed doors and adhere to specific time-slots in the kitchen. Every appliance and surface and salt shaker is wiped down. To my mother's chagrin Victoria hits up the local butcher which means another fortnight before she can hold Mary.


In the Pampa my father resigns himself to sit out the quarantine alone. But an ocean is no match for papa, from 7,000 miles away he makes his presence felt. Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner as he loves to say. I suppose he feels alone and trapped and has a strange way of showing it.




Friday 27th


At some point this week Italy becomes the global centre of the pandemic. At some point this week the numbers become too strange to fathom. Deer wander through the subway of a Japanese city. Mallorcan police serenade the public with guitars. For five days England is in the stranglehold of uncut sunshine. Mary doesn't understand why I won't play Velcroball with her. This morning in Oving for the first time an ambulance siren pierces the birdsong.


*


I oscillate over the weekend between dread and unknowing and fight with the point of writing. I worry about not seeing my father again. The clocks go forward. My friend Greg sends me a Wendell Berry poem called The Plan and I think it is the best thing I read all week.






Love In The Time Of Corona






Week beginning Monday 9th March


Are you actually worried about it though?


100%. 


So came the text from my friend Sam as I sat watching Tottenham get dumped out of the Champions League on Tuesday night. He forwarded me a bunch of screen grabs tweeted from hospitals in Lombardy and it became clear this was way more serious than I had understood. 


For two days the country seemed in denial. Some rang radio stations calling it no worse than flu. Loo-roll was in stock. I barraged my mother with messages. That evening she joked down the phone to my father about my newfound hysteria.


I began isolating too early. On Wednesday morning I bought three packets of pasta two blocks of cheddar and four cans of baked beans and ordered some beers online from a local brewery while making a vow to improve my cooking skills. On Thursday evening Boris told the nation the biggest health scare in a generation meant families were going to lose loved ones before their time. That day on Waterloo Bridge the Sun interviewed passers-by and nobody seemed bothered at all. 






I kept the radio on all weekend. At that point 0.008% of the population had the virus so I was probably safe I thought, scanning the supermarket isles. My mother was more concerned about me than herself, I kept telling her to be careful, but she thinks she knows everything. She thinks I think I know everything.


My girlfriend was on the phone to her mother too, arguing about high risk. Her school was refusing to close, her and her classmates were upset. We FaceTimed and talked things over. The football was cancelled. Footfall in the capital's restaurants and bars dropped by 24%.


Monday 16th


I'm listening to the news and I can't stop. I can't get on with anything else. My father emails from Argentina. He is quite happy alone in the middle of the Pampa, the news is worrying he admits, but he feels calm.


A family issue had called my mother back for two weeks. But Argentina is closing its borders, it looks like she won't be able to fly back out. Papa is stoic, sat there in the middle of his vast desert of grassland. I tell him to make friends with the trees. He says they are his only friends.





In Hackney it is a day of brilliant orange sun. 


I put my music in and walk to the shops and today the sounds in my ear feel like a small miracle. The school kids in grey uniforms shout and throw a plastic bottle around. The florist is cheerful, business is good he says, people want house plants for the coming quarantine. All is orange, nothing is different but everything is, what will this roundabout look like in a few weeks time.


53 deaths in the UK. All underlying illnesses. Europe is going into shutdown. Boris holds the first of his daily press conferences at 5pm, both comforting and shocking. My brother sets up a facebook group for my mother. I've had a good innings, she says on the phone. What do you mean I ask her, are you facing up to your mortality. Well what do you think someone my age thinks about in the middle of the night when they can't sleep.


Tuesday 17th


For two days I have a cough and phlegm stuck in my wind pipe that I can't hock up. My steroid inhaler stands guard on my bedside table. The news for asthmatics is positive and not great depending on what you read. The market is in turmoil. Sex toy sales are surging. Liverpool fans are shell shocked.


The radio is full of pain. A chef has lost his job with immediate effect and fears homelessness. A father in tears describes rushing his two year old to hospital, having celebrated her all clear after 27 weeks of chemotherapy in December. A police woman is in self-isolation with a cough, beside herself with impatience describing the public servant guilt of those who need to help but can't.


My father barks down the phone telling me to get Argentine nationality so I can fly out despite the border closures. It is ridiculous that I don't have it. It is ridiculous that he has been abandoned by us all and left alone to die. I tell him that for some reason I can't explain, it would hurt me less to lose them both to this than if everything were normal. This is also ridiculous. The final lesson at Matilda's school is full of tears.


I ask her what right I have to write about any of this. 


She says just write it and then see.






Wednesday 18th


It takes me ten seconds from waking to remember this is a different world. 104 deaths. Rumours of tanks mobilising. A historic bailout by the Chancellor. There is a 2km tailback for beach resorts in Argentina after the government mandates working from home. A sign in the capital reads These aren't holidays, you asshole






With every siren I think of a desperate pair of lungs overcome. Does crime go down in times like this. 'Thieves offering to shop for the elderly are keeping the money'. Carbon emissions are plummeting. 50,000 deaths from pollution in Hubei province are being averted, which means a net gain of lives. Babies and children don't seem to be affected. I look to the sky.


My mother pulls some strings with the embassy and arranges a flight home for my father. I worry about the airport and the aeroplane and his history of bugs. Your father's illnesses are mostly psychological, she says.


I feel overcome with sadness about it all. Matilda comes back from Oxford and we fight. The Italians still find the heart to sing to one another from balconies. Will there be a before and after I wonder. I decide to keep my Mathmos mood lamp on around the clock.





Thursday 19th


I read once the rich think the world is about love while the poor know it is about money. Ten million in the UK are without savings. The last week has pulled the bowels of the earth up from underneath them, from underneath everyone. Scientists skip the animal testing phase. The vaccine race is on.


No new cases reported in China. Being with Matilda means less relentless news and more presence. We go to the shops. It doesn't look like Hackney and social distancing are seeing eye to eye. That afternoon the press conference blares out from the cracked screen on the table. We are approaching the fast growth part of the upwards curve, says Boris flanked by his stooges.


The Walthamstow marshes are beautiful in the drizzle. The glow from the city sprays the edges of the darkness. I run and she cycles alongside me. All that we've got, reads the mural under the pylon by the path. We stop on the refurbished red metal bridge over the Lea and pray in the rain.






Friday 20th


My mother cancels my father's flight. Why? He's at the beach, she says. The British Museum has a surge of online visits. The top searches are Egypt, Virtual tour, Benin bronzes, and the Rosetta Stone. Continuing stories of prejudice against Asian people in New York. A critical-care nurse finishing a 48hr shift is flooded with donations after breaking down in a supermarket carpark having been left with nothing to buy.


144 deaths. Sirens outside the window. Social distancing could last a year. Half way through a new day in a strange new world. If things were back to normal we would live better. We would live like never before. I promise. Do you hear. And we would love better. With more fury.


177 deaths now. Today is the equinox. My mother wants my father back from Argentina before autumn and the slide into winter. Last night on the marshes the blossom was thick and wet in the darkness. All this new life around us amidst the fear and death. All the help we can get to fight this thing.



A Bathing Ape



It was one of those insights that arrived quite uninvited as I lay back in the bath. A rare insight that I had glimpsed but never met up close. And now it stared me down, and I did not back away. I stared right back and was afraid. Outside the world wizzed on, the traffic along Amhurst Rd tooted and rumbled, the eucalyptus branch bent slightly in the wind, from the alley came a voice and the clattering of some hard object, while inside all was still, unmoving as the water around me, just me sat there in the tub.


I had come face to face with my mortality.


And knew right then and there that all this could not last forever. 






I have learnt that there is nothing like a bath to ram this kind of information home.


*


But I wasn't always a bath man.


Not at all. For some reason baths never aligned themselves very well with my character. I'd heard stories of Cleopatra and her asses milk and Churchill's fondness for bathing with Pol Roger. But I was a child of the 90s. A shampoo and conditioner in one kid, I just wanted to wash my hair and go. The free market economy was baying at me and my thinking was I could get more done when I wasn't swilling around in a puddle of my own filth, not unimpressive logic for an eight year old.






To me baths weren't for getting clean, they felt more specific than that. They were for moments. For thawing the freeze of being dunked head first up to my waist in snow by my brother in the days of youth when I remember winters being more wintery. For under-water world records up in the countryside in the yellow bathroom with the brown carpet that was always sodden from the splashing. For shutting my eyes to the strip-lighting to float away in a strange sea as far from boarding school as I could possibly be. 


When I first laid eyes on female genitalia I was in a bath. What you see below could be the very first instance of my sexual discovery, the kindling of a fire in my loins lying dormant exposed to its very first spark. That's my first cousin, so perhaps not. Then again some years later my father told me our family history was littered with similar such stories and worse, so who can tell.






All in all I was a power-shower teen, a shower-gel man. Lynx Africa.


I didn't want moments, I wanted to live. When I read that Justin Timberlake took six showers a day, after each one of which he put on a box-fresh pair of Calvin Klein briefs, a ritual he had become addicted to, it resonated. Bathing held no sway for the modern man, I thought, as I stepped out of the shower to shake off the glistening beads of water like a dog shaking off the early morning rain.


When I did my flat up I put a bath in it, for no other reason than I felt like I ought to. For four long years it lay empty, it's only purpose was to support a rack for drying out washing or hanging stinking sports gear from. Alone on all fours in the high-ceilinged bathroom catching the drip of some recently rinsed Y-fronts, it was a sad and forsaken thing. 






And then something shifted. Like a new planet in the solar system revealing itself suddenly to a posse of drooling scientists, an idea emerged fully formed out of the darkness.


What if I was a bath guy.


*


And it began, just like that. The funny thing was I didn't even have to try. After years of unfeeling, some hand from inside me had reached out and unlocked a door, the other side of which lay a future punctuated by endless hours in the tub. Before I knew what was happening I was a two-a-day man, three at weekends and on public holidays. I was having more baths in a week than I had suffered in the previous decade, and I was loving it.


I learnt the complex science of baths, the many philosophies hidden therein. How filling a bath to sit in it was to merely scratch the surface. My bathroom became a minefield of hurdles to vault over and fires to put out, and beyond that a myriad of tricks and sleights of hand to master. But I was a King in my own Kingdom. I channeled my inner TonyThe world was mine.






Nothing in those early days came easy. 


My boiler was incapable of heating water anywhere near fast enough, meaning even with the hot tap on full the temperature of the water would change every twenty seconds from boiling to icy cold and back, obliging me to do on-site tinkering for the entirety of the bath's running time.


And when the chaos of life called me away for a minute the temperature would go to hell. Which I learnt took twice as long to rectify as draining the bath and running a new one from scratch. I learnt how to mix the bubble bath in right at the start, but not too soon, in a double-handed clockwise/anti-clockwise circular motion to ensure optimum bubble-infusion. 


I learnt of the abyss between gaging temperature by hand and with the body, and how the only reliable tester was a tentative ankle. And of the sweet spot between running it hot enough to ensure a longer bath-time, but not so hot as to make it sauna-like and a total sweatbox. Above all, to never run the cold tap in some foolhardy attempt to level up the temperature. I once waited forty minutes for a bath to cool to perfection.


Once in the bath the problems just intensified. 


I learnt no bath ever existed in a constant state for it was always changing. Water loss through the overflow hole or by way of a misplaced plug was crushing to the spirit, and however well infused the bubbles were in a constant state of evanescence, revealing clearings and glimpses of a body that was not what it had once been. All the while the temperature of the water fell by the second.






I was always on the hunt for the perfect moment.


I'd have a book with me, sometimes an ice cold craft beer. As Radio 3's Night Tracks wafted through the open door at the perfect volume, I sought the perfect passage, the perfect sip of obscure pale ale, at just the moment the bath was reaching perfect peak temperature. And in that moment all would crystallise into one essential timeless moment and the meaning in life that was eluding me would be revealed. 


But it never happened like that. With nothing to press down on, underlining any passage was impossible, I'd drop my pen over the side, the beer would be gone too soon or would be forgotten about and go flat, if the bath was too hot I'd have to stop and mop my brow, the book would get wet, the music would become distracting, and all the while there was the problem that as the scent of the foam bath evaporated what replaced it was my filth and sweat and from time to time my gas. And in these moments lying there in my excess, my past life of power-showers and Lynx Africa and renewal would feel more attractive than ever. 






So I learnt to stop searching. 


This was my last and most important lesson. To stop trying to control everything, to give up on the curation of some perfect moment of revelation, to stop reaching out with fingers extended, clawing for the elusive thing so I could say here it is, this is it. Instead just to sit there in my own company, soaking in the tub, looking up at the ceiling.


The great lesson of the bath had revealed itself. All it demanded was my presence. I might lie there amidst the bubbles and think about the winding road of my life, the steps I had trodden to get me here, my labours and aspirations, my failures and my fears, what this meant for my future, had I lived correctly, would I strive to live in a better manner. And I could lie there just the same and think about nothing and let the feeling of weightlessness shift from one part of my body to another.






Has the lather of past shower gels made me happier. Has stopping to soak made me more melancholy. When I'm in a bath I feel like something important and ancient is going on. Or maybe I'm just slowing down. Here lies a man who could press pause on life's remote, they'll say. What has my life been, what will it be. Just a series of moments. Cause and effect. Until a celestial hand reaches down to pull the plug on things.


*


So there I was, sitting back one morning minding my own, quietly gazing up at the painting on my ceiling, and in walked my mortality to sit with me a while. Again the traffic along Amhurst Rd tooted and rumbled, the eucalyptus branch bent slightly in the wind, and from the alley came a voice and the clattering of some hard object, as I sat there in the stillness. And it appeared to me that to be still and unmoving, as the world around me carried on unceasingly, was a strange cocktail of both my finiteness and its complete opposite. 


Because everything was continuing quite despite me, and always had and always would, but somehow in my complete presence I was stealing back a piece for me. If eternity is not infinite duration but timelessness, wrote Wittgenstein, then eternal life is for those who live in the present. 


Same thing as sitting in the bath really.






As I lay there soaking, soaking all this in, a film of sweat coating my face and arms, mulling over my newfound immortality, I lifted my feet and slid them forward off the edge, inclining my neck backwards and breathing out through my nose, submerging all that was left of me.


As I felt the back of my head touch the bottom of the tub I opened my eyes and looked up through the water at the bubbles fighting their way to the surface, and past them, to the wavering outside world, carrying on as I had left it. And I thought to myself, there isn't a shower on earth that could teach me any of this.



Getting Somewhere



The worst I ever had of it was two broken ribs and a laceration of my right hand. 


I came to, in the middle of the road with five Parisians hunched over me and several more abusing the owner of the 4x4 who had opened his door into me with such timing that I had no idea where I was or what had happened. The concern on their faces told me it was ugly, my bike was gnarled and twisted out of shape and drops of thick dark blood were dripping from my knuckle onto the tarmac. I think I started crying.







Three weeks later on the way to Charles de Gaulle airport, delayed trauma from the impact made all the muscles in my chest contract and I went sheet white and passed out. With the help of other passengers my brother took me off the train and sat me down on the platform to wait for the Pompiers. I'd seen you like that at festivals too many times to be that concerned, he said later.


I've been doored three times but none worse than that. Cars have gone into the front and back of me, pedestrians have stepped out into me. I've been spat at, kicked, pot-holed, turned left-into, and run off the road and chased by a white van man, because I was wearing a pink beanie. I've gone over my handle-bars more times than I can remember, shedding skin and spilling blood on roadsides and pavements around the city. I once cycled into the Regent's Canal.


I should probably be less alive than I am.


*


For two and a half years in my early twenties I cycled around London for eight hours a day with a radio strapped to my chest and a bag over my shoulder full of documents needing dropping off with a life-threatening urgency. Of all the things I experienced in that time, none were greater than London itself. The city would smack me in the face every day, an enormous beast of brick and fumes and ghosts and noise, baring itself in all its guises, battering me with indifference as it attended to the business of being London.






Yet at some incidental time of day when I least expected, some afternoon along a towpath or catching my breath on a stoop in the late morning, the din would recede for a moment and in that pause the city would let me in, as if it was winking at me, reminding me I was part of its plans and I belonged.


I grew to know its geography in a way that seared itself into my brain. I learnt how different parts of the city connected to other parts, mapping out the connective tissue where artery met tendon and capillary. I learnt the city's contours, the hills, the churches and cemeteries, the circuses, the old City gates, the order of the bridges, where the river curled and where it straightened, the one way systems and the shortcuts, even the timings of the traffic lights.


I could remember the changing of the lights along Clerkenwell and Theobalds Rd so exactly that if I timed it right I could do the junctions blind. When I told a mate of mine he asked me who the hell I thought I was, Sean Connery in the fucking Rock.






Doing the circuit, it was called. 


You were on call from 8 til around 6, beginning mostly in the City picking up and delivering documents to the big banks. You'd get to know the bowels of important buildings, the dirty underbelly, the despatch area, where men in shirts and Hi-Vis coats would peer boredly over spectacles or bark at you, where you'd cross path with other riders doing runs to other banks and chew the cud of the mid-morning.


I learnt a new way of riding. One that weaved and cleaved and hopped up and skittered across and was always morphing. Traffic lights ceased to mean much, I learnt how to ride across the city without stopping once and without running one light. There were spaces in between things I learnt, that if you knew where to look for were everywhere, waiting for you to slip through them. I learnt how messengers would face down vehicles most capable of killing them, running fingers along the sides of buses to show they weren't afraid. Above all I learnt that getting somewhere could be more fun than being somewhere.






I never got to know the real courier family. I knew those who worked for my company and recognised many as I passed them in the street. When they invited me to hang at messenger spots or drink with them at day's end by the Foundry on Old Street, I was too shy. I'd summon the courage and right at the last minute I'd cycle by.


When I left my first company I bought the office a box of Quality Street and they laughed at me. It wasn't a very courier thing to do. Most bike messengers stepped to the beat of their own drum, respecting few but their own. There was a lawless irreverence to their spirit, a life of squats and beer and alleycats and identity that I didn't come close to touching.






But I sensed a slightly lost side to the existence too. 


Of being surrounded at all times and still alone. Winding through traffic, catching the lights just right, flying past the madness, pushing and weaving and skidding, at its best it was a dance of joy. But the embers of the fire revealed something sadder. As if you were seeking something that couldn't be had because the relentless engulfing city had you first, it was a clipped sort of flight, a Truman Show type of freedom. It made me wonder who in a city was ever free. All these years later I still see some of the same riders I once shared the road with, gliding along, ears tuned to the intermittent static from their radios.


But I was quite happy. 


For those two and a half years the love affair was between me and my city. I hardly spoke to anyone all day. Sign here. Sign here please. Just here on the line. In three years I took the tube less than five times. When I did I would feel mole-like, burrowing along underground to stick my head above the surface. But on a bike I was a hawk, surveying the city from a great height, moving through it like a sea, it was the journey I loved the most.


Slowly they revealed themselves to me. Strange unknown parts of the sprawl existing as they always had. Harlesden, Rotherhithe, North Finchley, West Norwood, I'd cycle anywhere. I liked the longer journeys so my controllers would send me further and further away. That's how you become a top rider, my boss would tell me, knowing he'd have to spend triple the money on a van. Different parts of town would recall different friends and memories, each one of them had a story. At the end of the week I'd get an envelope with six fifty pound notes in it.


I'd head to the New Era shop in Soho and pick up a fresh cap.






And it was sad too. Like life. 


And tiring and repetitive and surprising and monotonous and ecstatic like life. But I wouldn't have the deep understanding of the city I do without the time I spent trailing lines of coloured ribbon along its lanes and alleyways. If one talent of mine could be worth matrixing into another person's brain, I thought, it would be my London. Sitting in the back of taxis I'd argue with cabbies over routes, especially when I was drunk, until they'd point out how the fuck they were gonna get their cab the wrong way down a bike lane and through a park, so I'd shut up.






People talk about their lives sometimes in terms of chapters. First day at school. The day I saw my father cry. First love. The birth of my first child. Certainly one of the chapters in my life will be cycling the streets of London at top-speed with headphones in, whooping at the top of my lungs, transported to some other place entirely. If this sounds a little dangerous then I could tell you the by-product of cycling a city every day for fifteen years is an understanding of the road, and what not to do.


A few years ago I drew together the most important lessons I'd learnt from my time cycling around town, and came up with the Six Cycling Commandments.












*


My legs are tiring now, I'm getting older.


The fury and relentless energy of my messenger days have taken the left-hand turn to memory. I still cycle a lot, but I have an oyster card now. If I have to cross London and can smell a hair-breadth of an excuse, before I know it I'll find myself sat on the Overground. I like it because I get to stare at people. I never got the chance to do that before. The bike was too fast and ceaseless and impatient. You'd get the wind in your hair and a warmth in your loins, and you'd be off. But you couldn't just sit and stare at somebody for half an hour. It's taking some getting used to.



Taking a pause. Stopping to stare. 



The way you might stare at a somebody you love when they're not looking.



Somebody, or something. 






The Next Best Thing



Canessa and Nando had been walking blind for four days through the snow of the high Andes, skin ulcerated, bone poking bone, their food and their hope running out, knowing their imminent death would mean death for the fourteen back in the fuselage. Nando had buried his sister and mother in the snow and seeing his father's face again was the sole thing keeping him alive. To climb out of this valley of death back to the living. But they were lost, their own bodies were eating them alive, and Canessa sat down in the snow to die.






Many years later he said of the experience:


There will come a moment when you think you can't go any further, when you're done for. When you want to give up. All you have to do is take one more step. And you will see that doors will appear in walls you didn't know existed. And you can walk through them.


*


I had a teacher at art school who was very into magic, sometimes at the beginning or the end of a lesson he would show us something. He told us there are five different reactions to a magic trick. The first is a plain lack of interest. The second looks on reluctantly. The third wants to work out the mechanics of the trick. The fourth is smiling in admiration of the magician, the fifth is wide-eyed in amazement in the presence of magic.


I remember thinking how cool it would be to make the first feel like the fifth. To be a magician, I thought, you have to believe in magic. In its power. I wondered if a lifelong study of magic would impart a different way of seeing the world, a mystical one, or if it would do the opposite. As if it would remove the magic from things. I asked myself which one I was, I hoped I was the fifth.






Two years ago I read this thing which said take a step back from yourself and look at the things that make you feel happy, and the things that make you unhappy, and try to do more of the good stuff, and less of the other stuff. It was a time when I felt like dark forces were governing me but I lacked the perspicacity to give them any shape or form, and the line resonated inside me like a sounding gong. Nothing I had seen had hammered home an idea so simply and so searingly, I felt flooded by something clear and good.


As the demons of my bad habits leered at me I resolved to mark the moment, and tattooed the date onto my arm, backwards, so I could see it when I looked in the mirror. When I went running in the early morning I would stop by water and kiss my arm and a strange feeling would wash over me. I remembered saying to a friend once that everyone carried a large degree of self-loathing inside them. Looking concerned as if what he was about to tell me would be hard for me to hear, he replied: I don't think that's true mate. But kissing my right arm in the light of the early morning by the water, I felt like what was washing into me we its opposite, something like self-love.


Now in early December I go and celebrate my new birthday. Me and myself go out for a drink and have a think about things and raise a toast to one another. Fuck it, I thought, I can even call it my rebirth day. I'm two years old now. I resolved not to tell anyone.






*


A new year is upon us now. It's the middle of January and we're renewing friendships and joining gyms and full of fire because the new year brings change. Look at us shedding all our dead wood, closing the door on the previous year and opening the door to a new one. Taking a look at ourselves from a distance. What makes us happy. What makes us sad. Doing more of the good stuff.


I didn't make any resolutions this year. I thought I'd concern myself with more of the same, the daily struggle not to fuck up. Wake up on time, be a good person, be involved in the world, buy fairy liquid, try to write something important, exercise, read good things. Try not to dwell on how strange things are or how lost. Walk through doors.


That's the other thing my teacher said that I've always remembered. Walk through doors, he said. He didn't elaborate, he just said those three words and smiled. I thought about it a lot. What sort of doors. Which ones. And I realised doors are everywhere around me. Invisible doors in walls I didn't know existed, waiting for me to walk through them.






I didn't know at the time that the date on my arm would become a daily reminder to do the things I know make me happy, a contract written in ink with myself to stop doing the things that don't. And to keep the struggle close, to think about the day itself and not much more.


Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself, each day has enough trouble of its own.


I wonder what today will bring.


*


Forsaking resolutions for the new year for a resolution for a new day. When my day threatens to go south I'll look for a door. Somewhere close by there is a door, the other side of which is the next best thing. Playing the snakes and ladders of each day, two steps forward, three steps back, winning some and losing some, feeling out with hands for invisible walls, reaching out for doors.



My Cup Runneth Over



The dawn's early sun cracks through the old school room and washes the grey walls cantaloupe. I make somnolent tracks to the Rancilio Silvia and flick the on switch with the instinct of an assassin in the shadows flicking off the safety. I grind the robusta beans to a fine gunpowder, disarm the portafilter with the snap of a supple wrist, tamp down the coffee and toy with the temperature gage. In a flash to the untrained eye I lock the filter back in, empty the pre-warmed cup and nudge the hot water pump to orange. A crema-heavy waterfall of ambrosia ristretto lulls itself seductively into my espresso cup.


Morning has broken.






The sinuous streams of coffee beans that have wound their ways along the edges of my days are palm lines that spell out the story of my fate. Like all things that have made themselves my master, the dark elixir of the morning fixed its eyes on me well before it swooped down and took me in its talons.


A coffee liqueur hastily bitten into in December, an affogato on a Tuscan hill, the first encounters of my youth stir too faintly among the unreliable echoes of memory. I remember milk swiped from canteens left to cool on window sills I would splash over Kenco Millicano to guide me through unending essay nights in new-build student halls. An inauspicious beginning to my rapture. But in all beginnings our endings are entwined.



For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.


Prufrock, T S Eliot


My first girlfriend's mother kept a double shot stove-top in a cupboard for me, the most self-serving of all coffee devices. And a little mug, and a pan for milk which I would burn without fail. Oh you've done it again! she would laugh, with the knowing confidence of time past that we were eighteen and never going to last.


I upped my game at university and picked up my first machine. A lovely single-group Krups number with a two year warranty from John Lewis. As my social life took a nose-dive my coffee game grew wings. The pulling I did in those days was of the espresso shot kind, espressos resembling half-pints of soily water, americanos with no dignity and I knew no better. This was pre-google when youtube was for cats and young bloods went on instinct.


Looking back I lived that vibe like a pro.






On the corner where Via Garibaldi swings off from Porta Settimiana stands a Caffè, where one morning of late spring I saw something that changed the course of my destiny. At a table across from me a silver fox with sun-glazed skin the colour of wisdom dripping the cool of the continent in three piece khaki linen, sockless, Oxfords immaculately laced, gazed through dark glasses at something in the Roman sky. Beside an unopened copy of La Repubblica a glass of acqua legeremente frizzante bubbled in the light breeze. In his right hand between thumb and forefinger he tickled the handle of a single espresso.


What the Italians refer to simply as un caffè.


I had seen a vision of the life ahead of me. I returned to London in 02 with the target firmly in my crosshairs. With my aluminium steed and East London, my new flame, beckoning me I was a king in a foreign land. The fickle mist of winter mornings would lick the rooftops of Whitecross Street as strangers blew water vapour wishes into the air, at the market you could pick up a single espresso for 60p. Sixty pence. That kind of money these days can get you a police caution. But those were the days of a dawning hope, of freedom and possibility. I remember it like it was yesterday.






On another daybreak of unforgiving frost south of the river I watched a girl sat outside Monmouth one morning rolling a cigarette, as the steam from her untouched coffee cup rose up to meet the biting air. In spite of the cold she was slow and measured in her movement and allowed herself not one sip until the cigarette was rolled. Finally removing the lighter from a pocket she lit the smoke, inhaled deeply and paused, looking upwards - once more - at the February sky. Only then did she drink, and exhaled the spirit of a morning immemorial.


Once upon a time I would meet a friend in the morning every week for c&c. It was a ceremonial event, a hide from where to shoot the breeze, to watch the world coming to life, the two c's stood for coffee and cuddles. We'd sit there and talk about nothing new and everything and laugh our asses off. The well of friendship has dried and c&c's no longer are. But they are a safekeep of a time, a union brought together by the warmth we slurped sporadically between guffaws, footsteps that still echo in the memory while life has taken on new forms.


I've shared the sweet dark coffee with the fishermen on the Bosphorus during the morning call to prayer, found a vending machine dispensing iced coffee cans in the middle of a Japanese forest, I learnt the technique of the turka in Petersburg to warm me through the Russian winter. Coffee and milk powder was our breakfast of kings in the foothills of the Rwenzori, and the ritual of a dawn hitter just about saved my arse at 4,000 metres on the Andean Puna.






Coffee really did save my when I was crippled by depression two years ago. In a state of blanket inertia that had become so bad even getting out of bed was terrifying, as the days became weeks good old coffee came to the rescue. It was the mere act of making an espresso in my favourite Supreme coffee cup, that for weeks I had been unable to fathom any point in, that was a sign of me fighting my way back up towards the light, of returning to the land of the wanting to be alive.






But to be fair my depressed-self had a point. 


What the hell is the point of drinking coffee. Why not go eat a bunch of caramels. I just worked out my expenditure on coffee in the last fifteen years is over twenty five grand. I've whiled away much of my life in coffee shops. Gloriously, sadly, despondently, ticking down the hours until the Reaper pokes his skull around the door and is like bro we should get those Mocha Frappuccinos to go.


But the black elixir of the morning has made me who I am. After all humans just want something to do. With their time, with the ghastly business of being alive. I love the ritual, I love the shared moment, the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, the somnolent shuffle to the Rancilio Silva as the walls of the old school room are once more awash with cantaloupe.


Some man told me the other night how radically his life had been improved since he'd begun cutting out caffeine after 2.15pm. My lip curled like a crescent wave on a Tahitian shore, I took one look at him and shelled him with as many decaffeinato intenso nespresso pods as I could manage. Whatever the man was trying to get at.


It wasn't it.


When the ache of having lost some infinite thing is felt, we need to plug the dam. That's what it comes down to. The light through the leaves, the pause before the applause, the finite seconds of gold that remove us from the maelstrom. Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. We have all we need but we need a little more. Picture a cave man sat on a dead wood trunk watching the pulsing boughs of a fir tree dance in the wind.


He's not going to say no to a double ristretto.