The International Writers Magazine: On Living Day by Day
This is what I do most afternoons: visit one of my two favourite cafés and drink coffee. An extravagance, I can have coffee at home and it would cost me pennies; in these fancy cafés, it’s £2 a cup, sometimes more. But I do it, not for the coffee but for the entertainment, a distraction from the business of living
If it’s sunny, I sit outside. The weather makes the choice of café for me: the one with the patio with potted plants overlooking the street. Chilly or raining, I go to the other one - not a lot to choose between them apart from one having a sunny patio and the other is completely indoors… Oh yes, the guy behind the counter at the indoor café - he’s chatty, always asks how I am. I like that. I don’t have a lot of human contact, and most of the time that’s fine. Occasionally, I like someone asking after me, even if it’s only the verbal equivalent of pollyfilla. I make up an answer - something that suits my mood on the day.
In this café - the one with the patio - the waiter is silent, not unfriendly… I sense kindness - or maybe he just has kind eyes. It’s how he does his job that makes me think that way. He carefully places the coffee in front of me, as offering me a gift… Everything he does has a sort of reverence. I’ve thought about talking to him - you know, just passing the time - but thought better of it. I like to think of him as a friend I’ve yet to meet.
It is sunny again today and I’m out on the patio, among the plants. As I said, I’m looking for distraction. Anything will do - an exchange with the person on the next table. You know the sort you get in a café during the working day, people with time on their hands. I like medical topics are the best, provided they’re not too serious, bad backs are my current favourite. A few minutes of conversation discussing symptoms… and naturally how rubbish GPs are at treating backs.
Then there is always the street.… Not looking for anything in particular. A minor car accident is perfect; not one where anybody gets hurt, just a bent bumper or a dented wing; enough get the drivers out their cars and exchanging insurance details. I have to admit hoping for a raised voice or two - it does add a little drama.
Not so long ago, there were sirens… You know, you hear them getting closer and closer but you don’t know where they are until the cop car or the ambulance is right on top of you… It was a fire engine and a couple of police cars… then the ambulance arrived a few minutes later. I couldn’t work out what all the fuss was about until I looked up to the second floor across the street, above the supermarket: smoke was coming from one of the windows. A couple of firemen in breathing equipment rushed down a side ally between the shops; a couple of minutes later they were at the window, masks off and laughing, waving a blackened toaster to their mates on the street. After that, there were a lot of comings and goings, and gradually the uniforms and the official vehicles melted away. The yellow tape was all they left behind - you see it in tv news reports, marking off the scene of the crime.
What added to the afternoon, passers by came into the café just to find out what was going on. They expected drama: charred bodies, foul play, that sort of thing. I could see their disappointment when I told them: 'a piece of bread stuck in a toaster… the bloke simply forgot about it and went to serve a customer… no one hurt.' The kitchen is part of the shop downstairs and one the staff had to go a serve a customer. A small fire, if you could call it that - a smouldering fits the bill better, but it livened up my day.
That was a few months ago. This incident happened a few days ago… not dramatic like the fire… No one else noticed it apart from me, and of course, the people involved - they didn’t know I was watching.
It was sunny so I was sitting outside. From here, you can see right across the street into the supermarket, right through the big plate glass window to the back of the shop. You know those new supermarkets, the ones opened by the big supermarket chains to mop up local trade. On the next table, there are a couple of men, youngish, in jeans, T-shirt, very down at heel trainers - they're the give away - charity shop tailoring, my guess. Oh yes, they were chatting in a language I didn‘t recognise… At first, I thought it was Russian, but it wasn’t - possibly Serbo-Croat or Romanian, somewhere from that part of the world. I remember the story from my days as a journalist: European genocide, post holocaust, and a vicious three-sided local war. The two young men left - didn’t seem to order anything - and I didn’t give them a further thought; it was sunny and I was daydreaming, half noticing the people on the street.
Maybe half an hour had passed, then I saw one of them again - I recognised the slogan on the back of his T-shirt - Glastonbury 2005. I remembered thinking when he was chatting on the next table: 'You were never there, mate - a charity shop find.' Anyway, I half-noticed him going into the supermarket opposite. Normally, my attention would drift somewhere else, or I’d go back to my newspaper, but I happened to notice he didn't pick up a basket. That got my curiosity going. He went up and down a couple of the aisles, and then I saw a staff member watching him. I knew her by sight - I know most of them by sight, the shifts they work, the jobs they do - this one was normally behind the till, but today she was loading shelves… I was watching her, watching him. I could see she was doing it surreptitiously: a packet would go on a shelf, and then a quick glance in his direction. The man in the Glastonbury T-shirt kept looking round; he could see her all right, but I guess he thought she was too engrossed in what she was doing to notice him…. No practised shop-lifter this. Then it happened: a quick fluster of activity, and a couple of the beef wellington dinners were in his backpack and he was out the shop. The girl loading the shelves hesitated, turned towards him. It looked as if she was about to shout then thought better of it… Then, as if nothing had happened, she went back to loading shelves. It was all over in five seconds, at most, ten.
Usually, there’s a security man on duty, but that day there wasn’t.… Maybe he was sick or something. There were security cameras: you’ve seen them in supermarkets - those dark glass domes in the ceiling that hide the camera so you don’t know which way it’s pointing. If any one were watching the screens, they’d be out chasing him. But nothing… as if nothing had happened. But I saw what happened, and so did the girl.
I sat there in the café pondering, and I kept asking myself the same question: Why didn’t she do something? She could loose her job by not reporting it. There was every chance that camera recorded everything.
So why didn’t she report it? Maybe she simply didn’t give a damn… no doubt on minimum wage, and the company turns a handsome profit each year. Indifference… and possibly some small satisfaction that a minor theft redresses the balance.
I prefer another explanation: an act of kindness. He was simply asking to be caught. And the consequence would probably be deportation... Back to God knows where for a couple of ready meals… Compassion, I like compassion. That girl - whoever she was - had the generosity to do nothing.
For the first time in my life, I’ve had time to reflect… The waiter who places your coffee before you like a gift; the girl who doesn’t report a petty thief. Small generosities given by strangers to strangers… I can guess what you’re thinking: ‘sentimental bullshit‘ and maybe you‘re right.
For most of my life, I’ve been like a sponge. With bovine thoughtlessness, I took the lot: small generosities, big generosities, everything that came my way… All mine - that was the natural scheme of things. Then I was diagnosed with cancer. That was a few years ago… You pass through stages with this god-awful affliction. Benign, they said at first, almost cuddly. Investigation led to investigation, and it turned out to be high risk. They operated, then radiotherapy; I ended up being pumped full of female hormones; not a cure, but it does hold the cancer in check. At some point, the treatment ceases to work… And that tells you were I am - a couple of sentences to describe a lifetime of emotion lived in three years.
At first, you don’t really believe its happening; I felt perfectly well. The reality slowly sinks in, bringing with it anger and fear. For me, a sort of facetious humour seemed to cut it down to size - I‘m ashamed to admit I used it on the people who were trying to cure me… Schoolboy stuff I‘d like to forget.
You pass through invisible barriers as you go through the treatments, until finally you reach acceptance. I think I‘m about there - accepting I‘m going to live with this for the rest of my life. It started out as a sort of bargaining process with no guaranteed result; every treatment has a price: at first you risk your continence, gambling for a cure or extra years. Then you bargain your potency. Yes, I‘m now impotent, or suffering from erectile dysfunction, as the doctors say. I’m not sure if that sounds any better.
My libido now registers zero. At first that drove me close to despair - the idea of not being a man, but some non-gendered humanoid. It was then that I considered ways out - organisations such as Exit. I didn’t follow through… But even now, a little something in the bathroom cabinet in case it all gets too much. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suicidal - life still has its pleasures, but I would feel more relaxed if I had… well, an insurance policy.
It’s that elephant again, the one no one mentions. Behind all the talk about investigations and treatments, there lurked one big question: 'is this bugger going to kill me, or not?’ Of course I asked… And the answer: you’re more likely to die of something else before the cancer kills you… (I wanted to ask what that something else might be - but it’s not a good idea to cheek the people trying to help you). I feel like I’m on an easy payment plan where parts of your body are dispatched to the hereafter and finally something unexpected comes along and administers the coup de grace. Sort of death on the never-never.
Enough of this self pity. I’m doing okay. And nobody gets off this planet alive, cancer or no cancer. And, lets be brutal, I don’t want to fuck any more, so nothing lost there. It may only be the hormones, but I’ve found a new tranquillity… I’ve had to let go of things over the last three years, and finally you let go of life itself… Easy to be philosophical from where I am now. When the time comes, it might be another story.
I fantasize about my end, and I can guess what you’ll be thinking in a few moments from now: ‘Me Tarzan, You Jane,' or the other way round, but hear me out. I dream about being high up in the canopy of a rain forest, above me, the sky and the sun. Beneath me, a dark, long drop. I cannot see the ground - giant hands of tropical, dark green leaves creating the illusion of safety. Vines hang in front of me, and I jump towards them, swinging in a huge arc from one part of the canopy to the next. They keep me alive, these vines; my momentum swings me in an arc, at first downwards into the darkness of the rainforest; past flashes of colour, undefined but bright, tropical. I imagine plumage, the silvery skins of snakes, the fur of animals I would not be able to recognise or name. Then the swing upwards, towards the sun and the sky and I’m in the canopy again. The energy of constant movement propels me forward and I swing down again into the darkness, through the dense green and tropical colours, again and again. Finally, my momentum propels me forward for the last time. When I leap, my hands clasp round nothing. I go into free-fall, still hoping to arc upwards towards the canopy and the light and the sun but I continue downwards. I imagine the sensation of falling through broad tropical leaves, caressing my skin like cool velvet, until I hit the ground. No pain, but for the briefest moment, I experience perfect tranquillity before entering an eternity of oblivion.
© Andrew Peake May 2010
A. Peake was a former freelance TV journalist with a MA in Film and Video, specialising in Cuban film since the revolution and have travelled widely in Latin America, Cuba and Brazil. During the 1980s and ‘90s he was based in London and researched and produced stories on the Falklands War, the funeral of Princess Diana and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia for leading US networks.
More life moments