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The International Writers Magazine: Learning to Live

Andrew Peake
Keep it out of consciousness, if you can, the grey noise. Along with the jagged mutterings of strangers tugging at your sleeve… Every high street the same: the dull ache of rubber on tarmac. Constant.  Malevolent voices… Best not to listen - they will take all you have.

coffee shop

All shit-poor high streets are the same. It feels that way…pound shops...  charity shops. Fast food joints that spill sucked chicken bones and the stink of rancid oil onto the street. This time in the morning, my stomach heaves.

I pass a café. Hesitate. Go in. The smell of fresh coffee. I’m a regular - the waitress brings me a cappuccino without being asked.  She’s always morose, and I like that.  The coffee helps. A palliative to the demons that haunt me, punishment for the night before.

This is the routine of the indifferent, and I choose that.  I drink coffee; I buy a shirt; catch a bus. Always outside the café, red eyed and unshaven with his  Big Issues. Like me, this shadow has his own routine:  He’s needy, wants more from me than £2.00 for a copy or whatever the price is. He wants a fellow traveller. I want him to stay a shadow.

The world changed a year ago. Back then, I got off the same bus and walked the same streets… The news was good… A year of salvage - radical surgery and radiotherapy.  The consultant told me the cancer had gone - not a cure, in remission.  Nearly a cure. Almost as good as a cure, but not a cure. Still there, I imagine them -  undetected, crazed cells waiting to replicate in their madness…

Mole bashing, one consultant said on the radio. Clever little buggers, those cancer cells. You spot them, you bash ’em, you think you’ve got ‘em and then they poke their heads out somewhere else. Clever little buggers… Not those exact words, of course. It was a podcast from Radio 3. They don‘t speak like that on Radio 3. And I don’t speak like that.  But saying it that way makes it…  bad comedy.  Not this toxic vapour you can’t see or smell.  I have my life back, sort of.

It’s like reading a book and finding the last few pages have been torn out… An  unfinished sentence leading to what..? Just the rough edge running down the spine where the pages had been. Or maybe the writer walked off the job and left you to invent your own story. Except you can’t because the scaffolding that held all the parts together has collapsed and it can’t be repaired.

The world looks the same. The 52 bus still takes the same route. The café still sells dried-up sandwiches. And the down-and-out still stands outside, still sells the Big Issue.  They don’t see it, those passers-by,  but I spend my days watching. If I told them the world was a completely different place but simply looked the same, they’d think I’d lost my mind…

I try and pick up where that other writer left off… try and work out what happens next. I make lists - the new scaffolding, sort of.  Stuff I need to do - ordinary things: take the car for a service,  pick up the dry cleaning, buy a shirt. They don’t seem to happen, like they’re outside my control. I want to do them, but they belong to the early part of the book, before the pages were ripped out.  I was the trajectory of the story, a trail of light across the sky, like a shooting star that suddenly disappears. The old stuff doesn’t apply any more. 

Up to the diagnosis, and for a time afterwards, I didn’t believe it. That time is etched on my memory - there I was sitting in front of the consultant, both of us looking at the MRI scan on the screen.  I could see he was shocked, so unexpected.  A blurred white mass of tumour, ill-defined. My first thought, it wasn’t me; that thing on the screen had nothing to do with me… A good old NHS mix up. After all, I had no symptoms… just a routine check to see that everything was okay… That was then.         

Further investigation. A biopsy. Then a second biopsy. Another consultant. You can tell its serious as soon as you walk into the consulting room - there’s a nurse sitting in the background; she stays silent through the conversation, if you can call it a conversation: he talks, I’m sitting in numbed silence.  You don‘t notice her at first but then you do, right at the end. There she is in front of you, giving you a big envelope. I forgot about it until I got home. Inside, was the clear and graphic medical reality, indifferent words on a page, my condition.

That was a year ago. They removed the tumour. Then radiotherapy.  And then restart your life. But not that simple: the tectonic plates have shifted. I now know for certain the planet is unstable.  Me and the people I pass on the street - we are on two separate planets. The seller of the Big Issue is an evangelical: he knows what I know.

I always thought I knew what was going to happen next… Nothing specific, but the future always had some sort of certainty. I try to project a line into the future, as if I was following a trend on a graph… Better: remember those drawings you used to do when you were a kid? Joining the dots. You connect the numbers to make a picture.  I started joining the dots then the picture turned to shit.

I thought at first I was suffering from depression. But it’s not that. I’ve come to the conclusion I’m scared of the possibility of freedom. My connection with the past has been cut and the future is there waiting for me to create it.  Who could want more than that? That new connection doesn’t work, not for me.

I walk down the street. The derelict with bloodshot eyes is still selling the Big Issue outside the café. I try not to meet his gaze. He has a dog now, tied to a drain pipe with a length of string.   I go into a café and order a coffee. I read the paper. My fingers quiver and the cup rattles on the saucer... In the mornings I have a hangover.

© Andrew Peake June 2010

I am a former freelance TV journalist with a MA in film and video, specialising in Cuban film since the revolution. A grandmother born in Havana triggered an interest in the culture and history of the island. During the 1980s and ‘90s I researched and produced news stories including the Falklands War, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia for leading US networks.

Future: Certain
Andrew Peake

This is what I do most afternoons: visit one of my two favourite cafés. I do it, not for the coffee but for the entertainment, a distraction from the business of living

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