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Latte Belly: Missives From An SW8 Cafe – Affable In A Way I Will Never Be

23 Nov 2011

This morning, I look like a man who endured a night of bad dreams. I looked at myself in the mirror this morning – something I regularly do when I work out, because you know, you want to enjoy seeing the fruits of all your weight training (like my podcasts, done on a nothing budget, up against the likes of Micky and his expensive personal trainer) – but this time, catching sight of my sad face, even I had to look away. Some would say I look tired. I don’t think I look tired. I often look tired. I know tired. This isn’t tired. I look sad. That’s why I looked away. I don’t want to see myself like that. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself, something I’ve come perilously close to doing at times during this long hard year of regrouping and repositioning.

The wave of bad dreams that chased me all the way into the morning show me that outside of the real world, I’ll probably always struggle to get over what happened to my life and my relationship and LA has become a huge ghost. I wonder whether she ever dreams about me? When you wreck someone’s life, as she did mine, and you dream of them, and this is going from personal experience, you wake up with an overwhelming sadness and deep sense of regret for what you did. You wake up knowing you destroyed someone and that it didn’t need to be done that way. It’s a different kind of dream. But equally sad, I find. Where it differs in my experience is that the guilt-laden dreams are more infrequent. As if your brain make s a decision that those kinds of dreams really are too much and shuts everything down to protect you.

I really wish it were possible that all dreams, good and bad, could be put on hold for a year at least, whilst I get through to the other side. And I do believe I’ll come out of this. I still believe I can match the success of a few years ago. Not only match it. But sustain it and surpass it, all the while knowing that it comes second to happiness, something I completely ignored first time around. I’m better equipped this time to deal with success.

I’ve never lost belief in myself. The difficulty has been in knowing that the success, whenever it returns, won’t be for as long as I imagined in my younger days. And more importantly, the difficulty has been in the amount of personal setbacks I’ve had to tolerate. That’s what’s shaken me. That I’ve had to deal with so many losses and still attempt to achieve my ambitions with all these ghosts circling me. This is about me and these ghosts going our separate ways. Putting them at a comfortable distance. They’re always going to be there. But they don’t need to be taking bites out of me every day. This is about letting them know that. And I’m strong enough now. But taking a sabbatical from the dream world whilst I regroup would make this whole process much easier.

But as someone said to me back in the summer, it’s just a dream. Just a dream. What’s important is where I am in my life when I wake up in the morning. When I return to the real, economy 7 storage-heating world, the windows in my flat open in an attempt to dry the clothes I washed the day before. That piece of advice on dealing with unwelcome dreams has mostly worked for me, but it never works on a day like this, given the severity of the night’s dreams.

I might be slowly making my way through the difficulties of the last year, but my clothes are yet to catch up. As I try to figure out what this new life is, I do so largely in the clothes of my old life. Well, the clothes of the transitional period, when much of my stuff was still in storage and I’d just left the hotel to move in with friends following LA’s termination of our relationship at Christmas. 10 months on, having discovered that most of my clothes weren’t in storage after all, I find myself accompanied to the café by the always too small, way too trendy for me Ralph Lauren hooded top belonging to Latin America. I habitually roll the short sleeves up so I don’t look like another mentally ill guy on Lambeth’s streets.

My reason for writing these missives has been to try and come to terms with what happened to me. With what happened to my life. But now a small part of me looks at the state of my boot cut jeans, dragged through the dog-stained streets of South Lambeth, and thinks, “If there’s some money in this book, I’ve got to get myself some clothes and a flat with gas central heating”. I am trying to walk towards the new in the clothes of the man that was put down in that not so long ago hotel room.

The hooded top hangs behind me on a coat hook located behind the toilet table as my latte and Portuguese toast arrive. I would’ve liked a bit more butter on the toast. I like my butter spread to all corners of my bread. When people ask me what kind of guy I am, I tell them I’m the kind of guy who, whether he was buttering toast/bread for himself or someone else, would ensure that all corners were buttered. I’m good like that.

As I look at the hands of the waiter bringing me my order, I wonder what else he’s done with those hands. How many women have those hands that bring me my pitiful, reduced circumstances breakfast touched? I think of how good it would be if everyone had transferable hands, much in the way Worzel Gummidge could change his head. So everyone would have hands they kept in a box in their bedroom, specifically for sex. Just for sex. Sex hands. Perhaps they’d come in a variety of sizes and are first presented to you when you turn 18 (13 in Lambeth) by an uncle. Not your parents. That would be too awkward. They’d know you were getting the sex hands, but they wouldn’t acknowledge it. It would just go unspoken. Then depending on the size of the partner you find yourself with, you would choose the most appropriate sized hands for the job. Big fat hands, hands with long fingers, small, delicate hands free from the callused hands of your maybe manual-labour day job. They could be different coloured hands. It doesn’t matter. They’re just your sex hands. And then you’d know that the hands that bring you your latte and your Portuguese toast have never touched another human’s private parts.

Some people would wear them to go out on a Saturday night, indicating their confidence that they would be getting some action that night. Sometimes a waiter might turn up at the café having forgotten to remove his sex hands, and the boss would send him home to get his every day hands. And the regulars would chuckle, and the men would raise a glass to the embarrassed waiter as he attempts to hide his sex hands and heads back home to get his proper hands.

The chin fissure woman is at her regular table to my left. With her husband. I notice he too has a slight chin fissure. Therefore it was, I guess, inevitable that their boy would inherit the same villainous chin. I wonder how long that genetic flaw has been in the family. What can the boy do to ensure his kids don’t inherit the chin, or is it likely to be in the family for generations to come?

Many in the café must question why I’m at the toilet table. But the chin fissure couple can’t or at least shouldn’t. They’re just a couple of feet further away from me. Whatever horrific smells assault me and interrupt my enjoyment of the latte here are likely to interrupt theirs, and with their two-income lifestyle, they’ve more to lose than me. My life’s been reduced to lattes and toast at best. My poached eggs lifestyle of a year ago is long gone. I’ve been here when horrific odours that surely breach every health and safety regulation known to man, have got trapped in the sharp grooves of their magnificently flawed chins, and brought their big English breakfasts to a halt as someone who lives just two streets away wrecks the loos.

I catch a serious-looking mixed race man sat over the other side of the café with his kids looking in my direction. I meet his gaze, but notice that my little finger has disengaged from the latte glass as I take a sip. It absconds as if it’s anticipating trouble, in the same way that I once absconded from an incident on a school trip in France when I was 15. I’d got involved in a confrontation with some locals and Micky Boyd, then a bouffanted powerhouse,in a red and blue ski jacket, stepped in, and all hell broke loose. In my defence, the previous month, after a run of three years of regularly fighting and incredibly, never losing, my confidence had taken a hell of a blow when I’d had my eye blackened in another altercation at school. It had surprised me because my confidence had been so high. Between ’85 and ‘87, I had often hand picked my opponents carefully, like Audley Harrison, gradually surprising myself by the types of guys I was able to hold my own with. It wasn’t that I sought out these fights or picked on anyone. I was just aware that if certain people targeted me, I knew I had enough confidence in my ability to respond.

I was never strong. But I knew how to fight. That was the thing. That’s why I became so fascinated by fighting, because my fighting ability was so way ahead of my courage. My generation grew up in an age when there was so much boxing on terrestrial TV. Every week, there seemed to be a world title bout on and though my interest in boxing has never sat easily with me, I liked it enough to still be able to talk about many of the great fighters of the eighties.

I think I might not have fully appreciated Live Aid that hot Saturday day back in July ’85, owing to having sent my first love letter that morning, and then drawing up a short list during Sade’s faltering set (her mic failed and the crowd were booing), in which I looked at my next possible opponents for the school playground.

But that still unrivalled period of fighting success came to a disastrous end in January ’88. The shame of returning home with a black eye that left my dad furious with me, stayed with me for a long time. Worse still, it brought me back to the attention of the large chinned year master after a period where I’d managed to slip under the radar, and highlighted to him just how badly I was doing at school. He began to fish around, piecing together certain pieces of information as to what might have been going on outside of school.

I was hauled in one Friday afternoon and hit with a serious of questions I’d never faced about my home life. He told me he knew who’d given me the eye even though I’d never given up their identity. This wasn’t about that though. This was about seeking confirmation that my dad and I were a year into our ill-fated bed-sharing project, with my mum and sister in bunks adjacent to the marital bed. This was about us sharing a bathroom with 13 people. This was about our house looking like the kind of house people cut through in order to get to a secret martial arts contest in a Hollywood film.

Looking back, I have nothing to be ashamed of by the incident in the school playground in January ’88 that dealt my confidence such a huge blow. That kid went on to do life in Broadmoor after stabbing his social worker over 120 times in Balham, and it was a big shock to see him on the cover of all the national papers in that not so memorable summer of 2000. If anything, to have held my own for all of thirty seconds with a kid now serving life as one of this country’s biggest nutters is, I think, quite commendable.

I wonder if the man in the café noticed my little finger’s girly retreat. It always bothers me when I see men holding a glass with every finger except their little finger. It’s an effeminate look. Maybe in that moment, he detected some weakness in me.

I wonder if anyone else here had bad dreams last night. Why, when I am plagued by bad dreams, did my dream last night leave me looking so shit this morning?

I check an email on the Blackberry, the same handset that has been with me since the first of the nervous breakdowns that have book ended these three disastrous years.

“Not being in control or not having the capacity to take the time when it’s needed only compounds the issue – and I think that’s what went on with you – and will need longer to sort.

“Don’t be ashamed. Life gets in the way sometimes. No one prepares us for dealing with all these things. And if they tried, we’d probably ignore them anyway.

“It sounds to me like you have found the thread to lead you from the labyrinth. You have the strength to follow it. You just need to have the courage.”

I try to say “Hello” to on one of the waiters but find my mouth shutting down on me, as if it’s saying, “hang on pal, let me finish masticating this piece of toast.” The younger one asks if I’m done with my latte. Swallowing the toast down earlier than I was ready to, I ask him for another five minutes. I like this guy. He’s affable in a way I never will be. But he polices the café in a way few other waiters do. He’s relentless. Like Azumah Nelson, that great eighties fighter with the unusual “Ned Kelly letterbox helmet defence”, who would probably have defeated the affable Barry McGuigan had these two fine fighters met in the mid-eighties, he just keeps coming. I have a quarter of my latte left. But this guy seems to regard that as finished and attempts to gather up my tall latte glass in a hand that I hope didn’t get up to any bedroom mischief overnight. No other waiter regards a still quarter full latte as finished. Soon as I’m three quarters through, I find myself protectively holding onto the glass in a way I never used to prior to his starting work here. That’s no way to enjoy a latte. It’s not a pint. I wish one of his superiors would notice this and ask him to ease up on the glass collecting. He’s young. Maybe that’ll come in time.

Maybe if I ever stop coming to the cafe, and perhaps return here in ten years time to promote this book after it finally gets published, he’ll still be here, as the senior waiter, and I’ll notice he’s not as eager to collect these latte glasses as he once was.

The BEST holidays

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