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 in the grips of a 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.