Flat White

Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground

A story about doing good or maybe its opposite.

A flat white is one part espresso to four parts milk to one part foam. These days you go into a self-respecting coffee shop and order a cappuccino and the place comes to a standstill. I wouldn’t call the Costa at the end of my road self-respecting really, they have no strong opinions on what you want to drink.

I remember the day I worked out that ordering a cortado in a Costa was the same as getting a flat white. A cortado should be more like a macchiato but the high street coffee chains always go big on sizing. Every time I did this I was saving 45p, I worked out getting one of these four mornings a week for ten years was 936 quid in my pocket. Whatever was running through my mind that morning as I sat down in the corner seat I can’t tell you a tiny part of it wasn’t thumbing imaginary banknotes.

When he first walked through the door what I saw were his eyes, the whites of them. In each one two pupils floated like black pins on a white board. I thought he must have lost something, left his wallet behind or something. But as I kept watching I saw that inside him was a terrible fear and his eyes were burning from it. As if he was running for his life from something, or worse he had lost something he didn’t know how to look for and it was burning him alive.

The guy with the apron on scooted around the counter and ushered him out of the glass door and he accepted this without protest as if it had happened before. On the other side of the glass I watched him shuffle off down the street. For a few months this was the last I saw of him.

And then one afternoon of grey November from behind I saw a figure, trousers legs flailing, limping down the road, I recognised him from his gait and his powerful arched shoulders. Where was he off to I thought, what propulsion drove him forwards. A month later in the churchyard one day he looked up at me from a bench as I walked by. Again I saw burning, a pleading from some place within him that had been lost for who knows how long, singed into position by some force.

The next time I saw him I found it hard to believe he was still alive. It was a year later. He had looked so gaunt and so close to breaking point I couldn’t imagine where he had spent all this time, how he had survived the cold. He was asking for money like he always was. People were moving away alarmed, it was his eyes maybe or the sheen on his skin that in spite of the cold reflected the light of the dim day. He was in another place altogether, the touching point between this world and his came only from the repetitive sounds clawing their way from his throat. How could someone be that far from safety I thought.

Three months later we went on a night out to this underground bar just opened down some steps off the pedestrianised stretch of the main road. It was Valentine’s Day. I remember because this guy in there smelling of cigarettes high-fived me and told me for Valentine’s Day he had given his girl two orgasms. The place was trying to be cool but was cooler than that in a different way altogether. It was no bigger than a small off-license, low lighting, low ceiling, that type of thing going on where as soon as you walked across the threshold you were like sweet.

Just by the entrance the bar ran along a wall lined with a select group of spirits, behind which a couple of guys and a girl were busy tending, all smiles and eye contact. We sat on high stools next to a group of three and after reading the cocktail list my girlfriend went for a Tahini Martini, Vodka, Crème de Chataigne, tahini, vanilla custard and charcoal powder, weirdest thing on the menu as per. They had this Belgian beer on tap and I chose one of those.

By then we were already on our way, we’d been drinking up the road at this wine shop with a chef at the end of a long table making small plates. They had the balance right and the wines and all of it, everyone in there was laughing and looked alive. After four or five glasses we were headed home and happened upon the bar by chance, she gave me a tug on the arm, persuading me, we went in.

Right next to the bar was the dance floor, no bigger than a service box on a tennis court, around which were a couple of alcoves. The DJ was in a pink velour onesie taking herself too seriously, eyes fixed on her setup, acknowledging no-one, but the tunes were sweet and we took our drinks over, my girlfriend another martini and me an Isle of Dogs. Scotch, Vermouth, cranberry and lemon zest, eight minutes in the making but you could taste the seconds.

I remember thinking how fun it was to be out with her, just us, dancing, laughing at each other, needing no-one, the kind of scene I knew in the moment if I wasn’t in I’d be staring at from some corner thinking it was all I wanted. My girlfriend dances a bit like water moves and mostly I’d find myself stood still just gawping. Like I would forget she was mine or for the time being she liked me, eyes locked-on gazing at her lines silhouetted against the lights, shapes weaving and gliding in the gloaming. It was our third Valentine’s and down there in that dark room holding her close sipping the scotch feeling the music reverberate in me, was a moment to bottle and put away to sip from when the grey days drew in.

Eventually we grew tired and not a little drunk and decided to call it a night. We got our coats, nodded to the bartenders in thanks and walked up the stairs to street level. The February night kissed our cheeks and we grabbed each other for comfort. A few feet down the road the DJ was sitting on a bench in a big fur coat in a group of four smoking under a streetlamp looking like the opening scene to a music video. Recalling her antipathy behind the booth made me a little upset in my drunkenness, I never liked people who are unfriendly or who reject friendliness, never really understood how you wouldn’t grow out of trying to look cool.

It was either very late or a strange kind of Friday, but for the group in the music video and us beginning our meander home the street was empty.

Then I saw him.

A shadow moving in the darkness, stumbling towards us. I knew immediately without looking, his presence was unmistakable. His powerful upper body stretched out to a sinew beneath his shirt, the sheen on his skin, his eyes aflame. As I watched him from the corner of my eye approach the bench I wondered again how he was alive. What had he been doing all this time, walking the streets without rest. All this time I had slept and woken, drunk and laughed, embraced, sat alone, all this time where had he been. How far down a wrong road had he wandered.

Love is not the fabric of everything, the voice had said. Beauty is the fabric of everything. Our reaction to seeing the beauty is love. The primary force of the world is not conjured of itself. When we start witnessing the beauty the love will come.

The crew waved him away like a bug. He tried again, and again they said no. No more than a pestilence to avoid, a fly the wrong side of a window to swat. In it raged, coursing over the barrier walls, surging onto the land to wipe it clean. I disengaged from my girlfriend and walked over to the blue lights of the Nationwide with my card in hand, stuck it in the machine and started pressing buttons. I entered ten and waited for the bank note. Still the floodwater continued to pile over the barrier, stressing the concrete to its limit. My card reinserted, I scanned the figures and hit a hundred. As I had anticipated by this time he was on my shoulder but I felt no tension in him. He only waited, perhaps it was hope, maybe my countenance towards him showed neither fear nor disgust and he could sense it.

I folded the notes over and motioned to his right hand which he held out as I placed them inside, closing my other hand over his the way you might tip a man in a hotel bar. He took them without looking down, staying stock-still, staring at me. As I looked into his eyes I saw something descend, as the fire continued to ebb another force rose up to take its place but what that was I didn’t know, whatever thing was coming in seemed to be washing another away, like a wave receding, something like a fear subsiding.

Adam, he said. No family, none mate. Just me yea yea yea around here. A few years a few years mate. He spoke hurriedly and excitedly. He was so grateful, bursting to express his gratitude. I can’t believe it, he kept saying. Over and over. I told him I had seen him about many times I tried to tell him somehow that he wasn’t a ghost that I noticed him always and that I thought of him but in my drunkenness it came out a bit shit. What good was it going to do. Was it going to make him feel better. Was he was even listening. Are you okay, I said finally. I tried looking into his eyes kindly. He kept saying thank you. What about drugs. You can tell me, I don’t care. No drugs mate. None of that. None of that. Then he held out his arms to me and we embraced. I felt his strength and sinew and parched muscle and I felt a warmth and I don’t know if just to hold someone meant a whole lot to him, was it just gratitude. I hoped it did. I felt something good from holding him. For a couple of seconds we stood there in the lamp lit pedestrianized street in each others arms, as the crew on the bench smoked, as my girlfriend a few doors down wandered the street answering a message, and a siren in the distance hung on the wind, all was still.

What have you done. Listen.

Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

He took the notes in his hand. Taking no care to conceal them he roamed down the road clasping the wad of cash like a tennis ball, looking back at me shouting thank you I can’t believe it thank you. Put them in your pocket I shouted smiling.

I re-joined my girlfriend and we walked back home. I didn’t feel much like telling her what had happened. In the end what came out was some garbled point about hating the way people could be so ignored. She listened as she always did to the end without judgement, thinking the words through, and another whump from the scotch hit my brain trailing my thoughts towards a void and we fell into silence. Not an unhappy one. A wordless contented kind of peace.

I didn’t walk back that way for five days. I took the long way to the shops the other side of the park. I found it hard to look around me, like there were eyes trained on me. For the first few days I saw no beauty anywhere. Just a vision of a body lying alone, cold and still and forgotten. The weeks drew on, the cortisol that had charred me dry as I had lain awake that morning in the dark, staring at the ceiling as the grey light clawed its way sadly through the shitty blinds of the enormous window and across it as my girlfriend lay sleeping next to me, began to subside. But the embers continued to burn, as if a flame somewhere had been extinguished and the heat had been transferred and taken its place to burn in me.

Ten years it’ll take me to save 936 quid on coffee. I worked it out on my laptop calculator. The calculator won’t tell me what a hundred and ten pounds did to him. It didn’t save him, I know that. The last thing it did was save him. I sit in the Costa by the window sometimes and drink my drink, the 45p saving one, and no longer thumb imaginary bank notes and I look out across the road and I hope to see him wander by.