This morning I did what I always do; I got the kids dressed, made them breakfast and drove them to nursery. Everyone, that includes my agent and my wife, assumes I spend the rest of the day writing in a rented apartment on Edgware Road. This is a lie. Instead, I am in Soho, working full-time as a barista.
A squat, cream-coloured takeaway cup was placed on top of the chrome plated LaMarzocco espresso machine. I carefully turned the cup clockwise using my index finger and thumb, all without separating the base of the cup from the roof of the machine. A letter F was written on the side of the cup. I began by first cleaning the end of the steam wand with a thick blue cloth, before then releasing a burst of steam, as this would help expel any remaining milk still lurking within the pipes.
But the longer I looked at this F the more my mind became fixated, not on coffee, but on names; names from my childhood, like Tore and Yngve and-
It was Richard, my manager, hissing at me while holding a tray of dirty dishes and with one foot descending a dank, wooden staircase.
‘Can you hurry up can do something please,’ he said ‘there’s quite a queue.’
I left the flat white on the counter without a lid. If a customer wanted to take their drink without a lid then they could. But if they wanted a more secure drinking experience, perhaps in anticipation of having to run for a bus, or jump on a trampoline, then they could take one from of a stack of black biodegradable lids which were placed within arm’s reach at the end of the bar.
Oh, the endless possibilities of why someone might want a lid, what amazing things you could do with or without a lid. It made me think of my father and the The Joshua Tree and my father telling me to turn down The Joshua Tree and –
A thin, bald man was now standing behind the bar.
‘Hmm?’ I mumbled
‘Where are the lids?’ He asked.
‘Just there,’ I replied.
‘Ah, right in front of me! How silly, thank you,’ he said.
‘You’re welcome.’ I said, bluntly.
As he turned and left, with lid and drink in hand, I ran my hand through the voluminous grey hair on my head. My hand became sticky with hair gel, so I wiped it lightly on my apron. In that moment I became consumed with anger and resentment towards the bald man. Young and beautiful women would never, ever consider sleeping him, or even flirting with him for that matter. And if they did it would only be on the basis of a dare or in the knowledge that he was a sideshow. Once more, I looked at my reflection in the espresso machine. I felt so fantastic and vital in that moment. But not soon after, I felt a deep river of shame course throughout my body.
Why had I been so rude to that man? Why must I be so petty and quick to judge?
And when, when could I go for my first cigarette break? I looked at the clock above the door. It was five minutes past nine.
Close enough, I thought.
I took a green lighter out of my pocket and a roll up from behind my ear. As I pressed my thumb into the button of the lighter a flame rose up and I watched it sway back and forth. I was reminded of the way I used to stagger about following the second bottle of wine, or the eighth bottle of beer or the extra-large portion of pan-fried meatballs. As the rolling paper and tobacco began to smoulder I noticed that my lighter was almost out of fluid – I made a mental note to stop by the off-license on the way home.
‘Fucking hell Karl Ove.’
It was Richard, this time shouting under his breath.
‘If you’re going to smoke go outside for Chrissake.’
I nodded and stubbed the fag end into a porcelain cup.
‘And here, put this on.’ He flung a hairnet at me as I opened the door.
The street outside the café was awash with commuters and filled with the sound of fruit and veg sellers. There was a comic bookstore at one end of our street and a record store at the other.
Oh, I thought, how wonderful it felt to be in London.
A rush of pure ecstasy enveloped me in that moment as I heard the sound of heels hitting cobblestones, felt the sensation of nicotine enter my body, and watched as the hairnet fell limply from my hand and tumbled onto the ground.
I was back inside and preparing a latte when Richard came pacing straight toward me.
‘Karl Ove what the fuck are you playing at?’
‘I just got in from my cigarette break,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ he started ‘cigarette break, you’re allowed one cigarette.’
Oh. These days just the sound of the word cigarette was enough to get me excited. The idea of holding a filter tip between my fingers and flicking ash onto the ground.
‘What about it,’ I asked, casually.
‘You have five in a row just now.’
I couldn’t believe what he was saying. Could this really be true?
‘And then you started prancing around with your bloody Walkman on.’
He was right. It was all coming back to me. I had been listened to a Talk Talk cassette, specifically, their absolutely brilliant song It’s My Life which I loved so much and which thinking about retrospectively (along with the cigarette) was making me dizzy.
‘But I was only stood outside for a minute, two minutes at most!’ I pleaded while propping myself up on the bar.
‘It is quarter past twelve Karl Ove.’
I looked at the clock that hung over the entrance to the café and my blood ran cold. He was right.
‘Oh,’ was all I could think say.
‘Look, just finish this drink, stop daydreaming and do the dishes.’
He made a move to walk away before turning back to face me.
‘And put your fucking hairnet on.’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Could this really be happening?
Could I, Karl Ove Knausgaard, have misremembered something?
Something so important?
I hated doing the dishes. It was such an indignity. I was a writer, not a dishwasher. What writers need is isolation, not busy cafes. They need freedom, not pots and pans. But above all, what a writer really needs, what they require above all else, are cigarettes.
I stepped outside and chain-smoked idly while watching the crowds pass by. My phone began to vibrate in my pocket. I wondered who it could be. Perhaps it would be my agent. I hoped it wouldn’t be my agent.
But it was from Dad.
How could he be texting me? He doesn’t have a mobile phone, and, what’s more, he’s been dead for well over a decade.
I opened the message with trepidation.
WHERE ARE YOU
That was all it said. I lit another cigarette and briefly considered the implications of the dead returning to life, and of the paranormal more generally. It was so typical of Dad to still be mad at me even though he’s dead – famously dead. But before I could concentrate on that idea any longer a woman walked past and my eyes went after her.
What a knockout! Full hips, dark hair and sharp green eyes.
I had to introduce myself, so I worked up to a jog, overtaking her on the traffic side of the pavement before turning to face her and running my hand through my hair. She stopped in her tracers and without making it look like she was doing so, clutched the slender strap of her canvas bag, of which the phrase Books Are My Bag was written in a large royal blue font.
‘Can I help you?’ She said, slowly and sternly.
‘Well, I, just wanted to introduce myself, I’m a writer you see.’
‘Uh huh,’ she replied, with arched shoulders.
‘An award-winning writer,’ I said.
She took a step backwards and looked across the street where a man was cleaning the windows of a fancy dress store.
‘They said my book was the literary event of the decade.’
‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘What’s it called?’
‘Min Kamp,’ I said, smiling.
She reacted as one might to a wasp at a picnic, with a grimaced face and a quick sideways lunge. I watched her cross over to the fancy dress store and stood waited to see if she would turn back to catch another look at me. She didn’t, instead she carried on walking towards Oxford Street, without wearing headphones or checking her phone or apparent regard for anything having happened. I looked at my reflection in a record store window and ran my hand through my hair. There was a tremendous amount of grime under my fingernails today. Suddenly, I felt my stomach turn.
I began rolling another cigarette to distract myself, but it was impossible to ignore the rising of a new tide, the incoming ocean of shame that was swelling through me once more.
I checked my phone to see if Dad had messaged again. He hadn’t, but there was a message from the same number. This time it was from Richard. I panicked. How long had I been out here smoking?
DO NOT BOTHER COMING IN TOMORROW
I put the phone back in my pocket, stubbed my cigarette on a lamppost and began walking toward Tottenham Court Road Station. Night was drawing in around the city and the sky held streaks of rose and lilac. It was a pretty sight but in that moment I felt nothing.
'Get much writing done today?’ My wife asked me as I collapsed onto the sofa.
‘A little,’ I said.
I turned on the television with the remote control and stared blankly at the screen. I reached into my pocket for a pouch of tobacco and as I held it in my hand I began to cry. My wife, hearing me sob, came over from the kitchen.
‘Oh, Karl Ove, sweet Karl Ove, whatever's the matter?’ She cooed, placing a palm on my shoulder and kneeling down to meet my eye-line. She probably thought I was crying because of something I’d written, but no.
My tears had nothing to do with writing, or not writing.
I wept that evening and long into the night because I had forgotten, once again, to pick up a new lighter.
As told to Wedgley Snipes.