Drinking Coffee with My Father in the Most Expensive Cafe in Manchester by Benjamin Judge

I am not in a cafe. I am not with my father. I am not even drinking coffee. My peppermint tea cools on the windowsill in a Very Hungry Caterpillar mug. I am sat in the study (a rather grandiose term for the second bedroom of a two bedroom house which before long will probably have stacks of fresh nappies and soft toys scattered among the pens and the paperbacks). I have told Jo that we don’t need a nursery. We can just put the crib in the study. Decorating a room for a baby is like buying presents for a child before their fourth birthday: a complete waste of time. They aren’t going to remember anyway. I am painfully aware that I will be rudely shaken out of this belief the first time I set eyes on my child. I will probably buy the bastard thing presents for sicking up mushed apple sauce onto my best shirt.

It is by choice that I am not in a cafe drinking coffee. It is a stylistic design, a narrative trick, a writer playing with his reader. My father’s absence is real though. A cancer that started in his lungs spread through his body like bindweed, wrapping itself around and squeezing the life out of whatever it chanced upon. My last memory of him is the broken sounds of him failing to speak through the haze of his last dose of morphine as I tried to comfort him by stroking his arm between his wrist and elbow, wondering if what I was doing was easing his pain or causing him more. I have other memories too though; I tend to dwell on them more often.

I remember the first time he took me to a pub as an adult; the thin orange glow of the fruit machine we stood next to as the nature of our conversation changed shape for ever. The bravery, or the naivety, of his decision, as a divorced father who saw his children on Sundays, to take two teenagers on an off-season boating holiday in the Lake District. His pronounced inability to buy fashionable shoes. Songs he made up. Jokes he told too often. His infinite supply of kindnesses.

My favourite memory of my father will upset the bibliophiles among you. We were on a camping holiday and he was reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre. He was about halfway through and absolutely loathing it, but he needed to know how it ended. A wobbly barbeque was fixed by him tearing the book in half and shoving the read half under the offending leg. Then, after tea, my dad took the grill off the barbeque and sat next to it in a deck chair. Between sips from one of those little bottles of beer you get on the continent he finished the book, pausing to tear each page out as he read it and adding it to the fire.

Though I know fatherly pride would have prevented my work suffering a similar fate at his hands I do often wonder what he would have thought of my writing. I didn’t really start writing in earnest until after he died. I have written two things about him, a speech at his funeral and this. The speech was, in part, a duty but this essay is a gift. A present for my father. A present he will not remember.

My tea has gone cold. I make another. Place it on the window sill next to its faded twin. My window looks out onto Blackstone Edge. What lies beyond those weathered rocks is no longer Manchester but the walk toward them is within its borders. My travel pass will take me to the summit but no further. I live at the boundary of what is Manchester geographically and far beyond where it exists in people’s imaginations. The city is more than Tony Wilson’s children and snide clichés about satanic mills. I can walk out of my door, turn left, turn right, and within ten minutes or so be on the moors. In spring a returning curlew can fill the air with its sombre call. Cows graze the scrub. Meadow pipits play along the dry stone walls. This is Manchester too, and this is where I place my imaginary cafe. This is where I will meet my father one last time. In words, on this page, my dad and I will drink coffee one last time.

917184 if you want a grid reference. It is where the Pennine Bridleway curves round a small hill and Watergrove Reservoir comes into view. Here, for one day only, will sit the Most Expensive Cafe in Manchester. A grotesque double helix of rusted steel, the Most Expensive Cafe in Manchester will be a reproduction of the genetic code of an oncogene. My dad will roll his eyes at the bitter irony; I will make a joke about the shortcomings of an overactive imagination. Then we will be both caught by surprise when, climbing the spiral stairway that clings to the helix, we are presented with a circling view of the landscape; the five ugly towers that mark Rochdale, the mirrored shimmy of the Beetham Tower jutting out of Manchester’s skyline, the motorway leering over Hollingworth Lake on the bridge my dad would wave at Littleborough from and then phone me complaining I hadn’t waved back, the soft sad moors that chilled the Brontë’s temperaments and fired their imaginations; and then, as we climb higher we see farther, the boat still floating on Windermere two decades after our holiday, the beach at Blackpool which we walked along clinging sticks of rock and dreaming of the tower, my sister’s house in Wrecsam, the supermarkets of Stoke that he would stop at on the way to dropping me back to halls to fill the car with food and beer, and on one surprisingly unembarrassing occasion condoms, West Bromwich, and the right proper horrorshow of a council estate he grew up on, the prisoner of war camp in Yugoslavia his father would never talk about; and round, and round we go, seeing further and further, seeing places I would love to have shown him, Iceland, New York, New Zealand…

And as we sit at a table carved out of a fat slab of oak I will nod to that last paragraph and ask him if he noticed that last sentence was over two hundred words long and he will ask me why I am showing off and remind me I don’t have to. And a waitress who looks like Rita Hayworth in Gilda will take our order. And as she walks back to the kitchen humming Put the Blame on Mame my dad and I will share a look that says “obviously we love our wives but we can still appreciate beauty”. And then one or the other of us will start giggling.

For one day the stonechats that the snows of the last two winters have wiped from the hills will have survived. We will watch as a pair call to each other and flit around a gnarled black stump of a lightning struck hawthorn. One or two clouds will float by. The pale portrait of the moon will sit in the December sky. I will order a salad of rocket, pear, Roquefort and walnuts, drizzled with walnut oil, thin slices of a raisin sourdough loaf, and winter celery served with butter and salt. My dad will order a corned beef and brown sauce sandwich. We will both have the coffee.

We will talk about nothing. There are no great secrets I need to unburden, no last messages I didn’t say but wished I had. We always spoke about everything, even before the end. This conversation will be as easy as all the rest. We’ll talk until the sky dulls and the buildings of Manchester start to flick on their white lights and the streets glow orange with sodium.

Then I will go on and he won’t. It is that simple. That brutal. He lives on in memories, and now on this page. In time I’ll be gone too, but this page may remain and perhaps you will read it. All that will exist is the story of two people who met on the hills that overlook Manchester to drink coffee. It is not important that no one will remember who they were. They will have long forgotten they ever existed. The cafe will welcome new customers.

Hear Benjamin Judge reading Drinking Coffee with My Father in the Most Expensive Cafe in Manchester at the launch of The Real Story project on October 19, 2011 at The Deaf Institute, Manchester: