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Islington pianist Derek Conlon: My life after drinking coffee out of Alexander Litvinenko’s poisonous cup

PUBLISHED: 07:00 18 November 2017 | UPDATED: 13:49 20 November 2017

Derek Conlon was poisoned after drinking from Alexander Litvinenko's cup in November 2006. Picture: Derek Conlon/Campionmedia

Derek Conlon was poisoned after drinking from Alexander Litvinenko's cup in November 2006. Picture: Derek Conlon/Campionmedia

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When two Russian agents allegedly slipped radioactive poison into a cup of tea, Alexander Litvinenko wasn’t the only victim.

A tearful Marina Litvinenko, wife of murdered Russian Alexander Litvinenko, attends a press conference in Whitehall in 2007. Behind her are pictures of Mr Litvinenko before he was poisoned, and as he lay dying in hospital. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive A tearful Marina Litvinenko, wife of murdered Russian Alexander Litvinenko, attends a press conference in Whitehall in 2007. Behind her are pictures of Mr Litvinenko before he was poisoned, and as he lay dying in hospital. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive

Islington man Derek Conlon worked at the same central London hotel where Mr Litvinenko is thought to have been poisoned in November 2006.

He sat at the same table about an hour later and drank coffee out of the same cup. It had been through a dishwasher, but not washed properly.

It was only three weeks later, when Mr Litvinenko died, when things also went seriously wrong for Derek, who worked as the hotel’s pianist.

He recalls: “Sky News was saying anyone at the hotel during that week needed to go to University College Hospital for a check-up.

“That was when the doctor told me the bad news, about the poisonous levels of polonium-210 in my system.”

So little was known about the substance that Derek couldn’t even receive treatment. For him, it was a year of blood and urine tests before the polonium-210 eventually left his body.

But he knows nothing can be done about whatever damage it caused. “The dark thing is not knowing how it will affect me in later life,” he said.

Police officers outside the Millennium Mayfair Hotel in central London, where former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko - and Islington pianist Derek Conlon - were poisoned. Picture: Lewis Whyld/PA Archive Police officers outside the Millennium Mayfair Hotel in central London, where former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko - and Islington pianist Derek Conlon - were poisoned. Picture: Lewis Whyld/PA Archive

Understandably, Derek, who has lived off Essex Road for 22 years, struggled. “I wouldn’t say I was depressed, but I started thinking about things. My idea was, get the hell out of London and start travelling.”

He puts his recovery down to the last 10 years playing his precious piano on cruise ships.

“I said to myself: ‘This could be the end – do what you’ve got to do with whatever time you have.’

“I’ve played piano since I was six, when I was very introverted and had a stammer. Music has been a good thing in my life – it takes me away from all the crap.”

Derek documented his experiences in his book, Sea’s the Moment, which was published in September.

He has even committed to writing the words to music, and says he hopes to perform it in small Islington venues such as Upper Street’s Hope and Anchor.

But Derek, 51, also admits that ominous afternoon 11 years ago still bites: “I collapsed for the first time last year, and I don’t know whether that was a side effect of the incident.

“Long-term, I have just been told to see how it goes. You just have to keep going.”

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