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South London May 2013

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On Sunday afternoon, May 19, I caught the overground back to East Dulwich after spending the night in Islington with Sarah,  watching the Eurovision song contest on TV with her gay friends, all of us curled up in groaning, snickering balls on the couch.

Already hungover, I took a short detour from Bellenden Rd, where I was staying, towards a popular local drinking hole, the East Dulwich tavern, with the intention of just having one ‘hair of dog’ pint before home.  I went inside and paid my three and a half quid for a locally brewed apple cider, then dropped outside onto the slanty wooden tables on the narrow sidewalk,  under a  pale English sun that kept tantalisingly appearing then disappearing, like a leg whisked back and forth in a skirt.

Only a few minutes later, two very leathery skinned guys who must have been in their late 50s/ early 60s appeared from somewhere and asked if they could sit with me. We immediately struck up a conversation.

Tom was a thinning, grey haired gent with carbunkled nose and expansive personality originally from Edinburgh, and Dave had a whippet like handsomely crinkled face, and was an East Dulwich local.  They had been spending their Sunday doing what seemed like a regular bar crawl through the pubs of Peckham and East Dulwich.

Tom  assured me he was open minded, and would visit pubs as far afield as the Old Oak in Kensington.  Neither of them liked North London though, and Dave reminded Tom several times of the time he got so drunk he fell asleep on the train and ended up in Highbury, and it took hours to get home.  Tom shuddered at the memory.

Dave worked in construction and I asked him if he had seen many changes in the time he lived in East Dulwich.  He said “Yeah. There are more blacks here now.  Part from vat, tho, pretty much still the same.”  Dave was fascinating to me because he talked and acted like a slightly shifty cockney bit character out of Steptoe and Son.

Dave was married but Tom was divorced, so Tom was the one who offered to buy me drinks and “chat me up” with  a wink, and self-ironic Scottish chirpiness.

Shortly after Tom slipped another pint of scrumpy in front of me, a softly semi-bearded Gen Y guy from the table next to ours got up.  He walked across the road to the florists and bought a long-stemmed red rose, which he then carried, very obviously and self-consciously grinning,  in front of the whole pub, across the road back to his girlfriend/ wife.

His late 20s/ early 30s girlfriend/wife took it without any particular display of gratitude or being moved, placed it matter of factly down beside her handbag on the bench in a  ‘thats nice darling’ kind of way.  Then went back to studying the menu.

Dave and Tom groaned at the incident.

Dave said “That probably cost ten quid.”

I said “Girls like that you know.  Its romantic. Don’t you ever give flowers to your wife Dave?”

Dave said “Nope.”

Then added with an evil grin.  “Only flowers I ever give ‘er is ‘flour’.  You know, plain flour, self-raising flour.”

Tom added “To bake a cake.  For herself!”

Dave added chuckling “Yeah!  And quick smart abart it!”.  They both chuckled even louder.

Tom said, presumably noticing my grimace, by way of partial explanation “We Scotts keep a lot in.”

Then a younger guy who had even less teeth than Dave and Tom turned up at the table and sat down uneasily, his red eyes pincering Dave’s then Tom’s but avoiding mine.

Dave said “What happened Ted?  You’re covered in dog hair.”

Ted looked at Dave with a kind of bleary challenge. “So, I got a dog. Innit?”.

Then I noticed Ted’s stained blue pullover which was indeed not only covered with visible grey, dog hairs, but also the glisten of dog slobber, catching the slight sunlight in splashes across his chest and arms.  I reached over and shook his hand and introduced myself.

Ted looked a bit taken aback but then said he was pleased to make my acquaintance, and proceeded to then not make any more eye contact with me for the rest of his stay at the table.

Tom said by way of introductions “Ted has been barred from the tavern.  He can’t go inside.”

‘Is that so.  Why is that?’

But Ted kept avoiding my gaze and announced into his beer “She’s put a restraining order on me.  I can’t believe it.  After all I’ve done for her, all the money I give her.  Fousands.”.

Tom leaned towards me and said “Fights”.

Ted said “You shoulda read all the stuff she put in the papers to the coppers.  Carnt believe it.  Pack of filthy lies.”  Then he added with a chilling drunk, menacing anger.  “There’s no way I can forgive ‘er, No. Way.”

Then he looked up at Dave and Tom and asked in a slightly pleading way “Have you seen ‘er?”

Tom said “Och, she was here yesterday”.

Then added, presumably by way of consolation. “Alone.  She was here alone”.

I decided it was best then to busy myself with my iPhone.

After a period of swearing into his beer, and being pseudo-cheerfully ignored by Tom and Dave, Ted surprisingly staggered to his feet and announced ‘I’m gon then”.  And he lurched off down East Dulwich Rd,  vaguely nodding at Tom and Dave, but seemingly not noticing me when I said goodbye.

I turned to Tom and said.

“That guy is what we could call in Australia “a worry”.”

Tom asked: “What does that mean?”

I said “A piece of work.”

Dave said “His missus, she is trouble too.  Rough as.  Shoulda spent his money on getting her face done up”.

I said “Ted is not exactly Prince Charming”.

Dave said “That is true.”

Then added, turning and leaning towards me, slipping a little out of his old fashioned working class reticence shell, thanks to the magic of a few pints

“‘E had hundred and twenty thousand quid. He drank it all up in one year”

Tom,  who I had thought was Ted’s pal, quickly showed his relief at his departure. “Och. Drank every bit of his inheritance. And wouldn’t walk from here to the kerb, caught a taxi everywhere.”

“Hundred and twenty thousand quid” Dave repeated, looking at me and I repeated “Hundred and twenty thousand!” looking at him.  We both shook our heads in wonder.

Tom said “He only spent maybe a thousand on his missus.  Took her on a holiday one time, it was only somewhere like Blackpool.  For the weekend.”

Dave snickered. “No way he’d spend the money to take her abroad.  Like Urope.”

Tom and Dave giggled in agreement.

Tom looked at me and said “Dave here has never been any further afield than Birmingham”

Dave nodded and said “That’s true”.

My ‘roast beef Bap’  i.e. roll then arrived, courtesy of a skinny waitress with indistinct features.

“That’s your Sunday lunch roast then?” Tom asked, a bit sadly.

I said “Yep”.

But as I started to dive my knife and fork into the single slither of beef, I realised Tom must have intuited I’d ordered a bar snack because the mains were too expensive.

“You should try and get a job with a hospital” he said kindly. “I worked for a hospital down the road, for years. I’d get drunk every lunchtime, and go to work, records keeping.  It was good pay.”

I said “The NHS have big savings targets, they are slashing jobs.”

Tom said “Only doctors and nurses.  Not the admin.”

I said I’d keep the NHS in mind.

Tom said, fondling his fourth pint, “I used to have a drinking problem”.

A greying but dapper man in a cloth cap and tweed jacket suddenly appeared out of the smoky pub innards, leant over and shook Tom and Dave’s hand. He muttered something cheery, but once again, no amount of mild smiling by me elicited recognition that I was a human at the same table as his friends.  I started communing again with my iPhone.

When the cloth cap gent had departed, Tom pointed across and slightly up the road to a newsagents shop.

“Up there’s where I found the Banksy”

I put down my scrumpy, not sure I was hearing correctly.

“You found a what?”

“That graffiti artist, whatsit, Banksy. He left a bunch of cardboard things with stamps on ’em at secret locations round London.  I found one just up there.”

“You found two” corrected Dave.

“You’ve got a Banksy??” I said, feeling a bit like I was now part of a Dr Who episode where a time fissure had erupted in 1950s working class Southwark Borough and the hippest street artist of the 21st century had somehow leaked in.

“Two”, said Tom.

“Jesus.” I ventured. “They’d be worth a bit.”

“100 quid each” said Dave. “Easy. Seen ’em on Ebay”.

“Just bits of cardboard” said Tom. “With loads of stamps on ’em. Ugly as.  Stuck ’em in a suitcase, gonna leave ’em to my kids.  They’ll be worth something.  I ain’t gonna sell ’em.  What do I need the money for?  I’m alright.”

Dave got up.  “Better get on then.”

“Whats your wife been doing then Dave, this afternoon.” I asked.  “Doing a pub crawl with her pals?”

“Nah, she don’t drink”, leaving the preoccupations of his wife as much a mystery to me as they probably were to him.

Dave then wandered off with a nod to Tom and barely a look at me.

With Dave gone, Tom suddenly started on a kind of stream of consciousness decanting of the most profound incidents in his life.

“Don’t tell me there is a God because I lost three younger brothers, to cancer, accidents.  When I was 30.  All within 18 months.”

I agreed that was terrible, and there was no God in the big daddy in the sky sense, but there was ‘spirit’.

“Och yes girl” he said, as if he didn’t need to be reminded at all “There is spirit”.  Then he gestured to a Carribean woman who had appeared from around the corner and was leaning over the outdoor pub tables one by one, trying to interest boutique beer sipping Gen Y couples in the Bible she was holding.

“Thats just shite.”

I started to say something but Tom continued as if I wasn’t there

“I go married very young. We moved out of Edinburgh, to a village where I was working on the docks. But every Friday, I went back to Edinburgh and stayed there with friends drinkin’, come back Monday morning.  Acted like I was still single. Every weekend.

“Seven years.  She put up wi that for seven years.”

He shook his head, still incredulous at his own idiotic behaviour and his wife’s lengthy period of putting up with it, decades later.

“But we had two great kids.”

Then added by way of summing up

“It cost me one shilling, tuppence to get married.  It cost me twenty seven thousand pounds to get divorced. You up for another pint girl?”

I concurred.  When Tom reappeared with our drinks, he sat down and continued.

“My sister writes me a few months ago.  She’s got breast cancer. Started the treatment, wattsit the…?”

“Chemotherapy?” I offered “I had breast cancer and….”

Tom continued “Och, chemotherapy.  It took me three weeks to pick up the phone and call her.  Three weeks.”

He looked at me then.  “I didn’t know what to say.  I just didn’t know what to say.  What do you say?”

I just shook my head, knowing that there was nothing I should be saying.

“I called her.  And I hadn’t even had a drink!” he chuckled with dark, ironic pride.  “I just called her sober and said ‘How you doin’?  And I cracked a joke.  And you know, it was ok.”

I said “She just needs to know you’re there for her.  Thats all.”

And this time he heard me, and nodded.  “Och.  You want to come with me to the Prince Albert?”

I said I had best be going, and Tom offered to walk me home, as it was on the way to the Albert.

On the way through East Dulwich Victorian terraced lined streets, the sunrays occasionally shot out of the low London clouds, this time like insights out of an afternoon of beer soaked reverie.  As we wound up Bellenden Rd to Peckham, Tom told me about his days as a ‘dust collector’ (i.e. garbage man). I said that didn’t seem like a bad job and he said och, the pay used to be good girl, and you could get drunk before noon.

We got to the gates of my flat, and I extended my hand in thanks, but we ended up giving each other a brief hug as that seemed more appropriate.  Tom repeated his co-ordinates ‘From the Prince Albert, until 7.30, then The Greyhound, if you want to drop down later’.  And I said I’ll see how I’m feeling.

Then I swayed up the concrete steps, armed with my keys to attack the front door on my scrumpied legs.

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