I first met John on a brutally crowded train from Birmingham to Devon. It turned out our reserved seats had been commandeered by two members of the same shrill family from Tamworth and that got us to talking. He could not have looked more out of place, standing there in the corridor, a lopsided toothy look on his face, somewhere in the no-man’s land between grin and grimace, one long arm leaning on the flimsy partition wall of our 2017 Intercity Express as a succession of our fellow passengers ducked under his jagged elbow and endured the blocked toilet beside us. I enquired about the purpose of his journey. “Four-stroke petrol rotivator,” he said, nodding proudly in the direction of a metal machine sticking antisocially out of the baggage area, one of whose long metal handles was lodged under the shoulder blade of a small Korean woman sitting on the carriage floor. “Picked it up from Ludlow yesterday.” We soon became further united by a shared mission, to reach Tiverton Parkway, and, after instructing John regarding which button to press to make the electronic doors open, I offered him a lift to his home village which, conveniently, was just a mile and a half south of my own: an invitation he accepted, loping along the platform beside me. He admitted it had been his first time on the railways, and would probably be his last, but that was much later, after I’d been allowed into his inner circle and discovered many far more interesting aspects to his character: his unlikely talent for disco dancing, his self-punishing standards of coherence and mood when it came to making mix CDs for friends and the beautiful cardigans he would crochet in his downtime on the farm then sell online under a variety of pseudonyms. The gangly shapes he threw, of course, generally only became known to those of us who had shared more than three beers with him at a time. He was that rare thing: a properly good drunk. Maybe one of only three I’ve known in a very full lifetime. No brackish moods, no talking your ear off about his ex-wife or someone who was in arrears on their payments for the rent of one of his orchards, just enthusiastic dancing, enveloping masculine hugs and quality puns. Of course, there was a flipside, and only those of us who saw John the morning after were aware of it. Those breakfasts when, whichever tactic I used to attempt to lighten the mood, nothing really worked, and that gnashing grin which had seemed so representative of untrammelled existential lust at the chime of midnight now seemed so awkward and doubtful, as if repeatedly posing the question, “Is this all the joy that can truly be found, prior to death?” I don’t know why we drifted – you do from people, without really intending to, sometimes – but it might have been something to do with the one-sided nature of our relationship, the way John never asked me anything about what was going on in my life, his failure to ever learn my actual name and instead refer to me solely as “Train Boy” in a commemoration of our initial encounter that gradually devolved from touching to grating. It also hurt when, after I humbly announced via our three village Whatsapp group that I had become engaged to my now wife Sandra, all he said in reply, in front of everyone, was “Speed camera on the A30 today: watch out if you are on the eastbound carriageaway.” There was another attempt, on my part, at a reconciliation, a year or two later, when I texted to apologise for being so sketchy at staying in touch and tell him about my forthcoming exhibition at the gallery in Paris and the death of my spaniel, who he had always had a lot of time for, but I heard nothing back. That cut deep, to be perfectly honest, but it’s possible I could have just caught him one on one of his flat mornings.
Eric came over, in that stolid way of his, and painted my house for a competitive hourly rate when I was getting the place ready to sell: those fiddly bits I had omitted during my own redecorating binge, being nervous about my potential to mess them up. Mostly gloss. Balustrades, banisters, the more intricate interior doors. He told me I had a lot of houseplants, the extra bit of the observation – “for a man” – lingering unsaid in the part of the kitchen separating us. One time, I arrived in the living room to find him angrily waving a fist at a swinging pendant lampshade that he’d decided had deeply wronged him in a personal way by being placed at roughly head height. We got on with our day and swept the inside under a nearby rug (he also implied I had a number of these that made him uncomfortable). In time, I learned, in a roundabout way, that Eric had become estranged from his son, Ed, a nail technician. I tried not to poke my nose in and offer an opinion on a situation whose nuances I knew nothing of but I suppose I did making a few feelings known, in an indirect way. “I always think it’s good to swallow your pride and tell someone you love them before it’s too late, if you possibly can,” I said at one point. Eric appraised my face and chewed on what appeared to be a stringy bit of an M&S pastrami sandwich. “See those fascias up there?” he replied, finally. “ I can give those a lick of eggshell tomorrow too, if I bring my ladder. Get everything looking really bright and smart.” I didn’t see him again until the following autumn, when I was walking the semi-industrial edgelands above town and noticed him tightly hugging his knees and crying in a dank culvert as unfeeling traffic whizzed by above him on the main trunk road towards the business park. At least, I think it was him. I don’t mean to be reductive or flippant but he did look like quite a lot of guys.
Darren was my main commissioning editor at the Guardian for a couple of years. I liked his clothes and got on better with him than I did with any of my other bosses. I know he’d gone into the profession as a way of rebelling against his family – a clan of swan-hunting fascists from that underrated part of Leicestershire that bleeds gently into south Lincolnshire – but, to be honest, it never seemed to me to be the smoothest fit. “Write about anything you fucking like,” he told me on numerous occasions. “Your perception of your own aorta, stoats, the Ottoman Empire, women’s knees, the water table, Paraguay. Check my face for botheredness: do I look like I give a shit? Just have 2000 words on my desk tomorrow morning. Or the day after, if you like.” No writer relishes freedom more than me, but I always got the sense that the open-ended nature of the assignments was less about his innate trust in me as a writer and more about his wandering, extremely practical mind and utter disdain for journalism. During morning editorial meetings, as he yawingly discussed the overnight news stories that he supposed we’d better react to, there would always be an assortment of weatherproof sockets, duct spacers, conduit tape, and polycarbonate double pattress boxes at his feet, and it was very obvious just how painful he was finding it not to devote his undivided attention to them. He once made a two hour trip to my house just to fit a new kinetic doorbell with plug-in chime, changing trains four times along the way, and refused to accept the six pounds fifty I offered him for his trouble. To this day, he remains the only human I have seen fly. It happened one night when the office was quiet and there was only the two of us there and a veteran Film Critic, who had fallen asleep on his keyboard. Darren didn’t do it in a big or showy way, just raising himself eight or nine inches off the ground, unsupported, gently flapping the sleeves of that day’s colourful rainwear and gliding across the space that separated my work station from his. I am still not sure if it was natural or there was some kind of complex electrical system involved under all that polyester. Whatever the case, it remains as impressive an example of calm self belief as I’ve ever witnessed.
DANNY AND TREVOR
Danny and I were briefly at college together. I don’t think anything really solid bonded us, save for the fact we caught the same bus, due to being the only two people in class who lived way out in the sticks. “So: A New Hope or Empire?” he said by way of introduction, plonking himself and a badge-defaced rucksack down beside me in a way that made me unsure as to which was heavier. “I mean, obviously I’m not even including Jedi as that’s nobody’s favourite.” Over the ensuing months, I tried to make my position clear, telling him that, as much as I’d enjoyed Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Blake’s 7 and the more illustrious films of George Lucas as a kid, I was no sci-fi aficionado, but it didn’t seem to get through. “It’s that lad again,” my mum would say, handing me the phone. “The one we saw at the bus stop, scratching his arse, dressed like an astronaut.” And there Danny would be, no “Hello” or “How are you doing”, just launching straight in with “If it really came to the crunch, who would you prefer to do it with: a really hot female Dalek, or The Gorgon from Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon?” Trevor was different: a little bit sci fi, but more of a Monty Python nerd, constantly with the silly voices. I was glad when he joined our class and he and Danny started hanging out together and Danny really had no need to feel as apologetic about it as he obviously did. It took the pressure off me, and ultimately I wanted to see Danny happy, which in all honesty I don’t think he was when we first met. Later there was a story about the pair of them stealing a tractor together and joyriding it through the local town, high on glue, but people love a story, and I am old and wise enough to believe everything I hear. Also I can find no confirmation of the incident online, despite extensive searching.
Bob followed me around for almost half a decade in total, typically around three yards in my wake in everything I did. It was a tad annoying at first but I got used to it. I’d be out with a friend, playing tennis or geocaching, and sometimes it would take a whole hour before they noticed Bob, and when they did it generally didn’t occur to them that he could be my guest. “Don’t look, but there is a weird guy hanging around,” they would whisper. “Shall we call the police?” I would reassure them that it was just Bob and he was 95% harmless. It was not that he didn’t want to get involved, just that he knew the very real dangers if he did, because once he started talking he wouldn’t stop, and that would tend to make his neck come loose. “You should see someone about that,” I told him, the first time it almost completely fell off. “Maybe there is a way they can put it right, and it could change your life quite significantly.” But he would always maintain that he was fine and change the subject, his tone getting that little bit testier each time I mentioned it. Don’t get me wrong, though. He could actually be really sweet, and did a lot of gardening for me circa 1998 which I still feel bad about not remunerating him for, but there’s only so long you can watch a guy neglecting himself to that kind of extent and stubbornly refusing the advice of those who care about him, and I have to admit that when I relocated, about six years into our acquaintance, I failed to leave him a forwarding address. Even though I’m now a whole day’s journey from the places where the two of us used to knock about, and by this point we are no doubt both very different people, when I walk naked from the shower in search of some clean nightwear at dusk there is still part of me that expects to look out the bedroom window and see him eagerly standing there in the garden staring up at me, one tired arm half raised in greeting, a blankly mellow look on his face and his crotch slightly thrust out in that way it always seemed to be which I knew he meant no harm by but truly wish he could have altered, for the benefit of everyone, including himself.
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