Friday, 8 March 2013

What I Learned from Being Punched in the Face

Although this hasn't been true of late, life can sometimes appear very grim and I have generally found this is often down to my not listening to enough rap music. Of course, my eviction from the flat in which I had lived for a decade back in 2006 can't be blamed directly on a dip in my listening habits with regard to the Ice Cube back catalogue; but as a soundtrack to daily existence, rap really gets you through the tough bits, and the surlier and more offensive, the better it serves as a sympathetic if slightly volatile imaginary friend.

I listened to one hell of a lot of rap whilst working as a postman for Royal Mail. When a manager half your age tells you that your refusal to work unpaid for an hour past your official finishing time may result in a formal warning for delaying the mail, rap is your friend, or if not actually your friend, at least someone who is just as pissed off.

One day, as I was sorting mail, Graham wandered up to me, as was sometimes his habit when at a loose end.

'What's that you're listening to?' he asked, eyeing my CD Walkman.

'Black Rob,' I told him.

'I've never heard of him.'

'You know Rob Grieg,' I said, referring to the young postman of that name assigned to the Forest Hill end of Lordship Lane. 'Well he's a bit like that, except he's black.'

I don't think Graham really got the joke, or possibly he just didn't think it was funny, but it was probably a miracle that we were talking at all so I didn't press the issue.

When I first transferred to East Dulwich sorting office back in 1993 or thereabouts, I found myself working next to Graham. He struck me as odd and a little manic, and I found him slightly abrasive. He wasn't rude, but he laughed at certain jokes more forcefully than seemed appropriate. Being new to the office and thus keen to avoid making enemies so soon, I tried not to let myself become irritated by him; and I would have succeeded were it not for his laugh, a booming hurhurhurhurhur that you could hear just about wherever you were in the building, usually in response to things that never seemed particularly funny. I tried hard, but I just couldn't get past that hurhurhurhurhur. It brought out the worst in me.

I took to echoing Graham's laughter as some sort of coping mechanism. 'Hurhurhurhurhur,' he would guffaw from some unseen location on the other side of the sorting frames in response to Ronnie Jeff observing that someone or other was a bit of an arsehole. 'Hurhurhurhurhur,' I would repeat in the assumption that, being unable to see me, Graham would have no idea who was responsible.

I found another reason to resent Graham. He was an almost supernaturally fast worker, and this was why he so often had time to wander the office asking about listening habits whilst the rest of us hadn't even got around to sorting through our packet bags. I never found out how he did it, but I assume he was hyperactive by some definition. Any walk he was on, he would finish at almost twice the average speed; which was fair enough except it made the rest of us look bad. This also meant that any walk to which he was assigned for any length of time would usually end up with a few streets added because he'd made it seem too easy. We would mutter and grumble amongst ourselves, lamenting all those once cushy routes which had been expanded to unreasonable length because Graham just had to get back to the office before everyone else so he could stand around gurgling hurhurhurhurhur and doing that weird thing with his hands - like high speed counting using just fingers, not quite the full Lady Macbeth but along those lines.

It wasn't that we didn't get on so much as I never knew what to say to him. We didn't have anything in common aside from moaning about work, and given that a percentage of my moaning would have related directly to his presence, that particular vehicle had limited mileage. Sometimes he would mention listening to Led Zeppelin or dub reggae or something very much outside the norm in terms of the general musical tastes of our office, but it wasn't really enough to fuel anything beyond the most casual of conversations.

In September 2001 a few of us went out for a drink at The Foresters* one Saturday evening. Dave was moving on to better things and so this was his leaving drink, and I guess about fifteen of us showed up: Terry, Andre, Steve, Joel, both Dannies, Geoff - who had most likely been in the pub since midday and hadn't got around to leaving - and of course Graham.

This was awkward. I had been avoiding Graham at work, knowing myself too well and how easily irritated I can get. Some people have pointed out that I have a bit of a sharp tongue and am prone to acerbic commentary, which I didn't really believe until my mother told me how her friends used to be scared to visit when I was a child apparently due to the mighty force of my prepubescent sarcasm. Anyway, we dutifully observed the tradition of each sticking a tenner in a communal pint glass which would serve as a pot and thus ensure no-one need know the misery of being able to walk in a straight line by the end of the evening. The first drinks arrived and we started, embarking upon the customary slagging off of those who hadn't bothered to show. I wasn't thrilled to be sat at the same table as Graham, not least because he insisted on talking to me, cracking jokes and being annoying. My responses were short and functional, conversational place-holders which failed to compensate for the fact that Graham, regardless of perceived faults, actually wasn't an idiot.

Unfortunately, as well as not being an idiot, he was additionally able to down ridiculous quantities of the sort of booze which often leads to concerns voiced loudly and without inhibition followed closely by a punching of available faces, offending or otherwise. After a while, he grew quiet, both sullen and conspicuously refreshed*, and I assumed he would probably just go home. He didn't, and at the end of the evening as we all made to leave, he at last decided to voice his objections in the strongest possible terms.

'So you think I'm a cunt, do you?'

He gave me a slap and was immediately restrained by the others.

I feigned craven innocence, shocked, concerned only to learn what I had done to give offence whilst experiencing a sudden and chilling insight of my absolutely having deserved it; and although the it in question had felt like a slap, nothing worse than you would dish out to a mosquito, I had - against expectation - a black eye the next day. One of the Dannies took Graham around the corner, launching him off in the general direction of home, and I headed back up Lordship Lane with Andre, Joel and Terry; and everyone was on my side, with the possible exception of myself.

What the hell was Graham's problem? they asked, incredulous. I tried to explain that I'd been relentlessly returning the hurhurhurhurhur since at least January, and I'd known all along that I really should have just risen above my own intolerance given that Graham wasn't actually harming anyone, but by then I'd had an entire three pints of weak, fizzy lager and the case for Graham's defence just came out as a series of burps.

I woke the next day to the previously mentioned black eye and an awareness of having annoyed someone so much as to inspire violence. It was sobering.

I called one of the Dannies and got Graham's address, which I knew to be elsewhere in East Dulwich, just not the house number. Danny told me to leave it as Graham probably wouldn't even remember, but I went anyway, reasoning that I owed the guy an apology regardless of his recollection of the previous evening.

He came to the door, apparently pleasantly surprised to see me, not the faintest suggestion of either hangover or lingering resentment.

'Listen, Graham,' I said, 'I deserved that, and I'm here to say sorry for the way I've been acting of late.'

He laughed an amiable hurhurhurhurhur and made a dismissive gesture. 'I'm the one who should say sorry, mate. I was on the cider all day and I hadn't had anything to eat. I should know better by now.'

We shook hands, and every snarky opinion I'd ever formed regarding his character was immediately revealed as my own bullshit. We didn't exactly become buddies after that, but I no longer found him so abrasive, and we were at least able to hold a conversation. Years later he was absent from work for a few months for mysterious reasons that resolved into his having been stabbed by his own father. This seemed to confirm the conclusion I had drawn: Graham probably didn't have a great life, and most of it seemed to be spent either in the pub or at work. He had drinking buddies, but I've no idea if they were friends as I would understand the term; and the latest sour cherry upon the cake of Graham's existence was that his own father had sent him to the emergency ward.

I might have understood some of this picture much earlier had I bothered to use my brain, but instead I took the piss because his laughter got on my nerves, like he really needed that on top of whatever else he didn't have going for him.

Just two days after being awarded my somewhat deserved black eye, I went to spend a couple of weeks in Mexico City. Airline officials frowned at my passport photograph, and then at the blanco who had apparently recently been contestant in a face punching competition, but no-one said a word. I've found the best way to get around in Mexico is to avoid looking too much like a tourist, or like anyone who might be worth bothering with - as though the cheapest hotel is the most you can afford but you've still made your best effort to appear respectable - your best not being that great. My suits were from Oxfam, so it wasn't like I had to dress any different, and they did the job. The Mexicans to whom I spoke assumed I was probably German, or I was involved in some sort of mediocre business, but no-one seemed to think it likely that I was there on holiday. I also like to think that my walking around with a black eye helped in some way, perhaps conveying the impression that I got into scraps all the time and would therefore not be worth the effort.

Graham wasn't exactly a friend, but he ended up teaching me a huge lesson probably without realising it, and hopefully I'm less of a tit these days as a result. To some extent this does seem to have thus far been the proverbial story of my life - that which you most need is often to be found in the most unlikely place, and is rarely that which you think you need; and sometimes the thing you need turns out to be a punch in the face, which probably brings us back to rap...


The Foresters: A once decent pub since reimagineered as the sort of twee yuppie wine trough full of laptop wielding tossers that has been driving regular people out of East Dulwich since at least 2005.

Refreshed: Colloquial euphemism for an advanced state of inebriation, for example: Gary, having finished off his ninth cold drink of the evening, was now so refreshed that he could barely stand.

1 comment:

  1. Refusal to work more house than it says in your contract - for nowt - as a sign of not doing your job 'properly' is a real bugbear of mine : used entirely by managers whose real name *should* be Peter Principle.

    Obviously, the rest of this is very interesting, but I can be quite single-minded in my annoyance at that particular tactic...