Friday, 13 December 2013

Thank You, Santa!

It was the run-up to Christmas 1988, a weekday afternoon at the Pentagon shopping centre in not-even-remotely-sunny Chatham, Kent. I didn't want to be there. It was cold and had begun to get dark. I had been working for Royal Mail since summer, and my labours had impressed upon me that afternoons were precious, something to be cherished and not to be wasted on people I didn't really like. I didn't really like Aiden Bibby, but thus far I hadn't had much say in the matter.

Aiden Bibby was a friend of Glenn, at least in so much as he could be considered a medical condition that Glenn had unwittingly passed on to me. I think Glenn had contracted him either from living in the same house, or maybe from knowing the guy in a social context back in the days before he'd become a complete pain in the arse. I met Aiden Bibby whilst visiting Glenn and his wife Jayne when they lived on Meadowbank Road; and because I hadn't actually said leave me alone, you hairy fool out loud, he'd assimilated me into his platonic spider web of association. At the time I had similarly long hair, so he probably saw me as a potentially kindred spirit, somehow failing to notice my general hatred of marijuana, narcotics, psychedelic music, hippies, and the second half of the 1960s.

I had lived in Glencoe Road, Chatham for about a year, a year characterised as my first out and alone in the big wide world. I had finished my degree and was ready to become famous, although that didn't seem to be happening. I was socially awkward and, I suppose, a bit stupid and therefore disposed towards expecting the best of people. This was more than enough for Aiden Bibby, and soon he was regularly dropping around for tea, intruding upon afternoons when I would otherwise either have rested or drawn cartoons that no-one would read.

Knock knock knock.

I'd peer out of the window and there would be his stupid face grinning up at me, a huge pink egg that had been covered in glue and rolled around the floor of a barber's shop, little round John Lennon glasses to complete the effect. He would enter my one room bedsit, hulking and awkward in denim waistcoat, crappy trainers and tattered flares, still grinning for no good reason and always looking like he was trying to find a way to say sorry. He would sit and talk and I would listen, and most of the time it felt like a Cheech and Chong record without the jokes. He told me about a girl he'd seen waiting at the bus stop from time to time. He was fairly certain she had smiled at him and therefore believed he was in with a chance, but wasn't sure how best to proceed. I was hardly qualified to give advice, although even I could tell that his was a lost cause; and of course I said nothing.

One evening he ended up staying the night because he was scared of going back to his flat. He'd had an argument with one of the other tenants and it seemed the other guy had become violent and threatening. I didn't have the full story, but I could easily see how that might have happened.

'I'll just read,' Aiden Bibby told me, still grinning and settling into my armchair, rolling himself a cigarette and reaching for a stack of comics.

'Okay,' I said, wondering how this oaf had become my problem. I pulled the covers over and pretended I was sleeping in a tent so as to put some notional distance between myself and my unwanted guest. I lasted about two hours of him turning pages and chuckling at the antics of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, but it became too irritating and I needed my sleep.

'Do you think you could go home?' It was now three in the morning.

'I'll be quiet.' His face fell. Somehow he hadn't anticipated this.

'I can't sleep with some bloke sat reading comics in my room and I have to be up for work in two hours.' Resentment had built to the strength required for honesty, and my words had become an irresistible force. Incredibly he left, shuffling off into the night, back to the house shared with a person to whom he owed money, or whose refrigerated goods he had eaten, or whatever it was that had inspired the argument.

I had come to understand that Aiden Bibby was a friend in need, a human sponge absorbing energy from those around and forever requiring validation. I have a feeling his father may have beaten him, which is terrible if true, but still wasn't enough to warrant my unconditional sympathy. My heart would sink as I saw him approach, having spotted me from across the street. I would find myself making a mental calculation of how many hours I would have to sacrifice before I could reasonably expect to get away. His eyebrows would wiggle like those of a cartoon character, the kind of facial greeting that also serves for hey man, have you got any - you know...

I recall one occasion when I'd been sat in Gruts, the café frequented by at least a few of my friends and acquaintances, people in various bands and so on.

'Hey man.'

Aiden Bibby was suddenly there, sitting himself at my table, as incongruous as Spiderman turning up in a Charlie Brown comic strip. I remembered that I had excused myself from an afternoon drink in some pub by telling him that I planned to meet other friends in Gruts. I was playing chess, probably either against Prez, Tim Webster, or Alun Jones - one of the usual gang. These people didn't know Aiden Bibby, and I envied them. There was no use pretending that I didn't know him as they had heard him greet me, then watched as he sat at my table and proceeded to roll himself a ciggie, looking all around and grinning.

'This is a pretty cool place.'

Gerald, the proprietor approached our table. 'Yes, mate?'

Aiden Bibby waved a hand in the air. 'Nothing for me. I'm just here to—' he made a vague gesture but could not complete the sentence, suddenly aware he had presumed too much on the hospitality of our host. My head sank into my hands.

'Out!' Gerald pointed to the exit as though addressing a dog he had discovered going through the bins at the back.

Aiden Bibby stood up, protesting, but his defence was vague.

Gerald now held open the door. 'This is a café not a homeless shelter. If you're not buying you can piss off.'

I wanted to laugh because this was the tone of the sort of thing I would have liked to say to Aiden Bibby, but I lacked courage and humour was not the dominant element of this situation. I stood.

'You're all right. You don't have to go.' Gerald seemed a little surprised, even concerned, which came as a relief. He understood that Aiden Bibby was a medical condition, something from which I was suffering, not someone I had deliberately introduced to his café.

I paid my tab and went, offering some vague excuse, then followed after Aiden Bibby. Somehow the relief of his expulsion was not the comfort it should have been. I had no respect for this man and yet still I worried over what he might think of me. I had a paradoxical urge to show some solidarity with this underdog whilst knowing his critics invariably had a point. I could not bare the thought that he might imagine me a traitor, still sat in Gruts laughing and raising a mug of tea to toast the exile of the hated hairy one, which was of course a fairly plausible scenario.

I caught up.

He was angry, ranting to himself.

He had not understood why a man who ran a café would not  happily allow complete strangers to just hang out without buying a cup of tea. He lived in a world of joints passed around the front rooms of complete strangers, listening to Gong or Pink Floyd, everyone united in mutual appreciation of a plant. He whined about the unfairness and the way he had been spoken to, clearly without realising that my sympathies lay entirely with Gerald.

Why do I know this arsehole?, I wondered to myself for the millionth time. Yet my friendship, such as it was, was nevertheless appreciated, I suppose by virtue of my being one of the few people lacking the fortitude to just tell him to piss off. This appreciation was to be expressed in a Christmas gift.

I had been on my way to somewhere else, and Aiden Bibby had seen me before I saw him, and now for some reason we were in the Pentagon shopping centre. I stood outside WHSmiths, waiting for Aiden Bibby to emerge, resenting the delay, and mystified by the fact that I had not simply taken the opportunity to be on my way.

'Do you like the Monkees?' He grinned, as he always did, at last emerging and bustling me away from the door then walking quickly towards the High Street exit.

It was a strange question, completely divorced of context; he may as well have asked whether I liked the Andromeda galaxy for all the sense it made. I didn't actively dislike the Monkees as such, but in the same way that I don't have anything bad to say about Arnulf of Carinthia, King of East Francia from 887 to 899.

'They're okay I suppose.'

'Happy Christmas!' The hand that had been secreted within his jacket emerged to present me with a pre-recorded cassette of The Best of the Monkees.

'Did you just nick that?'

He nodded, and told me of other goods he had managed to pilfer from the store, presents for Glenn and Jayne and others. He was doing his Christmas shoplifting.

You shouldn't have, I would have said had I thought to do so.

I listened to the cassette a few times. It was okay, providing you like the Monkees.

The Christmas after that I had moved to the city of Coventry, a long way from Aiden Bibby, whom I neither saw nor heard from ever again, and that was a better present. I still have the cassette somewhere because I felt sorry for it as I sometimes do for inanimate objects - a mediocre product recorded on a disposable medium, the stolen gift of a loser given to someone who didn't want it; and every time I hear Last Train to Clarksville or Pleasant Valley Sunday, at least now I smile and feel glad, reminded that I am no longer living in Chatham in the late eighties, hounded by a friendless man.

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