Friday, 31 January 2014

The Man Who Liked What He Saw

I would guess it was sometime around October 1990 that I took a room in a shared house in Boyne Road, Lewisham. For legal reasons the place had been divided into separate floors, each with its own kitchen and bathroom, amounting to a total of five rooms all sharing the same front door. I was upstairs with the largest room of the house overlooking a quiet, moderately leafy street. It wasn't ideal, but I was in my twenties and that was what I was able to afford at the time, plus my landlord was an amiable Indian and I got on well with him. This was an important consideration because my previous landlord had been an absolute tosser.

Another consideration was the people with whom I shared facilities. In Chatham these had been an extremely elderly lady whose door would slam shut like the cork barrier of a trapdoor spider whenever I emerged from my room, presenting the slightly eerie realisation that for some reason she had the shared hall and stairwell under surveillance at all other times; and an ageing and stumbling alcoholic who would grunt to himself and block the toilet with bloated drinker's turds, as my friend Carl identified them when he came to visit. Needless to say, it had been kind of depressing. It's not that I necessarily wanted to hang out with my housemates, but it would have been nice to live with people who didn't provide such a vivid and constant reminder of one's own steady progress towards the grave.

Happily my housemates in Boyne Road were around my own age. Krishnan was a beefy Sri Lankan who spoke very little English, but never gave me occasion to grumble and so we got on as well as we could in the absence of a common language; and Freddy Okello who occupied the room adjacent to mine and was from some place in Africa. Twenty-five years later and my best guess is that it was probably Kenya, having long since forgotten what he told me. Freddy seemed initially a little sullen or even suspicious, and it startled me to realise that all the black people I knew had either parents or grandparents from the Caribbean. I had never before met anyone from Africa. With hindsight I would say I like Africans as a general principle, or at least I liked those I met in London, but of these Freddy was the very first, the mysterious ambassador for a culture about which I knew next to nothing.

Amongst at least a few people with whom I worked at Royal Mail, Africans had a poor reputation and were viewed as lazy, dishonest and untrustworthy - burdened with all the usual sins that tend to be unfairly heaped on members of a conspicuously non-native population. Whilst the Africans I encountered tended, rather oddly, to conform to a certain type despite hailing from a number of different countries, they were no more lazy, dishonest or untrustworthy than anyone else; and generally they were often blessed with a disconcertingly cheery disposition, a disarming directness emphasised by English spoken with more or less equal stress on each syllable. My favourite was a tiny little man called Alfred, of indeterminate age and resembling a walnut.

'I have never been so depressed in my life,' he would explain with a beatific smile that turned out to be just how his face was made. 'I think I will go home and kill myself.' This was simply Alfred's sense of humour, a reasonable response to working conditions at Royal Mail during the Crozier years. At other times his voice would ring across the sorting office, an indignant upper register protesting how back in Africa he had been the king of his village and was not being paid sufficient quota of goats for such demanding work. It was funny, a safety valve evolved from sarcastic retorts to the casually racist. I found it difficult to understand why anyone would dislike Alfred, although some did.

Returning to Freddy, ice was broken when he realised the new tenant had no strong objection to his cadging the occasional cigarette. At the time I was in the habit of making my own from rolling tobacco, which provided an action he could mime in preference to asking out loud and thus, I suppose, acknowledge his scrounging ways; I didn't mind. Usually I was home from work around midday or early afternoon, and although tired, I was generally glad of the company. The knock would preface Freddy grinning around the edge of the door, then entering as though sneaking in like he was late for class, rolling an imaginary cigarette hopefully between his fingers.

'Sure,' I would nod and head for the kettle. 'Come in and sit.'

Over the first few months at Boyne Road I built up a vague picture of the story of his life, although his accent was quite strong and I sometimes found it difficult to follow. He was pursuing some business course at Lewisham college, quite obviously on the insistence of his father. His family now lived in west London. He was the eldest sibling with a quota of brothers and sisters that ran to double figures, and he was taking this course having been told he would soon be head of the family.

My mind boggled at the thought of this. I considered the slightly scruffy stranger sat in my room politely smoking my cigarettes, the worn sweater and his hair always in need of a trim. 'What age are you, Freddy?'

'I am twenty-two years old.'

I realised that this explained the impression I had of his being a not particularly happy bunny. He smiled often, but like the more recent Alfred, this was apparently just how his face was made. He expressed no displeasure with his lot in life, but frequently seemed preoccupied, apparently resigned to making the best of it. His ambitions were vague, no more specific than to do well.

'Look at this guy!' He would point to a photograph in a copy of yesterday's Evening Standard, usually some businessman or entrepreneur. 'He must make a hell of money!'

The first time I heard Freddy use this expression, I tried to set him straight, suggesting that he meant a hell of a lot of money. He didn't seem to follow what I was saying, and continued referring to the fiscal abundance of his dreams as a hell of money. I wondered if maybe this was some cultural quirk, an unfamiliar pattern formed from what he meant and what he said failing to meet in the middle. Being young and fairly stupid, I had assumed that most people, given the chance, would probably think pretty much as I did, and I worked with the assumption that this was as true of Freddy as anyone.

Inevitably I quickly discovered this to be wrong. I had been reading a magazine article about Cosey Fanni Tutti, performance artist and former member of the arguably musical group Throbbing Gristle. Freddy helped himself to my tobacco and I went to fill my kettle from the bathroom, then he picked up the magazine and began to read. The photographs showed Cosey Fanni Tutti performing naked in some gallery, engaging in the sort of routinely transgressive behaviour in which performance artists tend to engage.

'Who is this woman?' Freddy was horrified. 'Is she a prostitute?'

'She's an artist!' My hackles rose. I'd enjoyed a brief correspondence with Cosey Fanni Tutti some years before, just stuff about art and music and the records she made with her husband, Chris Carter, so I made it my job to take the insult personally. Also I was still to grow out of the idea of artists as a special order set above the common herd of humanity, and that they were here to show us the way, even if that way was to be signposted by a broken deck chair marinating in a bathtub of tomato soup.

Freddy didn't buy it. 'She is an artist? Then why is she—'

Words had failed him. He held out the magazine as though fearing contamination, like he too might end up rolling around on the floor of an art gallery, crying and wailing as someone emptied buckets of jam over him. I mumbled some rubbish about pushing back the boundaries of art, but I hadn't been in from work very long. I was tired and I didn't really care that much. This was not something over which Freddy and I were likely to see eye to eye.

The months passed, and suddenly the two rooms on the ground floor were occupied, having been vacant when I first arrived. Freddy and I watched from the upper landing as two girls and a young man moved in. This being the 1990s, he was either a DJ or he worked as a reviewer for some magazine aimed at DJs. In any case, a lot of records came for him in the mail, house or early techno twelve inches he would play late into the evening, and all with the exact same beat pumping up through my floorboards - sixteen beats to the bar, and always with the bass doubled up on the final hit.

Bom. Bom. Bom. Bom.
Bom. Bom. Bom. Bom.
Bom. Bom. Bom. Bom.
Bom. Bom. Bom. Bom-Bom.

Over and over.

I had a brief conversation with him and expressed polite curiosity about his work. I liked some of the earlier acid tracks from Detroit and Chicago, so I wasn't entirely ignorant. He admitted that the original genre had bifurcated in so many directions that even he was no longer able to keep tabs on it all. I found the late night music a little annoying, but I was young and less easily aggravated, and only once did I traipse down the stairs in my dressing gown, groggy at two in the morning, to growl that I was a reasonable man who had to be up for work at five. It did the job, so I suppose I must have appeared sufficiently terrifying.

One of the two women was the girlfriend of the DJ, and the other was her friend. I rarely saw them, and so never formed an opinion regarding their existence beyond that I probably wouldn't have much to say to them. Freddy on the other hand expressed quite an interest. As he exited the bathroom one evening, a glance down the stairs towards the ground floor provided him with a vision of the two of them as they stood talking.

Next day he chuckled as he drank my tea and cadged another cigarette. 'They were wearing just T-shirts, I tell you. They were standing where I could see them!'

I tried to imagine two youngish, allegedly attractive women living in a house of unknown males of exotic nationality. Perhaps they had decided to wander around without underwear trusting that if they heard movement upstairs they would be able to hide in time. It seemed unlikely.

'What? You mean to say they—' This time words failed me, so I gestured, waving hands around my hips to mime an absence of knickers.

Freddy grinned like the caricature of a scheming old time salesman. 'I could see everything.'

I still didn't really believe him, and assumed that he had rushed from bathroom to bedroom and imagined some of the details in poor lighting.

'They didn't see you?'

'No.' He looked away, new thoughts crowding onto his face. He made a noise of obscure pleasure. 'I like the twin peaks.'

He chuckled to himself.

'Twin peaks?' I'd never seen the television show and was confused by what seemed like a change of subject.

Freddy held hands out in front of himself, rubbing fingers and thumbs together to tweak an imaginary pair of nipples, basking in the warmth of his own lurid thoughts.

The next day he was less happy. He seemed lost as he came into my room. 'I could not sleep. I was awake all through the night thinking about those twin peaks. What do you think I should do?'

I thought he should probably forget about it. In an ideal world he might introduce himself to our downstairs neighbours, quickly assess their availability and then proceed accordingly; but I had met our downstairs neighbours in so much as I had spoken to the DJ. I was fairly sure they would regard Freddy as some weird, crazy African, and as I realised this I saw that we had a great deal more in common than I first believed. We were both awkward figures forever stood on the periphery of where we wanted to be, except neither of us had yet quite worked out where that was.

'What do you think I should do?'

I guessed he really felt the need to know what I thought.

'Just relax and see what happens.'

I hoped that nothing would happen, but didn't want to say anything too discouraging because as a woolly liberal I feared it would sound like stay away from our white women, you!

Freddy failed to emerge from his room the next day.

The day after, I learned that the storm had broken. Freddy still wanted to know what I thought he should do, but now he seemed to expect advice along the lines of changing his name or leaving the country. Something had happened. He tried to describe the events of that fateful evening, as they would have said in the television dramatisation, but the account was halting, requiring assembly as he went along. He was looking at the floor, and he sounded as though he'd been sobbing. It took us ten minutes to get past the slightly horrifying assertion that he hadn't meant to do it, but hadn't been able to stop himself, whatever it was. I felt myself pulled down into a bewildering potential maelstrom of police enquiries and tabloid journalists to whom I would reveal that he had just seemed like an ordinary bloke. When the jigsaw image of what Freddy actually had done was assembled over the course of the next half hour, the events of that fateful evening were thankfully not so severe as anticipated.

Freddy, once again commuting from bath to bedroom with a towel around his waist, had gazed hopefully down from the landing and been rewarded with a second vision of our two female ground floor neighbours once again in conversation outside of their rooms wearing nothing but T-shirts.

'I like what I see!,' Freddy had proclaimed loudly with, I imagined, his usual robustly African emphasis, no syllable taking precedence over another. It had probably sounded much like some Biblical king expressing his most heartfelt approval. The neighbours looked up, horrified, then scurried into one of the rooms; and that was it.

'Do you think they will call the police?' His head moved from side to side, seeming almost punch-drunk with the horror of his own deeds.

'No. They would have done it by now if they were going to.'

This was bizarre. It was a crime of embarrassment and nothing stronger. Perhaps I like what I see was a particularly weird greeting, but then it hardly seems sensible to wander around in the communal part of a shared house with less than the minimum of clothing unless you're a confident, practising naturist. Nevertheless, Freddy had now been awake for something like forty-eight hours, terrified, knocking back the whisky, and waiting to be arrested. He'd even bought his own ciggies.

I later spoke to the ground floor neighbours on his behalf and was told, as I suspected, that they had been mildly freaked out, but were more embarrassed at their own state of undress than anything.

As Freddy sat guzzling tea and smoking his cigarette with an unsteady hand, staring into space like the suspect on a cop show, I considered for a moment the pressure bearing down upon him - a likeable young guy in his earlier twenties with his entire life already mapped out by a stern and traditionally minded father. He'd grown up in Kenya - or wherever it was - and now here he was stuck in freezing, exhaust-choked Lewisham sharing a bathroom and a crappy kitchen with a former Tamil Tiger and a man unable to tell the difference between an artist and a prostitute. Try as I might, I couldn't see how this would constitute an adventure in anyone's book.

Freddy eventually finished his course and moved away, his place being taken by a six foot tall white teenager who liked football, drove a van, and who, perhaps strangely, seemed somehow much more alien to me. From time to time I still wonder what happened to my housemate and friend, whether he ever found a way to make the hell of money he desired, how well he took to the responsibility imposed upon him by his father, and how that all worked out. I met many people called Okello in the years that followed, but it turns out that in Africa it's a fairly common surname, and none of them were related to Freddy. Wherever he is and whatever turned out to be his lot in life, I hope that he likes what he sees.

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