This bloke was getting on my nerves. It seemed he couldn't stop moving, not the sharp, dramatic twitches of some tic over which he had no control, just constant motion as though he was gearing up to dance to a tune playing in his head, almost certainly something by either Kenny, Showaddywaddy, or the Bay City Rollers if his appearance was any indication. Even when I made an effort to concentrate on the letters held in my hand, I was somehow aware of Richard jiving away just outside my field of vision.
'Is there something wrong with that bloke?'
This was the question I asked King George, and although King George is only the name I still remember twenty-five years later. He delivered mail to King George Road in Walderslade, and I'd overheard another postman apparently calling him King George, which turned out to be his duty rather than a nickname as I had assumed. I hadn't yet taken my sorting test, and was yet to discover that Walderslade even had a King George Road, hence my mistake.
'You mean Rickety Rich?' King George chuckled. 'Don't take no notice of him.'
Rickety Rich - the name suggested a poorly constructed wooden tower, something that was about to fall down. The image was enhanced by the fact that the hair of Rickety Rich had apparently been borrowed from a 1972 advert for either aftershave or football, and that his mouth had been set within his face at an angle at least as jaunty as that of Gary Glitter's powder blue glam cap. His speech was mumbled and slurred, the words obscured but the tone clearly disparaging.
I was new to the job and it was 1988, but at least King George seemed to represent a friendly face. He grinned, apparently happy to throw a few encouraging crumbs my way. 'You reckon he'll last then, Rich?' He regarded me with a jovial wink.
Rickety Rich wobbled like a stage school bovver boy in a film clip of Mud performing Tiger Feet, and words sloughed from his mouth. I wouldn't last another month, was his suggestion. Rickety Rich had judged me and found me lacking. I was deemed insubstantial by a man who appeared to have trouble standing. In the end I remained with Royal Mail for twenty-one years, by which time I came to a better understanding of his verdict, or at least the criteria in which it was drawn.
Those Royal Mail offices at which I was employed between 1988 and 2009 all had a high turnover of staff because, quite simply, the work was demanding, and new recruits tended to come to their senses within a week or so, deciding that there had to be a less back-breaking way of making a living. Long term staff generally found it difficult to view new recruits without some degree of scepticism, and it never really seemed worth getting to know anyone until they had been there at least a month or two. Those who have worked as a postman during a holiday period may tell a different story, but the rest of us tended to regard them as idiots, and to resent the fact of their always being given the lightest possible duties in the hope that they might manage to turn up for the second day. One of the more annoying generic conversations a postman will have with anyone who is visibly not a postman begins with some point confirmed as understood because I was a postman too.
'Yeah? You packed it in though?'
'Oh it was only for two weeks during the Christmas holidays.'
To us, this is roughly akin to a combat veteran finding himself subject to the projected comradeship of a man who has fights outside pubs on Saturday nights. It really isn't the same thing, and the suggestion that it could be is sometimes insulting. Sorry.
Having joined Royal Mail in Chatham back in 1988, I transferred to Coventry, then to Catford a year later, before finally settling at East Dulwich in south-east London. I was therefore the new boy on four separate occasions, and in fact became an old hand at being the new boy. By the time I arrived at East Dulwich, roughly Autumn 1993, I had learned that it was initially best to keep oneself to oneself for as long as it took. Premature efforts to make an impression and accumulate friends tended to backfire.
Nevertheless, despite having studiously refrained from introducing myself as an old hand of five years good standing, arriving in East Dulwich I managed to make enemies almost immediately. A bullish postman of Turkish extraction known as Wiggy - although admittedly not to his face - took an instant dislike to me on the grounds of my working next to a postwoman called Debbie, whom he viewed with disdain. I spoke to Debbie and laughed at her jokes and had therefore allied myself with the enemy in the eyes of this Mediterranean man-child. I never found out what he had against Debbie, but I imagine it was most likely something that would have made a lot more sense in the playground of an infants' school than at a place of employment, because that's the sort of man he was.
My other enemy was Geoff Robinson, so it initially seemed. He was tall and imposing, the face of an unshaven Easter Island statue and a Newcastle accent so broad you could have used it to thicken sauce. He gave the impression of being perpetually pissed off about something, and although I could barely understand his tersely delivered pronouncements on who was a useless bastard that particular day, I understood enough to know that he viewed me as a new boy, a waste of space, a crème de menthe sipping pooftah, or something in that direction. Naturally I avoided Geoff as a general principle, taking occasional consolation from others observing that the man could be a bit of a miserable bugger at times.
My first Christmas at East Dulwich, a few of us went out for the inevitable drink, starting just after lunchtime in The Magdala on the corner of Pellatt Road, back when it was a pub rather than whatever the hell it's supposed to be now. Most of the party were my age or a little younger - Rodney, Danny, Jason, Ben, Graham and a few others. We slurped lager, played pool, and in my case got drunk fairly quickly. Someone put some old ska record on the jukebox, probably Too Much Too Young by The Specials which inspired me to a few stupid minutes of drunken moonstomping whilst going on about my Coventry heritage. I remember Graham finding this funny, egging me on, urging me to express the ways of my people. It grew dark outside, it being December, and I realised that Rodney and Jason were talking about moving on to some pub along Grove Vale.
I was sat at the bar, now listening to Geoff Robinson explaining something or other. I looked around. There was no-one on any of the pool tables, and none of my party were in the other side of the bar either. I had no memory of their leaving, or of how I came to be there with Geoff Robinson. I struggled to understand what he was telling me. He was drunk, but happy drunk, or at least no longer the growling Geoff I knew from the sorting office.
'I tell you this, Lal,' - he waved his finger at me, making some point. It was weird being called Lal by someone I didn't really know. 'I tell you this Lal, I don't care what the coppers said, I did not lay a fucking finger on that woman.'
I recalled how I had been uncomfortable to find myself suddenly sat at the bar with Geoff, and how did you end up living down here in London? had seemed like a reasonable conversational gambit, not least because I was genuinely curious. He was still answering the question, and the statement of his being innocent of some implied crime was apparently part of the answer. I wondered if I should be glad that I hadn't understood much of his account, and I found it strange that my impression of the man had apparently turned out to be wrong.
He'd never really taken any strong dislike to me, he just had a dour outlook and didn't really like his job. None of us did. I had been a new boy and that was it.
He kept talking, further reiterating that he did not lay a fucking finger on that woman, and I couldn't find my opening, the one which would allow me to either change the subject or to get out of there. More worrying was that I couldn't tell if the information to which I had been made party was of such a sensitive nature as to have inducted me into some secret club, the kind which might define my sharp exit as a form of betrayal. I'd heard rumours of Geoff having either been in the SAS, or claiming to have been in the SAS, and although I wasn't as drunk as my new friend, I was not so sober as to understand what the hell was going on.
After this, whilst it would be untrue to say Geoff became a necessarily warmer, more likeable figure, I found him easier to get on with, and I had less difficulty decoding the accent. He remained dour, but I learned that at least some of this served as emphasis for his sense of humour.
'Are you happy, Geoff?' I asked on one of those days when the workload had increased to such unmanageable extent as to cast the atmosphere of a slaughterhouse over the entire office, no-one talking, everyone too pissed off to even stick the radio on, just the thump-thump-thump of mail hitting the backing of sorting frames. I asked because he'd been quietly singing something to himself, and it had sounded suspiciously like What a Wonderful World.
'I'm so happy I could burst.' He answered, pronouncing the last word as borst with the sort of weapons grade sarcasm that could bring down a plane.
We never became what you would call bosom buddies, but for a man who could have frowned at an Olympic level, he was often a surprisingly cheery sight, particularly once the working day was over. I would run into him nearly every other time I went out to the shops at the bottom end of Lordship Lane, always just out for a drink, or on his way back from one, but happy to stop for a chat and mutual griping about whatever madness had gripped the office that day. Sometimes I would find him already in The Foresters as I finished my walk, at least on those days when the work had been of such absurd volume as to necessitate a medicinal pint prior to going home. He was usually in there with George Stone - or Snowy as he was occasionally dubbed due to his full head of snow white hair.
George was a large man, no stranger to either the full English breakfast or the boozer, in which he had sought increasing degrees of comfort since the death of his father a few year's earlier. Despite this he was for the most part a large, cheery man with a sharp sense of humour and impossible to dislike. He and Geoff would welcome me like an old friend, despite our just being three blokes hating their jobs in a pub, and that we'd all seen each other mere hours before and had barely exchanged a word. We would have a drink, and I would find myself wishing I could get away, disliking the sensation of being drunk, but reluctant to leave such good company.
They would talk about this and that, arguments I didn't quite follow concluding with don't give me all that, from George, then a refutation of Geoff ever having been in the SAS, then off into even more bewildering territory about whether certain domed structures along the English coast contained radar installations or, as Geoff insisted, rockets pointed at Russia. This was one of the things I appreciated about Geoff - even when you were effectively certain that he was making it up, he never seemed to care how flimsy the story had begun to sound and would continue undaunted, digging himself into an even deeper hole and obviously enjoying every second. These were the sort of conversations that only really made sense with a pint in your hand.
George would roll his eyes and shake his head as Geoff rambled on regardless.
By the end of my sentence at Royal Mail, I'd worked with Geoff Robinson for sixteen years of my life, and as East Dulwich was a small office, he'd come to be one of what I suppose I regarded as the old guard, the group you could trust, those who had first taken to their employment back when a job was about earning a wage rather than scratching out an existence with the employer least able to get away with paying you as little as possible in the name of important market forces. East Dulwich was a divided office populated by all sorts of factions. I'd spent most of my time doing what I could to avoid falling out with anyone and had avoided most of the playground politics of big fish in small ponds - if that isn't too many metaphors in one go - but it didn't last, and my final few months were something of a drag as persons such as Wiggy - presumably now balder than ever beneath that hilarious syrup - decided that Rickety Rich had been right all along, that I was the enemy. Geoff had left by this time, but remained a frequent and oddly reassuring sight flitting from one pub to another, still somehow dour with a cheery grin; for all his faults, still a cut above the rest of them.
I haven't seen Geoff for a few years now, and the other day I learned that he had passed away about a week ago, the end of March as I write. It was cancer, which somehow doesn't seem too surprising. He may not have been a saint, despite never having laid a fucking finger on that woman, and I'm not even sure it would be right to exactly call him a nice guy; but he had a directness that I grew to appreciate, and he was very funny, and he was generous and never stingy with his tabs, as they probably say in Newcastle. Simply, it was good to know that he was just around, out there somewhere, except of course now he isn't. Somewhere in heaven is a pub where the angels shake their heads to hear such terrible agricultural language, at least those who can understand what the new boy is saying; and our world is, against all odds, a slightly poorer place for this.