The sorting office had emptied out a little. It was approaching noon and there were just a few of us still working at our bays, still sorting. Chunk chunk chunk as letters hit the back of the frame, usually in peculiar synchronisation with whatever was blasting from the tinny, overdriven speakers of the radio, except now it was that single by Christina Aguilera which didn't really have a beat as such, just swells of overproduced R&B vocalising. Still, I quite liked the song and so I joined in, as loud and tuneless as I could manage without committing to more effort than seemed necessary. It was something to pass the time.
I am bee-yoo-tee-foool, no matter wot they saaaaaaaaaay, words can' bring me daaaaaaaaan....
'I know you're beautiful, Lawrence.'
Shit. It was the raw horror of finding a mass of dead grubs clustered in your chicken wing. Obelix was stood at the next frame along, six plus feet of predatory Antipodean insecurity staring at me, longing for my approval for reasons I'd never quite understood.
'What?' as in what do you want? Why are you here? Why me?
He almost stammered as he gave his response. I knew this to be one of his infrequent but laboured attempts at humour, but it was just too bad. 'I said you're beautiful, Lawrence.'
His eyes appeared to be looking in different directions like those of a chameleon. His head wobbled and his fingertips skittered against each other burning off nervous energy.
Obelix had been given the title by Sav due to his being of equivalent stature and moustache to the famed cartoon menhir deliveryman and best friend of Asterix the Gaul, beyond which the resemblance ended. Our Obelix was Australian with some fairly severe personality quirks, and as such became distinguished as the only Australian I've ever met whom I didn't like. He was in England having become somehow estranged from his family, which didn't seem too much of a stretch to me. He was on his way to Poland to get in touch with some vague idea of his ethnic heritage, which made me a little uneasy in conjunction with all the people he really hated in our office being mostly black. He seemed to hate nearly everyone - although unfortunately not me - but tended to fixate on those of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity with greater venom, particularly Gary who was conspicuously Rastafarian. Gary had a salty sense of humour, and was quite loud, but I still found it difficult to see why anyone would really take a dislike to him. At least he was funny, which counted for a lot in our job so far as I was concerned.
More immediately unpleasant was the fact that Obelix seemed to live in his uniform so far as anyone could tell. He smelled bad, and not just should consider investing in a roll-on deodorant bad, but full on eye-stinging park tramp in the railway carriage bad. He'd been informed of this fact by more or less everyone, but had done nothing about it, presumably dismissing the advice as enemy forces bullying him for the sheer pleasure of cruelty. He would mumble as he spoke, waving his hands in front of his face and bearing down on you like a randy megatherium, getting far too close and personal for comfort, requiring that you hold your breath for a moment or two.
He'd turned up one day, working on the frame next to mine as I started back after a few weeks in Mexico. He'd struck me as peculiarly nervous, and the stench had come later.
'He's Australian,' I told my friend Carl. I was happy because it made the office a more interesting place to work. Two weeks later I would groan and curse when Carl reminded me of my initial impression.
'How are yew today, Lawrence?' every morning before I'd even woken up, coming for me with those hands like he's about to grab me, twitching and even drooling a little on bad days.
My response of fine devolved to a grunt, which became don't talk to me when it dawned that neither honesty nor diplomacy were working. It didn't make me feel great, but Obelix was becoming a little scary in his persistence. He would describe his hatred at length, regardless of whether or not he'd been asked. He would describe stabbing those who had spoken to him in a dismissive tone. It was, I hoped, intended to be funny, but it also presumed that I was on his side for reasons beyond my comprehension. It was the basic misanthropy of those who are not well equipped to cope with the existence of other people. His humour was awkward, an unsettling combination of the juvenile and the authentically manic.
'I was a traffic warden before I did this,' he once told me, although I hadn't asked. 'I used to pretend to be the Alien as I was giving out tickets.' He had performed a mime in illustration, the creature from the Ridley Scott film as designed by H.R. Giger dispensing parking tickets with the pharyngeal jaws of its extending tongue. I'm not sure the image really would have worked even had I been sympathetic; and now I was beautiful.
I regarded him, hoping he would understand my position and go away. I wasn't his friend. I had sufficient problems of my own without seeking to expand into new territory. I could not give him what he required.
Andre walked past, heading somewhere around the back of the packet frames. He was a songbird momentarily drawing the attention of both lion and antelope, changing the focus.
Obelix ran at the distraction, seizing it with both hands as though his life depended on it and then speaking too quickly. 'Andre's beautiful too!'
Andre turned. 'What?'
'You're beautiful, Andre.'
'Okay.' Andre rolled his eyes and went on.
I resumed my sorting, graciously bequeathing to Obelix the opportunity to walk away and hopefully learn something from this most recent encounter.
Chunk chunk chunk.
Months later, after he'd stopped coming into work following a suicide attempt - so it was rumoured - he came out as gay to everyone in a local pub in which another one of our postmen was a regular. No-one was particularly surprised to hear of this, but neither were they any more hostile than they had already been. No-one really cared. It was sufficient that he had ceased to be our problem.
Sometimes life can be cruel.
That's just how it works.