'Remember how when you were at school, everybody wanted to be one of the black kids because they always seemed the coolest?'
I didn't because the population of my school had been almost exclusively white, of which there was not one individual whom I had regarded as cool or had wished to emulate in any way. Nevertheless, I'd seen Grange Hill so I understood the general principle, and I saw where this was going.
'How come we ended up with that pair of clowns?'
Rodney and myself looked over to where Toyan was once again collapsed with laughter, and to the sorting frame a little further along at which Joe stood grinning to himself, making some grating announcement to no-one in particular regarding Frankie Dettori.
We sighed in unison.
I'd recently transferred from Catford sorting office, an office which had been blessed with a higher percentage of black staff. I say blessed because in my experience ethnically diverse offices tend to be better places to work for the simple reason that black people - meaning those of African or Caribbean descent - tend to be less tolerant of bullshit. It's a generalisation of course, but during my time at Royal Mail I usually found that when unrealistic or unfair amendments to established working practice were imposed from above, black people seemed more inclined to stand up for themselves, whilst whitey would usually grumble, and then just get on with it as best he or she could whilst whining about others not pulling their weight as a cover for his or her having caved in like a wanker.
Members of Royal Mail management often found themselves under pressure from higher up, specifically pressure to achieve effectively impossible goals in terms of productivity; and so, themselves brainwashed into believing that the word impossible simply signified a lack of can do attitude, would, for example, ask an already overworked van driver to incorporate the work of another's route into his own without payment of due overtime. By way of example, this was roughly what was asked of a driver named Bobby Duncan, or at least named Bobby Duncan for the sake of this essay. Bobby had declined on the grounds that what he'd been asked to do could not be achieved in the time available, but the manager had refused to back down, and so it had gone back and forth all morning, drawing the usual snide and mocking comments about black people being scared of a bit of hard work from those who really should have known better. Eventually, threatened with disciplinary action, Bobby found himself overcome by a mighty and righteous fury. The manager, sensing that he had perhaps misjudged the situation, retired to his office and locked the door, obliging Bobby to take up a broom that had been left against the wall and proceed to batter the toughened glass by which those in the office were able to observe the shop floor.
'Come out of there,' Bobby ordered with quite a lot more swearing. 'Come out of there right now!'
It particularly impressed me that although Bobby spoke with a loud, commanding voice, he didn't exactly sound angry. It was simply that he felt his frustrations would be most eloquently expressed by forcibly introducing the broom to the manager's bottom, and this simply wasn't going to happen whilst the cowardly man had locked himself in.
'Calm down. Look, I'm calling the police!'
I could see him dialling through the glass, wide-eyed at the ongoing assault.
Bang bang bang.
'Come out of there and face me.'
Another postman, another black guy as it happens, came along and reminded Bobby that whatever the deal might be, it probably wasn't worth a night in the cells. Bobby conceded that this was a well-made point and they both went outside for a ciggie.
Sadly Bobby was suspended, although the event was later memorialised in an adaptation of the Harry Roberts song heard echoing amongst the sorting frames whenever we were having a bad day:
Bobby Duncan is our mate, is our mate, is our mate,
Bobby Duncan is our mate. He smacks guv'nors.
In 1993 I transferred to East Dulwich sorting office and was surprised to find myself surrounded almost entirely by white people. I had no explanation for this, given that East Dulwich itself was not lacking in ethnic diversity, but there it was, and despite my being entirely Caucasian, it made me uneasy. At this point it wasn't even that I valued the company of any one racial group over another, or that - as I have said - ethnically diverse work environments tend to have fewer persons inclined to just roll over and swallow whatever foolishness is foisted upon them from above; but simply, if you're white, and everyone around you is white, the higher the chance of your encountering someone who regards this as an ideal state, and who assumes that you too would very much like to stick them in a boat and send them all back; and as such people tend to be idiots, their presence reduces your chance of being able to find anyone with whom to have a decent conversation. I always imagined this might be just me, but my wife has expressed a similar sense of unease when we find ourselves driving through areas which seem just a little bit more white than can be considered healthy. This doubtless makes us sound like we're trying too hard, but that's just how it is, and any stance which probably annoys Richard Littlejohn cannot be without some merit.
Joe came first and then Toyan, two young black guys at East Dulwich. Toyan had somehow picked up the nickname Love Daddy, and although he was good at pulling the frowny rap face that best suited his new title, he didn't seem able to go five seconds without collapsing into hysterical laughter at the slightest provocation. He was a nice guy, but he was the opposite of cool, and Rodney and I sought the company of someone who said funny shit which would make sense when repeated to people we knew outside of work.
On the other hand, Joe seemed to be entirely his own phenomenon. He shuffled around like some weird Caribbean Womble, always grinning, always wearing full uniform at all times, including the dayglo waterproof jacket. He smiled and moved his head in the manner of a gnu seeking water when he spoke, never once appearing without his sunglasses. He seemed to represent some halfway developmental stage between Bingo from the Banana Splits and Stevie Wonder, but for words delivered like announcements in the grating monotone of a happy Dalek.
'Hello Lawrence,' he announced with excessive volume as I took my seat in the canteen. It was his first day and he extended a hand in a woolly glove, having presumably already been told who I was. 'My name is Joe. I like The Sweeney, but not because of the swearing!'
He laughed to himself. I imagined some private joke, something from a home in which he had been chastised for bad language. The unprompted declaration of love for a notoriously violent 1970s cop show was peculiar, but seemed like a distant relative of the conversational small talk with which Joe had not quite got to grips.
I shook his hand, and made no further contribution to the conversation because I was eating my breakfast, and I didn't really need to say anything as Joe droned away about his favourite television shows and Frankie Dettori, the Italian horse racing jockey. He seemed to be enjoying his own testimony.
Over the next couple of weeks, it wasn't so much that we learned to avoid Joe, but that we learned to resign ourselves to the inevitable in the event of working next to him. He was patently not all there, but harmless and sufficiently able to do as he was told as to do the job well enough to keep from being sacked. It would be annoying to find oneself stationed at the next frame, subjected to whatever was uppermost in Joe's thoughts that week, but so long as you could keep in sight that really he was just trying to be friendly, it wasn't so bad.
'You know, Lawrence, I only have another six weeks of my classes and then I can get a better job than this one.'
He'd been droning on for a full two hours, something about evening classes at an adult education centre, and my patience was wearing thin. 'Maybe you could become a brain surgeon, Joe?'
He laughed. 'I doubt I could do that, Lawrence. I'm not intelligent enough to be a brain surgeon,' and he said it with that same fixed smile as always.
I felt terrible. I gritted my teeth and mentally gave myself a kick up the arse for being such a tosser. Joe hadn't picked up on my sarcasm, or at least it didn't seem that way. He wandered off towards the registered letter office chortling to himself, chuckles interspersed with the name of Frankie Dettori invoked for reasons best known to himself.
George Stone, a postman who often popped into The Foresters around midday upon completion of his delivery, once gave an account of the week that Joe had been assigned to deliver mail to East Dulwich Grove. George had been sat in the pub from around one until four during which time he'd watched Joe chaining a delivery trolley to the street sign on the other side of the road, then alternate bundles of mail with returning to spend an hour or so in the betting shop next door, over and over until George went home, and presumably after as it had begun to get dark. Joe was clearly a gambling man and fond of the horses, so that explained that.
He drove us nuts at times, not least because of how it was impossible to be angry with him without feeling guilty, although on the positive side, he seemed more or less impervious to the occasional cutting remark; at least until we began to notice that his ceaselessly droning testimony had begun to include unsettling references to enemies.
'Enemies, Joe? What do you mean?'
'There are a lot of sharks in this office, Lawrence!' He emphasised the word sharks as though trying to scare me. It sort of worked, and more terrible insight was gleaned a few weeks later when we heard he'd been attacked whilst delivering to the flats on Dog Kennel Hill. He was back at work next day, a black eye, but still sounding as incongruously cheery as ever. It took some time but we eventually got the story.
It was hot, the middle of summer, and Joe was as always walking around in full uniform, waterproof coat zipped up to the neck.
'You must be sweating your bollocks off, mate,' some passing stranger had quipped in jovial fashion.
'Go to hell!' Joe had declared in the voice of Davros vowing the destruction of all non-Dalek lifeforms.
Whatever the deal was, it wasn't so much that he was ill-equipped to cope with daily life, but that he did better if you just let him get on with it in his own way. We all sat in our line sorting large flat envelopes into the frame, chunk chunk chunk as each one hit the metal at the back of its allotted cubby hole. Joe was sat at the end of the line, waterproof coat, black eye, chuckling away to himself.
'Frankie Dettori... hur hur hur...'
'Why is he wearing those?'
I looked and noticed he wore a pair of tight fitting white gloves. It made me think of Mickey Mouse.
Someone sighed, and began an account which explained why I had earlier noticed Joe leaping around at the back of the sorting frame, doing jumping jacks. Tom and Darren had told Joe he needed to do a series of special sorting exercises each morning before getting down to work. It was a directive issued from on high and everyone had to do it. The man said so.
Now they had given him a pair of gloves that somebody had found. Someone told him that he had to wear these special sorting gloves to prevent the spread of disease.
Joe either hadn't noticed that only he wore the magic gloves, or he was happy just to know that he wouldn't be catching AIDs from any of the letters sorted that morning.
Lloyd sighed and shook his head. 'Joe,' he said, not unkindly. 'Take the gloves off, man.'
We watched their conversation, Joe incongruously smiling as the truth of the prank was revealed, as two more names were added to his list of sharks. We shook our heads and felt bad because it was still funny, despite everything.