Friday, 19 December 2014

Breakfast in Catford

It was coming up to half past nine and I'd made it back to the sorting office in good time, these being the days of the reasonable workload, the two deliveries, back when Royal Mail gave a shit about its people. I pulled open my locker and stuffed my delivery bag and jacket inside.

'Ah - young Lawrence.'

I turned and saw that it was Ernie, one of the old boys tending to his own locker. I liked Ernie. He was a man of few words, and he always gave an impression of finding himself quietly amused by something.

'Hello, Ernie.'

'We'll have to stop meeting like this.' He forced something down inside his locker to make more room. As ever, it was not entirely clear who he was speaking to, whether these were just words he liked the sound of. 'People will start to talk.'

I twisted the key and pulled it from the lock. I went for the stairs as Ernie continued with his monologue.

'Lawrence and Ernie, they'll be saying. Lawrence and Ernie.'

The second door at the top of the stairs led into the canteen whilst the first led directly into the kitchen. When I transferred to Catford in September 1990, the kitchen had been off bounds, the exclusive domain of two cooks employed by an agency called Centra, or something like that.

Breakfast had been good, at least of the standard to which I had become accustomed from working at two previous sorting offices. Breakfast up until that point - and keeping in mind here this would be breakfast for someone who began work well before 6AM - had been two sausages, a fried egg, chips and baked beans, every day without fail, six days a week, forty-nine weeks a year. It wasn't exactly health food, but the work was such that it cancelled out the supposed drawbacks of what was basically a lard and salt regime.

Unfortunately Royal Mail had decided it could make savings by dispensing with Centra contract catering given that our office was supposedly too small to justify a full time canteen. Centra went, as did the chips of my traditional two sausages, fried egg, chips and baked beans, and staff canteen became a Royal Mail duty immediately bagged by Alan Durkin who was fed up of walking around in the pouring rain all morning and had the seniority necessary for the procurement of just such a cushy number. Alan's menu tended to focus more on the egg on toast aspect of breakfast catering, and whilst he made a reasonable job of it, no-one was too worried about him being headhunted by any of those expensive west end eateries.

Now the first door, the kitchen door, was left open so we could place orders as we went through to the canteen. Requests shouted through the hatch would usually be ignored or forgotten. There was only one of him, as Alan Durkin reminded his customers with some frequency, and he had only one pair of hands, one of which usually had a fag on the go.

Today the cigarette was cemented to his lower lip in the manner of Andy Capp in the newspaper cartoon by Reg Smythe. A grey cylinder of ash precariously held its shape at the end of the cigarette as sausages, mushrooms and bacon sizzled in the frying pan immediately below.

'What the fuck do you want?'

I always enjoyed the thrust with which he made the enquiry as though asking who you were and what business you might have in his kitchen.

'Just beans on toast and some bacon please, Alan.'

'Right. About five fucking minutes'

I tried not to think about the ash that could so easily join whatever ingredients he was presently bullying into resembling breakfast.

Alan had been nicknamed Teenage Mutant Ninja Durkin, although most people stuck with just Durkin, content that it already sounded vaguely insulting. He was of a certain type, probably not an alcoholic, but giving it his best shot most evenings and at least a few afternoons. He was loud and impressively offensive, and yet somehow difficult to dislike. The jokes weren't that funny, but you still had to give him credit for trying. Wherever you stood in the sorting office, you were never more than a minute away from Alan making some appalling observation far too loudly.

'We've had a great evening, I'm sure you'll agree, ladies and gentleman,' Billy Playle announced loudly in the wake of one particularly salty Durkin zinger. 'The strippers will be on later, but first I'd like you all to put your hands together for the comedy stylings of Mr. Alan Durkin!'

'Fuck off,' suggested the target of the satire.

'Take my wife,' Billy continued, effecting gruff Durkinesque tones. 'Please...'

I took a seat in the canteen. Micky Evans was setting some of the younger postmen right about the Kray twins, recently subject of a film starring those two blokes out of Spandau Ballet. We had all taken passing interest because some pub on Catford Hill had recently been host to a violent incident relating in some way to the Richardsons. I had never heard of the Richardsons before I came to London, but apparently they had been the south London rivals of the Krays back in the sixties - or something like that. The Krays were of course big names in organised crime, and specifically names which actually made them sound like supervillains.

Richardsons could have been a string of newsagents, so far as I was able to tell, which was possibly why no-one had made a film about them starring those two blokes out of Spandau Ballet.

Anyway, some of the younger postmen had an impression of the Kray twins as not having been much different to Robin Hood apart from there being two of them. They were the lovable rogues of murder. Micky Evans had worked in Deptford at the dockyard in the sixties and recalled in some detail how the management had called in the Krays to help break up a strike.

'They were cunts,' Micky explained. 'Don't let no-one tell you they was anything else. They were horrible cunts.'

Dudley the cleaner stood a little way away, wiping at a smudge on the window with a cloth.

'When I'm cleaning windows,' Tony sang, invoking George Formby and smiling innocently as Dudley turned to glare at him with those sunken Boris Karloff eyes.

Troy was meanwhile readjusting his worldview in accordance with the new information recently supplied by Micky Evans. His name was Mark, but everyone called him Troy following someone pointing out the resemblance to Troy Tempest, the submariner and puppet star of Gerry Anderson's Stingray. It was the eyes and the apparently permanent five o'clock shadow. Also he was quite short. The nickname had stuck with such tenacity that I'd spent my first six months at Catford actually believing it to be his real name.

'When I'm cleaning tables,' Tony sang, now adapting the words of the song to new domestic duties with a cheeky grin.

Dudley looked up from wiping some crap from one of the tables with his cloth. He stared at Tony. He said nothing, but you could tell he was thinking wanker. I could hear some chuckling under the general noise of conversation, a tinny radio, and Alan Durkin telling someone or other to go and fuck themselves.

'Uh oh! Here comes the fat kid!'

His name was Scott, but everyone knew him as Earthquake. He was young and massive with the voice of Bernard Bresslaw. He ran into the canteen and stage dived our group like an enormous happy dog. Chairs scraped quickly back across the floor and only Troy was caught beneath the guffawing mass of our very own delivery manatee.

'You stupid cunt!' Troy groaned, clutching his ribs.

Earthquake chortled and picked himself up, setting chairs straight. Order resumed. 'You still waiting?'

Troy nodded, glancing over towards the hatch.

Earthquake began telling us about the time he'd been taking a dump downstairs, listening to someone evacuate their bowels in the next cubicle along. He had emerged, washed his hands, and watched as a grunting Teenage Mutant Ninja Durkin emerged, returning immediately to the canteen without stopping to wash his own hands.

'That's why I don't bother.' Earthquake sent a distrusting glance towards the kitchen. 'I just have a sandwich or something instead, you know?'

'Troy!' Alan Durkin called out.

A plate was slapped down on the counter. Troy went over to fetch it, and as he sat we could see he now wore a sour expression. He was studying the bacon and eggs as though anticipating fag ends, fingernails, toilet paper, even fecal matter. 'I've gone right off it.'

'When I'm moving chairs...'

A few more people laughed this time.

Dudley stood glowering at his nemesis, hands upon the back of a chair he had been moving over to an empty table.

'Why don't you fuck off.'

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