It was the early nineties. I was working in Catford. Each morning I would struggle out of bed at five and take a bus from outside the pie and mash place in Lewisham High Street, past the hospital, past the giant fibreglass cat of Catford precinct, past those tower blocks in which one of the Sugababes was still about ten and hence not yet famous, eventually arriving at Catford Royal Mail Sorting and Delivery Office on the Bromley Road. This morning, it being winter, it was still dark as I went in the gates, up onto the loading bay. I pushed through the double doors, passing Captain.
He regarded me, expressionless as ever, his lower lip flapping. 'Don't listen to what they say. I was never on that show.'
'Okay.' It was too early to care about whatever this latest nonsense might be. I passed him without breaking step. I could see Joe over by the packet frames.
'Hey Joe,' I called.
He looked over, another early morning blank expression, although Joe had a naturally deadpan face. 'What?'
'Where are you going with that gun in your hand?'
He considered me for another second then gestured with his thumb. 'Down here.'
He went on his way, following his established direction of travel whilst generously supporting my pitiful joke by deigning to understand it and even to play along.
I passed the inward sorting frame. A few of them were already at it, letters into metal pigeon holes - chunk chunk chunk... I walked around to the back of the frames and stashed my delivery pouch under the bay. I could hear the usual distorted noise of radio and chatter but with an elevated level of amusement, elevated at least above the usual. Something had happened.
I considered Captain's mystifying edict from a moment before. Those big blue eyes had looked kind of shiny now I thought about it, now that I brought that big blank face back onto my inner television screen. He was upset. It was difficult to discern emotional subtleties amongst Captain's ordinary discourse because almost everything he said was in the brittle tone of a frustrated school tyrant refusing to acknowledge that he'd already lost the argument, still defiant against the tittering chorus of those who knew better. You could ask him the time and the reply would still sound like go fuck yourself.
But why is he called Captain?, I once asked Gilbert on the grounds that Gilbert seemed to know more or less everything about everyone. I anticipated the nickname acknowledging some sort of military background because he seemed the type, but no, it was because the guy used to have a beard and had resembled Captain Kremmen - the animated cartoon character who used to feature on Kenny Everett's various television shows. I could see it. Our Captain was tall and skinny, kind of awkward and angular, and maybe not with a big head so much as a head that seemed bigger than you would expect to find on those shoulders. I had nothing against him, and I suppose I quite liked him for all his faults, but you really had to keep in mind that he wasn't very bright, had no sense of humour, and that his personality had a naturally abrasive quality.
Once Danny and I were talking about what we'd seen on television the previous evening. I had watched something featuring the comedian Vic Reeves. Overhearing this, Captain felt obliged to point out that he himself did not find Vic Reeves at all funny, and furthermore felt obliged to point this out at intervals for the rest of the morning each time he'd thought of some new thing to which he could make unfavourable comparison with Vic Reeves' enduring inability to raise a chuckle at the Captain's table.
'Vic Reeves is about as funny as - as - as,' he stumbled towards the subject of the latest simile, 'about as funny as a dead ant!' He emphasised the dead ant for illustrative effect. That was how funny Vic Reeves wasn't. He really seemed to have a bee in his bonnet, although I couldn't see why. I had no deep seated need for him to find Vic Reeves funny. I wasn't bothered.
Anyway, I walked around to take part in the inward sorting. There was Joe again, Big Bird as he was occasionally identified, and it was true that he did seem to share some elusive looming quality with the Sesame Street character. There were two columns set about six feet apart near the packet sorting frames, roof supports. Joe had a coffin, one of the wheeled plastic trolleys we used for moving packets around the office. The coffin was eight foot in length, so of course Joe stood regarding it with affected confusion, bashing the ends against the support columns, engaged in a futile attempt to fit it lengthways though the gap. He glanced at me with a nervous Tommy Cooper chuckle. 'Fucking thing! It won't go!'
There was no aspect of working for Royal Mail which Joe was unable to turn into Alfred Jarry class absurdist theatre. Not for the first time I considered that of all the unfunny cunts in all the sorting offices across England who are told they should be on telly by easily amused colleagues, Joe was the one who really should be on television.
'I wasn't on no television. That was my brother who was on it!' Captain's voice was raised even above its usual emergency broadcast volume, but the resulting laughter was louder. I looked back to the sorting frames and saw my usual spot next to Micky Evans. I took my place, picked up a handful of letters and got going.
'What's up with Captain this morning? What's he done now?'
Mick shrugged. 'Search me. He was on the telly or something.'
'He was on the telly?'
'I don't know nothing about it.'
An arm reached across my shoulder to pull letters from one of the pigeon holes - Gilbert clearing in.
'What have you done to the Captain, Gilbert?'
'He done it to himself this time, the silly fucker.'
'You weren't watching telly last night then?'
Gilbert was trying not to laugh, relishing the retelling. 'Well, you know how Captain is such a hit with the ladies?'
I did in so much as I knew that he apparently wasn't, which was why he was always talking about the birds and how you need to treat them in order to keep them happy. It wasn't that his information was wrong or necessarily bad, just that it was obvious he had neither idea nor experience of what he was talking about. He would have inspired pity had his tone been less like that of a five-year old insisting he's really seen a dinosaur. I had myself weathered something of a sexual drought for most of the previous decade, but Captain's erotic testimony sounded ridiculous even to me.
'How come you're such a hit with the chicks?' Carl Prosser once asked, having endured Captain's spoken sexploits for the best part of an hour.
'It's because I've got a massive cock,' Captain bellowed happily in bold upper case, as ever oblivious to the sarcasm of the question.
So now Gilbert explained it to me.
Captain had appeared on a late night television show called Contact designed, as the title implies, to aid the conspicuously single in their search for a partner. The highlight of his appearance had supposedly been the section in which he told viewers a little about himself.
'I've got a Ferrari,' he explained.
'You enjoy driving?' the presenter prompted.
Captain thought about this for a moment, then, 'It's not a real Ferrari. It's a Matchbox car. I haven't passed my driving test.'
This being at his home, he beamed as he produced the toy car and showed it to the camera.
I hadn't seen the show, and had it been anyone else I would have assumed this to be a simple example of lame humour attempted by someone who just wasn't very funny, but what you saw with Captain was generally what you got.
'What was it called? Contact?'
I'd never heard of it.
'Yeah. I was in bed by then. Troy saw it though,' - Gilbert stepped back and called to a postman sat about three frames along. 'You was watching, wasn't you, Troy?'
Needing no introduction to the subject, it being uppermost in everyone's thoughts that morning, Troy nodded. 'It was late, like half past two or summink. I don't suppose he thought anyone would still be up.'
We settled into the morning. Chunk chunk chunk and occasionally some minor flare up, Captain's protests still ringing out from across the other side of the office. It hadn't been him on that show, it must have been his brother, and anyway he hadn't said nuffink about no toy car. And fuck off.
'Where are you going, Gilbert?' somebody asked.
Gilbert stood at the centre of the aisle, half-creased with laughter and heading for the sorting frames around the back. 'I'm going round here so I can make contact with my mate Kremmen.'
Months passed and the story died down, settling into the social fabric of the place, each objection made by its subject ensuring that not only would it be told for years to come, but that it would be believed with the sort of conviction which would make Richard Dawkins' atheism seem vague and non-committal.
The last I heard of Captain, long after I'd left Catford Sorting and Delivery Office, were the circumstances of his dismissal. A young woman to whom he delivered mail had kissed him on the cheek in an expression of thanks for some minor good deed. He had allegedly gone back to his car to drop off both mail and clothing, then turned up on her doorstep naked but for a smile loaded with priapic anticipation. The woman, suspecting Captain had perhaps misinterpreted the extent of gratitude expressed by the kiss, understandably made a formal complaint about this nudist incident in the strongest possible terms. It sounded a complete yarn, a friend of a friend story, or would have done had it been told about anyone other than Captain.
Then again, maybe that one had been his brother, the one who looked just like him.