I am back in England, and specifically I am back in East Dulwich. It's a brief visit mainly for the purposes of catching up with old friends. I moved out of London in 2009, and haven't been back to England in the last two and a half years. Even more specifically it is Monday and I'm in the Dulwich Café on Lordship Lane, just next to the Lord Palmerston and I'm eating sausage, fried egg and chips in a fit of nostalgia, crossing another item from the list of things to eat whilst I'm back in the old country because it isn't quite the same as what you get in Texas. The Dulwich Café was my favourite café after Ken's place in Crystal Palace Road closed down. I would drop in every Saturday after work and read whatever rap magazine had hit the news-stand that week over a plate of sausage, egg, chips and beans. Today I've given the baked beans a miss because I'm jetlagged and am feeling a bit weird, but the rest tastes as good as ever.
I'm pretty sure the place used to be called Starburger, but Dulwich has changed since I've been away. The framed photos of boxers, James Dean, and various rat pack types have been replaced by tasteful aerial views of London, and the windows are now hand painted with images of healthy wholemeal rolls stuffed with rocket and falafel. Thankfully, inside it's still very much wipe-clean formica tables, ketchup, and actual working people, some of whom are still to be found in East Dulwich, still holding out against the encroachment of braying upwardly mobile tossers in red trousers.
I'd eaten sausage, egg and chips on Friday morning in another café, over in Bermondsey. The tables were Formica, each one of my fellow diners wore a high visibility tabard, and the radio blasted out that autotuned hybrid of grime and R&B which the English yoots dem seem so keen on these days innit. It was fucking beautiful.
Right now, eating my second plate of sausage, egg and chips of the trip, I realise I am sat at the table at which I last saw Nelly.
When I transferred to East Dulwich sorting office in 1993 or thereabouts, I was assigned to a walk in the corner of the building, working between Debbie and Graham, with Terry on the other side of Debbie, and Nelly at the back against the outer wall. These were the first people I came to know in the office because we were all huddled together as described for a couple of hours each morning. Graham was difficult to figure out, and seemed to spend most of his time chuckling at Ron's jokes - Ron being the postman working on the other side of him; but Debbie and Terry were funny, and I found it easy to get on with them, particularly once I began to pick up on the private jokes, most of which were based on imagined embarrassing or even pornographic situations encountered whilst delivering mail to easily offended members of the local clergy.
You probably had to be there.
Nelly, a Turkish woman with glasses and a severe haircut appeared initially less genial. She often seemed to take jokes the wrong way, or would attempt cracks of her own which didn't quite work. She was prone to angry or emotional outbursts, and struck me as somewhat intense.
'You know she's mad, yeah?' Debbie told me one day as Nelly went off to collect her registered items.
'She's been in a mental home and everything. She's all right though. She's on some medication or summink.'
By this point I'd already accrued a couple of psychiatrically unorthodox friends, so I knew the form, and Nelly suddenly made a lot more sense.
'She's a lesbian too.'
Debbie nodded, and I squared this new information against Nelly's appearance, which made few concessions to conventional femininity. Strangely, I found I was impressed. Royal Mail could be a pretty tough place to work at times. You kept yourself to yourself, revealing nothing which could be weaponised against you as part of the ongoing war against all which might be deemed either a bit soft or a bit too fancy for its own good. Generally I didn't have much to say about the three years I'd spent at art college, so this open declaration of sexuality struck me as very brave. In Nelly's case, maybe it hadn't actually been an open declaration of sexuality so much as something which just got around, and which she had no interest in denying, but still it suggested a certain strength of character.
Gradually I got to know her better, at least enough to realise that she actually did have a sense of humour, but found little reason to engage it at work. On Saturday the 24th of September 1994, I wrote the following short autobiographical story, attempting to capture an incident which had occurred at the sorting office:
Nelly was swearing. The air was blue with fuck, shit, wank and others. She was often tense as a result of doing too much overtime. Still, not my fault, or anyone else's for that matter. Today she was swearing because she'd been doing too much overtime and because of her car. Some other road user had scratched past taking paint off the door. Was it Wednesday? Thursday? Well, today was Saturday and she was swearing a lot.
'What's wrong, Nelly dearest?' enquired the ever polite Terry Nevitt from beneath his bald patch.
'Fuck off!' she exploded without bothering to turn around. 'Don't call me fucking Nelly. Me name's Onel for the last bleeding time.'
She continued to sort mail into the Northcross Road frame, swearing quietly as she did so. Fuck. Shit. Wank. Each profanity was neatly punctuated by the dull thud of a gas bill striking home.
5, Archdale Road.
7, Archdale Road.
9, Archdale Road.
'Is it tea break yet?'
Onel spins around to glare at Debbie. 'If she asks is it fucking tea once more I'll... I'll fucking knock her out!'
'I didn't fucking say a word!' Debbie turns to me. 'Lawrence, did I say anything?'
'No,' I answer. 'It was Jen.'
Jenny mumbles something in fluent northern. We continue to sort in silence broken only by the steady drumming of letters going into frames.
Now Onel has gone outside. She rushes back in, muttering testily and then leaves again. Debbie tells me she's gone to the police station. She's seen a car in Pellat Road that may well have done the dirty deed. The dented bumper matches her scratch. She's very fond of that Mini is Nelly.***
We're in the van - me, Ben, and Graham. Ben drives. We turn out of the bay, down Pellat Road passing Onel. She's stood by her car talking to a policeman.
'So what was all that about?' I ask.
'Nelly had a scratch on the door about the size of Graham's cock,' answers Ben indicating with his thumb and index finger the size in question. Very small.
Graham laughs and splutters in his usual undignified manner. He's holding his hands apart, his arms at as full a stretch as the confined space of the van will allow. He's trying to indicate something very large but nobody believes him and we don't understand what he's saying through the raucous farting guffaws that shower his spit onto the dashboard.
Her name was Onel and we became friends, partially because she was essentially a driven and fairly lonely individual reliant upon medication in order to keep her brain running along in a straight line, and partially because in the working environment of Royal Mail, you tend to value those of your colleagues whose brains work at all, those who are able to talk about something other than fucking football.
We went out for walks together on the occasional afternoon after work, just to the local park or whatever. Sometimes I invited her over for tea and would cook something or other, and sometimes she would return the compliment and cook for me. We were lonely people in a huge city with similar problems, and Nelly being a lesbian somehow made things easier for both of us, there being no awkwardly compatible interests to be avoided for the sake of decorum. One evening we went over to Juanita's house in Forest Hill, just for a drink and the purpose of generally talking shit. I only vaguely knew Juanita as a short, apparently surly woman from Catford sorting office, my previous place of employment, although we hadn't really had much to do with each other; but it was better than staying at home, and I was curious to hear how things had been going at Catford since I left.
It turned out that Juanita was also a lesbian, and this was how she and Nelly knew each other - specifically common interests in a predominantly male environment rather than anything more squelchy resulting from the sort of unlikely scenarios imagined by readers of Loaded and its like. The three of us drank tea, and talked about people we knew, who had been sacked and why, and watched television for a little while. The BBC crime drama Silent Witness came on, bringing with it the actress Amanda Burton in the role of Professor Sam Ryan.
'Fuck me,' Juanita growled happily. 'What I could do with that!'
Nelly chortled. 'Fuckin' fit, ain't she!'
I don't know why, but it had never occurred to me that lesbians might be just as prone to lurid drooling as heterosexual men, and there was something oddly comforting in the discovery. I realised that I understood Nelly better than I had thought.
More troubling, and even more troubling than her occasionally manic episodes, was her Christianity and tendency to introduce Jesus into the conversation more or less without warning. I could never work out whether faith really helped her get through the tough times, or whether in some ways it made them worse, keeping her distracted from whatever course of action might be more helpful given the sometimes precarious balance of her sanity.
One day she described the automotive accident she had narrowly avoided at the weekend. She was cut and bruised, and we were all trying to work out what the hell had happened. She had, she told us, woken up sat in her car in the wrong lane of the motorway. She had passed out. She had been about to crash into the metal barrier of the central reservation when Jesus had physically lifted her beloved mini up into the air, and set it down on the other side.
'You're really sure it was Jesus?' I asked.
'Of course it was.' She thought about it for a moment. 'If it weren't Jesus, then what was I doing on the other side of the motorway when I woke up. Explain that!'
I could think of a number of explanations, but I hadn't been there, and it seemed better to let her have this one, not least because she seemed to be in one of those manic phases usually foreshadowing a month off sick and then a few more assigned to the night shift up at Mandela Way pending psychiatric evaluation confirming her being fit enough to resume regular duties at the sorting office.
One evening as we sat watching television at her house, following her having served an excellent roast dinner. She told me a little of her upbringing in response to my enquiries about her family, with whom she had little contact. They had been of an unfortunately traditional disposition from somewhere in rural Turkey, where sons were an endless source of pride, and the birth of a daughter was announced with shame. Nelly's father had beaten her regularly with a belt, then left her locked inside a small cupboard for six hours at a time. I immediately understood why she had psychological issues.
Eventually those psychological issues got the better of her, and she became effectively full time up at Mandela Way on one of the duties set aside for the lame and the sick simply because the union would go apeshit if they were to be sacked. We ran into each other around Dulwich from time to time, and she seemed much the same as ever, doing her best to stay positive under miserable circumstances.
Finally our paths crossed in Starburger one afternoon. She was with an older, somewhat haggard looking woman who seemed to grin a lot, either a girlfriend or another lost soul.
'I've got cancer,' Nelly stated as though announcing she had just bought a new car. I suppose by that point one shitty deal was much the same as another.
Six months to a year later, she was dead. We had been friends, perhaps not great friends, but friends nevertheless; and for all that she was hopelessly neurotic, bonkers, and occasionally annoying, it seemed like a terrible loss even to those at work who had never particularly liked her. She lived; she received one shitty break after another, and then she was gone. It was a terrible waste.
I finished my sausage, egg, and chips, and thought about Nelly for a while as I drank my tea; but there was nothing positive that could be taken from the memory, nor any clear lesson to be learned.