I'd seen Gary around Dulwich since the mid 1990s, although I didn't know his name at the time. He was a grown man with a paper round and was always walking his dog - something big like an Alsatian, like him in fact. He wasn't really fat, just a great looming lump, like a dole queue Bernard Bresslaw and always a bit scruffy because once a month down the launderette probably wasn't quite often enough; a bit red faced and slightly balding. He looked as though he could probably demolish brick walls with his bare hands if someone paid him to do it, which was a possibility given that he seemed to be an odd-job man. I passed him every morning, usually at the same time, same place, the corner of Friern Road as I snapped rubber bands from the bundle of mail for all the old age pensioners down Rycott Path. I said good morning a couple of times, because when a face has achieved a certain familiarity, it's embarrassing to pass by without some kind of acknowledgement; but he never replied, just stared back with those boiled egg eyes, seeming almost afraid.
What did I know?
What was my game?
Then suddenly he is my neighbour. The house next door has been divided into four flats, one to each floor. The basement flat has been broken into a couple of times, our part of Dulwich being particularly susceptible to burglary, and I myself have been similarly hit twice. The previous tenant has moved out, taking her horrible kid and criminal boyfriend; and now here he is, adult paper round man grinning over the top of the wall, and it's the first time I've ever seen him smile. 'You're the postman, aincha?'
'That's me.' I'm a little surprised that he remembers me from those mornings as we passed each other on the corner of Friern Road.
'I fort so. I seen you around.'
The council have placed him in the flat. He introduces himself as Gary and tells me a little of his story, but it's difficult to follow and is annotated with testy defences of alleged crimes at which he will only hint, and which in any case weren't crimes 'cuz he weren't doing nuffink wrong and you can arse anyone. He'd been living, so I gather, in one of the tower blocks up Friern Road with an ambiguous tally of pets - cats, dogs, budgerigars, fish, and possibly a squirrel. There had been complaints but he remains unspecific and anyway he hadn't done nuffink wrong and he was always doing little fings like putting the wheelie bins out for people or getting you a pint of milk from the shops or bringing in your mail from the boxes down at the bottom when the postman couldn't be bovvered to climb all them steps because the lift was bust, and he never even arsed for fanks or nuffink and it just went to show how two-faced some people could be dunnit. All that can now be said for sure is that Gary is gunna behave himself. He ain't gunna be doing nuffink silly again. He ain't gunna be writing on no walls or nuffink silly. He has learned his lesson.
So have I, namely that asking for specific details of the occurrence to which Gary occasionally alludes is more trouble than it's worth, and seems to upset him. Sometimes he'll arrive there under his own steam, in which case it's best to shut up and let him get it out of his system, and most of all to avoid the temptation to dig further no matter how darkly intriguing the testimony.
'You know women, right?'
I could answer well, not all of them, but it will only complicate things so I just say, 'yes.'
'Always arseing questions ain't they?' He scowls as though finding himself once again let down by half of the entire human race. I have a brief, horrible image of this particular train of thought leading to bodies uncovered from beneath an unevenly laid patio, and so I keep my mouth shut.
He seemed like an ordinary bloke, I will have to lie. Always kept himself to himself, except he never does.
'Funny bloke, ain't he?' Bill, my ageing Landlord, stands on the doorstep. I am paying the week's rent and our eyes have been drawn across the top of the wall to next door's garden and Gary labouring away on the latest of what he refers to as his projects.
'I can't figure him out. What does he do exactly?'
Bill belongs to the generation raised upon a solid work ethic. He doesn't really understand concepts of either unemployment or disability, and Gary seems to fall somewhere between the two.
'He works up at the flower shop on the corner,' I report, seeing no harm in telling just Bill. Gary has sworn me to silence, but so far as I can tell, most of our neighbours already know him as Gary from the flower shop on the corner. I'm not quite sure what the work entails, besides lifting and carrying anything which is too large or heavy for regular humans.
Bill sighs. 'He delivers the bleedin' newspapers and all, you know. I seen him in the mornings.'
I nod, uncertain of why we're having this conversation. Gary is an odd one for sure, but it doesn't seem like there's much to be done about it.
Over the next few months we watch Gary's projects come to fruition. The garden of the house was intended by the owner to be shared by the residents of all four flats - an intention formed from a fairly basic misunderstanding of human nature, particularly in London. Gary has taken over the entire garden, not a passive-aggressive occupation of territory but simply because he doesn't know when to stop, and none of those living above him care enough to complain. In addition to the flower shop and the paper round, he sometimes undertakes gardening jobs, often returning with plants or even small trees discarded by some client, now transplanted to his own garden.
He's a human magpie, transposing anything bright, shiny, or even just available to what has become his garden, which now includes all manner of plaster features and figurines, dry fountains shaped like sea shells, pink flamingoes, ornamental wooden arches and trellises, chunks of rotting wood that looked kind of interesting, and even a gravestone. It's not really a gravestone, although it's roughly the same shape, and I'm staring over the wall trying to work out what the hell he's doing now.
'I'm painting it Chelsea colours, ain't I. Whatchu fink?' He steps back to allow for an inspection, clearly proud of his work.
'I see.' I don't really see at all.
'You into football?'
'It's not really my thing, Gary.'
He indicates the letters he's begun to paint across the gravestone. The paint comes from half empty tins of emulsion which someone or other was throwing out, red, white and navy blue. There's a name which I can't read followed by a date in fat, uneven letters.
'She was my dog,' he explains. He is silent for a moment, almost thoughtful. 'I always fink when I die, they'll all be waiting for me up in heaven, all jumping up and down and pleased to see me like dogs are, you know?'
I grunt because it's a moment of unusually tender understanding. Gary's vision is comical, but it is absolutely sincere.
'They'll all be up there, all me dogs, me rabbits and me cats, all being friends.'
When Gary first moved in I promised myself I would keep my distance, that I would avoid encouraging him. I have no need of a new best friend, but Gary has other plans. He begins to call around to have a lend of my bicycle pump or to use my phone to make a call which sounds like an emergency. I'm knackered. I've had a hard day. I'm trying to watch the box, but Gary is stood directly between my eyes and the screen. He fumbles with a scrap of paper, dialing the number scribbled in blue biro. He considers the television then turns to me and grins. 'I was watching the football.'
I was watching a DVD of The Sopranos, but obviously I'm not doing that right now. It doesn't seem worth mentioning, because the call is clearly something important. I hear a faint crackle as the call is answered.
'Hello. Have you still got a budgerigar I can buy?'
'I just want one. How much is it?'
'Yeah. Is it a boy budgerigar or a girl budgerigar?'
During the winter of 2004, I go to work on Bill's neglected garden, attempting to restore it to horticultural capacity following the destruction wrought by another tenant, George Marshall. George offered to look after the garden a year or so before as it had become obvious that Bill was no longer physically up to the task, but George's efforts were weird and cranky and borne of no apparent gardening experience, more like a child playing in the mud. Having spent many years in the army, George rationalised the garden by digging the whole thing up to a depth of about three feet, then sifting all but the tiniest of stones from the soil. This resulted in a lifeless crater of clay with a mountain of stones at the far end, at which point he lost interest. I have taken it upon myself to reverse the damage.
My first task, as I see it, is to restore the soil by mixing all the stones back in. I have a wheelbarrow and a spade, and it's fucking cold with frost still on the ground at four in the afternoon, and my breath hangs in the air. After a couple of hours I'm knackered, and haven't really got anywhere. I realise that this will take months.
'Whatchu doing?' Gary's face has appeared over the crumbling garden wall like a big, fat working class sunrise, like the solar baby from Teletubbies in later years. I explain what I'm doing, and before I can finish the first sentence, he's over the wall and shovelling away like a steam engine. I race backwards and forwards with the wheel barrow, bringing clumps of damp soil then taking Gary's blend back to fill in the craters. I have the easy job and I can barely keep up, and I hadn't even arsed for his help. The mountain of stones is gone in about forty minutes; no more weird craters, just ground waiting to become a garden.
'That's better,' Gary observes happily, leaning on the handle of the spade and not even short of breath so far as I can tell. 'That should be nice now. Get some flowers and that.'
'Yes,' I croak feebly, hoping he'll go home, that he won't volunteer for anything else which might need doing and thus oblige me to help. I already feel like the weakest link in my own chain.
Over the following weeks I begin to stick in a few plants and to lay down grass seed. A regular flow of rescued shrubs still finds its way into Gary's garden, and inevitably he begins to run out of room.
Bang bang bang like the Incredible Hulk doing home visits.
I open my front door.
Gary stands there grinning, the stem of a newly rescued shrub clenched in a mighty paw, held forth like a prize snatched from the jaws of a dragon in a distant and mystic realm. 'E'are!, which means here you are, in case you were wondering.
'Thanks, Gary.' I've told him how I like to sleep afternoons because I start work around five in the morning, but he doesn't seem to get it. I leave the shrub by the kitchen door for later and go back to bed.
The years pass, and each day I am out in the garden at some point, weeding, planting or watering; and each day there is a big, fat working class sunrise over a garden wall which is still crumbling but has been recently fortified with old doors and sheets of hardboard found at the roadside as another of Gary's projects.
He always wants to know what do I fink of this or that.
Who's the best - U2 or the Rolling Stones?
Have I got a hat he can have a lend of for the U2 concert?
He wants to buy anuvver dog - a girl dog in fact. I ask him what kind, and he tells me a white one so he can name her Snow.
He arse for my help lifting up a fish tank. He just found it. They was chucking it out. He's gunna put it inside and put stones in it. He's gunna paint the stones all Chelsea colours. I can't really say no because it's Gary and, as the cliché goes, he'd do anything to help you out, and often does.
He lifts one end. The fish tank is like a motorway support of thick green glass. I can't lift my end. I can't even budge it to one side, and I realise that I have no reference point for what it must be like to be as strong as Gary. He's practically superhuman.
The big, fat working class sunrise is worse in the summer because he never seems to wear a shirt, and he has these great big sweaty man tits, and he pongs a bit now that the weather is warm.
Eventually, due to circumstances beyond my control I have to move out. Gary gives me a leaving present, a handful of old CDs he is chucking out and don't want no more.
'You can have them if you like. I ain't bovvered.'
Two of them are Sex Pistols live CDs, which surprises me. Gary explains that he saw them a couple of times when he was a kid. Johnny Rotten walked past him after one of the gigs.
'That was brilliant,' Gary told him.
'You weren't supposed to enjoy it,' Rotten gurned, laughing.
I move out, but eventually I make my way back to the old place, mainly just to see what has become of it, and once or twice I run into Gary, and I am astonished at how glad I am to see him. He once drove me up the wall to the point that I would often pretend to be out when I heard that distinctive bang bang bang on the door, but it's been a good couple of years and I've had some time to reflect, and I've come to realise that despite all his flaws, the worrying allusions to past misdemeanours, this gentle and slightly aromatic giant with a personality somewhere between that of a twelve-year old boy and a big happy dog, Gary is still one of the nicest people I've ever met. He has no hidden agenda, and no propensity for bullshit or delusion - least of all self-delusion. Of all the writers, artists, and musicians I have ever met, you would need to combine a good sixty or seventy of them to come up with someone even half as decent as Gary.
So it's Thursday the 19th of May, 2011, and Gary and I stand in the street talking for about an hour, stood outside the house in which I lived five years ago. He often wondered what happened to me, and how it all worked out in Texas, and he's so unconditionally happy for me that it's embarrassing. He still has his little projects, and the latest has apparently been the transformation of his garden into a zoo with dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea-pigs, and a not unimpressive aviary full of small birds. He's made the aviary out of things found laying at the side of the road. He tells me a little about his weekends. He goes fishing out in the country quite a lot. His dad used to take him when he was a kid, growing up in Camberwell, and he always loved it; and where once I regarded him as a well-meaning pain in the arse, now I realise just how lucky I am to have known this bloke.