|Photograph courtesy of Michael Hall.|
'What are you doing on Tuesday after work?' Marian asked.
'Nothing,' I said, hoping this was the right thing to say. 'Do you have something in mind?'
'My friend Richard needs a hand. We're taking a new fridge over to his house, and it would be great if you could help out. It wouldn't take very long.'
It was early on in my relationship with Marian, and her use of the term friend had not yet taken on the connotations it would later carry. With Marian, friends were not so much people with which you necessarily had anything in common as associates or colleagues, usually people she'd encountered on ISA self-improvement courses. She had friends outside of ISA she insisted, just friends she didn't see for years at a time and to whom she rarely spoke on the telephone.
She had tried to coax me into taking an ISA self-improvement course, but I resisted because I resented the implication that I required improvement by Marian's suspiciously ambiguous terms, and I was reluctant to shell out several hundred quid for something the nature of which Marian refused to describe because it would somehow destroy the magic. I had the impression that ISA was a cult, and this impression had been gleaned from, amongst other things, my phoning up the Cult Information Centre somewhere over in west London and asking them if they thought ISA were a cult.
'Yes,' the man said. 'ISA is a cult,' and he advised me to have as little to do with them as possible. It struck me as good advice.
Tuesday came, as did Marian's friends in an estate car with a fridge in the back. It occurred to me that my assistance seemed not so crucial a detail as I had been led to believe given that there were three of them, including Marian, and they had already managed to get the fridge into the car so it probably wasn't going to be that big a deal at the other end; but I'd already said yes, and it wasn't going to take long.
True to form, Marian's friends were people she knew from numerous ISA courses. Nadia was a young black woman with a dry sense of humour. She was likeable and funny, and we got on fairly well; from which Marian presumably developed her theory that I have a thing for black women. My guess is that this is probably because I am able to talk to black women without first having to remind myself that they are just like you or I, but black, or whatever the hell it is that first goes through Marian's head when addressing those she would have regarded as inferiors until ISA taught her otherwise.
'I wouldn't have looked at you twice were it not for ISA,' she once told me in defence of the organisation. This was due to my being a mere postman, really no better than a common labourer. Apparently she was now able to see things differently, and it was all thanks to ISA. Had it not been for ISA, I would have been just some shit-thick manually labouring cunt so far as Marian was concerned.
'There are a lot of pictures of Karen here,' she scowled several years later, viewing the photographs I'd taken at the works Christmas drink. Only about six of us had turned up, Debbie, Geoff, Don, Karen, Rich, and myself. Karen was the black girl in the photographs.
'There are a lot more of Don,' I pointed out, 'and in case you're wondering, I don't fancy him either.'
Meanwhile back at Operation Fridge, we all piled into the car, Marian, Nadia, and myself. A person called Ian was driving, and I quickly realised that I hated this man almost more than anyone else I'd ever met in my life. He was a little older than me, past middle-aged and an ex-teacher. He had a broken, abrasive quality about him. He squinted from beneath failed Donald Trump hair with a wrinkled manatee face, and his lips were too large, pursed and acidic like those of an embittered old drag queen confronted with a poorly coordinated handbag. He punctuated his driving with occasional comic observations of a peculiarly joyless kind, like little cocktail sticks jabbed into your flesh. In conversation, his observations were made from the position of someone who knows something of which you yourself are clearly ignorant. It was not difficult to see how he had ended up on the self-help roundabout.
We drove through Brixton, and then Clapham, and then beyond. The three of them talked about ISA, but none of the good stuff forbidden to the ears of outsiders, nothing of what actually went on, just the sort of details I presume were calculated to draw me in.
'What is this again?' I would ask. 'I guess maybe I should give this workshop deal of yours a go.' Except I didn't, because they were children affecting nonchalance whilst discussing the new My Little Pony game, desperately hoping I'll ask them about it.
A new My Little Pony game you say? Tell me more!
The projected half hour was already forty-five minutes and we weren't even there. In fact an A-Z was being passed around, held at different angles in order that its secrets might be more easily divined. Being winter, it was already getting dark and the traffic was heavy. Richard, to whom we were taking the fridge, was their friend, but not so close that any of them actually knew where he lived. This enterprise was taking longer than promised, as tended to be the case when Marian was involved, this being Marian who would agree to meet you at two, turn up at four, and then tell you that you had meant four because when someone asks you to meet them at two, they really mean four. Everyone knows that.
Needless to say, there didn't seem to be much point in commenting upon this change to the terms and conditions, because she always had the small-print to hand.
She said this wasn't going to take very long.
But did I actually say we were going to be back home before nine in the evening, or did you just assume that, Lawrence, like you always do? or else it would be some testy remark about her inability to see into the future, which is why we didn't even have the conversation. It wasn't worth the trouble.
We arrived at Richard's place, evidently a bedsit in a much larger house, a great crumbling Edwardian mansion. It took a couple of minutes to get an answer. It seemed that Richard hadn't actually been expecting us and had been asleep. He emerged blinking like a sort of human mole, a slightly rounded head with hair cut short and a hunched figure. He seemed nervous, but glad to see us, or at least pleased to discover that the day held this particular element of the unexpected. He invited us in, albeit with some reluctance.
His room was at the top of a flight of steps, the way dimly lit by a light bulb somewhere way up near the cavernous ceiling. The place was quiet and damp. Year old newspapers, unpaid bills, and junk mail gathered dust on the lower steps of the staircase.
His rooms were small, just a bedroom with a kitchen at one end so far as I could see. It was stuffed full of books and CDs, and there was a computer and a bass guitar and musical equipment, but otherwise it was nightmarish, a nest made by somebody waiting for death. Newspapers, plastic carrier bags, anything that should have otherwise found its way to a dustbin was trodden flat into a grey carpet. Plates sat upon the floor, poking out from beneath the bed, the remains of whatever he'd been eating slowly calcifying like fossils. Only the computer looked clean.
In the kitchen, three or four inches of grey water sat in a sink which had apparently lost the will to drain, filthy plates lay within at hopeless angles. There was no smell, presumably because it was freezing cold and the only heat source I had noticed was a portable three bar electric fire.
I'd lived in some shitholes in my time, and visited much worse, but this was like nothing I had seen before. I was lost for words.
The three with which I had arrived were bustling around, inspecting the squalor, asking Richard if he thought it was okay to live this way. I felt suddenly uncomfortable, not least because I realised there was no point to our bringing a fridge up here into this room, so clearly something else was happening.
I was introduced to Richard as Marian and Nadia began to wrestle the shit from the floor into black plastic bags. So far as I knew I was just here to hump a large heavy object up a flight of stairs, but I'd noticed familiar titles on the bookcase and amongst those crumbling towers of media piled in the corners of the room, and so it seemed that Richard and I had something in common.
He told me a little about himself. He was about my age and had been in bands. He liked science-fiction. He reminded me of a few people I already knew, such were the common details, and we even seemed to have a couple of distant but nevertheless mutual friends. He wasn't quite a brother from another mother, but within minutes we found we got on so well that it seemed like I should already have known this guy in some capacity, or at least known of him.
It was difficult to square this slightly shy - although not cripplingly so - and undoubtedly amiable man with the conditions in which he'd been living, and the claim that he had not made exit from his own front door in about three weeks. He had problems, as I should have known, and he'd taken an ISA course in an attempt to address these problems. It didn't really look like a successful attempt from where I stood, but in any case this was how he knew Marian and the others. He told me a little of his problems, although I don't recall the details beyond divorce, estrangement from his own child, and a death somewhere in the equation. He was otherwise a regular, thoughtful guy who'd had a shitty break and was yet to fully come back from it.
This was an intervention.
'We look after each other in ISA,' Marian told me as she gathered chipped plates and cups from the floor. 'Isn't that the sort of thing you would be interested in?'
This was for my benefit as much as anything. We had come to bail Richard out, to wipe his arse for him, figuratively speaking. We were here to do that with which he no longer felt able to cope, because he was lost in his own behavioural spiral, sinking further and further into inertia. We were here on a mission.
Nevertheless I hadn't come to help, I had come to learn a lesson. This was so I could understand why Marian had been right all along.
I shuffled out into the kitchen and began to clear up, concentrating on the aspects of our visit which mattered, namely saving this poor fucker from himself. The rest I would worry about later. I managed to unblock the sink and then clean enough of the kitchen to begin washing the conveyor belt of plates and mugs and knives and forks coming from the other room. I gazed from the window as I washed, out across the damp squalor of ruined gardens and railway lines, but it was too dark to see anything.
Two or three hours passed, and the bedsit was ready to receive the new fridge. Whilst the place remained cramped and depressing, it was at least clean and fit for human habitation. Ian and myself humped the old fridge out into the overgrown garden ready for collection by the council, and then brought in the new one. Richard was close to tears. He seemed overwhelmed that anyone should have done this for him. It was getting on for seven in the evening, and this job of just half an hour had taken five. I had been lied to, and as a result I had spent nearly five hours in the company of one of the most acidic men I've ever met, and yet somehow none of it mattered because some good had come from the day.
Richard helped me move house a couple of years later - specifically helping me shift a couple of massive shelves - and although we never became close, it was good to hear about him from time to time, and to know that things seemed to be working out for him. I guess the intervention had occurred during one of his lowest periods. These days I see him on facebook as a remote presence. I avoid too much interaction because I don't know how he feels about his breakdown, or whatever it was, and I don't wish to stir things up. I don't know how he feels about ISA either. My take on them remains unchanged, regardless of good deeds done by their individual members, and I personally suspect that whatever strength brought Richard back from the edge was something he already had rather than something done for him by anyone else; and I could tell him all of this but I don't know if it would really help, or even that my views matter in this instance.
I still have nightmares involving Marian from time to time, and they really are nightmares - usually her passive-aggressiving me into some vaguely suicidal corner - so it's always nice to remind myself that some good came out of it, at least this one time.