It was the nineties and my job was to deliver mail to the upper half of the oddly numbered side of Lordship Lane, East Dulwich. It was one of the longer, heavier walks - so far as I was able to tell - but I had signed for it because it was better than delivering somewhere different every week, having to learn a whole new route from scratch every Monday. The walk was organised in such a way as to oblige me to begin at its furthest point, the house on the corner of Wood Vale where East Dulwich becomes Forest Hill, the house which had once been painted by the Impressionist Camille Pissaro. The idea was that, having started at the furthest point, the rest of the delivery was more or less down hill all the way, eventually bringing me back to the corner of Pellat Road, upon which our sorting office was situated.
Numbers 565 down to 551 constituted my first run of dwellings before I hit the corner of Underhill Road. These were huge, four story townhouses, possibly late Victorian and each divided into flats, some into three, others into as many as seven. They received a lot of mail too, three fat bundles of crap on a bad day with rubber bands straining to prevent an explosion of bills, bank statements and miscellaneous advertising, and all for just eight buildings, albeit eight buildings constituting maybe thirty individual addresses. Each morning I was dropped off at the top, near Wood Vale, and I looked down the hill at this first row and intuited that it would take about five minutes at most, and yet it always worked out more like twenty what with all the packets and standing around filling in forms referring to packets for those who were either not at home or not prepared to get out of bed at that time of the morning.
I only ever met two of the people to whom I delivered along that stretch, a woman rumoured to be on the game, which I suppose might possibly account for why she was usually awake and available to receive parcels at that time of morning, and Billy the blind bloke down at the last house, the one on the corner of Underhill Road. Every Saturday he received a registered letter containing money, which required his signature, but, being either blind or only partially sighted, he was unable to sign for it; so I signed for it, reasoning that although technically it was a sackable offense, the person most likely to object would be the addressee, but as he was getting his registered letter out of the deal it seemed unlikely.
'I'm blind, mate,' he told me, hands patting at the door frame so as to get his bearings. 'I can't see. Is that you, Postman?'
He was short and round, in his fifties with hair receding in untidy retreat. His eyes seemed to absently gaze in different directions and his mouth hung forever open dispensing a voice like gas hissing from a spigot, strained, the voice you do when you phone the boss pretending to be ill as you tell him you're not coming in. He wore an old unwashed dressing gown, or sometimes just a vest and pants like a down at heel character in a film set in the thirties.
At first I warmed to the man, enjoying this encounter with the disabled because it made me feel good about how readily I accept the strange and unfamiliar. It made me a good person, at least for the first couple of weeks.
'Mate,' Billy called me back one morning, having already taken possession of his white and blue envelope of money. He seemed to be staring at the trees behind me, and I realised that I found it slightly aggravating how he always called me mate. 'Do you fink you could try to be a bit earlier next week, mate? I gotta go out, see.'
No I hate to arse or I hope this dun't sound like I'm being rude but - nothing of the sort; just do I fink I could try to be a bit earlier?
It was half past eight in the morning. I had delivered my first letter a little over fifteen minutes before. The time of my delivering that first letter had been determined by how soon I'd been able to get out of the sorting office, which had in turn been determined by how much mail had come in during the night. I'd never enjoyed working Saturdays, so would always cut a few corners, getting going as quick as I could on that sixth day so as to finish as early as possible in hope of the weekend feeling like a weekend. Half past eight did not strike me as an unreasonable time at which to receive one's mail on a Saturday morning. I suppose I could have shaved off fifteen minutes or so by reversing those initial bundles, delivering them backwards and working up the hill towards Wood Vale, but it would be an inconvenience and would make me additionally late from the perspective of everyone else. I explained some of this to Billy.
'So do you fink you could try please, mate? Fank oo.'
He shut the door and I realised I didn't like him very much.
He arsed again and again, every few weeks for the next couple of years. Occasionally an unusually massive workload meant I was as late as half past nine, and on those days he was not just a little blunt, but openly hostile. 'I really need you to get here a bit earlier, mate, yeah?' Brows angled like a kid's drawing of an angry person over those googly eyes looking at different things.
'Like I told you, last time,' I generally explained with gritted teeth, but the information was obviously too hard to process; plus regardless of the hour, he always came to the door dressed like he'd just fallen out of bed, so it wasn't like he could claim to be waiting on me or anything.
If felt strange to hate a disabled man, but Billy made it quite easy, and it's not like it interfered with my job. Indeed, it helped as I began to encounter him out and about around East Dulwich.
There he is at the crossing in his dayglo orange waterproof, being safe and seen, tap tap tap tap with the white cane as he waits to cross the road. 'Excuse me, miss, I don't like to arse but I wonder if you could help me. I'm blind, you see,' in that little boy whine like something out of Dickens. Poor, poor Billy...
She smiles and laughs, self-conscious, taking his arm and helping him across; and she's always young and pretty, like a Princess helping out the poor goblin with his hurty foot.
'Fank oo, Miss. Would you like me to tell you a joke?' and so he tells her some schoolboy joke delivered in the bland, even tone of a kid reading it off a blackboard, concluding with hur hur hur hur and a grin of bad, uneven teeth before he's even quite got the punchline together. 'Fank oo again, miss. I fink you're very kind.'
Then he's off again.
Sometimes I see him in Landells Road. He walks down the middle of the street with a tap tap tap tap seemingly staring off at clouds. Sometimes there is a car behind him, slowly cruising along at walking speed because no-one feels comfortable yelling get out of the fucking road, you stupid cunt at a guy with a white stick. The pavement of Landells Road is wide enough for two people to walk unhindered side by side, the paving stones are all level, and there are no other pedestrians around; and yet somehow Billy is only able to walk down the middle of the street.
'Mate, mate, would jew like me to tell you a joke?'
I'm in the newsagent. Oh for fuck's sake, I think. Why does he need to be forever the centre of attention? He's telling the complete stranger stood behind me a joke which is a bit more Jim Davidson than the ones he keeps in reserve for the pretty young women who help the poor cripple across the road or hold open a door. It's something to do with a husband suspecting his wife might be engaging in an extra-marital relationship, and there are kids of six and seven paying for their choccy bars in front of me while this soft porn drones away in the background.
Why does he need to tell his fucking joke to the entire shop?
I'm just glad he can't see me. He still arse if I can try to be a bit earlier, next week, but these days I ignore him, walking away as he's talking. He gets his money. That's what I'm paid to do. If I wanted to get truly pissy I could refuse to hand it over on the grounds of him being unable to provide a signature.
I hear a more graphic telling of the joke about a husband suspecting his wife of infidelity in the cafe on Crystal Palace Road. This pisses me off because the two sausage, egg, chips, and beans ably cooked by the esteemed Mehmet, or occasionally Ken, his father, is the one part of my working day in which I am briefly freed from the bullshit of work and aching legs and my boss and stupid arseholes who sent a postal order in 1963 and do you know it never arrived?! Billy has tap tap tap tapped his way into the shop, opening with, 'sorry to trubble you, mate, but I was wondering could I have a cup of tea, but the fing is I ain't got no money so I know it's a bit of a cheek.'
Ken, the old Greek, looks uncomfortable but he isn't having it.
Billy whines, somehow keeping it jovial, and that's how he gets to telling the joke. He's going to pay for his tea with the gift of laughter, just like a wandering minstrel. He stands at the counter doing that Stevie Wonder thing. He gets to the rude words - cock and fanny - and Ken has heard enough.
'No, please leave. We don' want you here.' He takes Billy by an elbow and steers him back towards the door. Mehmet has the other elbow and is suggesting that if our wandering minstrel should come back with twenty-five pence then they would be more than happy to serve him a cup of tea.
They shove him out of the door. He stands looking up at the sign, or seeming to for a moment, then wanders off - tap tap tap tap. He doesn't even seem bothered. It was as though he was expecting it.
We don't normally talk much in the cafe, but as I watch him go I hear myself saying quite loud, 'I can't stand that bloke. I know it's a terrible thing to admit, but he really rubs me up the wrong way.'
I realise the little group of cabbies sat at the other table are all laughing. 'He's not even blind,' one of them tells me.
'He's not blind? Are you serious?'
'I've known him thirty years and he can see as well as anyone.'
'What the fuck?'
'His mum died a couple of years ago and I think he had a bit of a turn, and that's how he ended up like that.'
I remember all those young, pretty women helping Billy across the street, and I remember noticing how his course down the center of Landells Road seemed to follow the white line quite closely. Most of all, I remember the poor Billy act, every single fucking time, a human pity sponge. Next time I see him approaching down the center of Landells Road, seeing as there's no traffic, I wheel my big heavy delivery trolley out into the middle, across the white line. I just want to see what he does. Billy tap tap tap taps to within about twenty yards then tap tap tap taps his way between parked vehicles to the pavement.
I guess he has more problems than I realised, something worse than a simple visual impairment; and I find my dislike for him waning a little, because it's easier to just not think about him at all.