People notice the accent and ask where I'm from. Some assume I'm Australian. I've never quite settled on an answer, but have recently taken to saying Stratford-upon-Avon. Everyone's heard of Stratford-upon-Avon because of Shakespeare, and that was the nearest large town when I was growing up. Since then I've spent five years in Kent, about three in Coventry, and nearly twenty in south-east London - pacing around the country like I was trying to get out.
I'm no longer certain of the dates - late nineties and maybe some small change, but no later than 2002. It's seven in the morning at Royal Mail. Some days I'll take the unofficial ten minute grace break, but not today. I have too much work. We have a workload amounting to about nine hours of work which we have to fit into an eight hour day, so breaks tend to go out the window. If this week's acting governor is an arsehole and any mail is left undelivered because someone bothered to take the break to which they're entitled, it could mean an entirely unethical first stage warning for delaying the mail. No-one has the time or energy to argue.
I usually spend the grace break - if I take it - talking to Carmen. She's the woman who runs our canteen. She works for a catering contractor rather than Royal Mail, and has been assigned to our place. We're about the same age, but she's from a Caribbean background. She's coffee coloured with a smile that warms my heart, and - to commit what may well be racial stereotyping - a soft, lilting voice which sounds almost as though she's singing. We are both lost souls of some description. She asks about my possibly ludicrous attempts to write a novel, and I tell her about Lawrence Miles, my favourite author. She says that he sounds interesting. She lives in Plaistow, miles away in East London, and attends a reading group once a week. She's even read some Philip K. Dick. I like her because she seems to like me, and because she's interested in things. There's more to her than tea and toast.
'It's not Philip K. Dick, but it's probably better than Jeffrey Archer,' I joke, having lumbered her with a stack of pages from my cranky novel, printed from my PC last night.
'You shouldn't laugh at him,' she says, not unkindly. 'He's sold a lot of books.'
But today I work through the break to a soundtrack of Jackie swearing in the next bay along from mine, mostly cursing those to whom she delivers mail for either getting too much of it, or for it being mostly junk. I can never tell whether she's genuinely outraged or just passing time. She seems neither happy nor unhappy, just world weary.
Ted passes and jokes, 'Do you know who the father is yet, Jack? Must be one of this lot innit?' He grins and casts his gaze around the sorting office so as to imply that any one of the thirty or so males present could be the father of Jackie's impending child.
'Yeah,' she sighs, playing along. 'I'll probably just name him SE22.' This is the postcode covered by our sorting office.
'Wasn't you was it, Oscar?' Ted now asks me. 'You didn't get our Jack up the duff, did you?'
'Sorry, Ted. Not guilty.'
'It weren't Lawrence,' Jackie confirms. 'I'm sure I would have remembered.'
On the subject of mysteries, I still haven't pinned down why Ted took to calling me Oscar. Some days it seems to be a reference to Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street, others it's after Oscar Wilde - which may be an obscure play on words referencing how wild I apparently seem when I'm pissed off.
'I'll have something for you later,' Ted tells me in a more furtive tone, which reminds me that I have Sue's record. I have it in my bag. I take it out and go around to the next aisle of sorting frames.
'Here you go,' I hand it over. It's Blade's The Lion Goes From Strength To Strength, double white vinyl, very rare these days.
'Did you like it?'
'Fantastic - reminds me a bit of Public Enemy. You know, that kind of full on sound, very dense.'
'Yeah - it's good. Did you make a copy?'
'Yes. I'll burn you the CDR tonight if that's all right. It came out really well.'
It was quite a surprise when I found out Sue was into rap in a big way. She used to be one of those teenagers with a hoodie and a spray can forever breaking into train yards, or whatever it is they do. She's tall and skinny, kind of smiley. But for a slight Kentish twang she seems more like someone who has adventures in a children's book than a reformed b-girl.
Eventually I have all of the mail in the sorting frame, so I'm working my way through the redirections. The information is printed on a series of yellow cards kept in clear plastic wallets, one for each address. I work through the cards, pulling mail from the frame to check it isn't addressed to whoever has moved away. In instances where it is addressed to someone who has moved away and has accordingly paid for the service, I take a sticker for the new address from the rear of the plastic wallet and slap it on the envelope, covering the old address. After about twenty minutes I have a stack of thirty or so letters and magazines destined to be forwarded to other parts of the country. I head for the other side of the office, to the outward sorting frame to which we sort mail headed for Scotland, the Midlands, Cornwall and so on.
I encounter Alan, the fake Rasta, as I turn the corner of the frame. He's our acting governor this week and he's an arsehole. I think of him as the fake Rasta after Nadim gave him the name.
'I saw that fake Rasta last week,' Nadim told me. 'I was just walking along, you know.'
'He slowed down like he was going to chat shit. He had this big fuckin' smile, man.' Nadim made the noise, sucking air between his two front teeth. 'I looked down and there was this brick just on the road, so I picked it up and looked right at him, like weighing it up in my hand, yeah?'
'Seriously?' I began to laugh, relishing the thought of Alan terrorised by a former employee.
'Yeah, man. He didn't look too happy about that. He wasn't smiling no more, you know what I'm sayin'?'
'What? He drove off?'
'Yeah. He put his foot down, man. I'm tellin' you.'
Anyway, right now I'm headed directly for the outward sorting. There's no other place I could possibly be going given that I'm on this side of the office. I'm holding a big stack of mail in front of me, redirection stickers plainly visible. My purpose is fucking obvious.
'Lawrence,' Alan says.
He wags a finger as he strides past. 'Don't let me find any redirections on your frame. Take them to the outward sorting otherwise I'll be giving you a first stage warning.'
'Okay.' I think of Nadim stood at the side of the road, screw faced with a brick in his hand. I liked Nadim, but he was given the heave ho, for reasons which seemed unconvincing to just about everyone. Black guys seem to have a tough time in this job, particularly if there's a black manager who feels he needs to prove something. They actively look for failings, pouncing on minor irregularities about which no-one gives a shit if you're white. The white supremacist contingent always chuckle to themselves about the bad attitude of black workers, but it's bullshit. Mostly the supposed bad attitude seems more like a justifiable reluctance to lay back and take it whilst being fucked over by upper management, which is unfortunately how the job works.
Call me Ben Elton, but this is why I generally prefer working with black people. They know when to tell the governor to fuck off. They're attuned to detecting when they're being diddled from above.
I'm on the sorting with Jimmy Axton - whom Carmen calls Jimmy Ackleston, unless I'm thinking of Lucy. It's just the two of us because it's Saturday and we're on late duties. Jim fancies a fag but doesn't want to light up in case Frank, the acting governor, is still hanging around. I first met Frank when he was acting governor at Catford, and vividly recall him locking himself inside his office as Robbie Finley tried to smash the glass with a broom, bellowing, 'Come out and face me, you cunt!' Robbie lost his job but was later briefly eulogised in song, something adapted from a number which had become popular at football matches.
Robbie Finley, he's our mate.
He's our mate. He's our mate.
Robbie Finley, he's our mate.
He smacks governors!
The song transposes both the name and the violent action of the original - smacks governors for kills coppers - and isn't strictly accurate in so much as that Frank remained safe in his office, which I suppose was for the best given that Robbie's objection was not entirely without foundation.
I walk up to the hatch of the PHG cage to see if Frank is hanging around within, as is sometimes the case. He isn't, but Sav is in there with the others. They're watching porn. The woman on the screen wears stockings and is on her back. She has quite a nice arse, and I don't think I've seen this one. I'm sure I would have remembered.
'Blimey, Sav,' I observe.
'Lawrie,' he exclaims, and we both make the established noise of greeting - uuuuuuuh, like a moose.
'Whose video is this?,' I ask. 'Is this one of Ted's?'
'What the fuck do you want?'
'Is this your video?, I ask. 'Can I borrow it?'
'I don't know whose it is.'
'Video?' Sav snorts derision. 'This is on the telly!'
'Live & Kicking has changed a lot.'
A brief silence ensues as we all watch appreciatively.
'If I was in charge,' I propose, 'I would make it illegal for women to be not wearing suspenders at all times.'
Mel scowls. 'Say that again?'
'I said it wrong. What I meant was that if I was in charge I would pass a law requiring that they wear stockings and suspenders at all times.'
Sav chuckles. 'What? Men as well?'
'No. For men it would be on a purely voluntary basis.'
'Oh yes?' Sue asks, coming in from the other room, amused by our sudden discomfort. 'What's all this?'
'No, honestly,' I stutter in response to the accusation I've imagined. 'I was looking for Frank and I got distracted.'
I flash a glance at the television set. Someone with lightning reflexes has turned it off. Sav stares from the window as though he has something on his mind. Mel leaves the room shaking his head.
It's Saturday evening, September 2002 but probably not the same Saturday. We're meeting at the Crystal Palace Tavern, but I'm the only one who has turned up. I have a drink with Snowy who is sat in the saloon bar, as is probably usual. He's bigger than ever. He's put on a lot of weight since taking extended leave, and it doesn't look like he's coming back. It's wonderful to see him and it's been a while. He's one of the funniest people I've met but has had a few setbacks of late what with the death of his dad and his own declining health. He's still a handsome bastard though, even with all those chins which somehow give him an aristocratic appearance, and the full head of snow white hair swept back with a bit of a duck's arse at the front.
We chat shit for a while, how are things back at the sorting office and which useless arseholes have been left in charge, how bad it's getting; but his breathing seems laboured and there's no longer quite such a twinkle in his eye. I get the feeling that this will be the last time I see him, which will eventually turn out to have been unfortunately prescient of me. He's a survivor of better days in the job, of life in general. He will be missed when he's gone.
Paul turns up, and it's just the two of us, which is unfortunate because he can be hard work. He got the boot a few months ago, and now he's full of conspiracy theories about why he was sacked and how he's going to blow the roof off that place using secret cameras and exposés, the results of which will be broadcast on Channel 4. He has delusions of cinematic aptitude, and has been pushing his autobiographical motion picture which is named My Heart is Broken. He talks it well, but only two of us have seen the single videotape which is slowly making its way around the office. Terry's verdict, for one example, was that it was very good, very professional, but he'd expected it to be longer than fifteen minutes. The story of the film is based on Paul's own childhood, which sounds less than idyllic. We all have the promotional postcards he's been giving out featuring a still of the boy who plays Paul as a kid.
'I used to smear myself with my own shit and hide in the cupboard,' he tells me. 'That was so he wouldn't hit me any more.'
'I know,' I say, having heard the story many times. The thing with Paul is that it's impossible to tell how much is made up, and it's frustrating because there's clearly some awful truth in there; plus he's not a bad bloke, just a bit manic.
Carmen arrives at eight, all the way from Plaistow, which is a massive relief. I wonder what it says about her personal life that she's chosen to hang out with us sad sacks on this warm September evening. Unfortunately our combined presence is not enough to get Paul off the subject of himself and how a lot of people are going to be very sorry.
Sue arrives half an hour later with some friend from outside work. The drink was Sue's idea, but never mind. Her friend seems okay, bit shrill, nothing much to say of any great interest seeing as she doesn't know us or any of our colleagues whom we're now busily slagging off behind their backs, but her presence is at least sufficient to dilute Paul's mania.
Kingsley arrives after nine, and that's it. There are just six of us out of the whole office, three of whom either no longer work there or never worked there. Kingsley takes a shine to Sue's friend and somehow transforms into a more slimline Barry White. I hear him asking about her star sign with a big smile, and he's lost to us for the rest of the evening.
We drink, and Paul resumes his ranting and raving, and I think about how Carmen has travelled across London for this.
'I must go,' she sighs, and no-one questions because we all appreciate she has a long trip back. It still seems early.
'I'll walk you to the bus-stop,' I say.
We talk as we stroll down Whateley Road towards Lordship Lane, nothing amazing, just writing and the stuff we talk about on the rare occasions when I take a grace break. She tells me in passing that she once went to North Africa on a roots thing and was surprised to find that Africans came in all shapes, shades, and sizes. She's always interesting.
I know it wouldn't ever work between us, but sometimes it's nice to pretend that it would; and it's nice just to enjoy her company without feeling any sort of pressure to impress or perform.
There's almost a moment when the bus comes. I kiss her on the cheek, and that's that.
I walk up the hill, back to my flat in the basement of a four story house. There doesn't seem to be much point in going back to the pub. I'm lonely, but I'm used to it. I don't recall any other state of being. The financial powers which rule the city are doing their best to gouge me out of my present security, to oblige me to pay more for less, even though I'm already pretty much reduced to a utility because they haven't yet invented a robot which will do it cheaper.
I have my doner kebab and something disgusting borrowed from Ted, and I'm under no illusions about anything.
On the other hand, I'm cautiously settled. If I can just hang on until I eventually die, I'll be happy. I have no-one, and probably never will for reasons I don't yet understand, but that's okay. I no longer have the desire to move on because I'm not sure there's anywhere left to go. One day I'll look back on all of this and see things in a very different light, but for now this is where I am, so this is where I'm from; and it's the closest I will ever come to a definitive answer.