The drinker I didn’t know

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It’s quiet living by the sea. Alright, it can seem a bit like London Fields during the height of the summer season when the Camel Trail teams with cyclists and every doorstep and bench is occupied by someone eating a pasty. But for much of the time it’s tranquil, almost – empty. Though ironically that is when living by the sea is it’s most sociable. That’s when it is impossible to walk more than a few paces without meeting a friend, or more likely a casual acquaintance with whom to share a minute or two musing upon the weather (the most popular topic of conversation here in the south west). Or discussing the arrival of an unfamiliar boat in the harbour, or the next event on the town’s social horizon. Small communities are just that. Intimate, entwined, with common ground and interests, and levels of history  as multitudinous and revealing as the concentric rings embedded within the trunk of an ancient tree. I’ve met people with huge financial stakes in the town. Others who have sacrificed everything for little reward. The children of those who died going about their work, spoken of with sadness and respect decades after their untimely demises. And others who at first meeting distain those who have done them some injustice, only to witness a 180 degree about turn when their chips are down and discovering that they are in some convoluted way distantly related. In a small town there is a charming and gregarious openness within and without, a labyrinthine of secrets.

Kim and I moved into our new house, after a decade and a half in the other, almost exactly a year ago. I haven’t paced it out but I doubt the distance between the two properties, a slate hung cottage in the old town and close to the harbour and the Edwardian detached house at the end of a road of Victorian and 1930s homes on what would have been farmland a century ago, is more than 500 yards. Despite the closeness in distance the two homes are in many respects worlds apart, and the ribbing from former neighbours reminded me of that dished out to this day by north Londoners when speaking to those living south of the river. Prior to the extension of the London Overground rail link to places once unknown even to those living south of the Thames I had shared the belief that the other side of the river was a forgotten place best left alone. However,quite how such geographical prejudice could be applied to this town was beyond me. That is until we had actually moved in. It was then then that I discovered that even within a small town that could be slipped into a modest London park there are inconceivable differences; other sounds, unimagined characteristics, difference issues, and new people, those who have apparently never ventured those few hundred yards into that other world:

There’s the girl with the ponytail in black and yellow latex upon a racing bike who passes the house at some considerable speed every morning, despite the gradient of the hill. There are horses and riders, and farmers with tractors, and the man who lives down the lane who drives a vintage Landrover, and a local businesswoman who enjoys Pinot Grigio soirees on her terrace. The mayor lives nearby, as does the man whose pasties have won accolades the length and breadth of the country, and the man with hands like tea trays who drives a pick-up and clears building sites and who speaks like a contestant on University Challenge. All of them, and the young man who tossed his empty beer cans into our garden.

I don’t know exactly how many empty beer cans I collected those first few weeks, but it was in the dozens. And when the man with the tea tray hands and a stooped colleague had combined chain saws and brute force on our overgrown garden there were more. Not the cheap, flavourless, low alcohol stuff. The empties we gathered in black plastic bin liners were premium brands; Special Brew, Red Stripe, Carlsberg Export, Grolsch and some Polish brews with AVBs figures closer to hat sizes than alcohol content. Our litterbug was clearly a drinker who didn’t like wasting time. This was the detritus of a drinker with one mission in life; to get obliterated as swiftly as possible. Oh and another mission, to store their empties in the unloved, overgrown, slightly dilapidated, down at heel house at the end of the street.

It wasn’t long, no more than a couple of weeks, when I discovered the perpetrator, a tall, rangy young man with a purposeful stride, taking regular slugs from a beer can in his right hand. I’m not good on ages. It’s an aspect of getting old that everyone with ungreyed hair appears youthful and could be any age from late teens to early forties. But noticing the gel in his perpendicular short black hair I took a punt on 25. His equine face was unnaturally florid and his eyes, even from a distance, impassive. I ran outside and positioned myself at such a place that he could see me and would be aware of me watching him as and when he decided to eject another empty. As he got nearer his eyes appeared even emptier, as though there were nothing behind the strident, strutting beer swilling visage. He didn’t acknowledge my presence for a second, looking straight ahead all the while, vacuous, supercilious perhaps. He turned the corner, crossed the street and about ten houses down appeared to throw something over a garden wall. No furtive glances to see if anyone was watching. Moving stridently forward with just the deftest flick of the wrist. A skillful maneuver perfected from many months, maybe years of practice. I confess to having been a bit diminished. In the short time I’d been in our new home I’d assumed that the empty cans were intended for us. Some indictment of home ownership. But I was wrong, and faintly hurt. My languid and strutting neighbour clearly wasn’t in the least partial where his cans finished up. Any garden would do. It was just that mine, overgrown and unloved, had been the most convenient.

I saw him several times over the coming weeks. Asta, our Airedale, had clocked him too, running parallel to him along the garden fence had shown her disapproval of public drinking by barking at him with what Kim and I agreed was uncharacteristic ferocity. She’d see him in the distance heading our way and then run up and down the wall as he strode past, growling, and barking and true to form, wagging her corkscrew tail fervently in friendship.

Over the ensuing weeks, when neighbours and acquaintances from our former corner of town (and some of those hereabouts who had been monitoring our arrival) asked us how we were getting on we remarked that everything was going according to plan. The house was everything we had hoped it would be. Yes, there was a lot to do, and that included clearing the endless supply of discarded beer cans. These neighbours were all, without exception, familiar the perpetrator, and they all, again without exception, lowered their heads and said just that he had problems.  No argument there then. This was a young man who’d be taking hits of premium lager when most of us enjoying our tea and toast. I’d say he had problems.

Problems or not you couldn’t fault the young man’s time keeping, or his thirst. It got the point where I could expect to see him three or four times a day. Always around the same times; about 8.30 in the morning; early lunch, between twelve and one, and then again late afternoon, around 4.30. Neither could you fault his posture. See him walk most purposefully and erect down the hill to town I was reminded of one of a scene in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King when Michael Caine tells Sean Connery they should ‘polish our buttons, stuff ramrods up our jacksies and look bold’. There was something equally predetermined, and inexorable about my hard drinking neighbour.

Purely by virtue of driving past the moment he put the key into the lock of a grey front door I discovered that our man lived in a small block of flats just along the way. Watching him, can in hand, I wondered if he opened a can before he left, while dressing perhaps, or if he kept that pleasure for when he was on the street? And then polishing off nearly all of contents in the minute or so it took to reach our garden fence? It is a small, unremarkable block within which every life is concealed behind net curtains. Affordable homes for local people priced out of the property market hereabouts by the likes of me.

I doubt it was the sight of me, in overalls working on the house, that persuaded him to toss fewer cans in the garden. More likely it was Asta’s admonishments, those she reserved for postmen, horses, dogs so decrepit they can barely turn to face her, and him. Then, on two occasions I thought I heard, in hushed tones, a voice say “hello Asta” as she stuck her head through the fence at the second he brushed past. By then she had stopped kicking up a ruckus each time he appeared and was more content to run along the fence and wag her tail.

Simultaneously the numbers of cans dwindled and I began to realize just what a dapper lush he was. A little red around the gills but he neither wore jeans nor sneakers favouring loose fitting trousers with a billowy dash of New Romanticism, worn with an untucked shirt and long jacket. As the weather improved he wore a long double breasted blazer in off white to such insouciant effect that he could have easily claimed to being one of the best dressed men in town.

I can’t recall when it dawned upon me that I hadn’t seen him for a while. But when I did I also realised that I was looking out for him. He and the cans had become part of my neighborhood furniture. A not entirely joyous element of my new world, but an element nonetheless, and I missed him.

It was a couple of weeks later I learnt he’d died. The bearer of the news didn’t know the cause of his death, only that the funeral had taken place the week before, and had been crowded. The boss of the company he’d worked gave a eulogy in which he’d made a point of how hard the deceased had worked. Not an engaging job by all accounts. Monotonous, and dreary. But he’d been one of the hardest workers there, and would be missed. He was 34 years old. He been living up north somewhere but had returned to the west country to be with his father suffering a terminal illness. I think I’d have drunk much more if it had been me.

I raised a glass to the passing of the neighbour nobody seemed to know much about when he was alive, but for all the empties – who hit it off, in a quiet sort of way, with Asta.

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