It takes some effort to stifle the yawn. Just good manners in the end. After all it was his friend who’d brought him along, and this was his friend’s ‘mate’, holding court, dipped lights catching a hint of something sour in his boat, but all the same this chap looking very pleased with himself. The invisible man didn’t wish to appear rude, put a dampener on his friend’s enthusiasm.
‘It’s out there’, he’d been told.
At the last one some guy read his poem bollock naked and then went for a pint straight after.
He should have known there and then. Shouldn’t even have waited for the ‘not like anything else on the circuit.’ Then again the only circuit he knew consisted of the shops, the bus, the inevitable row with some low-slung-trousered ruffian in between home visits, Mum putting on a classic, Windrush-era display of stoicism, the osteo-arthri-cardio given the same treatment as suspected fiddlers in another age near the school gates. Short shrift in other words. So it was barely even a circuit really, not when you broke it down like that, and there was certainly no space in there for this type of carry on.
It’s retro, this. Must be, he thinks. Anything this poor is bound to have gone looking for an alibi in the past. Or is this what people mean nowadays by ‘knowing’? So hard to tell, especially when no one really knows anything, least of all your friend’s ‘mate’, stage right, lit up, but sadly as yet not like a firework.
Some tilt at the past in this guy’s schtick, a distant fog of three channels, black and white minstrels, but if it’s the seventies, he thinks, then come on fella, at least concede that a TV comic like Dave Allen was funny.
Not like this joker, his friend’s mate.
A growl in the step, spitting dockside yarns, and it’s fine really, or at least everyone else seems to think so. But something in this man’s delivery bothers him. The penny only drops when a salacious vignette is foregrounded with some achingly ‘correct’ preamble explaining ‘that’s how people spoke back then’. Sitting there absorbing such dilute-to-taste makes him surprisingly angry. A willing dupe in the court of this forelock tugger, silent witness to this fraud on stage who couldn’t even say what he was without apologising for it beforehand.
Nothing at all like Dave Allen.
The quick-witted Irishman in his chair never had any such qualms. Handsome fella too, made for the telly, fag, whisky, mangled digit around the glass, unrepentant. If he was being honest he’d have to admit he didn’t understand half of it at the time, as he’d just been too young. But what had stayed with him was the memory of Dad, in particular in peals of laughter at the Irishman, and how that made him laugh too. Cheered them all up in fact, sketches about competitive funeral directors, Catholic priests, every last one of them dodgy, the laughter track settling into the off-cuts, supplying an endorphin finish to the flock wallpaper. Dead funny, and a good diversionary tactic, given how long the carpets took to absorb the telltale stench of Dettol. Not exactly Angel Dust, PCP, or any of the more familiar poisons the Irishman favoured. Like most things around this way, their experience of toxins always one letter shy of the big time. PCD. Poo. Carpet. Dettol. Even so, there would be no let-up in the deliveries. It was if there was a conveyor belt, like the one on The Generation Game , leading straight to their letterbox. He used to dread that sound, the metal snapping shut and the unwanted packages sliding through. Presumably the product of fresh white batty, he’d think, labouring to keep up with an era-specific demand for potent symbolic gestures. The one time it seemed whitey wouldn’t turn up empty-handed to an immigrant home. BYOP. Bring. Your. Own. Poo.
That’s the thing, you’ve got to laugh, son, and it’s true, he thinks, the endorphins make you forget. Still, he remembers the chap who said that to him, one of those big fellas at the football, donkey jacket, an unsmiling cockney veteran of ‘the Chicken Run’, but always with his flask in the right and a bag of piss in the southpaw. Recalls how it all kind of made sense at the time: Upton Park, its weekend rituals a lesser-known hotbed of wit and wisdom.
You’ve got to laugh, son.
And not long after he’d see that bag go flying into the visitors’ enclosure, the sickened punters marked by liquid shrapnel, everyone else having a bloody good laugh. Someone would mention a golden shower and then someone else a free drink, and sure enough by some miracle or call it what you will, perhaps the sanction of a mirthful crowd, the whole terrace would be shaking, the last thing on anyone’s mind the Hammers’ comedy defending or yet another season of mercurial underachievement.
As for this joker on stage. He’s the other lot. Millwall.
Not ‘the Treatment’ or ‘the Halfway Line’. The ones you never wanted to run into. The ones you’d want to regale with jokes about the Alsatian or the pounding music or countless others, before your sphincter would have other ideas. And rightly so. They don’t call it gut instinct for nothing. No, he’s not that. This chap’s comedy Millwall, the version that’s pimped out by professional south Londoners for the benefit of outsiders. The stressing of the second syllable, the sour face, the nasal whine.
That’s right, son, you’re Millwall now.
Cue canned laughter from the raconteur’s comedy sarf London mate, just happy to play along because it’s all a laugh, innit?
He turns round to look at this mate, who’s standing near the back with his arms folded even though there’s still seats available. It’s some kind of a stance, evidently, and it seems to be having the desired effect, as other heads, mostly female, have also turned to trace the source of the laughter. And he has to admit, fair play, it’s a different kind of sound effect, this, all gut and indignation, joy utterly evacuated from the premises. He guesses the punters won’t have heard too many laughs like that prior to this evening. Half the reason they’re here. New experiences, the pull of the unfamiliar. That’s the draw, surely? He’s struggling to see what else it could be. It’s not exactly a literary masterclass on stage.
it’s a different kind of sound effect, this, all gut and indignation, joy utterly evacuated from the premises. He guesses the punters won’t have heard too many laughs like that prior to this evening. Half the reason they’re here. New experiences, the pull of the unfamiliar.
‘That was round about the time I was trawling the bookies’ for lost betting slips. You never knew what you’d find between Port Vale v Scunthorpe and the 3.20 from Kempton Park…’
More call and response from the defensive-body-languaged sidekick.
Do they see what he sees though?
Hackett Polo, a barely concealed taste for reassuringly expensive lager, and the world weary permafrown of the aggressive ticket tout.
Get in there, my son!
No, what they see takes shape in what he hears. And what he hears in the slightly nervous giggles which break out is the sound of frisson. Of itches being scratched. Aitch stepping out with haitch from the cordon sanitaire.
Still, he can’t really hold it against any of them. As the terrace philosopher used to opine, ‘You’ve got to laugh, son.’ Past-present redux as comedy central.
Besides, he knows full well there’s always a ‘mate’ in attendance during such routines; has to be, a living witness to all the lies. And he gets it, the thrill of cutting corners, the instant gratification. Who knows? If either of this double act can still find wood and a willing accomplice, perhaps they’ll be crossing swords at some point during a post-performance three-way, though that’s an image of social mobility he subsequently has to work hard at to put out of his mind. Though in fairness, it’s largely preoccupied with conducting the kind of miniature social autopsies first occasioned in another age by the whooshing of air past metal. Still, on stage at least, there’s no performance anxiety. And the boho upper-middle which will insist on these low-end establishments for their bi-monthly fix of the vernacular for now at least appear to be thoroughly engrossed in this estuarine orbit. The young women enthralled by the thought that yes, just by coming here all sorts of boundaries have already been transgressed. Written on their boats, the invisible man surmises, Waitrose slumming at LiDl. In search of something raw hailing from the docks. But not really, and that’s fine too. The boys, a study in metropolitan skinny, one and all, happy to be cuckolded again. They never really cared much for these girls anyway. He feels he has the measure of them too, strongly suspects they often find themselves fantasising about bears, and not the ones who live in the woods. No, their beasts are more likely turn up in institutional colours, albeit televisual ones. Ashes to Ashes, The French Connection. Gene Hunt or was that Hackman? Hardly matters which, he thinks, but if he was a betting man he’d put money on their fantasies definitely involving some toughtalking gent roughing up undesireables and then going for a drink afterwards. A real drink. For real men. In a proper watering hole, or out of a paper bag. The old ways. Leather jackets, potty mouths, not even a hint of an apology. Hershey bars and hairy faces. And most certainly no darkies giving it the backchat. Again, it’s all in their faces, the weak, Home Counties’ jawline, the stance, the mannered retreat from ever saying what they actually feel. But they don’t really see him either, the invisible man, lost as they are to this dockside rapture.
And comedy Millwall ? Emboldened by the adulation, his beady eyes are still on alert. Thus far they have only managed to pick out one black face, more like light brown, though the hipster get-up on the young man in question takes the edge off anyway, all the black styled out in a grim nonsense of beard and skinny, and the danger passes. The room successfully swept for interlopers, confidence comes flooding back to the raconteur’s mien. And like any classic smash’n’grab, Millwall’s off and running again.
‘…Down Vicar’s Hill, smashing all the cars, and just laughing and laughing until dawn, knowing the curfew’s broken. Then when I get in, and she’s waiting, Mum, to go buckwild on my arse with some sort of a belt, but doesn’t say a word about the radios…’
It’s good this, n’est-ce pas? ‘Buckwild’, and he also says things like ‘Jamaican stylee’ in that terrific nasal whine, lest any man doubt that this bredrin knows the life.
In the round.
The rumour of black people aplenty in the language, just not in the flesh, and definitely not in this room. A different circuit to the one the invisible man knows, by the sounds of it a very different Mum too.
Millwall’s mate is laughing, geeing the punters along every now and then with a ‘we’ll have some of that’ whenever Millwall football club is mentioned. He’s working that three-way, and why not? It’s what the banter and those pills are for, to bridge the generation gap.
A quick look around enough to convince the invisible man that they are clearly loving this, all these downwardly mobile boys and girls. A first class night out, being lashed by the rapier wit and wisdom of a living, breathing relic. They seem to enjoy his microgeographies almost as much as he does.
Vicar’s Hill. Telegraph Hill. Deptford Broadway. Crofton Park.
They devour the details, which he has to admit, for a certain kind of cultural tourist, must seem just so, like, you know, off the grid. Rad. Sitting there visualising the lines, he can’t help thinking there’s no mention of the real badlands. Kidbrooke, the Ferrier Estate. Pinto way. Lebrun Square. It’s pitiful, really, the limited circumference of Millwall’s experience. And the only white batty alluded to here is being marked by its Mum, not the red tops on which it, or one just like it, had presumably left its deposit. This strikes the invisible man as odd. For all the smashing and grabbing and laughing and lying, there’s no shit, and definitely no immigrants anywhere in this picture, with or without a funny Irishman in the background to take the edge off.
Sitting there visualising the lines, he can’t help thinking there’s no mention of the real badlands. Kidbrooke, the Ferrier Estate. Pinto way. Lebrun Square. It’s pitiful, really, the limited circumference of Millwall’s experience.
‘Yeah, then I had a stint as a smuggler, before those rackets got all heavy.’
‘Really? You must have seen a lot of stuff go down?’
He’s finished now, Millwall , wound up his little tale about the car radios and the ‘jamaican stylee’ discipline meted out by his Mum. And he’s pleased with himself, why wouldn’t he be? Everyone laughed at all the right bits, charmed by the downbeat delivery, all moody-joblot-flash-meets-inner-city-council-estate, a monotone Derek Trotter having some rudeboy flashback. Just the right twitch from bathos to pathos, a lightbulb moment for all the seekers. Autodidact in the house, y’all! The three-way looks like it’s on too, his mate working the angles with a light-skinned Asian woman in the corner. Glottal stops and knowing smiles, though quite what it is that they know is anyone’s guess. From where he’s sitting, feigning conviviality, the invisible man is just about privy to some peripheral snippets of this nascent coupling.
‘Didn’t bother too much with school…East Street…Rod the Hod…Thick as thieves, like brothers…And that was just Saturdays…’
Millwall, who his friend has just introduced him to, wants to tell him about the ‘rackets’, he really does. All he needs is some encouragement, so the invisible man gives him that, the moronic Americanism. ‘Go down’. Even as the words form, though, he’s thinking, what sort of a fake says that? Still, it finds its mark.
‘Mainly across the Channel, but I fancied some sun, and it turned out Morocco weren’t much further than the south of Spain. And back then they were practically giving the stuff away.’
‘Beautiful place, I’ve heard.’
‘Yeah, it’s nice enough,’ says Mr Millwall, master of understatement, assuming (incorrectly on this occasion) that it just adds to his irresistible middle-aged allure.
‘Full of Moroccans though, innit?’
Millwall’s not expecting that, seems a bit taken aback. Something tightens in that face, clearly more comfortable with the faux-Americanisms, reduced for now to the etiquette-busting default of answering one question with another.
Those beady eyes are looking right at him now, oh yes they are, wondering how they managed to miss the subversive element earlier. Fucking invisible man! How did this one slip under the radar? Guards! Seize him!
Except his sidekick’s too busy sealing the deal in the corner, some shit about the playoff riot and how it was just pikeys giving everyone else a bad name, the object of his affections holding onto his every word as though the concept of a nominally sports-related breakdown in the social order is part of her everyday lexicon.
So the invisible man carries on, sensing a fruitful line of enquiry.
‘Worse than the Scousers, that lot. They’ll pick the thread out of your pants then sell it back to you as dental floss. So I’ve heard.’
‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ says Millwall, unsure exactly what’s going on. Beady eyes alright, but there’s far too much movement behind them. A dead giveaway.
‘Mind you, from what I could gather, it sounded like you’ve never had too much of a problem with half-inching other people’s stuff. So I’m guessing it was a match made in heaven, even if they are light-fingered little sand niggers.’
This time the invisible man looks straight at Millwall, daring a response, doubting it’ll be the right one, logic derailed in some ancient southern manner by the ‘n—— word. The eyes have really gone now, like some overloaded circuit board, and is Millwall blinking? Yes, he’s blinking, unable to control the shutter, a kaleidoscope of disgust flashing up in front of him. Paki shops and poo, and all those sequins and smells when the Jamaicans had sound systems and jerk. Nothing ‘rude’ about that culture, just embarrassment. Sequins and shit, covered in shit. No soul, no reggae, just shit. The Jamaicans had Big Youth. What did this lot have? Nothing, just a big shit wrapped in newspaper. If he could, if he only could, this man with the dockside drawl would like nothing more right now than to kiss his teeth, then spit out,
‘Yuh tink seh mi born big?!’
But something much deeper, that thing that runs through the veins, actually through them, not just the rumour pressing up against them flirting with bloodlines, that thing, which recalls newspaper print, local news on a lilywhite batty, simply decides in the flicker of an eye, that it won’t, it can’t be repressed any more.
‘You cheeky little cunt. What do you know about sand niggers?’ Millwall says, voice sufficiently raised in spite of himself to reach the periphery, the sidekick briefly breaking off from his cook’s tour of Bermondsey pastimes to check on his pal’s body language. Others too zeroing in now, habit telling them to just fall in line with the sour, atonal mood music. Something else in the gut though churning uncomfortably at the sight of Mr Understated suddenly stating something very clearly.
The invisible man looks at him, this Howard Marks of the smacked-bottom brigade, and tries to appear shocked, as though that’s the first time he’s ever heard such a vile, racial epithet.
Should I cry, he thinks? No, just too unmanly.
Fight? No. Millwall’s over fifty and looks it. My calisthenic regime on the other hand could send out the wrong signals, the whiff of a mismatch, although I’m only a couple of years his junior.
No. This. This is what I’m going to do. Nothing. Well, not quite nothing. Sun Tzu.
‘To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.’
Sounds like Bruce Lee, he thinks, but that’s what I’m going to do anyway. Disarm smacked-botty Marks with no response. Or at any rate not with the one he’s expecting.
‘You’re right. I don’t know anything about them,’ he says. Then, as if by a supreme effort, he holds out his hand, wheeling out the spiel to go with the olive branch.
‘Look I don’t know what’s just gone on here, I thought we were getting on fine. I’m a bit shocked if I’m going to be honest, don’t expect to hear that kind of language in this day and age. I don’t know where that came from, that stuff you were saying about sand n——-, no I can’t even bring myself to say it, I can’t say that word.’
He’s pleased with the catch in his voice, the timing, the timbre, and crucially is left with the feeling that to a bystander this probably all looks quite natural. Time for the payoff.
‘But this is to show there’s no hard feelings, squire. Are we good?’
Again, the ridiculous Americanism tacked on at the end, but it seems to do the trick, and like all professional frauds, it’s not long before the outstretched hand has morphed into the two of them hugging, though they’re still some way shy of the faux-romantic fuckries of late night drunks. Even so, there’s already enough vigour to justify the back slap, and its follow up, making sure the Josef Fritzl sticker is firmly plastered on Millwall’s back.
At first, Millwall thinks it’s his magnetic personality that draws every face in the room to him. All part of the frisson , salon styled of course.
It’s only when they start pointing and laughing that he suspects any kind of foul play. But it takes him a while longer to figure out the source of all this mirth.
An unsolicited offering, gift wrapped in an entirely faked bonhomie. A mittel-European monstrosity, Daddy, sexual predator, tyrant, fraud.
The gift of laughter. Dead funny, right? Like one of those fortune cookies, Man-in-Chicken-Run-he-say, ‘You’ve got to laugh, son.’
Of course by the time he does work it out, the gift giver’s long since gone, a theatrical exit stage left, trailing kissed teeth and an utterly fabricated yet oddly credible ‘pussyhole’. Jamaican stylee.
About Koushik Banerjea: As far back as the author remembers, his head has usually been in a book. The trickster narratives of Brer Rabbit and Anansi, as well as nightly spelling tests and cod liver oil, spooned in by his Mum, got him through childhood and imbued him with a lifelong love of storytelling, if not necessarily of fish oil. Then as a young man, there was the joy of encountering the laconic humour of writers like Sam Selvon, whose ‘Lonely Londoners’ and ‘Moses Ascending’ taught him how an outsider’s perspective often has the edge in making sense of modern life. More recently, his work has appeared in darkmatter101.org and ‘Verbal’ http://www.london-books.co.uk/books/verbal.html as well as http://www.writersresist.com/
A youth worker and lapsed sentimentalist, he was born and raised and continues to live in the quasi-independent republic of South London, where the tubes don’t run and the language can get a bit fruity. Twitter @southerndiszine