If he’d been so inclined, Ben Collins could certainly have written you rather a piquant dispatch from that peculiar entity, at once dreary and frivolous, gracelessly dubbed by the media classes (with their customarily vacant pithiness), “Credit Crunch Britain”. He might even have limited himself to the following particulars – related to yours truly by a garrulous friend, over a cheap cigar, and a G&T or several – in doing so.
Like many others at that dismal time, he had not long lost his job – and had subsequently, sadly, had to move out of his flat. His new home, so to speak, comprised a room in a bed-sit on Seaside. I am alluding to Harmouth, with its faded postard cheer, defiantly – almost confrontationally – banal, in the dank depths of the shite years. A world of chancers, dickheads, and faux-cockney wide boys. A demented universe-unto-itself, in which even the inherent absurdity of life has had every drop of amusement squeezed brutally out, and in which the increasingly farcical rites of Job Centre Plus comprise major events in the social calendars of the dead souls who must congregate within its plastic interiors, every two weeks, without fail.
Here we have, that is to say, the perfect world in which to imbibe one of life’s most ubiquitous and least comforting lessons: that, while desperation wears many faces, it always smells the same.
Such was Ben’s impression one late November Thursday morning, making his way down to the newsagent-slash-grocery, at the bottom of Farris Road. He didn’t know why he persisted in coming here – the old woman at the counter always eyed you suspiciously, no matter how much of a regular you were (he hadn’t stolen anything yet), and always peered down her nose at you no matter which newspaper you bought (surely the Telegraph was unimpeachable?).
But go there he would.
As he left the shop on this particular morning, he happened to bump into a burly geezer, of a similar age to himself, though of a very different gait and bearing. The fellow had bad breath, and wore a flat cap.
“Watch it, mate!” said the geezer.
There was something familiar about his voice, and his round, stubble-pocked face.
“Jenkinson?” said Ben, incredulously.
“Collins?” returned the geezer.
“Bloody hell” said Ben, “this is unbelievable – we haven’t seen each other since . . . well, since school!”
Jenkinson looked like he hadn’t been taking very good care of himself. He’d been a good mate of Collins’s in those days, always larking around in science lessons. Famously, in the spring term of Year Nine, he’d got suspended for smoking pot on the premises; and, the last time Collins had heard anything of him was when he’d got in bovver with the old bill, for dealing, aged eighteen or nineteen. That, of course, was just as Collins was preparing to bugger off to university, and hoping to put Harmouth and the whole county, moribund and aggresively provincial, behind him for good.
So much for that plan.
“So” said Jenkinson, “what are you doing these days?”
“Doing? Same as everyone else – fuck all.”
“Yeah? Signing on?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Ah well, keep your chin up mate – there’s work there if you go out and get it. I’m doing a bit with the old pervs these days.”
“Yeah, the old chronic lechers, over at Wingney. There’s a support group for ’em I work with down the old community centre.”
“French lessons. I can put a word in for you, if you like.”
“Hmm, well, je ne parle pas beaucoup de Francais, I’m afraid.”
“Oh yeah, but I mean, it’s not just French. There’s ping-pong, haiku, ballroom dancing – quite a nice place once you get used to the trouser tents.”
“Well, maybe if things don’t pick up soon.”
“Listen, do you want to go for a drink, and catch up properly?”
“Sure, why not – my schedule, as they say, is wide open.”
They walked up Farris Road, turning right at the top for the Black Horse. Ben recalled loitering in ‘Pounds for Sounds’ – the all-time greatest second hand music retailer, long-since closed down – in his teens, with his older brother. Great days.
“Bloody dog. Bloody cars. Bloody seagulls. Bloody buildings. Bloody people” he said sulkily, energetically pointing things out as they walked. Someone had to keep the conversation going.
When they had settled down at table in the sparsely populated pub – just one bloke serving, and a gaggle of chavs playing pool – their discourse turned itself naturally to reminiscence of schooldays, and all that kind of sub-Wordsworthian drivel.
“You remember old Guppy?” ventured Jenkinson.
“Cor, do I? There was a character, alright – always wanking under the table in class. And that voice of his – like an orang utan farting through a tuba.”
“Yeah” chuckled Jenkinson, “he still talks like that. I went for a drink with him last year. He lectures in history up at the old Nottingham these days.”
“Blimey. Who would have thought it?”
“I know. I’ve kept in touch with most of the gang over the years – found a lot of them on Facebook. I looked for you – ”
“Nah, I don’t bother with all that. Hey, what about that funny little fucker, God, what was his name?”
“Old Bollock Face?”
“Yeah – Bollock Face!” chortled Ben, “Christ, there’s a name I haven’t heard for a while!”
“Unbelievable story” said Jenkinson wistfully, shaking his head and staring sadly into his half-empty pint glass.”
“How come? What happened to him?”
“Well, you wouldn’t know it, I suppose, you didn’t go to college with us. Anyway, maybe in the second year of his A Levels, he starts getting all this depression. I mean, it’s serious stuff, hits him in waves. He doesn’t come to classes for weeks at a time. Eventually, he becomes like a recluse, sitting up there in his old room in his parents’ house, year after year. I think he did a degree, on the Open University . . . Art History, if I’m not mistaken. But I’m digressing . . . ”
“So what happened, he topped himself?”
Jenkinon supped up his ale.
“You having another?” he asked, fiddling for change in his pocket.
“In a minute, when you’ve finished the story. Tell me what happened to Bollock Face!”
“Well. A couple of years ago, he meets this Russian girl, Natalya, on the old net. They email each other all the time, they like the same music and stuff like that – so, sooner or later, they decide to become a couple. She came over here one time, beautiful girl, really stunning. And bear in mind, he’s still a virgin when he meets her. So, he’s head over heels for this girl, worships the ground she walks on. He’d do anything for her.”
“Well, good for him, what’s wrong with that?”
“What’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with that! Turns out, she’s like this hardcore Russian nationalist. A raving fascist! So he has to become one, too.”
“Straight up. He goes over there, gets mixed up in gangs, and all sorts.”
“Can you imagine, the poor bloke doesn’t get a whiff of fanny until he’s like, thirty-three, and there he is running guns in some godforsaken border town in the fucking Caucasus. The sodding Caucasus, mate!”
“Wow. I’m speechless.”
“Anyway. I don’t get any word of him for months. And when I finally do, it’s only to hear that they’ve found him dumped at the side of some dirt track with a bullet in his brain.”
“Shit. Poor old Bollock Face. What a life.”
“I know. It’s a terrible story, isn’t it? But beautiful somehow – almost Zolaesque.”
Over their second, and last, pint together, the conversation took a different turn:
“What about some of your interests, hobbies?” asked Jenkinson, “What do you do with yourself these days?”
“Football. I still like the old football. And chess – although I mostly just play against the computer. And thinking about Deep Purple – ”
“Thinking about Deep Purple?”
“Sure. Like when I’m lying awake at night. Sometimes I’ll think to myself, for example, ‘Well, Joe Lynn Turner was a dubious choice to replace Ian Gillan in 1989 – but there’s no doubt that Slaves and Masters was an improvement on The House of Blue Light.’ And then I’ll go through all the albums in my head, from Shades to Rapture, you know, plotting an imaginary chart of how good each album was. Or I might do it according to line-ups – you know, assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of each version of Deep Purple . . . say, well, Glenn Hughes is a phenomenal vocalist, but Roger Glover has always been a better bass player . . . or I might pick out my three favourite songs off each album – it’s always changing! – some of the iconic ones you can’t miss, like ‘Highway Star’, but the underrated gems, too, like ‘Never Before’, ‘Smooth Dancer’, and ‘Love Child’. I can amuse myself for hours like that”.
“Oh. Right. Why don’t you write a book about Deep Purple?”
“Well” said Collins, “I’ve thought about that. Anyway – how’s your old man these days?”
(Old Mr Jenkinson, short, pot-bellied and grizzled, had been something of a local celebrity, busking with his accordion up and down the High Street.)
“Not good” said Jenkinson, “no, you know how he had that hare lip, and the lazy eye? Well, course, his hair had already fallen out when you would have seen him, and his teeth – all but three, and two of them are rotten. Anyway, he lost the use of his left arm two years ago. He passed out drunk on a bench, and slept on it, and that was that – just gone, useless. He doesn’t walk very well these days either, hobbling around, all doubled over. He’s got like a humpback. And last year, he got Lurbing’s Disease – ”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“It’s an aggressive form of Athlete’s Foot, like a killer fungus.”
“You’re having me on!”
“I’m telling you, they had to cut his chuffing toes off! Anyway, his urinary tract’s buggered, because of all the drinking – he’s only sixty-two, and he’s already wearing pads. And he slurs his words, most people can’t understand him half the time. And then, course, he’s got this chronic flatulence, and spasmodic hiccups, and the constant ringing in his ears, which does his head in . . . ”
“Oh well. Give him my best, won’t you?”
“Yeah, course I will mate.”
Jenkinson never did manage to find a job for his old friend Collins (which was maybe just as well). These days, Ben goes around delivering and collecting those annoying Betterware catalogues (but keeps quiet about it when he goes to the dole).
What more can you say? Ladies and gentlemen, let’s raise our glasses! Here’s to Bollock Face – gone but not forgotten! He died with his boots on.