"Normal" said Tel, reflectively, his pint pot clutched in right hand, the suds a myriad of glinting white jewels cascading down the inside. "Woss normal these days? This aint normal" (here he waved the two-thirds empty glass at the pub garden, inclusively gesturing at the thwarted and shorted members of public who sat, similarly downing pints of amber liquid from vessels and showing off painfully intricate tattoos on pasty arm and chubby leg). "This is the beginnin' o' the end". I smiled at his hackneyed belligerence. He harrumphed like a Daily Mail reader and somehow clumsily brought the topic back to his job.
It's been a good last week of furlough, detestable though the term is, with its connotations of redundancy and sloth. I return to my workplace tomorrow, functioned by the government's and the tabloid media's vows to get everyone back in the office so they can stop taking photos of us all crowding on beaches or playing sardines outside pubs. Not that I've done either. When you live near the sea, the last thing you'd ever do is go there between the hours of 9am-6pm in the summer. No, we call that 'Townie-Time'. As for the pubs, well, locally and despite their landlords' laughable attempts to encourage, they still remain the preserve of the elderly, the alcoholic and the dog-walking couple after a half and a ham ploughman's.
Terry's job is still a bone of contention in his world, one that revolves around his need for work when his bank balance tells him 'why bother?'. He makes statements much like a person threatening suicide who has no intention at all of carrying out the threat. "Don' need ter do it, could just walk an' I'd still be better off, they don' deserve my efforts". But the truth is, he has nothing better to do. He'd never admit that though. He likes the people he works with, he says. I don't doubt it. So we converse about him leaving unceasingly, even though we both know he won't.
His last week was a dreary psalm of late-rises, afternoon naps and nights of toil doing pickin'n'packin' for a multinational supermarket, his black and orange fleece and stained cargo pants a reminder of his slavery to a system he should be the lord of. He's in his element; the oldest warehouse packer by a good twenty years, a product of a generation which introduced punk rock as a vent for the three-day week and the tatty linoleum and the placid/aggressive boredom of the mid-to-late-seventies. At fifty-eight, he should be enjoying his imminent retirement, perhaps playing golf (although, judging by the Dyer 'incident' reported this week, he wouldn't be a back-slapping member). At the very least, he should be the vexational cynical elder of the team. But no. He's happy to conform.
It's disappointing to see someone so imbued with life and laughter reduced to a faceless wage-picker working nights with compunction and then moaning about it when he should be happy with his lot. When he had the shop, he was a joy. Now he's in danger of becoming embittered without having a good reason for it. He talks like a barrack room lawyer. Jokes are dismissed; his little asides and stories are gone, replaced by tirades and tired cliches about nothing and no-one.
"The wife's un'appy" he told me yesterday. Sorry, to set the scene, we went down the pub for lunch at 12.30pm. Not the local, as it's 'temporarily closed for refurbishment' which Tel interpreted as 'goin' under', He was off to Braintree today for Sunday lunch with the in-laws, and he'd arranged to take Mrs Tel out for dinner at The Wooden Fender in Ardleigh, so we weren't able to meet in the evening. He was also allowed a drink as she was driving. But he was in the odd position (for him) of not being allowed to return even a quarter cut, so allowed himself three pints of lager and drank a large Coca-Cola in between each, something he's been critical of in others in the past. "Fancy drinkin' Coke in a boozer!" was a regular refrain of his back in the day. I miss the day.
So Mrs Tel is un'appy. He sipped the first of his iced Coca-Cola's from an official green Coke glass, the wince of distaste caused either by the un'appiness or the sweetness of the beverage. "Yeah, well, we 'ad a talk on Toosday mornin', started as an argument 'cos I'd left me towel on the shower-room floor, not on purpose like, but choo know what she's like? 'Ouseproud aint the word. Anyway..." another sip of Coke, another face like he'd inadvertently drunk bleach "she 'ad a go at me, said I was 'opeless rand the 'ouse, then I said summink back and there we were, shoutin' at each uvver like kids".
"See, the trouble goes back to the early 80's. When I was twenny, I'd been wiv the wife free years nearly, and I sort of 'ad a bit of a fling wiv some girl I met, a friend of my best mate at the time, Stainey. Din't last long, this fling, abart a munf or so, but I told the wife jus' before we got married an' she's never forgiven me. Nearly din't get married, 'ad ter do me penitence wiv 'er for ages. We'd 'ave been married in 82 had it not been for that. Then all was sweetness and light fer firty-odd years, then she starts askin' me about it, was she better in bed? all that palaver. An' all I wan-ned to do was forget it. Troof is, I don't remember. It couldn't've meant all that if I couldn't remember, could it?"
He ordered a pint of lager from a passing waitress and pushed the half-full Coke angrily aside. "Why the bleedin' 'ell this stuff's poplar gawd alone knows. Tastes like sweet Andrews. Anyway, so the wife's been a bit touchy lately cos she finks I'm just dismissin' it. It's like water torcher at 'ome. I'm keepin' out the way as much as I can. Thass why I'm doin' the job. Excuse ter get out the 'ouse some days. Course, I've cut me nose off ter spite me face".
I admit it made sense. Mrs Tel is very straight-laced, despite her hair tints and her pedal pushers and her expensive espadrilles, she's no Essex girl. It must have been hard to live with someone for all those years with the knowledge that he'd once been unfaithful, and the fear that it might happen again. "She loves me but she carnt trust me completely, like" Tel had once said to me when we were drunk, a long time ago. I never picked up the meaning of these words. But then again, it was never said.
So I did my best consolation stuff and we drank up and left at five-thirty, him to go home to the wife and get ready for a meal, me to be dropped at the Indian, where I had keema naan and chicken vindaloo and bombay potatoes and butterfly prawns in a brown paper bag which I walked the two miles home. It came over black when I got in and the rain refreshed the lawn and I stood outside in it, letting it soak my warm exterior, and I came back in and ate the food and drank a bottle of passable plonk with it and thought of all the jobs I had to do today before I got in my car on Monday morning and headed for Birmingham, the first time in months.
My sun-tan's still evident from Friday's scorcher. A large glass of brandy in mitt, I read my book and made a list of jobs and then got merry, playing music too loudly and wondering about work colleagues. Truth is, I too missed work. Not the job. I can, and did, do that at home competently. I miss the craic, the wind-ups, the people.
Perhaps it's a good time to be back, after all? Face-masks, social distancing, two-metre rules and all that included. I've enjoyed my time at home, but it's not something I want to repeat in a hurry. With or without Tel.