Short essay: Barracks by Tw1itteratti

December 26, 2012


The 1930 from LondonBridge to East Croydon is always a favourite   After a hard day in the office there are few compensations for a lonely journey home. But if the evening is warm and the train is quiet and clean, one can get on with a bit of reading or perhaps discretely identify the attractive commuters from behind the headphones of your IPOD.  Sometimes if you are lucky you may receive a reciprocal glance of approval, but most often you will be ignored.  Commuter trains are not the place for chance involvements although this may say more about me than David Lean’s “Brief Encounter”.

On such a day, I swept into that temple of painted steal and glass that is East Croydon on the outskirts of London, and took my place on the crowded slow march to the ticket barriers.  As usual, I was way laid by the ponderous shuffling of a languid teenager then a short skip and an Astaire-esque shuffle later, I was beyond the immediate and onto the next obstacle; a tanned and suited European business type with a bad tie whose luggage and laptops dangled all around him like a fair ground ride.  A genuinely insurmountable human carousel that I could neither see past or through, I was stuck.  I followed cursing my bad luck to the ticket barriers only to be further way laid as East Croydon’s barriers are not designed for human carousels.  My eyes rolled and I huffed and puffed, but my obstacle remained unhurried.

Eventually, the bright haze of the exit opened up to a vista of tramlines, traffic lights and taxi ranks.  The beggars outside the coffee shops moped miserably into their empty begging hats while British Transport Police hung around and provided some relief from harassment from the beggars, hoodlums and drunks alike.  I headed out onto the street freed from the confines of the commuter treadmill when I chanced upon an old friend whom I had last seen some six years previously.

Time had eroded my memory for his real name, but I could recollect his nickname: “Barracks”.   I readied myself.  Engaging my old “homeboy” profile, I activated the pleased to see you smile and removed my headphones.  I stuck out a friendly punch to his chest followed by a robust handshake that rotated into a brotherly clinch of palms.

Barracks responded with familiar recognition.  He knew the protocol and returned the punch and grab.

Although short in stature it was clear life had been good because the gangly figure of six years ago was now a powerfully built black man with a pot-belly and sparkling smiling eyes.

“BARRACKS!  Nahhhh man, how long’s it been?  Man, it’s good to see you. “I shake his hand warmly, he’s still the same old Barracks.  “What’ you doing with yourself?” I said cheerfully.  He threw his head back as if to jangle free the stories that needed to be told and the glint fades in his eyes.  “Nahh man, things haven’t been so good you nahhh mean?  I’ve just got back from Manchester and I’ve moved into a small bed sit in East Croydon.  I don’t know how long I’ll be here.”  He paused. I stopped smiling.

“It’s mah girl man.   She’s…..”.  He kisses his teeth as he growls out the ‘g’ in girl.

“We’ve just split ………” he seems to splutter through his words as his manner turns dark and closed.  His head tilts side and back as he wrestles his painful memories.  His brow creases and his eyes begin to cloud a bit with water.   “Nahhh man, I’ll tell you about it, but….what about you and kids?  You’re married init?”   Sensing the impending sob story I figure I’ll be upbeat.  I compress all my good news into some choice cuts and relate them in the form of a summary.

“Well life’s been pretty good lately.  My wife gave birth to our baby daughter, she’s six months now.  My boy’s doing well at school, he’s just started playing football.”   I pause nodding my head in happy recollection.  “The christening’s coming up soon too, but hey what about you?  What happened?”   I’m smiling, but it’s guarded in pending sympathy.

Amongst men who have grown up together and perhaps lost regular touch over time – the opportunity to talk about oneself should not be passed up lightly, but in these busy stolen times between rushing and bustling home from work; priority is always given to a sad story.

Barracks had sexual problems, which resulted in him being unable to conceive a child in his first marriage.  His impotence was tracked down to problems with his urinary works.  He’d seen the specialists, done the tests; taken the Viagra, but no dice.  His wife stayed with him for five years, but took her leave amidst a host of other reasons.   Apparently they’d had problems apart from their conception ones and in the end had started to resent each other.  She asked him to leave after a bruising argument about his failed attempts to show affection and warmth.

He moved out and stayed at friends, but became depressed.   The phone calls were long and painful.  The text messages were sharp and hurtful.  His phone was full of them, like a diary of heartbreak. I glanced at the reams of pitiful texts, asking for second chances, meetings, Christmas outings, holiday requests, all turned down.  I stopped looking, even while he scrolled down and down.

He had moved north to Manchester while they maintained telephone contact.  Eventually the calls shifted from frequent to infrequent and the long silences tolled the death for their marriage. A few months later he received a call.  She’d taken a new lover and for the first time in years was genuinely happy.  Barracks heart cracked when a month later he received a text message saying she was pregnant and wanted a divorce.

Mandy already had a baby daughter whom over the next five years came to know Barracks as Dad.  Happiness came after a fashion.  Mandy’s parents loved him, she loved him, the baby girl loved him but the gnawing cancer of unresolved guilt about his infertility, his ex-wife’s lost love, and the fear that he could never properly love another, coupled with Mandy’s expectation that he should make a good women of her, made him feel inadequate. He took comfort at nightclubs, dancing and drinking his troubles away even as Mandy preferred to stay at home.

One day, after a heavy night out with his new friends, the dizzying effect of drink mixed with beautiful sirens pulsing in disco lights beckoned him.  He answered the call and woke in a different bed wrapped by different arms.

Mandy discovered his infidelity by way of confession; he had been defeated by guilt and had come clean.   Her hopes dashed and her life broken she now cries most nights, but cannot bring herself to ask him to leave.  Her daughter still loves him and her family don’t know.

“I really screwed up!” he sighs sadly.   We stare in silence and it’s a long one.   “But you know; I love that girl…. She was everything to me.”   I can’t look him in the eye under this cold and heavy sky.  We’ve stopped smiling.  We’re not connected anymore.

“Nahhh man, what the hell made you do it?”  He seems stunned and attempts some brief justification, “naahh man, I was out with the guys.  You know… The guys them!  And you know, one thing led to another, and, ahhh well, you know?”.  I’m irritated and fed up.  I mask it and gently proffer a “Naahh man!!!” and nod my head apparently sympathetically.   His eyes are watery and full of emotional debris.  “Look, I’ve gotta go.  Look, we’ll catch up soon yeah?”  He nodded.  I didn’t take his number nor did I leave my card.

He wanted to talk some more but I didn’t need his bad news.  I shook his hand weakly and left.


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