Thursday, 25 June 2009

Shared Obsession

The mixed aroma of a thousand under-cooked greasy chippy meals, under-brewed cups of tea and scattered mounds of mounted police horse-shit assailed me as I headed along Goodison Road to the Steward's gate.

It was a bright yet chilly October morning, and I hurried to make my way inside, wanting to exchange my paper-thin sweater for my heavy padded club-issue Hi-vis jacket. I made my way to the entrance and climbed the worn grey staircase to the stewards room, nodding to acknowledge a few old-time staff on the way up.

"Rylands, Main Stand North, Jacket number 384" I said to the attendant administrator, and he went into the back to retrieve my identification. He returned swiftly and handed me my new swipe card. I frowned at the mug-shot on the front of it.

Was I really turning into my father that quickly? When exactly did those "Droopy Dog" bags round my eyes materialise?

The administrator noticed my expression and smirked at me mischievously.
I shrugged back at him, signed in on the match-day rota, threw on my jacket and headed out to make my way to the staff safety briefing.

I'd been stewarding on and off for almost 2 seasons by then. It was the longest extended period I had attended football games since my father and brother used to constantly take me as a child, when ticket prices were dirt cheap and Everton were at their peak. The whole nature of the sport, the spectators and the finances had changed immeasurably since that time. Sky TV had snapped up the sport, put lots of flashy digital bells and whistles on it and marketed every game like a Hollywood blockbuster. I just couldn't watch games live on Sky as much as I used to before. There was a dramatic trashiness to the way they were presented, which seemed to get more pronounced and commercialised each year. I usually caught the BBC highlights instead.

But nothing beat actually being present at games. Feeling the shared emotions of the crowd, watching the players performances up close, reading the flow and ebb of each game. Live sporting theatre as opposed to TV drama - no contest.

I reached the vomitory exit to my section of the main stand and climbed the final short staircase, the stadium interior grandly sweeping into view. It was old, creaking, primarily wooden. It had seen better days, both in terms of physical structure and the football that had graced its pitch. But it had become part of my essence, my identity, my upbringing and my family.

Yes, she was a glorious old lady, Goodison Park.

After a quiet moment of reflection and getting that strange buzz you only seem to get before a game, I joined up with my fellow stewards at the centre of the stand, as we were read out a customary meet and greet statement for the match day. I suddenly remembered to turn off my mobile phone and fumbled with it in my pocket whilst Ste the head steward, read out the rules and regulations we as stewards and employees of the club, had to adhere to. We listened bored as we were told: "No celebrating goals, no shirt signings from players, no smoking, no drinking or eating in sight of spectators..." It dragged out interminably until we were given our match-day positions and someone handed out the team sheet for the day's game, which we all pored over and considered who to place a bet on.

After a quick cup of tea we were eventually given our match positions, and the clock gradually counted down to 3:00pm, the turnstiles revolving ever faster and faster as hordes of supporters started to enter the stadium, the noise from within gradually growing more and more expectant....

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Community Spirit

It had been a long week. It was only October yet the Christmas feeding frenzy had well and truly kicked in at work. Deliveries were getting bigger, ques snaking ever longer and the collective temper of our customer base was getting noticeably much shorter. So after work that particular Saturday which happened to nicely fall on a pay-day, I thought I'd treat myself to a few cold cans and a DVD for the night. The insane Japanese thriller Battle Royale was on the viewing menu on the basis of several enthusiastic recommendations by Paul Mac, Dave and Hanksy - The "World Cinema" section of Zavvi proving fertile ground for my restless mind. It didn't disappoint.

As I reached my flat door and wearily swung it open, my eyes were drawn to something on the floor. A bit of folded paper - money, even. A ten pound note. I wondered whether I had dropped it in the rush to get to work that morning...

No, I couldn't have since I didn't go the bank until I left the flat.....Then I realised as I folded it open in my hands and a tiny piece of paper fell from the middle of the note, NICE ONE ERIC LAD crudely scrawled across it in wild, sketchy handwriting.

It must have been Col - I had borrowed him a fiver the other day so he could get eggs, bread, milk, tea-bags..... then I had totally forgotten about it. He had slipped me £10 pounds back under my door in return, probably because he felt guilty at the delay in giving me it back. God bless him. I resolved to give him it ALL back. He was in more need of it than I.

That's how things were in the cubes initially. Just as Col had said when I first moved in, the other residents seemed genuinely decent lads. As time went on, and initial wariness and suspicion evaporated, people would sit in each other's flats and watch TV, listen to music, talk world affairs, generally chill out. If you were short on anything - sugar, toilet roll, tobacco, your washing machine had seized up - you only had to knock, and there would be assistance, no sweat mate.

We all really had nothing of value, but we would share it all. It was almost a form of communal living to a degree....although sometimes it felt more like a prison stretch. A few decent females to level things up certainly wouldn't have gone amiss, mind you. I was sure that the landlord was actually laughing at us as he threw each unsuspecting new male into our block. Most of the other lads who lived in there were in total agreement.

Particularly Dean.

He lived down the corridor from me, at the top of the building, best pad in the block. An attic conversion, with brand new sky-light windows and fantastic views of the city. Smaller than my place but cozier and with lots more potential. I remember thinking, If I had lived there I'd have picked up a kick-ass second-hand telescope from Cash Convertors and aimed it from one of those sky-lights, take up astronomy. But Dean settled for a tattered old Athens 2007 European Cup Final flag that hung loosely from the living room window, flapping in the light winter breeze.

A tall, athletically built lad who lived for football, women and good times, probably in that order. He was maybe 23 years old, with a disarmingly friendly nature and a gravelly Norris Green accent that was liberally interspersed with local slang and swear words. I'd noticed him about the cubes soon after moving in, usually passing him on the stairs, a seemingly different female affectionately trailing him to his flat each time.

He was always cordial, and we eventually touched base properly when he saw me one morning heading to work an Everton match in my steward's get-up of official tie and baseball cap.

"Shurrup lad...yer ain't a bluenose are yer?" he smirked as he poked his head down the corridor connecting our two flats as I locked my door.

"Yeah, been stewarding past coupla seasons now....I take it you're a Kopite then, Dean?"

He bounded back into his flat momentarily, reappearing with a huge scarlet Istanbul 2005 Champions League flag draped around his broad shoulders, grinning, his ice-blue eyes shimmering strangely in the dimly lit corridor.

"All the way, lad, ya know that" he replied as he pulled the flag around himself tightly like a protective shroud.

"So who've your lot got today then?' he nodded at my tie.

"Sunderland...should be a stroll I reckon, they're awful aren't they?"

"Too right, They're shite them lad. Youse should do them easy like. Listen...Fred...It is Fred innit? If you got no plans tonight, sit off in mine and watch Match of the Day, sink a few bevvies and that....Watch the red men kick arse, lad!"

That sounded alright. I should make more of an effort to socialise with others whilst I'm stuck here, I thought. The cubes could be a lonely place to live at the weekends, when all you had was a dodgy TV aerial that seemed to take pleasure in skipping half the decent free-view channels and a million books you had read countless times, cover-to-cover.

"Yeah, sound Dean, I'll give you a knock a bit later on...gonna maybe have a coupla pints on County Road with some of the other stewards after the game, but I'll deffo call up likes..."

"Smart lad, smart. I'll be listening to the match on my radio, just gonna take a bath. Like I say, gizza knock later man"

"Right...Gotcha. I gotta get movin' anyway, they get funny if you ain't there 3 hours before kick-off for the safety briefing..... I'll catch you in a bit...."

We shook hands and he returned to his flat, absent-mindedly leaving his door slightly open, a shrieking Amy Winehouse faintly drifting from the stereo inside. I headed down the stairs and out the building, marching down briskly towards the city centre to jump on a bus from London Road. The streets had the residual scars of a messy Friday night strewn across them - pizza boxes, empty cans, used condoms, mounds of thick sick plastered all over those plastic trays you get from a curry house.

I groped around awkwardly in my back trouser pocket for my i-pod and eventually located the play button. John Digweed, Transitions, Volume 1, track 14. McEnroe by Dana Bergquist.


The hypnotic beats spurred my pace as I reached the number 10 bus which had just pulled up at the stop, a few pensioners climbing shakily on board in front of me. I paid my fare to the bored-looking middle-aged driver with the gorilla arms coated in faded tattoos, and sat near the rear of the vehicle, closing my eyes as the music took me somewhere else, that minature nightclub that magically opened up at the back of my mind's eye.

The energy of the music made the short journey towards the stadium speed past, and before I knew it I had alighted the bus on County Road, Goodison Park looming over the terraced streets....

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Retail Therapy

ASKED IF YOU HAD ANY COPIES OF IT IN STOCK, NOT FOR YOUR OPINION OF IT" barked the middle aged crone with the fake tan and bad teeth, her arms folded, struggling to hide the plethora of gaudy Sovereign rings that adorned her wrinkled hands. The people in the huge que behind her murmured and looked in my direction.

This would require tact and diplomacy.

"Unfortunately, we have no remaining copies of Mamma Mia on DVD in stock at the moment. If you give me a moment I can check whether our store in the Liverpool One shopping centre has any available?" I charmed through a fake smile.

She gave me a look like I was something she had just scraped off her shoe and dragged her bawling grand-child along with her, strutting away from the counter dramatically like a bad soap actress, nose up in the air.

"Customer service in 'ere is fuckin' AWFUL" she spat back, more at the que than to me as she barged out of the store, her Primark carrier bags banging into other customers and display units.

There was another low murmur from the que and some embarrassed laughter, and the next customer stepped forward, a young black lad of about 21 in a striking blue Lacoste tracksuit, grinning broadly, gold front teeth gleaming as he handed me a couple of UFC tournament DVD's.

"Too much her, eh mate? What was with the attitude?"

I scanned his items and bagged them, shaking my head with a wistful smile.

"I just made the mistake of laughing at her taste in films... £22.99, please mate"

"Yeah, I heard.... Musicals, man...bad news...My bird loves them..."

I handed him his DVDs back as he passed me his VISA card and I swiped it through the till-point mechanically. In a few moments it registered the sale and noisily spewed out his receipt, which I handed to him.

"There you go, fella, enjoy"

"Thanks man, safe"


A chubby white bloke in a dirty parka jacket and filthy jeans approached the counter, slowly placing two Wrestlemania DVD's in front of me with his podgy hairy hands, topped by grubby finger-nails you could plant vegetables under, not looking me in the face. He spoke in a low, nervous tone, almost a whisper.

"Erm...just those two, mate.."

I paused to glance at him momentarily, noticing slight dribble by the sides of his mouth. His long hair was lank and greasy and his face unshaven and rough. He was maybe near the 40 mark. My vision shot from his face to the two DVD's and then back again. He clocked me and squirmed slightly, averting his eyes to a spot somewhere above and behind me.

"They're....Christmas presents....for me little lad, like...."

I had to bite my lip as I continued to serve him, deliberately going slow. It was disturbing how many grown men were buying stuff like this, I noted internally. The guy before him had bought two blood-thirsty full-contact fighting DVD's, and here he was, picking up two pathetically-choreographed pantomimes. I always found it hard to believe that people actually went into public shops and bought this stuff. They were like the idiots in Britian who still bought the Sun newspaper and watched reality TV shows and listened to country and western music, despite having absolutely no historical or geographical knowledge of the United States. You don't believe they actually exist, but you know they are out there, somewhere, clinging to the collective underbelly.

"That'll be.... £44.00, please"

He suddenly shot his gaze back to me accusingly, his neck upright, the dribble seemingly more pronounced.

"'s only £20 each..... in Woolworth's..." he stammered, more pleading than aggressive.

I stared at him blankly. I wasn't in the mood to negotiate. If I really had my way, he could have honestly taken them for free. Seriously. Use them as an ashtray, pal. Prop up a dodgy table leg with them. Wedge them under that broken garage door, hell even use them as coasters on your coffee table. Just please, PLEASE don't masturbate over them. Even worse, DON'T try to use them to entice vunerable young boys into your seedy terraced house. That was what he had in mind, wasn't it?

"I'm sorry my friend. I guess you should maybe try Woolworths then, if their price is better?'

He scowled at me, and rummaged through his pockets with a wounded stance, eventually pulling a handful of crumpled notes and loose change from his inside jacket pocket, almost flinging them at me across the till.

"Nah, I'll take it" he grunted.

I queasily unravelled and straightened his cash, which looked as if he had used them for tissue paper, counting off the required amount. I remember thinking of something my father had once asked me: "What's the most diseased thing in the world?" I had answered something like rats, or dog-shit or flies. His response? "MONEY. Think about all those dirty bastards who go to the bathroom, don't wash their hands and then handle cash in their pockets?" Ever since I had been paranoid, religiously washing my hands. Howard Hughes had nothing on me. But then again thinking deeply about it now, money could be considered a double-barrelled answer to a degree. It could also be the most diseased thing on the planet morally...

I snapped out of my daydream and finished serving, the customer snatching the bag and change away, not bothering to wait for his receipt.

Ross on the till left of me nudged me slightly and gave me a nod, his face almost hidden by his long hair.

"Say, it's 2 o'clock. You wanna take your break now?"

That sounded smart. I'd been on since 8am, and my legs were aching and stomach rumbling. There hadn't been time for any breakfast, it had been a killer shift alright.

"Yeah, nice one. You go on yours after me, yeah?"

"Yeah, man sweet" Ross drawled, as I made my way around the till past the other staff, halting to tap Fern on the shoulder as she checked for stock on the computer at the end.

"Listen Ferny, I'm off on my break - cover for me will ya?"

She smiled sweetly back and silently nodded.

I kissed the top of her multi-coloured head and made away through the heaving shop floor, dodging homicidal single mothers with prams in the Disney section and moody-looking unwashed scally kids who should have been at school. Stooped, shifty old men with baseball caps pulled down over their faces hovered by the world cinema section, suspiciously close to the adult films. It was as surreal a workplace as it was perversely amusing.

I eventually made my way out to the back of the store, headed up the two flights of stairs and reached the ZAVVI staff-room. It was almost better than my flat - a large rectangular room with a small kitchen unit at the right side as you walked in and a huge flat screen TV dominating the wall at the left end, with a smart black leather couch facing it. Perched on it were Big John and Hanksy from the video games department downstairs, both locked into a highly-contested game of Pro-Evolution Soccer 2009 on the staff Playstation 3. They both paused the game and turned simultaneously to acknowledge my entrance, giving me a silent wave. I waved back and headed to the fridge, rummaging through it until I found my chicken pasta bake ready meal. I placed it into the microwave, set if for 6 minutes and took a seat at one of the two wobbly tables in the centre of the room, watching Liverpool and Inter Milan battle it out in extra time. The microwave hummed away noisily, punctuated by shouts and screams of frustration as both teams were denied by the woodwork and a dubious off-side decision respectively.

I'd been working at the store around 2 weeks, not too long after I had moved into my new flat. It felt like I had been there forever - the staff were all on the level, great fun to hang around with both in and out of work, and the role itself wasn't too demanding. Selling products which I had a great passion for was play-school for me. The only trouble that crept into this little paradise was the wages weren't stunning.

But job satisfaction was more than ample compensation.

I'd had countless previous jobs that had been for far greater money. Yet they were repetitive, banal. Many of the staff were egotistical, self-centered, career minded jobs-worths. It just wasn't my scene. Coming in on a Monday to some mindlessly boring administrative role in a Solicitor's office, with bitchiness and gossip flying around, trying to stay remote and aloof from the bullshit. Having no out-of-work social scene, because you just couldn't connect on any level with the other people who worked in there, no matter how hard an effort you made.

I needed something that was to my tastes, and ZAVVI was ticking all the right boxes. We were all pretty much on the same amount of dollar, of a similar mindset and we all clicked together. It was actually fun. I liked these guys and I liked the job. You can't ask for much more than that after what seemed like a life-time of ass-kissing Nazi superiors and performing tasks that depressed you to the point of tears.

The microwave chirped and I rose from my seat, digging out a fork from the drawer by the sink, which was piled up with grimy dishes and cups. I gingerly removed the piping hot plastic tray from the microwave, lowly swearing to myself in pain as I peeled the wrapping film from the top, scalding my fingertips. I sat back down and tucked in.

"YYYEEEEEEAAAHH DRILLED IT LAD!! HAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!!!" roared Big John, as Inter Milan's Ibrahimovic screwed in a dipping volley from the edge of the penalty area .

"That's getting SAVED and ya KNOW IT HAHAHAAA!!" he playfully punched Hanksy on the arm, who had his head in his hands in disbelief.

"118 minutes I don't fuckin' believe this...Been absolutely mauling you in this match as well.."

Big John deliberately left the action replay run and run, winding Hansky up mercilessly as he savoured what was almost certainly a last-gasp victory. After groans from his opponent in protest at having to wait whilst he insisted on saving his wonder-goal to the PS3's internal memory, he eventually restarted the game. The two remaining minutes plus stoppage time flew past with no real further chances, and he chuckled to himself as the final score flashed up:

Inter Milan 4 - Liverpool FC 3

Hanksy dejectedly dropped his control pad onto the couch and rose up to his feet, adopting a mock spoilt brat tone as he strolled languidly out of the staff room back to his department.

"I don't wanna play this game no more..." he whined as he headed out down the stairs.

"Eh Freddy... I got 15 minutes left of my break - you wanna crack at the title, lad?" smirked Big John as he held the spare controller out mischeviously.

"I can take you down on that game anytime, John-Boy. Just lemme scran this chow first" I replied through a mouthful of blisteringly hot pasta.

Yeah, I thought. This is the job for me.......

Saturday, 13 June 2009

music lesson


It's the ultimate leveller.

Everyone has a soundtrack for their life, key tunes that represent a certain time, place and event in our collective existence......and when we all eventually make the final journey back into the earth, there's always a theme tune ringing out through a church, bringing a frown to the tear-stained faces of our parents and a smile to those of our friends.

From growing up with my brother and sharing a bedroom with him, I was exposed to the CD revolution.

The mid-80's, a kick-ass gleaming new AIWA Hi-Fi stereo stack system sitting on our floor, imposing black, looking like it had been stolen from the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Magical digital green-glowing readouts, a graphic equalizer that pulsed to the rhythm of the audio output, slick, touch-sensitive controls.

And the software was straight out of a design dream. Small silver discs, that glowed rainbow colours supernaturally when the light caught them, reflecting my fascinated young face as I would curiously handle them as if they were hand-downs from the almighty himself, always knowing that there would be hell to pay should I got the slightest fingerprint on their sacred surfaces.

I was exposed to the works of The Police, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Genesis, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Prince, The Smiths..... More artists that I can recall. The stereo itself was always strictly off-limits, but every now and then, when the cat was away, I would have a blast at it, always careful not to alter any settings or presets. After a childhood spent devouring comics, sci-fi films and endless games of street football, it was a new exciting toy.

Strangely enough, apart from outside influences, I never really caught the music virus until I was about 16. Roundabout when Cobain had croaked it, and the whole "Brit-pop" phenomena was just raising it's head. I was hanging around with a group of mates - as I saw them then - who were heavily into the music scene, primarily rock. I connected only with the music that I felt an affinity towards - that which I felt had soul, feeling, and the lyrical personality and truth that can only come from the heart, mind and pen of someone with their pulse on the heart-rate of humanity.

Like Abbey Road - an album that was put together during the sad break-up of the Beatles, yet had a collaborative creative genius and lamenting yet uplifting aspect that only makes it a greater and more resonant achievement, listening to it in hindsight. To the day I last draw breath, I defy anyone to listen to listen to Golden Slumbers and not detect McCartney almost crying as he belts out that track - as if he already knew the party was over, the 60's were at their death and the 3 mates he had conquered the world with were all off on one to do their own thing. The evil spectre of the 70's and all the strife it encompassed was on the horizon, and money talked, babe.

Yes, sad but true, undeniably.

All things must pass.

But my musical education was sparked by such great albums. I could instantly, almost instinctively connect with the material I liked and reject that which totally turned me off. In the mid to late 1990's, there was a real movement...

However stale this may sound, everyone who was around and able to walk into a record store in this country at that time will perhaps grudgingly, admit: There was a shared sense that British artists were reclaiming the throne we had relinquished to America and the colossus that was MTV in the 80's, when all we could seemingly offer was shit like Wham!, Chris De Burgh and Adam fucking Ant.

When the Yanks had the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Guns and Roses, Springsteen.... We just couldn't compete with that media onslaught, regardless of whether you thought they were talented or not. They had the remote control of the television and radio in their hands, and they'd be fucked if they were gonna let go of it.

But then Oasis swaggered into the stage spotlight, with an arrogance and a "Don't-give-a-fuck" attitude somewhere between the Stones and the Pistols. They were a breath of fresh air, with their tabloid-screamed hell-raising exploits of cocaine on corn-flakes and their unashamed Beatles homages. It was like we were harking back to the 60's and our parent's soundtrack, always jealous yet thankful that their generation had provided us all with the platform for this "new" revolution, and the undying optimism that the music of that decade offered.

Blair was knocking on the door of No. 10.

Football was coming home.

Thatcher had long since fucked off from our seat of power with fake, self-centered tears in her crocodile eyes.

Other performers, in the words of Noel Gallagher; "Clung onto our shirt-tails", such as Blur, Cast, The Verve. Yet the collective sound was cohesive, together.

Again, just like the 60's. Great artists don't pay homage, they steal.
Not too dissimilar a sound, yet distinctive and unique to each act.

It was a long-held dream of mine to work in a music store. Primarily to indulge further in my obsessive love of cinema and video games. The music passion came later. I would hand in CV's to shops with my best grin to disinterested staff, who would uniformly give me the stock response of: "Yeah, I'll pass it to the manager".

On and off, I would still make attempts to get employed in a job where I knew the pay was poor, the hours long, the stress of dealing with irate parents, desperately trying to purchase the latest Disney release for their kids when it was out of stock....

It didn't happen until I was at the threshold of the 30-year-old demographic.

And man.......

Did a DJ save my life...............

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Ciggarrette runs to Europe and secret smuggling techniques

Around a week after moving in, the flat was slowly starting to come together. Despite much friction, bullshit arguments and general antagonism between me, my brother and father, it had gradually been cleaned and brightened up, and looked and felt much more habitable.

Just watching TV, listening to music or reading seemed so much more pleasurable in a sedate, settled environment. Especially since my mate Leigh had given me his mum's old leather couch, which was still in excellent condition, as well as some jazzy cushions. A nice touch.

I was adjusting several framed prints in the living room, trying to get them to hang straight, when there was a rapid, nervous-sounding knock at the flat door. It sounded like a policeman's knock - official, sharp and commanding. Not casual enough for my liking......

I slowly stepped over and opened the door. There was no-one there. I could hear footsteps tramping away, and poked my head out into the corridor, to just catch sight of Col. He saw me, and spun around, heading back towards me.

'Alright, Eric lad? Yer OK there lad?' He bounded to my door, shaking my hand frenetically.

He then dropped a plastic carrier bag he was holding to the floor, dipping into it and producing a stack of beat-up old DVD's. He grinned as he pushed them into my hands.

'Eh, Eric lad, some boss films there for yer lad. Got them from Cash Converters on London Road. Spot on lad, good action and that. Lend them lad, lend them'

I glanced at the top DVD in the stack, teetering in my hand. "Bloodsport" starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. I'd seen it when I was about 14. Even with my adolescent mind back then, I thought it was a load of shite. But I didn't have the heart to tell Col about it.

'Yeah, right...Thanks, Col....You wanna come inside for a bit? Chill out? Cup of tea or something?'

'Yeah lad, spot on lad, spot on....'

He traipsed into my living room, eyes open wide, mouth hanging loose, gawping at my bookshelf crammed with DVD's, CD's, novels, magazines and comic books. He slipped off a battered backpack from his right shoulder and slumped noisily onto my couch, clearly impressed with my new home.

'Sound in 'ere, innit Eric, lad? Really smart gaffe like....Where'd yer get all them DVD's and books from lad?'

'Oh, I've been collecting them for years, on and off you know'.

'Sound lad, sound......Who's that on that picture there, lad?' Col pointed to the abstract print on the living room wall, still hanging on a wonky angle.

'John Lyndon, Sex Pistols...I got it from the 99p shop in town' I replied as I corrected it.

'Johnny Rotten eh? Mad him, isn't he lad?' Col reached into his backpack and pulled out can of Skol Super lager, enthusiastically thrusting it towards me.

'Wanna can, Eric lad?'

I hadn't had a drink since I'd moved in, and it was a great gesture. A kind of impromptu flat-warming. But the fact it was Skol Super fair turned my stomach.

'No, no thanks Col. I'm just gonna have a cup of tea, that's all mate'

'No problems, lad, no problems'

I flicked on the TV set and hovered by the kitchen door.

It was at this time, as Col cracked open his can of lager and guzzled it noisily, whilst rolling a cigarette with his free hand, that I had a chance to properly study him up close.

It's hard to describe in words alone the strange aura he seemed to emit. His body language, sweeping physical mannerisms and chameleonic facial tics were a disturbing yet exciting peek into the inner workings of his mind. He had a naive child-like innocence to him, coupled with a really old-school, worldly attitude and outlook that that fascinated me. He obviously had some mental health issues... Not that I was the most perfectly balanced individual myself of course, but I could tell a mile off that he was damaged goods. I wondered what horrors had occurred in his past to shape him into what he had become - a nervous ball of energy, hyperactive yet always somehow upbeat. I couldn't picture what he was like in the past - he just seemed to me like one of those people who had always looked and acted the same, and never aged. I wouldn't think to ask him either. I didn't want to risk upsetting him. It would probably get messy if he were to get emotional.

Besides, he seemed a nice enough person at heart. He was what he was. No bullshit pretensions, no false image. Its true to say I thought Col was a smashing person straight away.

'So you working, Eric lad?' Col babbled through a thick cloud of yellow smoke.

'Yeah, Zavvi, music store in Clayton Square. You know it?'

'Zavvi...Yeah, been there a few times. You work there long, Eric?'

'Nah, only about 3 months. Pay isn't the greatest like but all the staff are cool and it's a pretty fun place to work'

Col took another blast from his can, savouring the taste with a lick of his quivering lips.

'So...What's it like for a graft in there, lad?'

I hesitated for a moment before I answered. Col didn't strike me as the sharpest shoplifter - he looked like he'd be an inept one at best. He'd probably attract way too much attention to himself with his outlandish behaviour. I didn't want him bursting into the store like a bulldozer, making a show of me...

'Well, to be honest Col, I wouldn't risk it. There's cameras and guards all over the store...Plus, you know what it's like in town these days. Once the alarm goes up, every security guard in every store across town is locked onto you...Believe me man, it ain't worth it'

Col nodded in total agreement, his expression switching from quizzical to benevolent in the flick of an eyelid.

'Oh aye, yeah Eric lad. Yer don't wanna be stupid and and lose your job. Sounds like a spot on job you got there, though. If yer ever do a bit of grafting in there though, always make sure you get two copies of each....One to sell to Cash Convertors, and the other one to keep in yer mam's house. So it's safe in yer mam's an that lad'

'Right, yeah....Good advice that Col'

'There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, until he slowly rose from the couch and started pacing slowly around the room, peering at the bookshelf. There were so many layers to him, I needed some answers.

'So...You working yourself, Col?'

He stared straight ahead at the bookcase, not facing me as he replied, somewhat vacant and far away.

'Nah lad, on benefits. Medication and that, for me condition'

I'd half expected such a response, but it still unsettled me somewhat. Not through being judgemental, but just through the uncertainty of what his condition actually was. It wouldn't pay to ask, I thought.

Col took a deep intake of breath, turned towards me and gave an expansive, arms outstretched gesture as he looked to the ceiling, his gaze on something only he could see.

'I got plans though, Eric lad. Gonna save up me next two giros, fly over to Lanzarote, and buy shit-loads of ciggies to bring back and sell. Make a few quid from that and then do it all again the next month. I'll throw yer a few sleeves...whatcha smoke, lad?'

Was he for real? I thought you got arrested for smuggling ciggies over...I was i just behind the times? Did he know something I didn't about customs and excise procedures?

'Erm...Yeah, that sounds sweet. Lambert and Butlers, usually like, Col. But...How you gonna get them all through the airport though?'

Col wagged his finger and shot me an all-knowing smile.

'No need to worry Eric lad, I got that boxed off. Next time you go abroad, do this yerself. Just take as many cases as you can carry, right? But before you go, buy loads of wrapping paper, yer know for presents. When yer get yer ciggies, wrap them all up, right? But make sure you buy a bottle of wine and put it in the first case. Wrap that up as well, like. Oh yeah, this is important....Make sure you put a Birthday card in the first case with the wine as well. Write it out to yer mam....'

'What a birthday card for me mam? Why?'

He grew more and more animated as he continued, the contents of his can sloshing loudly about as he virtually acted out his plan.

'Cos what is is lad, there's a loophole in the law. If the customs fella stops yer at the checkpoint, He can't open any of the wrapped boxes'

'Really? Why not?'

'Cos they're presents, Presents for yer mam!! Heeheeheeheehee!'

I burst into laughter along with him, but I realised he was serious. The laughter was because he must have thought he'd worked out a genius criminal subterfuge that would pass off without being noticed. I didn't mention x-ray machines or sniffer dogs. I didn't want to destroy his grand vision. Besides, he seemed insane enough to believe his own fantasy.

'Yeah that's a tight plan that Col. Hope you can pull it off'

'It'll be sound Eric, lad...We'll make a fortune lad, just you see...' His gaze went from me to the window, as if he he was picturing the riches he would amass and how he would blow them. He smiled to himself and slowly nodded.

The cheap digital alarm clock on the wall beeped loudly as it hit 5:00pm, snapping Col out of his fantasy. He immediately reached for his bag, pulling it over his shoulder hurriedly. It was like he was expected elsewhere, such was the frantic speed with which he made to leave.

'Say, you alright Col? Getting off?'

'Yeah, Eric lad, got to get to me mam's, having some supper there later. Gotta power-march up Scottie Road, lad. Keep-fit regime and that lad'

I felt almost guilty. Had I said something to offend him? Not that I could recall...

'You sure your alright? Don't wanna sit off here for a bit?'

He shook his head as he made for the door, swigging on his can.

'Nah, I'm sound Eric lad, really. Only stopped by to pass you them them lad, you'll enjoy them, honest...'

'Yeah, OK I will. Thanks for lending them to me...Take it easy, Col..'

He shot out of the flat and walked swiftly along the corridor, raising his can aloft like a football trophy as he shouted back to me.


He vanished around the corner, leaving me standing in the corridor. It was as if he hadn't really even been there, like he was a ghost, an apparition. Despite talking at length with him, I didn't really feel I knew him any better....

I stepped back inside, closing the door behind me, and retreated to the couch, rubbing my head as I tried to make sense of it all.