Barry Braithwaite’s Last Life – The First two Chapters

1

   Barry was living in a skip, and was proud of it. A disused skip to be sure, long abandoned to the elements, and too corroded to be of any practical use; but I must clarify something here. Barry was proud of the skip, not especially of the fact that he lived in it. I’m Barry’s friend and mentor and I want to tell you about him. Not just what he does, but what he thinks, or what I believe he thinks, which may not be the same thing. I want this to be a kind of socio-historical document which someone may read in a hundred years’ time; a bit like we read, or don’t read, Dickens now.

   What I’ve said so far might tell you something about me and I suppose you have a right to know who I am. I’m your typical over-read, middle-aged, under-achiever, whose habitat tends to be a taxpayer sponsored flat on the edge of an industrial town. I almost drank myself to death through prolonged ennui and frustration – no-one ever understood me – and have come out at the other end with my thoroughly undeserved pension credits and a penchant for Victorian literature, schoolboy Latin, and a spot of do-gooding to ease my frayed conscience. That’s me in a nutshell, but I’ll tell you about myself some other time.

   I first saw Barry when he walked into the church hall where I’d started making cups of tea and dishing out economy meals one or two mornings a week. Our patrons aren’t especially well dressed or groomed, but Barry did stand out from the crowd. He surveyed the room through squinting, begrimed eyes, and shuffled to one of the cushioned plastic benches around the walls. There he assumed a foetal position and was soon asleep. I was told that that was Barry, and a sleeping Barry was as good a Barry as any.

   He awoke as the last plate was dried, sat up, and surveyed the room. I observed him over my tea towel and was struck by the mass of dark hair over his creased red face. He looked fifty-five but was clearly ten years younger, if you know what I mean. As I was watching him, he stood up and lurched towards the counter. His clothes had surpassed the normal stages of dirtiness and appeared to be in the early stages of decomposition. He leaned on the counter and gazed at me with eyes which reminded me of a refracted Union Jack, but with most of the blue in the middle.

  “Who’re you?”

  “I’m Alfred.”(Never Alf.)

  “Can you lend me a pound?”

  “No, but I can make you a cup of tea.”

  “All right. Any food left?”

  “Oh, I expect we can rustle something up. You are Barry, I believe?”

  “Electrician.”

  “I’m sorry?”

  “I’m an electrician. Wasn’t always like this.”

  “Right. Here’s the tea.”

 “Ta.” He shuffled back to the bench.

   His legs were shot to pieces and I knew why. Alcohol frazzles the nerves, veins and arteries; probably in that order, and had left me somewhat inflexible after thirty years of sustained inebriation. So I sympathised, you see (or empathised, as we suddenly started saying ten years ago, as if the word had just been invented) and began to take an interest in Barry.

   He had indeed been an electrician and a family man, I later discovered. He drank too much and his wife left him, so he drank some more and lost his job. This drinking business then became his full-time occupation, and little else seemed to matter. For the last ten years his vital routine had been: street-detox-hostel-street. His presence on the town’s streets would become irksome and he would be shipped off to a rehabilitation clinic in the city.

   Here, if security were high enough, he would be thoroughly cleansed, inside and out, and installed in a hostel in one of the less salubrious areas of Manchester, which I consider to be a master-stroke after all the expense of cleaning him up physically and trying, just trying, to modify the goings on inside his head. From there it was a short matter of time before his homing instinct brought him back to the streets of our town and thus completed this never more aptly named vicious circle. He had been detoxified thirteen times.

   I felt myself being compelled towards one of my missions. I know that people considered me to be something of an oddity, with my affected accent and unusual sensitivity, and perhaps, as a consequence, I often found myself drawn towards other odd people. Anything was better than boredom and everyday folk bored me very much indeed. Their inability to rise above material matters, and their dreary hedonism, rendered them uninteresting to me in my current prolonged period of sobriety. In my drinking days I was insulated against people’s inanity, but now found that workaday matters tired me quickly. Not that I took an interest in every vagabond who crossed my path, but Barry had something about him and I was curious to know what it was.

   I believe in love at first sight, you see. I’ve been married three times, which suggests that I am a man who follows his instincts to the very doors of heaven or hell. Now I didn’t fall in love with Barry, but the short period of observation and the exchange of a few trivial words were enough to make an impact that could be said to parallel those cerebral twitches which lay the foundations for future amorous bliss or disaster. I am sure that this goes for friendship too, albeit in a less spectacular way.

   I took a plate of lasagne and chips over to Barry and left him to eat it. Nobody paid much attention to him, beyond perfunctory nods and grunts in his direction. He was wont, I was later told, to repeat himself constantly and to ask for pound coins, so people tended to remain in motion when greeting him. There were about a dozen people in the hall now, having a last hot drink before closing time. These drop-in mornings were ostensibly for the homeless, but the regulars all had homes and came along for the food, hot drinks and company. They scanned the newspapers, some played chess or scrabble, some conversed, and a few did nothing. Once or twice a month the table tennis table would be pulled out, repairs effected on the ailing net, and a desultory game or two played. Desultory since betting on the games had been banned, after leaving one rather dim fellow penniless for a week.

   I thought their days must seem long with no dead languages, literature and philanthropy to occupy them – I also helped out at the church, despite my utter lack of belief – and wondered how they filled the time. They appeared to watch a lot of television, a device which had left my home along with my third wife eight years ago, and I was blissfully and slightly pompously unable to join in any conversations about the latest reality shows, as I believe they are known, soap operas, and other such nonsense. Nor did I know anything about football, so my relationships with most of my acquaintances were necessarily shallow.

   Adele, the paid project worker, began noisily locking the food cupboards – the Line Dancing club had been known to rifle the biscuits of the less privileged – which was her way of saying goodbye. She was eager to return to the office, by way of one or two clothes shops, to spend the afternoon writing up notes on the morning’s events. She had mentioned this necessity to me once and I had asked her what she could possibly find to write about. She said that each client, as she called them, of the drop-in had a case file which needed to be regularly updated. There were also risk assessments to be completed for our occasional walks in the nearby park, health and safety paperwork to be kept up to date, and other bureaucratic requirements that I probably wouldn’t understand. I asked her to try me, but she declined.

   This, she said, was all about funding. It appears that you don’t get funding for a project like this without making it appear to be a quasi-scientific undertaking and that the funding needs to be high enough to pay the highly trained staff required to run the project and secure further funding. When I said that me and Tracy, the cook, could run the show on our own, she laughed and shook her head dismissively. She saw that the world of Social Welfare was a mystery to me and seemed happy to let it remain so.

   On reporting this to Father Ralf, our protestant Irish vicar who was a little ‘High’ for some parishioners’ taste, he said sternly:

  “Don’t rock the boat, Alfred. They pay us rent on the hall.”

  “Do they?”

  “Oh yes. It goes towards the New Church Hall Fund.”

  “Right.”

   And your Irish whisky, I thought. An ex-drinker knows a drinker when he sees one, especially when he sometimes sees him early in the morning and sometimes after lunch. The St. Mark’s New Church Hall Fund, however, was something of a passion with him, so I may be lacking in generosity here, or just jealous that he can drink and I can’t.

   Barry seemed to be in no hurry to leave. It was a dull, icy day in early March and it is likely that he felt that he had mistimed his return to the streets.

  “Where are you off to now, Barry?”

  “To get a drink.”

  “Well, I can stand you a coffee if you’d like.”

   He looked at me through wider eyes and seemed to be thinking.

  “All right.”

   We left the shabby, graffiti decorated, church hall and headed through my neighbourhood to the town centre. The terraced houses sheltered us from the wind as we plodded along, our standard walking pace seeming to coincide, and I tried to make conversation.

  “Where are you staying at the moment?”

  “Street. In a skip.”

  “In a skip? Isn’t it a bit cold at night?”

  “Been worse. Where we going?”

  “Shall we go to the Green Café?”

   The Green Café was among the scruffiest in town and Barry wasn’t dressed for the more elegant establishments, such as they were.

  “Can first.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “Need a can first. Need a drink.”

   Given my previous life, as I liked to refer to it, I was by no means shocked by this desire. Barry, I felt sure, was an alcoholic and probably hadn’t had a drink for many hours. His body was demanding what it considered sustenance. I went into a corner shop run by a benign Pakistani woman and took a can of strong lager from the shelf.

  “Alfred! What are you doing?”

  “No, it’s not for me. It’s for a friend in need.”

    She arched her eyebrows and glared at me.

  “I will call in for a paper tomorrow, so you’ll know it wasn’t for me.”

  “I hope so, Alfred. I hope so.”

   The lady, Nadia by name, had known me for a long time, during the years of darkness and the years of light. The first two years of light had been interspersed with brief relapses into the shadows, but the second two with none. I felt a little offended that she could doubt my explanation for my purchase, but I realised that it would have sounded rather odd to her; ‘A friend in need’ indeed!

   Nadia’s shop was liberally stocked with alcoholic drinks of all the cheaper varieties and I once asked her how she felt about selling such wares, practising Muslim that she was.

   “I don’t like it Alfred, I don’t like it at all, but more than half my takings come from alcohol. This area is very poor and there isn’t much work, so they drink, and then there is no work; but my daughters are at university and I must support them. When they graduate, perhaps I will sell this shop.”

  “To another Pakistani?”

  “Probably. We are very patient!”

   I gave Barry his can and steered him down a backstreet. He drank it quickly, but not desperately, and we resumed our walk. He seemed more awake now and looked around more. I hoped that the effects of the beer would keep him going for the next hour or so that I intended to spend with him.

   I found us a discrete table in the Green Café and we sat down. The owner was Stan, a paunchy goliath of fifty with well hidden philanthropic tendencies. The word on the street was that he had plenty of money, but he had as yet eschewed the trend for refurbishment, shiny Italian coffee machines and a two or threefold increase in the drink prices. His coffee was of unknown extraction and spent time maturing in large stainless steel jugs placed on small hotplates. I had never actually seen the coffee being made, but it was hot, drinkable, and cost 60p a mug.

  “So Barry, tell me, what are you going to do?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, I mean, what are you going to do now?”

  “Going to have a coffee.”

  “Yes, yes, but what are your plans?”

  “Plans? No plans today. Tomorrow get clothes, shower, haircut; at Centre.”

  “Centre?”

  “New Start Centre. Tuesdays. Not been for a while. Need to go tomorrow.” He pointed at his revolting clothes.

  “That’s good. Can you go every day?”

  “Tuesday, Thursday. Wednesday, St Peter’s; Friday, St John’s; Monday, St Mark’s.”

  “And at the weekend.”

  “Nowt at the weekend.”

   Stan’s customer base was mostly made up of people of the lower echelons and he only declined admittance to those who smelt very badly indeed. He cast a nostril over our table and was satisfied that no rank odour emanated. Indeed, Barry smelt far better than his clothes would lead you to expect; just a hint of mustiness.

  “What’s it to be?”

  “Two coffees please, Stan?”

   Barry slurped his coffee and wiped his mouth with the back of a grimy hand. I was glad it was shower, new clothes and haircut day tomorrow.

  “So, you’re sleeping in a skip?”

  “Yes, good skip. Quiet.”

  “What if it rains?”

  “Hasn’t rained much since I got back.”

  “Where have you been?”

  “Detox, in Manchester, then in a crappy hostel. Didn’t like it. Full of druggies. Don’t like druggies. Couldn’t stay any longer.”

   This made me laugh, inwardly at least. Chronic drinkers consider themselves to be of a superior caste to those addicted to other drugs. Drug addicts’ teeth fall out; those of drinkers merely rot. Drug addicts beg and steal; drinkers often don’t steal. Chronic drinkers, after all, just do the same as everyone else, except they do it more. They cross a fine line, whereas drug addicts cross a big fat line into illegality and an even earlier death. I knew there was no real difference, but I wouldn’t tell Barry that just now.

  “What are you going to do this afternoon?”

  “Get some money for some drink, and food. Can you lend me a pound?”

  “Yes, I can lend you a pound, but where else will you get money from?”

  “Asking. Borrowing. Know a lot of people. I don’t need to beg. Can’t stand them people sitting there begging with a dog. Always got a bloody dog.”

   I laughed, aloud this time, because it was true. I was later informed that Barry acquired money by touring the town centre and asking everybody he knew, or thought he knew, for the loan of a pound. He rarely stopped and never sat down – that would be begging – and left the centre when he had money enough for his daily needs. Ten pounds was more than enough and the times that he borrowed more he sometimes got into scrapes later in the day. He was quite well known and never caused trouble or alarmed people when he was borrowing and he usually got what he needed within a couple of hours. A pound is a nice round sum and only a small coin. If he had asked for spare change, it would have taken him much longer and couldn’t have been considered a loan. I was surprised that I hadn’t seen Barry before, but I did spend many hours of each day over my books; too many hours I sometimes thought.

  “Where is this skip?”

  “End of Clover Street, near the canal. Don’t tell anyone though; don’t want people bothering me. Neighbours don’t say nothing. I only go there to sleep. Up at the crack of dawn usually. Got to do some work on it later, when it’s dark.”

  “What do you have to do?”

  “Found a nice piece of corrugated roofing to put on top. Left it near last night. Put it on later on.”

  “Do you need any help?”

  “No, no. Don’t want no-one to see me do it.”

  “All right. Another coffee?”

  “No, got to be off. What’s your name?”

  “Alfred.”

  “Can you lend me that quid, Alf?”

  “Yes, but it’s Alfred, not Alf. Think ‘Alfred the Great’.” I gave him the pound.

  “Great, thanks. See you.” He rose to his six feet of slightly crooked height and left the café.

2

   For the rest of the day I thought about Barry quite a lot. The weather changed on Tuesday and grey clouds filled the sky. The wind had dropped and it felt a little less cold, but spring seemed as distant as ever. After lunch I took a walk to Clover Street, the most run down street in the most run down part of town. Several of the houses had metal sheets over the doors and lower windows and looked better for it. None of the remaining tenants had invested in double glazing and the sound of televisions and radios could be heard very clearly from most of the occupied houses. I could only see one satellite dish and there were only two cars on the street, one without wheels. Right at the end of this dead end street, in the shade of the canal embankment, was the skip.

   Nobody had any reason to pass the skip and nowhere to go if they did. I felt conspicuous, standing at the end of this cul-de-sac of life, but the residents seemed to be the indoor types and there was no-one to observe me nosing around. The skip was empty, apart from some wooden boards, a half empty bag of solidified cement, some rags and a small, soiled mattress. It was in such a state of corrosion that holes had appeared in the base and the lower parts of the sides, which would provide welcome drainage for any resident, were it to rain heavily. The thought of sleeping in it made me shudder. Some fifty yards along the overgrown embankment lay a jagged piece of asbestos roofing that I presumed Barry had planned to use to provide himself with cover. He must have been otherwise occupied the previous night.

   My curiosity satisfied, I returned home and spent the afternoon re-reading The Road to Wigan Pier and involuntarily transposing certain scenes to Clover Street. So much for eighty years of progress. I also spent a great deal of time mulling over my proposed mission to improve Barry’s lot. Caution and low expectations should be the order of the day, I told myself, as my only previous full-scale mission had ended in disaster and continued sporadic incursions from that hapless beneficiary.

   A detailed account of my attempt to help Simon would fill many unedifying pages, so, in the interest of brevity, I will, well, keep it brief. Simon had found himself homeless after quarrelling with his long-suffering friend and unremunerated landlord. He was calm and rational when I met him and had ceased to wash down prescription pills with cheap cider. I invited him to stay at my flat until he found suitable accommodation and he quickly secured a cleaning job, went for daily runs, and kept my flat obsessively clean. Then it went as horribly wrong as it possibly could. Re-enter stage right the pills and the cider; enter stage left furious neighbours, the police and the ambulance men, and the curtain falls on the naivety that a man with my curriculum should have long since lost.

   Simon, I was later told (always later), had severe Bipolar Disorder, which in layman’s terms, or at least in Simon’s case, meant that half the time he was fine and the other half he was mental. This was three years ago now and he still follows the same see-sawing pattern, poor man. Now I answer the door to him if I see from the kitchen window that he is dressed in running attire, but, if he is wearing a woolly hat and has a carrier bag, I don’t. I know the signs. Care in the Community, which is what we do nowadays, works for Simon exactly half the time; the other half of the time the community and him don’t mix.

   I could tell you about the time he threw himself in front of a police car, or when he undressed in a supermarket, or about several other incidents that would make any heartless person laugh, but I mention my mission with Simon merely to illustrate what I didn’t intend to happen again. The worst of it was that the unbearable stress and the constant inhalation of chemically produced apple fumes caused me to put a foot back into my own darkness and pull it back with a sore head and shaky hands. This was not to happen again and Barry would be helped in a more conservative manner.

   More cautiously, yes, but no less enthusiastically, did I embark on my work with Barry. Noon the next day saw me approaching St. Peter’s Church Community Centre with something approaching trepidation. I had no apparent reason for going there myself, being a man of a distinction largely acquired through availing myself of the better items of clothing on offer in the town’s burgeoning charity shops, but I was keen to catch up with Barry.

   On entering the spacious hall, the Barry I beheld was of an appearance far less disturbing than that of two days earlier. Taking him from the top down, every portion of him was much improved. His hair was cut short enough not to need combing and he had shaved, or been shaved, in the recent past. His face glowed, not in an altogether healthy way, but denoting signs of capillary movement which had lain unobserved under Monday’s grime. He sported a passable green sweater, sensibly functional dark jeans and elegant slip-on shoes. He also wore socks today. He was seated at the head of a large table of diners and appeared to be discoursing on some point of architecture, with the help of a fork and a fish finger. He hadn’t seen me enter, so I approached the tea urn attendant, a stout female member of the congregation, no doubt, and asked for a cup. I nobly lay my fifty pence coin on the counter and drifted over to a bench in the corner, better to observe my future charge unseen. He may already consider me a potential benefactor and I didn’t want him to alter his behaviour to gratify me.

   The skip was the subject of his address.

  “Slid the roof on easy enough and weighed it down with a couple of breeze blocks. Just left a gap big enough to get in through. Nice and cosy.”

  “But Barry”, interrupted a wizened young man, “what about when it rains hard?”

  “Ah, a bit of thought went into that. Got my mattress on top of some pallets. Water’ll drain out the holes in the bottom of the skip.”

  “Won’t it rain in?” enquired the man, with a downward, diagonal tilt of the hand.

  “Ah, not so as you’d notice. Depends on the wind.”

   While the helpers and the more nimble diners were clearing up, I approached Barry.

  “Hello there, Barry.”

  “Who’re you?”

  “Alfred. We met on Monday.”

  “Ah, Alfred the Great. Great. Can you lend me a pound?”

   Barry’s fresh-alcohol scented breath, not at all the same smell as stale alcohol, made my nostrils tingle and I could see that he was at the height of his lucidity. He had drunk neither too much nor too long ago and had reached that exact point of happiness that I had strived to maintain for thirty years, with very mixed success. A judicious pound, I knew, would prolong his lively state into the afternoon.

   Some critics would condemn what they would consider my feeding of the flames of vice. ‘Tell the man to stop drinking and sort himself out!’ they would cry; but any modern doctor would corroborate my prescription. When a person reaches a state of utter dependence on the stuff, as was Barry’s case, it is inadvisable to close the tap suddenly, as this can produce heart failure and other disagreeable consequences. Years, or at least many uninterrupted months, of application to the bottle are required to reach Barry’s level of addiction and time, thought and medicine are required to re-establish the clean, serene man. For now, we would tend the tiller of Barry’s boat, try to avoid the rapids, and steer him steadily down the river to the sea of redemption. That was the idea anyway, because Barry’s mind held the key, or the corkscrew, that opened or ceased to open the bottles and on Barry’s mind I intended to work.

  “Yes, I’ll lend you a pound later on. So, you’ve got the roof on the skip?”

  “Yes, nice and cosy in there now.”

  “Is it not a bit chilly?”

  “Got my sleeping bag.” He pointed to a blue rucksack over by the coat hooks. “Keep it with me; too many thieves about.”

   We left the church hall and walked down the hill into town. Barry drank a can on a backstreet and we went to the Green Café. Stan raised his eyebrows on seeing Barry’s neat appearance and pointed to a table near the window.

  “What can I get you, gents?”

  “Two coffees please, Stan,” said Barry with much assurance. He really seemed almost normal today, whatever normal might be, and looked smarter than some of the other customers, who comprised workmen, work-less men and economy shoppers.

  “So, Barry. You’ll be all right for now in the skip, but should you not think about getting somewhere to live?”

  “I’m all right in the skip, Alf.”

  “Alfred. But, I mean, do you get any money, any benefits?”

  “No, don’t need them. Too much trouble anyhow.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Bah, you’ve got to have an address, bank account, ID to get a bank account, bond for the house… too much trouble. I’ll stay as I am. It’ll be getting warmer soon.”

  “Yes, I suppose it will.”

   We drank our coffees and spoke little. Barry wasn’t a great conversationalist and I didn’t want to be continually asking him questions. He rarely asked me any, other than the ‘pound petition’, as I began to think of it. I lent him today’s pound and we agreed to meet in two days’ time at St. John’s church in the northern part of town. I stayed to finish my coffee. The café was emptying and Stan began to clear the tables, giving each a symbolic wipe with a grey cloth.

  “So, Alfred, you and Barry becoming pals, are you?” A smile played on his stubbly face.

  “Well, if I can help him at all; I’ve got plenty of time.”

  “And pounds.”

  “Ha, and pounds! I’ve got a jar full of pound coins and I’d only spend them on old books, anyway.”

  “Well, that Barry’s a book in himself. Nowt to be done there Alfred. I tried myself years ago; waste of time. He has his steady times, like now, then he loses it, gets in the shit, and they ship him off somewhere. It’s happened a dozen times.”

  “Thirteen. But what happens?”

  “Well, his drinking gets worse and worse; nasty stuff too. He stops getting himself cleaned up, gets into scrapes, gets beaten up, banged up-”

  “What does he get banged up for?”

  “Have you not seen him drunk yet?”

  “No.”

  “When he really hits it he starts bothering people, following them, swearing at them. He’s a big lad so he scares people who don’t know him; gets done for Drunk and Disorderly normally. Then, if he gets out of order on a Saturday night, he’s apt to get a slapping, or worse. Been beaten up bad a few times.”

   This was news indeed, but not altogether a surprise.

  “But, does he get violent?”

  “No, not violent, not that one. Honest as well; never been known to nick anything. That’s why people put up with him, up to a point.”

  “Well, I don’t know. I think he’s got something about him. Other people turn things around. I mean, look at me.”

  “Yes, I remember when you used to come in here in a right state, pissing people off right, left and centre! Had to chuck you out more than once-”

  “Yes, well, let’s not talk about that just now. But there you are; thirty years on and off the bottle and look at me now.” I tapped the table lightly with two fingers.

  “I know, and I think you’ll be all right now. It’s different with you, though. You’re a thinking man, Alfred. You’re, well, how shall I put it, almost a gentleman-”

  “Almost?!”

  “Give it another year and I’ll take out the almost, then. What I mean is, that you knew you weren’t doing right, and you thought about it; you reasoned, and you’ve got your books and stuff. Barry’s not like that. He’s a working man who’s stopped working. No more beer and skittles.”

  “Beer and skittles?”

  “Well, you know, a working man does his work, then he goes down the pub or the club, plays his darts and pool, watches his football, has a few pints. Next day, he’s back at work. You take his pints away and what have you got? That’s his social life up the spout. He’s not going to drink orange juice and get the piss ripped out of him, is he? You get Barry off the booze and what have you got? What’s he going to do? In any case I can’t see him being fit to work again. Electrician he was; good one too, I believe.”

  “I think you’re being rather cynical, Stan. There’s got to be more to people’s lives than that. I mean, what do you do with yourself?”

  “Me! Stuck at home with the wife, watching the bloody box. Down the pub Saturday nights. Since the kids left home, I prefer being here.”

   Sobering thoughts filled my head as I walked from the café to the supermarket to get my weekly shop. If Stan was right, there wasn’t much hope for Barry, or for most of the human race for that matter. In the gigantic twenty-four hour supermarket I wandered from aisle to aisle with my trolley and picked up my rice, pasta, garlic, olive oil and vegetables. I had become quite an accomplished cook, in my way and ate healthily and surprisingly cheaply. Books again. A morning in the library was sufficient to effect the radical change in my diet that agrees with me so well. No more pies, pasties and frozen chips for me.

  I wondered what Barry ate, apart from his midday meals at the churches and charities and concluded that he most likely ate little else. He wasn’t fat, so his calorie intake probably came mostly from the drink. I picked up some vitamin B tablets for him. Then I got him some nuts, raisins, biscuits, pre-packed cakes, bottled water, vests, socks, underpants, a rainproof jacket, a woolly hat, gloves, a torch, batteries and a toothbrush. I wandered down the vast drinks aisle for old times’ sake and was reminded of the scandalously cheap price of some of the products. Ten or fifteen pounds would probably be enough to kill a healthy man, if he had an eye for a bargain. Thirty pounds would keep a person comfortably numb for a week. It used to cost a lot more than that, I knew, and I wondered why the government now allowed it. It must have its reasons and I doubted they were good ones.

   On bagging up my purchases, I realised that I would never be able to carry it all back to my flat, so I put the bags back into the trolley and trundled down past the cafés to the taxi rank – this supermarket was like a town in itself – and got home to do an hour’s Latin before tea. Barry might never develop a taste for Latin, but surely there was more to life than beer and skittles?

   The following day I went to the library to do some research. Could it be so difficult to find a place to live? Millions of workless people seemed to be doing just fine, including myself. I am approaching retirement age and will in no way feel that I deserve the pension that other people have contributed to for the last twenty years. During my first years of serious drinking I managed to hold down my job as a clerk by using many clever devices to avoid arousing suspicion.

   I was what they now call a ‘functioning alcoholic’, then known as a lush. For almost ten years I very rarely missed a day’s work and never arrived late. I have always detested vodka, but that gross misuse of the potato was my chosen midweek drink for many years, due to its relatively in-odorous quality. A flask of the stuff lay beside my eye drops, toothpaste, papers and pens in the briefcase I always carried. My colleagues puzzled at my taking my briefcase out with me at lunchtime and considered me overzealous. It amuses me to look back on those years now and remember how remarkably astute I felt myself to be.

   There was I, happy and animated all day and every day and nobody knew my secret! My colleagues lived their humdrum lives with their little wives, while my life was one long bacchanalian pleasure cruise. I did my work competently, for it was easy work for me, and looked forward keenly to the evening’s carousing. Hangovers were unheard of and a large glass of vodka and orange juice (never neglect the vitamins) invariably washed down my morning toast.

   Alas, in time the slim flask was replaced by a half bottle and my briefcase ceased to puzzle my colleagues, or, more importantly, my boss. I was given an ultimatum, roughly coinciding with one from my second wife, so I gave up the job and the wife gave up on me. I rented a room and set about slowly drinking the proceeds from half a house. By this time I was feeling less astute, but I digress from my story.

   I found a book which explained the ins and outs of the benefits system, but it was ten years old, so I had no choice but to resort to the computers. My phobia of television stretches to all screen-clad apparatus, but I couldn’t deny the usefulness of the internet. I often used it to look up historical facts, biographical details of obscure authors, and other literary trivia, but as I now approached the IT suite, the usual sea of blue screens confronted me. The passion for what I believe is called social networking has transformed my once beloved library into a social club for the socially inept.

   I sprang for a computer, recently vacated by one repellent youth, and found that I had eighteen minutes before his time expired and another young philistine would doubtless take his place. My opinion of today’s youth is not high; perhaps I don’t see the best in them, or of them. Eighteen minutes proved to be enough time to jot down a few relevant names, addresses and telephone numbers, before a smartly dressed man of my own age came to claim his surfing rights. Perhaps the elderly will inherit cyberspace after all.

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