THIS ( WASTED) LIFE
MY mate Gel used to look after his dad. Right smack- bang across the way from the pub I chanced upon with the quintessentially English name of Bowling Green Lane lived old Tom the Boot and his son Gerry. Everyone called him Gel, though, owing to the propensity of the poms to put a colloquial l where Aussies would put a z. Barry was Bal, not Baz, Terry was Tel and, to state the bleeding obvious, Gerry was only ever Gel.
We were mates, and he would tell people often, in the cockney accent I adored, copied and hoped would one day seep into my own. I recognised him at first as a stranger in my pub, though he sat all cocky and presumptuous at the bar as if he owned the place. A returned local, I discovered, for souls are spilled quickly and easily in pubs and he had poured his out to me with the help of the Guinness I had poured in.
He had been staying elsewhere, having hastily exited another fleeting relationship. ( I became accustomed to these evacuations and his inevitable return to me.)
Our friendship was fated and eventually even the locals got sick of raising their collective eyebrows when we went upstairs together through the door marked ‘‘ Private’’, to my room above the pub. It was just love, nothing more, nothing less.
Old Tom the Boot was a face in North London. A club foot had given him his nickname, thanks to the usual subtlety and imagination of cockneys. He had been the best stand- up fighter for miles around; you could make money with it in pubs in those days.
Apparently he had always been mad. I loved the stories from those days and imagined them in black- and- white, when villains were villains and everyone wore sharp suits. It was a London you could still see if you looked hard enough in the right places — a mews here, a laneway there, a pie and mash shop on Exmouth Market — or hear, when being called a ‘‘ diamond gal’’ in an East End accent.
Old Tom was firmly ensconced there due to the onset of dementia and Gel would bring him to the pub occasionally for a few pints and gently prompt stories from him, usually the same ones.
Perhaps madness was hereditary. There was certainly an element of crazy in Gel, but for all his foibles his heart was of pure gold.
Gel always took me places, usually by piggyback. He could carry me all the way from my pub to our favourite boozer — the Apple Tree, on the other side of Mount Pleasant post office, without stopping or even breaking his always- purposeful stride. He wouldn’t pass flowers without picking one for behind my ear and he could roll a joint by moonlight in 30- knot winds. Our goodbye was a sad one.
It’s been five years since I’ve seen my mate Gel, and three years since he was beaten to pulp somewhere on the wrong side of London’s Kings Cross. He did eventually emerge from the coma where he lay, sans cheeky grin.
We were mates, we were.
thislife@ theaustralian. com. au