The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - ELLEN GRIF­FITH

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

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