Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Man Who Knew Too Much

I don't remember the first time I saw him. It’s more like I became aware of him, as if he hadn't so much arrived in Chatham as materialised there. But I remember the first time I spoke to him and everything after that.
I'd just been laid off at the dockyard. Me, Len and Alan were in the Portland Vase, in the window seat, as ever. He walked in and Len said, 'Here he is, look. Clint Eastwood in a cagoule.'
Alan went, 'Yeah. The man with no name.'
I said, 'The man with no mates.'
He bought a lemonade and went over to play the quiz machine. After twenty minutes there was this massive whoosh of coins dropping into the pay-out slot. He never even smiled, just went on playing. He could've been operating a lathe for all the feeling he showed.
He had a couple more wins. I was at the bar getting a round in. I looked over and said, 'Drinks on you then, mate?'
He didn't say a word.
There was another clunk and another shower of smash dropped into the slot. Ray came out from behind the bar. He muttered 'Sod this,' and turned the machine off at the mains. He looked at the guy and said, 'Game over, mate.'
He came in the pub a couple more times. The next time he did the machine again, but after that Ray was too quick for him. It was like he’d hear him coming. He'd look up from his paper, see him coming from across the road, and dash over and turn the machine off.
A few weeks later I was in the library looking at the papers for jobs. I wouldn't have spotted him but I was having to hunt round because someone had swiped the Echo. And the thing I remember is the books. He had untold books stacked up, like he was building a wall round himself. I got alongside him and sneaked a look at all this paperwork he had in front of him. It had something about the Open University on it. He must have clocked me because he covered up what he'd been writing with his hand, like kids do at school when they don't want you copying.
I said I hadn't seen him up the Vase lately. I said not to mind about Ray. It wasn't like he was barred; he could still come in for a drink.
He looked up and said, 'What for?' He wasn't trying to be a prat; it was like he really didn't know what for.
I left when he did, but he stopped off at the bus-stop. I said, 'Off to work, then?'
He said, 'Sort of. The Jolly Sailor’s got a new machine. Want to get there early while it's still full from last night.'
It didn't sound much of a life. I said, 'There’s a quiz up the Richard Cobden on Mondays. Me and the others are giving it a go next week if you fancy tagging along.'
His bus came then. As he got on, he said, 'Don't think it's my thing really. Thanks all the same.' Then he was gone.
Then, come the night, he only went and turned up. He just about nodded at us, got a drink and a quiz sheet, and then planted himself in a corner. Hugh the landlord read the scores out at the end of round one. We were nowhere, but ahead of everyone by miles was somebody calling themselves Clever Clint. There was only one person in the whole pub that wasn't looking round to see who it was. He was just smiling to himself in the corner, sipping his lemonade.
It was like that all night. When Hugh gave the final scores, he couldn't resist having a dig. He said, 'And tonight's winner is Clever Clint. I think it says Clint; the handwriting's not all that.'
Then it occurred to me about the name he was using. I wondered if he might have overheard Len taking the mick that first time he was in the Portland Vase. I wasn't going to make a mug of myself by apologising, in case it was a coincidence, but I went and said well done on the win. Just to show there was no hard feelings. He said, 'Thanks' like he hardly remembered me, and trousered his prize money.
The next week we arrived a bit late. We were still at the bar as the quiz was about to start. He was sat in the corner again. Hugh was stood shuffling his question sheets and clearing his throat. He said, 'Before we start, just a reminder of one of the old rules which some of the regulars will remember. Minimum of three in a team.'
There were some mumbles of agreement but everybody knew it was nonsense. It's not often I have the right idea at the right time and actually do something about it, but I did it then. I gave the other two a nudge and we went over to the corner table. I said, 'Sorry we're a bit late.' We sat down like we'd known him all his life. He was on the team whether he liked it or not.
I've never been so flush as I was that winter. I had my giro, some cash work on the side, and our winnings. Daytimes, he'd bus it round the towns emptying every quiz machine in sight, then in the evening he'd call me from the phone-box on the High Street telling me about some quiz he'd spotted. It was the only time he'd speak other than to answer questions. We'd pick him up in Len's Corsa outside the same phone-box. Alan reckoned he lived in there.
We'd bomb around Kent with the car stereo up full blast. Len put the music on because he reckoned you couldn't have a proper conversation when he was about. He used to call him The Silence. He admitted once that he always timed it so we'd arrive just minutes before a quiz started so we wouldn’t be sat there staring at each other like relatives on a hospital visit. He had a point. You had a job getting much from him. You'd ask something harmless like what he'd done that day, and he'd say, 'I learnt things,' and you'd think, oh forget it then.
Len thought he wasn't the full shilling psychologically. He reckons himself an expert because he drives the minibus for them up the day-centre. But I didn't see him that way, even when he got paranoid about the Licensed Victuallers.
We were in the Cecil Arms in Strood. The bonus jackpot had been carried over three weeks running so it was a pressure gig anyway, but he looked terrified. In the break, he went to the bog. Len said, 'What's up with the Silence? Looks like he's going to burst into tears.'
When he came back I asked what was up. He looked round to see who was listening, then whispered, 'The LVA are after me.'
Len spluttered something about how it was the CIA you had to worry about. Then Alan chipped in that MFI were the worst. But it turned out he was more or less right. Apparently word had got round all the pub governors about him milking the machines and one of them had dropped a postcard to the Dole saying how they should knock his winnings off his Giro like they would with earnings.
I told him he should get down the library and look up the rules. He looked at me like he never would have thought of that in a million years. I said, 'Just this once I'll waive me fee as your common-sense consultant.'
He went back to the Social and showed them the regulation saying winnings aren't the same as earnings and they got off his case, but it just went to show. Showed how he brought out the bully in people. That sort of thing can be catching.
And sure enough, we wronged him. We'd had a good run. Spring was on its way; the long nights were almost over. I suppose we thought, well a free night out's one thing but who wants to spend it with the whole pub looking daggers at you? There were some shaky moments. Walking in to the Sportsman and someone shouting out, 'Here they come look, Rain Man and the Three Stooges!' Going in the British Tar in Gravesend and someone from another team saying, 'That geek ought to be in a circus.'
The landlord at the First and Last in Maidstone put the tin hat on it. He said, 'You can play tonight, but from now on, either the fraggle goes or you do.' So, on the way home, as casually as we took him on, we dropped him.
He took it like he took everything. With a sort of blankness. He said it was okay because for a while he'd been thinking of moving to London. He said he could read in a different library every day, and anyway, who wanted to be the cleverest man in Chatham? It was the nearest he got to giving us the slap we deserved. I said to keep in touch, like everybody does, not meaning it.
Soon, the postcards started coming. I've kept them all. He never put a return address. Nothing was ever in both directions with him.
Dear Neil,
I hope this finds you well. I have secured accommodation in a hostel in Earls' Court. A condition of residence is that tenants must be employed, so I have taken work as a stock-replenishment assistant at a supermarket nearby. The work is undemanding. Give my regards to your friends. Yours etc.
Around July I got a card saying he'd been caught reading on the job, so he'd been moved onto the day-shift where it was harder to skive. Which is probably where things started going a bit sideways.
Dear Neil,
I hope this finds you well. The transfer to the day-shift has created some tension with my room-mate. While I worked nights, he became accustomed to bringing his fiancée to our room, in my absence and in contravention of hostel rules. To avoid ill-will I have begun taking long walks until the small hours. This seems to satisfy my room-mate's need for privacy. Give my regards to your friends. Yours etc.
If I could've found him, I'd have shaken him until his teeth rattled. There were only a few more cards. The next said that because he was out till all hours he'd been getting in to work late and eventually they'd given him the heave-ho, which naturally naused things up with the hostel.
Dear Neil,
I hope this finds you well. Although I have had to vacate my hostel accommodation, I have been lucky enough to secure a room in a shared house. The landlord has accepted my final payslips as proof of income and I have every confidence my Housing Benefit will be assessed before he has to concern himself with my true status. Give my regards to your friends. Yours etc.
Naturally, everything went tits up with his benefit. The last card I got, he was out on his arse. He said he was looking for a new place but it all sounded a bit vague and I couldn't see him making it.
The next winter was a really cold one. The police told me there was almost nothing of him when they found him. All he had on him was a birth certificate, his Open University stuff, and a dozen library cards. And photocopies of all the postcards he'd sent me. The council up there would have buried him on the rates apparently, but me, Len, and Alan said we'd stump up. I don't know if it's what he would have wanted.

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