Sean was always caught on the ebb tide. Here he was now, barrelling across the grammar school quadrangle with his characteristic rolling but sad gait. A shock of red hair falling down in a long spiky fringe concealing his sorrowful brown eyes and pale, pensive face.
I caught up with him just as we entered the physics lab. We sat together on tall stools along the fourth bench from the front. The seating arrangement made it easy to leave a sizable gap without being unkind. This was 1965, long before social distancing, but it was prudent, nonetheless.
Sean smelled. Today his once white shirt looked particularly unwholesome, the collar blackened and greasy. Seen from the side, his ‘tide mark’ was clearly visible – that margin where the damp flannel had reached its limited extent, leaving the ears and neck untouched and uniformly grey. His teeth were strangers to a brush. The ensuing odour was both sharp and leaden. Acidic top notes above a basso profundo of staleness exuding from a body uncared for, even at the age of twelve.
Sean played rugby a bit. Not much speed, but the barrelling gait made him hard to tackle. As did his appearance. After the match and however muddy the conditions, he was the only one of us not to shower, dressing quickly over his sports kit, shuffling out of the changing room as soon as he could, and leaving with no goodbyes. He seemed indifferent to victory or defeat.
I hardly knew him. Nor did I have the vocabulary then to even speculate on the circumstances of his life. Now, waiting for the physics teacher to arrive, Sean pushed a grubby newspaper-cutting over to me. Just a few column inches. What’s this Sean, I asked? Loves and Hates of Sonny and Cher, he replied.
Four years later he left school to find a job. His appearance was no barrier to work as an apprentice mechanic in a back street garage. He was quiet in the break times, never rising to his workmates’ banter, shielded by the art of distance he’d developed at school. But then he began to arrive late in the mornings or didn’t turn up at all. Soon he found himself out of the door.
The pattern was quickly established. A self-perpetuating back and forth between the dole office and some dead-end job or other. By the time I was preparing for university, Sean was on his umpteenth work ‘trial’. He rarely made it through to Friday.
But he had his regular drinking haunts, pubs at the edge of the town centre, or on the corners of streets that sloped towards the river. Here no one showed much interest in the obviously underage lad sitting alone in a quiet corner, leafing through that week’s Melody Maker, or the Evening Gazette left behind by some other regular. Occasionally I joined him there and we talked about local bands that were teetering on the edge of success.
The pubs had exotic names: the Baltic Tavern, the Lord Raglan, the Fleece. Here he took to swallowing draughts of black porter, chased down when he could afford it with doubles of Johnny Walker red label. Combined with intermittent and then regular smoking, his appetite diminished.
When his parents turned him out, he found a room to let in a boarding house mainly occupied by workers from Ireland and groups of Bengalis seeking work. Everyone had some kind of story to tell, but Sean was mostly silent.
There he was, slipping between the cracks in the flagstones of his own home town. If they hadn’t left for elsewhere, his old classmates looked on in dismay. By the age of twenty-one he was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One time he caught the bus to what in our town passed for the leafy suburbs, near the old school. Spent the evening drinking in the public bar where’d he consumed his first pint. When the landlord called closing time, Sean remembered the nearby chip shop and decided on a ten penny bag with scraps. He’d eaten nothing all day.
By the time the last bus for town arrived he was feeling muzzy. Lurching to the rear seat, he slumped in the corner, just by the heater. The warmth and the motion promptly sent him to sleep.
Next the driver was waking him. You’re at the terminus son, you’ll have to get out here. Without protest Sean stepped down onto the cinder path and the bus pulled away.
Turning, he saw the Transporter Bridge, lit up by the riverboat lights. That complex piece of engineering, high enough to let ships pass beneath a massive beam, which also supported a gondola carrying cars and lorries across the Tees, just above water level. It was closed for the night.
But he remembered from a school trip, the service walkway for maintenance. You could climb to the upper level, cross the river on the left gangway, reach the north bank, and return on the right, back to the south bank. Crossing and re-crossing county lines in the process.
Sean fetched up at the pedestrian gate. God knows why, but it was open. Then the perilous climb up towards the walkway, feet slipping on the metal steps. At the top, his rolling gait was exaggerated by alcohol and the stiff breeze. But the handrails on each side were keeping him enclosed. In the distance the chemical works belched out malodorous, multi-coloured fumes. The river, some 200 feet below, a diurnal, stomach-heaving sewer.
He crossed over to the opposite walkway, facing the town he’d lived in all his short life. What have you bloody well given me he murmured? Sean – the grammar school boy – already washed up and wasted. Abandoned by family, connected to a few friends by a fraying thread. Each clouded morning, calculating the time to his first drink. Unemployable.
At this moment he felt an invisible hand pressing the small of his back. He looked downstream. The tide was ebbing fast. So was he. If he leaned over now he’d be dead and half-way to Holland by morning. The hand relaxed its pressure. Other fingers seemed to grip his right shoulder, turning him towards the town. The moment dissolved like an Alka-Seltzer, suddenly clearing his head.
Now he clenched both handrails and resolutely pulled himself forward with a new strength. Despite it all, Sean was high on The Transporter – and heading for home.
How do I know all this? You may well ask. Well, it’s because I made it up. In fact the truth is much worse than my story.
Author’s note: I’m grateful to two friends (SS and MB) for their encouragement with this piece, and for their perceptive comments.