Mondays: Frank’s Café, Enfield
An old fashioned egg and chip joint that never looked clean enough for me to want to risk the eggs although sometimes I had a (horse?) cheeseburger. The café was five minutes’ walk from what was Friern Barnet hospital, one of the last of London’s old psychiatric bins.
A middle aged, pale faced man in a dirty blue suit and a badly fitting curly wig was always in the café.
I never saw him with more than a cup of tea although sometimes there was a plate in front of him with fried egg stains and the remains of a portion of baked beans, it wasn’t the kind of café where they were in a hurry to clear up, there was no danger of a sudden rush.
The man in the wig appeared not to speak, I wondered whether one day he’d gone out of the hospital and returning overdue found it locked up but waited every day hoping to hear that the hospital had reopened and there was a bed ready for him.
For all the lads I worked with on the permanent -way.
‘Come on lads put yer backs into it. Come on McNicholas the new man, shovel’s for digging man, not stirring fockin gravy.’
That was Martin the ganger man rearing up on them for nothing, liked the sound of himself shouting. He’d worked that out soon as Martin told ’em to ‘get out the fockin hut.’
Martin the roarer. He was a big cunt and all. No danger of Martin putting his back into it, he was occupied, standing by the side of the track talking to his mate, the look out man. The look out’s name was Moses or something like that. Strange fucking name but he knew which side his bread was buttered on. Standing there laughing at the ganger man’s jokes instead of standing on that curve where he should be, twenty yards away, keeping them all safe, getting ready to blow on that horn if a train was coming. First day on the railway but McNicholas could work that out, no problem.
‘Come on the new man’, he hadn’t been on the job more than two hours. Ganger man was on his back already.
‘Lifting rail’, that’s what the Inspector had told him they’d be doing when he booked on at the station. ‘Lifting rail’ that was like ‘pulling cable’, words they used to kid you on that it wasn’t going to be hard collar, except that’s what it was. Shovel hurting yer back and yesterday’s drink squeezing out of your armpits in rivers. You could even feel it sweating out of your feet through your socks and into your boots, made yer feet feel slippy. ‘Lifting rail’ almost sounded like you’d be having fun, words bunged into a sentence to fuck you.
This was a sentence alright, sentenced to eight hours a day on the shovel.
Nearly ten o’clock. Two hours they’d been out here already and nothing said about a tea break. He thought he might have to go for a shit anyway except there was nowhere out here to go. He’d asked ’em when they’d still been in the hut, drinking that tea boy’s piss that he made in a bucket.
‘Back to the station two miles away or in the bushes up the railway bank boy’, that’s what they’d told him, laughing as they said it. Now his guts were starting to go. He knew the procedure alright, he’d have a shit and once that was out of the way he’d feel worse, be almost rattling. It shouldn’t work like that he thought, you should get rid of the poison and feel better.
‘One on the up’, Martin shouted, ‘Get out the fockin road boys.’ They all stood back waiting for it to come past, the rest of ’em were further up the track. Some of them had been racing each other, who could clear the most ballast.
He was only there because of the labour, ‘I’m very sorry Mr McNicholas, you’ve run out of stamps.’ The clerk had loved it, knew he was safe behind the counter, like a Nazi laughing at him like he was a Jew. It was something about the unemployed stamps, he couldn’t quite remember, he’d had a can that morning before he got there. He’d been out with Desi, all the day before, needed the livener. All he was sure of was they’d called the gendarmes* on him, lucky he never got the lock up.
Standing there he felt his arsehole beginning to twitch. It was going to be worse once they were back working.
Martin was up the track near the regular men but he was keeping an eye out for the new man, dangerous time man’s first day on the track, before he got used to it although Martin thought he might not last. He hadn’t done more than scrape ballast when the others had been grafting away and he looked like a beaten dog, the ones the labour sent down here always did.
He looked at his watch, nearly time for a cup of tea. He nodded at the tea boy to go back to the hut put the kettle on.
‘Back to it now, come on lads, no fockin moanin.’
Otherwise they’d stop for a smoke, wouldn’t go back to it ‘till after the tea break.
He looked back for the new man but the ghost had flown, booked off.
McNicholas was having a shit.
* slang for the police, he’s in London not France
Bob Boyton has been a writer and performer for more than twenty five years. Details of Bob‘s novel Bomber Jackson Does Some, about a homeless ex boxer can be found at bomberjacksondoessome.com