Fever Diary – March 18th 20--
I met ‘Scratch’ when I was caught short one day after a disappointing visit to the Scandinavian supermarket on the
Clapton Road. One feature
of the AW is the lack of any public conveniences. The nearest one has been
converted into a Chinese butchers and another further down Kingsland Road
is now some sort of underground nightclub.
I had just toured the aisles of the shop looking for anything that might constitute provisions for the week, only to realise, not for the first time just how little the money we receive could buy. I decided to abandon my search and walk down to the market at
But, emerging into the cold wind, I was driven down the side alley next to the
supermarket to the rear where I hoped to find a discreet corner to relieve
As I finished availing myself of the lack of facilities, I noticed a young man in a woollen hat sorting through one of a trio of large metal bins next to a set of fire doors belonging to the shop. This was my first sight of Scratch. He was olive skinned, with dark heavy eyebrows, a slight figure and large emerald eyes. His features were delicate and his teeth misaligned at the front, but he was handsome and young and healthy. Rather too healthy, I thought, to be grubbing around in bins.
I don’t know why I walked across to join him. Maybe I was curious about the plastic trays he was studying with such intent before stuffing them into a battered green rucksack covered with scribbled drawings and mysterious slogans. Maybe I was just drawn to his smile as he glanced at me in his amiable way as he sorted.
I asked him what he was doing and he looked me up and down, no doubt taking in my battered shoes and the mud thrown up from the bicycle on my trouser cuffs. He decided, there and then, that I needed educating.
Later, much later, he told me that unlike most people his age, he often spoke to ‘Olders’ on the street and that I seemed so skinny and lacking in means that he instantly felt responsible for me. So it was that I was introduced to the stunning level of waste in the AW and the art involved in taking advantage of it.
For nearly an hour, I learnt the arcane symbols, colours and dates on the labels of the film-shrouded food items and what they signified. I learnt to discard mostly according to Scratch’s own set of rules that involved not indulging in any product he disapproved of ethically and ones that were obviously rancid. Products from certain countries were not even offered for consideration and at the end of my impromptu lesson, I realised he had sorted two piles, one for him and one for me. I noticed mine were primarily meat based and when I queried this he held up his two index fingers in a cross formation.
‘Don’t eat the flesh, mon cop. But I know most Olders are cannibal protein monkeys. Got you some veg too though, look. Those tomatoes just need the black bits cut out and that jar there is pickled red peppers. No sense dating them really. But they got a corporate policy, see? Every day around this time, they clear out. You got to be here though. The good stuff is gone by tonight. S’cocktail hour. You wanna come down the towie for a drinkie poo? What’s your tag, Older?’
I smiled, engaged by his cheery, cheeky charm. ‘That’s currently under debate. But you can call me George.’ He cackled in delight and held a mango in his hands, stroking it gently and intoning in a low American drawl, ‘I’ll hug him and I’ll pet him and I will call him George’. I laughed and pointed at his dazed expression.
‘Steinbeck. Lenny from ‘Of Mice and Men’. No?’
He stabbed his broad nose with his finger and pointed back. ‘Zackly. And a Warner Brothers classic cartoon of course. But we are literary men, right?’
We sat shivering at the gouged metal tables outside the ‘The Moon Under Water’ down by the canal so that we could both smoke. We drank cheap dark ales and spoke for some hours after our finances ran out and the lights above the tables shone sodium saucers in the water.
He was a musician of some sort and lived in an abandoned house off the
Seven Sisters Road. He was, as he said, a literary man; a voracious reader currently
obsessed by Baudelaire and Kurt Vonnegut. I had just started Vonnegut from my
reading list, drawn by his experience of the bombing and
we talked for some time about ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, debating the advantages
and disadvantages of the author’s fey mannerisms. It was the first literary debate I’d been able
to have since I woke up. Pedro didn’t read and grew impatient with any serious
discussion on politics. Scratch’s knowledge was mostly derived from an eclectic
and somewhat chaotic self-education. His mother was a Filipino cleaner who
barely spoke English but his father had been a Dresden don and
therefore his reading was wide and varied, taking in everything from Gissing to
the ‘The Hotspur’ comic from my own era and much else besides. He was appalled
that I hadn’t yet been to the cinema and insisted that he would ‘score’ us a
couple of tickets one Wednesday. Cambridge
I didn’t fully understand his name. He told me it was derived from his habit of fighting with his brother in a manner that resembled some legendary animated cartoon combatants. His friends found their frequent wrestling bouts amusing and christened them after a particularly destructive contest in a lounge bar of a hostelry that had subsequently barred them for life. He refused to give his real name saying it gave people ‘power over you’.
At one point he mentioned H.G. Wells and I let slip that we had once had an acrimonious lunch after which he had written me a letter calling me a shit. Scratch looked at me with some amusement and passed no comment. But as we parted, promising to meet again at the bins the following day, he pulled up my hair a little at the front and put his head on one side, his eyes twinkling.
‘That’s better’ he said. ‘Makes you look more like the man.’
‘Who?’ I asked.
He laughed and walked away, waving. ‘The only George that matters.’