It was Saturday morning when I first noticed him. It was early, early for me anyway - about half past ten. I was just coming out of Hyde Park, opposite The Albert Hall, as he was running in.
‘How am you?’ And with that he sped past me into the park. How am you? Was he foreign? Was he a bit dim? I don't know, but he was wearing a tee shirt that made me laugh. Not out loud, just inwardly. Something I hadn’t done much of recently. Picked out in white on his black shirt was the slogan ‘What You Talkin’ Bout Willis?’
He was there again the following Monday. I was taking Blue for her morning constitution, just coming around the north side of the Serpentine, when I saw him about fifty yards away. Within seconds he was passing me on the right hand side, half on the path, half on the grass.
‘In it to win it lad.’ In it to win it? How am you? What was he trying to tell me? Again, his shirt brought a smile to my face. This one bore the strap line ‘Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?’ What indeed? And was he Bob, or was he Terry?
Tuesday was the same, same time and tee shirt, but Wednesday was a no show.
‘Looks like he’s stood us up’ I said to the dog. Oh God, I’m talking to the dog.
Walking back to the flat I made sure Blue was back on the lead, crossed over the Bayswater Road and spent the next twenty minutes re-running old Likely Lads episodes in my head. My favourite was always the one where the pair were holed up in a Church trying desperately to avoid the England score before the TV highlights were shown later that night.
With the dog lead and a pint of milk in one hand I fished my keys out of pocket with the other and let myself back in the flat. I live alone. If you don’t count the dog and the two cats, that is. I’ve lived here five years. In fact it’ll be five years to the day in a couple of weeks. I know this because I moved in on my 35th birthday.
First things first. Let me explain about the dog. She’s not mine. I’m just looking after her for a couple of weeks. I must be mad. Looking after a dog in Bayswater; well at least I’ve got the Park. But the dog is only the tip of this iceberg. Becca (more of whom later…a whole lot more I promise you) said she’d be no trouble. That’s easy for her to say; but you try walking and feeding (and clearing up after) a greyhound in central London. Bert and Ernie are no trouble at all: they come and go as they please courtesy of the cat flap and if they could use a tin-opener wouldn’t need me at all.
I stuck the milk in the fridge and toyed with the idea of making coffee. But then I looked up at the kitchen clock and decided that as the pubs had been open ten minutes it would be rude not to have a proper drink.
Drinking this early in the day didn’t use to be part of my normal routine. But, since Becca left, things aren’t normal and I don’t have a routine. Blue and I made our way to The Lord Alfred. It’s a ten-minute walk from the flat and, with it being tucked away behind the shops, it’s never busy, nor is it frequented by office knobs; they tend not to venture past the wine bar on the corner.
Walking in the Alfred I always get the feeling that I’m coming back to some spiritual home, and then that feeling gives way to a wave of guilt and self loathing; but then the whole thing passes and it’s business as usual.
‘Pint of London Pride and a double scotch when you’ve got a minute Bill’ I yell to mien host at the other end of the bar who appears to be persuading, without much success, Angie not to leave his employ and succumb to the allure of the wine bar 'round the proverbial corner.
‘…I’ll up your money to eight quid an hour and I’ll pay for your cab home’.
‘Ten and you’ve got yourself a deal.’
‘Nine’ and that’s my final offer’ replied Bill, now with a serious sweat on his brow.'
‘Alright Scrooge. But I’m out of that door ten minutes after you shout last orders. The last few weeks I’ve still been washing glasses at midnight’
Knowing that he couldn’t afford to loose the pub’s one and only asset Bill acquiesced and, with a wave of his hand, walked down the bar and started pulling my pint.
‘You’re early today Richard’.
‘The sun will have passed the yard arm somewhere on the planet Bill and that’s good enough for me. And anyway, the dog likes it here.’ I was being serious: Blue shuffled under my bar stool and nodded off within seconds; when we’re back at the flat she paces the room and scratches at the front door. I think she’s missing Becca; tell me about it.
‘If I had more customers like you Richard I’d be a rich man’.
‘You are a rich man’.
‘I won’t be for much longer if I pay all my staff Premiership wages for playing in the Fourth Division.’
With that Angie came back from the cellar and whispered loudly enough into Bill’s ear so that she knew I’d hear - ‘You know that without your star player this team would be relegated out of the league.’
Bill, knowing he was beaten, laughed and made his way to the office. Just as he reached the door he shouted over to me.
‘You don’t know Group 4’s number do you Richard? I need them to deliver Angie’s wages on Friday!'
‘He’s right’ she said, ‘It is early. Even for you. Still no word?’
‘Well, as she’s technically left me, I’m not expecting her to ring’.
‘I know, but surely she’s coming back for Blue’.
‘I’ll probably get a second hand message from her sister. In fact I don’t know why she didn’t dump the mongrel on her. In fact I don’t even know why she got the bloody thing in the first place. We never talked about having a dog and yet two days after walking out on me she’s bought a bloody whippet’.
‘It’s a greyhound’ Angie corrected me.
’Whatever it is, it’s nothing more than a four legged shit making machine’ and with that off my chest I downed my scotch in one and took the head of my London Pride. I then felt sorry for the mutt curled up under my stool and tickled her ears. It struck me that it wasn’t a very fair swap. I lose the girl of my dreams and six weeks later I’m babysitting her dog while she’s lying on a beach somewhere.
‘Another Pride, Ange, and whatever you’re having’. I figured on having a couple more before going home and typing up some invoices; I call myself a translator, Spanish mainly, but most of my time these days is spent with spotty kids trying to get them ready for GCSEs. I used to get a lot of commercial work with overseas clients who wanted everything from sex guides to gun manuals translating. But I take whatever I can these days. After Becca left I just can’t think straight.
Angie pours my pint, graciously turns down my offer of a drink and reaches up to switch the TV on. From where I’m sitting I get a grandstand view of the top of her thong peeking over her jeans; for a split second my mind races into X-rated territory but I’m soon shaken out of my reverie when the news channel up on the screen cuts away to a familiar face and the reporter thrusts a microphone in his face.
The smug looking newshound asks: ‘So a great victory today, you must be delighted’.
‘I am indeed. It just goes to prove that you’ve got to be in it to win it’.
‘It’s the man in the park!’ I yell. Angie looks over, as do a couple of punters at the other end of the bar.’ It’s him’ I say and, obviously, she’s none the wiser. ‘It’s the loony jogger!’
‘How do you know him then, love?’
‘I see him in the Park and he talks to me in code. Turn it up Ange, let’s see what he’s been up to.’
‘…I can’t believe it. I’ve finally got the law on my side. It means I’ve now got regular access to my kids.’ The guy then starts choking up and with that the interviewer hands back to the studio. Angie turns the sound down and starts conducting her own interview.
‘If he’s a mate of yours why have you never brought him in here and introduced me: he’d keep my bed warm on a winter’s night’.
‘Two things Ange: One, I don’t know his name, he runs past me at a rate of knots shouting something barely intelligible and two - you’re a married woman. Wouldn’t your fella object if you brought home a six foot two hot water bottle?’
‘A girl can dream, can’t she?’
I decided that if I had another one I’d be there for the rest of the day. But if I left now I could grab a bite to eat and get an early edition of the Standard and see if I could put a name to the likely lad in the Park. I was proud of myself, I went for Plan B. Maybe I’m not quite an alcoholic yet.
Me and the dog stepped out of the pub, squinted in the daylight, only to be greeted by another all too often downpour. Tempting as it was to do an about turn and return to my still warm bar stool I decided that I really was hungry and, anyway, The Alfred hasn’t served food since 1982; if Bill ever offers you a pie, check the sell by date. We ran to the kebab shop on the corner, and I mean ran - after all, Blue is a greyhound. I put my order in for a ‘shish with everything’ and while it was being constructed I nipped to the newsagent next door for a paper.
I found him on page five. His name was Dave Goulden and, along with a group of other ‘Distant Dads', he’s been fighting for the right to have fair and unrestricted access to his children after he and his wife divorced eighteen months ago. Just as I was scanning further down the story a big dollop of chilli sauce ran off my kebab and totally obliterated half of page five.
Now I knew his name I wasn’t quite sure if having this piece of information helped me any; yeah, I’d be able to shout ‘Morning Dave’ as he charged past me in the park. But it wouldn’t bring Becca back.
OK, I guess it’s time to fill you in on this woman who walked out on me and whose face I still expect to see next to me every morning I wake up. And, if I haven’t had at least three cups of strong coffee before I leave the flat, I still think I see her in tube stations, sandwich bars and pubs all over town.
Rebecca Jane Harrison-Flowers is what it says on her passport. For some reason she was never comfortable taking on my surname when we married, hence the double barrel bit, and rarely uses it; at work or on utility bills she’s Rebecca Flowers. To friends she’s just Becca. To me she’s a gaping hole in my life that, as things stand, I don’t think I’ll ever get over.