It’s a sign of the times. Poor, desperate men loiter on city street corners. They stand and smoke roll-up cigarettes. They look furtively up and down the street – as though on the lookout for creditors. I was on the fringes of Newcastle’s Chinatown – walking past a cluster of ‘bohemian’ pubs. At the end of the block I could see one of the desperate, slumped beside a pub door and puffing on what was possibly a found cigarette end. I rarely give money to people on the street, but I was moved to pity by this sad figure although the man was not obviously demanding money from passers-by.
As I drew closer, I realised that the figure was portly and bearded. The sandal and shoe ensemble in the middle of winter was a giveaway and I was shaken to my very core to see little Archie in such straitened circumstances.
It would have been impossible to ignore his greeting and heartless to walk on. I hurriedly put away my loose change and shook the little chap’s hand. He extinguished his cigarette on the door jamb of the pub supporting him and put the miniscule remainder into his pocket. I worried about the combustible nature of his crumpled jacket.
‘Is that wise Arch? You could set yourself alight…..’
Archie smiled and beckoned me to look into his sagging pocket. It was filled with sand.
‘I got the idea from one of those old-fashioned fire buckets I saw in the village hall. Leap put some extra stitching in.’
I smiled at Archie’s ‘ingenuity’. He was taking the smoking ban in his tiny stride. I accidentally continued to stare into Archie’s built-in ashtray and created an awkward pause.
'This is, er….awkward.’ Archie’s smile was a little strained and I could see a few strands of tobacco protruding from his teeth.
‘I’m sorry’, I said, ‘Why don’t we go in and have a drink for old time’s sake?’
‘Brilliant. I’m already in a round, mind. I’ve been out since work with Other Archie.’
Archie and Other Archie first met when they were gay bachelors sharing a static caravan on the allotments in Newcastle’s West End. They have maintained a friendship ever since – although Other Archie’s wife, Mona, prefers not to let Archie into her house. The old friends make do with after work drinks.
I asked Archie for his news and he told me that he had acted as a ‘best man’s assistant.’ I told him that I had never heard of such a thing. Apparently Sandy had jetted back into town to perform as best man at Lucien’s wedding. Not one to do things according to convention, Sandy spotted the chance to create a piece of performance art. The format of his speech was based, surprisingly, on the Radio 4 show ‘Just a Minute’. Archie was equipped with a miniature bicycle horn and had to sound it whenever Sandy was guilty of hesitation, deviation or repetition. I was a little surprised that Lucien agreed to this – his life is governed by a slavish adherence to an austere aesthetic which allows only for purely abstract visual art and avant-garde German electronic music.
‘It was really funny...’, said Archie, but his enthusiasm for the story trailed off a little,’...at first’.
I could only imagine that Lucien had trusted Sandy to come up with something appropriate and did not get the time to check beforehand.
‘Then people seemed to lose interest and I could hear some of them sighing. Oh, and Lucien started to cry.’