‘He’s a lovely lad. He’ll do anything for you.’
My mother remains very fond of Bernard – he mows her lawn and collects her daily paper. Bernard and his mother live next door. Bernard and his mother already lived next door when my family arrived on a Friday the 13th in late 1968.
Bernard hasn’t lived at home all of his life. He went out into the world and met people and did stuff. Bernard always ‘liked a drink’.
Up the hill from my parents’ house is a terrace of shabby shops called ‘The Parade’. The first shop is a Chinese takeaway. Like most Chinese takeaways in Manchester it has always maintained a menu of ‘English Dishes’: meat & potato pies, steak & kidney puddings, chips etc. For the benefit of his English clientele, the owner called himself ‘Steve’.
When I was in my early teens my Dad would send me up to ‘Steve’ to get chip suppers on a Saturday night. I was in that limbo between childhood and being old enough to go out. Bernard was frequently in the queue. He was older than me and was most definitely going out. Steve’s was on the walk home from ‘out’.
‘I’ll have the works Steve. Something with chicken, whatever you recommend. The kind of thing you eat with your family. With Egg-fried rice. Oh, and a coke.’
Bernard would know everyone in the takeaway and would ask about the wellbeing of all the family members of each and every one of them. It was a well-known Saturday night routine and it would then move into a valedictory phase.
‘Brilliant Steve! Eh, am I ready for that!’
Steve liked Bernard. Everybody liked Bernard. Steve would hand over the bag of food and smile with Bernard while everybody around was also smiling with Bernard. Then Bernard would turn towards the door and say to Steve what everybody knew that Bernard was about to say to Steve.
‘Pay you Monday Steve, alright?’
I once met Bernard on the street on a summer evening. He had a drink taken and was inclined, therefore, to shake my hand for many minutes.
‘How are you?
How’s your Mum?
How's your Dad?
How's your sisters?
I love your lot you know….
All of you!
You’ve always been brilliant neighbours.
Bernard continued to shake my hand with vigour. He was none too steady on his feet and was using me as a means of support as he swayed. From a distance it probably looked like a spontaneous spot of dancing to give thanks for a balmy summer evening. Close up, it was a bit nauseating.
‘John, though. I’ve got a question. A REALLY IMPORTANT QUESTION…’
Bernard paused for thought. He continued swaying while looking at his flip flops. Having gathered his thoughts after a minute or so of deep contemplation, his face rose to look intensely into mine. His hand gripped mine with renewed fervour. I began to expect a question of considerable import – something like:
‘WHY ARE WE HERE!!?’
‘Are we all really dead and is Fallowfield actually HELL!!?
‘Do you think I should tell someone about that murder I did, by accident, in Withington, in 1978?’
Then the actual question came and came as some surprise.
‘John……..What time is it?’
I was quite relieved and could sense that I would soon be able to go on my way.
‘It’s nine o’clock, Bernard.’
Bernard looked very startled. I was hopeful that he’d been reminded of an urgent appointment and would let go of my hand. Bernard’s face then changed from its previous bonhomie to the kind of confusion that can only strike a man who has been drinking very heavily for an indeterminate length of time.
I held his hand for a little longer.
‘Yes Bernard, nine o’clock at night.’
My mother stood at her window recently admiring her hanging baskets and chatting to my sister. A black cab pulled up next door and out hopped a properly shaved Bernard in a snappy suit.
‘God bless him,’ Mother smiled, ‘he’s turned over a new leaf. Lovely lad... do anything for you.’
‘Mum…’. My sister’s tone was a little flatter and less optimistic.
'He hasn't got any shoes and socks on.'