By Nasir Ali Hussain
I tend to see my life in distinct parcels of time. Each parcel containing its own distinctive tone, flavour and character. A certain trigger event will then occur and I will find that I have entered into a new parcel of time, a new era of life. The trigger event can be a change in the school, college or university, a new interest that came into my life and subsequently engulfed me in it. A new place of work. Or a person either entering or exiting my life. That’s how my emotional memory categorises and indexes my existence. The first phase and feeling of memory is 1976 to 1980. The second phase starts in early 1981- David Bowie was number 1 in the singles chart with Ashes to Ashes and the weather was distinctly dark and wintry. Then the joyous summers of 1982 and 83 take over together with the beginning of my love of cricket and taping the top 40 on sunday and buying my first album on tape- Now That’s What I call Music. This era stops somewhere in 1984. The third phase begins in the Autumn of 1984 and ends abruptly in the Autumn of 1986. The next parcel begins in 1986 and ends when I left school in the summer of 1988. Then the phases start becoming more distinct and subjective in their length and delineation. I continue to see my life in clearly defined periods to the present day. Recently I find myself rehashing and playing the period between 1992 to 1997 like someone revisiting a past season of The Sopranos. Faces come and ago but unlike names are never forgotten.
The HeadCleaner period was, in hindsight, very much a before and after period.
I started work at The Callan School after a depressing period of unemployment that left a muddy footprint on me that is still visible if I peer close enough at myself. The pain I went through was felt that much more acutely because it followed directly after having one of the most enjoyable- yet curiously at the same time- manic and stressful nine months of my life at The School Of Law in Store street London where I had gone on my last but one stop in becoming a successful lawyer. After that I would embark on a two-year training contract in which I would be taught the ropes. It was all so simple in my head. Success had come easily till then and I already had a local boutique firm by the name of Ch–k L—– and Co earmarked for that next phase of my life.
A ‘boutique’ firm, by the way, is the term used to denote a law firm that practices a wide variety of law such as criminal, conveyancing, civil litigation, family law, personal injury etc. Such was the nature of the high street law firm I had been destined to go to. Two other plus points were that it was less than a ten-minute walk from my home and the principal of the firm- Mr Simon L—– really liked me. This was not a common thing for people looking to start a training contract at some legal practice. Trainees were usually treated like gophers, even at the larger corporate firms, and never really rubbed shoulders with the senior partners at the practice, let alone the principal of the firm. Anyway, to cut a long story short, none of the above happened. I instead went on to spend a thoroughly depressing time on the dole where in addition to seeing my self belief, self esteem or whatever you care to call it, seep out of me like blood from an open wound. I found myself for the first time in my life without any purpose, program or agenda. That period in my life, which largely took place in 1999, showed me that the worst part about having no job was that it made you immobile. Having little to no money meant you couldn’t really get about and having no environment where I could meet, interact and bounce off with people in turn meant that I had a stunted social life and suffered the kind of atrophied existence where your mental temperature tunes down accordingly. I had neither expected nor been prepared for the life I found myself living. Even now, more than twenty years later, thinking about those days brings up a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as well as a deep guilt. I felt like I had let everybody down; especially my parents who had invested so much in me as being the captain of the family’s future prosperity. I still feel bad about not being able to do more for them when the family businesses crashed and burned or when my dad got ripped off by a so-called ‘friend’ to the tune of forty thousand pound notes. None of that would have happened had I gone on to become a solicitor as expected.
The constant rejection for jobs I’d applied for got so bad that after a while I basically stopped looking for work. I was either not qualified enough or too qualified or told I didn’t have the relevant experience for the role. Then I started feeling sorry for myself. Now, feeling sorry for yourself is one of the worst things you can do when are going through a bad period, whether it be real or perceived. It is something one should avoid doing at all costs. Self pity is a funny parasite, a state of feeling and thinking that sucks and slurps at the heart energy that is the wellspring of your life. The right kind of emotional energy is needed to not only get things rolling and moving, but also to be able to see the right opportunities and angles to relaunch when they arise. And opportunities and angles always do come your way- but you tend to not spot them if you’ve handed yourself over to negative thinking. One always has to keep a certain amount of stubborn belief about themselves. It’s better to be deluded than pessimistic if you ask me. The deluded may be seeing illusions, but that’s incalculably better than allowing yourself to be blinded by negativity. That only leads to three things. (A) Constantly second guessing yourself on decisions on which you would have once been more decisive on. This is because you’re tired and ashamed of getting bullied by life and are wary of another kicking. (B) Relying too much on third party advice, even when you sense the advice you’re getting is crap, uninformed or worse, ill motivated. (C) Thinking yourself out of the better things that could be waiting ahead for you because you’re traumatised, not only by your new found fear of failure, but also by the sting that ensues from the loss of the high opinion that you held of yourself before the bricks and mortar of your life became unglued.
What got me through it all was a lot of reading. That and finally giving myself over to the idea that I would try to write a novel. That and a job at a local law firm run by a truly, appalling fat Sri Lankan man who was very light skinned for a Sri Lankan, had a belly that pushed aggressively against his shirts and was the possessor of some truly, terrible physical habits. This immigration solicitor was either snorting, loudly farting, clearing his throat or spitting at least once every minute. That I had the misfortune to be in his vicinity was, in my eyes, emblematic of my general comedown in life. Was this natural or maybe his reaction to having me in the office? I’ll never know for sure. I had to guess what he was saying most of the time because his manner of speech was barely comprehensible. It sounded like he was trying to speak and chew at the time. He dealt solely in immigration and seeing him doing his best to flood the country with third world chancers and refugees many of whom I thought had a contempt for the culture of this country, but a love for the passport of this country made me suddenly and unexpectedly feel flushed with patriotic and protective sentiments of the culture and identity of this sceptered isle of Albion. If I was white I would have joined the National Front- had they still existed. Mr Sh-n ran his firm like Saddam Hussain ran his government, pitting employees against one another and paying them less than he should have and that by the old fashioned way of writing them out a cheque every last Friday of the month. That experience soured me against the idea of working in the legal profession for years and even now he is one of the few people in my past that I bear genuine ill-will for. I was paid £50 a week for that gig.
Then in early 2000 my brother told me about a job going at a place up in Oxford Street where they taught English as a second language and where all that was required was that you were a graduate as full training would be given. A female friend of his from Bosnia had told him about it.
So I called and then put on a shirt and tie and went to the Callan School in Oxford Street for a week’s training at the back end of March 2000. They offered me a job soon after the stand and deliver Callan method training was over on Friday, but we continued to get training sessions for months after. I accepted the offer and my life changed in ways I could not imagine; ways that were both good and some not so good. I will always be grateful for my brother in turning me on to that job. It was low paid and physically demanding and the hours meant that the life you had outside got compromised and compressed to a bit part role, but the job was also the vista to a wide range of people and unlikely experiences that you would most likely never have encountered anywhere else. It was like living in your own sitcom some of the time, at other times it was like living in your own romcom and at other times it was like living in a brutal, early 60’s black and white English kitchen sink drama. The kind that pulled no punches. I think that had I not worked at the Callan School I would not have progressed past the idea of wanting to write to actually writing. It was the catalyst for so many things and despite the negative things I may insinuate against it in my fiction, it was an experience that enriched my life in ways that I only appreciate now several years on.
I had been at the Callan school for almost six months when Simon showed up. Tamlyn showed up at round about the same time. For at least my first few months there I felt as if I had come down in the world and was worried about bumping into people from my former life on the street outside. ‘All my years at university have come to this,’ I thought morosely. Before starting my law degree outside of London I had studied for a year at the Roehampton Institute on a new degree course called ‘Consumer Protection’. It was a BSc designed to hot shot you up the trading standards career ladder. It had many modules and you only needed to get 35% on each module to make it to the next year. There was a guaranteed job for life after the degree. Many years later I questioned myself on whether I had done the right thing in leaving that degree as I wandered through job sites looking for an employer who’d have me. And now a quick flurry of years later I had ended up sat in a dingy building with a crew of eccentrics and left field humanity smoking roll ups, drinking cheap, vending machine coffee from flimsy plastic cups and listening to conversations that made me think of Alas Smith and Jones ‘head-to-head’ sketches.
For at least a month I would stay on the bench outside the teacher’s room in the ten minute breaks. I was only working from 3-30 to 8-30 back then and told myself that I would be gone within half a year with my nascent novel completed.
Nothing in my life has ever gone to plan or schedule. And this was to prove to be another classic exposition of this principle.
My ambivalence to the place didn’t last forever. It didn’t take long before I was an enthusiastic goer to the Friday night gatherings at the pub. The last class for the week had been done and it was off to The Ben Crouch Tavern, where everyone gleefully celebrated themselves after the high energy lessons and tight time constraints of the week. Another thing that made me change my mind was that, after a prolonged period of unwanted celibacy, a condition enforced by my being cut off from the world of women thanks to my bi-weekly visits to collect my dole giro, I was suddenly surrounded by an endless parade of the most beautiful women I had ever seen in my life. I had never seen the like before, or since for that matter and the sight of all that eager, smiling beauty within arms reach made something snap and uncoil inside me. Every day another one of these fantastic looking ladies entered your classroom and hence your life, even if as mental fodder for vices that never left the realms of the imaginative. They kept coming on and on in endless waves like Russian soldiers rushing at German machine gun fire in world war two. I was falling in love every day and going from one dreamy infatuation or furious affair to the next. If you got rejected by one it didn’t matter. The heartbreak period would be ridiculously short as another world class beauty would be sitting staring back at me in rapt attention before I could reach for my Foreigner, Journey or Air Supply albums to help ecstacise the pain of a loss or some rejection or celebrate a new object of my affection. It was a mindwarp and a condition that was the complete opposite to that which I had been enduring in the months, weeks and days before. No wonder Callan teachers got addicted to the job and endured the minimal wage and never ever thought about training and reinventing themselves for some other career.
I was Mr Joy again, king of the hill! And talking a mile a minute and grinning, laughing, joking and pallying up with everyone and talking about how I was a writer of fiction that was soon to appear in the Borders by Oxford Circus station. I was so hyper, horny and full of joie de vivre that it was taken for granted by most of the other teachers, and probably some of the students, that I was discreetly snorting coke in the toilets during breaks. When asked or accused I told people that I have never taken cocaine or any other drug, besides the pharmaceutical kind, ever in my life. I was not always believed. A few even laughed at what they considered a feeble lie.
As I mentioned in my Roman a clef rendering of the HeadCleaner story earlier on this blog, I did not know either Simon or Tamlyn prior to our getting together. I would sometimes write away in a large A4 notepad the start of a novel I had titled ‘The Chapatti Man’ whilst on lunch break or talk about the book I was writing with one or another of the teacher trainers who helped manage the place or one of the teachers. The teachers were almost all very friendly with me and my happy go lucky veneer also helped. It was not long before I began to think well of them in addition to forming ‘easy-come easy-go’ friendships with successive swathes of students.
My most memorable friendships were with the students. Kristoff was a thirty year old philosophy professor from Poland who could have passed for Brad Pitt’s first cousin. Kriss was simply adored by the dames and why not? With his tight, tanned physique, sharp blue eyes and calm, measured manner of speaking he could have given Leonardo Decaprio a run for his money. I saw more than one woman stop what they were doing to gape at him or whisper to a friend behind cupped hands. His amorous successes were only strait jacketed and held in check by his lack of proficency in English. There was also Max. He was a well educated Blues music drummer from Catania Sicily and looked like a wholesome Michael Barrymore, or depending on your cultural consumption, Radio Clash era Joe Strummer. Max was a sentimental soul with a soft heart that he tried to hide. His softness was protected by a fiery temper, that like Mount Etna, grew tranquil after an eruption. I liked Max a lot. Then there was also Tatiana, a six foot plus, dark haired ice maiden from small town Slovakia. She had a graceful physicality and straight, fragrant dark hair that fell down her back and that you just wanted to run your hands through. She made you think of a gothic Julia Roberts or stern faced bride of Dracula. Plenty of eyes followed her as she went about her business. She was naturally quiet and reserved but when I got some of her secrets out of her, was reminded of the adage about ‘watching out for the quiet ones.’ Tatiana was alright though, and I can’t think of anything she did to make me lessen my good memories of her. Max in particular was a great guy who I still often think about and regret losing touch with. Every week me and Max would meet on Saturday morning at Centrepoint to play Squash at the leisure Centre. This was followed by a classic Italian lunch at his house in Lewisham. There would be lots of food and a good number of our friends from The Callan School in attendance. I had some of the best Italian food I have ever eaten there. Those were great times with lots of laughter, music, film and fun; and if I could I would take back that moment where I told Max not to invite me every week anymore I would. That more or less signalled the end of those get- togethers and a further rupture occurred when he, Kriss and I were involved in a kind of love triangle with Tatiana; an episode in which I played a most shameful part that I also regret. Nobody got the girl in the end, just a perfumed whiff of what was possible.
All this then was the backdrop against which my relationship with Simon and Tamlyn and that film which forever bonds us together began. The Callan school had ended one phase in which I filed and labelled the chapters of my life and opened up another file that was sharply different to all that had come before it.
I knew I would like Simon from the moment he introduced himself to me. He stood looking down at me with a kind, self-effacing smile, the sort you’d expect on the face of a home counties vicar between the two wars. Part of this was because I sensed that here was someone with, for whatever reason, a heavy conscience that he carried around like a homeless person lugging his belongings around in a battered old suitcase. There was some sort of pain in him that had settled down within him like a bird making its nest in a tall Oak tree. Also, he was unlike some of the other teachers our age. A lot of them were as callous with some of the female students as rock stars had been with naive, deluded groupies back in the 70’s. They would boast about what they did or planned to do to this or that girl and would generally talk about women in a manner that made me dislike them. Although they never knew this was how I thought about them, partly because I so often came across as being not so different from them. But as has always been the case in my life the exterior was just an act to cover the brittle interior.
The idea that Simon thought enough of me as a fellow creative to want me out of the mass of humanity at the school to work with him puffed me up with pride and a sense of ‘this could really lead on to something.’ The experience of planning and making the film itself was like a blizzard of events in which I was confused and induced confusion to those around me. And, also, because it was guerrilla filmmaking in the truest sense where Simon had a plan that remained fluid enough to accommodate his anxiety. The calmest one among the three of us was Tamlyn. He just took it all in his stride because he had come carrying the least baggage. Tamlyn had no expectations other than those of wanting to express himself and to bond with new people, to make friends. I also suspect that his true weakness was not his inability to take care of himself, but rather an incredible vanity that was truly impervious to the condemnation he received from the world around him. That’s one thing he and I had in common- vanity, we both thought we were better than others.
During the course of the film I found myself bonding with both Simon and Tamlyn, as a group of three and also in individual relationships. By the end of the entire project, which had begun in the Autumn of 2001 and ended in May 2002, something that was hard to put into words had happened. You could taste it, but you could not give it a name It felt like we had known each other in the same spirit as soldiers who had gone through war together. This leads me to wonder that though success may bring people together perhaps it is the shared experience of a serious failure that truly bonds and binds people together. The greater the failure the stronger the bond. If you have read my Roman a clef telling of HeadCleaner you will know that during the course of events things had happened that made Simon and myself truly loathe each other at times. I know I was more than eager to get the whole experience done and into the rearview mirror of my life because I detested the sort of aggression that had flashed between us like regular bolts of lightning. As a boy I was shouted at a lot and at times been the beneficiary of some good old fashioned beatings that were as Dickensian as some of the people at The Callan School. The legacy of this is that my confidence goes up and down like a bi-polar yo yo and my mind just goes blank if someone aggressively talks at me rather than to me. It’s either that or shouting back in a tennis match of aggression. Now this sort of thing was something I was good at, once. But over time and with what I hope is some maturity and understanding I decided at some unplanned point in the last decade not to do that sort of thing anymore. I did my best to cut down my aggressive tendencies in general; as well as any habits I had that made me look like a self promoter. Or someone whose favourite topic of conversation was himself. Though I’m sure that people who have known me for years think I have gone soft by the failures of the passing years and had the bark and bite taken out of me.
When HeadCleaner ended I thought that I had pissed off Simon so thoroughly that he had lost faith in me, as I felt so many others had. I had liked the idea of him believing in me and it hurt when I saw him cycle away thinking he had talked about us staying friends because he wanted to look and sound like a good bloke.
However, our friendship developed after that. There would be one episode after another that would bond us together and now after knowing each other for around twenty years we find ourselves wondering whether we had become ‘best friends.’ A station attained by the process of elimination and sheer pile up of shared experiences than anything else. If this indeed was that case it was something neither of us would have thought likely even in the first few years of knowing each other. But as you get older meaningful relationships become harder to come by. People you may have become friends with, who walked the main streets of your life, fade into the landscape of your life. This often seems to happen not from any juddering social ruptures but for the more prosaic reasons that you no longer cohabit the same specific spaces to share the same life events. You also usually find that you no longer have similar mind frames and values in common with friends who have quietly vanished from your life. At other times old friends and people you have known for ages change without warning or notice and like birds of a different feather you fly off into different directions. I sense this sort of thing happens because the events of our lives are constantly molding and shaping us like plasticine and we find out one day that we are no longer in the same mold or shape as someone we once had so much in common with. I know for a fact that I had friends who I was as close to as two people could be and then one day I realised that the person I thought I knew and understood so well had departed at some point while my back was turned; and been replaced by someone who looked, sounded and behaved pretty much the same- but was, in fact, another person. A changeling almost. I guess that’s the nature of getting older and realising how little control we have over the dice of our lives….
Which brings me now to Tamlyn…. Over that nine month period we bonded in a way that made me think that I had a far stronger and better relationship with him than I had with Simon. We had lots of fun adventures and escapades together and laughed and swapped stories, thoughts and observations together. We truly enjoyed each other’s company. We saw The Fellowship of The Ring together, an evening in which he almost lost me the chance of having an affair with a beautiful Green eyed Polish student who had just left the Callan school. Luckily she left before we headed off to the cinema and I lost her after a brief affair, but the loss was entirely of my own making and I had only been designated to be in her life as a clandestine paramour anyway- as she had never before dated anybody of another ethnicity.
Me and Tamlyn would more often than not meet up on a Saturday and enjoy the city of London, invariably finishing up having dinner at the Pollo restaurant on Wardour Street. He always ordered spaghetti bolognese, despite asking for the menu. He tried to hide it, but could not conceal that he had been hurt that Simon had only wanted to know him as far as HeadCleaner was concerned. There was no rubicon to cross after that. He also was hurt that Simon, like so many others, saw him as mentally ill.
Not so long after HeadCleaner Tamlyn and I were having tea and a late supper at Bruno’s cafe off Berwick Street where we recounted our experiences of making HeadCleaner. “You really should write about the making of HeadCleaner,” he had howled with delighted hands clapping together.” That should be your first book, mate!”
On the train home that evening from the Embankment station I opened my notepad and it happened. For the first time words flowed, and I mean truly flowed. Within a couple of days I had a thirty page story with tight, bone dry prose that only received positive responses. Not long after that I went on a disastrous holiday to Sopot in Poland. When I came back and recounted what had happened out there to Tamlyn he again clapped his hands in delight and said. “That can be your sequel- Poles Apart!” And it was and again I wrote something that I was proud to be the author of. By that time I had left the school on Oxford Street to work at an equally crazily memorable place in Putney Bridge. Tamlyn followed me out there soon after and we would spend our three hour breaks between class sessions together in The Morrocan run NUNU cafe. Then I had a tense relationship with a striking 22 year old green eyed French au pair soon after Tamlyn and I did a two man comedy show in Soho’s ChinaTown. Mathilde would walk into the cafe and Tamlyn would abruptly grab his pile of newspapers and walk out. That relationship was an adventure in itself and when I walked her to Waterloo station to head back to France it was with a mixture of relief and regret. I told Tamlyn about all that had gone down between us. He after all had been there for some of it.
“There you go. Now you have a third part to close your trilogy! You can call it “It Went Down As It Went Up!”
By the end of 2004 I had three novels packaged as one trilogy, but for some reason I never put them out to agents. I feared that better material could be carved from the three novels I had so passionately poured so much of my time into- some would say ‘squandered’, my time over.
Simon by this time had gone to Japan and was increasingly beginning to look like someone who I used to know. Then, in January 2006, I was contacted by old friends from university. One was a criminal barrister now, the other a criminal law solicitor.They told me that they would help me get back into the legal profession and they did. I handed in my notice at the language school I had been working in and prepared for my law career. I was wild with hope. The law profession over the years had become a future forever deferred, a just out of reach holy grail that my fingers could never grasp.
I met Tamlyn in Bruno’s Cafe one bright Saturday afternoon in March 2006. When I shared my good news with him his jaws slackened and his eyes went blank. His next expression was one of squirmish pain. “They really looked out for you, didn’t they?” he said.
“Yeah! No more of this low rent teaching English stuff!” I hollered.
At school Tamlyn had been told that his future career in life would most likely be as a barrister. He had the voice, analytical mind and theatrics to make it work. His father too had studied for the Bar and then quit or failed and gone on to write English as a second language textbooks as well as teach. His mother was a secondary school music teacher.
Weeks went by after that and I heard nothing from him. I tried calling but the number went to voicemail. Soon after I lost my phone and with it his number. However I still emailed and messaged on facebook. In fact, I made a Facebook account just so that I could re-establish contact with him. Nothing.
Years later, long after I had left the job at the law firm because I could not at the time see how I could save for the Legal Practice Course with the money I was making and also because I was talked into opening my own English as a second language school by an old friend. A friend who in time would also become unrecognisable as one of those friends who had changed into something else over the years while my back was turned. Anyway, years later, in 2015 to be precise, I ended up taking a few hours work at the school in Putney Bridge again. It was a truly embarrassing period of my life. I had ran and ran and ran and ended up coming to the same point at which I had been standing at much earlier. It was here that I found out that Tamlyn was also working. Many language schools had shut down with new student visa regulations and the Putney school was taking in teachers like me and Tamlyn like refugees from a war zone. Even the Callan School in Oxford Street had shut down leaving teachers and students high and dry. The industry had died and yet most Callan teachers steadfastly refused to accept that the jig was up. A few even still eagerly spoke about opening their own schools, not realising that there was no longer any commercial merit to the idea. The school in Putney only existed as a hobby for its owner. He did not rely on the place for income and was happy if it broke even. It was just a place where he could be boss, lord and master over a crew of lost souls hit hard by life.
It was here that I was told by another teacher I had known since the days on Oxford Street the things that Tamlyn had been saying about me. He had expressly asked not to do the same shifts as I would be on and had spoken about me as ‘a bad person’, as ‘an energy vampire,’ and as a constant chaser of skirt. Well, I couldn’t really argue with the last point of condemnation, but still, one expects better from old friends and acquaintances.
Another teacher we had both known since 2000 was warned by him to keep away from me because I might be a terrorist. The lifting clouds broke my heart. I had been looking forward to seeing him again as we had been as much of a double act as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby; and this is what was now written on the tombstone. He had also known of my business activities in the interim years and noted, rightly, that my new silent persona was a result of losing my position as a CEO and operations director of a business that had been turning over more than two million a year. And here I was back to being a lowly Callan teacher as I had been fifteen years earlier. He was right on all counts. But his satisfaction at my dip in fortunes stung hard.
A few months in, after assiduously keeping out of each other’s way I decided to pay him back with the same coldness. He saw that I no longer had any desire whatsoever to have any contact with him. Then suddenly one day there was a gesture on his part that was a departure and I think in it’s own way an olive branch. But I refused to take the folder he had come up to offer me and also refused to look in his direction. I never saw him again after that as I left the next week for other work. I wonder how he fared during the pandemic.
Simon and I reconnected after he left London in an even stronger way. You only get to have good, old friends once. But I will always remember my times with Tamlyn and the man himself with fondness. He helped me to become a writer and I shared some of the best times in my life with him. But great times and great friends I guess are forever destined to be memories; as hearts that feel too much are forever destined to be broken. This was just another phase in my life that had opened unbidden and then closed of its own accord after pointing me in the direction of another unfamiliar horizon.
By Nasir Ali Hussain Copyright July 2021