Black Godfrey and Nick Jesus: an Easter tale

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I BUMPED into Black Godfrey the other day and hardly recognised him. Hand-made suit, sharp haircut, 1975 Porsche wraparound sunglasses, lime green mock-crocodile Gucci loafers. "Well bless my soul, Black Godfrey," I said, "you look just like a pimp."

"Working for the council, now," said Godfrey. He had actually been a pimp at one stage of the game. Went into it because as a child he had admired pimp style: the pink Cadillacs, the velours fedoras with crushed- budgie hatbands, the gold bracelets. But then he became one himself, and made a policy decision about his personal appearance: you couldn't dress like a pimp if you really were a pimp because then the Old Bill would think "Hallo, there's a pimp, let's nick the bugger."

He was a rotten pimp, paternalistic by nature and opposed to violence, threats and exploitation. Got fond of his girls and didn't like to see them out on the streets, doing it with strangers. "You don't know anything about them," he would say, "except they're dirty sods." So there he'd be, in his grey flannels and sports jacket, sitting in the caff with his hookers, sharing a spongiform pie, not pimping. Men would drift past, eye Godfrey's girls. "What you looking at?" he'd growl. His girls loved him. Stick with Godfrey and you'd wear rhinestones.

But now he was working for the council and everything was fine. He wasn't a pimp any more, so at last he could dress like one. He had a wife and was saving up for a Cadillac. "Pink," he said. "Imagine that: driving up to the golf club in a pink Cadillac." "Golf club?" I said. "Golf club," said Black Godfrey.

He was called Black Godfrey because he had once lived in a rundown ex- Peabody Trust tenement block where there were three other Godfreys. Imagine the odds against that. There was Black Godfrey and Hong Kong Godfrey and Moody Godfrey, and Godfrey. Presently all the other Godfreys moved away, but Black Godfrey retained his modifier. When I moved into the terrible tenement block during one of my hopeless periods - nylon sheets and daily decisions on whether to have fish and chips or a packet of fags - we met on the wind-whipped staircase. "I'm Michael," I said. "I'm Black Godfrey," he said. "All right, then," I said, "I'm White Michael." "You've missed the point," said Black Godfrey.

It was a strange time: damp and sadness and terrible dreams of reconciliation and loss, the smell of gas, the wallpaper peeling, and the abyss yawning beneath so you walked on tiptoe in case you fell in and couldn't get out again and became one of the tide people, washed up like tide-wrack on the fouled shores of the Edgware Road, smelling of mice, hunting like moles, humped over the bargains on the Chapel Street stalls. It was a life of small change, piddling economies, terrible sudden feverish extravagances. I fell in love with women beyond my reach and blazoned unequivocal doom like an old school tie.

So it was nice to see Black Godfrey again. "You heard what happened to Nick Jesus?" he said. Nick Jesus was from Cyprus, another of the Tenement Folk, a dedicated Christian of a strangely literal turn of mind, rather like that of the Australian man who went to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 107 times in the hope that eventually Newman and Redford would escape alive.

Nick Jesus's two main topics were (a) Jesus and (b) the liturgical calendar. He followed Jesus's activities with the rapt attention of an EastEnders fan, but the liturgical year was a constant source of dismay to him. "Is wrong," he said. "Is bladdy stupid. He should be, Christmas (is born) then one whole year to Easter (is died and - hey! - come back). But! Tell me! All mixed up!" Black Godfrey once told Nick Jesus that the liturgical year should really be done in real time, lasting 32 years, but he wasn't having it. "Oh yes!" he cried. "Sure thing! Go to church, this Sunday we celebrate Jesus gets up and has breakfast, next Sunday is big festival of Jesus stubs toe getting out of bath. Listen: Jesus is man. Most of he life, boring, not all God stuff. Sort out apostles, they fighting. Drop round to see mother, say hello. Think about what for lunch. No! Go for drama! Go for Mystery!"

The other problem was Nick's fiery temperament. He would appear on the doorstep at Christmas, incoherent and weeping with delight ("Is baby. Is little baby!") and on the major Marian festivals he would discourse with interminable sentimentality on Our Lady, his own mother, his feelings of homesickness, and the joys of Cyprus. ("Very like Palestine. Very. But nicer. Jesus, he would be at home there, everyone pleased to see him, say, `Hello, come in, sit down, have a glass of wine, have this cake to eat, only made today!' Cyprus people always friendly, not like filthy Turk with fat belly, thin soul.")

But Lent would wear him down; by Holy Week, Nick Jesus would be baying for retribution, and the events of Good Friday appeared to him as a sort of Michael Howard short, sharp shock. ("Be honest: he asking for it.") Holy Saturday, Nick would pass in the pub, sodden with brandy and self- loathing, but then he would disappear to church and return elated and reborn, knocking on our doors to announce the astonishing good news ("He is risen from grave! Hagios o Theos! Hagios athanatos!").

"Well," said Black Godfrey, "Nick went into a monastery." "Good God," I said. "Yes," said Black Godfrey, "but then he got into trouble for taking it all too personally. You remember how he was." I remembered how he was all right. "So last Easter, guess what? Nick does a runner in the, you know, the big service. Priest says, `Christ is risen from the dead!' and Nick says, `Me too, also' and walks out, just like that.

"I bumped into him the other day," he added. "He said, `The lesson from Jesus is, OK to be nice, but don't rock the boat.' He wants a job on the council. I reckon he'd fit in." !