He came from Newcastle thirty-five years ago, waving his wife and small children farewell, for a three-week stint as a painter. Work was scarce in the north-east and it seemed like a good deal when, at the end of the three weeks, he was offered the job of painting another nearby house. He took up residence in an abandoned caravan opposite the pub and stayed until the floor fell out, moving from one house-paint to the next. By then, there was another abandoned caravan awaiting an occupant; local legend has it that it is “like a palace, with a cooker and everything”. All he does is sand and paint. He doesn’t paper or hang curtain rods. Just paints. Toshes on. While he paints he plays Radio 1 but the songs aren’t the same as they were thirty-five years ago, so he sings the songs that are in his head. So as they blast out some drum ‘n’ bass, he sings ‘Don’t you want me baby’ over it. It’s a highly developed skill, one that could grace Britain’s Got Talent if it were not for the fact that his years of self-imposed caravan hermitage have increased his Geordie accent not lessened it. People who have known him that whole time – not known him well, for he only speaks when spoken to – still celebrate when they have understood a whole sentence.
He is sixty-two now; his children have flown the nest and his house is paid for. He still returns to his wife every year for six weeks to ‘dae the ood job round the house like and haway to Torremolinos furra week’. When he is in Newcastle, he doesn’t drink: ‘I ate the poobs oop there mon’. When he is in the caravan, he drinks five pints of Snakebite every night and ten at week-ends.
There have been few characters like him in fiction; he is a modern-day Stig of the Dump. 5’8” with a magnificent belly, he stands a foot and a half back from the bar, scratching his spine with one hand and clutching his toxic cider-lager mix with the other, his wild black and grey hair giving the appearance of some Geordie Yogi, enhanced by his regular shaking of the head. When he is on his six-week sojourn, we soak his own personal glass in toilet bleach to make it vaguely translucent again. He has only been known not to wear shorts on one occasion, when there was a foot of snow on the ground and the mercury hit -12C. That was also the night he closed the skylight for the first time. Often he drops his key on the short journey home and returns to borrow a screwdriver to unscrew the door and sleep even more open to the night air. Sometimes, when he returns from his annual pilgrimage to his homeland, visitors have moved into his 1950’s version of luxury holiday accommodation.
- I couldna sleep last night mon
- Why was that Bill?
- Squirrels mon. Runnin aboot under the bed. They’d left loadsa nuts in the bed anall.
Bill loves animals much more than he loves people.
- What’s the matter with your shirt Bill? Have you got moths?
His paint splattered T-shirt is full of tiny holes. He looks down nonchalantly, still clutching his toxin clouded glass.
- Oh no, it’s just the mice mon.
- I’m away now, got a nice bit o spatchcock chicken in the oven.
It’s his closing line most nights. A living legend.