I was waiting to meet Ricky on a wet November Tuesday night in Norwich city. He had told to meet him in a car park at the back of a supermarket, again on the scruffy side of town. So I stood in the darkness and rain, waiting for him to arrive, wondering what a men’s shed was.
I heard Ricky before I saw him.
He took me across the car park and towards a warehouse next to the dual carriage way.
“Good boys in this place,” he said. “You’ll like it.”
I just wanted to get out of the cold and wet. I would have liked the waiting area of the Motor Tax Office. My socks were soaked through my shoes.
There were no lights on in the warehouse, from what I could see. When we reached it, we walked around it to the other side. Five or six men were standing with their backs to the warehouse’s walls, shielding themselves from the wind and rain. They were all smoking in silence, standing a few metres apart, alone.
Most of the men were in their 40s and 50s. Some looked nervous or uncomfortable. Like students chain-smoking before an exam. Ricky nodded hello at a few of them as we walked past, but most kept their heads bowed.
I followed Ricky up a steel staircase at the side of the warehouse. Light was coming out of an open door at the top.
Inside the men’s shed was like a straight male college student’s dream. There was a room with a pool table and a dart board and a fuseball table, a room full of random couches facing a projector screen, a room full of half-built cabinets and furniture with tools laying about, and a kitchen full of toasters, microwaves and George Foreman grills.
The whole place was no bigger than a normal two-bedroom flat, but every inch of space was being used. It was quite cluttered. Every wall had a poster or a notice board on it. There were shelves stacked with plants and books and DVDs anyone could borrow. Random but useful everyday appliances lay about wherever, like bike pumps, a guitar, a vacuum cleaner, garden shears and high-vis jackets. There was also a desk with a computer and a printer.
Everything in the men’s shed looked like it had a use or a purpose, except the men.
I gathered that a men’s shed is a place for lonely men; Down-and-outs, lost souls, the socially awkward. But that’s not really fair, because I don’t mean to judge them. Not everyone there fit those descriptions. But for the likes of Ricky, the men’s shed definitely seemed like a haven.
In the few days between watching football with Ricky and now coming to the men’s shed with him, I’d been comparing my life to his a lot.
I had hundreds of names in my phone book – I wondered how many Ricky had. I lived alone in a ground floor flat with a garden and a big tree. Ricky rented a cheap tiny single bedroom in an old house and wasn’t allowed use the living room. And his landlord was always on his back, looking for a way to get rid of him.
Every day I woke up and went to university and studied something I loved. Ricky either went to get his dole, or hung around the Norwich city library using the computers to search for jobs that might hire 50-something men with no qualifications, basic formal education and very little job experience.
In the evenings I went to the gym or for a drink or stayed in watching Netflix. Ricky lay on his bed watching whatever free movies he could find on YouTube.
Ricky introduced me to some of the men in the men’s shed. They were friendly. Some seemed shy, but most were chatty and very welcoming. One man stood in the corner sucking on the sleeve of his jumper, his legs shaking. He was in his 40s but had the demeanor of a nervous twelve year old boy on the first day of summer camp.
I asked who would be watching the football. Most wanted to, but they said there was only a laptop hooked up to the projector, so no TV channels.
“Aye, but he says there’s free channels online,” Ricky said, pointing at me.
I went to the laptop and quickly found a pirate football stream. Everyone clapped me on the back or let out a whoop as if I’d just invented fire. We sat round on the random couches. Someone took tea orders.
The man sucking his jumper sleeve didn’t sit with us. He stayed where he was, looking around nervously and not making eye contact with anyone. He had the scared look of a threatened animal.
“One sugar, cheers.”
“Two for me.”
“No worries, mate.”
Tottenham were playing Borussia Dortmund in the Champion’s League. Everyone spoke about the players’ form and gave predictions. This happens any time strange men meet for the first time, and football is on.
Ricky told stories about Borussia Dortmund’s stadium, comparing it to the other German stadiums he had been in. He also gave histories of what German fans were the most passionate, like Borussia Dortmund, comparing them to Celtic.
Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. They seemed comfortable or at ease now that the tension had been broken by the football. At first our conversation was awkward, as if we were the boyfriends at a wedding where all the girlfriends were actually friends. But football saved the day. The sport was something to focus on.
“One sugar, there you go.”
The man making the tea seemed out of place. His clothes were nicer than everyone else, and I noticed he had new looking Audi car keys in his hand at one point. When I had arrived with Ricky, he seemed to be asking everyone how they were doing; He was keeping tabs, checking in.
We hadn’t been introduced. I got up and followed him into the kitchen to ask if he needed a hand with the drinks.
His name was Ken and he asked me what brought me to the men’s shed. I could tell he was suspicious about me, but not in a negative way. I told him about Ricky bringing me along. He said he liked Ricky a lot. And that Ricky was one of the more sociable and confident members. But Ken also worried about Ricky, because Ricky still couldn’t find any work and apparently he was having issues with his landlord.
Ken wasn’t a member of the men’s shed. He looked after the members, locked up at the end of the night and basically ran the place. Ten years ago his brother in law hung himself, so that’s how he got involved in the men’s shed. He wanted to help vulnerable, lonely men, like Ricky. I liked Ken.
As Ken and I were speaking, the nervous man sucking his jumper sleeve hurried past the kitchen door. Ken excused himself and went after the man. I finished making tea and handed out the mugs. Ricky updated me on what I had missed in the match. Then I went back to the kitchen to clean out my empty mug. About twenty minutes had past. Ken came back.
He said the man sucking his jumper sleeve was one of the men who struggled the most with anxiety and nerves. He was a bit on the spectrum too. Socialising was terrifying for the man but his family made him come to the men’s shed because they felt he needed to socialise, and Ken agreed. Some nights he was better than others. But tonight had been a bad night. He had wet himself.
When the football ended I stayed with Ricky to help Ken clean and lock up. Then we said goodbye and Ricky and I headed towards my bus stop.
Ricky said the shed was open again in a few days, and asked if I wanted to go again. I made up an excuse and told him I was busy. Then he asked if I wanted to watch Celtic again on Saturday, and suggested my flat. (I had told him I bought the sports channels along with my WiFi from BT.)
I told Ricky I couldn’t watch Celtic, I had to study on Saturday. He looked at me strange, wondering how a fellow diehard Celtic fan could ever not make time to watch a match. Then he asked if I was free on Sunday maybe?
I told Ricky I wasn’t sure yet, and that I’d let him know. A look came over his face that I felt he was used to making. He seemed to understand. Here I was, another person making excuses not to see him.
To be honest, even though I liked Ricky and he was a nice guy and everything, it was all a bit much for me and I didn’t really want to be his friend, which sounds mean. But I didn’t want to keep meeting up, and I knew he would want to often. Also, it was getting difficult pretending to be a Celtic fan. And in the few days between the Celtic match together in the pub, and now at the men’s shed, Ricky had texted me many times. He was only looking for a chat, but I wasn’t bothered.
I felt bad.
For the next three weeks I kept making excuses when Ricky texted, and I never answered my phone. I felt mean, so one day I agreed to meet for a coffee. Ricky looked very upset when he arrived.
His landlord had kicked him out. From day one the landlord had never liked Ricky and was always trying to get rid of him. I can’t remember exactly what it was that he used an excuse, but Ricky had finally been kicked out.
He was sleeping on the couch in the flat of a friend from the men’s shed. Ken had helped arrange it. But it could only be temporary. Ricky said if only he could find somewhere else, someone else’s couch. An awkward silence followed.
Ricky looked visibly stressed and said he was thinking of going back to Glasgow. Coming to Norwich had been a failure. He said he knew someone in Glasgow who might let him stay with them for a bit. Or else he could just keep couch surfing online. He was also thinking of reaching out to his brother, but didn’t sound optimistic.
He asked if I knew anyone who would buy his bike? He needed money. I said I don’t know anyone. I told him I’d put a sign up in the Arts block at UEA though. He shook my hand and said I was a good guy. I never put the sign up.
That was the last time I saw Ricky. A week later I went back to Dublin for the Christmas holidays and when I came back to Norwich I stopped using my English phone number. Not because of Ricky, but it definitely helped with avoiding our friendship.
I felt guilty for a long time for going cold on Ricky, and sometimes I still do. I reckon he is – or now perhaps was – used to people like me in his life. People who disappeared as fast as they had arrived.
I’ve no idea what happened to him.