When a difficult person enters your life, they will stay until you learn the lesson that they came to teach you. Or so I heard.
Mick Wormwood entered my life when I was twelve. He left it fifteen years later. Perhaps I’m a slow learner.
Mick was a tough lad from inner city Liverpool who moved to our suburb ten miles out. I first met him playing school football.
He was smallish but strong, fast and fearless. He had flame red hair and beady eyes. His broad back hunched when he ran – Quasimodo in a football kit. He had a terrible temper – ready to fight anyone, including the referee. He scored three goals, including the winner, and smirked when we shook hands at the end of the match, captain to captain. “Nice team you got,” he said.
Next time I saw him, he was leading a gang of local troublemakers around town. He pointed at me and they laughed. Nice team, asshole.
Mick was mad, bad and dangerous to know. Always fighting. Even his surname – Wormwood – sounded like Wormwood Scrubs, the infamous prison of Victorian London.
But there was another side to him that I witnessed by accident, one day when I was carrying my books home from school. Mick never carried books, but that day he was carrying shopping for two tiny old ladies, up a steep bridge over our local canal. He seemed surprised to see me.
“Nice team,” I said, and wished I hadn’t.
Mick stared at me and said: “I know where you live, mate.”
He knocked at my door an hour later in his jeans and Dr Marten boots. I thought he had come to beat me up. “What you doing?” he said.
“School work,” I said.
He rolled his eyes and said: “Want to play football?”
I told him I would meet him on the field in twenty minutes. But I was there in fifteen, in case he changed his mind.
We were soon firm friends – both named Michael with the same red hair and the same love of football. I liked the contradiction in his character – Mick the hooligan with a good heart. Maybe he was curious about the jerk that did homework and loved football.
I kept my distance from his gang, though, after I saw Mick kick some rival black and blue, and smash a hammer through a car window. Next day he was sitting on my parents’ sofa, drinking tea.
“He’s a gentlemen, your pal Mick,” my Mum would say. I wanted to say: try schizophrenic
Mick left school at 16 and got a job tending the local parks. His face was soon tanned like an old boot and lined by the merciless wind that blew in from the Irish Sea.
When I went to college in Cardiff, Mick would hitchhike down for the weekend, arriving at midnight, dripping with rain. My flat-mate at that time was some spoiled rich kid, a film student who was always leaving his soiled clothes on the bathroom floor. Once he asked Mick: “Have you seen ‘My Beautiful Launderette’?”
Mick replied: “No, but I’ve seen your dirty washing.”
He was quick with jokes but also depressed at not being a professional footballer. Big clubs tried him but his temper was a liability. After too many beers one night, he told me:
“When I get angry a black curtain comes down and I cannot see in the darkness.” Then he asked me how come millionaire Bono still had not found what he was looking for? Bit of a philosopher, was our Mick.
The final time I saw him, Mick was in London, suit pockets stuffed with cash. He was now ‘a businessman’ in the East End.
Oh really? I suppose I could imagine how his roguish charm might play well with Cockney wide-boys, but I was disappointed that he thought they were a solution to his broken dreams, dead end job and failed marriage. He was no longer digging parks. But was he digging his grave?
Sure enough, a few months later, some kids found Mick’s body swinging from the bridge over our old canal in Liverpool. I heard he had been knocking on doors around the neighbourhood, asking for a washing line so he could tow his car, which was odd, since he never learned to drive.
If you’ve ever lost someone to suicide, you know how I felt. If not, i hope you never do. Grief and guilt wrestle in your soul and it never really goes away. Mick was a rare individual, tough but funny, violent but kindhearted, McEnroe, Tyson and Mother Theresa, combined.
I suppose he taught me not to judge a book by its cover. I picture him now, playing football in heaven, as captain of the fallen angels, arguing with St Peter about the offside rule.
(This story first appeared in FHM in November 2011 and reappears here with permission from S.C. Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL).