Afloat, Ashore, for Charlie Burke

From the life of Charlie Burke

By Jo Lazar

“What’s the matter, Charlie?”

“I need help, my head’s bursting.”

In Barking, in 1946, Charlie’s head was the youngest in his family and it would always be. He got away with everything. To add to his numerous siblings, the community was tightly knit. There were no locks, and no closed front doors.

For a while, the railway at the back of the estate he grew up on had no trains, and the children played there every day. In later years, on days when the steam engine finally reached them, they’d smile and wave at it. “Got any coal?” they’d ask the driver, and the following day he’d chuck a bagful at them. They’d share it with the neighbours. Charlie’s head was just fine.

The number of industries opening in Barking increased considerably following the First World War, with firms engaged in chemical making, timber manufacture, and metal production. Upon finishing school at 15, Charlie got a job in a wood factory with his brother. When he was fired one morning for playing up, he found another by noon.

“If you want help, I can give it to you.”

Committed for twenty-eight days in the security unit at Newham Hospital: a slight cognitive problem, they said. They thought it was the drink, but they kept him for twenty-eight more days. Fifty-six long days altogether. The numbers swirl in front of his eyes when Charlie says them.

He lost his mum at a young age, before he started working. The pain never left, the way pain stays even when you want to bury it. Charlie’s driving career started off with a van, collecting bedsheets in large rucksacks from King George V Dock. He brought them to the small army of women who would clean and iron them in record time, then take them back to the ships.

Charlie moved on to drive the buses in 1974. He was happy to go to work every day. When his shift changed, he was just as keen to go to work every night. He smiles when he talks about the regulars. Butchers, chefs, bakers – Charlie drove them all. They’d bring him food; they’d stop for a quick chat. He misses it. He misses a lot of things; the sentiment floats around him when he talks. It’s a sort of sadness lit up with memories. London was different then. In Limehouse, Charlie used to stop in the station round the corner from a gay pub. He drove the partygoers to Trafalgar Square. Every now and then, one of them lifted their pink tutu and flashed their pink pants in Charlie’s general direction. “Bye bye, driver!” they’d shout. He used to laugh then, and he laughs now.

Things have changed since then; with the change, Charlie’s brow falls in thought. The tests for drivers are more lenient now; they don’t care as much. People work longer hours; they’re not as appreciated. It was the stress that ultimately drove him to retire at 60 years old, when his health started to decline.

With hands no longer glued to the steering wheel, he found himself with too much free time. The thing about free time is that it works for some: they fill it with little things, they rejoice in no longer working a tedious job. Some take up hobbies, others wait it out, and others, like Charlie, fall in it as if it were a pit. The sort of not-too-deep of a hole that should be easy to climb out of. A budding depression that starts off like shallow water at the shore. You walk it because it leads you forward, but it suddenly drops into the Marianas Trench, and you sink. For Charlie, there were no dockers who knew him in the shallow waters, there was no floating help.

The water was bitter, not salty. It came in pints, all day long. It came with loneliness, with forgetting where he left his bike, four pubs ago. The Marianas Trench is almost 11,000 metres deep; the pressure is fatal. Charlie found himself on the edge of a train platform, hooked at the collar by a member of staff. He ran with the bitter water flooding his brain, with the pressure of the world crushing his skull. He ran until someone caught him.

“What’s the matter, Charlie?”

“I need help, my head’s bursting.”

His daughter wanted to visit, but the unit was not a nice place. He rang her every evening. They gave him medicine for the urges, and for fifty-six days Charlie fought the water relentlessly. Three days after he got out, the pressure found him. The water trickled down his path. A bloke accused him of being in the nuthouse. Charlie’s smile is sad when he describes hitting the man as far as he could with his right fist.

The nights were quiet in the unit. In the stillness, Charlie found his mother one night; she stood at the end of his bed. “You’ll be all right,” she said. His mind was in overtime; he describes the devil’s voice saying, “One more, Charles, one more won’t hurt you.” The other voice would say, “No, Charlie, don’t go there.”

His partner of twenty years, the one he calls his ‘rock’, drew the line after treading on eggshells with him for months. Unless he sorted himself out, they were finished. His mind started thinking for the better. Angels come in many forms. Some come from inside, crawling up at the edge of the darkness and lighting candles right and left. Others physically guide you to better times. Charlie’s angel was only a couple of years old and crawled onto his lap. “You’ve got to change,” his granddaughter said. “I don’t like you when you’re drinking.”

“So I did. First I went out and got plastered one last time. I had to give it the best I got and then it was change, or lose the people I love.”

The people Charlie loves are still there for him today. AA didn’t work for him. So Charlie’s mind cleared up enough to seek other groups. It started off quiet on his side; he listened to the stories and pieces of advice. In time, he got up and told his story. He avoided the alcohol aisles in supermarkets. His pills kept the urges away, but sometimes, thoughts of stormy waters entered his mind. He joined more groups. Meeting people and learning of their struggles acted like bricks in a dam.

He’s swum through it all and climbed out of it. Personal loss, happiness, marriage, children, grandchildren, the dark corners of his mind. The water has been out of Charlie’s life two and a half years now.

He gave back to the people who helped him, the only way he knew how to. He signed up to do a course with the NHS at the Mile End Hospital Mental Health Unit. They had him scheduled to go talk to the patients three or four afternoons a week. On Mondays he played the drums with the men and on Tuesdays he sat with the women and talked their worries out. They’d go out in groups and initiate the patients’ reintegration in society. Charlie knew how important support is, so he made sure he offered his unconditionally. He found his health deteriorating yet again, and this time, it stopped him from going to the unit any longer.

“You’ve been an asset, Charlie. Everyone’s asking about you still.”

Armed with a smile and a young soul, Charlie meets up with as many troubled people as he can. Whenever he goes to a meeting, he approaches the newcomers and offers them comfort. Some stay in touch for months afterwards.

“Charlie, I’ve slipped off.”

And so he schedules lunch and packs a bag of DVDs to lend out to his friend. In others’ storms and trenches, Charlie puts his hand out to catch those who are willing to grasp it. The devil’s voice stays quiet now; if someone provokes him, he’ll just walk away without a word. Charlie has been on the edge and he refuses to return. Before he gives in to any urge, he seeks help. Be it from within, from his doctor, or from his loved ones, he knows he’s never alone. Those he’s helped know it as well.

Charlie’s favourite memories are in the van. Back then, the docks were thriving. Charlie has been on the big ships, the ones bringing tomatoes from the Canary Islands. The people smiled a lot more then, they all wanted to know his name; eventually, they all did. He takes the bus sometimes and walks by the docks. That water is fine; it speaks of a beautiful time in his life.

His laugh is contagious. One time, he went for a drink with the captain, and watched the shore distancing itself for a good couple of minutes before realising what was happening. “We’re fucking moving!” he shouted. “Look, look, we’re moving!” He had to climb down to a boat and be taken back to the docks where the van was. His laugh is genuine, happy.

“How come you’re always smiling, Charlie?”

“It’s better than crying, right?”

Canning Town started changing when he moved there, back in ’95. The market used to be alive, pulsing with shoppers. The café was over there, he points, the butcher over there. When he talks, it feels like he could paint the past with his fingers. The development in Canning Town was fast and brutal to traditional places. The community found itself broken; people lock their doors now. Charlie smiles despite it. He’s going to meet with a group in the next couple of days; he keeps busy.