I would never willingly offend. So, if you have reservations about profanity, go no further.
My old Norwich mate Jonny Price used to reckon this story was “the best thing you have ever done Kev”. That’s hardly likely, but when I met his mates three decades ago, they all knew the story. It was gratifying that they found it so funny.
While working as a milkman, back in the late 1980s, I served a customer who lived on the Westlands council estate, in western Chelmsford. I served about 350 of them, but this one stood out. He was a jack-the-lad, roll-of-the-shoulders geezer, who loved nothing better than banter. Can’t remember his name anymore, or any other details, except that he was about my age (30-ish), and had a touch of wit and confidence that made conversations fun.
I would knock on the door of his maisonette for the milk money, every Friday evening. We developed a singular repartee, where, at some stage of the conversation, one of us would say. “What are you?” But actually sounding something like “whoraya”. That last bit is important.
And the other would reply: “Cunt”.
Being Essex, the reply would have been much more like “caaaaant”, stretched out in the estuary delivery mode. That delivery was essential, the lynchpin of the humour and play-acting. Southern Essex man pulls back his lips and lets out that sound with a mighty disdain, apeing the contempt with which his Cockney peers wield this missile of a word.
It made us chuckle, grin and bond. Cathartic and poetic.
Down at the dairy, the word would bounce around liberally as the lads loaded their floats in the mornings. It was a bog-standard form of friendly verbal sparring for blokes around our way, however odd, rude, disrespectful or non-PC it might sound (or not) in the ever more polite and offendable climes of 2019. The foreman, Bernie, would often be on the end of the banter. He would unreservedly insist that “a cunt is a useful thing”.
Anyway, back to Westlands. I think this guy had been out for a few Friday evenings in a row, building up arrears for his red tops (homogenised milk). I knocked, and was about to go away, thinking he was out on the razzle again, when I heard him come down the stairs. He opened the door, with a towel around his lower torso.
“Whoaa, allright mate,” he said. He was swaying a bit. Alcohol had clearly been imbibed. “I got a bird upstairs, but I better pay you. I’ll nip back up, write you out a cheque.”
Reascending, he asked what he owed me. Really slurring the words. “Whorrriyowya?” So very similar to the joyful trigger of “whoraya”.
Eager for jousting, all I heard was the ritual question. “What are you?” (coming and trying to take my money when I’m getting my leg over).
Clearly, there was but one reply.
“Caaaant!”, I batted back.
He was halfway back up the stairs. He stopped, turned and frowned. “You what mate?”
I took a deep breath, leaned back, and really let him have it this time. “Caaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnt.”
He was really puzzled now. “What?” he hissed. I was more convinced than ever that he was prolonging our weekly exchange.
Letting my diaphragm use itself deeply, I repeated it joyfully, with utter glee. It took all my breath away. “Caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnt”.
“What’s going on pal?” he said. “I’m asking you what I owe and you’re calling me a cunt!” I saw violence brewing in his eyes. My light bulb finally came on.
Parallels perhaps with the Goodfellas scene, where Joe Pesci menacingly asks: “Funny? How am I funny?” That excruciating, liminal space where perceived insult can beget belly-laugh or brawl.
Somehow, I explained the misunderstanding. Luckily, he was truly preoccupied with matters of the groin. Maybe the drink, or the awaiting pleasures, had erased our rite from his memory. It may have been fortunate that he was one swift move away from a falling towel.
Most importantly, I got his milk money.
The shame was that he moved a week or two after, and I never got the chance to make a proper apology for being such a caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaant.
Never saw him again. I hope his life rolled smoothly. He will never know the pleasure that he gave Jonny and his Norfolk mates. The story has an unexpected ending.
I e-mailed Jonny yesterday, who said this: “It’s one of our many catch phrases on birding trips. Often in the rain forest you’d hear someone mutter…cuuuuunnt.”