Norman was never normal, which was sort of confusing, because most people on the estate called him ‘Norm.’
Growing up I can remember him always in trouble with the Polis, they were never away from his door looking for him for something or other.
His poor Mam’s nerves were wrecked, she smoked non-stop, even when she was doing the washing up at night, I know, because I could see the red tip of her tab glowing through the window.
You see, Norm’s house backed onto ours, and I had a front seat view of his family’s life slowly disintegrating before me.
Norm wasn’t a bad kid; far from it.
He was just a funny lad, always looking for a kick about and game as a badger in the tackle too.
He wore his Toon top every day when we were at Primary school, the one with the big Blue Star on the front and the bridges silhouetted against it, and when they told him he couldn’t wear it in secondary school, he shrugged his shoulders and wore it under his shirt and tie, day in, – day out.
Every night I would see him in the bathroom through the dimpled glass, washing his beloved top, and then his bedroom light would come on and he would wave over, mouthing my nickname, ‘Whack’, before hanging the Black & White stripes up to dry for the next morning.
Talk about devotion.
He would play against the bigger and older gangs with no apprehension or fear, he gave one hundred per cent in every match and would run himself ragged such was his determination.
He would sometimes give a running commentary whilst he was on the ball, or if our team were on the attack, shouting it as he ran into position, expecting the ball.
At first it was a bit annoying, but then I sort of got to enjoy it as the other sides we played against in the school’s league didn’t know what to make of it all.
I remember it well, it still makes me grin picturing him in his element, racing up the field, his voice wavering with each footfall and breath.
‘Albert wins the ball and passes to Ginola, Newcastle are on the break, he’s got support if he looks up, HE’S GOT SUPPORT IF HE LOOKS UP! HE MUST SQUARE IT TO SHEARER!…’ this was shouted expectantly and was his way of calling for the cross, and if the cross was delivered, then he would continue, ‘it’s a good ball and the big man ( pause for the actual shot ), ‘the big man SCORES!’
Then he would wheel away, copying the goal celebration with the hand in the air and continue with the commentary, ‘the crowd are going mental, Alan Shearer scores again,’ and so on.
Of course, we were nearly wetting ourselves laughing at the cheek of it and obviously delighted he had scored, and the other team’s coaches stood open mouthed at the audacity of it all.
I reckon it was his escape from his home life and his unhappiness at school, where the teachers didn’t know how to handle him and instead of correctly identifying his apparent reluctance to learn any subject as a form of autism, they resorted to constant humiliation and punishment to try and coerce some sort of reaction from him.
Norm decided to fight fire with fire.
We heard the Fire Brigade engines one night blazing past our match on the green, on the way to our school, where they tried valiantly to extinguish what was left of our temporary classroom.
We stood watching with our precious ball safely under an arm having rushed to the scene to watch the drama unfold.
Norm lay on the bank beside us with a big smile of contentment and we all knew he had something to do with it, as he hated Mr. Evans probably as much as he hated going to that wooden hut every day.
The police came that night and I could see them taking plastic containers away with them from Norm’s backyard and that was the last time I saw Norm and his family.
When I came home from school, my parents were discussing the new neighbours and when I entered the room they abruptly stopped talking, and an uneasy atmosphere sat in the room like Lindisfarne fog.
We sat eating our mince and dumplings in silence and eventually Mam says to my Dad, ‘I think you should talk to your son.’
Now for twelve year-old, this translates to ‘I am in trouble’, and then a frantic thought process tries to think of, ‘what is the worst thing I have done lately?’
It turns out my Dad just wanted to explain that Norm (and Sandra his Mam) had moved house and he wouldn’t be around for a while.
Over a decade later, I am working in HMP Durham, having qualified in psychiatry and working with inmates who are addicts and have issues with substance misuse.
I work under the ‘CARAT’ scheme, which stands for, Counselling, Assessment, Referral, Advice and Throughcare.
Well, you know what’s coming.
I meet Norm for the first time since we were kids, and at first, we don’t recognise each other. It isn’t until he wipes his fringe with his tattooed hands, ‘NUFC’ and ‘TOON’ across the other one, that I know what has became of my school friend.
I look at his reports.
Mostly robbery, dealing, drunk and disorderly, ABH, GBH, and a whole host of minor offences all seemingly linked to sourcing funds for his addictions. He looks gaunt and seems to have shrunk in stature and holds himself in a very defeated posture.
Gone is the happy-go-lucky charm and carefree Norm I used to know; instead, I see a shell sitting in front of me, like the life has been sucked out with a giant vacuum cleaner and left nothing but an empty carcass, bereft of any dreams or hope for the future.
I offer my hand and introduce myself.
‘Hello Norman, my name is Dr. Walker, I am your case officer and here to help you with anything you need.’
Dull, stagnant eyes gaze at me.
His grip is cold and limp, it reflects accurately how he looks. ‘How are you getting on, Norm?’
A little narrowing of the eyes and he stares at me.
Time stands still, it seems like ages.
Then that big grin starts from the corners of his chapped lips and he raises both hands.
‘Is it you,… Whack? What? …, why,’ he can’t get the words out quickly enough.
He grips my hand and shakes it up and down and shakes his head in disbelief.
‘A Doctor, a Doctor!’
He slaps his hand against his thigh, laughing more each time. ‘It’s good to see you Norm.’
Gradually the amusement and incredulity subsides and gives way to self awareness and shame at what he has got himself involved in.
We leave behind the banal chit chat about our youth and I steer him onto the deadly matter of his ongoing addiction to hard drugs and his two near misses from overdosing.
Normally, I would declare a conflict of interest, and pass this onto a colleague, but I know how Norm thinks and I understand how I will rehabilitate him.
I am due back in again today, but I stop on the way at St James’ Park, the club shop is just opening and I wait impatiently for them to turn on the tills and I purchase what I need and I am hurriedly on my way.
Norm comes in and I have a cup of tea ready for him, his hands are shaking and it looks like the night hasn’t been friendly to him under the medication necessary to wean him off the toxins his body have became accustomed to and reliant upon.
‘How’s it goin’ mate? I ask softly.
Norm sits with his head in his hands, exhaling loudly. ‘You must think I’m a right mess.’ He says it matter-of-factly, without intonation of a question, just a cold statement. ‘Yes, I do.’
He looks up at me with doleful eyes, and looks down again. ‘No self respecting supporter would be seen wearing a red t shirt, would they? Of course you look a mess.’
I reach under the table and place the bag with the club crest on top.
‘That’s why I brought you something, the first thing to getting you back on the straight and narrow is to get you lookin’ the part.’ He looks at the bag and back again at me.
‘Go on’ I urge.
He looks all around as if he is about to steal something, then gingerly reaches in and extracts those beautiful Black & White stripes, and he’s blubbing like a baby. ‘Oh my God, oh my God!’
He holds it up to the light, and turns it around, and there it is, the greatest sight in football, the number nine and S-H-E-A-R-E-R emblazoned across the top. He holds it to his chest and sobs, great heaving gasps. ‘OI! Watch the material!’ I joke.
It brings him around and his breathing returns to a more balanced rhythm and he is able to speak.
‘Thank you so much, Whack; I haven’t had a top for years and always promised myself I would get off this shit and sort myself out and get a season ticket, but it just never happened.’
‘I know mate. Don’t worry, everything’s going to change from here on in. I’ll be beside you and we’ll get through this day by day, week by week.’
We spent the next couple of weeks together, me listening, Norm talking. I knew which buttons to push, and how to lift him when he was faltering. Dead easy!
I could always bring him out of a depressive state by initiating a discussion on the Toon.
Which players were playing well, or how the last match had went, and his eyes would light up and he was on cloud nine, excited and flattered for someone to ask his opinion and have it listened to.
Norm went from strength to strength. One morning when he replied he was ok, I asked ‘what sort of ok?’ I pushed it a bit further. ‘Sort of middle of the road ok? like, David Batty, or a bit better, like Rob Lee?’
That did the trick, and every morning when I asked how he was doing, he would tell me the name of a player.
You see, I knew he had been thinking of this night before, ready for me to ask, which was my deliberate intention, to give him something to take his mind off his time in here and the constant battles with the medication and temptations even inside the prison!
He wore the top every day and coming up to the last week, before his release, he was ‘definitely Alan Shearer’ every single morning, and I knew he couldn’t be any better. His release date loomed large and I could tell he was getting nervous about the prospect of falling into bad habits and dodgy company again.
Through my recommendations, I got him a little place in sheltered housing with private security, which made a difference to his peace of mind. I waited in reception to accompany him out through the gates on the big day. It was bright outside. I turned to him. ‘This is the start of the rest of your life, seize it and make the most of it.’ He nodded to me sagely.
‘Just remember everything we talked about, and remember who you are’ I said, as he turned to leave.
‘I know who I am’ he replied.
As he boarded the bus, he looked around at me, and paused on the step.
‘I’m going to be Alan Shearer every day.’
© 2013 Stephen Cooper for true faith