The available flats on Eldon had already been filled and no one at the council could do anything about it. Even though, as Georgina’s Mum repeated, they had four generations on Eldon, the flats had gone to families more in need. Dean instantly knew to whom. Everybody knew. They’d been swarming here in the thousands, so the papers said. Husbands, wives, kids, cousins. Whole villages were uprooting and relocating to the inner city estates of Great Britain. It was a legal invasion and the losers were people like Georgina and Dean. Everyone knew it.
I spit it out. I’m so angry. I’m raging. There’s a tight spring winding up inside me. It’s a low bittersweet pain between my gut and my lungs. It’s coiling so fast I can’t control it. I punch my hand through a glass pane on the cabinet. There’s a dull crack and the glass shards split into splinters. My hand’s bleeding but I can’t feel it. I just see blood running over my knuckles and down my wrist, soaking red into my trackie top. Everything’s fuzzy and I see Georgina give Harry to her Mum and come to me. She puts a baby wipe over my cuts and her other arm on my shoulder. I can hear Harry crying and Georgina’s Mum cooing to him, but it’s as if they’re in another room. Georgina wipes the blood away and I notice the broken glass. Did I do that? I feel Georgina wiping away the blood and pressing firmly on my hand. It stings. Fuck that hurts. Georgina’s comforting me. The women are looking after the men. Mum always said girls were stronger. Georgina guides me to the kitchen and washes the gash in the sink. The cold water brings me back around and it feels like I’m coming down.
I feel guilty. I shouldn’t have done that, it ain’t going to solve anything. It ain’t going to get us a flat. I can’t fucking believe they gave them to Pakis. The anger washes up again, but I feel Georgina drying my hands gently and it holds me steady. She looks at me and smiles, but I can see she’s upset. Her eyes are curled down at the edges. Usually they’re tight and pinched. Now they’re open and she looks weak. I need to be strong for her. I can’t go round smashing up the furniture. I kiss her forehead and we hug. Georgina’s Mum makes us a cup of tea and we sit in the living room watching Harry paw the air above his pram.
‘Apparently they’ve got three kids and the husband doesn’t have a job.’ Georgina’s Mum calls through from the kitchen. She’s shouting to be louder than the kettle, but there’s no fear we won’t be able to hear her. She’s got a right gob on her. She whispers like a barking dog.
‘So they obviously need it more, apparently.’
She makes the word need last for ages. I know she’s being sarcastic. She doesn’t have to spell it out. She does my head in sometimes.
‘And apparently, they’ve only been in the country ten minutes.’
She brings through a tray of teas and biscuits and sits down on a dining room chair.
‘And somehow that gives them more rights than you two, apparently. Well it doesn’t seem very bloody fair to me.’
She sips her tea, dunks a bourbon, swallows it in one and carries on talking without even blinking.
‘I don’t mind them coming here and working hard like the rest of us, but it don’t seem right them getting a house for nothing. Especially when there’s English people who have lived here all their lives waiting for a place. And with a kid and all. But according to the council, they deserve it more for some reason.’
She sips her tea and twists her head back towards us.
Georgina’s getting angry at her Mum.
‘They’ve got to put them somewhere.’
I can hear it in her voice. There’s a rough grinding teeth to it. I hope it doesn’t turn into one of their slanging matches. I’m out of here if it does.
‘Yes I know. But why the bloody hell does it have to be here when we don’t have enough blimmin’ houses as it is.’
Georgina’s Mum snaps back and I see that Georgina’s backing down. She’s lost her fire since Harry. I want to hold her tight to me and rock her. I want to see the old Georgina. She was a bitch but she was smart and angry and always fighting and slapping down everyone with a cool line. This house thing has knocked the last of it out of her. I guess she’s losing everything. No college, no hanging out with her mates and getting pissed, living with my Mum and now she’s told that Pakis are more important. She must feel worthless. I want to cry and smash everything to pieces. I don’t even care about Pakis, but Georgina’s Mum’s right. What about us?
‘In my day you’d get given a place as soon as you had a kid. Everyone had the right to a home. You didn’t have to move to the other side of the city, you stayed close to your family.’
She slurps a mouthful from her mug.
‘But now it’s all about keeping the blacks and Pakis happy. And if we complain they’ll say we’re racist.’
She puts her mug down on the tray with a bang that makes Harry cry. Georgina takes him out of the pram and cuddles him to her shoulder. Her Mum doesn’t bat an eyelid.
‘But I’ll tell you who’s racist. They bloody are. Those posh buggers. Where are all the Pakis in their neighbourhoods?’
I usually ignore Georgina’s Mum. She goes on too much and talks a load of shit, but today she’s making sense. It’s true. I shrug my shoulders.
‘Exactly. They shove them all here. Sweep them under the carpet and let us deal with them. But we’re the ones who suffer, not those bastards in the Government. They just let us get on with it. Ruining our neighbourhoods and then blaming us like we’re the reason all the foreigners came here in the first place. And when we get angry and do something about it they tell us we’re in the wrong and they’re in the right and we all have to live side by side and like it or lump it. And we’re not even allowed to complain when a family with a new born baby are told they have to live with their parents because all the houses have been given to coloured people who’ve just got off the boat. It’s just not bloody fair.’
Georgina’s Mum is crying. I didn’t think it was possible. I thought she was made of leather and iron. She’s more upset than me and Georgina and it’s not even her who hasn’t got a flat. I am pissed off though. I still feel the anger looping figures of eight in my guts. The Pakis get everything done for them and we’re left behind. It makes me mad. I don’t want to live with my Mum anymore. I’ve got a fucking kid, my own family. Why should we have to live like this? We can’t just up sticks and go to Pakiland and get given a house. And why should we? I’ve lived here all my life. So’s Georgina. Why do we have less rights than foreigners in our own country? I think about it and makes me go crazy. My brain just plays it over again and again. I can’t get it out of my head. I imagine the Pakis moving into our flat. A fucking herd of them covered head to toe in those stupid dresses and headscarves. I bet they don’t even speak a word of English and they’ll get given so many benefits that they won’t even need to get a job. They’ll sponge off hardworking people like my Mum who’s had to work every bloody day of her life. I look around the living room. This flat is all she’s got to show for it. I see the cabinet with the broken pane. I walk over and start cleaning up the pieces of glass. There’s blood on some of them. I pick up the miniature sangria jug Mum brought back from Spain. The handle’s snapped off and there is a V shaped crack along the mouth. I swallow a lump in my throat. My eyes are wet. I feel a hot line run down my cheek. I choke back a cough. I pinch my leg, but I can feel it coming. I can’t stop it. It’s all too much and I just can’t control it. I have to leave. Now. I walk out the front door and along the walkway in front of my flat. My head is down and I can only see the grey tarmac floor and cigarette butts. I push through the glass door and rush up the stairs to the top landing where it stops at a brick wall. I let go. Snot and tears and spit stream from my face. Strings of mucus drip from my nose and mouth. I see the liquid joining the piss and beer stains on the ground. It doesn’t stop. I don’t want it to stop. My body shakes and I don’t care. It’s all shit. It’s all so fucking shit. I kick the wall and the pain flashes through me. It stays inside. I can feel it holding on to my stomach walls. I want to control the pain. To keep it ready to use. So I can fight. So I can hit back whenever I need to. I’m ready for a war. I’m ready to take back what’s mine. What’s ours. I drag my trackie sleeve over my face to soak up all the flob. I breathe deep, clearing my head, trying to focus. I check my face with my fingers. I’m clean. No one will know I’ve been crying, but they’ll know I’m fucking angry. I walk down the stairwell and head towards the access road. My big toe is killing. I spit as I go past Ghalia’s block. Fucking Pakis.
Dean walked through the estate to the third courtyard in from the Brickworks. He was early for his shift but didn’t want to go home. He felt like hanging around with the gang from Addington. He wanted to vent his frustrations. He wanted to swear and curse and have other men nod their heads in agreement. Georgina’s Mum wouldn’t let him get a word in edgeways and Georgina would put him right on the subject before he’d even have a chance to speak. The gang would listen to him and understand why he was so pissed off. He paced past the BMX kids and into the courtyard. The scene was different than usual. The cars were silent, no booming bass or thundering beats. There was a small crowd gathered around the entrance to Phil’s block’s stairwell. As Dean got closer he saw that the whole gang were circled around two men in suits. The shorter of the two stood on the bottom step where he just about reached the height of the second. He had a blotchy pink and white face and a thin razorblade mouth. He spoke in short snappy slogans, gesticulating abrasively as the buzzwords flew from his lips. The taller one, a square and compass, stood still, occasionally glancing at the speaker and nodding dumbly in solemn agreement. The gang were enraptured. Dean joined them, Phil briefly acknowledging his presence with a quick glance over his shoulder. Dean listened in. The government had abandoned the white workers of Britain. They were giving all the jobs and houses to foreigners. It was a flood. England was a soft touch and the asylum seekers and refugees all came here because of the easy access to benefits. You only had to look around you to see that whites were becoming the minority in this country. But if you tried to say that to your local MP you’d be shouted down and told you were racist scum. Enough was enough. It was time to put the kibosh on all this softly softly political correctness bullshit. Whites had rights. But you weren’t even allowed to say that. Not that anyone in power listened anyway. The gang lapped it up, hanging on every word, echoing some of the repeated tagline phrases. Dean didn’t get swept along so easily, but some of what the short man was saying did resonate with him. He didn’t agree with the part about sending them all back, but the bit about having a proper say in parliament was important. The politicians in the borough council should listen to the problems of people like Dean and Georgina. They shouldn’t be ignored. The speaker went on to explain that he represented a party that were going to stand in the next local elections and if they got in they were going to make sure that the working white voice would be heard. The two suits left the courtyard in search of other white blocks on the estate.
It was clear to Dean that Phil had been quite taken in. He began to relay the unofficial party policy to the rest of the gang, who carried out the smear campaigns with zeal. Dean generally took a wide berth, but got caught up in the rhetoric whenever he had to go to the third courtyard in from the Brickworks. As Phil repeated, blacks were still an issue, but the real threat was the Muslims. They were swarming here in unrestricted numbers and sponging off the state. They were getting council flats that were by rights the traditional local community’s and forcing white families to relocate, splitting up whole neighbourhoods who’d been living together for generations. The local government were a bunch of Paki lovers so weren’t going to do anything about it. So, Phil iterated, they had to target them directly, make them wish they’d stayed back in their own country. As a result, verbal abuse, harassment and targeted racist graffiti shot up all over Eldon and Addington. Phil got the BMX kids to raid the dog shit bin and throw the contents at any block that housed brown-skinned people. Dustbins were tipped over, car tyres were slashed, everything was done to make the lives of the estate Muslims hell. The majority of whites did nothing but mutter blunt condemnation under their breath. The blacks were just grateful it wasn’t them, and to be honest, the Pakistanis had it easy compared to their own parents who’d had to work a damn sight harder and face a lot more open, even official, discrimination. Perhaps if the Muslims got proper jobs and paid their way, they wouldn’t face so much hatred. Dean couldn’t bring himself to do anything either way. He agreed that there was a problem, but beating up Muslims wasn’t going to solve it. He woke almost every morning to see another attack of some sort against the residents of Ghalia’s block. The faded Fuck Off had been renovated with a vengeance and was now joined by a swathe of Swastikas, Cunts, Go Home Pakis, Turd Turbans and many more Fuck Offs. The pile of black bin liners were regularly slashed and thrown at open windows, along with bricks at closed ones. Shit through letterboxes was a frequent occurrence as were handwritten death threats. Dean stood mute through it all. He knew the gang were behind everything, but he still sold their hash by the number two bus stop outside the new Eldon Brickworks. He was helping finance their violent campaign of hate and still listening to Phil’s gradually more articulate rants on immigration. He drank his tea and watched the residents of Ghalia’s block cleaning up the night’s abuse. He could sense how they felt and he wanted to go over and join them. The police sometimes made an appearance. They’d jot a few lines down in their pad and then drive back to the station to add another incident to the rapidly growing hate crimes folder. There was the odd arrest, but none of the main gang members were ever picked up. The new political party secretly guided Phil and the rest of the gang from Addington. It was a covert operation run in plain sight. There could be no obvious links between the party and the gang. Phil had to keep his hands clean and he was becoming more astute at it. Dean witnessed it all. The perpetrators and the victims. He didn’t realise it at first but the situation was slowly cutting into him. It was a scalpel gently slicing through his flesh, so smooth and delicate that he was unaware of its effect. The more he saw what happened to the people who lived in Ghalia’s block, the more he detested what the gang were doing. Yet, what caused the most profound pain in Dean was that, deep down, he wanted the gang to succeed. Dean secretly hoped the families would eventually move out, leaving an empty flat for Georgina, Harry and himself.
The situation ripped at him and left him barbed and quick tempered. He snapped at Georgina continuously. He stormed out of arguments that he’d purposely caused. He punched and kicked his way through the tatty furniture in the flat, replacing it guiltily with MDF knock offs from the market. As his violence grew, Dean’s communication with Georgina waned. He didn’t notice that she no longer got pleasure from swearing and put-downs, or that she was constantly tired from Harry. She’d tried to tell Dean about how the researcher had visited again and that she’d asked as many questions as the researcher had, how they’d discussed so many different topics that her head was like popping candy by the end and how it was the first time since Harry was born that she’d felt happy. Dean, however, took it as a dig, told her to fuck off and stormed out, slamming the door so hard it broke the lock. It cost him twenty eight quid to fix and got him so angry, he almost broke it again by kicking the door. When Georgina finally got around to telling Dean she’d decided to do 3 distance learning A-Levels, he just ignored her and left.
He’d taken to walking the estate rather than punching things. He often went to the wasteland where he’d seen the fox and would smash discarded glass bottles. It didn’t make him feel any better, but it was something to do. He spent more time away from his family than with them. He sometimes imagined returning home to find Georgina and Harry gone. He knew if it happened it would be his fault, but he couldn’t stop acting in the same way. And besides, where was she going to go? He could always find Georgina at her Mum’s place. It was a pointless concern and he continued to walk and spit and destroy. His general demeanour with customers had also changed. He was determined to intimidate them. He wanted to be the stereotype, the front page image of the internal enemy, to drive fear through them every time they came close. He couldn’t do anything else. He knew he was desperate and it drove him to ever more frequent outbursts. He had no options left. If he wanted to get out of this hole he needed to move up the ladder in the gang. It was the only way he could escape the cycle he was caught in.
The thought dragged him down and it was weeks before he acted upon it. The turf war with the black Handonwell gang had been put on a backburner while the gang had concentrated on victimising Muslims. Even so, it bubbled beneath the surface and incursions onto Eldon were still happening. When one of the gang from Addington’s dealers got severely beaten up whilst selling near the Junction, Dean took the opportunity to prove himself to Phil. As soon as he found out, he headed straight to the third courtyard in from the Brickworks to ask for the patch. It was early evening when he arrived and the estate was shrouded in a violet dusk. It was calm and still and the winds were at rest. Dean entered the square via the passageway behind Phil’s block and found the gang huddled in silent debate. A couple of BMX kids watched from a few metres away. They chewed gum with drooping mouths. They’d come here to give information, but they’d stayed for the show. This was their education and they were keen to learn. Dean ignored them as he walked past. He was building himself up. Stoking the fire inside. Ready to show he was worthy. He wanted to join the gang proper, no matter what that meant.
I push my hands deep in my pockets until my fingers curl into fists. My shoulders are hunched over and I can’t relax my face. I’m tight. Rusted up. I feel short and stocky. My legs are heavy and I have to drag my feet off the floor. I’m going slow, but I’m almost at the gang. It’s quiet and they haven’t noticed me yet. They’re just whispering to each other. It must be serious. Phil’s face wrinkles up as he drags the end of a fag. He spits out some gob with the smoke. I’ve stopped walking. I’m a couple of metres away, but I can’t go closer. I want Phil to notice me so he’ll talk first. It will be easier that way. Simon looks over his shoulder and sees me.
He shoots it silencer style at me. It’s contained but brutal. It stuns me, shakes all my guts up. I can’t catch myself. I want to puke, but I just stare at them. Simon takes a step but Phil grabs his shoulder.
‘Give us a sec, Dean.’
Phil doesn’t look at me. He turns to the rest of the gang and says something I can’t hear properly. His voice is low and direct. I can’t trust him. I should get out of here, go back to helping old bids. I look over at the BMX kids. One does a wheelie, and then at the top, kicks the bike in the air and jumps right off the back. I wish I could do that. I never had a BMX. I think of Harry. Not him exactly. I mean it ain’t a baby. He’s a kid, maybe seven or eight, and he’s on a mountain bike, a proper MTB. He can cycle right over bricks and everything. I’m well proud. I want to cry and take a photo and hold Georgina’s hand and tell my Mum. I breathe in some of the dry air. It sticks in my throat like splintered wood. How can air be so painful? Phil breaks from the gang and nods for me to come over. I join the gang and they stand around. Dan, Brian, Matt and Simon, all staring at me talking to Phil. I can feel my insides jiggling around, crows swooping and pecking at my belly. I look them all in the eye and nod an alright to each. I focus. I look at Phil. He spits at the ground.
‘You alright Dean.’
It’s not a question.
I nod sideways at the BMX kids.
‘What’s going on?’
Phil twists his head at me like he’s tightening a bolt. He’s caught me, got me in his grasp and is crushing me. I panic. I don’t even know what I’ve done. Why am I shitting myself? Phil’s lips purse. I swallow a dry chunk that’s stuck in my throat. I have to say something or I’m going to faint.
‘It’s like a funeral.’
I force a gurgle laugh.
‘Where’s all the music?’
I bounce my head and shoulders. I hear the bass in my head. It’s out of time and warped. I look at the gang. Their faces are stone cold. Simon’s nostrils puff wide as he snorts. He puts a finger over the side of his nose and blows a spray out of the other. He wipes away the snot from his lip using the sleeve of his trackie top. He squints at me. Phil’s face is dead. His skin is always pale but now it looks like bacon rind. There are streaks of pink blood pulsing across his tight cheeks. His eyes go straight through me with X-ray vision. He knows all my bullshit, knows I’m faking. But faking what? I don’t even know. I can’t even think about it. I just want more money so me and Georgina can get a flat. He’s a machine, a robot. And he’s gotten worse since those fucking suits came. Now he wears a poker mask. He wants to carve you or mould you or use you as his bitch. I can’t trust him. He ain’t a good man. He’s fucking nasty. Proper nasty. I don’t want to be here anymore. Nothing’s worth putting up with this lot of cunts. The gang sneer. Phil’s eyes stab me, and then, he smiles. No time has past. Just a split second. Phil slaps me on the shoulder and nods for me to join the circle. I take a step into the gang and they close around me, but I just look at Phil. He’s looser now and his smile is tattooed on. He’s not happy, but I feel better. It’s just a job. Selling crack to whores and junkies. Who cares? They’re going to sell it anyway. And what else can I do? Work in KFC? Fuck that. Just got to prove to them I can hack it and they’ll leave me to it. I can just keep selling the hard stuff and making a lot more cash for myself. I can sort everything out then. Nobody else is going to do it, are they? I push back my shoulders and get up to my full height. I’m taller than Phil, but I don’t feel it.
‘You still looking for a new patch?’
‘Yeah. That’s why I came over, in’it.’
Phil takes a sideways glance at the gang.
‘You heard then?’
I shrug my shoulders.
Phil examines my face, but I don’t know what he’s going on about.
‘There’s been hassle down on the prick.’
I hold back a shudder.
‘You mean the kid who got…’
I can’t say the word. My voice won’t let me. I can’t get my tongue to work. Phil watches me closely, but I can see his brain is judging me.
‘Yeah, kind of.’
Phil grinds his teeth.
‘The niggers are back.’
He points at the BMX kids.
‘They’ve just told us they saw one of them dirty black cunts selling there.’
I don’t say nothing. I just listen. Phil pushes his bottom lip out with his tongue.
‘It’s your patch if you want it.’
He watches me closely for my reaction. I bite the inside of my cheek. I say no, the gang will think I’m a pussy, but it’s fucking dangerous. That Handonwell lot will stab me up. They’ll think I’m one of the gang, but I ain’t. I just want the money. I don’t even give a shit about the niggers. They can do what they like for all I care. I don’t hate them like Phil does, but they’ll think I do. And they’ll smash my brains in like they did that poor Etherington kid. But I could get done in by them at any time. When the war comes they ain’t going to ask what I think. No one’s ever cared what I think. I’m selling for the gang and I’m a white boy. That’s all that’s going to matter.
I speak seriously, showing that I mean it. Phil pushes his lips out duck style and nods slowly.
He slaps me on the shoulder. It’s too hard. It almost knocks me over.
‘Give the fucker a good warning.’
He jolts his head at me.
‘You know what I mean.’
I look around the gang. It’s clear what I have to do. I know it and I’m not scared. I’m committed now. I’ve chosen a side and I’ve got to follow through. I ain’t got any option. Never been brave enough to make a choice. I’ve just let everything go and been pulled along. Same now.
I can’t say anything else. What can I say? Nothing’s going to change round here. Not for me. Not for my little boy. This is the fucking life I’ve got. My mouth is clenched. It’s so dry. I need water or tea or squash. I ain’t drank that shit since I puked all over Mum, but I’d neck a bottle in one right now. I shuffle on my feet. They’re moving side to side. I try and stop them, but I can’t. It makes my stomach go inside out. It’s making me buzz. My heart’s pumping madly. I look at my hands. They’re steady. Calm. Ready. Phil places a knife in my palm. The blade is about half a foot. It’s sharp and smooth. The other edge is serrated, like you could use it for sawing off people’s legs. It flashes in the sun. It’s heavy. Much more so than kitchen knives. It’s proper steel. Proper metal. A weapon. The light bounces off it, orange and black and white. I see it hanging in the air, changing positions in my outstretched hand. I watch it hack and jab and slice the thin air. It’s in my back pocket. I’m pacing through the alley that leaves the third courtyard in from the Brickworks. I reach the access road and walk. The BMX kids watch me go past. They don’t say anything. I don’t look at them. I only move forward. The knife weighs down my trackie bottoms. I have to keep pulling them up. The cord’s disappeared into one of the waistband holes so I can’t even tie them. I worry about showing off my arse. I lose focus and start to see the buildings again. I’m almost at the prick. I’d tried not to think. Shut all that shit out. It was better like that, but I understand what I have to do. A warning. More than just a threat. Not too deep, but they got to feel like it could’ve been. I can feel my heels treading on the bottom of my trackies. I pull them up and take out the knife. It rolls over in my hand. Fuck it’s heavy. I look around in panic and quickly stash it in my trackie top. The pockets aren’t deep enough so I have to keep my hand on it to hide it properly. I get to the last block and go around the back. I know where they’ll be. Just at the end of the alley behind the communal bin wall. They can look out from all sides to check for the old bill or rivals. Everyone knows that’s where to buy and sell. The cops must know it too. Fucking shows how good they are, stupid cunts. Fucking police. They know what’s going on, they just don’t give a shit. They’re happy to let us tear each other to shreds. Don’t want to get involved. What for? I understand. We ain’t worth it. A bunch of niggers and some stupid scum white boys, or the Pakis for that matter. No one cared when they were getting fucked over. Cops have got better things to worry about. Like some posh cunt’s car gets nicked or a rich little girl goes missing. Why are they worth more than us? Stuff like that is all you ever fucking see on telly. A load of shit that keeps it just nasty enough for all the nice folks to stay inside. I don’t get no choice. I haven’t even got a flat to stay inside of. And we ain’t never going to get one, are we? There aren’t even enough and who chooses anyway? It ain’t the Pakis fault, is it? I bet they don’t want to live here either. I feel sorry for them. It’s the cunts who put them there that I hate. They’re the fuckers who make us do these things. They should try living here for a while before telling us how shit we are. I’m raging. I can feel it pulsing through me. I want to destroy stuff. I want to kick in windows and axe furniture and throw all the stuff off the sideboard onto the floor, just like in a movie. My blood is boiling. There’s a fire burning in my guts. It’s ice cold. It’s jolting through my muscles, making me twitch for violence. I walk through the alley and look out over the prick. I see someone just standing there. I can see their back and their tight black curly hair. It’s the dealer from the Handonwell gang. I don’t even think. I storm towards them, not running, but determined, like a soldier. I’m gripping the handle of the knife. Every step closer my burning gets worse. I’m trembling. I’m furious, ready to strike, ready to destroy all the shit which fucks me over. I’m two metres away and pull the knife out of my pocket. I don’t see the blade. It’s part of me. I can feel the air sliced by the tip. I’ve transformed into a warrior like the cartoons I used to watch. I’m one step away. I’ve centred the target. On the right side, just above the arse cheek. I pull my arm back. It’s fluid. I lunge at the dealer just as they turn to face me. Everything falls apart. I drop the knife and it clinks on the tarmac. The metallic tings rattle around the prick and all is still until they fade. Our eyes are locked on each other. It’s Madu. He hasn’t changed. It’s exactly Madu. His glare crawls over my face. His lips curl. He smiles. It’s like being hugged or doing a shot. It’s warm. It makes me feel comfortable, easy. But it’s hard too. My mind’s everywhere. I’m pissing into a coke can with him. I see the blood on his white teeth. We’re playing one touch. Madu does a Vs to some Paki kids. He’s in the playground staring at me as I’m dragged away. He’s small. He’s bigger than me. His grin goes right around his face and I laugh and laugh and laugh and can’t stop for hours. His smile drops and he looks down at the blade. He pushes me hard on the shoulder and I stagger backwards.
‘What the fuck, Dean?’
Madu stares at me and then back at the knife. He reads my face. He’s closer to it than I am. His voice is different. He sounds like a pussy gangster rapper, but it’s Madu. I can tell it’s him. Maybe my voice has changed too. I’ve changed. Madu kicks the knife away.
He spits it out.
‘You gonna stab me up?’
The knife is on the other side of the car park. He could’ve picked it up. I don’t know what to do. I shrug my shoulders.
‘Dunno.’ I shake my head. ‘Yeah.’
Madu’s arched shoulders drop. He swings on his hips. He’s tall and thin. His clothes are loose and they make him look bigger, but he ain’t. He’s skinnier than me. He looks fucked up.
‘You alright man?’
I ask him because I’m worried. He looks sick. No, he’s off his head on something. His bright eyes are blotchy red and his cheekbones stick out, pulling his skin tight to his teeth. He doesn’t say anything.
‘What the fuck you doing selling around here?’
I take a step forward and Madu backs off. He waves his hand across his body.
‘What do you think?’
He rolls his eyes like I’m stupid, but I know what he means. We’re just stuck here and neither gang give a shit. Madu can’t stand up straight without wobbling. I feel a pinch in my ribs. It’s so hard and painful. I can’t get enough air. It’s heartburn and the shits all rolled into one. I panic.
‘Madu, you’ve got to go. They’re going to fuck you up man.’
I move towards him as I speak. His head comes up to meet mine. He pulls his lips back and bares his teeth.
‘What the fuck do you care?’
The words are blunt and dull and rips through my skin.
‘Everyone knows you sell for those cunts.’
He brings his face close to mine.
‘You know what they think about people like me. And Pakis and chinks.’
I can’t answer. I can’t say anything. I feel weak. Madu hardens his pose and his eyes stare into mine.
‘I’m just another nigger to you.’
‘You’re my friend.’
It comes out on its own. It drags all the pain from me. I don’t want to smash stuff anymore. I just want to go home.
Madu’s sways backwards and around in a hoop.
‘What’s wrong with you man?’
He tries to stand upright, but his shoulders are all wonky. He whispers.
‘You’re not my friend.’
I choke. I feel guilty. I want to help him, but I can’t. I know I can’t. I gather the spit in my mouth. There’s only a drop and it’s impossible to swallow. It sits at the back of my throat, tickling. I want to tell Madu I’m sorry. I want to explain. I need to say it. Madu looks past me. A couple of BMX kids are staring at us from the other side of the prick. One of them takes out their phone. I hit Madu on the shoulder.
‘Go. Fucking get out of here.’
Madu doesn’t move, just stares back at me blankly.
I hit him again harder. I punch him on the arm, but nothing. I’m shaking all over. I’m pumping and angry and afraid. I push Madu again.
‘Get out of here, Madu. Go.’
He snaps and pushes his chest out at me.
‘Where the fuck am I going to go?’
He takes a step forward until I can feel his breath on my face. His eyes are deep and full of pain. I feel regret. What has happened to him? He speaks slower. It’s deliberate.
‘Where the fuck am I going to go?’
I stare at him. I stare right into his blood red eyes. They twitch. He snorts viciously, turns and stumbles off towards the Handonwell Junction. Madu’s right. Where can we go? I can’t do nothing. I can’t change nothing. Neither of us can. We’re fucked. We were born fucked. My boy’s going to be fucked. Hands grab my shoulders and jerk me backwards. I hit the floor hard and bang my head. Pain staggers through me. It’s dark. It’s blurred. I can see light and buildings. Madu’s gone but the noise of traffic and shouting comes through. I try and roll over but there’s a weight on my chest, pinning me down. It’s crushing. A face looks down on me. I blink to clear the mist from my eyes. It’s Simon. He punches me in the face. It knocks my head to the side and I scrape my cheek on the tarmac. Dull throbs pulse through me. I don’t feel pain exactly, but I’m broken. Damaged. Fingers grip my hair and drag my face back round. I force my eyes to open. Simon draws his fist back. He’s happy in his hatred. He wants to smash everything. I understand him. He’s about to strike, but looks to one side. He lowers his fist and moves off me. I cough up blood as the breath escapes my lungs. I wipe my face with my hand. It’s snot and blood. Green, yellow and red liquid soaking into dirt. Phil’s face appears above me. It’s at an angle.
‘We’re done, Dean. Understand? We’re equal now.’
‘If you ain’t on our side, then next time, you’re just another nigger.’
He sniffs hard and pulls phlegm from the back of his throat. He flobs on me. He leaves. I wipe Phil’s spit from my face. It mixes with my own. I can hear shouting. I prop myself up on my elbows. It takes a moment to get my bearings. I follow the sounds and turn my head to see the gang from Addington waving their arms at the Junction. I blink a few times and rub my eyes. I focus. I can’t see Madu. He’s gone. A fist slams into my head, knocking me back to the floor. Phil leans over me, knife in hand. He gobs on me again and then puts the blade in his pocket. The gang swagger off slowly. They clap each other on the back and spit and swear and laugh. They rule the estates. I hate them. I feel liquid dripping from my face. There are droplets of blood appearing on the tarmac. They look brown against the grey floor. I take in a deep breath and stand properly upright. Legs are okay. Just my head is all wishy washy. Sounds come and go in fuzzy waves. I can’t keep my eyes on one thing. They wander off on their own and swoop and climb and circle. I pinch my thigh. I press it as hard as I can. It brings me around. I stagger and sway through the estate. My blood drips in a trail that trickles out behind me. I reach my courtyard and drag myself up the stairwell, step by step, each one a battle. I think only of my flat. I reach the sixth floor and slam my fist weakly into the blue surface. The door opens and I push past Georgina. I don’t even see her face. I just drop onto the sofa. I can hear strong deep rasping breaths. It’s mine. My ribs are cracking under the pressure. I’m wheezing in desperate gasps of barbed wire air. I’m choking on salt water running down my throat. I cough it up and spit blood and mucus all over myself and the sofa and the floor. My chest is tearing apart. Pain everywhere. I don’t care. All I see is Madu fucked up and stumbling away. I hope he’s safe. But, I can’t do nothing. I look at Georgina. She’s white. Her eyes are puffed and she’s streaming tears down her cheeks. Her hands are by her side. She doesn’t move. I understand. I’ve fucked everything up.
The police wanted answers, but Dean said nothing. He had been attacked from behind. He didn’t know by whom. The gang were arrested and released. The police moved on. The journalists fired off another story about the troubled estates and the morally corrupt scum who lived there. The slant was on drugs and gangs. They were all deprived together. The jury was in, there was no hope left on Eldon. The tabloids got bored and packed up, leaving Dean with all his fight gone.
After his kicking he spent three months living with Georgina’s Mum. It was easier for him than the rest of the family moving. He spent his days with Georgina’s Nan. He fed her and cleaned her. It was calming and reassuring. Many times when Georgina’s Mum was at work, he’d pull up a dining room chair and hug the old lady. He could stay like that for hours. Sometimes thinking of Madu. Sometimes thinking of Ghalia. Sometimes thinking of nothing at all. His body recovered quickly, but it took him a few weeks before he could face Georgina.
They first time they met was in the courtyard of Dean’s block. He sat next to her on the wall and rested his head on her shoulder. The second time Georgina held him back. When he moved back into his Mum’s flat, the relationship had changed. The sparked conflict had been replaced with flat continuity. They began to bond as a family. The childhood affair was over and their emotions fused as the adults they’d had to become. However, they were in a financial crisis. Without the regular income from Dean’s job, they had to dip into the savings he’d not so secretly put aside. Dean came clean about his involvement with the gang and where he’d got all the money. Georgina had known all along, but had turned a blind eye for the sake of Harry. Even so, he was still a cunt for getting himself in too deep and almost getting killed. Although, she admitted, they had needed the money. They still needed it. They spent their days worrying and any arguments they had were centred around it. What were they going to do when the savings ran out? They both looked for work but it was impossible to find anything. They took it in turns to do the shopping runs for the old folks and even managed to get a few others on the books, but it was never enough, not even close. They had nothing but each other and the few quid both their Mums could spare now and again. They waited for word from the council about a flat, but nothing came. They were stuck on Eldon. Cast out from the greater city networks and left to fight, hand to mouth, for survival. They were the lowest of the low. The dregs. They were scum.
Pictures of Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform published in national newspapers. Four British men released from Guantanamo Bay detention centre after three years without charge, an estimated five hundred and twenty inmates still remain. The Prevention of Terrorism Act receives Royal Assent. Three British Soldiers found guilty of abusing Iraqi prisoners. TV show EastEnders celebrates its 20th Anniversary. A series of co-ordinated terrorist bombs explode across the London transport system. The Metropolitan Police mistakenly kill a Brazilian student believing him to be a suicide bomber. James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful’ tops the singles chart and is followed by Crazy Frog’s version of ‘Axel F’.
On the morning of the London bombings Dean was in South London General waiting for Georgina to give birth to their second child. This time he’d been at Georgina’s side all through the labour. She’d been admitted the previous afternoon and the whole family had come too. Dean’s Mum had gone home with Harry just after midnight and promised to come again it if wasn’t all over by lunchtime. The four of them all still lived together in the same flat. It was cluttered and cramped, but they’d found a routine that just about allowed them to cohabit without killing each other. Dean’s Mum was out most of the time and Georgina had found some odd babysitting jobs whilst Dean still did shopping for the older residents. All the savings from his time with the gang were gone and they just about made ends meet with the extra cash the two Mums gave them. Georgina’s Nan had died a year back to the painful relief of the family, which meant a little extra money flowed in the young family’s direction. They still hadn’t gone to Spain or bought a BMX for Harry. They lived out of charity shops, discount supermarkets and hand-me-acrosses from the extended connections of Georgina’s Mum’s gossip vine. The couple had settled into an everyday tolerance of each other. They got by and kept it together. The new child was an accident from their infrequent couplings. Neither seriously considered abortion and neither ignored the possible incentive for the council to give them a flat. As Georgina’s belly grew, so did their hopes for social housing. As long as it wasn’t stillborn, Dean’s Mum was ready with the forms and prepped to post. This time they were bound to get something. The unborn foetus became the family’s unspoken hope.
Dean kicked about in the corridor watching the nurses pass by. He checked out a few, but couldn’t get any fantasies going. He drifted off into sleep a few times only to be woken by the automatic lights flicking back on when someone moved across the tiles. It was really boring being a dad, at least mums had something to do during labour. He wondered if it hurt as much as they said. Maybe women all just ganged up and agreed to pretend it was painful. It couldn’t be worse than getting hit in the nuts though. Just thinking about it sent a pulsing cord through his abdomen. The worst time was when Madu had got into a strop during one touch and thrown a tennis ball at him. It was just unlucky, but Dean still remembered how the pain traced up through his balls and swelled in his abdomen just above the base of his cock. He’d collapsed, holding his testicles for dear life while Madu mimicked him, laughing so hard he couldn’t stand up. The pair had rolled around on the floor until Dean farted and the pain subsided. By then they were both in fits and re-enacted the whole thing for the rest of the morning. Dean smiled at the memory and swallowed back the emotions threatening to rush through him. He had no idea what had happened to Madu. About a year after the beating by the gang from Addington, Dean had seen Madu selling around the Handonwell Junction. They’d nodded at each other, but nothing else. Days later, Dean had found him slumped unconscious between the swelling communal bins in the courtyard. He’d looked a proper state, like the drought victims Dean remembered seeing on children’s news programme. Dean had called 999 and then slunk back to his flat and waited on the walkway until the ambulance came. He’d wished he could’ve done more. He should’ve done more, but he’d not known what to do. He’d not seen or heard anything about Madu since. Dean hoped he hadn’t snuffed it. He thought about ice-sliding.
Dean pulled his head up and looked around the maternity ward. So many posters bearing wise advice and pictures of healthy families. He’d never really thought about children, just had them. Harry had turned up and joined their lives, and Dean loved him, but he still didn’t really see the point. It was just a given that people were going to have kids. That was how it was. Fucking and breeding and fucking and breeding. There had to be a reason for it somewhere. He got the fucking part. He even saw the benefits of being a father. But, in general, why bother with it? Perhaps there just wasn’t anything else. He stumbled in and out of thought as his eyelids weighed heavy on his tired body. Georgina was making a right song and dance over it. He’d been here for hours and could really do with some proper sleep. He dozed off and was woken by a sharp tap on his shoulder. A nurse with a school ma’am face stood over him. If he wanted to be there for Georgina, now was the time. Without speaking, he followed the nurse obediently through the ward and into the delivery room.
It’s so bright in here. Won’t it scare the baby? It’s noisy. Everyone’s talking and there’s a weird rumbling coming from somewhere. I look through the army of green bodies and see Georgina on the bed. She’s breathing like on the telly when they have a baby. She’s sweating and gulping in huge mouthfuls of breath. It sounds like a broken vacuum cleaner. They pull Georgina up onto some cushions and I force myself to look down between her legs. My chest contracts and I stop breathing. Her cunt is wide open and covered in thick red blood. Somebody pushes past me, but I want to see. I crane my neck to get a better view. Georgina’s pussy looks so big and round. I didn’t imagine it could go like this. I’ve put four fingers up her, but I’ve never managed a full fist. Now it looks like she’d be able to take my whole arm and some of my leg. I can see something inside. It looks like a mangled lump of meat. A nurse runs a cloth around it. I feel myself get hard, but I’m not even turned on. It’s disgusting. Like a proper horror film. All the nurses are talking at the same time and Georgina’s just in the middle huffing and puffing and making faces like she’s doing a shit. But actually, it’s more like me doing a shit. Georgina’s dumps smell the worst, but they just pop out and she doesn’t even look like she’s straining. A nurse knocks me again as they rush past with some tool or whatnot. I don’t move. I just stand, almost like I’m not here. Nobody is looking at me. I don’t know what to do. The nurses all start to babble at once. Georgina cries out like she’s been stabbed up and a lump of flesh pops out of her crack. It’s the fucking head. A baby’s head. How did that get out of that? It’s huge. It’s meat, cut straight from the pig and covered in gloop. It’s ugly and mank and fucking evil. Georgina howls and cries out. Who the fuck came up with this? Does every baby born fuck up their mothers so badly? The nurses twist and tug and wrench the rest of it from Georgina. I can see it’s human now. With arms and legs and all the other shit. The cord hangs between the baby and Georgina’s cunt. They’re connected, like an electric cable. It just takes all the stuff down the tube and then never stops eating, even when it comes out. That little sperm nicking all the good stuff from Georgina and then growing and growing inside. It’s like cancer. The nurse cuts the cord and cuddles the baby up in a towel. Georgina’s pussy looks like a proper axe wound, blood and gunk everywhere. She’s collapsed back on her pillow. She’s pale and blotchy. She could be dead. I don’t know anything. It’s war. Maternal bond bullshit. It’s war. Just blood and meat and fighting to survive. Is that what it’s all about? A nurse cleans up Georgina and covers her up. Another brings the baby over to her. A nurse waves for me to go closer. I shuffle along the edge of the bed. Georgina’s got a proper face on, like she’s just finished the London marathon. She looks at me and smiles. Fuck, how can she smile after that? Probably all the drugs they’ve got her on. I could do with some of them too. I put my hand onto Georgina’s shoulder and look down at our child. I’m proud of her, going through all that shit for this. And I bet the little fucker will give her nothing but grief. I need to tell my Mum I love her. I’ve never told her. I’m going to love this thing. Hang on, I don’t even know if it’s a boy or girl.
‘What is it?’
I look up. There are only two nurses. I could have sworn there were more. I wasn’t really thinking. The black nurse is cleaning up and nods at the baby.
‘Have a look.’
She’s got a strong accent. It’s lovely. I follow her gaze back all the way to my baby. I lean down and kiss Georgina on the cheek. The baby’s face is all squished like roadkill. It looks like Harry. Its brother. I’ve got two kids. Fuck, that’s more than my Mum. I’m a proper dad now. I take hold of the side of the towel on the kid and pull it back. Its body is all purple and beetroot. There’s a lump sticking out of its belly with a peg on it. I look at the bulging stomach. It makes the insides of my thighs go weak and tingly. I picture the peg popping out and a gush of blood and baby insides spraying all over the room and into my mouth. It makes me retch. I’m going to puke. It comes up my throat but I hold it. I look around but the nurses are busy. They don’t see me and I can’t speak or I’ll throw up all over Georgina. I turn and rush out the double doors. I find a bin and puke up in there. The air stinks of bin liners and bile. The smell makes it worse and I bring up another mouthful. The black nurse comes out of the delivery room and hands me a towel.
‘Don’t worry, I seen older men than you do much worse.’
She pats my back as I rub the towel over my face. It’s rough. It feels like I’m scraping the top layer of skin off. I clean up, use my tongue to tease out the last lumps of sick and feel a lot better.
‘Is it all gone?’
She asks as I spit the last lumps into the bin. I look at the nurse properly for the first time. She’s got a really dark round face, with black dots all over it. Her nose is flat with huge nostrils that disappear like caves into her skull. She’s old and beautiful and I want her to be my grandmother. She puts a hand on my shoulder and I feel warm through all my body.
‘Go home and sleep. Georgina and your son need to rest.’
She pats me.
‘Come back in a few hours and bring the whole family.’
The sentences wash over me and I don’t get what she’s saying. I look past her at the double doors. They’ve got silver and black scrapes across the middle. The nurse’s words finally hit me.
‘It’s a boy?’
She nods her head. I want to see him again and hold him in my arms. I feel such a pussy puking up. I try to walk past the nurse but she puts out an arm to stop me.
‘You been through a lot too. Go home.’
Her voice is deep and liquid and I feel hypnotised. I turn and walk through the corridors and out of the hospital. I step out into the car park and the daylight brings me up. It’s morning. It must be early. I check my phone. Nearly quarter to nine. I can go home and kip for a few hours and be back after lunch. I can’t wait to tell Harry that he’s got a little brother. And Mum, I need to tell her I love her. I have to remember that because it’s true. She’s always looked after me as best she could. Just because I didn’t have a BMX or my own telly doesn’t mean she didn’t love me. I know she did. I can feel it. Like Georgina, but different. More like how I love Harry. I don’t think about it, it’s just there swishing around me. I look at him and I love him and want to take care of him and make him happy. Even when he’s a little shit and he knows he’s being a little shit. He’s old enough now to know what he’s doing, little bastard. He’s a naughty son of a bitch. Always knocking stuff over and throwing his food on the floor. I never thought, that means Georgina’s a bitch. I’m not even saying bad stuff to Harry, just slagging off his Mum. Yeah, mums get a lot of shit. Poor bitches. I reach the entrance to the car park and cross the road to the bus stop. I can get the forty eight direct or the one three four and walk from Addington High Street. The countdown board says no information available, as bloody usual. I don’t know why they bothered putting them up, they never fucking work. And what’s it matter anyway? You’ve still got to get the bus if it’s one minute or twenty one minutes. I can hear sirens. They’re coming down the road. All the cars have stopped and are letting the cops through. Fucking hell, there’s loads of them. Like at least fifty. Or maybe around ten. But I’ve never seen so many. There’re proper going for it. Whizzing through the traffic like on telly. But not American programmes, they always look well cool. British cops are lame and most don’t even have guns. But in real, I’m glad they don’t have guns. They’re still going past. What the fuck’s happened? Maybe someone’s tried to blow up the Queen. I imagine Fuckingham Paleass exploding into a million bits and pieces and the Queen going ‘One does not approve’. I laugh at my posh accent. But, they fucking should do that. The royal family just stole all the money anyway. They should turn all the castles and stuff into Disneylands and make a load of money for the country. We were told in school that all the royal stuff is owned by us. So if it’s worth billions of pounds they should sell it to Americans and share the profits out. I reckon me and Georgina would get a few thousand quid each. We ain’t ever going to meet the old cow. She can fuck off and all the rest of the tossers who lick her arse. She’s just a person. Who gives a fuck? It would be cool to be king. Georgina would be queen and Harry and…He doesn’t have a name yet. What are we going to call it? I reckon it should be James after James Bond, but Georgina’s Mum wants a pussy boyband name like Duke or Jaden or Tyler. They’re not even real names. I like Russell too. A couple of ambulances zoom out of the access road next to the car park. As they swing onto the road they put their sirens on. They go in the same direction as the police. Some of the cars on the street are doing u-turns and driving away from central London. The bus stop countdown still says no information available. Lots of cars are turning around now. There’s a lot of beeping and no order. They’re all trying to do it at the same time. And really fast. My heart’s pumping hard. I walk over to a smart looking car and knock on the window.
‘What’s going on?’
I shout through the glass. The man inside is dressed in a suit. He glances at me quickly. He looks shit scared. He doesn’t answer, he just grabs his wheel and starts to turn. He doesn’t care that I’m here and I have to jump back to stop myself getting run over. I tell him to fuck off and give him a wanker sign. I don’t think any buses are coming. Everything’s gone haywire. I see people coming up the street towards me. A whole group of them. But they ain’t together. They’re all on their own. Just bunched up. I ask the first few that pass.
‘What’s going on?’
They don’t say anything, just brush past. I panic and ask more, but they do the same. I grab a young woman in a power suit.
‘What the fuck’s going on?’
She looks scared. She tries to pull her arm away from my grip, but I won’t let her go.
She pants. Her chest is bursting. I let go of her hand. I don’t know what to do. I need to know.
‘Please. What’s happening?’
I don’t get it. She shakes her head.
She looks me straight in the eye.
‘They think it’s a terrorist attack.’
She rushes off without looking up. I watch her disappear amongst the other people. My head is fuzzy. I can hear sirens everywhere. I look at the hospital. It’s okay. Georgina’s safe. What about Mum and Harry? I take out my phone and call Mum. It doesn’t connect. I look around in a panic. Everyone’s on their phones. The network must be overloaded. I write a text and it sends. I start walking in the opposite direction of everyone else. I kick my feet up, halfway between walking and running. As I get close to the centre there are more and more people. The roads are almost empty of cars. People are flooding up the road towards me. So many of them. They fill the street in every direction. A wall of bodies trying to get out. It’s like those refugees I saw on the news once. They were carrying all they owned in wheelbarrows and on their shoulders. They walked for hundreds of miles to escape. Loads of kids too. I felt sorry for them. I didn’t understand why they had to leave their homes. All these people here are in suits and ties with briefcases and rucksacks. No one speaks. They walk in silence. I push through the crowd. No one looks at me. No one thinks I did it. My pocket vibrates. Mum and Harry are safe. I let out a lungful of nervous air I didn’t know I was holding. I stop walking and the crowd drags me with them. I get myself to the side of the street and climb up some entrance steps to get out of the flow. In every direction the roads are packed. Curb to curb, people shuffle out of the city. There ain’t no fancy cars or trains or jumbo jets or helicopters or nothing. Everyone walks the same way together, away from the violence. It’s funny when you think about it. That’s how we all live back on Eldon. Everyday. But we can’t just get in our suits and shift out to our four bed detached house with a ten foot fucking fence around it. We have to live with it every bastard day. This ain’t nothing special. It’s the same shit, just bigger. I don’t know who did it. Probably IRA or the same people who blew up the twin towers in New York. But they’re just getting revenge. No different from the estates. Kill a black kid, kill a white kid, kill a black kid, kill a white kid, kill a Paki, a Paki kills black and white and everyone kills each other. That’s fucking life. None of these cunts know that though. They’re all the fucking same. We’re all the fucking same, me and all. People aren’t different, they’re just greedy and stupid. It makes me mad. I’m feeling so fucking angry. The whole thing. I hate all these people and I hate the terrorists who blew up whatever they blew up. I hate them because they think they have a right to do it. I just had a kid today. No one has the right to kill it. Not even me or Georgina. I look at them herding past. All black and white. Like fucking robots.
I shout it as loud as I can. Spit flies out of my mouth and covers my face. I don’t care.
I shout it again and again. I don’t even know why. I’m just torn up and twisted inside and my whole body has gone into a frenzy like I’m having an epi. But I can’t stop, I just need to shout and scream and cry out.
‘Cunts. Cunts. Cunts.’
I’m out of breath. My throat is raw. I stop. I bend over and take in air. I feel lighter. It’s gone. I think of my new baby, James or Russell or Jaden, who cares what it’s called. I see his flat, scrunched up face and his flapping stump arms and I want to cry. I love him from everywhere in my body. I think of Harry, the little fucker, and it’s the same. I don’t know why. There’s no reason. I can’t answer. It’s just there. I need to get home to my son. I look up. No one even noticed me. No one gives a shit. I barge through the crowd, knocking everyone out of the way if they get in my path. They can’t do nothing. I get to the A48 and drop off at the Handonwell Junction. I hop the wall and speed through the estate. It’s quiet. A ghost town. I see a few people looking out from their walkways. They see me and then look into the distance towards central London. I don’t even care about them, I just want to get home. As soon as I open the door Mum gives me a huge hug. She’s crying. Harry’s on the floor playing with a toy car. He doesn’t even look at me. We sit down on the sofa. Mum’s got the telly on. It’s saying the same thing over and over again. Terrorist attack on London. Tube trains and buses were blown up. There’s pictures of all the people hurt, with blood streaming down their faces. Their eyes are all open and wide and they look fucked up. The reporters put microphones in their faces. There are loads of ambulances and police vans and people wandering like they’re lost. It’s mental. Properly mental. I try and feel sorry for them, but I can’t. They’re too distant. There’s nothing inside for them. Mum is crying. She’s all bent over watching the news. I feel sorry for her. I put my arm around her shoulders and she cuddles into me. I feel her body shaking with sobs. Harry makes a crashing noise when he smashes two cars together. I kiss my Mum’s head. Her hair is wiry on my lips and smells of smoke. I hold her tighter.
‘You’ve got another grandson.’
Dean forgot to tell his Mum that he loved her. Instead, he went to bed and slept for a few hours before walking back to the hospital. The new parents didn’t call their new boy Jaden or Russell or Tyler. They argued for a while and then Georgina suggested Matthew. Dean was ready to say no, but it caught him. It sounded right, good somehow, and he couldn’t see the kid with another name. Although she’d only mentioned it on a whim, Georgina completely agreed. Matthew slept through the entire discussion. He woke up marked and labelled. He cried, shat himself and puked on Dean. It was a wonderful afternoon. Five people over three generations levered themselves into the Dean’s Mum’s flat. It was a tight squeeze and the addition of Matthew added to the economic problems. All they could do was walk eggshell steps around each other and wait for the council’s response.
Dean tried again to find work. He managed to pick up a contract with a sports chain down on Addington High Street. The only problem was that it didn’t guarantee any hours, so he never knew when he would be asked to work. The first time they called him to cover a shift, he was already mid supermarket trip and had to say no. They didn’t call again. Apart from the regular shopping runs, he really had no other form of income. Deep down, he didn’t really want to work as some loser sports shop assistant, it was hardly his great ambition in life. But he didn’t actually know what was, or even if there was a point to having one. He remembered when he was a kid and he used to set himself challenges, like drinking a glass of squash in one, or climbing on top of the garages or, even better, jumping off them. He’d felt great when he’d finally done it, but it was only temporary. It didn’t change his life, it didn’t make him a different person. He kept on going in the same way he had before. Maybe all ambitions were the same, just a bit bigger. How could that be it? Otherwise you’d have to kill yourself as soon as you’d reached your goal. And what was the point in that? Dean knew he wanted more money and a place for his family to live, but that was it. His satisfaction didn’t come from collecting the cash at the end of a shopping run, it was the time he spent chatting to the old dears. They were all so lonely. He had become the highlight of their week. Even more than their favourite television programme. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it made him proud and happy and content. To know that he actually made people’s lives better somehow. Of course, the old biddies blabbered on about nothing most of the time and they usually repeated the same stuff again and again and again, but it didn’t matter to Dean. Through the shopping runs he’d learnt to recognise the happiness in his own life. Teaching Harry one touch. Cuddling up to Georgina when the boys were asleep. Being the first one to see Matthew smile. Getting drunk with his Mum on fizzy wine. Just sitting in the living room watching telly with his family. He was content. Almost.
Thoughts niggled at him daily. There was something missing that he couldn’t put his finger on. It lingered in the background, hollowing out more and more space in his mind. He found himself dwelling on a thought that he could not articulate. It was just present, somewhere inside. It was over a cup of stewed tea in the ground floor flat of one of his old dears that he started getting close. He sat on the dusty armchair at an angle to the television whilst she doddled backwards and forwards between the coffee table and the kitchen. First she brought out a plate of biscuits, bourbons especially for Dean. Then a sugar bowl. Then a milk jug. Then the two cups and saucers. And finally the pot of tea. He didn’t have the heart to suggest she used a tray, or even offer to help. He knew she wanted to feel useful and still able to host guests. Dean never said much with this one. He just sat, drank his tea and listened to her prattle on about whatever it was she’d seen on television that morning. She started gassing and Dean turned off. He took up the tiny teacup and dunked a biscuit. He held it too long and it dropped off into the cup. He swore out loud and looked up guiltily. She didn’t even bat an eyelid, just carried on. Normally Dean would have returned to feigned interest, but the old lady said a word that caught his attention. She was talking about a news report she’d seen on the Muslims. They were having an awful time of it since those terrorist attacks. People calling them names and the police always arresting them for nothing and stuck up politicians saying they didn’t belong in the country. She could still remember a time when we were so proud of ourselves because we were in their country. Why did the British Empire take over all those places and give them democracy and freedom if the people there weren’t allowed to come to England? She had a lovely home help woman who came in once a week to change the sheets and give the house a clean. She was a darkie. Not like the black ones who could speak English properly, but the lighter coloured ones with the strong accents that sounded like poems. She was very nice and friendly and always stayed longer than she needed too. She had told the old dear that she couldn’t walk anywhere without someone shouting abuse. The old woman’s craggy face stiffened. It made her furious. What ever happened to common decency? It’s a disgrace and those people on the telly just made it worse. They should be ashamed of themselves, being so nasty like that. No wonder everyone was so violent nowadays. It wasn’t safe to leave your house anymore. Those Islams really did get a raw deal. If everyone got punished every time a loony did something stupid, we’d all have permanent red backsides. Then she started repeating herself and Dean made his excuses to leave. He grabbed a handful of biscuits on the way out, Bourbons were his favourite after all.
The encounter sparked a train of thought in Dean. He wandered home, taking a roundabout route through the estate courtyards. He started to look at the blocks more closely and saw how separate they were. Almost every building contained a homogenous group, bundled together and sectioned off. If it wasn’t the whole block, then it would be segregated by floors. Dean wondered why they chose to live apart from everyone else? Why didn’t they make an effort to join in? No wonder they got the hassle they did. If they shut themselves off then what did they expect? He arrived at his courtyard and made his way up to the sixth floor. As he reached the top of the stairwell he looked out over the patchy tarmac that ran between the three buildings. He stopped and stared. Why was Madu’s block mostly black and why was Ghalia’s mostly Pakistani? Did they choose that? How could they? Him and Georgina couldn’t even get out of his Mum’s flat, let alone decide on where they wanted to live. Perhaps the council put them there. Swept them under the carpet all together. Let us deal with them. He looked at the graffiti façade of Ghalia’s block. Dean couldn’t hold his eyes on it. His head turned away and he thought of the old dear he’d just had tea with. Was it really their fault? Did they deserve it? He’d tried to avoid seeing what had been happening, but the estate whispers were too loud for him to ignore. Everyone knew that the suicide bombers had been British born Islamists and the guided retribution had been harsh. Alongside the verbal and physical abuse, there had been more symbolic assaults. Pigs’ heads on doorsteps, alcohol through letter boxes. The people in Ghalia’s block got so much stick, but they hadn’t blown up the twin towers, had they? And the talking heads on telly were no better. In one sentence they’d say we’re all equal, slag off the BFP and demand that we must respect everyone’s culture and religion. Then in the next breath, they’d go on about how headscarves should be banned and we should stop letting anyone with a different opinion in the country. No wonder the Muslim fuckers got it bad. It seemed to Dean that everyone from top to bottom knew these Muslims were incompatible with British values. Forcing their women to hide, not learning English, wanting their own schools, fighting for sharia law, which, according to the BFP, was where they cut hands off for stealing and tongues out for lying and stoned women to death for having sex with their boyfriends. They weren’t like us and everyone knew it.
The short blotchy BFP man in a suit returnedwith his stalwart companion, who led new recruits in dropping marketing leaflets through the doors of the white estate residents. Their ‘I told you so’ tagline was reiterated across the twin estates, becoming an almost daily occurrence after the terrorist attacks. Dean kept a wide berth, mainly because he didn’t want to see Phil, who now accompanied party leader, Len Coombes, everywhere he campaigned. The gang from Addington had moved on from dealing drugs after Dan Jenkins had been jailed for possession of a firearm and Matthew Cobb had overdosed. Nowadays, Phil wore suits and curbed his language. He no longer ran the drugs trade on the twin estates, but had hand-picked the BMX kids who were now in charge and who enacted the BFP’s underlying message on his behalf, attacking anyone whose skin colour and dress roughly correlated to their assumptions of what a Muslim looked like. The War on Terror was brought to its logical conclusion in the walkways of the twin estates, where the vigilantes of the right were just doing their bit to fight imported terrorism.
Georgina’s Mum’s gossip channels absorbed all life on the estates and the anecdotes, arguments and carefully selected facts dispersed through the community, picking up sentiment and skewed justification on the way. As well as the usual complaints, they now stood on a foundation of accusation. It was a mad moral inversion to protect these Muslims, so some of the papers said. They weren’t victims of oppression, they were the perpetrators of crimes against the hard working British public. And although they might not have triggered the bombs themselves, if you read the surveys and checked the stats, most of them sympathised or even openly supported the attacks. Well if they hated Britain so much, why didn’t they just go back to where they came from? It was time to stop blaming the victims. Just because whites were the majority, it didn’t mean they were being ‘oppressive’ or didn’t have rights. And it was about bloody time that was recognised by those in power. Them at the top didn’t listen to the likes of the estate folks. It was them at the top who put the Muslims and Blacks here in the first place. And if they couldn’t see the problem, the BFP would rub their bloody faces in it. They were too politically correct to tell the truth about immigration and how it affected the lives of honest hardworking whites, only the BFP were brave enough to do so. These newcomers took the jobs, the houses and the benefits that should be given to the white families who’d been here for thousands of years. But the underlying message of the BFP manifesto was more than that. The immigrants were different to us. They wanted to change our way of life. They were an infestation threatening to take over and make Britain their own. It was clear. Just look at the terrorist attacks and how all those Human Rights groups and the Government protected the perpetrators and the people sympathetic to the cause. Britain was being given away right under our noses. Those immigrants weren’t like us and everyone knew it.
But Dean didn’t know it. He didn’t feel like he knew anything about it at all. The estate voices often became too loud and he took to standing on the walkway outside his flat just to get some peace. He’d look out across the Eldon landscape while sipping on a mug of tea. All he really wanted was a flat for his family and a regular job that paid enough to get by without constantly worrying. The rest didn’t matter. A couple of weeks after the attacks, a large white van drove into the courtyard and spluttered to a noisy halt outside Ghalia’s block. Dean watched absentmindedly as two burly men traversed up and down the stairs carrying boxes and large plastic storage bags from one of the flats and loaded the van with them. Faint hope swelled in his belly. After a few criss-crossing trips, Dean realised that one of the families was moving out. The boxes kept coming and were followed by furniture. Dean’s heart was racing, but he tried to suppress it. They’d been disappointed so many times before that this really meant nothing. Yet, it was still another chance. The two men stopped at the van and rubbed their hands together proudly. One of them called up to the empty flat in a language Dean didn’t understand. A whole family burst out through the front door and scrambled down the stairwell. Dean stared, following every move, trying to catch another glimpse to confirm what he’d thought he’d seen. At the bottom, the family bundled into the van one by one. The last, dressed top to toe in black, turned her head towards him just as she stepped into the vehicle. He was right. It was Ghalia. The doors closed around them and the van convulsed into ignition. A jolt of panic struck him and he darted along the walkway and down the steps to the courtyard. He saw the white van move onto the access road and head towards the A48 exit.
He turned on his heel and sprinted through the courtyards, he’d be able to cut them off at the junction between Eldon and Addington. He reached the crossroads just as the lights turned green, the removals van already stuttering across. He climbed over the iron rod fence that delineated Eldon from Addington and ran along the pavement, trying to keep the van in sight. The adrenaline had carried him this far, but his body was staging an all-out revolt. His heart hammered his chest, his lungs scraped glass-paper air through his throat, his legs were leaden and dead. He staggered to a walk, which instantly collapsed into a doubled over heap of frantic gasps for oxygen. The pain raged through him and held him firm to the spot. He forced his head up in time to see the Ghalia’s van turn left onto Addington High Street. He tried to kick his heels up, but all he could manage was a short lurch forwards. He had to breathe. He couldn’t go any further. It took some time for Dean to recover enough to move again. He sat on the Addington estate wall and filled his lungs. His ribs hurt like he’d been beaten with a crowbar. When he could walk again he swayed along the pavement in the direction of the high street. It was too late of course, but he just kept walking, moving forward, chasing Ghalia. He turned left on to Addington High Street at least a quarter of an hour after the white van. He didn’t know why he kept going. There was no motive, just an image of Ghalia. If she left Eldon, he would never see her again. It felt as if someone were yanking an organ right out of his body. Ghalia was lodged in his being, part of his existence and the thought of losing pushed his legs onwards. He walked past the market traders selling knocked off kitchenware and football shirts, past the Full English cafés, past the pound shops, halal butchers and frozen food stores. He walked on blindly until he came to the end of the market. Breaking through the throng of people and out onto the discarded vegetable littered street shook off the anxiety. He was too late. She was gone.
He felt abandoned, left behind. Why had she deserted him? She’d probably been made to go against her will. That’s what they were like, these Pakis. Always forcing their women to do what they were told, making them cover up. He’d read about it in the newspapers his Mum sometimes brought back from work. All Muslim girls were told who to marry and if they said no they’d be chucked out the family. In some cases, the parents would be so angry they’d throw acid in their own daughter’s faces, or even stab them up. The news articles called them honour killings. Dean didn’t understand it all. It was worse than what the gang from Addington and the BMX kids did, and this was to their own family. It was fucking backwards. Stuff like that didn’t belong in Britain. If that was their sharia law, or whatever it was called, they should all be banged up. He was fuming. He lashed out with his foot at a yellowing head of broccoli, catching it square on and launching it across the road. With a dull thud it slammed into the side of a stationary white van. Dean’s eyes lit up. He took a wide berth and spied on the same two men as they unpacked the last items. They carried the boxes through a side door to some stairs, which Dean assumed led up to the flats above the shop. It was one of those indefinable stores that sold cheap everyday household paraphernalia alongside garishly tacky ornaments and wall hangings. The two men left and drove the van away. Dean backed off and waited.
He hung around for hours, watching the door for signs of Ghalia. He bought a cup of tea from the nearest café. It burnt his hands through the polystyrene cup so he placed it on the ground to cool down. He forgot about it as he watched the market shut down for the day. The traders drove off one by one leaving the skeletons of their stalls lining the street, dust and rubbish billowing up in their wake. Dean was left alone as the dead street shops slowly brought down their metal shutters one by one. He paced up and down, with an eye always focused on his target. He found the cold tea he’d left and kicked it in anger. The cup split apart on impact and the liquid ran through the holes in his trainers, soaking his socks to the skin. He swore and spat and banged his heel against the curb. He wasn’t thinking anymore. He was consumed by her. He’d wait all night if he had to. Ghalia was everything. Not long after the last shop had turned off their neon signs, the side door opened. Dean froze and the panic, the fear and the loss held tight in his chest. The black figure was covered entirely from head to foot, but Dean had memorised those curves. He knew before she’d turned around from locking the door. Her eyes glanced up and down the street before coming to rest on Dean’s. He’d found her.
She stares at me. I can’t tell if she’s happy to see me or angry. I feel the muscles in my own face. They’re tense. I try and relax them but I can’t. Because I am angry, that’s why. Maybe she can sense that. Ghalia’s too fucking smart. She’s going to say something to make me look stupid and feel small. I can’t let her. I stare back. We don’t move for hours. Like we’re stare fighting. I don’t even blink. Ghalia shakes her head and walks towards me. She stands about a metre away and puts her head to one side. I don’t move. I want to be in control. I want to tell her I’m angry because she left me behind on Eldon. I purse my lips and bite my teeth together. I’m not letting any of the rage out. She slow blinks a couple of times and then rolls her head to the other side.
‘Are you too busy playing statues to come here and give me a hug?’
Her eyebrows shoot right up to her headscarf and open her face up. It feels like a punch in the stomach. I’m winded. I notice my lungs have stopped moving. I’m rigid, so tense. I can feel it all over, like I’m forming crystals all through my body, rough and prickly.
I spit it out. I want to know why. I don’t even care. Not really. I just want to hear her explain. I want to know it’s not my fault. Her shoulders sag as she pulls her head straight.
‘Come on Dean. Let’s not…’
Her eyes drop to the floor. She can’t even look at me. Do I disgust her that much? She looks back over her shoulder at the stupid Paki shop of shit and then nods towards the market stall frames.
‘Can we walk for a bit? I don’t want-’
‘Them to see us.’
I growl it at her. My teeth are gritting.
‘Ashamed of me?’
Ghalia breathes out and takes a step closer. I clench my fists. She looks up with her bright white eyes.
‘No Dean. I’d just like to talk to you alone. Without being interrupted.’
She looks sad. My fingers loosen and I follow her along the street. We walk between the rows of empty metal boxes. It feels like death. But not recent, from many, many years ago. All the life disappears and nothing comes back. It just rots and goes back to dirt. We don’t speak for minutes. It’s a thick silence. I can feel it brewing like a fog between us. I can see her and I know it’s Ghalia. The same Ghalia too, but she can’t get out of it and neither can I. We’re both stuck, apart from each other. Everything around us stops us. We’re getting pushed in one direction and I can’t control it. It’s like being on a rollercoaster. Once you’re strapped in you can’t get out even if you want to because it goes too fast and if you try and escape you’ll just die because you’ll come out at the top of a loop the loop. There’s no fucking choice. It makes me so furious. And makes me want to crawl up into a circle and cry and cry and cry. Ghalia says something first.
‘Why did you come here Dean?’
She doesn’t look at me. Her head is facing forward and I can see the outline of her nose and jaw and forehead. She’s beautiful. I feel a pang deep in my chest. I breathe out all juddery. Some of the anger goes with it. I came because I love her. Or loved her. Or think I love her. I don’t know. I really don’t know. But I can’t say that, because there’s something else. It’s all trapped inside me and bottled up. She’s part of it. Maybe the cork holding it in. I can’t explain.
‘I saw you moving out.’
It’s all I can say, but she doesn’t respond. She doesn’t even look up at me. She just keeps walking forward step by step. I can see shiny blue shoes poking out underneath her long black robe. Everyone covers up in some way I suppose. Perhaps Ghalia will listen to me. Maybe she’ll understand better than I do. I let some air out of my nose.
‘I wanted to, you know, before you...’
I stumble over the words and stop. I swallow and try once more.
‘I thought I’d never be able to see you again.’
I look ahead at the metal frames. They’re all black with oil and grit, just a few clean spots gleam in the streetlight. I draw my attention away. I can’t look at Ghalia. I’m embarrassed about what I said. It’s true and I’m glad I said it, but I feel like it makes me weaker. It gnaws at me and I look at the floor. From the corner of my eye I see Ghalia glance at me. I look up without meaning to. She looks away, but I saw her face. She had tears on her cheek. I’m all mixed up inside and want to say everything, but I don’t even know how to start a sentence. Are there even words that mean it and if there were I wouldn’t even know the right ones. It all gets fucked somehow. I kind of know everything, but don’t understand it. It’s all in my brain, but so disorganised I can’t make head nor tail. It’s this mess that makes me mad. I just want to start putting things straight. I know what I want to express to Ghalia, but I say something else.
‘Why are you leaving?’
It’s not the question I want to ask, but at least I was softer. I don’t want to blame her, just find out. She keeps walking.
‘My uncle owns the shop. He’s just bought another in Handonwell so my parents are taking over this one.’
She looks across at me.
‘We were going already, we just went a bit earlier.’
‘Earlier? What do you mean, earlier?’
I don’t get what she’s going on about. Ghalia stops walking and looks up at me. Her face is open and wet. The tears roll down and get lost in the black fabric along her jawline.
‘Dean. Please. You know why.’
I do know, but I can’t say anything. It cracks at my ribs. I’m getting bruised from both sides. I stay silent. My face tenses. Ghalia waits. She sniffs and rolls her lips.
‘Try living amongst those thugs. You’ve seen what they do to us.’
She’s crying hard, but her face is so strong. I feel so small next to her, like I’m being told off. But it’s not my fault. I didn’t do any of that shit. I try to defend myself, but I can only mumble a response.
‘It wasn’t me.’
It’s such a stupid thing to say. Ghalia’s face changes. Her eyes widen and her bottom lip drops and starts to shake.
‘I know Dean.’
Her voice is low, but it’s full of fire and razor blades.
‘You didn’t do anything. You just stood there and watched those racist fuckers spread lies and abuse us.’
‘You’re no better Dean. You used to sell drugs for the same people who threw shit at my family. You’re one of them, you know. You’re all the bloody same. You think because some cunt pretending to be Muslim blows up a tube train that we’re all strapping explosive vests on and heading for Saint Paul’s Cathedral.’
She breathes quickly. She’s gone mental. Her eyes drill into me.
‘And what do you do about it? Nothing.’
She takes a step forward until she’s brushing me with her clothes.
‘You told me you loved me, Dean. Why the fuck didn’t you say anything? You’re just like the rest of them.’
She’s shaking, breathing in heavy nosefuls of air. Her words are still echoing in the street. Or maybe in my head.
Ghalia steps back and looks up at me. She’s still and spits it out.
‘All the other white chav scum.’
She holds my gaze and then drags her right hand down across her nose and mouth. She sniffs and uses her sleeves to dry her face. Neither of us move. I feel the walls between us. At last she’s told me the truth. She never loved me back. I was nothing but a piece of shit to her. Another white trash loser. Well, fuck her.
‘Fuck off Ghalia. You’re just as bad. You’re like all the other stupid fucking Pakis coming here and stealing shit from us.’
As it comes out, it grates my tongue with the hatred in it. But I want to say it, even though I regret it. Even though it hurts me and hurts her. I want her to feel that pain. Ghalia doesn’t move. She absorbs the words like a final nail. Her face goes stony and pale and looks like a machine.
‘The first problem with that Dean, is that I’m British.’
Her tone has changed. There’s no passion anymore. I don’t even know if I’m listening to Ghalia or some recording.
‘The second thing is that my parents are from Bangladesh.’
She changes her stance. It’s rigid and forceful. She’s not speaking to me, but an audience far behind me.
‘And this is the issue. You’re all so ignorant. You think all Muslins are terrorists, but you don’t even know the difference between Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. People like you and your racist friends in the BFP make us want to join together and defend ourselves against your stupidity. Every piece of shit you throw at us, every politician trying to ban the hijab, and every time one of you stands by and lets it happen, it hardens our resistance and makes us want to fight.’
Her face is iron and steel. The voice cuts glass and is meant to be a weapon. What’s happened to her? It makes me mad that she says we’re all to blame. Me and Georgina and my family never done anything to hurt her. None of the old bids either. What right does she have to criticise us in our own fucking country? Stupid bitch. I can feel a burning in the pit of my guts. It’s brought back the rage from earlier. My foot is damp from the tea I kicked and everything joins together. She’s not Ghalia anymore. She’s one of them.
‘What the fuck does that mean? Fight for what? All you Muslim cunts want to do is nick our houses and then complain about your neighbours. Why didn’t you stay back in Pakiland if you don’t like it here?’
It all flows out of me. I’m a machine gun. I’m firing everything I have into the night and I’m desperate to kill.
‘This is England. You follow our way of life. Our rules. We don’t want your twisted fucking religion. Forcing kids to get married, cutting off people’s hands. It’s…It’s sick.’
I don’t see Ghalia anymore. I don’t see anything. I can’t stop.
‘All you backwards Pakis should be kicked out. You’re all murdering fucking terrorists.’
Ghalia’s hand strikes me hard across the face. There’s no pain, just a flat red echo. She stands staring at me. Her face is twisted and ruined. All the muscles in it are flaring at once through short bull breaths.
‘How dare you?’
Her voice is deep and wobbly.
‘My father hasn’t stopped working since he came to England.’
She juts out a hand behind her, pointing to her Uncle’s shop.
‘We work hard. We pay taxes.’
She pokes a finger at me.
‘You’ve never even had a job.’
The words punch me, but she keeps going.
‘Your lot all want something for nothing and complain when others get on.’ Her red eyes get closer.
‘You’re the ones who are lazy and immoral, not us.’
She snorts a dry laugh.
‘I mean, talk about values. Yours is about the only white family on Eldon with both parents still at home. Yet you still have the nerve to say Muslims are the problem in this country.’
She spits on the ground. It’s dry and weak and pathetic, but it drags me down to the sewers beneath the pavement.
‘You Dean, are just a racist, scrounging, piece of shit, scum.’
She breathes hard once through her nostrils, stares me in the eyes and then turns and rushes back up the street. I watch until she disappears back into the flat above the shop. I look at my hands. They’re shaking all over the place. My whole body is. I’m numb. I can’t feel anything. The scene rolls again and again in my mind. Whizzing faster and faster, double time. I hear her words and I hear mine. The wall is complete and she’s on the other side. I picture her face just before she left. She blames me for everything. I am her enemy. In the freeze frame I notice, at the edge of her cold eyes, there is a tear. But I don’t care. I don’t feel anything. I don’t feel anything at all.
Dean wandered back thinking of nothing. When he got home, he didn’t speak to anyone. He dropped into bed and slept for twelve hours straight. He woke with tears in his eyes. He tried to absorb them in toilet tissue and then wash them off in the shower, but neither worked. They hung low at the point of his eyes and threatened to fall down his cheek at any time. He skipped breakfast and hung himself over the walkway wall outside his flat. The courtyard was quiet. He looked over at Ghalia’s block and picked out the door to her vacant flat. Still there in the depths of his stomach was hope for his family. Maybe now they’d get somewhere from the council. It hadn’t been the right way to get rid of Ghalia’s family and the fact caught in Dean’s throat. But, they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Estates like Eldon and Addington needed more room for whites and that meant getting rid of the immigrants. Maybe Ghalia was right. Maybe he was like all the others. Was doing nothing the same as doing something? What could he have done? Phil would have stabbed him up for sure. He couldn’t have done anything and he didn’t want to do anything. At least he knew that now. It was the truth, but it hurt like a hammer to the spine. The tears persisted. Dean stayed watching Ghalia’s flat until he was disturbed by the postman. There was the same flutter of rubbish, but also a letter from the council. His heart skipped and he was lost for a moment in suspense. It was about their latest application for a flat. They’d been rejected.
Death toll for British Forces in Afghanistan reaches three hundred. Chancellor George Osborne outlines a ‘fundamental reassessment’ of government spending. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair defends the UK’s role in the Iraq war. Child benefit and public sector pay are frozen, public spending cut by a quarter. 2,777 Afghan civilians killed in six months. Four MPs prosecuted as part of the expenses scandal.
The first non-white member joins the BFP. Lady Gaga dominates the charts.
Georgina, through huffs and puffs, recounted the scene. She had been walking to college when the first National Defence League march took place on the A48 crossroads and it had pissed her off no end. Phil Harris had split from the BFP, unhappy with their new direction, and set up the NDL for a more direct approach to campaigning. The paltry crowd of hardliners had gathered around him as he stood on an impromptu podium of two upturned shopping baskets. No-one else on the street had any idea what was going on. Most people were just trying to get past, muttering fucking hells as they jostled sideways along the pavement with their overloaded shopping bags. The irate drivers’ honking horns had given Georgina a splitter and she wondered how the hell anyone could hear what Phil Harris was saying through what looked like a kiddy’s loudspeaker. She described the crowd to Dean, the fake Ingerland shirts and greasy grade-two-all-overs. They weren’t there to listen. Phillip Harris could have been shoving a melon up his farthole and it wouldn’t have mattered, they’d have still gone away ready to spit on someone with brown skin and a headscarf. What got on her tits most, she explained, was that such a measly crowd managed to get far more attention than it warranted. The media jumped on the story, exaggerating the wrath of white backlash as much as they did the threat of homebrewed jihad. Georgina was tired of picking up every newspaper to see the place they lived in described as a problem desperately needing to be solved. She hated watching the television programmes that shed ironic light on the lives of the destitute. Where the producers fished these fat, lazy, illiterate bastards from, she’d never know. But it certainly wasn’t from Eldon, or even Addington for that matter. Dean, on the other hand, thought he could name a good few families who fell pretty close to that end of the spectrum, but, he did agree, they were certainly in the minority. Georgina hadn’t finished though and continued ranting at Dean. It made her sick to be deemed scum by the likes of the tabloid press, who’d chastise the white estate folks for concerns over Muslims and then run an article on the terrorist cell threat developing in every mosque in Britain. It was never her life on display, never the grind nor the joy, just the drudgery and destitution. It really did piss her off no end. Although, she admitted, it was the best kick up the arse she could have got.
Georgina had been working for the last few years in a call centre sorting out pointless complaints from people who didn’t read the small print on their mobile phone contracts. After passing her A Levels with just enough points to scrape in, she enrolled at a university affiliated adult education college that rented a few classrooms in Eldon Secondary comprehensive. She was doing well and spent most of her time studying. Dean helped out a lot more around the flat. He was happy to, even if he didn’t really understand Georgina’s passion for school. He’d been about as happy as he could remember the day he turned sixteen and could finally tell the Deputy Headmaster and all his crony teachers to go fuck themselves. Although all he actually did was spit on the Headmaster’s car and staple some library book pages together. Still, Dean frequently reminded himself, it was her A Levels that got her a job, which was a lot more than he could say for himself. He had fuck all education to his name and he could hardly call selling weed to posh cunts a career. He still did the shopping runs for the old dears of Eldon, only nowadays he’d usually have Harry and Matthew in tow. At first he’d hated having to drag the kids with him, whining and grizzling, but they were precious little earners of gifts and treats from the old bids. He and Georgina never had to splash out for sweets or pop or cake or chocolates. They also gave Dean a readymade excuse to leave the musty lavender flats as soon as he wanted, which was generally pretty sharpish.
He settled passively into his role of flat husband, taking on the responsibility of looking after the kids without really noticing. It never felt like a burden because it was something he enjoyed anyway. Hanging out with Harry and Matthew was great. He taught them how to play one touch, how to kick a ball so it flew up into the air, and how to boot the motherfucker so hard it crashed the garage doors and sent thunder around the courtyard. Matthew couldn’t get enough of it and took to kicking the garages directly. Dean couldn’t bring himself to tell his boys off, mostly because he wanted to do the same thing himself. Sometimes he’d take them to Burnham Park behind the New Eldon Brickworks. The kids would use the open-air gym equipment as a climbing frame while Dean watched the yummy-mummies and the homeless alcoholics silently corner-eyeing each other. They had the same bewildered look as the springer spaniels and bull terriers that faced off near the dog shit bin. Neither knew what to make of the other.
However, Dean and the kids’ favourite times happened when Georgina was at her evening classes. Dean would take the kids to the abandoned wasteland behind Madu’s block to go fox hunting. He showed them how to tiptoe stealthily along the line of broken breezeblocks, sneaking up quietly to the shallow dip in the wall. Harry would scramble over and Dean would give Matthew a gentle lift and then all three would shuffle forwards towards the edge of the circle of light. The amber glow would shimmer against the darkness and an uneasy tension would take hold of Dean. The boys would take it in turns to put one foot into the unknown whilst Dean would back up and sit on a pile of bricks, remembering the time he’d felt Ghalia’s tits. He only got a hard on once and saved the sensation for a session with Georgina that night. She always came back horny as hell from college and Dean could pretty much do what he wanted. That evening he’d turned off the lights and opened the curtains to let the orange streetlight flood the room. He took Georgina from behind and pictured Ghalia’s ripe round arse bouncing away on his penis. He was in tears by the time he came and had flattened his head into the pillow whilst Georgina stroked his hair.
Those feelings came in waves that would drag him out to sea before smashing him against the cliffs. But generally, he just existed, casually moving through life from one supermarket run to the next. Events had little more than the mildest impact on him. He watched time go by through the eyes of his kids, stuff happened all around him, but he neither instigated nor concluded it. When his mother had moved out he’d helped her wrap her miniature jug collection and even carried it to the removals van. They’d embraced, she’d cried, she’d waved desperately from the passenger window until the truck pulled away along the A48. The flat had stayed in Dean’s Mum’s name in case they got kicked out by the council, but the place was theirs. Dean didn’t really register the change for weeks. He just woke up in a different room, staring at different patches of curling paint. Nothing struck him anymore. Nothing pounded at his chest demanding to be felt. Only the infrequent bursts of anguish managed to penetrate. He didn’t mind. He didn’t care at all. As long as he was with the kids and Georgina he didn’t have to think about anything.
Now and again he’d listen to her ranting on about something she’d read, or something someone at her college had said, or something he just didn’t have a clue about. He didn’t get involved. She’d tire herself out as he nodded in the right place and kept one eye on the television. He never asked about what she studied, even when she stayed up until the small hours. He didn’t complain, it was her money and time she was wasting, she could do what she wanted. And if there was one thing to be said for her course, it had certainly put the fire back in her. She’d started watching the news and repeatedly told people in suits, who Dean didn’t recognise, to fuck off. It was great to watch, much more entertaining than what those newsreaders were going on about. Dean loved it, especially because it got Georgina all riled up and by the time she came to bed she’d be gagging for it. Dean was comfortable. They didn’t have anything left over at the end of the week, but they just about got by. It was easy living for Dean.
Most mornings he’d make breakfast for everyone, unless Georgina had a late shift, in which case she’d have a lie in and it would just be the men of the family. It was usually cereal and instant coffee, but he’d sometimes do them gypsy toast as a treat. Eggs, bread, milk. The kids loved it. One Easter he’d blown an egg and filled it with cooking chocolate, placing it in an egg cup along with the regulation margarine soldiers. When the rest of the family cracked the top expecting to find a badly soft boiled egg, they got a lump of chocolate instead. Matthew and Harry’s eyes popped out in shock and Georgina burst out laughing. She’d smiled about it for days.
After he’d done the school run, he’d work his way around a couple of clients, before dropping on the sofa for a cup of tea and some talk shows he didn’t listen to. Then it was kids again and a run to the supermarket on the way back from primary school. Play with the boys, Matthew to bed first, Harry next and then back to the sofa to wait for Georgina. That was it.
He didn’t notice the increasing number of red and white flags displayed outside his front door. The marches along Addington High Street passed him by. The idle chitchat of the old dears, who spat-whispered the word Muslim whenever they had a gripe about something, which was every time anyone was there to listen, bounced off him. His cocoon was thickening and it suited him. Basically, he had enough.
Georgina, on the other hand, began revising for her exams. She stayed up long evenings with her head in books and her fingertips on a can of energy drink. Her eyes dragged and the bags filled with facts and theories and names and dates. The late nights and early shifts caught up with her and she took two weeks off to revise. Dean did his bit by keeping the kids out of the house as much as he could. He took them to play parks and over to see their Nans. Georgina’s Mum only lived a few blocks away, but her shrill voice set his hairs on end and so it was to his own mother’s that he inevitably took the boys. She was still working the marathon shifts, which had brought her in enough to finally move out of Eldon. She’d taken up in a comfortable studio flat out in zone 5. It was in the attic of a converted Victorian terrace. The ceiling curved down in the corners, which Dean thought gave the whole place a disproportioned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory effect, not least because of the myriad of garish tat Dean’s Mum had insisted in filling every empty space with. It was a car boot of worthless junk and she loved every last piece.
One afternoon in the second of Georgina’s revision weeks, Dean, Harry and Matthew were at Dean’s Mum’s flat. Harry spent the time watching cartoons, whilst Matthew tried to find matching pairs of the now vast jug collection. Dean and his Mum drank a full tumbler each of sherry and talked about how much little Matthew resembled his dad. Dean agreed with his Mum rather than drag out the conversation, but actually thought he had more in common with Harry. Well, at least the cartoons. He’d have preferred to watch them instead of idly chatting to his Mum. But nowadays he felt it wouldn’t be grown up enough, so he just snuck them on when nobody else was around. Dean’s Mum gassed on about the new neighbourhood. So peaceful and quiet. Everyone smiled to each other in the street and the corner shop, but the tea in the local cafe was over three quid and none of the sandwiches were made with white bread. She had to take a bus to get to her nearest pound store and the local market only sold vegetables that still had dirt on. She’d been to the pub once and was certain the barman had smirked her at because she’d ordered a peach schnapps and diet lemonade. It was so safe. She could walk around at night and even across the parks. Not long after she’d moved to the area, on the way home from a late shift, she’d turned a corner into a group of hoodies, all hunched over, scuffing around and dragging on blackened rollies. She’d held her breath whilst power-walking past, but when she heard them speak like wildlife documentary narrators, and calling each other things like Charles and Alexander, she’d almost burst out laughing. They weren’t going to hurt anyone. It was lovely, so English and so utterly boring. She missed Eldon, but wouldn’t go back for only one reason. It was being taken over by those bloody Muslims. They were everywhere nowadays because of the government giving them houses left, right and centre. She still didn’t understand it. Why weren’t hardworking British people getting places to live? And they all hated England anyway. She’d read in the paper that most of them agreed with blowing up buses and burning down churches. If they didn’t like it in Britain then why the bloody hell did they come and why did everyone on the telly want them here so badly in the first place? Her face streaked pink and put Dean in mind of the red marble floor in Addington Town Hall. A web of red lines pooling surface blood across the skimmed milk skin. His Mum was looking older. The smokers’ folds wrinkled her face, scrunched up and dry. She looked like one of her grotesque ornaments, waxen and transfigured forever, stuck in a suburban studio waiting to be swallowed by bulldozer progress. Dean didn’t listen to her anymore. She had become nothing more than furniture in his life. But that was all he could say of anyone. Furniture and ornaments that made the passage more comfortable. The thought didn’t depress him. It curled and looped around in his mind and then dispersed as quickly as it had come. His Mum was still going on about Muslims always speaking Islamic too loudly in public places and how they treated their women, covering them up and forcing them to marry their cousins. Dean nodded a mindless agreement and finished his sherry. He was beginning to feel hemmed in amongst the diatribes and cartoon war cries and whoops of joy and calls to watch. He needed open space to let his mind wander and leave his head easily blank. His Mum smothered the boys in thick sherry breath perfume, kissed Dean on the cheek and promised to transfer him a little something in the bank. Dean hugged his Mum back and felt the rolled skin under her blouse. She was getting plump. Harry and Matthew loved their grandmother’s street. They jumped along the pavement, avoiding the cracks between the slabs, and swung around the trunks of the line of trees that sheltered the road. It was a couple of buses back to Eldon. They got the front seats upstairs on the first one and the boys were asleep before they reached the first corner delicatessen. Dean felt the slow burn of sun through glass on his face. He closed his eyes and let the dancing shadows lull him into thought through the thin lids.
Like fuck she’ll send me any money. She always says that and never does. I’d much rather she just gave me a tenner straight. Georgina wouldn’t find out either and I’d be able to buy some sneaky beers and the ‘pick and mix’ I like from the supermarket. Maybe I can get some to share with the kids. I reach into my trackie bottoms pocket. Shit, I’ve only got a quid twenty. If I get off at the High Street I might be able to nip into the ninety-nine pee shop and pick up a bag of jelly babies or chocolate éclairs. I wonder how they can do all the stuff in that place so cheap. Someone must be getting screwed over. Probably China, that’s where they make all that shit. But sometimes they get stuff that’s made in Britain. Who’s going to work for a quid an hour packing sweets? There are some right mugs about. It doesn’t matter what job you do, you’re going to get fucked over. The bus driver breaks like a bitch and wakes up Harry and Matt. There’s some pissed up tramp stumbling across the road in front of us. Fucking wanker. He’s mumbling away to himself about something. The driver blows the horn and the tramp starts shouting.
‘What’s he saying Dad?’
Harry looks back at me through the gap in the seats.
‘He looks pissed.’
Matt turns around and jumps up on the seat. He grabs hold of the handle and bounces up and down. He always gets excited at swear words. I never bother telling them off. They’ll do it anyway. I just warn them not to do it in front of the teachers or their Nans, even though Georgina’s old bid swears like a fucking bricklayer. I reckon Harry’s picked up most of his from her. Yet she’ll give him a clip round the ear if she hears him say even pussy words like shit or bollocks. It ain’t fair on them. It’s fucking stupid if you ask me. It’s like spanking Harry for hitting Matt. How’s that going to teach them anything?
‘Is he pissed Daddy?’
Matt points out the window at the wino. Harry giggles but Matt sounds serious. He doesn’t even know what getting pissed means. I gave Harry some beer once but Matt only smelt it. I put on a funny voice and screw my face up like the tramp, with one eye half open and my shoulders hunched.
‘I’m not drunk, I’m not. I’m the Prime Minister of all of London and all of Britain. And I’m very…’
I hiccup and the boys both giggle.
I do it again.
‘Angry at this giant red…sausage.’
‘It’s not a sausage, it’s a bus.’
Matt bends over giggling. Harry rolls his eyes, but I can see he’s trying to stop himself from laughing. I carry on playing. I go cross-eyed and start to rock back and forth. I point out of the window towards the sky.
‘I’m trying to get to a very important meeting with Big Ben and you’re in my way.’
The tramp leans backwards and almost tips over. He staggers onto the pavement and the bus rumbles forward. I roll my eyes and stick out my tongue.
‘Now which way is London?’
I laugh with Matt at my joke, but Harry’s getting too old for my silly impressions. He’s ten now. I remember I used to love stupid voices and faces. Me and Madu could do a New York accent really well. I was better than him. Ghalia was the best though. She’d do lots of faces behind Mrs Tosser’s back and I’d piss myself. I hope Harry meets a girlfriend like Ghalia. She was well cool. And fucking hot. I think about her tits and arse. But it’s weird ‘cos I see her as a grown up, but also like when we were at school together. I want to laugh with her and play foot war and then bend her over. I feel a bubble in my chest and it’s squeezing right up my throat to my head. I can feel my eyes get hot. I pinch my leg hard to stop the tears coming. I stare out the window and read the road signs. Central London straight on. M25 turn right. All Other Routes turn left. I keep reading until our stop. I hold Matt’s hand as we cross the road. Harry doesn’t let me anymore. The bus comes quick and we have to stand all the way back to Addington High Street. I stand next to a fat woman wearing a huge coat. It’s the middle of summer and she stinks. Her nose must be fucked. Or maybe she’s just got used to it so much that she really can’t smell how fucking rank she is. It’s just normal for her now. How can something so fucking awful become normal? You’d have to be pig ignorant not to do something. It smells like she washes in piss. I hold my nose for the rest of the journey. I make us get off one stop earlier and walk to the pound shop. Matt plays with the toy guns and Harry fiddles with the tools. I grab a bag of two for a quid chocolate éclairs. It’s a quid even if you buy one. Someone really is getting screwed over. I shout along the aisles for the boys after I pay the ten-foot spotty kid behind the counter. Where do they find these mugs? We share a pack of sweets as we walk back through Addington. I keep the other one for Georgina and me to share when the boys are in bed. I’ll get most overall. I don’t even unwrap them. I put the whole thing in my mouth and clamp my teeth around it. I pull at the wrapper and the éclair drops out into my mouth. It doesn’t always work and then I have to take it out and undo it normally and it makes my fingers sticky and wet with spit and sugar. I chew on the chocolate toffee in my mouth. I can’t suck it. I bite and swirl it over with my tongue and the juice runs down my throat. It’s sweet and tickles me almost to cough, but it’s delicious. I don’t even think about where I’m going. I’m just walking forward holding my son’s hand. Fuck, I’m a Dad. It still sounds fucked up. How did I become a Dad? I’m twenty eight, but it feels like I’m still sixteen, or whatever. Like I’ve just been playing one touch with Madu or fingering Georgina on the wall near my block or beating up those two wimpy black kids or playing video games at Gary’s house or ice sliding and falling on my arse or spying on Ghalia’s front door from the walkway outside my flat and I can still see her hair, all black and wavy. It’s all yesterday in my head. It’s mental. I don’t even look different at all. And now I’ve got two sons and a missus and I’ve never even thought about it. It just happens and that’s that. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. I wouldn’t know what to change it for. Different kids in a different house with a different missus? It’s all the fucking same anyway. What else you going to wish for? World peace? Fuck off. Money and shit, but that don’t change nothing, just the labels on the clothes you wear. I’d just wish to forget stuff. All that shit that makes me turn over inside. It’s always still, no movement, just colours and shapes and their eyes staring at me. My chest goes bonkers. Not hard, just quick, like a moth’s wing and my ribs are so light that I think my heart’s going to stop. I’d wish for a distraction, that anything could be a distraction. That’s all I need. My mouth’s so full of sticky toffee chocolate saliva it’s dribbling out between my lips. Harry’s managing alright, but Matt’s got brown smudges all over him and he’s trying to lick it off with his tongue. I piss myself. I fucking love chocolate éclairs. I reach the road that separates Addington from Eldon. I didn’t even notice the buildings we just walked through. I make sure Harry’s standing on the edge of the pavement next to me. I grip Matt’s hand a bit tighter.
They follow my actions.
I wait for a second.
Me and Matt put a hand to our ears. Harry can’t be arsed anymore, he thinks he’s too old to do this. He probably is. I wandered all over the fucking place when I was his age. Georgina won’t let them go out at night on their own. She thinks there’re too many cunts and nonces around. I never got paedoed up so I don’t know why she thinks it’s any worse now. Fucking dirty old perverts’ll be too shit scared to come round Eldon anyway.
I check with Harry, who ignores me. Matt shakes his head.
‘Okay then, let’s go.’
We take a step out onto the road and I look up.
It comes out quietly. Like it slipped out of my brain and between my lips by accident. Nobody can hear it or see my mouth move, but everyone knows I said it. Walking towards us is Phil Harris and his boy. He’s staring right at me. I can’t move my eyes away. He steps off the pavement and walks across the road directly towards me. He holds his son’s hand loosely, like the kid could just run and hide and get smashed to bits by a truck. He just keeps coming. Matt pulls my hand and I let go. He steps into the road and stops. He looks back at me. Harry’s staring too. Phil keeps coming. I don’t move. My kids can sense something’s wrong, like animals and earthquakes. They just step back and stare, their hearts dragged down into their bellies. Mine too. My muscles are ticking on and off, pulsing through me. Phil takes a step up onto my curb. I watch his black real leather shoes go heel down first and roll over onto the toes. He walks flat, dead straight. He brings his second leg up. He’s wearing dark blue jeans. Tight and expensive, from the discount label store. There’s nothing fake about Phil Harris. He’s real, so fucking real. It’s heavy. It blocks my mind. He stops close to me. His face is chubbier. He used to be ratty and greasy and dirty, but now he’s all smooth and looks like a football player at a nightclub. He’s got a white shirt on, buttoned to the top. You can’t tell who he is. But I know. I know who he is and it makes me feel like I’m going to crack open and puke all over myself. He raises his head in a sharp nod.
His voice is rounded at the edges, clean. I rattle my head up and down in response. He points his chin at Harry and Matt.
It’s not a direct attack. It builds up around me brick by brick. I can’t do nothing, just watch myself being imprisoned. My jaw trembles and I force it to stop by jelly nodding.
It rasps out dry. I realise I haven’t breathed since I saw him. I suck in a mouthful of air and speak weakly.
‘Harry and Matt.’
A thin line curls on his face and his mouth opens to a tobacco grin. He looks down at my lads. I want to step between them. To hide my kids. I never want them to know who he is. Or meet someone like him. They can’t go through the same shit. It ain’t right. I feel numb. I feel anger. I feel like I want to punch his fucking lights out. To smash his cheekbones in. I want to hear them crack under my hands. I want to disfigure, to scar him. But it’s all distant. I can’t touch it. All that hatred and shit, it’s just whirling around, but I can’t grasp it. It’s in another me. One that’s somewhere else. Maybe in a different time or whatever. I just feel empty and numb and completely fucking fake. Just skin hanging over a bony frame, pretending to be alive. I can’t do nothing. I’m pinned down, nodding like a plastic dashboard dog. I can’t even protect my kids.
‘This is my boy, Tommy.’
Phil pats his son on the shoulder and jerks him back and forth. He’s got that smug gleam in his eye. He’s just so proud of his kid. I don’t get it. Proud of what? That he managed to put his dick in someone and spunk up her pussy. Any fucking moron can do that. Tommy doesn’t even look up at his Dad. He just stares straight ahead towards my boys. Phil Harris ain’t got nothing to be proud of. It’s easy to make people angry. And if his son turns out like him, he’ll be a right cunt. I don’t want Harry or Matt ever to play with him. I don’t even want them to know that Tommy exists. But it’s too late. They’ll know everything one day. They’ll find out what a coward their old man is. I never did nothing or said nothing. I’m so weak. I can feel them all staring at me. Phil Harris and Tommy, my boys. Their eyes are hooked into me, waiting for me to stand up straight, but I can’t. My legs are buckling, like a skyscraper being demolished. It’s always in slow motion, always sad. So much work to build something up, just to destroy it. Phil squints. I see the crow’s feet stamped on his temple. I have to say something. I look at Tommy.
The word sticks in my throat and makes me cough. I use it as an excuse to put my hand over my mouth and look away. I breathe deeply. The air cools the fire. I feel on edge, shaking through my veins, like I’ve drunk too many strong coffees. But I’m calmer. I’m ready to face him. Phil watches every move I make. I know the way that cunt works. He’ll be measuring me, checking everything I do. I just got to nod my way through this and get home. I look back at him just as a car passes. The driver stares at us. I don’t know them. Maybe they can see more than we can. You can only ever see the other half of the conversation after all. Phil turns and watches the car go by. It breaks his stare and I feel my feet underneath me again, I’m back in the shallow end. The car turns off down the main Addington access road. None of the kids say anything. They don’t know what’s going on, but they’re scared of the silence. My Mum used to say ‘a noise annoys’ and laugh. I never got it. Noise is safe. I try and think of something to say. Anything. Phil gets there first.
‘Still living with your Mum?’
His tone is different. I don’t hear fighting in his voice.
‘Nah. Just me and the kids and Georgina.’
I try and make it sound natural, like I’m having a normal chat with somebody. Phil raises his eyebrows at me.
‘Got your own place?’
‘Me Mum moved out.’
I nod my head to my left. I don’t even know if that’s the right direction. I just do it ‘cos that’s what you do. He snorts through his nose and jerks his head back.
‘Sounds about right. We’re getting forced out one by one.’
‘She’s got a flat in Milton.’
I don’t even want to say it. I just want to go home and eat the rest of the chocolate éclairs.
His face is still, but I know him, I can sense the sneer tickling the edge of his mouth. He’s toying with me. I shake my head and push out my lips. I’ve never noticed it before. What I do. But with Phil Harris I have to watch every move, just in case. I’m looking at myself through a periscope in the top of my head. I can see all the twitches in my face and arm movements and my swaying a little side to side. I can’t stand still. I’ve got St Vitus’ Dance. I’m bopping all over the place like I’ve done a gram. It’s mental. I never even noticed it. I force my head to stop shaking and try and stand my ground.
I pout and my jaw rocks forward and back. I fucking give up.
‘Yeah. Good for her. Got out of this place.’
He takes a step forward. Or does he lean in? I don’t even know, he just seems closer suddenly.
‘It don’t surprise me. When was the last time you heard of a white family getting a house round here?’
I don’t have an answer. He doesn’t want one. It doesn’t seem like a conversation anymore.
‘Everything’s going to the Muslims. Every last flat. Even the blacks are getting squeezed nowadays.’
His head flicks to the side and then whips back round to face me, gathering speed so his next line sounds like a bullet.
‘You want to know why? ‘Cos the blokes at the top don’t really want them, do they?’
His face is going red. His voice is angry, but it’s not crazy fucked up or anything. It’s like when Madu used to cheat at one touch and I’d go mental, but I wouldn’t deck him, I’d just think really fucking hard about doing the best kick in the world and all that mentalness would funnel down my leg like an electric bolt and come out of my foot and into the ball and it would just fly harder and more accurate than any shot in the world. Phil’s anger is all controlled and not going all over the shop like it used to. He didn’t even say Paki or nigger.
‘The rich people at the top let Muslims in because they want to pretend they’re sorry for all the stuff they did hundreds of years ago. But they don’t have to deal with them. They shove all the immigrants here and it’s honest white people like us who lose our rights as a result.’
His face has gone all puffy and he looks like he’s out of breath. Harry and Matt must be wondering what the fuck’s going on. His Tommy stands dead still. Poor fucking kid, he must have to listen to this bollocks every fucking day. He’s going to turn out a fucking psycho or bent or something. I hope he marries a Paki just to piss off his cunt Dad. That I’d like to see. Phil sucks in a gulp of air. All the talking takes the edge off him. He’s just an ordinary knobhead spouting off shit. I want to punch his fucking lights out. But I can still see those rolling thoughts behind his eyes. He could still do anything. He’d still slice me without a fucking care. People don’t change that much. He’s still Phil Harris and I fucking hate his guts. He puffs out his cheeks and makes a big deal about blowing the air out.
‘And that’s it. They’re left here and forgotten by the Government. They all bunch together and don’t even try to join in with British culture. They don’t bother learning English, they just speak in paki to each other. You hear it on the bus and in the shops. It’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t feel like you’re in England anymore.’
His arms wave rigidly, like a wooden toy octopus. His shoulders are hunched over and his voice juts up and down between strong whispers and girly pitch sarcasm. He’s talking very weird. I don’t really get it. I can feel my forehead wrinkling. I try and relax in case he notices.
‘But what gets me most is this Sharia law they want. It’s barbaric. All eye for an eye.’
This time he takes a step forward and waves a pointed palm in my face.
‘For example. If they catch you stealing something, they’ll cut off your hand. Or if you blaspheme, they’ll rip out your tongue.’
I don’t know what blaspheme is. I’m not sure if Phil does either because he said it more quietly than the other words. I’m not sure he knows what any of it means. He’s just saying stuff. It just gets like that. You say the same shit to the same people every day. Most of the time it doesn’t even make sense.
‘If a woman gets raped, guess what, they blame her and stone her to death. You understand what I’m saying? You can rape up a woman and she’ll be the one who gets punished. You know what I’m saying? They’ll smash her to death with rocks with their own bare hands.’
The sentences hit me all at once. I can see it. I imagine Ghalia getting her skull bashed in because I felt her arse. Phil opens his palms to me, his chest wide open.
‘Where’s the justice in that. It’s not a law. It’s evil. There ain’t a place in Britain for that.’
He stands back and rolls his shoulders over his neck. His arms, palms up, spread out to each side like a shrugging Jesus. Ghalia’s still there in my head. She’s got blood pouring out a gash in her headscarf. Her eyes roll and a bunch of beardy men dance around her praying about Allah out back and then they burn an American flag. I’ve seen it all on telly. It’s always on those late night news programmes Georgina watches. I never really gave a shit. If we’re going to blow up their country and nick their oil, I can see why they’re going ape shit at us. Same as fucking Guy Fawkes night. We still burn him every year and he didn’t even manage to destroy anything. I never saw it properly, but Phil Harris is right. It’s fucking wrong to smash in people with rocks because they had a shag. I shiver. I feel all the hairs on my arms stick out. It makes me feel like I’m welling up, that I want to cry for all the horrible stuff people do in the world. But it’s more than that. I get this tingling. An itching right through my arms and legs, right inside my body. I can’t get to it, can’t scratch it. It’s along my veins and making me all on edge and ready to flinch. I just need to hit something. To punch my way through a door or kick a dustbin over. I want to smash something. I see Phil still in the same pose. Like he’s suffering. Like he gives a toss. I know you Phil Harris. I know who you are. You’re the type of cunt who’ll slice someone for looking different. You wanted me to stab up Madu. He was helpless, off his head. You’d have killed him. You cunt. You dirty cunt fucking bastard. I want to rip that fake concerned face off. I want to tie you down and stamp on your arms and legs until they’re broken. I want to cart you along Addington High Street so people can see what a hypocrite, two faced fuckhead you are. I’m mental. My muscles are tensing and untensing and tensing and untensing. My whole body’s going ACDC. My fists are clenched. Proper tight. Rocks. Ready to destroy him. I go to lift my arm, but something grabs it. I tug at it, but the grip holds steady. I force my head down and see Harry holding my wrist.
‘Matt needs a piss.’
Harry’s voice is quiet and weak. I jerk my head towards Matt who’s holding his knob under his shorts and squirming like he’s got a spider in his bum. I don’t react. I freeze up. It’s all trapped in me. All that shit. All that crazy bullshit. It’s got to come out. I can feel it bulging at my seams. Trying to split me down the middle. Harry pulls my arm softly. I feel his hand grasping around the skin on my wrist. He won’t let go. He’s holding me down, like an anchor. His face is all squished up and he’s pursing his lips against the trembles in his face. He’s afraid. It breaks my heart. All the anger fucks off in one go and I just want to get my kids home. Matt’s dancing on the spot, both hands down his trousers. Let’s just get out of here. I look back up at Phil.
‘I got to go. The nipper needs the bog.’
‘Well, good to see you Dean.’
He pouts his lips and nods at me. I pat Matt on the back and guide him in the direction of Eldon.
‘See you later.’
The three of us walk off. Harry’s still holding my hand. We get to the other side of the road and Phil shouts.
‘Have a think about what I said.’
I turn and see his stupid fucking grin. Like he knows something special. He knows how to be a complete cunt.
‘Maybe we’ll see you at one of our rallies.’
He raises his eyebrows and chin to me and I turn away and walk as fast as I can without running. One of his rallies? Like fuck he’ll see me. None of us speak until we reach the stairwell in our block. At the first landing, I take hold of Matt and push him towards the corner.
Matt takes his willy out and starts spraying.
‘In the f-ing corner.’
I pick him up by the waist and drop him close to the wall. His rigid body turns to jelly and you can hear the sigh evaporate off him. It feels so fucking good to have a piss when you’re desperate. I smile at the pleasures of life. I turn to share it with Harry, but he’s got a serious face on.
‘Who was that man, Dad?’
He looks me straight in the eye. Kids ain’t fucking stupid. They don’t get a lot of shit, but they know when something ain’t right.
‘I used to work for him a long time ago.’
Harry squints his face up at me.
Harry’s got that same way of asking questions Georgina does. She already knows the answer so why the bloody hell does she even bother? Why don’t she just say stuff straight out rather than making a bleeding song and dance about it. Be easier for everyone. Harry ain’t letting up.
‘No. Not shopping. Just odd jobs, but it don’t matter. It was a long time ago like I said.’
I turn back to Matt as I can hear the tinkling has turned to drips. He bends over forwards and uses both hands to zip up. When he turns around he’s covered in patches of piss that have splashed back from against the wall. He’s got a grin right across his cheeky little face. It’s well funny. I look at Harry who’s trying to stop giggling, waiting to see how I react. I catch his eye and we both crack up laughing. Matt doesn’t understand why. He’s just watching us with that after slash grin on his face. He don’t get it but then he just starts laughing with us anyway. Me and Harry piss ourselves even more. I let it all go. We laugh and laugh and laugh. We bring the bloody house down and I don’t care if they hear us all the way to Addington. I don’t give a flying fuck no more. I’m with my kids. What else do I care? We don’t stop laughing for hours, or it seems like it. Matt stops first then Harry and then me. I don’t think I was even laughing at the end. It was just noise coming out of my mouth. Cranking up through me from the bottom of my guts. I hold my belly. It’s empty and in pain. Nothing’s there. We all struggle up the stairs. We laughed so much we hurt. But when we catch each other’s eye we let a little burst out. We all share it. It’s our secret, the three of us. Even more with Harry because he knows what we were actually laughing about. It makes us close. Like a family. I’d do anything to make them smile like that again. I wish I could. We get to the front door of our flat and go in. I can hear Georgina’s talking to someone and there’s a strange long coat hanging on the bottom banister of the stairs. I tell Matt to go and change his clothes and Harry to go and play in their room. I can hear Georgina’s talking to someone on the phone. I tell Matt to go and change his clothes and Harry to go and play in their room. I wait until I hear their bedroom door close and then listen in to Georgina.
He placed himself against the thin plasterboard wall between the hall and the living room. There was about three foot of it between the front door and where it opened out into the lounge. He could hear Georgina. There was tension in her voice, a restrained anger that she usually reserved for when he’d done something stupid, like spend most of the housekeeping on scratchcards. He would normally have walked right on in but Georgina’s tone was unfamiliar. She stopped talking and there was a breath of silence. Dean waited, holding his lungs. Georgina shouted a fuck off to the receiver and hung up. Dean squirmed against the wall for a moment but decided to go into the living room. He didn’t want Georgina thinking he was spying on her as he’d get a right bollock full. He walked in overly casual and pretended he was looking for the television remote. He kept a half an eye on Georgina as she hovered by the window. She was properly riled up, red eyed and tearless. Dean wanted to ask, but now it felt that it had been too long to do so. He was in a bit of a pickle as he couldn’t keep up the fake search for much longer. Georgina leant over, picked up the remote from next to the TV, where it always was, and held it out to Dean. It had been Susan on the phone, she explained, the woman who’d interviewed her a few years ago. Georgina had called to ask her for help about the upcoming university exams, but the topic had soon turned to the NDL marches. Georgina had told her straight. They were cunts, banging on and blaming brown people for their own shortcomings, but they weren’t the real problem. Dean, the remote gripped in his hand, prepared himself for one of Georgina’s outbursts. They were better than TV and always got her hot and bothered and ready for a fuck. He raised an eyebrow. The problem, Georgina continued, was the way the news made it out like every one of the thousand odd families from Eldon and Addington were out calling for the blood of Muslims, rather than just the few dozen protesters buzzing around Phil Harris like flies around bullshit. They were just a gang of bullies picking on someone weaker, or wanting someone to blame. Georgina pointed out the window behind her. There were a lot of people pissed off with what was happening around here, forced to welcome people they’d never invited, and then getting told they were racist when they complained about housing. Dean had thought the same thing. Why hadn’t his family been given a place? Were they less important than immigrants? Georgina’s family had been here four generations. Why had they been ignored? Dean put the remote down and sat on the arm of the sofa, listening to every word. Georgina didn’t give a flying fuck about people coming to Britain and she knew very well that they needed somewhere to live. What she had a problem with was the two-faced cunts in power who got round the issue by dumping them into places like Eldon. After all, how many ‘brown skins’ did they have living around their manor? And how the fuck was taking houses away from people who needed them and giving them to some other fuckers who needed them going to end up with anything other than a shortage of houses and a lot of people getting severely pissed off with each other? Georgina was in full flow, pacing between the sofa and the window, jutting out her arm behind her to point past the estate and to the city beyond. Dean imagined she was pointing all the way to the Houses of Parliament and was standing in the commons giving the Prime Minister the finger. She took a breath and nodded angrily at the television. It was the extremes that drove the media nowadays, wankers like the NDL. Nobody cared about the average. No, that wouldn’t sell newspapers or appear on late night news reports. It was always nut jobs like Phil Harris spouting rubbish through plastic loudspeakers on telly. They only ever showed the worst. It was their way. Always their terms. And it was all part of the same fucking problem. Dean wasn’t exactly sure who they were, but they could all go fuck themselves up the piss hole. Georgina was right, the estates on telly were always the same and always shit. Who made these programmes? It certainly weren’t people like him or Madu or Ghalia. So how the fuck did they know what it was like here? Eldon was his and Georgina’s home. It had been the home of their Mums and Georgina’s Nan. What was wrong with it? Why was theirs so much better? Georgina echoed Dean’s thoughts, putting them into words he couldn’t find. She was connected to the area, to the history, to the culture. She wanted their kids to know where they came from. She didn’t want to escape to some white middle-class suburb, she wanted respect. That’s why she’d done the degree, to prove that she could. For them rich kids it was easy, even expected, to just keep moving up. But for people like her, starting out from bugger all, every step she took was like a fucking miracle. And if she had to be judged in those terms, then it should be how far she travelled, not where she reached. But this continual judgement was the cause of it. Who was judging? From where? And how did they get to choose what was best for everyone? There was nothing wrong with the estates. There was nothing wrong about the lives people lived here in Eldon and Addington. What pissed her off, she went on, what actually really upset her, was rich people insisting there was something inherently right with theirs. It was bullshit. She stopped. She breathed in. She breathed out. Bullshit. Dean lingered on the arm of the sofa, hoping for more, but Georgina had nothing else to say. She stared out the window for a moment and then sat down to her books, spread across the dining table in the corner of the room. She began reading.
Dean thought he understood. He wanted to tell Georgina that he got it, but instead he walked past her and into the kitchen. He put the kettle on, dropped two spoonfuls of coffee into a mug and loaded a small plate with a custard cream and two bourbons. He looked out of the kitchen window, viewing the identical estate buildings through the greasy smears of the glass. He didn’t know if it was bad or good or anything. He just took it all in. The water had already cooled too much for coffee by the time he remembered the kettle. He poured it in anyway, stirred and let the microwave make up the difference. He put the mug and biscuits next to Georgina’s pile of notes. She gave him a quick smile of thanks and was back lost amongst the pages. Dean put both hands on her shoulders, kissed the back of her head and then went upstairs to play games with the boys.
Georgina took her exams a week later. She did a double shift back at work after finishing her final test. Everything was ordinary and no one in the house mentioned anything. Dean was getting ready to take the boys down to Southfield Shopping Centre. They went once a month and the boys loved it. Matthew got to go in the posh toyshop and Harry would spend ages playing on the tablets in the trendy, minimalist computer store. Dean would hang around on a wooden bench next to the escalators and read one of the free newspapers. They never bought anything, but the trip meant a detour back via Addington High Street to share a portion of cod and chips. Harry would get a battered sausage because he didn’t like fish, even though he’d happily eat fish fingers if they were smothered in enough tomato sauce. Georgina had left for an early shift that morning, but Dean had got up with her to prepare cheese on toast the long way for the boys. Matthew was up not long after his Mum had gone and had plonked himself in front of the television to watch the Saturday morning children’s show. Dean stuck his head in the living room now and again to see if there was a good programme on. He hated the overly smiley presenters with their bright outfits and northern accents. No one he knew in real life was like that. He’d rather watch the American cartoons. They were all about beating up the enemy and defending the planet or whatever it was for that show. The important thing was there was good and bad and no one pretended that life was all smiles and games. Harry came downstairs dressed and ready to go. He shared his Dad’s views on kids’ programmes and joined Dean in the kitchen until a good show came on. When one did, Harry joined Matthew, and Dean was left trying to watch via intermittent glances through the living room door whilst attempting to cook breakfast. He toasted the bread on one side and then added the grated cheese and milk mix to the other, spreading it right out to the corners. He pushed the slices under the grill and then tried to gather what was going on in the cartoon. There were a lot of children shouting at each other and each of them seemed to control some kind of animal that changed into a weapon whenever the kid threw something at them. He couldn’t work out who was fighting who, who was winning and losing and why they were fighting in the first place. It was noisy and flashy and although he was arse over head with confusion, he was hypnotised by the colours and shouting. The end came suddenly and brought no explanation for what the hell was going on. Eyes and ears released, his nose kicked in and he caught a whiff of burning fat. The topping mix had bobbled black and crusty over the edge of the bread and had splattered the grill pan in blistered cheese.
It was mid-morning before Dean had remade breakfast, cheese on toast the short way on the second attempt, and the family was ready to leave. Matthew ran off down the steps, jumping from the last three before the landing. He flicked his leg out trying to do a karate kick. Harry exaggerated a belly laugh at the effort and then proceeded to show him how it was done properly by jumping from four steps up and doing the same thing just as lamely. Matthew looked unimpressed and Harry insisted he should watch him do it better at the next landing. They continued until the courtyard, neither improving on their technique. At the bottom of the stairwell, Dean watched as they both convinced the other they had done at least one good one and so could leave the game content. Dean paced down behind them, concerned a little about the time as he had a shopping run that afternoon. Instead of walking, they’d grab the number 53 from the New Eldon Brickworks, which would get them to Southfield a bit quicker. At the bus stop Matthew and Harry tried and failed to tightrope walk the mottled plastic bench. It was angled and too shiny and they kept slipping off. Dean looked at Eldon’s blocks through the scratched glass back of the bus stop. He traced the square outline of the estate buildings with his finger, following the straight lines and harsh angles. He stopped when he noticed both boys watching him.
The bus took a different route than usual and they arrived at Southfield almost as late as they would have done if they’d walked. They didn’t have time for the posh toy shop, so they went up and down in the glass lifts for a while and then played on the tablets in the sterile computer shop. Dean gave the boys ten minutes before he rounded them up to walk back, purposely taking the Burnham Road exit so they could go past Homes Direct, the discount chain ironmongers that pretty much sold everything from lawnmowers to milk. He kept his kids close by and headed straight for the sweets section, grabbing a pack of custard creams for the road. Matthew kept tugging at his leg and pointing to the chocolate boxes on special offer along the queue aisle. Harry was more interested in the plastic machine guns. A recorded cashier number six called out to them over a fuzzy loud speaker and Dean, pulling Matthew’s hand off a pack of rum truffles, herded the boys over to the till. He dropped the biscuits on the counter, took out a handful of coins from his trackie bottoms’ pocket and looked up at the cashier.
It’s his eyes. Like someone’s pinched him on the temples and stretched them around his head. They’re creamy white with yellow splodges by his nose and thin red lines that zigzag across to his black pupils. Funny how eyes make you. Probably why people blur them out on sex match websites. Madu stares at me. He’s not smiling but his teeth are showing. They’re so different, blacks and browns and dirty yellows. His grin used to make me laugh and laugh and laugh and I couldn’t stop. Now it makes me want to spit and buy my kids mouthwash. He’s so thin and I can’t do nothing. It’s Madu.
‘That’s a pound.’
It’s flat, dull. No one would notice, but I know Madu.
‘What you doing here?’
He snorts and his big nostrils pulse.
I look at his cupped hand. His skin’s cracked around his pale fingertips. He’s wearing one of those cheap red and black polo shirt uniforms with a name badge. Madu, here to help.
‘That’s one pound.’
His tone doesn’t change.
‘What happened, man?’
Madu looks left and right at the other cashiers.
‘Got a job. One pound.’
I hand over a fiver. Madu takes it, turns to the till and speaks again quietly.
‘Done some thinking.’
The drawer of the till clatters out and Madu shoves the note in. He rummages for change and, without looking up, mutters like it’s to himself.
‘I made mistakes.’
Madu never backs down. He was the hardest kid in school. But he’s older, bigger. So am I. I’m not a kid anymore. I get it. I wish I could have done more, done stuff differently. But I can’t do nothing. I want him to know that I get it.
It hovers in the air between us and we both know what I mean.
He sniffs dryly as he takes a handful of coins.
‘I deserved it. She was just a Paki, but I didn’t even know what that meant.’ He hands me the change and holds my hand.
‘It don’t mean nothing.’
I feel his grip. I want to hug him. I want us to be kids again. I want to do ice sliding and play one touch. I want to go back and make it not happen, none of it, not school, not the prick, nothing. I want us to be friends. He looks at me.
He smiles. I think he smiles, I can’t tell. I really don’t know. He squeezes my hand.
‘Thanks for not stabbing me.’
He lets go and I take the change. He presses a button behind the counter that calls the next customer to cashier six. I turn away and push the boys out of the shop. It’s all a blur and we’re out of the automatic doors and walking along the Burnham Road past the bins and the crossing. We keep walking and I feel something tug at my arm. It’s Harry. He’s excited about something.
‘Did you stab that man up, Dad?’
It jolts me. I’m still holding the change in my hand. Five pound coins. I laugh out loud. All the way from my tummy. It’s noisy and crackling and I don’t give a fuck who hears me or stares. Both my boys are looking and smiling and I take their hands, one on each side and we keep on walking back towards Addington. I want to tell them all about it.
‘No, I never stabbed him up. He was my best friend.’
Dean told Harry and Matthew about Madu, about one touch, ice-sliding, coke can pisses, Mrs Prosser, exploring Eldon, inventing doing the Vs and up yours together, the Deputy Headmaster, stupid voices on tape, beating up the fat kid, doing special moves and everything else he could remember. He hadn’t thought about it for so long. He talked all the way back to the edge of Addington. The two boys zigzagged back and forth, sometimes in front of Dean and sometimes behind him. It was quiet when they reached the Burnham Road junction with the A48 that would take them to Addington High Street. Dean noticed that there was hardly any traffic and it set him slightly on edge. He couldn’t put his finger on it exactly. There was a buzz in the air that rattled the boys. It was how he felt when he was getting close to the edge of a big public event, like the annual fireworks in Burnham Park. Before you even saw the gathering crowds you could sense the mass of people, the anticipation, electrifying the air. The estates were full of potential energy and the closer he and the boys got to Addington High Street, the more his hairs stood on end. The first sign anything was up came in the shape of a police car and van parked on the A48 slip road. As if the two were intrinsically connected, Dean immediately heard the faint rumble of shouting and foghorns. He called the kids to his side and told them to stay close. They walked together towards the noise.
It sounds like a football match. I’ve never been to one. I don’t really get the point. You can see it much better on the telly and all the good bits are shown in slow-mo repeat. It’s just the crowds. They’re all argy bargy and get aggro when their team loses. Who gives a toss? It’s not like it’s your mates playing. Half the players ain’t even English, but it doesn’t stop knobheads like Phil Harris supporting them. There’s a policewoman walking in circles gabbing on her walkie talkie, but there’s no-one else around. It’s just the noise. Sounds like a thousand people all shouting at the same time. But it ain’t together like a football chant, where everyone shouts the same song. It’s like when a top player does a run and is about to score and everyone in the crowd goes on their own run with them, like they’re actually playing the game themselves. It all builds to a big mess and you can’t make any words out or nothing. It’s weird when you think about it properly. Getting all riled up over kicking a ball. I never cared that much if I lost at footy or one touch. We walk past the copper and are almost at the top of the High Street. The shouting is getting louder and there are few more police now.
‘What’s going on?’
Harry’s holding back slightly behind me and tugs on my t-shirt.
‘I don’t know.’
I don’t look back at the boys, but I grab Matt’s hand and pat Harry on the back to make sure he stays close to me. We walk around the last few buildings until we can see through to Addington High Street. There’s loads of pigs bundling down the access road. It’s like on the telly. They look like robots, all dressed in black riot gear with shields and everything. When I was a kid I always liked shields more than swords. Defence is as important as attack. Best not to get hurt and not hurt anyone else either. Sometimes I want to kick people’s fucking lights out though. But usually I don’t care. Harry and Matt stare at all the cops. The boys don’t have a fucking clue. Their mouths are half open and they don’t want to blink. It’s the first time I notice how similar they look. Just like brothers. I hope they’re friends when they’re older. I hope they’re best friends. We walk a bit closer, until we’re at the edge of the access road pavement. I try and see through all the riot cops, but I can’t really make anything out past the blur of helmets. The noise is getting louder, moving towards us up the street. I know it’s people but it sounds like a machine. Through the cops I see a great big flag. There’s no wind so it’s all floppy and limp. I can’t even see what it is, just white and red bits. Loads of people appear and the noise hits us directly. There’s a massive lot of them. They’re all walking along Addington High Street shouting stuff I can’t make out.
Matt points out a banner held up between two poles. It’s an England flag with England written on it. I don’t know which one of them Matt recognised, but either is pretty good for his age. He’s a smart kid. He must get the brains from Georgina. That’s what everyone will say if he does well at school. I must have got mine from my Dad. He wasn’t around much either. I smirk at my own joke, but then I hear something I understand. I can’t see him but I can hear his voice through the noise. It’s crackly and buzzed, like a dusty car speaker without the cover. You can wire them directly to a stereo and then put the volume up to max and they shake and rattle and the music is all distorted like it’s been blasted through a fairground mirror. That’s what he sounds like, twisted and mangled and fucked up. That’s Phil Harris. He’s shouting bollocks through a megaphone. The words are all lost in the crowd, but I know it’s him. My teeth are grinding.
‘Are you with them?’
The policewoman who was on the walkie talkie has come up behind us. I turn my head to follow her finger. She’s pointing at the bundle of people on Addington High Street. They’re making a right fucking racket. I can’t think straight. I look back at the copper. She’s got a little blonde cut like open curtains across her forehead and if it wasn’t for her army sergeant face and grown-up school trousers, I’d probably have a go on her. I see her eyes squint just a little bit. Then she looks my kids up and down like they’ve just been nicking sweets from the corner shop. What’s her fucking problem? I look back at Phil and his cronies. I shake my head. The stupid pig stares at me, like I’m lying. What am I going to lie about? Does she really think I’d take my boys along to some fucked-up march? Bitch. Cops make you feel guilty even when you ain’t done nothing. Think they’re something special cos they’ve got a shiny badge on their hat. She looks back at my kids again. Police want to be seen as so high and fucking mighty, but how can you trust them when they don’t give a shit about the estates. They just let us get on with it and only come round if they want to give one of the black BMX kids a beating. She can fuck off. She heads the air to her left.
‘Where are you going?’
It sounds more like an order than a question.
She looks me right in the eye. Like she doesn’t believe me.
‘Take Tyler Street and you’ll come out near Handonwell tube.’
She doesn’t blink the whole time she says it. It pisses me off and I feel my hand gripping Matt tighter.
‘Yeah, I know. I’ve lived here long enough.’
I can’t be arsed with her anymore. Stupid pig. I look down one by one at the boys.
‘Come on, let’s go.’
I pull on Matt’s hand and pat Harry on the back. I don’t even look back at her. We walk in a diagonal across Addington towards Tyler Street. I hear Harry muttering under his breath, but he obviously wants me to hear because he’s saying it loud enough. He ain’t that stupid.
He’s shuffling his feet against the floor, scraping his trainers against the tarmac. They wear down too quick when he does that and it costs me and Georgina a bomb. But I can’t say nothing. I still do it now sometimes. I don’t know what to say. I don’t want Harry to start hating the cops. They’re a bunch of bastards but they’re better than the new gang on Eldon.
‘Some are alright.’
I say it quietly. Under my breath. We reach the start of Tyler Street. It goes round the back of the shops on Addington. One side is all businesses and shops and stuff and the other is all shitty houses. Proper old ones where the painting is falling off and the bricks are crumbling and you can actually see proper zigzag cracks along the walls. If we ever had an earthquake, these wouldn’t last a second. A tin sound rattles off one of the walls. I shoot my head round and see Harry kicking a beer can. He lines it up and gives it a massive boot. He’s pretty good. He gets it off the ground and everything. One day he’ll beat me at one touch, but I won’t even mind. He’ll deserve it. Matt tugs at my arm. He wants to go and play with Harry. I let go of his hand and nod towards his brother. Matt runs off and tries to kick Harry’s can. Harry pushes him away and Matt goes and finds his own along the curb. The boys shout and kick and the tins send metallic hell along the road. Wouldn’t surprise me if these buildings all fucking collapsed. I put my hands in my trackie bottom pockets and walk slowly behind my lads. I watch them play. Matt tries to copy Harry, but can’t do it. It must piss him off. Harry just boots the fucker every time, but Matt clips the side and sends it spinning off in all directions. Matt never gives up though. Even though he’s shit, he still tries to kick the can. When I was his age I’d have just crushed it with my foot pretending to be the Incredible Hulk. But then that’s game over. You can lob the flat can a bit like a death star, but it makes your hand smell of beer. It’s rubbish really. I reckon my boys are top. The little fuckers. Harry climbs up onto a wall and places the can down. He swings his leg and whacks the tin right out into the road. What a cool kick. I notice some old nosey bastard watching from one of the rotten windows in the row of crap houses. He’s peeping half a grey face from behind dirty net curtains. I look directly at him. He can’t do nothing. It’s just kids having fun. Let him watch if he wants. There’s nothing wrong with it. The whole fucking world can watch if they want. Matt is trying to climb up too, but he can’t get his knee up high enough. He’ll make it one day. He keeps trying until I’ve walked past him and call him to catch up. He’s a proper trooper that one. Both of them run on ahead. I feel light. It’s as if I’m sitting on the sofa after drinking a cold beer. Watching my boys makes me feel so comfortable. I shout for them to wait for me at the next turn. Stupid pig obviously doesn’t know the area better than a local. There’s a short cut through the alley at the back of the frozen food shop. It’s only big enough for one car, but I ain’t driving so up yours bitch. I turn off down the alley and walk towards the first bend. It doubles back on itself like a chicane in a grand prix. I reckon it would be cool to go on a go-kart down here. Pretty fucking dangerous though. There’s loads of shit everywhere. Garbage bags and broken bottles and old wooden crates and loose bits of metal. It’s more like a fucking tip than a street. I can’t hear the rattling tins anymore. I open up my ear holes and listen. It’s too silent, which means the little cunts are planning something. I don’t turn around. I’m going to fool them and play them at their own game. I walk normally around the first bend in the alley and then run. I get halfway to the next bend and turn to see Harry running, followed by Matt, both holding the crushed cans in their hands. I pretend to keep moving and head towards the bend, but really I’m letting them catch up. I look over my shoulder at them as I turn the corner. They catch up and take aim. The cans whizz past me and there is a shattering of glass. I spin round quickly and freeze. Right there next to a pile of smashed bottles and two beer cans is a young woman. She’s got a dark blue headscarf on and one of them Paki dresses. She came out of nowhere. Must be trying to avoid all the shit happening on Addington High Street. She’s skinny. She’s dead still. She’s not moving a muscle. Playing statues. She’s staring right at me. Her eyes look really open and white against her brown skin. They’re so big. They catch me and pull me in. I feel like I’ve been shipwrecked on her island pupils. She doesn’t move. The boys are at my side. They’re probably staring. We’d better go or we won’t get back in time for lunch. I take a step forward and the girl shudders, a proper flinch. I stop and look at her. Her lips are tight back over her teeth. They’re yellow buck rabbit style with a big gap in the middle. I want to laugh, but it doesn’t feel funny. There’s something weird about her, but I can’t make it out. Maybe she’s a bit simple. I stare at her properly. Maybe I should help her or something. She’s just standing there like an ice statue. Only her nose is moving. Her nostrils are flaring up. They’re huge black holes. I look closer and see that she’s breathing quickly. In fact it’s her whole body. It’s shaking. I can see shivers all through her. She must be having a whack attack. I look around, but there’s nothing. Maybe it was the kids. Perhaps she thought they were throwing the beer cans at her. But they weren’t, they’ve just got bad aim. Fucking hell. She looks really freaked out. I go to explain, but someone shouts from down the end of the alley. I turn, but all I can see is a dented metal dustbin. I look back at the girl. She’s still staring at me. Her hands are grabbed together so tight I reckon the bones are going to pop out. There’s another shout and I bolt round. Some bloke lurches around the corner fast. He’s looking behind at something and shouting, waving his arm forward. Then there’s loads of them. Hundreds of women and men dressed in jeans and shirts and with dreadlocks and glasses and they’re old and young and they’re white and black and brown and everything. They bundle up the alley towards us. A lot of them have their hoodies up and their caps down and it ain’t even cold or sunny. I turn back around and the woman is gone. Fucking weirdo. I push Harry and Matt to one side of the alley to let the crowd go by. Who the fuck are they anyway?
Matt points at a flag bobbing up and down in the wave of people. He’s got good eyes. P. A. F. Never heard of it. They get closer and some of them stare at me. What’s this? Everyone stare at fucking Dean alley? Even though they’re all gabbing off about something, I can see them looking at me and whispering. I can read the flag now. It’s The, in small print, People Against Fascism. What? I’m not even sure if I should know what that means. Who are fascists? The Government? I thought fascists are like Hitler and the Soviets. They hate the Jews and queers. I learnt about it in school. Or were they communists? I can’t remember exactly. More and more people are staring at me as they walk past. I look around, but it’s just me and the kids. I ain’t spilled nothing on my T-shirt or anything, so what’s the fucking problem? There are more flags. Down With Racism. NDL are Scum. Britain is for Everyone. Eng-All-Land. The last one makes me smirk. It’s smart, sounds like the football chants. Hingerrlaand. Wankers. Why don’t they just shout England like it’s said properly? I think I get it. This lot must be coming through here to catch up with Phil Harris. Good luck you bastards, there’s loads of cops and they ain’t pretty. I smile at the PAF as they go by. They stare back, all of them at the same time like they’re connected by a wire. It’s a bit freaky deaky. They look pissed off. Proper annoyed. They’ve got hate all over their faces. How can you hate someone you’ve never met? I don’t get them. The ones on the other side of the alley are still shouting stuff I can’t make out, but all the others are giving me the proper evil eye. I look around again, but really, there’s nothing. We even got out of the way to let them pass and we’re in a fucking hurry to get back for fish and chips and battered sausage for Harry. They could at least say thanks. In the middle of the group a tall skinny young one slows down and he’s giving me a proper eyeballing. I shrug my shoulders. I ain’t got a clue and I don’t care. I hope they catch up with Phil Harris and they can all go and fight each other and leave me alone. The skinny bloke pushes his way through towards me and some of the others are egging him on and whispering shit to him. What the fuck’s his problem anyway? He gets proper close. He’s taller than me and has these turned down eyebrows that make a furry Y above his nose. He’s got long hair too. He looks like the arseholes I sold weed to outside the Eldon Brickworks. Just like the ones who spout off about changing the world and shit and then go and smoke themselves brain dead thinking they’re getting enlightenment. Dick. He’s got that arrogant ‘I know what’s fucking best for you because I read it in an article about a book that I heard about once from a teacher’ look. Stupid twat. If you don’t know something, better not bother trying to pretend you do. And if you don’t like the way other people live, then don’t live like that. Doesn’t mean you can boss everyone else around because you think you’re the bee’s bollocks. Just let everyone get on with it and leave them alone. Matey has got proper close now and is looking right down his nose at me. He can fuck off. I can stand my ground against anyone. Most people anyway. I don’t give a shit about him. I don’t even know what his problem is. I raise my head sharply and point my shoulders up to my ears. What the fuck’s he want? He snorts his nose, bends forward and spits on the ground in front of me. I stand still. I watch him turn around and run back to the tail of the group. The whole lot fuck off around the chicane and slowly their shouts disappear. I don’t do nothing. I just stand there staring ahead. He spat at me. Properly gobbed a greenie right at my feet. Cunt. Fucking cunt. I’m with my fucking kids and all. I want to run after him and gob in his mouth and see how much he fucking likes it. Fucking piece of shit wanker cunt. Cunt. I turn and kick one of the beer cans and it sends a spray of broken bottle glass all over the alley. Some of it bounces back onto Harry and Matt. Shit. I bend down and help them brush it off. It isn’t in their eyes, but glass splinters are the worst. If you can’t get them out then the skin grows over and they’ll get absorbed into your body and go into your blood. They don’t have any in their eyes or faces and I check their hands carefully. They’re alright. I stand up and look back at the alley. What a bunch of cunts. They don’t know nothing about me. Giving it all that. Who fucking put them in charge? How dare they fucking spit at me. What’ve I done to them? Fuck all. I think Phil Harris and all the knobs in the NDL are cunts too. Everyone does. What’s their fucking problem? I’m fuming. I’m so angry I reckon I must have flames for eyes. I look at the boys. Matt’s still looking for glass on his shoes. Harry stares off down the alley towards Southfield. I take a big old breath into me lungs and hold it. I’m pumping myself up from the inside, filling my chest with all the bullshit. One two three four five six seven eight nine ten. I let it all go through my nose. Everything. I look at my boys. Who cares about those NDL and PAF cunts? Let them tear each other to shreds. They both deserve it. I pat my boys on their shoulders.
I push them softly down the alley and turn to follow them. Something glints in the corner of my eye. I stop and look back. There’s a silver panel window to the side of a stack of wooden palates. I must have seen my reflection move. I take a step backwards and come into view. It’s me, but it’s different, not like a normal mirror because it’s all shimmering and distorted. But it’s me. Fuck, it’s me. I can see it. I’m so fucking white. Blotchy pink and white. Look at that crew cut hair. I scrape my hand over my head. It feels good, tight and cushioned. But it looks…I don’t know. I do know. It looks like all them other ones who hang out in the third courtyard in from the Prickworks. I’ve even got the same polo shirt and grey trackie bottoms. Even me white trainers ain’t different. I can’t move. The reflection holds me. It’s the face. That’s what gets me. The eyes are slant and the cheeks are puffed and pointy at the same time. And the mouth. I see my lips curl up to one side like an Elvis quiff. I’m sneering. Like I hate everything around me. Everyone around me. Like I hate myself. The face stares back at me and I know who it is. It’s Phil Harris. It’s all those fuckers in the NDL. It’s the BMX kids on Eldon and Addington. I’m them. I look like them and everyone in the whole fucking world sees me like it too. That poor girl probably thought I was going to rape her up and kill her and send her back to Pakiland. I think of Ghalia. She floods my brain. It’s all Ghalia. She must have known. She must have seen it. But I’m not like them. I’m not fucking like them. I can see myself rubbing tears away from my eyes. It’s all rising up again. All that shit. Ghalia and Madu and the kid whose name I can’t remember and everything. It’s all coming up and I can’t stop it. I need to see her. I need to tell her it ain’t me. He isn’t me.
Harry and Matt moaned the whole way back through the alley and all the way along Tyler Street. What about fish and chips and a battered sausage for Matt? Why had that man spat at them? But really, what about the chips? Dean didn’t heed the protests. The words washed over him, bounced off him, vanished into the ether. His sights were set on one final destination. They reached the market end of Addington High Street to see a line of police plastic barricading the PAF from following the NDL. He held the boys back as he flicked his eyes across the street. The scuffle was a good fifty yards beyond Ghalia’s shop. Dean didn’t wait for it to move any further. He grabbed both boys by the wrist and dragged them across the street. The metal grille was battened down and even the neon tat had been turned off. It was a frontline, holding the NDL out as much as the occupants in. Dean went straight for the side door that led up to the living space above the shop. He manhandled the kids to one side, making them stand so close they were treading over each other’s feet. He was solid, completely unresponsive to either of their complaints. He didn’t feel like their Dad anymore. It seemed as if something had jumped him, gotten inside. Or maybe something inside was trying to get out. He knocked again with the ball of his fist, but there was no answer from within. They were deep purposeful blows that echoed through the fine bones of his hand. His fingers spasmed with shooting pain, but he felt none of it. He banged the door again. He waited longer, but nothing. He brought his ear close to the door. Was there someone inside? He bent down and pushed the letterbox open with the tips of his fingers. The hallway was dark except for a sharp diagonal of light from the first floor that cut across the shabby carpeted stairs. The straight lines were in feathered relief and Dean noticed a curved shape caught in silhouette about halfway up the stairs. He put his mouth to the opening and shouted through. He quickly returned his eyes to see the shadow bob up and down briefly. Through the letterbox he made it clear that he could see someone hiding. A few whispered words in a language he couldn’t understand were followed by a stern, yet discernibly shaken, fuck off. Dean heard the anxious response and understood why they were trying to conceal their presence. He explained he knew Ghalia and needed to talk to her. It was urgent. They told him to fuck off again. The tight springs of the letterbox were starting to weigh heavy on his fingers with the sharp edge of the metal flap digging into his knuckles. He put his lips to the hole and pleaded. His hands gave out and the letterbox slammed shut. He looked at the chipped door and swallowed long and hard. He was hunched, arms loose at his side, lips turning over each other on clenched teeth. The air seeped from his lungs. He blinked a couple of times, flicking daylight into his eyes. He went back to the letterbox and gently pushed it open with the tips of his fingers. Before the first creak of the spring, a solid kick from inside slammed the flap shut against his hand. The door shook on its hinges and fell silent.
He turned, away from Harry and Matthew, and stared along Addington High Street. The PAF and the police ground together, coalescing into one indistinguishable throbbing mass. And somewhere, at the other end of the road, would be the same scene with the NDL. Dean looked through the swarm of bodies and saw Ghalia and himself walking through market stall frames, bathed in orange streetlamp glow. They walked up and down, side by side, laughing, arguing, stuck in the middle. It was years ago now and what had changed? It dragged him down. Nothing had actually changed. On the surface it seemed like there were different groups fighting different groups with different slogans and different buzzwords, but underneath it all, the reasons were always the same. They were right and every other fucker was wrong, and they would kill to prove it. And the likes of Dean and Ghalia didn’t matter. They weren’t even part of the equation. They were just stuck in the middle.
Another fuck off brought Dean back to the doorstep. The letterbox had been pulled inward. In its place was the shadowed outline of a jaw and mouth, which reiterated that it had told Dean to fuck off. What the hell was he doing coming here on a day like today? With all the shit going on? What had possessed him to think he could speak to Ghalia? She wasn’t here anyway and even if she was he would still have to fuck off. He wasn’t welcome. His type would never be welcome. So he should just fuck off now and not come back again. The flap sprung down and sent a single clack out into the street. That was that.
Dean ruffled Matthew's hair and patted Harry on the shoulder. It was time to go home. They weren’t going to be able to get fish and chips anyway as the whole of Addington High Street was in chaos. The situation struck him as funny, the kind of funny that made him choke. It was mental, surely, what was going on. The new gentrified Eldon versus the old estates. The NDL getting at immigrants and the PAF getting at the NDL. It was like a dog chasing its own tail and ignoring the cat. Dean seriously didn’t get it. Why did they blame others for all the problems? It wasn’t the blacks or Asians or Muslims or whatever that pissed off Dean. They didn’t change a fucking thing. It was the future of his kids. They were fucked. They wouldn’t get a fancy, gothic mansion education. They wouldn’t learn an instrument or go horse riding. They wouldn’t get on the rowing team at Oxford. They wouldn’t get a job that paid them hundreds of thousands. They spoke the wrong way, they grew up the wrong way, they lived the wrong way. And their kids would do the fucking same. It wasn’t just his boys either. It was everyone from the estates. It didn’t matter who they were, they were fucked. And the NDL and the PAF having a barney about immigrants just meant the real problems got ignored. It was a bloody joke. Dean smirked at the thought. That someone like him had the power to keep the blacks down or house the Pakistanis in the worst estates. Fuck no. Even the wankers in the NDL didn’t have the power to do that. They couldn’t stop them going to school, or choose where they lived, or block their job opportunities. The whites, the blacks, the Asians, whatever, it didn’t matter. They were all fucked in the great big British scheme of things. It was so ‘kind of funny’ that he choked out a dry, empty laugh. Addington High Street was a dead end. They’d have to take the long way around back to Eldon. The boys were silent and shuffled along behind Dean as he loped along the pavement. Dean turned the corner at the end of Addington High Street which curved around to the back end of the estate. A sharp muffled shout came from behind them. Dean heard his name hanging in the air and turned to come face to face with Ghalia’s brother.
It’s Ghalia. Her eyes and lips. They’re the same, he’s just like her. My breathing goes fluttery. I grip my left hand and curl my palm around the thumb. It’s clammy. He’s got a diamond face that cuts into his open pink shirt. He stops a metre away from us and juts out his chin. He’s skinny. The rest of his body’s as sharp as his head. His grey suit is too tight and you can see his bony knees through the cotton. He looks like a bender from the seventies. He looks kind, like Ghalia. I’m all filled with warmth. Not hot, just comfortable. I want him to speak. To tell me about her.
‘What the fuck were you thinking, coming to our house?’
His head juts forward as he speaks and snaps back at the end of the sentence. I go to answer but he interrupts.
‘I know all about you. Ghalia’s told me everything.’
He spits it out, his shoulders tensing.
‘It’s the only reason I’m here. She likes you.’
He leans his face towards me and shout-whispers.
‘Our parents would go fucking crazy if they ever found out.’
He points a slim brown finger.
‘This is not the time or the place. So just fuck off back to Eldon before you cause any more trouble.’
Ghalia’s brother can’t stand still. He’s all jerky movements like he’s done a line too many. I don’t get it. Why did he chase us up the road just to tell me to fuck off again? He’s proper psycho. He keeps wrenching his head round, checking over his shoulder. I look closer at his face. He’s sweating. He looks nervous as hell. I bet he fucking is, what with Phil Harris and his bunch of angry white twats shouting that Muslims should be sent back to where they came from. And now I know. They all look like me and I look like them. No wonder he’s shitting himself. It makes me mad. Why should he feel scared in his own country? I’ve known Ghalia longer than me own kids. Where’s she supposed to go home to? This is where she was born and where she grew up. Same as me. What makes her different? I’m fuming. I want to scream and shout, but I know it’s a stupid question. I look at Ghalia’s brother. We are different. Our families are different. Our food’s different. They all speak differently. But so what? Why does it matter? Why’s it such a huge problem? Fucking hell, life is boring enough without everyone having to be the same. I want to be different too. Especially compared to those cunts in the NDL. I want Ghalia to know that.
‘I’ve got nothing to do with all that shit.’
I point towards Addington High Street. ‘Most people on Eldon don’t.’
‘I know all that.’
He shakes his head.
‘We told each other everything. All our secrets.’
His face softens and I see even more of Ghalia. It calms me. I want to listen. He carries on speaking, but it’s quiet now. I can’t hear anger anymore. Just sadness.
‘It’s not easy for us. We’re stuck. There’s so much pressure from all fucking sides.’
He stops twitching and his arms drop to his sides.
‘And these bloody fights outside our home don’t help anything.’
His eyes are bloodshot. As he speaks his hands start karate chopping the air. His voice rises up and down like the beeping machine next to a dying man. It makes me go cold and shivery.
‘It’s so simple for them. The NDL. The PAF. It’s all just about race and nothing else. But how does that help? So what if the PAF support Muslim rights? How does that protect other, different Muslims like me? Or Ghalia?’
He says her name quietly. He pauses. I think he’s finished, but his lips purse and he swallows.
‘They’re all doing the same, judging people on how they look, or what group they think they belong to, or what culture they come from. Like it’s that simple. Those extremes don’t help anybody. It’s never about what we feel inside.’
He bangs his chest with his fist. It’s hard. It must really hurt. I feel it. My ribs ache. My whole body aches with him. I understand. It’s just like with Ghalia. Like I’m connected and he’s my own brother. I want him to be. I want to hug him, like we’re family. I don’t move. He doesn’t move. I see her face.
It comes out like a whisper, but it feels so loud inside that I shake. Ghalia’s brother’s shoulders collapse. He holds his hands together and his eyes drop to the floor. He doesn’t say anything or even move.
‘She’s in Bangladesh.’
He looks up as he says it. He stares at me. His eyelids fall slowly and rise a moment later. They’re wet.
‘They’ve found her a husband.’
They stood staring through each other. Ghalia’s brother twitching, Dean still and slumped. They were distorted echoes cast by voices they couldn’t control. Ghalia’s brother shifted his weight continuously for a minute, nodded tight brows and pursed lips, spun on his toes and scurried off back to the shop. Dean’s lava guts twisted and churned, spewing forth and then absorbing back. No emotion held firm. None allowed him to know how to feel. He could see what it had done, what all this conflict meant for Ghalia and her brother, what it meant for him and his family. They’d had to make a choice and if they didn’t, it was made for them. But it was the wrong choice. Those extremes just pushed people further apart, made the differences seem to matter. Dean and Ghalia’s brother were the same. He felt sorry for him. How could a secret bum burglar cope in a family who sends their daughter to Bangladesh to get married? The thought bubbled through Dean, eruptions of anger and sadness, loss and regret. He desperately wished he’d fucked her when he had the chance. Then he cursed her parents. He hated them for making her leave. Fucking Pakis. Then he wordlessly swore at the NDL for making it all ten times worse. Then he thought about Georgina and felt guilty for feeling so shit about Ghalia getting married. It came and went before his mind could take a grip. All Harry and Matthew saw were the creeping tears across their motionless Dad’s cheeks. But they could tell he wasn’t crying. Inside him was a tumult that matched the fighting on Addington High Street. He could still hear it, even from where he was standing. Such a violent uproar when all else in London was silent. And that, Dean realised, was at the heart of it. That some suffered whilst others thrived. That labels were given by people who had none themselves. It wasn’t the Muslims. It wasn’t the PAF. It wasn’t even the NDL. But what could he do? What could anyone do? He took his kids by the hand and walked silently home. It was a simple answer. Fuck all.
An additional public holiday announced to celebrate the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. British forces initiate airstrikes in Libya. The Serious Fraud Office arrest suspects in connection with the collapse of Icelandic Kaupthing Bank. A British Muslim is sentenced to twelve years in jail for calls on his blog for the murder of MPs who backed the war in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of protestors march in London against government spending cuts. Prime Minister David Cameron criticises ‘state multiculturalism’ in a speech on radicalisation and the causes of terrorism. The demolition of the Eldon and Addington estates in East London is approved by the Major of London. Police shoot dead unarmed Tottenham local, Mark Duggan. A peaceful vigil turns violent and riots spread across London. Previous X Factor contestants outsell pop rivals.
Dean and Georgina had followed the story on the news. Georgina laughed bitterly whenever adverts for the gadgets people were stealing came on between the reports. What did they expect would happen when society was taught to be consumers rather than citizens? The politicians dismissed the whole thing as criminality, mob rule by the uneducated. It made Georgina hiss. Whose job was it to educate people? The same leaders who were out sunning themselves in the Seychelles and the Maldives and were too pig ignorant to come back to the UK where the population was going ape shit at the policies no one voted for. That’s whose fucking job it was. Dean didn’t respond as such, he was more interested in the videos of hoodies running around with high definition widescreens. Although he did get why Georgina was so pissed off about how everyone on telly talked about the riots. He’d seen her work so hard to pass her degree with a 2:2 just to be rejected at every interview she went for. She said it was because she had the wrong accent and came from Eldon. The interviewers probably just assumed she was like the estate scum they kept seeing on television. So she carried on working in the call centre, went to see films and gave up looking for jobs she’d never get.
A week after she’d got her results, Georgina had ordered a cheap digital camcorder from the Internet. The English translation of the instructions made no sense to either her or Dean and she’d spent over a fortnight working out how to use it. She started recording scenes from Eldon and showing them to the rest of the family. Kids playing in the courtyards, dogs fighting, tattoo canvasses chain smoking on breeze block piles, BMX kids selling dope to scared bearded hipsters, old bids laughing together over shopping trolley handles, the square of sky, the square of ground, the square boxes they all lived in. She explained to Dean that she wanted to make a record of Eldon before they destroyed it. Four generations of her family had lived here. This was her home and she was being forced to leave. But she wanted to remember the angles of the walls, the hardness of the tarmac earth, the bustling air on access road winds, the night sky she’d watched from her teenage window. She wanted to remember the touch of life, of existence on Eldon, and all that made it real. Dean kind of got it, but couldn’t quite understand why Georgina welled up every time they watched the footage. For him, he saw the arrival of a proper video camera a little differently. It only took a little persuasion for Georgina to consent to recording their fucking, but she’d put her foot down to him trying to sell it on amateur porn websites. Dean had only mentioned it as a joke, but Georgina’s reaction made him feel as though he were onto something. If she was that worried that people would see, there must be a whole lot of people watching. They could make a fortune and it wouldn’t even be porn because he was fucking his girlfriend. They could take requests for kinky stuff too. He spent many a wanking moment visualising his rise to triple X internet sensation. Although he knew it would never happen. Georgina would punch his lights out if she found out that he’d been selling their dirty videos. But it didn’t stop him imagining it.
Other than the addition of sexual playback, his life hadn’t changed. The notice to leave Eldon had stirred him a little, but since finding out about Ghalia’s marriage he had receded to days of apathy. He played with the kids, he did the shopping runs, he fucked Georgina and he pretended to watch the news and care about bankers nicking millions and not getting done. What else was there to do? His Mum was getting plumper as her perm got tighter. She talked more shit so he visited her less. She never came back to Eldon. She was scared of the place nowadays, what with everything on the telly. Bulldozing it was the best thing that could’ve happened. Him and his family were lucky to be getting a new place. It would be bigger too, she’d bet. Dean nodded along with her when she went off on one, but even he knew that the new homes were going to be just as shit as Eldon, just further from the city centre. He didn’t really care about it himself, but he did feel sorry for his kids who would have to move schools and lose all their mates. But what could they do? Their names weren’t even on the tenancy. The lady at the council had bent over backwards to get them on the list for the relocation, so she’d said. As far as he could make out, him and Georgina had done all the hard work. How many fucking trees had they cut down to produce that many forms, let alone the plastic and ink for the biros. It had all been sorted by the time the protests broke out in North London. All they had to do was wait.
Dean took the riots a different way from Georgina. Whereas she’d got angry, he saw an opportunity. There was a load of top notch gear going for free. As soon as he saw the post go up on his phone, he was off. People throughout Addington and Eldon were filtering through the night towards the high street. He’d worn his favourite hoodie for the occasion but realised that would make him easier to catch if they got him on CCTV. The first thing he was going to nick would be a new one from the discount sports shop. He rubbed his tongue across the back of his teeth thinking of how smart he was and how easy it was all going to be. He’d never been looting and he was quite looking forward to it. He already had a shopping list. New video game thing for the boys, new smart phone for himself and a brand spanking new camcorder for Georgina. He knew she’d tell him to fuck off when he gave it to her, but after a week of it staring at her from the coffee table, she wouldn’t be able to resist. That was Georgina all round. On her high horse one minute but never too lofty to join in with the estate crew if she’d get something out of it. She was smart enough to know that she could never afford one and Dean reckoned she’d convince herself on account of bankers and politicians stealing fuck loads more and always getting away with it. What harm did it do anyway? So what if some chain stores got their windows smashed in and their stock nicked. They weren’t even going to notice it. Some of those companies had more money than small countries, or so Dean had heard on a programme he’d half watched. It was about time his lot got something back.
He came out of the estates at the A48 end of Addington High Street. It was busier than a Saturday morning in the sales. Dean pulled his hood down over his face and slouched his shoulders even more than normal. A huge grin spread across his face. This was going to be fun.
It’s like what carnival is. Or one of them illegal raves in a field. Everyone’s just doing what they like and no one gives a shit. I walk down Addington High Street and feel like I’ve bombed a Rizzla. People are zigzagging all over the road and ducking and diving into the shops, but all the lights are off except for the ones in the street. Everyone’s got their hoodies tight over their heads and I just see glimpses of their faces for a second and then their gone again. Girls and boys and old and young and black and white and brown. It’s pick and mix night on Addington. I’m all a daze. I look at the row of shops and people are just hopping in through the smashed up main window. It’s mental. There’s a bloke carrying a fuck off big flatscreen. It’s still in a box. Where the fuck are the police? I look around, but it’s just us. No pigs anywhere. It’s fucking paradise. I’m going to get a new pair of trackies too. A big black geezer runs past me carrying a kitchen chair. Where the fuck did he get that from? I watch him throw it at the pound store. The chair bounces off and doesn’t even crack the glass. It makes me laugh. He turns and gives me a ‘watch-your-shit’ stare and I realise that my hoodie’s down. I must have pulled it back without realising. I feel like I’m rolling and I only ever did that once when I was a kid. I always preferred weed and booze. But I get it. It’s fucking mental. Does your head in the next day though. Like a hangover that makes you want to slit your wrists. No wonder all those junkie film star kids top themselves. I grab my hoodie and pull it over my head. I feel safe now, protected. Nobody knows me. I can do anything. The fella with the kitchen chair has picked it up and is smashing it against the glass. I think it’s cracked a little, but he might as well be using his cock for the good it’s doing. From nowhere a couple of kids arrive carrying a breezeblock and it goes straight through first time. The black guy clears the hole in the window and they all disappear inside. Fuck. I look around. Still no feds. Fuck. I’m going to do it. I run over, keeping my head down, and climb through the hole in the window. It’s pretty jagged. Looks well sharp, should have a danger warning. I laugh inside my brain. The pound store is weird. It’s dark and the rows disappear towards the back of the shop. It’s like putting your head into a big cardboard box. I stand still. It’s like in a dream. Everything’s in the right place, but it’s all wrong somehow. The two kids push past me. I see one of them is white. He can only be a couple of years older than Harry. Fucking hell. I wouldn’t want him out in this. I move deeper inside and the noise from the street fades away. My feet are heavy. I can’t make out the floor in the dark. I feel naughty. Proper badman. Without the lights it looks graveyard or zombie movie. A shiver runs all through my body and I’m supersensitive. I can feel a single drop of sweat drip from the back of my skull and slide halfway down my spine. Every hair it bends feels the size of a matchstick. I’m buzzed to high fucking heaven. I grab at the shelf and grope for something. I can’t see in the dark and bring it close to my face. Weed killer. Fuck off. I put it back on the shelf. What am I doing? I take the bottle and drop it on the floor. Guilt flashes through me, but it’s good. I like it. I want to go bonkers. I can hear the other guy knocking stuff around at the back. I wonder what he’s looking for. Then I think about it. What am I looking for? It’s a fucking pound store. I know what I want. I run over to the aisle next to the tills. Jaffa fucking cakes. I love that shit. I pick up a carton and then change it for the triple pack. Better value. I leg it. Back on the street I crack them open and stuff three into my cake hole at the same time. They’re dry as hell and fill my mouth and I choke. I hold them at the front of my gums, swallow the stray bits and then start chewing again. This time they all go down but stick in my throat. I wished I’d nicked a bottle of fizzy to wash them down with. I eat the rest one at a time. I walk down the street eating my jaffas like I’m watching a film. A van drives past with music blaring. Drum and bass. It’s too distorted though. Just thuds and fuzz. It pulls up next to me and a bloke with a green scarf round his mouth asks if I know where the main action is. I shrug and shove another cake in my gob. It drives off and disappears. I keep moving along the High Street towards the market end, checking out the bust up store fronts. It always looks like there’s more shit kicking off further down the road. Maybe there is, but this is enough for me. I get to the electronics shop. There’s a fucking queue to get in through the window. It’s one in one out. It’s so mental it makes me laugh out loud and the orange bit of the jaffa cake falls out my mouth. I laugh even more. Everything’s loopy tonight. Nobody can do nothing and nobody cares. London is crackers sometimes. I stand behind the other people waiting to get in. I hope they’ve still got the games and camera left. When I get inside I feel different than the pound shop. It’s busy as hell and everyone’s got their mobile phone torch lights on. It’s almost as bright as the day but the lights move disco style. Most people are grabbing at the smart phones. There’s so many people, I ain’t even going to bother. At the back of the shop I find the games console section, but they’re all gone too. For fuck sake. I’ll have to get the boys something else. Luckily they’ve still got cameras. I haven’t got a fucking clue. I grab one with a Japanese sounding name that looks expensive. My breath goes short when I hold it. It’s not like lifting biscuits. This is proper. If I get caught I’ll be fucked. I look out from under my hood. So many people carrying shit out the shop. Pigs’ll have to arrest the whole neighbourhood. Ha. They’d probably like that. Relocate us to Wormwood Scrubs instead of zone sixty six or whatever we’re getting sent to. My joke isn’t funny. I drop back from the shelves and watch the hoody shadows in the orange streetlamps. It makes me angry. Not the stealing. The fucking cunts making us move out of Eldon. I’d like to see them try that in Mayfair. All the posh cunts would get their butlers to pay off the prime minister. I don’t know what would happen, but it don’t matter because it never would. We’re always the bastards who get kicked around and then blamed for not being grateful that they’re turfing us out our manor and moving us away from our mates and families. All of central London’s going to be full of wankers like the knobs from the Prickworks. Bunch of fucking fakers pretending they’re in love with the planet and each other and don’t mind gaylords or pakis or niggers and still go to work in the city where they screw over everyone in the whole bastard world. I don’t take much notice, but I know those cunts ain’t as fucking holier than Jesus on a broomstick as they make out. That’s what Georgina says anyway. I’m all hot and bothered. It’s fucking right I should nick this camera. Get my own back. I wish they had some game stations left. I’ll just have to get the boys some American hoodies or something. I leave the shop. It’s practically empty. A good job done by all. I give the main shop sign an up yours. They make us want all this stuff so they should expect us to fucking nick it now and again. Their own fucking fault it’s so expensive. I wonder what toffs nick when they go rioting. They probably just smash stuff for the hell of it because they’ve already got loads of cool shit. You can do anything with money. It ain’t surprising our leaders are all posh cunts. If you get everything you want you’ll get bored with stuff and have to go looting for power instead. Kind of makes sense. Maybe I’d do the same if I was born with a silver spoon up my arse. Seems like a waste of time though. All that effort just to make a few people richer and lots of people poorer. What’s the point? Better we all had a bit and we wouldn’t have to go smashing up Addington High Street or mugging old ladies for their pension. That’s all bullshit though. People are just greedy fuckers, no matter who they are. My knickers are getting knotted and I try and focus on what I’m going to get Harry and Matt. I reckon a matching tracksuit and trainers would be good. I think about my boys. I really don’t want them out in this. It ain’t a place for kids. All this violence and payback. It’s not exciting anymore, it’s angry. I just want to get my shit and go home. The discount sport shop’s down the other end of the high street by the market stalls so I start walking quickly. I keep my head down and try and blinker everything. The camcorder is so light. Maybe I’ve just grabbed an empty box. Too late to worry now. I keep going. I try not to look at the smashed windows. They look right, but I don’t want it to be. I don’t want to live in a place where this seems okay. I don’t want my kids to grow up only thinking about smart phones and tellies. I don’t want them to believe this is the way to get our own back. I don’t even know who we’re getting our own back on. I just know that we’re at the bottom. That’s what everyone thinks. That we’re shit and scum and worthless. But why? I just don’t get it. I get to the end of the pedestrian bit of Addington High Street, opposite the cheap bakery. They’ve got lush Eccles cakes, two for a squid. A gang bundle past me and push me aside. I want to give them the finger but there’s about ten of them. I ain’t got a death wish. They’re swigging away at spirits. Fucking hell, they’re knocking that shit back. I guess this is a party for them. Like they’ve won the lottery while getting a blowjob. There’s a couple of nippers with them too. And girls. All mixed up. They don’t care who they’re with as long as they’re having a good time. It’s funny to watch them pratting around. A few of them are lobbing stuff at shop windows, but nothing serious. I watch them as they reach the other end of Addington High Street. We come out at the end of the market stall frames and join the road proper. It’s quieter here. There’s only really the discount sports shop and a few shitty stores before you reach the T-junction that leads to the A48. One of the gang drops back, picks up something from the bins on the pavement and then lunges past the group shouting for them to watch. He runs across the road towards one of the tat shops and lobs whatever it was right through the big display window. Glass goes everywhere and leaves a hole big enough to drive a tank through. The kid turns back to the group and celebrates like he’s scored the winning goal of the FA Cup. Fucking hell. He’s only little, can’t be more than ten. He shouts a big wahey and disappears through the shattered display. The gang bundle in after him. I walk a bit closer. Shit. It’s Ghalia’s shop. I look through the broken pane. They’re smashing all the neon crap and throwing around all the plastic baskets. One of them throws a bird feeder out onto the pavement. It’s all wrong, they’re not even stealing anything.
‘What the fuck are you lot doing?’
I hear myself shouting through the window. I didn’t mean to. It just flew out of me with a life of its own. Like my brain’s making all the decisions and not telling me. It’s going to get me into shit. None of them even look at me. Ignorant little bastards. They’re too into smashing the novelty ashtrays and the shiny pink and gold glass Mecca pictures. I mean, they are shit, but it ain’t right. Ghalia’s family hasn’t screwed anyone over. They’re not some big chain store with a million shops, making billions of quid. I shout again.
‘What the fuck are you stupid cunts doing? Why you smashing up this place? What the fuck they done to you?’
They turn and look now. I can see their dilated eyes glowing in the shadow of their hoods. I don’t care.
‘What are you proving with this? That you’re badass? Go smash up the cop shop if you’re that fucking hard.’
It seems the whole world goes silent. I look back down the High Street, but there’s nobody around, just me and a dozen loony looters. I’m fucked. I want to run, but I’ve got to stand my ground. Better to take a kicking than be a coward. Shit. The whole lot of them move together, like their doing a dance routine. I try and stand up straight. Make it look like I could hurt them, at least a little bit. I wait outside on the pavement and eye them as they step one by one through the hole in the display window. The first few pass me and don’t do nothing but stare. Maybe, they’ve listened. Maybe they understand what I said. Maybe I got through. A tall girl punches me in the face as she steps onto the street. It stings numbly all the way down my spine and into the crack of my arse. My face burns. I shake it and stare at her. She smiles at me and smacks me again. I’m on the floor. Jabs and spikes from all angles. I curl up into a ball and I can feel the broken glass grating against my side. They keep kicking. Shouting that I’m a poof and a pig lover. All the impacts blend into one, like being massaged by a heavyweight boxer. I don’t feel pain. I’m cocooned by their attack. They’ve stopped. I didn’t even realise. I peak out from behind my hands. They’ve backed off to the middle of the road, huddled together in a group. They weren’t serious, they didn’t even kick me in the head. Little cunts. I try and move and my chest creaks and snaps. The pain cuts me in half. I choke on it. It pulls me back to the floor and I roll and contort but it doesn’t go. I lie still. Take in air. Something’s trying to explode me from the inside out, like there’s a bike pump shoved up my A-hole. It’s fucking agony. I hold my arms around my ribs and run my fingers over the bumps. They seem alright, no breaks, but I’m not a fucking doctor. I don’t even know what they should feel like. I move up onto my knees. It feels a little better. The pain’s going or I’m getting used to it. I choke a few times as saliva gets stuck in my throat. I cough it up and it goes all over my hoodie. It’s blood. Bollocks, that’s my favourite hoodie too. Fucking bastards. They’ve ruined my best top. They’re still here. A couple of stray ones are drinking huge gulps straight from the bottle as they tightrope walk along the white road lines. I wouldn’t mind a shot of something to help with my fucking chest. The girl who punched me gives me a bright white grin from under her hood. She’s quite hot actually. I’d have a go on that. She must be a right handful in the sack. Have to watch it if she got kinky. She almost broke my fucking nose. At least they’re not in Ghalia’s Uncle’s shop now. They might have decked me, but I reckon they listened. They’ll never admit it, but that’s why they ain’t still in there smashing the dayglo. I don’t care if I got kicked in. I fucking saved Ghalia’s shop and learnt people up about this shit. I stand up. It takes me a second or two, but I make it. I’m not that hurt. They didn’t even put the boot in properly. They’re not bad kids really. Fucking hell that sounded like what Georgina’s Mum would say.
‘Oye. Pig poof.’
One of the group shouts over at me. A nipper from the middle of the group lurches forward. He’s got something in his hand. Glowing yellow. He lobs it into the shop through the busted window. There’s a whoosh and then a blanket of flames covers the shop floor on the inside. My mouth hangs open and I stagger backwards into the road. I don’t feel my chest anymore. They’ve torched the place. My brain’s on go slow, like I’m doing long division. I just see fire. Turn. See the group’s yellow teeth laughing. They shoulder punch each other as they swagger backwards and forward in bullshit hysterics. Inside the shop cricks and cracks in the heat and the smoke starts pummelling out of the gaping hole in the display window and into the street. I can’t see inside anymore, it’s just puff black on sharp gold. There’s shouting, a woman’s voice, but I can’t see her. The group point above the shop. They stop laughing. They look scared. They turn and leg it. They disappear down an alley and I look up to where they were pointing. There’s someone hanging out an upstairs window on the second floor above the shop’s main entrance. She’s shouting. I can hear it clearly and the voice rips me more painfully than the kicking or the heat of the fire. It’s Ghalia. She hangs out the window, arms windmilling. She shouts for help. I get closer.
I shout up at her. She doesn’t hear me and I shout again.
‘Ghalia, I’m down here.’
She looks down and her face changes.
Her jaw drops back and her eyes bulge. I wave.
I call up and smile. I stare at her. It’s Ghalia. Fuck, I miss her. A flame jumps up from the ground floor and licks the window frame below her. Her face clenches into a fist.
‘Dean, really. Get a bloody move on.’
She’s frightened. I breathe heavily. My ribs kick back. The pain surges through me, but it wakes me up. I’m energised, batteries in my balls. I look around, but I don’t know what for. There’s just litter and the shells of the market stalls. One still has plastic tarpaulin around the base. I run over and tear it off. I’m so strong. I don’t even realise. I run back to the shop and shout up at Ghalia.
‘I’m going to catch you.’
‘Don’t be stupid.’
She spits it snake tongue at me. I blink hard. Have to focus.
‘Hang from the window and jump when I tell you to.’
‘Don’t be such a moron Dean.’
She looks at me with disgust. Like she’s so smart and I’m so dumb and don’t know anything. I sometimes hate Ghalia. She thinks she’s so great. I’m mad. My blood’s boiling. My face is burning. My ribs hurt. And she’s giving me a load of shit. Fuck off.
‘Ghalia. Just shut the fuck up and do what I say.’
It’s brutal. I mean it. I’m fury and the beast. Ghalia goes to say something but stops. She looks at me and I see her smile. Or maybe it’s just the fire shadows on her face. I feel fucking ace. She turns from me and shuffles out the window arse first. It’s so round and juicy. I shake myself out of a hard on. For once, I really have to concentrate. Ghalia hitches up her Paki dress and hoists her legs out one by one. I rush forward with the plastic tarpaulin outstretched. I lay it down over the fire by the shop door, directly under Ghalia. It covers the flames. Got to be quick.
Ghalia lets go and she falls. I put my arms up to catch her. Impact. Darkness. I can’t breathe. I’m on the floor. My mouth is full of cloth. I kick my legs and grab thin air. I can’t move it. I’m drowning. The weight lifts and Ghalia grabs my hand and pulls me away from the shop. I scramble to get up and we both tumble into the middle of the road. We’re in each other’s arms. Tight together. Holding on to life. The shop burns and the flames reach the top floors. The whole building is on fire. The window where Ghalia was is now flickering knife points of yellow and red. She’d be dead. I saved her. I’m a hero. Fucking Ninja Squad. I laugh out loud. Ghalia is crying. I see her home burning down reflected in her eyes. They’re so wet. So many tears. But she can’t put it out. It’s all gone. She cries and cries and cries. I want to cry with her. I feel like I should. But there’s a block inside me. I watch the fire gut the building. It’s the wrong one, but it feels good. Destruction calms me. It clears away the crap and lets better stuff come instead. I want that fire in me, burning through everything. Through me, through Eldon, through the whole fucking country. Something ain’t right if we want to do this. There’s got to be something fucked. And I ain’t done nothing. Ghalia’s done nothing. We ain’t fucked up, but someone has. Some cunts have made this the only way to say anything. Make people know we’re still here. That we’re still alive and we’re people too. Me and Ghalia and everyone on Eldon and Addington. Fuck you. I touch my face. It’s wet. Ghalia has stopped crying. She sniffs a huge wet noseful in and then wipes her face with her sleeve.
‘You okay Dean?’
Her voice is pillow soft. It holds me close. Comfortable. She guides me over to a bus stop and we huddle in the corner together.
‘Yeah, I think so.’
I nod to the shop.
‘In Leicester. It’s my cousin’s wedding. I was supposed to go tomorrow.’
A siren echoes through Addington High Street and cuts Ghalia off. We both turn to see a fire engine pull up. I stop breathing. I’ve never seen one so close before, properly on duty and everything. The firemen jump out and run around, pulling out hoses and start spraying the building. It’s mental. The water’s so powerful it goes right up to the fourth floor no problem. It looks like when me and Madu had pissing competitions. We sometimes used to aim at matches. One of the firemen comes over and takes off their helmet. He’s a woman. I didn’t know they had firewomen. That’s pretty cool.
‘Were either of you in the fire?’
I point at Ghalia.
‘It’s her family’s shop.’
The firewoman talks to Ghalia.
‘Are you hurt?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe.’
Ghalia points back at me.
‘I landed on him. He’s probably got a few broken bones.’
Me and Ghalia try and laugh, but it doesn’t come out right, more like choked sobs. The firewoman waves her hand at us.
‘Wait here. I’m going to call for an ambulance.’
She goes back to the fire engine and hops in the cab. Ghalia lays her head on my shoulder and we hold each other, watching the shop burn. Ages pass and it feels like we’ve been here for hours. The fire people aren’t running around anymore, like it’s all under control. They’re just standing and chatting and taking it in turns to hold the hoses. I’d love to have a go on one of them. Finally, the ambulance pulls up behind the fire engine. I nudge Ghalia.
‘Time to go.’
She lifts her head.
‘Aren’t you coming with me?’
‘Nah, I’m alright. You didn’t crush me that badly.’
The paramedics get pointed over by the firewoman before Ghalia can say something.
‘Hello. We heard that you were in a fire.’
I nod at Ghalia.
‘Okay, we’re going to take you in to hospital, just to check that nothing’s wrong.’
The medic puts out her hand to Ghalia and helps her up. I stand too. My arse has gone to sleep. It’s numb and the pins and needles are going to kill.
‘Could you give us a minute?’
Ghalia is still holding my hand. The medic looks at us. She probably wonders what the hell is going on. White estate scum and hardline Muslim holding hands. She nods and leaves, but her face says it all. It’s funny. It’s just me and Ghalia. She takes both my hands in hers.
‘Thank you for saving me.’
I look at her hand in mine. It looks black against my pink mitt. But it’s the same shape. It’s got four fingers and a thumb. It’s what’s around us that makes the difference. Under her Paki dress she’s got a pussy and tits just like Georgina. She shits and pisses and has the painters in every month. We all do. Not the blob or pussies, but the idea. We’re just animals and all work in the same way. Paki dresses and headscarves and suits and doors and rules and underwear and stupid cunts spouting off rubbish makes the differences. We hide it. We hide the fact that we’re all the same and all equal. People like Phil Harris. Cunts like Al Queerdo who blew up the twin towers and the tube. I fucking hate them. I want to tell Ghalia. I want her to know that we’re not that. That I know she’s not that.
‘The NDL ain’t England. Don’t let it change you. It ain’t us. It ain’t like what it says on the telly. That’s not me.’
I mean it. My voice is strong as it comes out. I feel it from my chest, not my mouth. Did I even say it? I look at Ghalia. Does she know who I am? Her eyes close and open. Her eyes smile and are followed by her mouth. It’s my Mum’s face. It’s Georgina’s face. It’s my own when the boys say something they’ve learnt themselves. Not from school or adults, but they sussed it out all on their own. She pulls my hand closer to her chest and holds it in front of her. Her skin is smooth and her hands are soft and plump. I can tell her anything. I want her to feel the same with me. I think she does. She puffs out through her nose and speaks.
‘I’m not worried about the NDL. They’re just very annoying.’
Her face hardens for second.
‘Very fucking annoying actually. But they’re just a day to day pain in the arse. They can’t change things. There’s only a few people in this county who can. But they don’t.’
Ghalia lets out a sigh, like old ladies do when they’ve finished laughing about a rude joke that wasn’t even rude.
‘You know, it’s almost funny.’
‘These riots. The marches. All of it.’
She’s looking through the flames and waterspouts and black outlines of the firemen and women.
‘I grew up on Eldon. I know how it is. We’re good people Dean, you and I. Everyone here. But nobody knows it and nobody wants to.’
She shuffles her body closer to mine.
‘Do you know what Martin Luther King said about riots?’
‘Is he the bloke from South Africa?’
Ghalia shakes her head and pulls me into a tight hug. It’s long and close. I don’t feel like I want to screw her. I just want to feel her near me. We stand together. When she pulls away she kisses me on the lips. It’s soft, not passionate like before, just gentle. The way I used to kiss Harry and Matt when they were toddlers. She loves me. I kiss her back the same way. I love her too. It’s not ‘fucking’ love. It’s like family. Like she’s part of me. It makes me want to burst out laughing and crying and shouting. It makes me want to hold her close and say nothing. I want her to be happy. She pulls away slightly. We have to say goodbye again. We always do. Always will I guess. She takes both my hands in hers.
We walk to the ambulance and I help Ghalia get up into the back.
‘I’m sorry about your Uncle’s shop.’
I watch from the road as Ghalia sits down.
‘I wouldn’t worry too much. It was mostly tat anyway.’
Ghalia pushes her nose up with her little fingers, rolls her eyes and sticks out her tongue. Freak pig face. The medic slams the door shut and Ghalia is gone. I wished I’d have done her, just once. Even a finger would have been enough. At least I had a go on her tits. I try and picture what they felt like, but I just keep seeing freak pig face. The last time I saw it was in school. Twenty years ago. Fucking hell. It was Ghalia’s birthday. I remember it. I remember white teeth and blood. I remember the heat and rage. It all feels so close. I remember Madu slumped next to the school fence. Frightened eyes. No, I see it. Sad eyes. He was my best friend. He was a dick. I remember how he treated Ghalia. What a cunt. And she never said nothing. She was always smarter than us though. She knew we were just kids. Madu didn’t know any better, he was just copying stuff. Ghalia would forgive him. I know she would. I hope Madu would forgive me. Maybe he has. I don’t fucking know. I grab my head and run my fingers through my short hair. I don’t want to think of that. The ambulance pulls away. I rub my eyes. I want a cup of tea. I’m going home. The fire’s almost gone now. They’re still chucking on loads of water though. Got to soak everything because any spark can set the whole thing off again. A van pulls up next to the fire engine and a woman in a trouser suit jumps out, followed by a bloke with a big camera. Where’s Georgina’s camera? I go back to where the gang jumped me. The little fuckers better not have nicked it. Maybe when I caught Ghalia. I don’t remember having it. I turn back to the shop. The woman’s talking to the firewoman in front of the camera. Must be reporters from the telly. They’ll love a story like this. Dumb scum burn down own house. That should look good on the news. Cunts. I guess they show what we like. People want extremes. That’s why we go on rollercoasters and watch horror movies. No one’s going to pay good money to go on a simulator of the teddy bears’ picnic. The firewoman points at me and the reporter rushes over. They’re here already. The camera’s up. She doesn’t look at me, only the camera guy.
The camera guy gives a thumbs up and then she puts the microphone to her mouth. It’s just like off the telly, but I’m at a different angle. It’s weird. She speaks quickly.
‘You rescued a woman from this fire, is that right?’
She shoves the mic in my face. I look at it. It’s like a big furry gun. I shift my head away.
‘Yeah. Sort of.’
‘So you’re one of the heroes of the riots? Ready to take a stand against the mindless violence?’
The mic comes back to me. I don’t know if it’s a question or not. I mumble.
‘I don’t know. Not really. I was just here.’
‘And what do you think of these violent criminals? The people who set fire to this innocent shop?’
Her face is stern. Like she cares, but there’s something wrong. It’s as if she’s doing a game. Role playing, like when me and Gary used to pretend to be football commentators. I don’t believe her. She’s fake.
‘Well, it’s not right. But they’re just kids. They don’t know any better. They’re just pissed off about stuff.’
The reporter pulls her chin back as if she’s stepped in shit, then points at the burnt out shop.
‘And this is the best way to express that?’
The microphone hovers in front of my face. The reporter sucks air in through her pursed lips and over her teeth. Who the fuck does she think she is interrogating me? She’s only about twelve and probably comes from Surrey. What does she know about round here? And she’s trying to tell me what to think. Get the right story so she can sit on the news desk with that black fella. Bitch.
‘No, it ain’t. But you wouldn’t be down here talking to me if this was a peaceful protest, would you?’
I’m mad. Tingling with fury. I just want to electric shock her. That’s all they show, the bad stuff. Gang killings or those NDL cunts or Islams burning flags. They ain’t interested in real people. What life’s really like here. Just extremes. Never the middle. I take a couple of sharp breaths. I stare her in the eye and then turn to face the camera.
I walk off and don’t even say goodbye. I see Georgina’s camera fallen next to the high curb. I pick it up and head home. I think about the interview and laugh. That’ll learn her up. I imagine myself on the news, telling her to fuck off. And I said cunt. Or did I just think it? Don’t matter either way, they’ll never use it. They can always choose what they show. They choose what everyone sees. We don’t know nothing that don’t come off the telly. We don’t choose the stories. I understand why Georgina gets so angry at it now. They really don’t care about ordinary people. They don’t care about what really happens here on the estates. Thousands of people live here day in day out. They have jobs, they have families, they fall in love and they all snuff it. What’s the big fucking difference? Nobody cares about all the good stuff. Nobody wants to hear about me having tea with lonely old biddies. Or that group of teenagers who clean off the graffiti once a month and don’t get paid nothing. Or the candlelight peace walks that loads of people go on, no matter who they are. Nobody wants to hear about me taking my kids to the community kitchen once a month so they get to understand their neighbours, not be frightened of them. They’re not going to show that on the news, or write a book about it. Nobody gives a fuck about that because that’s not what they want us to be. We have to be different from them, because if we ain’t then everyone will see we’re the same. They got to hide that, because otherwise we might ask why they’ve got everything and we’ve got fuck all. They got to keep us fighting each other to stop us fighting them. Just like their wars for oil and shit. It pisses me off. I don’t even know who they are. They’re invisible, just suits on telly. But what can we do? Burn down Paki tat shops? I don’t know. Fuck I’m tired and my ribs hurt. I just want to go home. My steps ache. I walk slowly. Drag one foot past the other and repeat. I’m in Addington. I take the main road through towards Eldon. I’m limping a little. I feel like a spaz. I reach the crossroads where the two estates meet. They’re like twins. If you didn’t live round here you’d never know the difference. It doesn’t matter, it’s all going to be demolished anyway. I wonder what they’ll put here instead. Another shopping centre, maybe, with a multi-whorey car park. I don’t fucking care. I ain’t coming back. I reach my courtyard. I’m knackered and I’ve got six floors to climb. Bollocks. I hope we get a lift in the new place. It takes me ages to get to my floor. I can’t breathe in properly because my ribs kill every time I try. It’s like being an asthma kid. I always wanted one of them ventilators, but I had a go on one and it didn’t do jack. Must be a real pain in the arse if you have to suck on it every time you want to do something. Just imagine it on the knob. I splutter out a laugh and have to lean on the walkway wall to hold in the pain. I look up and see the Eldon night view. Not much to write home about. Like them all black postcards that say ‘Cumstain-On-Sea by Night’ or whatever. It’s funny the first time. I look at Ghalia’s block and then over at Madu’s block. I think of Madu all junkied up and bleeding. I cough and hunk up a huge gob. I spit it out into the courtyard and watch it disappear into the darkness. I always wanted to have a slash from up here. Me and Madu even planned it once. We never did it though. I’ve not really done much. I just shut up and let it all wash over me. But I can feel it. There’s Madu and Ghalia and my kids and Georgina and the black kid who got killed whose name I can’t remember. It’s all there inside me, bubbling and stewing. I try and hide it, try and forget it. Just exist, put up with all the shit and sod the rest. But it ain’t true. It’s really all here. He was called Dwayne Campbell. I just wanted to forget, but I always knew it. I was just a kid. I’m sorry. I always thought it, and then after Madu…It was the same knife. And he’s in here too. Phil Harris. I never did anything. Just kept my head down and shut my mouth. Well I don’t have to. I can do something. I need to do something. And I know what it is. I open the front door and Georgina rushes out from the living room to me. She squeezes me tight. It hurts like a bitch, but I don’t care. I want her close. I kiss her hair. I whisper.
‘I love you.’
It’s the first time I ever said it to her. And I really fucking mean it.
The day came for them to move. A friend of Georgina’s Mum had offered to take their stuff in his van for twenty quid. Dean asked to drive around Eldon just once. They passed the waste ground, where he’d seen a fox and kissed Ghalia for the first time. Then they headed up to the prick, where the driver took ten minutes to do a tight twenty three point turn. The blocks at this end of the estate had already been cleared and the windows were blackened chipboard. Dean looked across the tatty triangle of scrubland from the passenger window. It seemed so long ago, but he could feel everything. His tongue in her mouth, the streetlight waves on the tarmac, the dizzy lightness of his steps. He was there, a kid, hiding behind a brick corner, watching murder.
Dean turned his face to the dashboard and flipped the glove compartment open and closed. The day after the riots, Dean had gone to Addington police station. The Dwayne Campbell case had been re-opened and Phillip Harris had been called in. The media had sniffed around for a while, but lost interest when Dean had refused to talk to any of the papers or television channels. The riots themselves died down and were quickly forgotten. It was senseless, meaningless, criminal behaviour. The politicians and press felt no need for analysis or investigation into the causes. It was obvious, the people who did it were the problem. Dean’s cracked ribs had recovered much slower. Surprisingly to him, Georgina hadn’t got angry about his involvement. In fact, she nursed him so well that Dean thought she must have gone soft in the head.
As he’d predicted, Georgina had refused to use the video camera for about a fortnight. After that she gave her old one to the boys and recorded Eldon life with even more vigour. Dean still didn’t get it. He watched some of the footage with her, but it never really touched him. Just once. Georgina had recorded two minutes of kids playing one touch against the garages. Dean had to pinch his leg hard both times he’d watched it. The van man reversed into the shell of an abandoned car for the umpteenth time and growled a fucking hell through his open window. Dean shut the glove box. There were no gloves in it, just a singed jazz mag. He looked over his shoulder at Georgina and the boys in the backseat. A small plastic square in the panel behind them allowed Dean to see through to the rear of the truck. They’d managed to pack everything in one go. Dean wondered if it all amounted to that, a small van of worthless crap. He didn’t know. He didn’t really care. Of course, he wanted stuff, but it wasn’t going to change anything. He had his kids and Georgina, Ghalia and Madu, and even Gary. He never remembered things, just people and words and emotions and actions. It made him happy. He wanted to feel everything again. To embrace it. It was going to be difficult, he knew. Harry and Matthew had to start new schools. Georgina’s two bus commute was going to be getting on two hours each way. The old estate folks were getting dispersed all across London so Dean’s shopping runs were over. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but he was certain he’d suss something out. Surely there’d be a job for him, even a real one would be okay. He’d made up his mind on a plan, already put a little money away. They’d save enough and then go on a proper holiday. Ideally he wanted to go somewhere abroad like Corfu or Tenerife, but they’d probably end up in Devon. But that was fine. It was more than fine. It would be great. They’d play Newmarket for one and two pees and light the tent with a strip bulb and car battery. A real family holiday, with his own family. It still snuck up on him sometimes, that he was a father, all grown up. He liked that feeling. He was proud of it. After all, he hadn’t fucked up too badly yet. He loved his boys, Georgina, his Mum. He loved Ghalia. He loved Madu. He even loved Georgina’s Mum and that wasn’t easy. And they all loved him. He knew it. It was enough. When the van was packed, Dean had gone back up to the flat to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything. He’d checked the empty square rooms. They looked so small. They were all the same across Eldon and Addington. He guessed all the same across the country. Stacks of boxes to put people in. That was life. He’d walked around the rooms with his cock out and pissed all over the floors. He hadn’t had enough to do upstairs and decided against taking a dump because he didn’t have any bog roll. The driver finally got them pointing in the right direction by bumping the front wheel up over the pavement. The van dropped hard on the suspension and the engine cut out. Dean muttered a for fuck sake and rolled his eyes towards the prick. He thought about the plaque in memory of Dwayne Campbell. He wondered what would happen to it? Would the people in the new houses care? He imagined they’d just build over it. Sweep it under the concrete and forget. Wasn’t that what they always did? He snorted as the driver fought with the ignition. That was what pissed him off. They were being shoved this way and that and no one gave a shit. But what could he do? The van shuddered forward, finally smoothing out as they drove back along the main access road. What could someone like Dean really do to make things different? He thought about it, really strained his brain to come up with something, but it was blank. He wasn’t smart like Georgina or Ghalia, and even they didn’t know. He just knew it wasn’t right. Something was wrong about the way people like him and Ghalia and Madu had to live, the choices they had, about what people thought of them. But really, what could he do? Nothing. They were all fucked. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t equal and that was fucking that. The van reached the access road and turned off Eldon and onto the A48. They drove along with Addington on one side and the New Eldon Brickworks on the other. He wanted to understand, but he just didn’t get it. Why was the world like this? Did it need to be? And was a bigger telly and a designer toaster really going to make things better? He didn’t have a fucking clue.