Second part of story in one of my old zines. Currently working on a couple of new bits of writing but life has been both harsh and busy recently, in many ways. This tale here is particularly jaded, and far too serious. You can read the first part here ….
Part 2. Coldharbour Lane – Brixton end.
“It was a summer night: laughter fell softly: it was the sort of night that if you wasn’t making love to a woman you feel you was the only person in the world like that”.
— S. Selvon, The Lonely Londoners.
There is only so much entertainment a ceiling can provide. I can’t sleep, again. It is my own fault I know, I should not have started watching tv after dinner. Never disturb the insomniac’s bedtime rituals: dinner, glass of rum, hot drink, quick wash, teeth brush, half hour read a book, lights off. But I can’t sleep.
There are many things on my mind, and for so long I considered Brixton to be my new start, my refuge, my “Brazil”. Port of Spain was no longer going to disturb and distract me. I tried to cut my roots. Yet as a wise old dread once said, you can’t cut them roots man they are on the back of your head. You see, a woman broke my heart. Ha ha, yes, it is trite, but let me tell you it was no “vale of tears” I chose to wallow in. It depends on what you call a prison. Is it a vale of tears? Is it an addiction? Is it just a matter of survival – of surviving each day as it comes, ‘by hook or by crook’, as the English say? Well then I retract: it was all three. You don’t know the street my friend, until you have slept on it. You may walk it, but until you have lived on it. . . .
But what am I saying? I never knew the streets, not with my twilit days, in the throes of addiction. All I knew was survival. And baseness. And the surprisingly guileless art of pocket-picking. And finding ways of getting a fix. And then getting that fix. And then finding new ways of getting a fix. And so on. I’m sure you’re getting the picture.
“In the throes of addiction….”, what a way to start! I was no man. They used to spit on me, even old women! It was no use begging for change. I tried, believe me. I busked! I got nothing, not enough any way. Addiction is a downward spiral. But I will not burden you with a lengthy account of my indulgences and transgressions: lord knows I’ve lectured enough times on the damaging effects of crack cocaine to the famished lifeless faces of rehab groups. It bores me. Let me tell you some of my story.
I came to England seven years ago, with a firm desire to write a dissertation on the poetry of Samuel Selvon and the ‘Trinidad diaspora’. But I never finished that dissertation. I cannot even remember if I even began it. I was an ambitious but naive islander when I came over here. My accommodation didn’t work out. I fell in with a ‘bad crowd’, at least, that’s what they seem now. At first it was exciting, a big family. But it descended. Like I said, and bear the image in mind now, a downward spiral. Drugs became our communal obsession: getting high was what we talked about, what we lived for. It was a long while before it became an addiction. For a year or so it was sheer pleasure. The best days and the worst.
I was living on and off the streets for about three years, in Brixton! Ironic as it is I am all too aware, and why I have chosen to return to Brixton to live a more ‘vigorous’ life is a question I can find no proper answer to either, except perhaps I know this place. London can be very alienating. I had a couple of friends still in the area. They were surprised to see me still alive. But so much for that. For to the question you might be pondering, what was an educated man like myself doing living on the streets? I still ask myself that. There is no answer, and perhaps even no use in asking the question. I was virtually deported back home! Deported! I had to keep it a secret from all my family. Only my cousin knew: he worked at the justice department. I lived with a friend of his for a while, Nathaniel, a good man, and that is how I got myself back on my own two feet.
Mr Nathaniel got married, so I had to find somewhere new to call home, and for a while I lived with Nathaniel’s sister, Bridget. It is there, in her little house by where is produced Angostura bitters, that I came to love the woman. In that house and in that woman’s love I rebuilt my life. I started teaching at a local school. For two years it was almost perfect happiness. Then the tornado returned. It seems futile recounting all these things here. Let me blunt: the ugly touch of infidelity smeared the love that grew in that house, blackened it. No. I’ll be blunter. She was fucking another man. He moved in. She kicked me out the day after. For a while I moved back in with my Nathaniel and his young family, but I felt bad living off their charity and goodwill, and so as soon as I had saved up the money, I moved back to England. As you might have deduced, the authorities haven’t noticed that a deported man lives and pays taxes to Her Majesty. I laugh now, believe me, but it is a dangerous life, and I must say honestly that I am constantly watching out for strangers. I never open the front door.
Since then I have been trying to establish fresh a new life well atop of the old. No mentions please. “I have no history”, I tell people. I have even considered changing my name. But I cannot escape what is in my mind. And now, and how bitterly do I taste it! – there is no point. Port of Spain has caught up with me.
I pull myself out of bed and walk to the other side of the room. A bedsit, small I know, but good rent for the Brixton area (well ex-council flat, Tulse Hill) but near enough to the bus stop. Like a few others in Mulberry Court, it is owned by Esther, a fat Nigerian woman who is always far too busy when it comes to essential repairs like fixing the boiler, damp-proofing the walls, or buying in an oven that actually works, but is always fully-attentive and behind your shoulder when the rent is due. “Don’t bother me Mr Smith,” she sneer, “don’t tell me about the washing machine until you’ve paid your rent sir”. The walls were probably a pleasant and nice ‘brilliant white’ years ago, but now successive tenants have all left their own contribution to a speckled and stained near-beige wall, with nicotine patches around the window. Still it’s alright for me. As long as I have bed and roof over my head then that’s a better circumstance than I’ve been in before, believe, and I’ll find myself something a little bit more decent in the future. So I tell myself anyway. Money is not the biggest thing on my mind right now.
There’s something on the desk over there troubling me. It’s a letter from a woman I used to know, the very same woman I used to know who broke my heart, who I know cannot bring myself to name again (I said her name once! Is that not enough?). The memory of her blocks my throat and causes my eyes to sting. How she got my address is a mystery as I have not been in this place very long, but that is not the main thing on my mind as I re-read her short letter again. She says that she has a son back home and I am its father. How she knows this I don’t know, but she says she is sure about this. It was two years ago now that I left Port of Spain: she says the kid is one and a half, which is possible if he was conceived before I left. But I don’t know! How can I be the father? I was with this woman for about two years, but I could never trust that she was not with another man behind my back even back then? This woman, she was full of tricks! She wants money, but she could just be making this child up so I will wire her some money back for the upkeep of this child, when all it will do is resolve her latest financial calamity! She has included a photo too: the boy, smiling, “his farthers eyes”, in blue biro her caption reads underneath the Polaroid picture. I search the photo. Yes he does look like my nephew Wayne, but then there were many men in Port of Spain that might look like me!
I can’t think straight. I need the night air to straighten up my thoughts, and maybe a drink too if there is somewhere open. I put a jacket and hat on and head out towards Brixton. The door slams behind me. The emptiness and historical repetition of my situation strikes me as I descend down the concrete staircase toward the street level, a situation I dare not even think about, so troublesome as it is, that to even consider what to do would necessarily entail me to place a first step on some new and difficult path that would involve me sacrificing a part of my life now, lonely but in control, quiet but happy. My mother too is ill. My brother is in prison. They all want money, they all want me to go see them, but each time I tell them I can’t I’m busy I have no money in London now. Each time I lie to them, but it is with the closed-eye sigh that knows it is free still to step out of its obligations to the world. These burdens of the mind do they never cease? Gone from Port of Spain to escape such troubles and worries for a reason! And now a little boy too, shit. Man I need a drink!
It was a long night, timeless, suspended, in limbo. The moon was hanging so low to the sky like it would fall unto earth, all yellow and puffed-up, a strange sort of moon. From a labyrinth-like network of side-streets and back-streets whose mysteries I was slowly being initiated into, I came out onto the Effra road. There weren’t very much open at this time so I headed down to Coldharbour Lane where I might find myself a something to eat and to drink.
Not many people do walk these enchanted streets at this time, just the wayward and the wretched perhaps – a few, though some yardie boys outside the KFC still, some white boys trying to buy skunk off one of them fellers. Many a drunk man, old Leroy still sitting on a small wall by the library, lost in some wide-eye stare at the bust of Henry Tate, friends with a pigeon eating some bread by his hand, a can of red stripe by his heel; I duck my head low so he don’t spot me and hassle for a little loose change. A young lady waiting by the bus stop, her pretty hair in the wind, just folk waiting for a night bus to take them home. The lady looks lost and sad, maybe a hard day I don’t know. A car hooting away at them drunk men coming out of the Prince Albert now, singing and hollering in the street. A strange tension in the air, like everything feels a little different, even my index finger and thumb which I rub together out of an old and thoughtless habit, even the skin on my fingers feels different. Like something somewhere is going on, something strange and life changing happening to somebody, but not to me. Like the moon I am in limbo, temporarily visible.
A few folk still scratching about. I walk past a hollow-eyed man fishing through a rubbish bin. He looks up at me, a look of familiarity like he know me from somewhere. There is something I recall in his strange wide-eye look, yes, it is familiar, and his red woolly hat too, and his beard, yes, damn it, I can’t remember the name of the man but I have seen him from long back when I was wandering about London sleeping on benches and in parks. It is a friend of Anthony’s. He wants to talk. He recognises me. I know these sort of guy – I was one of them. He will hassle for money.
“ere that you Marcus? Marcus ma bwoi?”, he says, craning his head up towards me, his hands still digging through the pyramid of waste inside the bin. I recalled his voice then and there: Leon, a man who I was good to a long time ago, like so many things. Just off the … by Tooting Bec, we took it in turns, each night one would sleep on the sofa, the other would sleep on the floor. If that person never showed up, well the other would get the sofa. You can see that, even in a squalid place, we used to invent our own home comforts. Anyway one day Leon disappeared, coincidentally with a stash of money of mine I’d kept secret from the world, underneath a broken washing machine in the old house’s creepy pitch-black cellar. “Leon my boy, you look terrible! Wagwan?”
“Ha ha ha”, he cackled toothily. “Is you Marcus? Me ain’t seen you for long time. Where you been?” His hands had now left the bin, and were embracing me eagerly. He stank. I needed to go. I could feel he was already checking out where my wallet was. The sight of an old friend in the street is always an uncomfortable one, but this guy I knew to be dodgy! He’d robbed me once, and one time is enough. I knew a bit of oldspeak would defuse the situation and get me to the shops before they shut with a wallet still in hand to pay for things. I sighed.
“No worry Leon. Mi ere fi likkle while to see a brother. He is dying. Mi come out a prison not long ago. Mi clean. Where you staying?”
He looked at me, disappointed. He could sniff I was lying, but the offer of going to see him would distract him a while enough, at least to catch up an old times, whatever times they were to catch up on. He would also want to get me back on.
“Ha ha ha. I am staying with Pauline in …. Now. See this ring? Cost me a lot of money. We have child now, a little beautiful boy, my son. See look.” From his jean back pocket he retrieved a soiled and dog-eared photo of a little boy, handsome and smiling. He couldn’t have no son, but maybe he lost his marbles. Maybe he thought this was his son. His little brother died in care, drowned in some domestic accident he said once. Said his foster-dad did it. Drugs addle a man’s mind like that. Make him twist the guilt of one thing into some mad delusion of another. His eyes were gone.
“Listen Leon, mi come see you in the next week. I have to go now”. I looked up at him, my voice changing. Now what impulse drives a man to show a dead man generosity I do not know. And Leon was a dead man. He owed too much money to too many people. There was no point asking for my cash off him. Out of my pocket, and out of the same sense of shame and guilt that drives a white man in a suit to give money to a poor man, I pulled out a five note, and with a shake of the hand, shoved it into his palm. I let go, and patted him on the shoulder. “Good luck Leon”. Like the white man, once the shame wore off, I immediately regretted it.
And with that, and the shouts of “where you living now boy? Tick me now? Spare me just a quid for the bus?” I dashed off down the Coldharbour Lane, eager to escape this demonic vision of the past.
Our dreams formed a multi-layered tapestry that cloaked and clothed our ugly lives, shimmering and shivering in the ocean-like expanse of the night sky, just a sickly full moon and my eyes, so unsure. Now only dumb memories rage across my lost thoughts to times like this before. I was feeling it man, feeling the blues. I lit a cigarette. This feeling would be exhaled. I wandered under a bridge and continued down the long and barren road. My thoughts wandered and meandered upon the same paths that they had been this very night. I decided to write a letter to Port of Spain. I would ask for some evidence. I would also say that I was in London, that I was too busy and I couldn’t afford to return to Port of Spain soon.
“Like a painting of a sorrow
A face without a heart”.
The words choked in my mouth. Hamlet, a Shakespeare without a son. I don’t know! I need a drink! Finally I am there –
The smell of chicken, sweet frying meat, enticing as I approached, smelling so good. I was about to go into the costcutter when I saw a white woman outside, looking a little lost, headphones in them ears. “Have you got a light”, she asked, politely, hazily, lacking in all intonation and vitality. Yet her eyes were not glazed, only simply sullied in a cruel smudge of mascara, all run down her cheeks. The lady had been weeping.
“Here you are my darling”, offering the lighter towards her face.
Mercurial, her drifting thoughts contorted ugly, jagged yet angular, twisted inward. Listlessly, she waited around for just anything to happen. Wearily, she sighed inside an empty kitchen, whispers bouncing between the walls, blood on the cleaver, cracks. Cautiously, she hesitated between each moment, wary that quicksand could be mistaken for the beach, hopeless. Electrified, the frisson of conversation, desire, chance encounters, all flared surly, listlessly. Ruefully, she returned to the disregarded circumstances of her reality, baleful, banal.
He laughed first, ostensibly, light-heartedly. She saw something reassuring in his smile. “You lost lady? You look lost.”
She looked around. An N35 careered towards Loughborough Junction. What was she saying? She took a deep inhalation of the cigarette. Delicious, so much needed. He seemed a nice man, his face not quite as old as his general worldly manner. “Am I lost? I think so”. She laughed awkwardly. It was a thing new to laugh about. “Well listen lady, I think I am lost too!” He laughed, heavy-heartedly.
She looked around again. She was speechless. Her chest felt all clogged up, like she needed to throw up, but it wasn’t nausea but something else she was holding back, something far more heavy. A strange music drifted into her ears. It was when she put the besmirched restaurant napkin back in her pocket did she notice she’d started crying again. He was still smiling, though with a generous look of confusion on his face. She stretched together a smile. It was no good.
“Lady are you ok? I may not know you, but, if you forgive my presumption,” and he stammered, unexpectedly, “you have something suffering you on your mind. Some sorrow has written itself on your brain and now, blinded, you cannot see anything.” Her eyes were looking elsewhere. He was losing her attention. “Listen, if you need someone to talk to……well, if there is no one….”
“There’s no-one”, she interrupted, surprising herself. “….ok well I am here, you can talk to me. Do you want to talk?” He offered. Something about the lady’s sadness hung heavy on him.
“No it’s fine. I must be going.” She looked up at him, and then realised once again that he seemed genuinely concerned. She didn’t want to shrug him off, but, it was no good talking about it now, here in the street. She was drunk, and lost, and this man was a stranger. No it was no good. She started again:
“Look I’m alright thanks, I just need a glass of wine and a bit of sleep. I’m sorry, I mean, thank you for being nice. Oh,” she sighed, and sniffed, “I just don’t know anything any more” What’s your name?”
“Marcus. May I ask yours?”
“I’m Emma. Listen, Marcus, would you like to go for a drink sometime?”
“If you would join me, then I’d be honoured.”
“Tonight?” His over-the-top gentlemanliness was ridiculous, quite silly, and disarming. Trusting.
“It’s the very reason I took the air this strange evening!” he laughed.
“The air is strange, I’ve noticed it too. Is beer ok? My place is not far from here.”
“Ok Emma. Perhaps together we will find some truth in this wine, and recover our minds from this sorrow. You
know what I mean?”
“I think so”. She laughed. Remembering, she took off her ring and put it in her pocket.
A yearning for some measurable meanings, blinded by the black and the gold, a kissing insatiable bodily itch, touch, he disappeared again, she woke up in an empty bed, life’s long exile from the womb, never ceases, it never ceases, but no one really changes, we’re all arseholes to someone at the end of the day, mum’s first rejection, her words, overheard it in the dismissive humiliation of the cool kids I tried to impress in the playground, 1979-1990: we were never the first ones, a world without redemption, irredeemable, it’s all over and done now, to tell you the truth we’ve lost forever, oh the bloody story’s ended now hasn’t it? Shit, and I forgot to tell this joke:
A brain went into a pub and said, “Can I have a pint of lager please?”” No way” says the barman, “you are already out of your head”. . . . . . . . .the end.