“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can.
Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour ― because it is dead.
Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.”
― Beryl Markham, West in the Night
Outside of the window, beyond the hermetically sealed world in which I sit. While stewards check the integrity of locks, on overhead compartments, and passengers tighten their seat belts, some while whispering silent prayers. Tiny grey puddles of water, ripple together into larger pools on the tarmac before they're atomised into the wind by the growing thrust of jet engines, which exhales the power of technology that soon will take me from stillness, towards flight, and the ensuing spaces of a new world, far from home.
The internet informed me today, in that meandering and random way that it does at times, after it ensnares you in its clickbait clutches, that the earth is around 25,000 miles in circumference at its equator.
I remember going online to pay my Council Tax bill to Sandwell MBC, but instead, going first to look at my bank balance, out of some strange morbid curiosity. You know, in that way that you sometimes feel compelled to look at something horrible you know you shouldn’t? Anyway, after the initial shock, let's just say that no accounts were settled today. I succumbed, instead, to a few instant karma videos on Youtube, robberies going wrong mainly. Robbers having the tables turned on them by plucky shopkeepers and have-a-go hero customers. Then I watched a couple of videos involving bullies being out-bullied, yeah, bully beatdowns baby, those are good, and finally, another video, filmed down in the tube, where someone tried to slide down that space in-between the up and down escalators.
It all started off well for the guy, all shits and giggles until he picked up speed and began to encounter a series of large pointed metal obstacles which ran along it. Well, the look of horror on his face as his testicles impacted with the large pointed metal obstacles, again and again, will live with me.
So, in an attempt to change the mood, I turned to Twitter, endlessly scrolling up my Twitter timeline, as for some reason I’m always taken to tweets that are several days old when I open the app on my phone. I liked some posts in the process and retweeted others I hadn't really read; sometimes the headline says it all. Then I sought out Instagram for about five minutes. OK, about fifteen, before heading back to Twitter again, where I randomly found my way onto that fact about the circumference, yes, via a clickbait link which may or may not have been about a killer asteroid approaching Earth.
Sure, I’d heard it before, what the circumference of the Earth was I mean. I would have heard it mentioned at school, during geography lessons at Sir Gilbert Claughton, back in my teenage years in Dudley. I'd always hated sitting in a geography class though as it was how I’d always imagined it must have been to be in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. OK, you got me, I watched too many episodes of Tenko as a child.
So, Mr Boner. Yes, that was indeed our geography teacher’s name. Well, no, I may have changed it to protect myself from a defamation charge. Anyway, whatever his name was, he was a prick. So, “Mr Boner” would have droned the fact out at some point, with all of the other meaningless and pointless facts he used to, such as precipitation rates in Florida in 1972 or how many oranges were grown over the course of the following year. Of course, these were all valuable and pertinent facts for a teenager, in Dudley, waiting patiently to be thrown out onto Britain’s working class compost heap upon leaving school.
Anyway, for some reason, that nugget of information struck home today.
It’s funny how our minds work, right?
One minute, we’re concerned about killer asteroids, and then the thoughts of home seep in. But home and my parents seemed so far away today, as I realise that I hadn’t spoken to them in a while. Feeling upset that I hadn’t, and then feeling even worse when I realised that I felt relieved that I hadn’t spoken to them.
It’s hard to ring home though, when you’re on the other side of the Atlantic, to hear the sadness of my father. To hear the grief of a man looking back at his life, and then thinking of his future to come without his dying wife, as he camouflages his thoughts and fears behind jokes and laughter.
So, yes, I thought of them today, back there in Dudley, as I waited for the 80 bus to arrive in a line of people standing on the corner of Ave du Parc and Fairmount, just down the way from the PA Supermarket, and opposite the Jean Coutu pharmacy here in Montreal.
I thought too, strangely for some reason, of the shop around the corner from where I live, back in Smethwick, and the strange man behind the counter who always asks me if I’m well and then who never listens to my answer, and bizarrely, for some even stranger reason, I thought too about his gold-capped shoes. I don’t know why. Above the shop counter, his clothes tell the world a story of a man who has given up on life, and yet below the counter, his shoes tell the world a story of a man who is secretly a made man, a wise guy of a 1980s crime syndicate. Those gold-tipped shoes, you have to love them.
Then the bus came, and for the next eleven minutes or so, I sat listening to conversations in French that I didn’t understand while I looked down at my phone, studying the app which would tell me which stop to alight at, and approximately every 1.5 seconds, looking up and out of the windows to see where I was.
So, yes, 25,000 miles, and in all of my life I’ve never lived more than ten miles away from where I was born in Dudley, I thought to myself, stepping off the bus at Metro Parc, on the blue line. Walking a few steps to the Metro entrance, and then pushing the door open and feeling the rush of air pass by me, coming up from the tunnels below. All that time, on the bus and then riding on the metro, while I felt estranged from everyone, as it passed through Acadie, Outremont, Édouard Montpetit, etc until Snowden, I thought about that fact.
My parents would travel across the sea from Jamaica to find each other at the end of their travels in England. One by boat, the other by plane. A few years later, in the maternity unit of Guest Hospital in Dudley, Amy, on the day of my birth on April 10th, Amy, the best mom in the world, would hold me in her arms. Taking me back home to New Road in Netherton, Dudley, a few days later, six point one miles away from Fearon Place, where I now live in Smethwick.
That home, in Netherton where I once lived, the one with the white walls and beige door I called home, is long gone now. Forty-two New Road has long-since been smashed and bulldozed to make way for the Southern By-Pass. The hospital, along with the school that I once went to, has long been repurposed and bulldozed also. Those smashed buildings take with them their memories, hiding them from those too young to know they were ever there. Even Fearon Place, the road which I return to live on now (until the move) has disappeared from Google maps, conspiratorially, just as a housing prices hotspot materialises in the area, and luxury flats and family houses are being built opposite the Piddock Lane Police Station.
There is no place for social housing here, not in a world on the brink of gentrification.
It’s all change and all steam ahead. For those who can’t keep up, well, they’ll be left behind with their longing for spaces and times long gone. Their memories warping, becoming grander and turning into nostalgia, for a past that never was, as the physical reality of buildings turns to dust.
Nostalgia is for the weak and not the strong, some might say.
So, yes, it’s all change I think, as I say goodbye to the past. Planning to move from Smethwick next year to Montreal, to live with my wife Erin, opposite the PA Supermarket, up the road from the 80 bus stop, right down there on the corner of Ave du Parc and Fairmount, which finds itself over the road from the Jean Coutu Store, and three thousand one hundred and forty-four miles away from where I was born.
"The Man Who Ran Away From Pain
He ran away from home where, he thought, all pain began.
He went to another country
Where he discovered the pain of leaving home."
― Charles Mungoshi
Somewhere, further North from where I sit, supine and content in my armchair, somewhere out there, beyond my still drawn curtains, and far beyond the streets of Smethwick on this Saturday afternoon, is a world I’ll never know.
Out there is the summertime greenery of Turnberry, up in Aberdeen, where the wind blows in from the sea, and the Moonworts and Coralroot Orchids sway gently in its wake, an old, bear-like white man, wearing a white baseball cap emblazoned with the letters U-S-A on it, strides purposefully across the green.
His stride seems to become more of a menacing prowl though, as he begins to wave his small child-like hand in the air at protestors, who, from a distance boo, hiss and jeer him, above the sounds of bagpipes and assorted horns and clanging and banging.
Some of the protestors carry placards, while others lean against the handles of pushchairs, as bemused children, below, look upwards at parents, made strange by their shouted rage. The focus of their anger is an old white man, in the distance, who continues to prowl. It’s all the same to Donald, though, the name of the old white man, doing the prowling, with the small child-like hands and wispy straw-like hair.
It’s all the same to him as he glances towards them, placing the back of his child-like hand to his mouth and cursing them, mockingly, a smile drawing on his blood-orange face, and shrinking the pools of untanned white skin around his eyes, as he continues along the fairway. His head is drooping and shaking from side to side as he continues to laugh to himself.
It's still lowered, as he prowls past forty-two-year-old Secret Service agent, Nole Edward Remagen, detailed to protect the National Security Advisor, Donald’s golf partner today under the summer sun.
What Remagen wouldn’t realise, as Donald prowled past him, just at that very moment as Donald's head rose, that these would be his final hours on Earth, and that a stroke would kill him later that night. Remagen wouldn’t know then, of course, that the Moonworts and Coralroot Orchids scented wind, which blew across his face, and which cooled him under the relentless summer sun, would be one of the last sensations that he would experience. Or the sound of the Moonworts and Coralroot Orchids swaying gently in the wind would be one of the last sounds he would hear.
Perhaps if he'd known he would have taken the earpiece from his ear and walked away from it all, out across the green and into the wind for one last time. His arms outstretched under the sun.
Suddenly, we see Donald again, but now he's in black tie, leading an old, spindly, grey-haired white woman in a red dress by the hand down a series of steep steps. Waving once more as he goes, his wispy straw-dry hair fights the wind and the world against it. While the raptor-like spindly legs of the old woman, knees bent at 90-degree angles, tentatively fights gravity, seeking solace with her high-heeled feet on each step, slowly at first, toes first, before placing her full weight down.
Theresa, the old, spindly, grey-haired white woman, and Donald, the wispy-haired white man with the blood-orange face, make it to the bottom of the steps and then turn towards me and smile, still hand in hand, waving once more. Theresa’s pained smile fades and dies each time her eyes meet a lens of a different camera, and flashes from the multiple strobes, freeze her in time again and again.
A car beeps its horn.
Slowly, I pull myself from the chair which I’ve been fermenting in all day, on this, quote, ‘pyjama day’ of mine. Dust swirls are forming and a used tissue, which I'd blown my nose in earlier, and is now dried solid, falls from my chest as I rise — falling into a breakfast bowl on the floor in a hole in one. I think about the mathematical permutations of this happening, just for a moment, while I step carefully over it. Warily, as if it were an exposed land mine, or maybe I'm just trying to forget it's there, as I walk towards the curtain, empty-handed. I pull one side of it away, just far enough to see a silver taxi slowly pulling to a stop outside, but not far enough apart to reveal my position, to the world. Well, to anyone outside, before the curtain falls again.
With my mission completed, I turn back around, as my armchair calls me once more, but as I do the car beeps its horn again, a little longer this time. Blaring out an impatient and hurried tone and I'm called once more to duty, as I pull the curtain back again. This time, dragging both sides of it wide open, with a flourish, and finally letting the day in at 2.34pm in the afternoon. Just in time to see a neighbour slowly meandering towards the taxi, a toddler down by her side, walking hand in hand.
She looks down at her child and then ahead once more.
I don’t know her name, the neighbour with the toddler. But she has bright coloured hair, and her small child wears a purple jacket. She often sits on the wall, in front of my place, sitting there below my window, in her pink dressing gown, during the day, just watching the world go by. Sometimes smoking, sometimes not, but always sitting, just sitting there in her pink dressing gown.
The taxi gingerly three-point turns its way out of Fearon Place, past the old white Nehemiah church, which soon will be luxury flats, driving out onto Regent Street, upwards onto the High Street. As I look down below at the empty wall beneath the window, a voice from the television speaks of Brexit and absent deals and something about how an old white man with a blood-orange face advised an old, spindly, grey-haired white woman to sue the European Union.
I step back over the obstacle course on the floor, looking at the cereal bowl, and then sit back down in my armchair, the pained agonising creak of ageing Ikea furniture, screaming out as my weight flops down. The screaming fades as I rock back and forth slightly, just a little longer than inertia requires.
Leaning over the side of the armrest to find the remote control on the floor, to turn off the television, and to sit in silence. Watching the trees outside bend slowly in the wind, and the white clouds rolling by behind the roof of the old white Nehemiah church in the distance which, as I've already told you, will soon become luxury flats.
I get back up from my chair and bend down to finally pick up the breakfast bowl, looking at the dried tissue inside it while I walk to the kitchen. I throw the tissue in the bin and then place the bowl in the sink before turning to become transfixed by the sunlight passing through the blinds of the window, which cast shimmering shadows to dance on the brown vinyl floor.
I'm caught within the interplay of light and shadow, of light and darkness, as my mind drifts and my thoughts become lost. Slowly the sound of leaves rustling in the wind fade up from the silence as the shadows grow darker on the floor below while I search desperately for the will to start the day, in this world in which I stand, right here in Smethwick.
The handyman at our apartment block on Ave Du Parc never came over this week.
He was too ill, he said, upon delaying his visit, postponing it from Tuesday to Friday morning. When Friday came, a last minute phone call arrived instead, informing us that he was too distraught to come over after hearing that his friend had been murdered. I was told by someone, who was in turn informed by someone else, who played baseball with the handyman's friend, that they found his body parts dismembered in an alley, left in boxes between the backs of houses with their leafy fences and discarded household ephemera which sometimes stranger take to give new homes to.
So yes, the discarded body parts were left there to rot, swarms of flies buzzing around them, I imagine, trying desperately to get into the tasty goodness of dried blood and congealed fatty tissue that fermented slowly inside, as the summer sun of Montreal beat down upon them.
I’m not sure how long they were there, or who found them, the discarded body parts I mean. A burly inquisitive dog, perhaps, sniffing at it while it tugged hard on its lead, its owner trying desperately to pull it away from the flies and the stench? Or a group of nosey kids, on an adventure in the neighbourhood, just like those kids in the film Stand By Me, flipping the box lids open and running away as a swarm of flies and the smell hits them. Yet, coming back again, with t-shirts over their mouths and noses, to look inside once more and prod at its contents with sticks; they pause and take photographs on their phones for evidence and proof to fuel stories at school the next day.
Whoever it was who found them, I’m not sure why the killer decided to so brazenly leave them there for all to see. Why not drive them out somewhere more secluded, burying them at night? Throwing carefully tied plastic rubbish bags, their contents covered in quicklime, into deep graves up in the mountain. I wondered this on first hearing the story. Then I remembered the time I had walked up there myself, having to stop and pretend to check my phone every 10 minutes while I caught my breath.
Yup, I would have dumped them in an alley too.
Maybe he was smart though, smashing the teeth out of the head of his victim with a hammer, stooping down afterwards to vacuum up all of the fragments so that dental records couldn’t be matched. Maybe he also burned the cut off hands to prevent fingerprints from being taken and then wrapped up the torso in barbed wire, and dumped it into a lake in the full knowledge that when the stomach swelled up, with the ensuing gases, the barbed wire would puncture it, stopping it from rising to the surface again?
But maybe he couldn’t give a shit, in that lazy-assed way the day finds you sometimes, as he tossed each box out of his van while saying fuck it under his breath, driving away and leaving them out in the sun of Montreal for all to find.
I guess I watch too many true crime shows on TV, watching them on a loop when I go over to visit my parents in Dudley. Fatal Vows is a favourite; my friend Julie is a researcher on that show, so I just thought I'd throw that in there. Anyway, each episode churns out killers whose communities thought were such friendly people. “He was always so quiet; he kept himself to himself”, witnesses always proclaim. “He was a real family man. He coached the little league or preached in a church,” they always say. “They never looked like the bad guy, they were the good ones”, because everyone knew what the bad ones look like and they never live in their all-white neighbourhoods.
Now for the fact check.
The day after being told the story, I searched online to find out more. Apparently, the news had been in the French press for the last four days before my search, but only now was it filtering into the English media.
“Friends of accused killer, presumed victim, left reeling by account of lurid Mile End death”, CBC reported on its website, above a photo of a white guy with dreadlocks, the handyman’s friend, holding a fish in a photo he never imagined would be used to announce his murder. “The police, they don't have anything. They don't have a body. There's nothing", CBC continued.
That never stopped Raymond Muller being charged for the murder of Cédric Gagnon though.
Gagnon met Muller awhile back when Muller and his family were all living in an old bus. Mueller was a nice guy, quiet, kept to himself, while all the time just trying to get himself and his family through it all. So Gagnon gave them all somewhere to live in his studio a couple of years ago. A few weeks ago, Muller killed Gagnon. He killed him over an argument about the band they were both in. Murdered him at the same studio he had given Muller and his family shelter in, just up the way, North of where I live, up there on Rue Bernard, past Cafe Felice and the Dollar Store.
I imagine a scene where Muller couldn’t take Gagnon’s big brother act any more. Always saving him, ever knowing what was best, being right all the time, and forever digging him out of a hole with his damned arm around Muller's shoulder. Always that damned arm around the shoulder. Muller just wanted to feel like the captain of his ship for once, for his wife and kids to look up to him and not the man who had saved them and continued to save them. He just wanted to feel like the man that he knew he was, and not the one people saw; have his voice heard and to be in charge - just for one Goddamned time.
So when Gagnon disagreed with him about the direction of the band, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. Muller just flipped, losing it all in a world of frenzy. Losing control at the very moment when he thought he had found it. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill him? Each hit or each stab tore out a chapter of pain from an autobiography with endless chapters. Muller was finally finding that sense of power, if only fleetingly, as he looked down at what he had done. Looking down at the only person who had ever helped him, as the power that he finally found - to take Gagnon’s life - drained away from him and the old Raymond Muller returned.
The police believe that after Muller murdered Gagnon, he indeed just said fuck it, dismembering Gagnon’s body and dumping it in boxes on the sidewalk, outside of the studio where the murder took place. Garbage trucks picked up the boxes and took them away to be dumped. There were no jaunts up mountains for Muller, no sprinkling of quicklime or depositing Gagnon’s body into deep dug holes or rivers; there was just the sidewalk.
Muller didn’t have to be smart, he just needed to know when it was garbage collection day.
But maybe he shouldn’t have been so lazy and cleaned up the studio a bit more. A simple spray of Luminol and an ultraviolet light revealed it all - the botched cleaning job, with its streaks and splatters of blood, which he thought were gone, but they were always there all the time. Or perhaps Muller just forgot to empty the hoover bag with Gagnon’s teeth still in it? If ever there was one, of course. Who knows? I don’t; I just watch too many episodes of Fatal Vows.
People kill for many reasons, all of them different, and all of them legitimate, I bet, in the minds of the killer. But maybe what links them all is that feeling of power at that very moment where their actions end in murder? The sense of control and power that they hold over their victim; I’m sure this is always the same.
In the space of sixty-seconds, ten years and one month ago from when this is being written, Constable Jean-Loup Lapointe, a white cop who was just 18 months away from graduating from the Police Academy, got out of his police car and fired his gun four times at a group of men of Honduran descent at Henri-Bourassa Park.
When it was over, 18-year-old Denis Meas and Jeffrey Sagor-Météllus, 20, lay wounded, one shot in the arm and the other in the back, while Dany Villanueva’s younger brother, 18-year-old Fredy Villanueva, lay close to death on the ground of the parking lot, after having been shot twice. The bullets had tumbled and spun inside him, according to Wikipedia, perforating his stomach and causing lacerations to the inferior vena cava, the left lobe of his liver and his pancreas. It was no surprise that at 21:45 that night he was pronounced dead in the operating room of Hôpital Sacre-Coeur, and the short life of Fredy Villanueva came to an end.
On the tenth anniversary of his murder, a ceremony was held in Parc de L’Espoir, but he was never mentioned by name, which angered some and confirmed to others that nothing had changed here in this city where racial profiling, or carding as it’s called here, always has and always will exist. But if one thing came from it, said activist Will Prosper, was that the shooting sparked a conversation about police brutality in the area.
“Lots of people believe he punched a police officer”, Prosper would say, "and it’s just not true. Even the coroner’s inquest said he was an honest citizen, doing his thing. We should remember his memory.”
No doubt to Lapointe, Dany didn’t look like the quiet guy next door who kept to himself; he didn’t look like a real family man who coached the little league or preached in church. He didn’t look like one of the good guys, and that’s why it was so easy for him to pull the trigger so many times.
Is killing someone over an argument about a band any worse than killing an unarmed honest citizen just doing his thing? Aren’t both people just cold blooded murderers?
Well, no, because Constable Jean-Loup Lapointe wasn’t ever charged for his murder. He’s free, ten years later, to carry on with his life. I’m guessing that Raymond Muller will see his freedom disappear along with his family and the friends he shared with Gagnon. His good-guy card will be revoked, and the quiet man, the family man who kept to himself, will be simply replaced with an image of a monster.
Just like all those other monsters who don't live in their community. Muller's story, no doubt, will be made into a true crime show that one day I'll watch with my dad in his home five thousand kilometres away in Dudley. We'll revel in the titillating B-movie style production that tells the story of a doomed friendship and of a dismembered body which was never found and we’ll both end up asking ourselves, why didn't he just clean up after himself?
The family and friends of 18-year-old Fredy Villanueva, however, shot dead up on the parking lot in Henri-Bourassa Park, up there in North Montreal, on the intersection of Pascal and Rolland streets, would no doubt obviously beg to differ. For them, Dany was the good guy and Lapointe the monster. Nothing more than a cold-blooded killer, killing for the feeling of power and lauded as the good guy by the community who he really serves.
I’m guessing that the handyman might too, in time, think that they’re both merely cold-blooded murderers, Lapointe and Muller. Once the pain of their loss fades, as the days on the calendar come and go, as the seasons change, the years slip by.
Yes, at some point, somewhere distant in the future, they might think that, if I were ever stupid enough to ask.
I’m watching as my mother stares intently through the window of her living room in Dudley. Her eyes fixed on something I can’t see, focused and alive in a world that I cannot exist. Wherever she is, though, I know that it isn’t here with me. Maybe she’s out there at sea? Out there on the ship which took her from Jamaica to Portsmouth all those years ago? Still a young woman, forever sailing in a world of fair seas and calm waters, where her father and brother are alive again, waiting for her by the dockside in Kingston to return home.
My mother doesn't know that she has dementia. Or that who she once was is being lost in a nebulous cloud of thoughts, memories and meanings. The axis of her world, which had made her everything that she was, has now shifted.
There’s just the belief, within her, that she’s run down, under the weather, and that she’ll get better soon. This feeling of fuzziness and ill health will pass, she tells me, as I smile and nod in agreement.
When I leave her, she thinks that I go to the house on the top of the hill behind her home. Before she goes upstairs to bed, before she leaves my dad downstairs, as his paralysis means he can't accompany her to their old bedroom, at that moment when she draws his blinds closed, she looks up at the house and wonders if I’m home.
But I’m glad.
I'm glad that she doesn't know her diagnosis of vascular dementia, or that she’s at stage 6 out of 7 stages, with the final stage soon to come. I’m just so glad that she thinks that I’m always close by, out there up on that hill, behind her home, when she looks up to see if my lights are on at night, wondering whether I’m at home, or out at sea, where those who are missing or lost to her can always be found.
In the distance, of eighty or ninety feet or so, somewhere in the middle of a path that leads one on a ten thousand step journey around Victoria Park if they’re so inclined, a man stands with his back towards me, all alone within the solitude that finds one in Smethwick on a Sunday morning.
Here, the early morning sunlight, of summer, shimmers off his silver sharkskin suit as he looks off into a distance that I see nothing at all in.
Perhaps he’s meeting someone? Someone late, stuck in traffic or running, at this very moment in time, to get here to him, while he waits all alone not far from the entrance of the Birmingham Mela which opens its gates soon.
No, I wasn’t sure what a Mela was either, yet it's an Asian music festival that I’m trying to sneak into it, but all points of entry are covered. Only one pound separates me from the wonders of the Mela inside, as from through the fence I see empty fairground rides waiting for their customers to arrive, but instead I stay on the outside, apprehensively and apologetically seeking photographs of strangers on this Sunday morning.
He's still there, by the way, waiting; the sun still shimmering off his suit, he's the centre of the frame, if I'd only raise the camera. When I do, he turns and sees me, walking towards me, as my camera falls again. He's a wiry Asian man, upright like a meerkat, as he approaches, his thin frame and large head looming closer. His Union Jack waistcoat, under his shimmering jacket, surprising me in ways that it shouldn't, but it did. Thin steel-rimmed glasses cling to a face that sits under a green and grey flat cap. He’s old, or middle-aged, or just lived a hard life I think as the distance between us closes, and then he stands there, before me, hand out, asking me for money in a language that I don’t understand.
I step backwards, and he steps forward.
He is pointing towards his outstretched hand and a few loose coins inside it.
Large yellow and brown teeth form part of a sad and pleading smile, on a face lined by time and failure. It's a smile this man has smiled a thousand times before, and a thousand times it has failed.
And yet still he smiles.
Rejection is the river which runs through him, it’s all he has ever known, and all he will ever know. From me too as I turn my back to him and walk away, then stop again, looking back to see if I’ve swum clear from the whirlpool of his sinking ship, and watch him walk towards a group of men, ambling down an incline, as they head towards the entrance, his hand out once more.
The men walk by him though, no words spoken, as they carry on to find fun inside the Mela, leaving him there alone once more in a suit which shimmers in the sun and the solitude which finds him in Victoria Park, Smethwick.
Somewhere in that morning, an elderly mother, who loved her child so much, had helped him get dressed. She'd combed his hair, smoothing it down before placing his cap on his head — standing back a little to assess her work, before stepping back again to straighten it, with a smile of satisfaction, before finally brushing the shoulders of his jacket and sending him on his way.
No matter how much she had hoped for more than this for him, when he was a child, to have a career, to marry and have grandchildren, she knew deep down that this would always be the life which would find him and her of course. Knowing all that time that he would still be her little boy, whose hair she'd comb and hat she'd fix upon his head always and forever
Maybe none of that ever happened, and perhaps that friend will arrive at any moment to find him standing there in the park.
Or maybe that river called rejection, that river which always has run through him will continue to flow.
A bus pulls away outside, somewhere out there beyond the frosted glass window of the shop I’m in. It's the 80 or 87, or even maybe the new X7, I think; heading off towards Birmingham in the night. Probably not the X7 though, as the pained sound of the diesel engine that had rattled itself into life in the cold sounded too old to be one of the new buses.
But what does it matter? I think this to myself, sighing as I look down at the £3.97 gourmet ready meal in my hand, then up again at the two people ahead of me in the queue. This my friend, this is the life. I'm living large, here in this late night corner shop in Smethwick. Hoping forlornly that another assistant will drag themselves away from the TV, blaring out in the backroom, and come out to operate the spare till so that I can get out of dodge and go home. Or if they can’t be arsed to man the till, hoping that a trapdoor will suddenly open up in the floor, ahead of me, sending the customers downwards into a pit of crocodiles.
So, here’s the thing, neither of these things will happen. No-one will come to man the till, and that trap door will never open.
Nonetheless, I stare ahead, a smile slowly forming on my face as I imagine crocodiles chowing down on the two customers in front, thrashing them around in the water, the crocodiles curling around them in a vice-like grip, and then spinning them under the frothing water.
Eat well my pretties, I think to myself, and then become wide-eyed and startled as I hope I haven’t just said that out loud, and then relax again when I realise my internal monologue - was, well, just that - internal.
The first customer in the queue is having a long-winded conversation with the shopkeeper behind the counter about his dog, it’s run off or been run over, or something - one of the two. Cue internal monologue again - Jesus mate, I’m dying for a piss. Can we expedite this now, please?
Oh, shit he’s crying I think, as my internal monologue breaks into an overly dramatic external, and very public, sigh.
His head drops as he wipes his face with the flat of his hands, then down the sides of his legs, his jeans soaking up his tears. It was his best friend, and I think I hear him say as a young woman in front of me shakes her head, her hand throwing greasy hair up over her head to fall over the collar of her coat behind her.
He looks like the type of person who strikes up conversations with strangers, usually at bus stops, and yes, generally about the weather, whether they like it or not. But that’s just me being mean-spirited at the end of a day that has chewed me up and spat me out. It’s just me wanting to go home and hide away from the word, no offence mate.
He’s short and stocky, red-faced, and with a large gut squeezed tightly into a Barcelona football shirt, proudly bearing the name Mesi on the back. He leans his head back to look up at the shopkeeper again, causing the levees to break, as a tsunami of pink, blood-engorged flesh rolls up at the back of his neck to protrude over his shirt collar.
All this time a pained and anxious-looking shopkeeper has been making it rain, as she itches hurriedly at a patch of psoriasis on her bare arm. It’s as if she's rubbing at a wine stain on a new carpet. Large pieces of skin, cast against her black top, are tumbling and rotating in mid-air, past smaller ones, as they all fall downwards to the counter below, while she silently looks at him like a praying mantis looking at its prey.
Alright, love, you take care now, she says, cutting the stocky man off, mid-sentence. She tries to usher him away from the counter, as she finally stops itching, tapping her hand on her bare arm as she does.
Tap, tap, tap, three times in quick succession; in a 'there-there' self-comforting fashion. Her hand rising to her face, twisting inwards towards her so she can glance at her nails, before, in a continuous motion, she quickly smooths back her black-greying greasy hair over her ears and then wipes her hand down by her side, where it falls, drawing an end to the proceedings.
Times up fella, move along now, she seems to be saying, as she arches her back slightly, puffing her chest out.
The eyes of the shopkeeper meet mine. The stocky man walks away, change in hand, and I look downwards at the grey and green vinyl floor, looking at nothing in particular, as I count to five, before looking back up again.
A ten-pound note finally gets thrust into his wallet. Some of his change from the four cans of Carling. But as he begins to walk away, he stops to smooth out a creased corner of the note, pulling it out again, smoothing it between his fingers, and then slipping it back in again. His focus turns then to the coins in his palm. Unclenching his fist to stare at them, but logic, reason, or the ability to count has momentarily left him, and his lower lip protrudes in thought. His eyebrows rising hopefully, as he wobbles slightly. Ah, he’s pissed, I think. His head hanging downwards like a puppet that’s had a few strings cut, towards the flat of his held out palm, before he finally gives up and thrusts the coins into the pocket of his grey sweatpants.
Anything that gets you though bro, I think.
My eyes following him towards the shop door, as he swings the four cans by his side, pulling the door open, and then disappearing out into the night. He was looking for something to get him through - just a little something. But the night has him now.
I step forward, just as the young woman ahead of me has done. Her hand jerks quickly, to catch the falling strap of her handbag, which has fallen off her left shoulder. She grips it tightly, and then places the strap back up, higher up onto her arched shoulders. She leaves it to hang there, taking her hand away to cross her arms, and leaning her weight down on her right foot to keep her left shoulder up, and the strap up, as the handbag leans out away from her and begins to twist forlornly.
The shopkeeper's hand rubs nervously at her chin, exposing the redness of the skin on her arm again. I'm sorry I can't Mandy, she says to the young woman.
"Please”, the young woman whispers, in a childlike way as if she’s asking to stay up after her bedtime. “I just can’t Mandy, Sukhi won’t let me.” I think Sukhi, is her husband, or her boss, either way; he’s the guy who couldn’t be arsed to come out and man the other till.
Welcome to the Smethwick Playhouse and the free drama for all to see. "Who's next?" the shopkeeper shouts as she looks beyond the young woman. I don't know why she’s shouting at me though as I'm just a few feet away from her, and looking directly at her. Nonetheless, she gestures towards me, theatrically, repeatedly closing and opening her fingers onto her palm, calling me hither.
"Excuse me", I say to the young woman, as she moves to one side of the counter, and I place my ready meal down in front of the shopkeeper and then begin to think about all of the dead, dried skin on there, a look of disgust spreading on my face, as I turn to look at the young woman. She chews on her lip, arms still crossed, adjusting her weight onto her other foot now, and sending her handbag to bump against me as I move back and step away. She's crying as she stares at the shopkeeper.
“Has he hit you again?", the shopkeeper asks.
The powerful strip lights above have made us all visible, here in this late-night corner shop in Smethwick. The cold green light, painting us in its gaze and revealing us all for who we are, nothing is hidden here in night court.
The young woman shakes her head from one side to the other slowly. "No, no, he hasn’t", she whispers back, as she caresses her left arm with her hand. She is rubbing it up and down as if soothing a past pain. Looking like a little girl as she shakes her head no.
There's a beep, and my thoughts break as the shopkeeper gives me the price: £3.97. For a moment I wonder why it’s 97 and not 99p. Then, instinctively, I throw the warm change, which has been in the palm of my hand all this time, into her outstretched hand. I look back at the young woman from my ring-side seat, and at her hand which wipes at her face, while her head lowers and lank brown hair falls like a curtain to end this scene.
"How’s the baby?", the shopkeeper asks, “is she teething now?
The young woman's head rises, yet tears and silence are her only answer, as we all pause to take in her life. To judge her and then to condemn her.
There’s no need for a jury of twelve good men, though, not here in night court. The shopkeeper with the dry, itchy skin or me with my ready meal: after a long shit day, we’re just both glad there's someone more fucked than us right now.
The young woman stands there, still and upright, wiping her hand across her wet face, and then losing it into her hair, inhaling snot up her nose loudly at the same time. I coldly think to myself, Jesus, the second person crying at this counter?
The shopkeeper sighs and then turns around as if to get something off the shelf behind her; she is about to say something, just as the shop door thrusts open, and a young man bursts in shouting: "Have you given her those fucking cigarettes yet Indi? Come on, you know we're good for it, you know us Indi.” He begins to smile, realising how desperate he looks, attempting to turn his pleading into a joke.
There's a pause as they look at each other, the young man and the shopkeeper. But in silence, she shakes her head from side to side.
"You think you're better than me, do you, don’t you?", the young man shouts, his voice rising. "You, better than me?", he shouts again, his eyes looking her up and down, "it's my fucking country, and you’ll never be better than me, never! You fucking Pa..." He stops half-way through the word, checking himself, dwelling over the consequences as the anger on his face subsides into a smile again. His head dips as a hand scratches at his hair. He then looks at the young woman and shouts at her: “You’re fucking useless you are. Come on, let’s go, now!"
The door closes, and the shopkeeper turns around to place a pack of cigarettes back onto a shelf.
"No, sorry, Mandy, I can't help you", she says, coldly, as the young woman replies, "he'll hit me now, you know he will Indi."
The shopkeeper pauses, looking down on her in silence before turning to me and saying, ”you're 18p short love."
What the fuck? My hand dips into one pocket, then another, oh, shit, I don’t have it, fuck me, I think, as the young woman walks away from the counter, buying me more time from the judgement to come. Then she stops in her tracks, turning around to shout aggressively through her tears, "You know what, fuck you Indi!" She turns and slaps the one pound cinema-style bags of popcorn with her open palm, sending them flying. And then she's gone too, heading into the night, missing out on the laughter that remains inside from those behind me in the queue.
The shopkeeper turns to look at me, incredulous and yet semi-amused, a smirk drawing on her face as if to ask, as her shoulders arch, what was all that about? But she knows, and she knows that I know too. The smirk and shrugged shoulders are just window dressing that hides her shock and surprise. Her clenched fist by her side, the sign of her trauma, her grip relaxes and her palm slowly opens like a flower in the sun to smooth down the ruffles of her clothing. Her pursed lips still try to contain the inhaled air which she has had gasped inside.
I smirk back and then pause as I feel my stomach drop before I steel myself to tell her that I don’t have it, that I don’t have the 18 extra pence. For a moment, I think about going to get something cheaper, and then maybe asking if I can owe it to her, but her falling face has the answer. She knows that I don’t have it even before the words pass my lips, or my hand rises to reclaim my coins. She says nothing, her eyes looking through and beyond me as she beckons the next customer forth with her hand with the same open and closing motion. She’s seen it all before, and so I walk away, hoping that I can leave my shame at the counter, with the ready meal, but it comes with me as I skulk away towards the door. I think I hear laughter, but I don’t look back. I pull the shop door open and feel the cold air hit me, but the shame still clings on, even when the darkness outside embraces me.
I stop and pull up the hood of my coat to hide my head, or perhaps to hide away from it all. Pulling it too far over my head, initially, and then having to pull it back a little, so that my eyes can see the glory. The glory of the stocky red-faced man, from before, still there in his Barcelona shirt to protect him from the cold, as he leans against a bus shelter opposite the shop door, twenty feet or so, down a slight incline, with spread-eagled fingers at the end of an outstretched arm. I watch him making the levees break once more, while a tin of beer, held by his other hand, tilts backwards in the air so that he can throw its contents down his neck. I watch him gulp it down and then belch up the displaced gas.
I feel conscious about staring, not that he would care though, or perhaps even be aware of me staring, as further up the High Street, under an orange street light, the young woman is being held tightly by the outstretched arms of the angry young man, precisely in the same place she had rubbed her upper arm earlier.
He shakes her, then loosens one arm to point his finger into her face, calling her a stupid fucking cow as he does. For a moment, I wonder where her baby is, I even think about shouting something, maybe a "Hey" or an "Oi!" But I don't do anything, nothing at all. I stop caring, I just do, and then suddenly remember that a mini fish and chips down at the Fish King, past the bookies, is only £3.50. After quickly checking the time on my phone, I turn my back on them and head down the High Street in search of the wonders of highly saturated fats.
Turning away as the hollow shouts in the night begin to fade into the coldness, the frigid air muffling the sharpness of their reality, and soon they both are gone in this world where the judges so quickly become the judged.
I'm strolling away, my hot breath condensing into the cold night in front of me, my trials and tribulations sighing out into the world and passing me by as I walk through and beyond it all. The hot air rises upwards into the dark sky above towards a silver moon where men once walked.
In the early hours of a rural morning in Jamaica, in that small space in time before the sun rises and the moon leaves us, my father tells me that when he was a boy, he once saw a ghost walking its cow to its field, along the main road through Ginger Ridge.
It walked; he said, with a sharpened cutlass under its arm, the clinking sound of the cow's chains, synced with each footstep made along the uneven pot-holed road out of town. All the time, this pedestrianised percussion befriending the solitary wind that once rustled alone through the leaves of the trees, in a rural morning in Jamaica, that my father would soon leave behind forever.
For the first time, last Sunday evening, soothed by the soma of booze as we were, my father told me that he flew to England wearing the shirt which his mother was sewing buttons onto when she had died.
Dad also, in the way that he releases his personal history, like a random bulk Wikileaks leak, also told me he about being stabbed in his side with a tree branch he accidentally ran into; getting a neighbour to pull it out for him - as you do.
But back to his mother, she died of a heart attack, dying all alone.
As life left her; as she died distanced from the world that hummed just a few feet away; I wondered what she had thought, at that moment, as she lost grip of her son's shirt? Imagining her eyes watching it fall from her hands; the needle and thread following and then the buttons too. Hitting the floor, and bouncing as they take random directions, as they spin and roll away, leaving her behind just as her own life was.
She had called for help, he said, but how would he know, as I mused on if she were indeed all alone? Over the years I'm sure his mind must have found him there, standing over her, looking down and seeing that picture, that scene unfolding, in his mind as only his imagination and the stories of others could frame; and here perhaps she called for help, she had called his name.
We all see ghosts, at times, in our minds at least.
We see those who are gone, whom we thought would never leave; those whose passing proved never resolved — replaying scenes from our past, only now from different camera angles which perhaps only our imaginations could see. The mind will always give us a new director’s cut and bonus commentaries.
But, as a man with ageing parents, as I am, a man who has always been at odds with the approach of ending chapters, I know that we can also make premature ghosts of those who are still with us, and yet to leave — stepping ahead of time to selfishly imagine how we will feel without them. It’s a foolhardy exercise though, of course, that only wastes time in the present.
As there is nothing gained imagining a future where ghosts are real, even if they are welcomed and comforting, especially if we feel that they will guide us along that pot-holed road called life until a time when there are no more pictures, no more framing or bonus commentaries, until a director yells cut.
I saw mom, for the last time, five days before she died at her home, in Dudley, where she had always wanted to. She loved her home, even as she wilted like a flower within it. I hadn’t seen her for two months before her death, as I’d been away, starting my new life in Canada, waiting for number 80 buses or busily riding on metro trains on the subway, estranged from those around me and yet so far away from my family. After two months away, though, she couldn’t recognise me anymore on my return, unresponsive to my presence, or my words. No matter how much I stroked her thinning hair back, over her head and down to the back of her neck, her skin like a thin blanket over her bones beneath. No matter how hard I squeezed and caressed her hand, whatever I had once meant to her, or been, was now gone, never to be found again.
I can’t put that into words, how that feels, but my mother didn’t know who I was anymore. I knew then that this was the end, as I watched the gaunt features of her face, which illness and time had carved deep. Knowing this truth as I watched her gasp for air, her chest rising and falling in and out like the tide on a shore,
Before I left, I kissed her on her forehead, stepping backwards slightly, while still holding her hand, watching her breathe. Watching that invisible tide of life painfully struggle in and then out once more, like a tide leaving the spume of its passing, to draw at the corner of her mouth. Loosening her hand and walking away to my bag by the staircase then coming back, with a camera in hand to take her photograph, for the one last time.
Five days later, while I was in London, just after my father had released her hand to go and answer the front door, he returned to find that she had died, leaving us in the afternoon of Thursday, October 4th, 2018. Morning, noon and night he had sat by her bed holding her hand and the one moment he’d let it go she left him.
When my sister rang me, not long afterwards, I knew mom had died; I knew she was gone, even before I answered it. Death is never a stranger, though, it’s always known to us and always with us. We just choose to pretend that it's not there, at times, even when we see it from the corner of our eyes.
By the time I’d reached mom’s home, the morning after she’d died, she, well, her body, had already been taken from her home and taken away by the undertakers the afternoon before, only a few hours after her death. At the same time, I lay face down on a bed in my hotel room in London trying to sob away the pain of it all, finally getting up to go to the bathroom and catching my reflection in a mirror, standing there staring at my wet face.
Standing over mom’s empty bed that morning, looking down at the deep red rose which had been left on her pillow, as a wall of sadness hit me as I thought of her all alone in the Co-Op funeral parlour, upon Salop Street, where my taxi, had driven past only just five minutes before. I would stand there, looking at the rose and remembering holding her hand for that last time.
As much as we belong to the living, we belong to the dead too. We belong to the memories which bind us and the love that takes us by the hand to lead us back down pathways to the past.
"Life is touch...and touch is pain"
Often, in the middle of the night, at two or three in the morning, as a child inside the white walls of my home at 42 New Road Dudley, I’d knock on my elder sister's bedroom door.
I'd enter slowly into her room, waking her up from her slumber, so that she could repeatedly hit me on my back to bring up the fluid which had settled on my lungs during the night.
The more times I'd wake her, in the space of one night, the firmer and more determined the pats on my back would become. Less therapeutic and more of an aggressive deterrent to the irritant who called in the night and stole her sleep.
I'd return to my room, guilt-laden, in the still wee small hours of those early mornings, and lay awake. Listening to the world outside, that revealed itself in the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, and in the sounds of occasional cars that faded into the night to reveal the insect-like hum of electricity. Heard when the day falls silent during that time when most succumb to sleep and forget that they are alive.
You take breathing for granted until you have acute bronchitis and chronic asthma, as I had as a child, and you can't breathe, of course. Until you can no longer draw life into your lungs and you have to fight and focus, with all of your might and concentration, on every single breath. In full knowledge that your lungs are slowly filling with fluid, once more, and that you're going to have to wake your sister up from her slumber all over again. When all that you want to do is to let her sleep, so I would lay there in the dark pondering the complexities of my mortality, a child of the night, whose sole purpose was to breathe.
We're all made somewhere off in the past, though, aren’t we? My father, sisters, and me - all of us who all lived in that house. All of us still pretending to be works in progress, no matter how far we've come in life. All yearning and striving to have enough time left to live the lives we are still in search of. To have just one more chance and just one more day, give me one more day we think. As our search never ends. All this time knowing that we are only alive because our ancestors also fought just one more day, shackled as they were in ships, or toiling in the heat of the sun of Jamaica.
We are all the products of the past.
I'm linked by history, to my hidden ancestors, and their hidden traumas which still live on within me, within the survivors of those who were shipped across the seas to toil the fields for others’ gain. While my ancestors past is lost, my immediate family’s past is found now in small square Instamatic photographs and fading Polaroids of family, friends and Prince our dog. Images of strangely clad people, younger, stronger, and alive, all photographed in a house that doesn't exist anymore. Telling stories from the past to people in the present who fear the coming future.
Yes, all hail time, that changer of context and provider of new meaning - if only via nostalgia.
We all find ways to heal those wounds, of course, even if they are wounds which our journeys into nostalgia and the past trigger again and again. More so as we age, and we sail further away from the shores of certainty, which the past once provided, and we find ourselves caught in the headlights of fate. Not sure whether to jump back into the past and repeat ourselves or to take that leap of faith and hope that the future will carry us home to where we belong.
And, so somewhere on the journey between who I thought I was and who I wanted to be, I found myself to be the person who I am – here and now – trying, still to learn the lines of a play that’s already more than halfway through. Forgetting my words and finding myself lost. Still trying to belong to ancestors from the past I will never know, in a country called Britain, which spurns my love.
So, I glance upwards, at a twitching curtain, fearing that it will fall before the end of the performance. Hoping that I can wave my arms in the air, in hopes of redoing my scene so that I can say my lines all over again, with purpose this time.
So, here’s to the Jesuits, to pipe dreams, bolting horses and open stable doors. But also to love found on the path towards contentment, based out there on that road called life, somewhere between who I once was - and now hope to be.
But more importantly, here’s to life, sustained as it is by every single breath and to yesterday and tomorrow, those two worlds which I call home and where I know that I truly belong.