The Mile

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  Foreward:

 

 

 

 

The Mile is a four-part serial novella commissioned by Civic Square. Inspired by Afro Futurist principles, it explores Britain a few years into the future.

 

In that new normal to come.

 

 

Part One: Monday 9th August 2021

Part Two: Monday 16th August 2021

Part Three: Monday 23rd August 2021

Part Four: Monday 30th August 2021

 

 

© Andrew Jackson 2021

 

 

 

 

Part One:

 

 

 

"A dad is an anchor on which

his children stand." 

 - Anonymous

Back then, sometimes when I couldn't sleep, I used to wonder how many people hadn't died because of the pandemic. Not just in the UK, mate, all over. So, not how many had died, mind you, because to be fair, that's all the bloody news ever talked about, weren't it? No mate, back then in that winter of 2021 when that third wave hit, all I often thought about was how many hadn't died. 
 
Some nights, I'd lay there, all still, with my eyes closed, as I waited for sleep, just thinking about it. Other times sitting on the bog, if I'd left my phone in the other room, and had nothing else to do but think, I'd mull it over. Taking the thought for a spin to see where it took me. Imagining how many were saved by the pandemic. Let's be honest, every day we'd hear about how many people had died and it kind of, well, didn't mean anything back then, did it? Come on, it didn't, did it? I mean, it was just numbers, right? Besides, I didn't know anybody who had died, had I? So it almost didn't feel real somehow. Well, not to me at least, but maybe I didn't want it to be?
 
Don't get me wrong, I knew a shitload had, but how many of those who would have died in car crashes, plane crashes, school shootings and all of those other six million ways to die hadn't because they were locked down? That's what intrigued me back then. Don't ask me why.
 
 I don't know, I just kept thinking about it. And yeah, it became kind of a thing to be honest. How many people were actually still knocking about, because of the pandemic, who would have otherwise, you know, taken a dirt nap in normal times, you get me? How many? All those people who didn't go out to work anymore, whose number would have been up in a car crash heading to the office, if they were out and about, you know? Even all those jokers who would have been killed in barroom fights, the boy racers who didn't end up wrapping themselves around lamp posts, all them idiots.
 
Then, one night, when I was trying to get back to sleep again and failing – as per usual – it kind of hit me, like I'd been hit by lightning or something: had the pandemic saved us an Einstein or left us with another Hitler? Mate, come on, back then it was a time of crazy thoughts, trust me. Anyway, either way, I guess we'll soon find out, right? But the way the world is going, well, in England at least, it'll be another fucking Hitler, won't it? That is, if he ain't already here.
 
I guess I think too much sometimes, you know? Yeah, no shit, you're thinking to yourself. But as I said, at least I did in those days. It got me through; I guess. Thinking about the same thing, again and again. It was a distraction, weren't it? A routine which kept my mind off the shit storm and boredom of it all, you know? We all had to find something to get us through, right? To get us over to the other side back then.
 
Anyway, I made it, mate, to the other side, to this new normal, to the new world of 2024 that so many didn't get to. Well, those 325,000 Britons didn't get to, poor bastards.
 
I watched a crappy kids cartoon the other day. I don't know why; don't ask, mate! Well, at one point, out of the blue, I asked myself, why did I survive? What was the point of it all, if it was just to end up watching a fucking cartoon? 
 
We were all going to fix up, weren't we? Make amends, change our lives, push the boundaries and all that shit – see the world, right? Have fucking adventures, live a little, you know? Not go back to the old normal. But instead, after those early days, when it was over, those strange days, we all just slipped right back into a work/life routine. Maybe not the same old, same old, but it might have been, in reality. I guess we all had to try and survive, and maybe it was harder now than it had ever been. As there were no more lockdowns, no more hiding from the world, you had to man up and face it.
 
So, yeah, I manned up and faced it all by watching fucking cartoons. To be fair though, it was decent, mate, this cartoon, weren't it? They had these talking flames in it, proper evil bastards they were, with high pitched snarling voices and little funny eyes. Anyway, all of a sudden I thought to myself, you know what, they do seem like evil bastards, don't they? Flames, I mean. You know, in the real world, when you're all up close and personal with them, when you're looking at them flames do seem like evil bastards. OK, bear with me, but think about it, right, they always seem to be darting around, ducking and diving, jumping back and forth all excited like – having a whale of a time of it. No, I'm not stoned, unfortunately, but, and maybe this is just me, they just seem to be so fucking excited, bloody enjoying burning the shit out of whatever they touch, you know? And as I said – evil.
 
Anyway, I sat watching that cartoon and I was back there again, to that night, back down South, standing in the back garden looking up at Mr Adeyemi up there at the back bedroom window and thinking about how we just kind of stared at each other. That's when I turned the TV and the cartoon off and sat in the silence of the living room for a minute, for a while. It didn't help though that I heard the neighbour's kid upstairs screaming its head off over something. It maybe made me have to think about his wife and kid too, that poor fucking family.

 

You know, I dwelled on that for a while, in the days after the fire. I did. I don't mind telling you, but I thought about that poor bastard and that look on his bloody face. You know, I was even worried for a while that my ugly mug was the last face he would ever see that night. Mine, mate.
 
He just bloody stared back at me, in silence, with that bloody bemused look on his face, as it hit him, I guess, as it hit him that this was really happening to him and it wasn't a dream. I just couldn't get him out of my head. Maybe I didn't want to, and maybe I was punishing myself, beating myself up, you know? Maybe it was guilt for not saving him. No, not maybe. I was guilty, and I fucking knew I was. Because I didn't, did I? I didn't save him; I did fuck all mate, because I just stood there looking up at him. I didn't budge; I didn't even flinch.
 
Then one morning I woke up and all of a sudden he was gone, you know? I couldn't see his face anymore. 
 
It doesn't matter though, does it? It doesn't matter what you feel or think about it. It doesn't matter because what the fuck does it ever change? I'll tell you what: it changes fuck all, mate. It changes fuck all. You can cry all you want, eh? Cry yourself a river even, but it won't change a fucking thing. Crying ain't never going to bring them back mate, trust me. I've tried. None of them. So what's the point? I mean, think about it, feelings kill you mate, they do, no – listen – they do! They eat you up from the inside until there's nothing left of you. So why do it to yourself eh? Why feel anything? Why punish yourself? You know what? If you don't care, if you don't feel anything, nothing can hurt you mate, can it? 
 
Anyway, you know something? I didn't even bloody know them. Not really, when you come to think about it. Sure, we were neighbours and all that, me and the Adeyemis, but who the hell knows their neighbours these days, right? Especially back then, when you think about it, when most of us were locked up in our houses hiding away from the world and everyone else in it? I felt bad though, trust me, back then in the days after the fire in the summer of 2021. Trust me, I did, because, well, looking back at it, the only time we really spoke I was a bit of a dick, mate. 
 
Let's just say that I had to ask Mr Adeyemi, not exactly politely, to move his car from out front of my driveway. Okay, I kind of banged on his front door all aggressive, like a man after money, and I remember just hearing these thumping footsteps coming closer on the other side of the door, the feet of an angry man getting ready to pull the door open and have a go at whoever was banging on it. Then he dragged open the door and saw me standing there, and I swear I saw him swallow when he looked up at me, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down under his mask, as his temperature cooled from hot head to chilled-the-fuck-out.
 
I had to button my lip, you know, to stop a smile from forming on my face, as the poor sod basically just dropped everything and ran out to move it. By it I mean his car. Still with his fucking slippers on too. Maybe, when I think about it now, he was probably surprised to see another Black man at his door, thinking that he was the only Black man on the New Cross estate. It was one of those new estates, wasn't it? Affordable house ownership, they called it. It wasn't a bad deal to be fair, where you buy a part of the house and then rent the rest from the housing association. My mate, by the way, used to call it the Burning Cross estate, didn't he? And to be fair, he was kind of on the money, as it was an all white estate – at least that's how it seemed with the amount of Crosses of St George flags flying around. I guess they can't have been happy about us living there. 
 
Anyway, when he got out of the car after he'd moved it, he turned with a little ducking down motion and waved with a nervous smile on his face, as he trotted off back into his house. The next time I saw him he was begging me to help him, begging me with tears down his face all frightened and wide-eyed. 
 
I wish I was nicer to him, you know? That I'd been nicer: a better person. I just wish I'd given him a wave back when he got out of the car. Told him my name, even asked him his, instead of finding it out from the newspapers. I wish that I'd have smiled back, nodded my bloody head and told him "no worries, mate". Told him that it was all good, about his car being in front of my drive and that I'd see him again.
 
But I didn't, did I? 
 
I was just a dick. 
 
That next time I saw him, as I said, all that I did was stare up at him, at Mr Adeyemi, I mean, as he stared back at me before he began to scream, at the top of voice, from his back bedroom window. I remember his face, mate; always. It's stuck in my head, I see it plain as day. As it was illuminated, weren't it? With all those fancy, solar-powered garden lights he had dotted around his garden.
 
Oh yeah, and I remember those flames, those fucking flames, dancing up on the roof, above him, getting bigger and angrier as they engulfed it. I couldn't stop looking at them for a while, could I, at those flames, all orange and black. Bits of the roof just rising up into the air all free like, in the black smoke and then spiraling back down to earth in little corkscrewed patterns, and still, I just stared at him, screaming now, shouting at me, begging, but it was like someone had pressed the mute button on some crazy remote control because I didn't hear a fucking thing.
 
 I knew then though, but I didn't want to think about it, I didn't want to face it, I think. But I knew he was a gonner, mate. I knew he was dead. At that moment he was screaming at the top of his lungs because I was his only hope, and I knew that I wasn't going in there, mate. No fucking chance. I couldn't. Could I? No, I knew I wasn't going to. Do what? Try and kick down the back door or find a ladder. Go in there? I knew I wasn't going to smash my way in, brave the flames and shit, that smoke, to save him –  this stranger – and you know what? He knew it too, didn't he? You could see it on his face; you could see it on his fucking face, mate.
 
Don't get me wrong. I thought about it, just for a second, I did. I stared up at the poor bastard all cold like. Even as he begged me to catch his son, Abeo, gripping him out in his arms, like he was Michael Jackson holding his kid over the balcony, remember that? Well, I thought about it, but I stopped and just kind of went cold, mate.
 
When Abeo fell into my arms, I didn't have time to think, not really. It just kind of happened, you know? This scrawny bag of bones falling through the air towards me, skinny legs and arms flailing. I don't know, people sometimes talk about time stopping still, don't they, at times like this I mean. Maybe that's what happened back then. Time just, like, stopped still, right? Anyway, I remember one minute I'm doing nothing, just standing there really, looking up at the shit show, up there and thinking to myself, no, he isn't is he? He's not going to drop that kid because who the fuck does he think is going to catch him? 
 
Then the next minute I'm leaning my head back, quick sharp like, to get my bloody chin out of the way as the kid's elbow crashes down. It grazed it anyway, didn't it, my chin I mean, almost at the same time as he clattered into my chest with a big thump, knocking the wind out of me as my arms just clamped shut around him like a fucking Venus Flytrap shutting closed. I told a mate once that it was like catching bagpipes, because of his legs and arms, flying about all over the place. I guess you had to be there. Anyway, I just shouted, "I got you, I fucking got you!" to the kid as we fell backwards onto the lawn, as I kind of rolled up in a ball around him to cradle him, to protect him, you know?
 
Then you know what? You know what I bloody thought about right then, as we're laying there on the lawn? No mate, it wasn't how I'm gonna get the poor fucker out still up there. All I thought about, well, all that came to mind at that very moment was, I hope his bloody elbow hasn't left a mark on my chin. It's crazy right? Mad, mate. 
 
Anyway, then he began to struggle and squirm like a crazed animal, or something, trying to get out of a trap, ready to gnaw its bloody paw off to get away, and I just grabbed him again, mate, tighter, in a big bear hug, didn't I? I just bloody grabbed him, and then hung on. He stopped, though, his whole body just relaxed, went limp like, and then sparked into life again as he hugged me back, all of a sudden, like someone just switched him back on again, he came to life mate and hugged me back so fucking tight. But that's when he began to pry himself up off my chest, trying to get out of my grip, turning his head back to look up at the window at the same time to see his dad disappear back into the bloody smoke, just like that. Just like that, mate, he turned around and went back into that smoke as it flooded out of the window and then rose up into the flames up on the roof above him.
 
Then he was gone.
 
That's when all hell broke out mate, with Abeo, out of nowhere a piercing scream just kind of came out of him, scared the shit out of me he did, as he called for his dad. "Dad", he screamed, "DAD!!" Again and again, choking on his spit, swallowing, then shouting again. Trying to catch his breath again in big gulps, pausing, catching it, and then gasping in again, and then screaming all over again, mate. It was fucking horrible. And all the time he tried to push himself away from me, wriggling, struggling, scratching at me. Turning away to look up at the window and then turning back at me and fucking trying to bite me at one point, the little fucker. 
 
I wasn't mad though, not really, how could I be? OK maybe a bit, just a little mad maybe. Nah, not mad, angry, no, I mean, I don't know, it was just, well, I just wanted him to stop, you know? I just couldn't take his screams. I'd heard those screams before, hadn't I, and it was making me anxious, and I just wanted to get away from it, you know. Besides, he was going to hurt himself weren't he? He was going to hurt himself. I was trying to stop him from hurting himself.
 
But he wouldn't, would he, he wouldn't fucking stop screaming and there I am trying to shush him, calm him down. Just wanting him to chill the fuck out you know? Just chill the fuck out, mate. Abeo, come on son. I mean, I didn't say that because I didn't know his fucking name then, but I was just trying to make him fucking stop and then it just popped into my head – just like that – give him a slap. Just one mind, just one little fucking slap to break him out of this. The thought, well, it began growing in my head from a little whisper to a fucking big old shout, as the flat of my hand begins to open and I'm just going to do it, I'm just about to give him a slap him and then he just stops. Just like that. He stops, pauses and lets out a loud wail again, a crazy fucking wail, mate, and I feel so fucking terrible, so guilty, mate, for wanting to slap a kid, and he slams his head into my chest and just bawls, and I just fucking hug him again. I just fucking hug him, mate.
 
I remember thinking it had started to rain, and stupidly now, when I think back about it, thinking to myself, "nice one, that'll put the fire out won't it?" But it wasn't raining though, was it? It was our tears, mine and the kid's, it was our fucking tears, mate. It was our bloody tears. And I just breathed; I took in a big gulp of air and everything rushed in. Reality, too, I guess, you know, and I look down at my hands and how they're over his ears and then, just like someone turning up the volume, I hear his dad screaming inside, begging for help. Begging hysterically for someone to come and save him as he was burning to death up there. Back up there in the home he'd made for his family. As I still lay there on the lawn with his son, tears still on my face. And then he stopped, he just stopped, mate, with not even a whimper coming from him. Just like that, with me still looking up at the window, still hoping Abeo's dad's head was going to somehow pop out of the black smoke, smoke that looked like a brick wall by now, and out into the world again. Even if I knew he wouldn't. 
 
I left London not long after that, packed a bag and dropped the keys off to a mate, yeah the same one who called it Burning Cross Estate, to look after the place for me. Don't worry, he'll be alright, he's white, ain't he. Then I got the fuck out of dodge. Driving back up the motorway to Smethwick – and heading home until things blew over. A few days later they brought the army onto the streets, and the New London Blitz, as the Whip Handers called it, came to an end. It had happened up North too, hadn't it, the white mobs rioting, in Liverpool. I remember hearing about that, because they lynched that guy in Toxteth, didn't they? Frankie Miller his name was, a kid really, 19 years old, mixed race. They hung him from a lamppost and left him there. We thought London was different, a "world city" they called it, but the white mobs had gone on a rampage there too. Attacked people, burnt shops and, yeah, houses too, all at the end of that long Red Summer of 2021. After we got spanked by the Italians in the Euros. Then the autumn came and with it the virus again. We thought we were heading back to our old lives, didn't we? Until then, at least. They were never coming back though.
 
No matter how much I try to pack the past away in a box and store at the back of my mind, I can't always keep it shut can I? I mean I try, I do, but, I don't know, maybe it was Abeo's screaming for his dad that night which caused it, but after all these bloody years I began to think about my own dad. I didn't even know if he was still alive, to be fair, but I just thought that I wanted to see him again, you know? It's mad, right?
 
You know, over the years, I've thought about dad at odd moments. Wait, hold up, did I just say that – dad? Really? Fuck me, hang on, father, I mean! How'd that happen? 
 
Bloody hell man, it's coming back now, he would have hated to hear that, would have been so damned pissed to hear that word, that one bloody word mate – dad. Trust me! I'm laughing now but... Nah man, it's made me feel all strange. Serious! Let's get this straight. Alright, start again. Right, OK. Over the years I've thought about my father, for fuck's sake, at odd moments. 
 
I have though; I've thought about him at really odd moments, unrelated ones. I mean like this morning, for example. I thought of him then; with sleep still in my eyes I tried to make sense of it all, after the night before I mean, I thought of him then.
 
Jesus, dad, fuck me, did I just really say that? I don't believe it. Crazy. I mean, even just thinking about that bloody word dad makes me feel so anxious. No, really, I do. I feel like ducking down for cover. Do you know what I mean? Even now, for fuck's sake, and at my age too! I feel like, well, looking over my shoulder, innit. No, honestly, just for thinking it. You know? In case a bloody backhand comes out from nowhere, Ninja style, smacking me over my bloody head and then leaving in a puff of smoke again. 
 
Because, fuck me, he hated that word: dad. For some God unknown reason that I never really knew why; I just knew that he hated it with a passion. A passion, man. To be fair, I only really knew that because I'd get boxed whenever I used it, so I stopped, didn't I? 
 
Dad. Ha, there, you bastard.
 
Anyway, it is what it is. It's all in the past now, innit? Gone mate. "Dad?," he'd question, all affronted like, if he caught you saying it. His face twisting up into a ball of confusion, then following up as it unraveled again with, "How yuh mean dad?" His eyes would narrow back again as he shouted, his eyes like slits in a pillbox. "I'm yuh father, God damn it! Call mi yuh rhatid father or don't call me nuttin' at all,'' in that strange mix of English and Jamaican Patois of his. In his speaky-spokey Hinglish.
 
Then he'd straighten up as tall as he could get, his barrelled chest puffing out and his back arching, all the time his belt-hand twitching as frustration, or anger rose in him and then pow! You'd get boxed, wouldn't you?
 
There was no point dodging, no point in any rope-a-dope business, because if you did, he'd just grab you and then make sure you felt it until you cried. No, just take the first lick, that box, you know, off the back of your head, hold it down breddrin', and move on. Go to your room and hope the fucker died a horrible death. Or imagine you were Bruce Lee doing a flying kick in the fucker's throat.
 
Standard. You know, something like that.
 
I remember him saying that to me one time, those very words, the last time I slipped up, well, shouting it I guess. Whatever, as I said mate, it doesn't matter now does it? 
 
Besides, I'd punch his fucking teeth out now, wouldn't I? Bang. One tump. If he was around now and did that. Bwoy, I'd spark him right out. "Bus' up his, well, ha, his bomboclaart!" As he would say.
 
Anyway, yeah, at odd times, strange times, you know? Like one time I saw this skinny, light-brown dog gnawing at the leg of a corpse that was sticking out of an open door of an old shot up bronze coloured Merc. Watching it shaking its head violently, from one side to the other, you know? It all just seemed to go quiet as it shook it all mad like, as they do, don’t they?  Dogs, I mean. Shaking it’s head from side to side mate, snarling and growling, its eyes darting around  as it tore off a big lump of flesh, breaking it free with a final jerk of its head as it stepped backwards. That’s when I jolted backwards too mate, and just gawped at it open mouthed. My hand gripping on my rifle, all tight like, just looking at that fucking skinny dog gulp down the decaying flesh, and yeah, the dirty beige polyester trousers material that had been torn off with it. Entranced by it all as that bloody dog tilted its snout up towards the sky and swallowed it downwards in one singular motion. You know, I can still see its damned bloodied snout rising up into the air as if trying to get gravity to help it do all the work. Like a bloody furry pelican it was. 
 
Then all I could hear were some people shouting and others screamed. 
 
I thought of him then. I did, father, I really did. Why, though, eh, why then, for fuck's sake?
 
And yeah last week, when I accidentally pissed on the bloody toilet seat and tore off some toilet paper to wipe it off, looking around all sheepishly, you know as you do, as if a secret camera had you in its gaze. I thought about him then, for God's sake. Why eh? Why for fuck’s sake? Well I wish I bloody knew, but I, I just did.
 
Sometimes, and only sometimes mind, it's just an odd feeling of sadness I would get, when I thought of him, like a slow wave washing over me. Other times, it brought a smile, it did, and I felt all warm and tingly, picturing a mental image of his face. 
 
I know it's mad, right? Because when you think about it, I don't know why. Because I never really knew the man, in truth. You know, I just didn't know him.
 
He was big, though; you know? I knew that much. Strong, too, I remember that. He was a Black man living in a white man's world, he was; one who didn't give two fucks about them and their racist rules. He didn't take any shit mate: none. I'll tell you that for starters. He took no shit from no man, trust me. Black or white, for that matter – none. But he gave it, didn’t he? He bloody gave it mate, all the bloody time. That man shit on everything he touched. Ha, trust me, what a picture. But grief mate, he’d give you nothing but grief, always bloody grief. Doling it out left, right and centre. He couldn't help himself though, could he? Well, it's how it seemed at the time. But I was only a kid though weren’t I?
 
I'd see it in mom's face though. In the way her hand was always stuck to the side of her cheek, propping her up against the weight of the world. But also in her watery eyes and trembling lip. He just, you know, well, he fucked her around all the time. And all the time she'd forgive him. Finding excuses for his lies. He just caused so much grief for mom. Oh, mom, why d'you put up with it, with him? Why didn’t you just tell him to get fucked and live your life. I still don't get it.
 
He'd tell her he was taking her out, you know? "We'll paint the town red", he'd tell her, and she'd get all dressed up, wouldn't she? Put her best on, do her hair, make up, the works. I’d watch her, wouldn’t I, sitting in front of her dressing table mirror. She had this little jewelry box and when she opened it this little ballerina jumped up and slowly turned around as Somewhere Over the Rainbow mechanically cranked out. I loved hearing that; and then he'd never turn up, would he? He'd just leave her hanging. You'd see the life drain from her slowly, as the time ticked by, and the longer she waited. And then, after realisation hit her, she'd drag herself up to her bedroom. I'd leave it awhile then follow her up, sticking my head to her door and listening to those little whimpers and slight sobs. I'd always sneak back down to the kitchen then head back up after a while with a coffee and some Hobnobs or Garibaldi's, and some kitchen towel for her tears. 
 
Yet sometimes that big man, that big braggadocious bastard of a man, well, sometimes he just seemed so small, fragile even. Like butter wouldn't melt. He seemed like, it's the wrong word I guess, but a victim, he seemed like the bloody victim. Weird, right? He seemed so innocent. He'd fuck you over and then he'd make you feel that you'd wronged him. That somehow you'd been the dick. Even when he was lying to your face and taking the piss you felt bad for him.
 
What the fuck?
 
You know something? Just the bloody thought of him, as a child, could make me smile or have me cowering in a foetal position for God's sake. I'd either be hoping he'd give me a hug or waiting for his arm to fall down at speed with belt in hand tightened into a fist and then... Anyway, let's just say there were no hugs.
 
But that damned brown leather belt man, oh how he loved that bloody belt. He made that bastard sing man, and yeah, he made us sing too, didn't he. "No Dadda! No Dadda!", we used to cry, forgetting ourselves, as the belt came down, snapping and snarling as it did. While we twisted and turned on the carpet, like strange snakes in a pit curling over each other. Smack, smack, smack went that belt as he shouted, "I'm your bloody father!" Hitting us harder and harder as snot bubbles burst at our noses and tears stained our faces. Even then, as he walked away, knackered, huffing and puffing, and as the pain still coursed through our bodies, we loved him. 

 

Even then, when we dried the tears from our faces with the back of our hands, with those hiccupped gasps of breath that kids do. As the world returned to calm, and we began to joke about who got it worse. Laughing and giggling about the weird noises we had made as pain and fear gripped us.
 
We loved him.
 
With all our hearts.
 
Mom, too, I guess.

 

Part Two:

 

"In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons."

 

- Herodotus

What was it we really loved, though? What?

 

As he was a ghost, wasn't he? Father – only ever a ghost. He was never real, never. Come on, was he? I mean, when you think about it, that's all he was: just a presence, a feeling maybe, but never, ever a father.

 

Sometimes, yeah, I know it sounds mad again, but sometimes, and get this, I have to stop and ask myself, well, was he actually fucking real? No, seriously. Because sometimes, mom, father, even me being a soldier, none of that shit feels like it was ever real. None of it. But I bet that old fucker is still out there somewhere, even now, fucking someone over, even after all these years. But that bastard can't be dead. He can't be, can he? Because I do, I just, yeah, I feel him out there. I mean, when I read my crystals yesterday, they told me...,nah, get fucked, I'm joking, mate. I'd never do that shite! 
 
No, being serious now, I guess one of his kids would know, wouldn't they, if he's still knocking about? It's hard to call them brothers or sisters now, you know? Not after all these years of not speaking, but one of them would know. I bet you. How to get in touch with them, right? But to be honest, what with the virus, well, are they even out there; you know? Did the 'Rona get 'em? Right? Because it got so many of us. So bloody many of us. Us Ethnics, as the Whip Handers call us. Fuckers. It wiped out entire communities of us, yet the government tried to cover it up. Stopped recording deaths based on ethnicity, all the time trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Treating us like we were idiots.
 
Anyway, do you know something? Of all the bad things I could tell you about father, he always spoke to us as if we were adults, I'll give him that. No baby talk, no, oh no, never from him. No treating us like idiots or thinking that we wouldn't understand, even if we didn't half the time to be honest. No, there was no baby talk, no treating us like kids, no, not from him, no stupidness. Just real talk, you know? I guess it was down to him never really having much of a childhood; well, I guess? Maybe he just never knew how to be anything other than himself, anything other than that big bastard of a man he was? I wonder if he ever found him? His father, I mean. If he ever got to ask him why he'd fucked off and left him to grow up to be the cunt he was?

 

So, yeah, mom had told me once that he'd grown up on his gran's farm back in Jamaica. His old man had done a runner, hadn't he? Then one day he'd just upped and done one too. My father ran off to find his own father. Went on an adventure, she said, a journey. I didn't ask her how he knew where his father was or even if he found him, to be fair. It was just enough for me to be with mom, just in that moment where she wasn't breaking her back working, crying or looking like the weight of the world was on her shoulders. Just laying there by her side, looking up at her as she spoke, just the two of us, me and mom. Just us against the world, chatting and laughing. 
 
But I remember when she said that, just like it was yesterday. That he'd told her he'd run off to Kingston as a kid – all by his bloody self. He was always a man, he'd told her. From the moment he was born, he was never a bwoy, always a man. Imagine that, hey? All by his bloody self, living on the streets of Kingston. Imagine that?
 
Do you know something? I ran away from home too. Like father, like son, right? I guess I left to find anything but my father, though. 16 years old, wasn't I? Still a kid, though, right? Went off to join the army. Well, it was that or the bloody circus, I suppose. Anyway, same bloody difference ain't it, I guess. I mean, I didn't get around to it until I was 19, though. Join up, I mean, but when you look at it, I guess I ran away too. Yeah, but to lose a fucking father, not to find one. Or find something, anything, really. Anything but him.
 
So, yeah, he talked about the world, didn't he? 
 
Wars and politics, all the time. Talking about wars and bloody politics to us kids. I mean, it was more of a sermon at times, to be fair, than a conversation. But the thought of us ever saying anything back to him when he spoke, well, it would have ended up with him shouting "Big people talking!" Or something like that, you know? Followed up with a quick backhand and, well, more snot bubbles. Besides, what did I, or any of us, know about the world back then? To chip in, as a kid, what could I add? Football and cartoons were all I gave a shit about back then – and that much hasn't changed, to be fair. 
 
I guess no matter what father told us, I had to see the world on fire for myself before I could really understand it. To really get it. Do you know what I mean? No matter how much fire and brimstone he gave us, I had to watch the world burn for myself before I could feel it, or feel anything, if I'm honest. 
 
Do you know something? I woke up one morning, and, all of a sudden, I was a soldier and the world was mine. I had a pep in my step, my chest was all puffed out like, my shoulders rolled back and there was a twinkle in my eye. I felt like I'd grown two fucking feet taller, didn't I. No, really. When I walked down the road, I didn't stare at my feet anymore; there was no more holding my head down. I looked the world in the eye, and when I'd go into a pub, I knew I could take any of those fat fucks in there. I think I've been trying to find that feeling again though, ain't I. Since the day I left and came back into the world. That pep, just been looking for that fucking pep, mate, no word of a lie.
 
Life, eh? 
 
Maybe it's all just in our heads.
 
I wish you'd found that, that pep though, mom. If only to have just once told father to go and fuck himself. But you were always father's doormat. He'd wipe his feet on you, time and time again. Run you over, then back up and reverse over you again and you'd be glad for it, wouldn't you?
 
Anyway, whatever. Yeah, the world and politics, as all the time we sat on the floor nudging each other, when we thought he wasn't watching. But then there was always his other favourite topic, weren't there: white people. Oh, how he loved to talk about white people. White people this, white people that. Boy, he was so fascinated by them, you know? Intrigued even, intrigued, yeah, that's the word, he was bloody intrigued by them.
 
No wait, it's obsessed innit? I mean, he was kind of bloody obsessed with them. "Devils! Devils!" He'd shout, as us kids glanced at each other and rolled our eyes, all entertained.
 
That's right, yeah, that's right! That's what he loved calling them, innit. "Imagine all the hate dem cause. All di wars and aggression! Look how dem tek wi whe from Africa. Dem steal us!" That's what he'd say, ha! Devils. Fuck me, I remember that now.
 
"From mi born dem deh pon mi back man, every rahtid day dem a try bruk mi down." I looked into his eyes when he said that. All wide open, bulging, never blinking. For a moment, thinking he was going to cry. I just felt it in that strange charged atmosphere that seemed to go on and on. Maybe he'd gone back in time? Gone back to all that hate and pain? Gone somewhere. Then he just laughed, didn't he? 
 
That laugh, what was it about, that bloody laugh?
 
You know, I first went to live with him and his family, right after mom died. Well, they were my family, for a while at least, back then. I remember sitting with them, us kids, and watching this all play out and him saying that, those very words. I don't know, maybe I imagined it too, some of it, all of it? His eyes, too? Sometimes the past and the present all gets mixed up. Jumbled, you know? One minute I'm pissing on the toilet seat and then the next it's the afternoon and I'm in the bookies on the High Street pissing my money away, laying down a bet I know will never come in, but putting it down anyway. Just for the sake of it, you know?
 
Maybe after all these years it's the best I can do now? Bet on things I know will never happen. Maybe I always have, though? Betting on long odds, like father, me and mom living together; that the army would sort me out; and, above all odds, father would love me. But I went out into the world, and I'm not sure I came back.
 
But I went and took the Queen's shilling, didn't I? No one's the same after that. Fuck him, no really, fuck him. He was never my father, never a fucking dad. Not to me, at least. Maybe for his other fucking kids, but not me. Don't get it twisted, I wished he'd been. I did. I so fucking wanted him to be a dad to me. You know, for him to just be a fucking dad. A real dad, I mean. Take me to the fucking park, kick a ball or something, anything – just fucking once. 
 
Why couldn't he just be my dad?
 
He told me once that I spoke like a white man. Imagine that? A white man? What? A Black man telling his Black son that? What kind of man does that, eh? The one time I ever fucking spoke back to him, gave him some lip, and trust me, I couldn't help it, you know? It just came out. Without even thinking, I just said, "Look, I was born in bloody Dudley, lived all my life there. How else was I going to talk?" His mouth opened to clap back, scream something at me. I imagine it was just like that Arthur cartoon character in those memes, his belt-hand clenched by his side. He stopped himself and, here's the thing, the bastard just started laughing at me, didn't he? Laughing with that fucking laugh of his again, turning and walking away, leaving me with my chest heaving. I felt sick, mate, but then I started laughing too. You don't know who you are, do you? When you're born Black in England? You're too many people, all trying to fit in and belong to everything at the same time, but belonging to nothing. I wasn't Black enough for father, and I'd never fit in with the white lads at school. You know, I laugh now, but not long after father said what he said, some white kid at school asked me why I didn't sound Black. Twat.
 
By the way, I decked him, didn't I. 
 
What I remember though, and this is for a fact, mate, I tell you this for a fact – father always used to say this, and mate, I couldn't fault him on it. He'd always say that the white man's mile is shorter than the Black man's. 
 
No word of a lie, no word of a fucking lie. Fact. I never bloody forgot that. Always fucking shorter.
 
"We always have further to go," he'd say, "just to get to the same bumbaclaart destination." Then he'd find any woman or kid around him – never a man – and then lock them in his gaze and excuse himself for swearing, flashing that damn smile of his. Bumbaclaart! I'd love it when he'd say that, though. Love it, mate, as I looked around at everyone rolling around laughing. I just wanted to be him. I've never told anyone that. But I don't know, I just felt it. I just bloody felt it – I just wanted to be like him back then.
 
He loved to hold court, have a crowd around him, and he'd hold it for anyone who'd happen to get caught in the web he'd spun. Out shopping, in the pub, at work; it didn't matter, mate, it never really mattered where. And he'd love it even better if he was sipping on some Johnny Walker whiskey. You know, I loved to look at the image of that man walking with his top hat and cane; I could just see him strutting through the world when I looked at the logo on the label. He seemed so confident and happy. It made me happy.
 
Sometimes, when I was a kid, in the middle of the night when I heard the rain outside, I'd think to myself that it's trying to wash away the day, making way for the new one to come, and I'd think of a life with him and mom. And wonder what it would have been like if we had all been together – just the three of us, you know? Instead of me just being his little bastard?
 
Oh mom, I wished you had the life you wanted. Found some joy. Been happy, just for fucking once, been happy in your sad, bloody life. I wish you'd just had some joy, had a light at the end of the fucking tunnel. But you didn't, did you? 
 
"That damned road is always longer for us," father would say, "and there's never any," and just when you'd think he was going to drop another bumbaclaart, he'd pause and continue with "shortcut" or something, I can't remember what, something just to send you off course. Then he'd start laughing. That bloody laugh again man, that's right, always with that high-pitched laugh, part hyena and part Mutley from the cartoons. That one gold tooth of his gleaming out to the world, as he wiped his brow with a handkerchief that had his initials, B.S., stitched into a corner, always in that royal blue thread. 
 
B.S. stood for Byron Simpson, if you're wondering. Byron Simpson. You know, I haven't said those words out loud for so long, so bloody long. If someone came up to me and told me he'd made it all up, just totally invented his name, his stories, bloody everything, strangely, I wouldn't be surprised. Because, and you'll laugh at this, but as I got older, well, I used to think that those letters B.S. carefully stitched onto those damned handkerchiefs, well, really stood for bull shitter – and you know the years to come wouldn't prove me wrong if I'm honest. 
 
Granted, he might have been full of it, but you know what, that's always stuck with me, all these bloody years, by the way. What he said about that mile, that damned mile and that road, that fucking road forever being longer for us.
 
I mean, what's that saying now? The more it changes...the...well…you know...it's on the tip of my bloody tongue. Anyway, just look back at the last few years if you don't believe me. I mean, just look at those Whip Hand bastards for one. You know? Yeah, look at where they are now, for fuck's sake?
 
It all seemed like a joke at first, didn't it? What with that damn app, what was it called again? Anyway, it only allowed British videos to be uploaded. I mean, to be fair, even I fucking watched them at first. It was that bird though, wasn't it? That Wendy Halo, she was funny weren't she, and yeah, fit as fuck. So you watched, didn't you? That's it mate, yeah, Bish Bosh, that's what it was called. I mean, you didn't go out of your way looking for her on it, but you didn't swipe up when she came on either, nah, mate, you watched her videos. Whenever you were bored you'd go scrolling. When you had time on your hands or didn't want to think, which at the start of 2021 was all the fucking time, mate, wasn't it? 
 
Last thing at night and first thing in the morning, that was me, mate, I'd just be scrolling, phone in hand, swiping up to the next one. Those damn videos, man, they would drag you in, right? Seduce you and before you knew it, you'd have watched forty videos in a row. Just one more video, I'd think, just one more, oh a cat pissing in a sink, I'll have some of that. What's that, a dog talking back to its owner – count me in. Oh, Wendy Halo, you want to bounce your tits around, yes I will have some of that, Ha! Mate, I was obsessed! 
 
By spring 2021, Wendy Halo's videos were just getting a little more cutting: the jokes, you know, getting just that bit closer to the knuckle. Everyone got it at first, Welsh, Scots, Irish, Poles, French, Germans, you know, white folks first. Then she used the same jokes against Asians and then Black people, so she wasn't racist right? We were all the same, weren't we? Everyone was getting it. "Can't you take a joke," she'd say, as little snowflakes fell down over the screen.

 

 There was some stuff on the TV which said it was good, her videos, "hope through hate" or something? Nah, can't have been that. Anyway, I don't know, some shit like that. But others were warning about the growth of what they started to call shookers back then, because it wasn't just her, was it? I mean there were lots of videos like hers all making jokes about difference; there was one I remember which had these two dogs. A Black one and a white one. The white one was always doing tricks, catching balls, they even got it counting. While they'd throw the same ball at the Black dog and it would just lay there as it bounced off his nose. 
 
Anyway, after a while Wendy Halo switched her jokes onto the Chinese, didn't she, and then it just felt different. Those were shookers, for sure. There was a video of her ordering fish and chips and she got a Chinese takeaway delivered instead by mistake. She held it up above her head and motioned to throw it on the floor – cut to her with her makeup done up and, yeah, tits out holding a plate of fish and chips, all happy again.
 
It was all bollocks, mate, but it was kind of working, you know. It was racist, but it wasn't racist. I don't know, mate, it made sense back then, didn't it? I think. Yeah, that's right, her Gran had died of Covid she said, and eating fish and chips with her down at Southend would always be her go-to memory of her Gran and that this foreign filth would never replace that – never replace her Gran. It all seemed to be about the Chinese, for a while, until she focussed on the Asian shopkeepers. And by then it was hunting season. But I don't know, and bear with me, she seemed to be getting sexier the more racist she got. Tighter clothing, stretching and bending over, and shit even turning and shaking her ass to the camera. Then at the end, a halo descended on her head as she turned back, smiling with that angelic face of hers. So you'd watch all the way to the end, didn't you, just because, I mean it was only a minute, wasn't it?
 
I asked my mate at work about it. I told him I thought it was getting too much now, those videos in general, and do you know what he said? "I'm not fucking Chinese am I, so I don't give a fuck mate. Besides, they caused all of this, didn't they?" he said, before pausing and saying that crap about "China lied and thousands died." I know it sounds bad now, but I didn't say a word, mate. Fuck all, I just kind of looked at him and thought, "what a cunt". By then though, it was a year into the pandemic and there were some big names like that Lord-something bloke, asking for money from the Chinese government and stuff like reparations, so it kind of just fit right in. 
 
Yeah, so by the time Asian shopkeepers began to cop it, she'd already done that video about being charged £20 for toilet roll. By then, well, it was too late, weren't it? The videos started to end with her holding a whip, cracking it in the air with one hand while she traced with a finger from her other the letters "W. H." Still banter though, wasn't it? Just banter. 
 
Then it all took a turn. 
 
Someone posted a video where those two young Asian lads get beat up. Yeah, that one, man. It looked fake, right? At first. What with all the bright colours and sounds of pow, biff, bang! That and the fact a big CGI'd toilet roll seemed to be hitting them. But that video ended with the catchphrase at the end of it: "You've been Blitzed Boi!" And then the letters W. H.
 
Most people didn't connect up the dots, but when they did, she said that she had nothing to do with it. But then she used that catchphrase herself at the end of one of her videos too – "You've been Blitzed Boi!" A month after the video, it came out that it was real though, didn't it? It was real. I mean, one lad had lost his eye and the other a quarter of his fucking brain, mate, after his head got stamped on. 850 million views, that's how many it got. Imagine. That's how many fucking views it had before it was taken down. People laughing as them kids had their lives ruined by a CGI toilet roll.
 
In the last video before she was banned, she looked right into the camera, took off her halo and asked, "Who has the Whip Hand?" As the screen faded to black, you heard her say: "Blitz 'em boyz!"
 
Anyway, that's really when it all went to shit. There was that front page, I remember that in big black letters, weren't it? "The Blitz". That's when it seemed so real, you know? Were they supporting it, calling it out? I don't know, but it wasn't make-believe anymore. Not a joke mate; it was real and people began dying, man, they were fucking dying. And it would all come to a head in those three long hot days of summer 2021, just as the lockdowns had been relaxed again.
 
They'd got their name from that Enoch Powell speech. Nah mate, I'd never heard of him either. Anyway, it was "the rivers of something or the other" wasn't it? Yeah, yeah, mate – blood. That's right, the "rivers of blood" speech. He'd said some shite about Black people taking over the country back in the day, I mean way back, you know, in the 50s or something. So get this: the joker only went and said that one day we'd have the "Whip Hand" over the white man. 
 
Imagine that? What the fuck was he smoking, eh? The Black man is going to have the whip hand? How the fuck was that ever going to happen when I can't even walk two steps without being stopped and searched? Yet I'm supposed to be taking over the country? What? Fucking joker. So yeah, that's where they got their name, innit? And for those three bloody awful nights back then, they made us all know who had the whip hand – and it wasn't us, was it. It wasn't fucking us.
 
Wendy fucking Halo man: W. H. She even cracked a fucking whip in her videos for God's sake. How didn't we fucking see it? It's plain as fucking day, right, when you look back at it? That newscaster, what's his face, you know, the good one on Channel Four, Snow or something, right? The old bloke, I mean, he called her videos – and I remember this like it was yesterday – he called them racism's Trojan Horse. White kids were radicalised by her, weren't they?
 
I mean, racist attacks had been going up since the Leave vote, all those years ago, hadn't they? But since her videos, they skyrocketed. But it hadn't happened to me or anyone else I knew, so you know what? I kind of didn't care. I mean, I did care, but I didn't worry, you know, I wasn't worried. This was England, I was born here and I was used to this shit, you know? I mean, look, to be fair, I was born into this hostile environment and that shit hadn't ever changed – well at least that's what I thought, but it just kind of crept up on me it got worse. It actually fucking got worse, mate, and I just accepted it. 
 
Check this: my bro's missus, this white girl, right? She got clipped, didn't she? She was out with my bro one night and had gone to the toilets and got jumped by a clipper gang in there. They cut all her fucking hair off with a cordless shaver. All of it, mate, even her fucking extensions. All because she was going out with a Black man. She was selling out her race, wasn't she? Well, she was according to those fuckers. But that happened a lot back then. Some women would rock it, you know, show their bald head off, but others hid in the shadows. Anyway, they broke up, didn't they, my mate and that gyal.
 
They were done. 
 
London just began to feel different, and I just began to be more careful. I don't know; it's hard to explain, but I'd always had my guard up around white people. I had to. I was always ready, you know, for whatever. I hung on every word, scrutinised looks, body language; I looked for anything that would tell me which of 'em were Whip Handers.
 
Anyway, jump forward two years and we were in what we called The Great Malaise. Remember that? Well, that's what the press called it anyway, at the time, didn't they? That first year after the pandemic. It was right after we reached the stage of acceptable COVID deaths back in the summer of 2023. They'd told us it was over so many times, all just to kick start the economy. Then we'd have to go into lockdown again and cases would drop. Then we'd be forced out again and then they'd go up again. New vaccines came and went, each one with higher rates of success, yet still they locked us down. The rich always got the new jabs, the police, the army, frontline workers – the essentials – but the rest of us? Well, stay at home chaps, see ya! 
 
Anyway, by the time it was actually over, well, I mean it wasn't over, was it? It's just that fewer people were dying, but you know what I mean, right? So yeah, when the lockdowns finally ended, it was too late for so many. It was that whole year of lockdown in 2022 mate, a whole fucking year which ended it all. By then though, when we came out, so many were living a life they couldn't change. So many were really fucked in the head, mate. No, honestly, they were. And they ended up still living a life as if nothing had changed. 
 
Even though the government said we didn't have to wear masks in public spaces anymore, even when they began to fine people for wearing masks, many still did. They wouldn't give it up. The Maskers, we called them. Then there were Bubblers, weren't there. All of those who kept the same small groups of people they had hung out with during lockdown; they wouldn't let anyone else in, would they? Even when the world opened up again.
 
I guess it was all fucked though, wasn't it?
 
How could we go back to the old life when that life was gone? I mean, who believed the government by then, anyway? To be fair, even I was just waiting for cases to go up again. I mean, there were still cases, lots of cases, but they just didn't seem to matter anymore. To be fair, it was the A-V's, I mean, you know, those anti-vaxxers who were still dying, so I didn't give two fucks, did I. Fuck 'em. Besides, so many were living lives they were trying to wish into existence, weren't they? Keeping out anything which would destroy that. Fingers in ears, hands over their eyes. Maybe I was no different?
 
I guess for some of them they needed to still live that life didn't they? Because if they didn't, well, what had it all been for? The sacrifices they made, you know, the family they'd lost. The friendships that ended, and the careers they gave up or, well, had taken from them because they'd secluded for so long? What was it all for if they entered a word again where, you know, technically, they still could get the very thing which they’d hidden away from? The very thing that had ruined their lives? What was the point?

 

But what was the point of anything?
 

 

Part Three:

 

 

"Perhaps that is what it means to be a father - to teach your child to live without you." 

 

 

- Nicole Krauss

 

Well, that's how it was when we all crept out of our bunkers, and into the light again, weren't it? Those feelings of, well, what was the fucking point of it all? All of us, fat, boozed up and agoraphobic. OK, maybe I'm just talking about myself here, but that's when the Whip Hand got big, really big. I mean, they were growing and all that during the lockdown, but when it was over, they just kind of connected with everyone who was afraid. They told them it would be OK – and that's what people wanted to hear back then, you know? 
 
But, more than that, they gave them someone to blame, didn't they? And that was me, of course, you know, me and all those other Ethnics, as they called us. Fuck me, they had it all worked out, didn't they, those Whip Handers? We'd been the super spreaders all along, they said. We hadn't followed the rules and hadn't locked down because, well, we were either too thick to understand or just filthy fuckers who never took a bath let alone washed our hands. Then we were spreading it on purpose, they said. Remember that? Trying to kill 'em all off, replace them or something. Then they went for it, didn't they? Coming out with that shite about the only way they'd all be free of the virus was if they knew where all the Ethnics were at all times. Tags or camps, that was the shout. Tags or fucking camps.
 
I mean, every time you turned the BBC on they seemed to be on there taking the piss. The government loved it though, I bet you, as they took the spotlight off all their shit. It was terrible. Shocking. Even for me, and I hardly give a shit about anything. Some bloke online called the BBC, wait, what was it again? Yeah, he called it the Babylon Broadcasting Corporation. Too right, mate. I remember chuckling about that, and he wasn't wrong though, was he? Anyway, what does it matter now? It is what it is.
 
 
They filled a void though, I guess, the Whip Hand. They told everyone who really was fucking the country up, taking advantage and all that. Who really was to blame. My mate had said that he thought it was too fucking good to be true and that the government must be behind the Whip Hand. Something about the MOD Digital Defence Strategy or some shit, he said. Propaganda and all that, misinformation. I mean, to be fair, I kind of believed him for a bit until he got done for burning down a 5G tower, then I was out. But as long as they weren't blaming the government, the powers that be, yeah, them fuckers, they let them say whatever they wanted to. In the press, online, all over the shop, didn't they? They took the spotlight off the government's failures, and off the blood on their hands. 
 
All that fucking blood. 
 
So many of us had died and nobody gave a shit though, did they? But it had been all our fault, hadn't it? Us Black and Brown people not following the rules; we'd done it to ourselves. Then they blamed communities for closing themselves off and how multiculturalism had fed it all. Then they vowed to find new ways to communicate with ethnic communities. Well that government minister just said the word: Ethnics. Just like that. "Find new ways to communicate with Ethnics," then he kind of smiled. When he did that, when I saw him on the TV, all bold as brass, you knew the score, mate. 
 
Then it was all that shit about religion and that crap about Asian families attending illegal gatherings. All fucking lies. But if you thought they had it bad, I don't know mate, there just seemed a special kind of hatred, venom for Black people. It was brutal mate, ever since that fucking football game back in that summer of 2021. You'd walk down the street and you'd just see white people looking at you like you were shit on their shoe. Some of those old fuckers seemed to have a death wish, walking by you and muttering, just loud enough for you to hear: "Fuck off back home."
But I was home, weren't I?
 
Anyway, when the BAME community asked for a Royal Commission to look at why we died in such high numbers, you know what the government said? Leave it in the past mate, time to move on. Get on with your lives. Just like that. 
 
You know what? Fuck 'em.
 
When you think about it now, the new normal was Pandora's box in all but name. OK, I heard some woman say that on TV. The lid had been torn off, she said, you know, and there was no going back from there. Well, by the time the second wave hit, in November 2020, I'd lost touch with so many friends. Well, you know, I thought they were friends. But you know if someone can't even be arsed to bell you during a pandemic, even just for a quick chat, I mean, not even fucking ring you, or bloody text you, you know what, you're not friends, are you? You can't be, mate, can you? You're just associates, just fucking associates. Anyway, in that second lockdown, it was so much worse because this time there weren't any surprises.
 
Where was I? 
 
Yeah, anyway, so many were in between the past they thought they'd lost and the future they feared ahead of them, that's where all the lies that the Whip Hand had spun began to fill and it turned their fear into hate. That hate shored them up. Puffed up their chests and shit. Those lies made some white people feel safe, secure, and kind of whole again. The lies gave them a purpose, you know? While all the time their hate took that feeling of security away from the rest of us. 
 
The Whip Hand took what used to be called the hostile environment and made it all hench. No, for real, they injected it with fucking steroids, mate. They made sense of it all by pointing a finger of blame at anyone who didn't belong. Anyone who wasn't white. Although, yeah, they went after the Poles too, didn't they? It wasn't the virus or the government that had fucked everything, according to them. It was people like me. We were to fucking blame. 
 
 
I don't know, everyone just had all that time again to look at their lives, in all them lockdowns. Really look in the mirror and see all their flaws, especially in the second one. To go back into the past and try to make sense of it all, life, didn't they? You know, really look at themselves in ways they hadn't before. Then it hit me. Pow, just like that. I wasn't in anyone's bloody bubble, was I? I was just on my own, mate. I didn't mind at first. I mean, it wasn't the first time, was it – feeling alone? Then I heard someone say that you can tell a lot about a man by the friends he keeps. Some bloody character had said it in some shitty show on the telly, I think. In some fucking program, or whatever, but it had me in tears. Crying like a little kid, and all I could think about was going back home to Smethwick to where I used to have friends and a family. 
 
You know, I never thought I'd go back. But I never thought I'd go to Iraq either, to be fair. Not that I even knew where it was mate, trust me. When I moved back to Smethwick from down South, in the summer after the fire, all those years ago now. I just wanted to run away, I guess. It wasn't the same place, though, was it, Smethwick? But how could it be; I'd been away for too long, hadn't I? When I saw the Red Cow pub all boarded up, with half the bloody roof missing and the rest all burnt and charred, I knew things had changed. When I saw those white letters "W.H." in a circle, the paint half dripping down the red brick wall, I knew what had happened. Desi pub though, weren't it?
 
At first, well, in those early days at least, when COVID was over, so many people tried to go back to the lives they thought they had, before it all went to shit, before it all went pear-shaped. I guess some could go back, couldn't they? I mean, those with money, at least. For them nothing much had really changed. They had their home offices, their gardens and home deliveries. But for most of us, the rest of us, the pandemic had grabbed us by the throat and was still fucking squeezing. We couldn't run and hide could we, hey? There was no going back for us. Nah mate! No fucking way! Because there weren't any fucking jobs. Well, there were, but, you know, nobody wanted to pay to see my man boobs, mate, if you get my drift. The amount of sex workers went through the roof, sky rocketed, mate – shot up sky high like a billionaires rocket for fuck's sake.
 
Anyway, so yeah, there were all those sites though, weren't there, where people could sell themselves online. Well, photos and videos I mean, you know? But the way the economy was then, if you had cash, it was a buyers' market. You could buy anything you wanted. It all kind of became normal: young people, old people. Selling themselves to the highest bidder. It was crazy. The more that people could make by taking off their clothes, the less they showed in the real world. That was the fucking crazy thing. Dress lengths got longer, neck lines higher; it was pay-per-view mate – and you got nothing for free. When I started working on the doors again, that's when I noticed there weren't any skimpy clothing anymore. Everyone all dressed like fucking nuns, didn't they? 
 
If selling yourself wasn't on the menu, there was fuck all else really. Nothing. Unless you were willing to join the Land Army, or whatever the fuck they called it, to get bussed out to the countryside to pick crops, dig up spuds and all that crap in a dirty old field. Civic duty they said, those in suits in their offices. Duty my arse, mate. "Your country needs you!", they said. Well, that's what it said on that bloody poster: you remember that one with the potato in the Union Jack waistcoat pointing a finger out at you? Pointing at whichever mug clocked their eyes on it? It was everywhere though, wasn't it? You couldn't fucking turn around without seeing it. And then there was that cartoon advert.
 
Potato bloody Pete. Jokers, mate.
 
There's still one up on the bus shelter, you know, the one outside of the Job Centre on Regent Street. It's all faded now though. But, trust me, I noticed it the other night. As I stopped to light up a smoke, I raised my head up and clocked it and just started laughing straight away, spluttering out smoke into the night like a loon. I couldn't help it. Standing there for a moment looking at it, under the orange glow of the street lights, gleaming through the dampness. I hate those damp October nights mate, I feel it in my bones, don't I. Anyway, I noticed some poor sod, an old fucking man asleep inside of the shelter, didn't I, all bundled up on the floor in a white duvet, tucked up tight under the plastic seats. I felt like giving him the box of chicken and chips I had, walking over and leaving it next to him, tapping him on the shoulder as I walked away. But I didn't, did I. I just carried on walking. Just carried on walking home, mate, leaving the poor sod in that damp, cold night.
 
They were too clever though for their own good, the government. They helped build up the Whip Hand, but it got too big, too big to keep in check. Anyway, it all came to a head last May. A fucking hung Parliament mate, and guess who saved them, who they had to team up with in a coalition? Anyway, in the first month, the coalition government made food banks illegal. Wasn't good for the economy, they said; it made us fat and lazy. Then they said that anyone on Universal Credit had to earn their benefits. No more free rides. The only way the nation could get back on its feet again was if everyone earned their keep. No more handouts, they said.
 
We'd thought it was bad before. Austerity, hostile environments and all that, I mean, but that was the good old days, mate. That life, that world, all of it – everything was gone forever, mate. Gone. 
 
But nothing lasts forever, does it? I mean when you stop to think about it, life's just a series of chapters, innit? Think about it. Chapters. My life with mom, that's one chapter, living with father another, and joining the army, that's another one, right? They were just chapters that had to end sometime, somehow. Think about life, right? Just a collection of stories, I mean chapters, that we stitch together and call a life. That's it – that's all it is. Just fucking chapters we link together and call life when we look back on it.
 
Little bubbles right, just little bubbles of time that all burst in the end. All of them. 
I look at all of those bubbles in my life. All of them came to an end at some point and then were gone. One minute you're getting beaten by a belt as a kid, then next minute you're firing at a car at a checkpoint that's failed to stop. It doesn't even make any sense. 
 
So I was glad though. Glad mate. So fucking glad that I'd lost touch with it, that life I had before it all went to shit. Because well, it had fucked me over too many times, hadn't it? That life. And I was all about that new start, mate. All about it! All about that new chapter, that new fucking normal. All about turning that page, you know what I mean? New starts and all that, right? 
 
But how could we have a new start when so many of us had been lost? I mean. I know, I know, I'm a hypocrite. You can't go back, right? And yet, I had headed back to Smethwick, a place I hadn't been to since I was 16. Leaving one broken life behind and going back to try and find the pieces of another one. Put them back together again like. You know, you can't go back in time, I used to tell Dave. "You can't go back, mate, no matter how hard you try," I'd say, "keep pushing forwards, mate. Fuck me, mate, don't keep looking back." I'd tell him that all the bloody time, wouldn't I? Everytime he mentioned Africa, finding his family and all that: "You can't turn the clock back can you?" And you know what he said once? "The clocks go back every October, what are you jibber jabbering about?"
 
Then we burst out laughing.

 

 

Story continues after the illustration.

The Whip Hand Poster

Illustration by Dean kelland

 
Funny fucker he was! Always with the banter. Always, mate. When you heard him speak though, you wouldn't think he was up for it, the banter, you know? Not with that posh voice of his, but he always was. Smarts, so much smarts, mate. Anyway, I felt bad telling him not to think of them, his real family, I mean. But I guess I just didn't want to think about my own back then. I'd buried them, thrown dirt on 'em. And every time Dave spoke about his family, it was like he was digging up mine again, and I couldn't face them, not back then, could I?
 
But times change, right? We change. Don't we?
 
Yeah, so if you remember, back then, in the Great Malaise, the first year after COVID, a lot of people went nuts when they were free after that full year of lockdown. When they were free again to go out into the world and do whatever they wanted. Some just couldn't cope. I read somewhere that men, aged 25 to 40 in particular, began topping themselves left, right and bloody centre, mate. You couldn't walk by a fucking multi-storey carpark without a helmet or hard hat on. Nah, sorry, you shouldn't laugh. But when they realised that their lives, jobs, purpose – all of that – had gone, the world seemed broken and that was it for them – for white men. I should have said that, shouldn't I? Because it was white men who topped themselves.
 
Black guys like me, well, fuck me mate, we always knew this world was fucked, you know? There weren't any surprises, not for us. Pandemic or no fucking pandemic, we were always at the bottom – it was fucked, but it was just the way it always was for us. You know, our mile, right? Our fucking mile, mate. We'd just gotten used to it being longer.
 
I can't lie, but a part of me felt glad that they were feeling what I'd felt for so long, you know? Just for one time! Then I felt bad for thinking that until, of course, I saw so many of them becoming Whip Handers. So fucking many of them, finding themselves in hate. Getting their voices back again, taking off their masks, literally, and regaining their fucking purpose with the thought of their knees on our necks. Fuck 'em!
 
Nah mate, hard hat, ha. 

 

Yeah, I know, you're thinking to yourself that I'm just a bloody racist, aren't you? But how can I be a racist? Me? How the fuck can I be? But anyway, I said what I said. Besides, you can't be a racist if you don't have any power. And trust me mate, I don't have any – unless you're wearing trainers on a Saturday night and I'm on the doors – because you ain't getting in mate. 
 
But outside of that, what power do I have, you know? I barely have any power over myself, let alone anyone else. Anyway, like what Dave told me, you can't be a racist without power, he said. You just can't.
 
Fuck me, Dave, I miss you, man. Black Dave. That's what the fuckers called him. I don't think he minded, though, to be fair, not like I would have, you know? I would have had to slap someone – give them an attitude adjuster – right in the fucking eye. Straight jab. But he loved it, I think? He loved the banter, the sense of belonging that came with it. It was like he was at home in the army. At home for the first time.
 
David Peter Cumberland was his name, well, the name his adopted parents had given him. He never knew his African name. After they adopted him, they never told him what it was. I guess he never asked, but maybe he did? They took him from an orphanage in Sierra Leone and brought him up in Cheltenham. Cheltenham, for fuck's sake! 
 
Dave, my old mate, I tell you; I fucking miss you, bro, so fucking much. There ain't a day I don't...you know, I just do. I just fucking miss you, mate. Butch and fucking Sundance, weren't we, eh? Ride or die mutherfuckas we were. Bad Boys for life, bro, we used to say, then sing the fucking song. Or at least try to, when out on the piss and the pull.
 
Before he got the name Black Dave, from the lads, well, you know, from the white lads, they all called him 'Sausage' at first, didn't they. On account of, well, of his name, it was Cumberland, wasn't it – and let's just say on account of white guys' fascination with Black guys' dicks? Anyway, then another Dave turned up, didn't he? Dave Willis, the poor bastard. Jeez, I hadn't said his name out loud for years. Poor Dave Willis, you poor fucking bastard, mate. Well, he joined the platoon and then he became white Dave and, well, you can guess the rest.
 
We were the best of mates, me and Dave, Black Dave I mean, you know, nothing against white Dave, he was a good lad; I was just a bit of a dick to him. I don't know why, really. But let me tell you this: if father would have met Black Dave, he'd have pissed himself, because he was the whitest Black man I'd ever met, trust me. The whitest fucking Black man! 
 
We were both 19 year olds when we met. Jeez, 19. It's hard to believe we were ever so young. Seems like yesterday though that we were the only two Black men in a sea of white ones. Both of us, standing there, lining up in the queue to use one of the pay phones at Whittington Barracks on our first night after a day of fitness tests. I'd seen him earlier in the day, hadn't I? Tall, wiry and fit as fuck he was. "You safe?", I said, just walking up to him in that desperate way you do when you see the only other Black face in a room, standing there trying to touch fists with him, but he looked down at my clenched fist and tried to grab it, didn't he? Trying to shake it, as he excitedly said, "I'm very pleased to meet you" in that posh accent of his. I was shook, mate. "Who the fuck was this guy?", I thought. Was he taking the piss? But nah, that was just Dave, wasn't it?
 
But, yeah, as I said, we were the Bad Boys, weren't we? We were the friends we'd both always been looking for all our lives. We never said that out loud, of course, but we knew it – I knew it. So, no, we never said that to each other, but I knew we'd both been kind of lost, all our bloody lives; we'd just been looking for a mate. A mate you know, someone who had your back, someone you'd die for. 
 
Dave was in his first year of uni in Birmingham, and one day he'd just packed it in. Walked into the recruiting office and said count me in. His family was pissed off, mate, pissed right off. They didn't talk to him for a while, but they still came to the passing out parade, to be fair. I met 'em, didn't I, these two posh white people. They looked kind of scared when they met me, like I was going to rob 'em. Even with my uniform on, his old man, in particular, had a look on his face, which told me exactly what he thought of me. But I don't know, he loved Dave, I saw that. I guess. Maybe he was just sad at Dave pissing his life away; maybe he thought I would turn Dave into the Black man he feared instead of his son? Fuck knows. I only met them one more time after that. 
 
Well, me on the other hand, I was working in a warehouse when I joined up, packing boxes. I was numb, mate, to be honest, so numb. To it all, to everything I mean, I just wanted to feel something, anything, even pain, back then, I guess. I just wanted to feel something for once. I mean I could give two fucks about Britain, the Queen and all that shite to be honest – even before the pandemic. I never joined up for any of that bollocks. I joined to feel something, mate. You know? After three years of packing my bags and leaving home, to be honest, even feeling pain would have done back then.
 
Before I ran away as a kid, from father, just that same bloody night before I snuck out in the morning and got the 74 bus into town, yeah, that's right, yeah, it was that same night when father asked me why I talked like a white man. I knew I'd never see him again – knew it in my heart, I did. I knew I'd never come back to this town. Yet, here I am again in Smeds, Smedrock, reppin' B66 again.
 
I admit it, that's when I tried to find dad, back then, after the fire, when I moved back up here. You know, in the way you do when you start off all excited and then you hit the first brick wall and you think to yourself, I'll come back to this. I just wished that I'd made more of an effort to keep in touch, you know? With his other kids, I mean. But I just ghosted them, mate. They weren't that bad though, were they? Not really. But I'd just had enough of him and his belt. So, yeah, I just stopped. I just stopped looking for him too because it was too hard, going back in time. Maybe I didn't want to find out that he was dead, right? Or my brothers and sister? If I didn't know I could still delude myself that he was out there somewhere and them too? Carrying on being a dick all the same, I mean him, not them. But, yeah, father was an operator –  a bloody ginnal he was.
 
He always found some mug to put under his spell and mom was no different. He always got what he wanted, and when he wanted too. No matter what. He always knew what to say, always finding the right words to get people to do his bidding. Women loved him, they really did – even when he was as old as dirt. Mom was no different. Do you know she was his mate's daughter? That tells you everything, right? His bloody best mate. She'd grown up with him, sitting at his knee too, no doubt listening to him hold court as a kid. Looking up to him. No, let's not go there, but for the record I came along when she was 17 and he was 52, imagine that? Fifty bloody two he was! When I got added to the last of his seven kids, from three different women, well that we know of, all of them, even mom, fell for the old B.S. charm. 
 
I can't imagine how hard it must have been for her back then, for mom. Especially when her dad found out who the father was, mate, it was the talk of Dudley, she said. He was going to "wet him up!", or so apparently Grandad said. Stab up, father. But one night some lads coming back from a night on the piss found Grandad on King Street, his head caved in. No, he wasn't dead but, well, he was just a bit simple after that, if you know what I mean? They stuck him in a home. But he died when I was five, so I never really knew him. Well, I can't remember him at least. I thought I could, but maybe it was just one of mom's stories that I claimed as my own.
 
Father, I'll give him this, as well being a bastard, he was always a handsome man, always well turned out, you know what I mean? A right old dapper dan, he was. I remember people calling him 'Redders'. I didn't know why at first, but when I look back at it, obviously it was down to his complexion. Because, well, he was red-skinned wasn't he? You know, light-skinned. They'd say he looked mixed-race now, I mean, or bi-racial, innit, these days, come to think of it. But no one spoke about it back then. I think because he was so light-skinned, for my dark-skinned mom anyway, he was a big draw, a catch. She never wanted any kids with "nappy hair", she once said, me sitting at her feet, between her legs, as she combed my hair one morning. We laughed when I shouted, "nappy! I don't want a nappy on my head mom!" After she explained what it meant, we laughed about that for years, didn't we.
 
He was the only man who she ever truly loved, but as I said he was older than her, he was an old man, even then. And she was just a kid. It's all just, yeah, as I said let's not go there, right? I heard mom telling her friend once, I can't remember her name, one of her white friends from her school days, that she was glad that she never had any 'Black' babies. I remember her white friend looking down at me, her facing screwing up thinking, what the fuck Sandra, your kid is Black! Yet never saying it. Besides, we all look the same to them don't we? Yeah, that's right, Sandra, Sandra Gayle, that was mom's name. She could have been an athlete, she could. She loved running and jumping. Competed for the county until she got pregnant – with me. Then that was behind her. She loved to watch athletics on the TV though, she loved it. Jumping up out of her chair to cheer racers on. I know she must have been thinking that could have been her, only because she'd fucking told me about two thousand times in the past. I'd felt bad because, if I'm honest, I never believed her. She just sounded like a sad wannabe holding onto a sad dream. But maybe I just felt bad for coming along and killing it, that dream she had and her fight. Maybe she wouldn't have been such a doormat if I hadn't been born, eh?
 
She didn't get it though, did she? Her white friend: Dot, was it even Dot though? Nah, Dotty, that was her name, no, wait, just Dot, wasn't it? Dot Round? Yeah, that’s right, Round, Dot I called her. I remember her because we used to bully her wasteman son at school, didn't we? Shouting at him, “snitiches get stitches!” That was on account of him grassing kids up at school to the teachers. Anyway, he only grew up to be an S-P didn't he? One of those Slave Patrol bastards, you know what I mean, don't you? A cop, I mean, didn't he? That's what the youngers call them now – Slave Patrol. I know I'm too old to use it right? A man of my stature? Nah, you’re right it’s not a good look for a 40-year-old is it?
 
Where was I? Oh yeah, my complexion was lighter than my mom's, and for her that was all that mattered. I was her Brown-skinned boy, she'd say. White people don't get it though, do they? White people can't see any difference in the skin tones of Black people – they just see, you know, Black. The white lads in the regiment couldn't either; they'd always let slip, they’d forget me and Dave were around. One time we were listening to Beyoncé in the back of a Warrior heading out on patrol and one of the white lads said, "she was alright for a nigger". Dave held me back. I couldn't fucking believe I'd heard it at first. Suddenly it hit me what he said, and I just wanted to fucking explode, fucking tear his bastard head off. But the sarge was there, weren't he, and as the lads held me, I could just see white Dave's eyes, all sad like. You know he wasn't a bad lad Dave, white Dave. I'm not defending the fucker, but, I don't know, I guess it doesn't matter now. All the lads were shocked, to be fair. I know he was sorry, even tried to shake my hand, didn't he? Later on, back at base. Deep down, I forgave him, but I couldn't let him know it, not then, so I walked off. Left his hand sticking out into thin air. I was going to let him stew in his juices for a while and then accept later on, you know, over a beer. To be fair, if you're white and not a racist there must be something wrong with you when you stop and think about it. Because that's what you are taught from day dot – brainwashed, ain't they? That they're better than everyone else, you know? Anyway, I was going to clear the air, wasn't I, with white Dave. But the next day he was dead. 
 
He stepped on an I.E.D. – a roadside bomb – and it took his legs and bollocks off, and his right arm too just below his elbow – just like that. He didn't half fucking scream. I wasn't that far behind him; so it could have been me, couldn't it? It's not like the movies: no fireball or mushroom cloud. There was just a big thud, like the sound of someone punching a sand bang, but louder. Not a bang, but a thud, a heavy thud, and that fucking ringing in my ears as my brain tried to unscramble. I don't know, it's hard to explain. Then it just seemed darker, like the day turned to night. But I guess that was the dirt and debris all falling down around us like a black net curtain falling on us. Then there was silence at first. I mean I was hunched over, still standing like, just trying to make myself small, then just fucking bedlam broke out as Dave began to scream his fucking lungs out. I said it before, but the poor fucking bastard, man. 
 
They don't tell you that on the news. They just say killed or wounded, don't they? They don't fucking say, "And in today's news, Private Dave Willis, aged 21, of the Staffordshire Regiment, got his bollocks blown off." Maybe they should, right? As it might stop some poor fucker from joining the infantry and pissing his life away.
 
Anyway, a Yank helicopter medivacked him out. They told us he was stable, that he'd make it, but he bled out on the way to the hospital. All the bloody way up there in the sky, didn't he? Dying with a bunch of Yanks around him. Strangers. He was going to be fucked though, wasn't he, but at least he would have been alive. But what man wants to live without bollocks? 

 

I could have told him we were cool, though, you know, Dave, I mean. White Dave. I could have just fucking told him, "no worries mate, we're all good." But I didn't, did I? And he wasn't. When we got back after the patrol, they told us he hadn't made it. Just like that.
 
All night, I couldn't think of anything else, other than I should have shook his hand. I should have just fucking shook his hand and made up with him. Be mates again – friends. Then I thought of his last thoughts, up there all alone, looking up at those strange faces, crying, screaming even, and him thinking that someone hated him. That I hated him. I dwelled on that for a bit. 

 

Until I remembered that, well, some cunt had hated him, right? And he'd just blown him the fuck up. 

 

Bang!

 

 

 

 

Part Four:

 

 

Yesterday is but today's memory, and tomorrow is today's dream

 

- Khalil Gibran

 

We deployed to Iraq in 2005. In April it was and by July it was all over for white Dave. You'd never heard of Al Amarah, I bet, but his family will never forget it, will they? They'll always know where it is and how to spell it. They'll be fluent, mate, in grief and loss at least. Never grow old, eh, Dave? Age will never wither him - not you, mate. Or, I guess, the other two poor sods killed there the year before. Their pre-deployment photos sitting like shrines on mantelpieces somewhere right now, I bet you. "Who's that mum?", some cunt kid will ask as he stares up at the photo. "That's your uncle Frank son, he was ever so brave," she'll reply, dabbing her hankie at her eye. 
 
Anyway, I just remember stepping off the plane into a wall of heat. The kind of heat like I'd never felt before. Stifling, that was it, stifling mate. It was like being waterboarded under a massive wet duvet at first and then, you know, well, you just get on with it, don't you? A new normal, mate. That's what it was.
 
When I came back home though, in that October, you know what? I fucking missed it. All of it. Every fucking bit of it, mate. Imagine that? I mean, don't get me wrong: it was sad about white Dave and all that, but I was in a groove out there, mate. For the first fucking time, I'd felt something, it's true. I felt like I was alive, and I know, I do, I know this sounds so sad, but I felt alive for the first fucking time. Things meant something. There were ups and downs; there was life and death. Anger, joy, pain. And then it was gone. All of it. And I was back home again. There weren't any colours anymore. It was just grey. Flat. Life, I mean. I'd look at people and they didn't seem real somehow. They hadn't seen what I'd seen, had they? They didn't know what I knew, and I kind of felt sorry for them. Then I hated them. They were like fucking aliens, mate.
 
I had felt everything. And now I felt nothing.
 
When I got back, it was like someone had flicked a switch. Turned all the bloody lights off again. But it was kind of worse this time, you know, than before. Because nothing kind of made sense, or even fucking mattered. And I couldn't make it, could I? I just couldn't force it to make sense. I don't know if I'm even making sense now, but I'd see these sheep running off to work or worrying about the gas bill or talking shite about some celeb or something and I couldn't be arsed with any of it. Every day was life or death out there, weren't it? It mattered. I mattered. And then I came back to a world where the most important things in people's lives were the gas bills and soap stars. 
 
It didn't make sense, mate. None of it. But, more than anything, everything seemed so fucking dull and boring. You know? As I said, it was all grey, mate.
 
I don't know, but that last long lockdown, yeah, the year long one, it was hard, weren't it? It hurt, mentally. I mean I survived, didn't I? But I guess I wasn't sure where I was going in life back then, but who did? So I looked back a lot to where I'd been. In life. Living in my memories. I guess that's why I'd come back to Smethwick in the first place though, right? Because I'd been unsure about where I was going for such a long time. Retracing my steps back as if I'd lost a set of fucking keys or something, all the way back to Smethwick. Instead of just having faith in the future, manning up and pushing forward. Keeping it moving mate, and all that. Having faith in finding myself a future instead of being scared shitless. Of everything. I should've fucking stayed in London, mate, in that fucking house. Waiting for anyone who was coming back and fucking wetting them up.
 
Maybe I've always been though, hadn't I? You know, scared. Scared fucking shitless of life. Always waiting for a belt to come down from the shadows at any minute.
 
Anyway, I arrived in Dudley first and stayed in a hotel down in Castle Gate, didn't I? After that long drive up from London, until I could find a place in Smethwick. You know, my clothes still smelled of smoke from the fire. I remember that as I crashed down on the bed in that hotel room, before I sat up and looked out of the window. Sitting there on the edge of the bed. Grass stains still down my back.
 
Those first few days I'd look at myself crying in the bathroom mirror. Then I'd splash water on my face, and sit in front of the TV all day and watch some shite, then repeat the cycle. Just looking at myself crying and feeling every part of me draining out until I was empty – and then I'd stop. I don't know if I should say this, but you know what, you know fucking what? It felt so good. Crying, I mean, seeing myself doing it. Feeling it. Feeling something. Feeling human. Then I'd look at myself in the mirror and wonder how I'd got so old, and then what the fuck had I done with my life? I'd throw it all onto that emotional bonfire, every fucking sad memory or downer about myself and let it burn out in the open. That's right. No, I wasn't fucking crying about Mr Adeyemi, mate, I was crying about myself.
 
Then the tears just stopped. 
 
Just like that. I guess everything had all burnt up, hadn't it? All that self loathing, mate, and there were just ashes.
 
You know, I had that dream again last night. I guess it's more of a recording than a dream by now. Like a film, even, innit? But real. Because it happened, didn't it? All of it. Somewhere back in a previous chapter of life when I could feel alive again. When I could feel everything. OK, bear with me, but when mom died, father had sent a wreath with a card, because he didn't come, did he? To the funeral, I mean. Anyway, do you know what he wrote on that fucking card though? Go on have a guess, mate.
 
You're thinking it was something like, "You were the love of my life and I wish I'd been a better man" perhaps? Fuck off mate, you know what that cunt wrote? "Life is touch and touch is pain." That's it. That's all. And you know, that's all I've thought about since back then, about life, because he weren't wrong, was he? Well, was he? Think about it. It's what I think about every time I have that bastard dream.
 
You know, it always starts the same bloody way. It never starts before or after, always at the same point when we get there just after the explosion, halfway through our second tour, me and Dave's. Black Dave. Both of us standing side-by-side, bystanders not doing jack, really, just watching the freak show of the Warrior burning with those flames dancing around it. It always looks like a sad, fucking upside-down turtle on its back, don't it? As some bloke runs up to it and pulls one of the red fire extinguishers off from the outside and sprays out white foam, while five lads are burning to death inside. 
 
It does nothing though, the foam, does it? The orange and black evil-looking flames and smoke keep licking up into the sky. Then the guy with the extinguisher throws it down, right on the ground, doesn't he, before trying to open the doors with his bare fucking hands, mate. But burning them and stumbling backwards, his hands out in front of him like he's carrying an invisible tray. Then falling onto his back, those hands sticking up into the air now. As he's screaming out words I can't hear. I'm straining to hear what he's saying, ain't I? And I'm just about to make it out. Then, out of the blue, Dave falls to the ground, and it all feels so real: the dream, or this moment, after all these years. 
 
You know, mate, I'm always surprised at the bright redness of the blood that pumped out from the wound in his neck. As it seeped out through his fingers he had clamped over it and as it rolled down to soak into the dirt of the road. I stand there gawping, don't I? Just looking down on him like a loon, before I fall down to my knees and put pressure on the wound, pressing down on his hand all the time. That's when I hear the snap of a bullet passing by my head and drop on top of him, trying to shield him from another bullet. Or maybe I'm trying to bury myself into the ground. Save myself, you know? Anyway, our eyes lock as I scream for a medic, all the time my hand on top of his, over the wound, blood pumping through our fingers as my other hand holds his other hand tightly, squeezing his finger together so tight that they overlap. He stares back at me trying to speak but coughs up blood instead. "I don't know what to do," I say to myself, as ammo cooks off in the Warrior, and I feel the heat from it even from where we are. I try to cover him again with my body even more this time, as some lads fire off in different directions and more rounds start to come in. 
 
All this time we're looking into each other's eyes. 
 
I see the fear growing on his face, just around his eyes at first, and then he cries, that one tear bubbling over at the corner of an eye and then running down the side of his face. I'm trying not to cry myself. I shout, "Dave, Dave mate, it's going to be alright. Just stay with me, mate." I remember slapping his face and shouting, all angry like: "come on mate, stay with us." And then I just tell him, "it's going to be OK," and then softer, "it's going to be OK," almost in a whisper, you know? Trying to calm him down as he tries to catch his breath in those fucking hiccup breaths like I'd take after father's beatings. He's all agitated now, mate, distressed, and I'm trying to keep him still, to hold onto him as the tears are flooding from both of us. Then he just stopped. Just stopped breathing. I waited, I did, waited for the next breath, but it never came, his mouth still wide open. Blood all over his chin and down his cheek as he just looked up past me towards the sky. Just like that, and then everything just relaxed. It was like he was melting into the ground, his body going limp as his life slipped away from him, my hand still squeezing his, and me still waiting for that breath or an eye to blink. 
 
It all went silent, didn't it? Not a bastard sound, mate.
 
I mean, the rounds were still coming in. The lads were still firing and the Warrior was still burning, but none made a sound. It was like watching a film with the sound turned down. Even when the medic pushed me off Dave, when my bloodied palms landed on the ground and the sand stuck to them, there was still just silence.
 
Then I wake up, don't I? And it's all over, the dream. It always ends there and I'm spat back out into the world again. Anyway, this morning I just lay there and then raised my palms up, just to check if Dave's blood wasn't still on them. Then I laid back and looked up at the ceiling for a moment before I rolled over for my smokes. It doesn't hurt anymore, you know? The dream. I mean it still makes me feel a way, sad and all that, but after all these years, all the sharp pointy edges, the ones which would stick into me and gave me so much shit for so long, are all kind of sanded and smoothed down now. Do you get me? After all these years, it's just like sitting through a film you watch every Christmas: you know what's coming but you watch it, anyway. Time, mate. It's a healer, innit? Besides, worse things have happened at sea since then, mate.
 
Fuck me Dave. I didn't think you'd cop it though. Not you mate.
 
It's funny though, even when I was in the army, even back then, I never thought that anything could happen to me. Nah, not me mate, not even to Black Dave either, to be fair. We were bulletproof. No, for real, I thought nothing would ever happen to us. One hundred percent. Oh, don't get me wrong, I knew some poor sod in the battalion was going to cop it, get slotted you know, during the deployment over there. Maybe even a few. Sometimes I'd look at people around me and almost feel bad for the poor bastards, knowing that some of them wouldn't be coming back. Even having flashes of seeing their flag-draped coffins being carried down the ramp of a transport when I was talking to them and then trying to put a mental lid on it all as they chatted about some shit. Dave never thought the same though. He was religious, though, weren't he? He prayed, went to services and all that out there and everything. Praying to white Jesus to save him. I mean, I wanted to have a go, didn't I? Ask him why he was praying to white Jesus. I did, mate. But I never did. I never gave him both barrels about it being the religion of our oppressors. Nah, mate, out there, if it made him happy it was all good. Besides, he was a thinker though, weren't he. He'd have tied me up in knots with reasoning and I'd have been coming out thinking, you know what this white Jesus bloke ain't so bad after all. But yeah, Dave always thought about what could happen, you know? "About the consequences of our actions," he'd say. Me? Well, I was different, wasn't I? The weights were my therapy. And I'd pump the fuck out of them. Those guns weren't going to make themselves, mate.
 
You know, we only ever had one argument: that one time he told me I should write to my father just before our second tour. "Write and say what?", I asked him. "Tell him where you are. Tell him who you are, now. That you're a soldier, tell him that. If anything happens to you, I'll find, I will," he said. "Get fucked, get bloody fucked," was all I said back to Dave. To be fair, he didn't push it. But you know, I wrote that letter, I did. Only because I knew it would fucking kill him to know I was serving the Evil Empire. I guess that's when I really thought about going home. Just like that, a little crack in my defenses happened. You know, going back to find him began to grow from that moment. Then we flew out. I felt the world burning again, and I got lost for a while.
 
But Dave gave me his own letter, didn't he, a few weeks after this, when we were already out there, telling me to take it to his parents if anything happened to him. Jokingly, I said it wasn't the African ones, was it, because I ain't going that far, mate. Then we broke down laughing, bloody giggling like little schoolgirls, we were. Saft sod.
 
But that was the last time I saw his folks. They were polite, you know. I mean his dad still had that look on his face like I was going to rob the family silver until I handed over the letter. They both hugged as they read it to themselves, him holding it with his hand trembling, his wife leaning against him, sitting there on the armrest of the chair, both reading in silence. I never knew what Dave wrote, and I didn't ask to either. I didn't want that in my head. But at one point I saw his mom look up from the letter and smile at me with tears in her eyes. I guess Dave had mentioned me, right? But what could I tell them about Dave? About us going on the pull, getting pissed and having tear ups? Me watching him die? Nah, nothing, was there. So I kept quiet, bottled it all up, and afterwards found a boozer by the train station, all bloody candles and diners on dates, it was. 
 
So what did I do? I started a fight with some poor cunt. Broke his nose, just because he backed into me accidentally. I knew it was an accident, but I just turned, no words, just bang. Then did a runner into the night with the sound of some woman screaming behind me.
 
Yeah, I know, I did that. The look on his face, it was shock, mate, then he just grabbed his face. I did. I shouldn't have...I know, because, he did fuck all to me, not really. But he seemed so happy, didn't he? I saw him earlier, and I just, well. I did what I did, didn't I?
 
Life mate, oh fuck, what I am crying for? What am I fucking crying for, eh? Eh? For fuck's sake. But sometimes I just...I just wish...fuck it man. But, life, yeah man, you know, it's just so fucking hard sometimes. It just fucking is. It's just hard.
 
So yeah, I stayed under the duvet the last few weeks, waking up in the morning and just scrolling up on my phone, yeah, on social media mainly, going back in time, I was, as I scrolled downwards. One morning I saw a photo of mom I'd posted way back when, some Mother's Day shit, I think. And out loud I just shouted, "Oh mom," I said, "Oh mom, what a hard bastard life you had but your son loved you, he did, with all his fucking heart." 
 
Then I went for a piss.
 
You know, no matter how old I get I'm always amazed at my ability to do that. To stand there and send a stream of piss into the toilet, I mean. I'm always amazed that that yellow liquid is coming out of me. I mean sometimes, and don't get me wrong, I'm horrified when I see the colour of it, especially if I've had a session the night before. But it always seems like some wonderful magic trick – pissing. Anyway, as I stood there, with one hand on my hip and the other on me old fella this morning, I began to do a clockwise circle and piss around the toilet bowl. It was like I was bloody five again. Admiring my handiwork. You know, when we were kids in primary school in Dudley, we used to see who could piss the highest up the stainless steel urinal. That's when I thought of dad; I remembered being that kid again who would look forward to seeing him so much after school. Then I lost my train of thought and had a case of friendly fire on the toilet seat. 
 
As one door closes another opens, they say. If mom hadn't died, I wouldn't have run away and had the life I had, would I? I'd have probably stayed in that factory, still be there now packing boxes, wouldn't I, when I think about it. But the world since then, since the Malaise, had changed, hadn't it? It just seemed, I don't know, just a little bit nastier, all hard edges and bluntness. Maybe I was nastier too? If you can imagine that, right? I'm joking, mate. It just seemed like nobody gave a shit anymore about being nice. No pretending – the saying back then was "I'm just keeping it real!" 
 
Back then you could say anything you wanted. You could keep it as real as you wanted. Even some Tory MP used the phrase when he was caught calling the Prime Minister a fat bastard. "Keeping it real," he said – and that was it. Maybe it was because we were all online, all the bloody time during that year that people turned into dicks, but when we all had to re-enter into the real world again, scores got settled. Well, it came from nowhere really, the end, it just kind of happened, you know? 
 
Everyone had thought that 2020 was a bad year, but when the second wave hit in the winter nobody knew then what was coming. Then a year later when the third wave hit you didn't have time to turn around before there was a fourth, and well, we were told that we'd be locked down for almost the whole of 2022. And the rest is history. 
 
When I moved back up here, I got work as a debt collector and business was, well, booming, to be fair. I coined it, mate. Remember me telling you we all got a little bit nastier? I didn't care: it was me or them. Those poor fuckers who I hounded for money I knew they never had. Walking their TV out of their houses for all the neighbours to see. Kids crying as you grabbed up their PlayStations, mom sitting on the bottom steps of the staircase, tears running down her face. Old people, single moms, the disabled, it didn't matter. I got paid, mate. 
 
The government even expanded our powers, didn't they? Cops were so overstretched that they turned into proper toy cops, didn't they? Fuck me, there was a new sheriff in town, mate - and that cunt was me. I'm laughing, but it was true, weren't it? We could access all types of data too, and then they sent me on that private detective course. I mean it was online, but you get my drift. I turned into a proper investigator. So many people were running off from their debts, hiding their identities and all that, that we had to have new skills in tracking them down, didn't we. We weren't debt collectors anymore; it was about fugitive acquisition, for fuck's sake. Fucking Bounty Hunter. "Bounty Bar," dad would have said, "doing Babylon business." Black on the outside, white on the inside.
 
That's when, OK, I should have said this earlier, but that's when I found our Ronnie, one of father's kids. Hear this: he was due for a fucking knock from me, for a reposession. Crazy, right? Ronnie was father's son who I lived with for a bit. He was still fucking living in Smethwick. Imagine that. Two streets down from the old bloody house, too, that same one I ran away from all those years ago. The same one we both got beatings in, me, him and his sis. Well my sis, half-sis. Fuck me, all these years I could have just gone back and maybe bumped into him taking his dog for a walk, or some shit. All that training, you know, skills to find people and, anyway, it is what it is, right? That job though, man, sometimes I'd wake up in the morning and I'd leave my heart on the bedside table before going to work. Because I did some bad things, I did, but what else could I do?
 
"Man have to dead fi man live," father used to say. So, it was me or them, wasn't it? Come on, think of it? Me or those damn kids crying over their PlayStation I took out their hands and spirited away. I had to live, man, I did. Besides, I was a soldier, and the pandemic, the Malaise, all that shit, it was all just a new fucking war. New battles, innit, but all battles are alike, mate, they all boil down to, well, it's them or me, me or them, mate. That's all. And you know what, mate, it wasn't going to be me, was it? I wasn't going to lose, and they weren't going to beat me – not those sniffling strangers. Fucking crying over fucking tv's and fucking toys. Because I owed them fuck all, I owed them nothing.
 
So, I rang Ronnie, I did. Just like that. I know, I know, I said I hadn't known where father's kids were, but, anyway, yeah I rang him. I did, just the other day. I just picked up the phone and belled him. Pretended I didn't know him, told him I was a debt collector, asked him questions, just to check it was the right Ronnie. Then I dropped it on him – told him who I was. POW! Then there was just silence and me listening to it. Thought the fucking phone had gone dead, or the cunt had hung up. Then all I could hear was crying. The bastard was crying. Then he just laughed, you know, then I did, and then it was just, it was just, it was good, you know. I felt a weight lifted off my chest. A weight I'd carried for so long. I felt bad for hating him all this time when he'd done fuck all to me. Then we just talked about the three of us getting beating, him, me and our sis, Josephine. Then he told me didn't that Josephine had died in the second wave, hadn't she. A nurse she was, helping others till the end, he said. Then it went quiet for a bit; I think we were both crying then. Then I brought up that time she'd farted when we were getting beating one time, and then we both laughed again. 
 
He told me I would have loved her, if I had known her. It wasn't a dig or nothing, about me running off, he was just saying. All those years I wasted man, the family I missed out on. All of them. They had always wondered what had happened to me. Even tried to find me, they did, my brother and sister, Ronnie and Josephine. And then he asked, didn't he?
 
"Father," Ronnie asked, "did I want to know about father?" I just froze, everything stopped, even my heart seemed to stop beating. Maybe because it was caught in my throat? It was like I couldn't even breathe. "He's still with us you know," he said, almost laughing, he was, "do you want to see him?" Twenty bloody years, and in one phone call Ronnie was my brother again, and we were family, and mate, I still had a fucking father. One call and everything I thought I knew, everything which had churned and had chewed me up before it spat me out, it was over. All these fucking years, mate, didn't matter anymore. 
 
"Yes!" 
 
That's all I said, just yes. Just that one word. "Cool," Ronnie replied, how about the weekend? "Yeah, yeah," I replied, and just like that, just fucking like that, I'm going to see father on the weekend. I'm still taking Ronnie's TV, mind. Walking it out the house for all the neighbours to see. Nah, I'm joking mate. I'm taking his kid's PlayStation. If he has one.
 
Jokes.
 
Then I put the phone down and just cried. Like a kid, like a little fucking kid, like poor little Abeo, wailing it all out into the world - only I still had a father.
 
Chapters though, innit? 
 
It's just chapters. Life, I mean. Think about it, just a series of random chapters that we string together and then pretend it's a life. When we look back. Little bubbles of time, mate, that burst when they're over, and then don't ever seem real afterwards, you know? After we've moved onto the next one. Onto that next bubble, that next chapter. Your mom dies, your friend does too, and they seem like they're the same thing, but they aren't, are they? They're separate moments, years and thousands of miles apart. Trapped in different chapters and parts of your life. 
 
Maybe in a few weeks time, after the weekend, that bubble of time that will come to an end, it'll burst, eh? And I'm back to thinking he's a cunt all over again? Closing that chapter and moving on. Thing is, right, whatever happens, I know Dave would've been happy for me, just for trying though, mom too, to be fair. They both would though, mate, wouldn't they? You know what Dave would say, coming up to me with a hand out to touch fists,"Bad Boys for life." Wouldn't he? 
 
Anyway, we'll see mate, won't we? It'll all come out in the wash. It all will. What comes next, what comes next, I mean. It'll play itself out, mate, and we'll see.
 
Won't we? We'll see. We'll see what comes next, what the future holds and all that, I mean in the mile to come. In that fucking hard mile, mate, that gets longer and longer. That mile that I have to drag myself through with every fucking footstep, and all the time waiting for the belt.
 
Anyway, I'll get through, innit? You know? Watch me. I will, because it's just another fucking chapter, ain't it? Really, you know? Just another one, that's all. It ain't nothing more than that, mate. No fucking more. 
 
It's just another chapter.
 
 
 

 

The End 

 

 

 

 

 

With grateful thanks to Erin MacLeod for editing.

 

 

© Andrew Jackson 2021