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At eight o’clock sharp I locked up the library, set the alarm, and walked off to the station, getting up a quick stride despite the June heat. Quite often I stay late, sort a few things out, tidy the counter ready for the next day. Not that night. After twenty years’ service I still haven’t learned to sit through a Libraries Management meeting without irritation bordering on despair, and that afternoon’s had been no exception – worse than usual if anything.
On the walk I mulled it all over, somewhat resentfully. As we’d sat down in the dim hall we use as a meeting room, I had inwardly groaned at the agenda bullet-pointed on the monitor: “Inclusivity and diversity, outreach, community involvement…” As the Head of Service lectured us assembled librarians and managers on all those subjects, I thought: “Glad you’ve caught up. Those of us actually working in any of your libraries practise ‘inclusivity’ daily, thank you. I treat everyone the same, always have, and do not need my consciousness raising.” Then I realised I had my arms folded and was scowling. I might even have sighed. Fortunately there was no “person of colour” – as we’re to Newspeak now – present in the room to notice and possibly be offended.
The crowds at Denmark Hill railway station made me feel sick in this mood, negotiating the usual beggar-and-dog, Big Issue seller, commuters pouring out of Camberwell and two local hospitals, heading mostly to the suburbs. I blanked them out, a flickering blur I had to blunder through to get to the platform. When my train pulled in, I stood to one side of a door to let two teenage girls alight. Grey and invisible to them, I had to wait until they’d won a shouting match with someone behind them before they stepped off the train and I could climb on. Going up to Victoria at that time of night, it is possible to find clear space and that was definitely what I wanted now, a zone of my own away from everyone. I searched until I came to a carriage that was half empty, sat by the window in a bay of four vacant seats, planted my satchel against my other side, and took out my mobile.
Disappointingly, just before the doors locked, someone jumped on and threw himself down in a seat diagonally opposite mine across the narrow aisle. I just had time to think it might not be so bad if the man was quiet, before he pulled off his T-shirt to reveal a light brown, well-muscled torso, glowing with sweat. He tied the shirt around his waist. I looked away.
“Sorry – just cooling myself off,” the man said. His breathing was agitated from running until he brought it under control. His unorthodox entrance of course didn’t necessarily mean trouble. Nevertheless, this was another of London’s jumpy summers: demonstrations, street fighting, statue-smashing: there was a lot of anger about.
“Of course,” I said. “Quite right.” I turned back to Facebook, kept my head down.
“So hot. We ain’t used to this heat in England, that’s the problem. Our bodies ain’t used to it.”
“No, we don’t get enough heat to adjust, do we?” I said, summoning my most measured voice. Polite but neutral. Not showing fear or irritation, but not fully engaging either: That was the best way to avert any danger, any unwelcome involvement.
I went back to my phone and its screen-lock picture of my wife hugging our daughter, twelve now, on the swing in our garden.
“‘Adjust,’ yeah. That’s the right word. Excuse me.” I heard a rustle and glanced up again to see the man pull a greasy brown paper package out of a plastic bag. “I’m going to eat.” He unwrapped a crumbling patty running with red sauce and took a couple of bites.
“My auntie packed these for us,” he said through munches. “Loads of food. I’ve just been visiting my brother in King’s. All the family there. She’d brought enough food for all of us and more – good Jamaican stuff. She’s always cooking for me.”
After throwing the wrapping under the seat in front of him, he chewed through the rest of the patty, slapping his hands together when he’d finished. “She’s a great cook, my auntie.”
As he said this he stared at me – broad face, high clownish eyebrows. But I could not detect the threat I still feared: more an entreaty, in fact, enough to keep me from more phone-scrolling. Anyway, my mobile seemed a pretty flimsy barrier in the circumstances. I dropped the black slab in my satchel and took off my glasses.
“Sounds like a great auntie,” I said, smiling awkwardly. “Fantastic if you don’t have time to cook.”
“Don’t now. Used to have a woman to cook. Not anymore. Thought she was the love of my life but she was a lyin’ bitch.” He took two apples out of his plastic bag and offered me one.
“No, thanks. I’ll be having a meal at home.” I hoped that sounded simply explanatory, not dismissive.
“My uncle said to me: ‘Don’t think she was some big love of your life. She wasn’t. You’ve hardly lived any of your life. You’re twenty-four. She’s just some woman and you’ll forget her. Anyway, you were too young to settle down.’ He was right, wasn’t he? Twenty-four is too young.”
His lifted eyebrows revealed an emotion I couldn’t find a name for: anticipation of agreement, or request for affirmation of some kind? Looking at him full on now, I saw openness, almost innocence, in the expression, as if the face didn’t belong above the sinewy body, as if it hadn’t aged at the same rate. Eyes almost uncannily wide and alert, small mouth, above a body like an oak. A striking face, and as I looked at it, I began to wonder if I recognised it, or remembered a younger version. But I see so many people in my profession. The whole community passes through at some time or other in their lives. I couldn’t be sure.
“Yes, absolutely,” I said, too loudly, nodding. “Far too young to settle down.”
“Plenty of time ahead, right? Plenty. To find the love of my life, if there is one.”
Sunlight flashed from the towers of glass and concrete we were passing and flickered from the rails, softer, yellower now as the day at last began to let up. Twenty-four. I thought of the way I had been at that age: unsettled, not knowing what to do with my life, what direction I was going in, not very much in control at all. I would have envied this man’s solidity then, most probably. But somehow I had ended up with security, not such a bad job after all, if it wasn’t glamorous, a decent home, and a wife and child. Somehow I had landed comfortably. I had a lot to be grateful for.
“My brother’s married, with a daughter. We were all there, around him. Uncles, aunties, cousins. But they chucked us out – just now. Last night we were there till ten. We were supposed to leave at eight when visiting hours are up. So tonight they came with security, to make sure – loads of security, man.” He pushed his elbows out and swung left to right, in imitation of waddling security guards, rocking the flimsy metal and plastic seat.
I laughed, which seemed to please him. “Why did you stay past eight? You just wanted to make sure he was all right?” An acceptable question? Or too obvious?
“Yeah. I’m not gonna lie: He’s in there with knife wounds. Two to the chest, one to the neck.” He demonstrated the position of his brother’s wounds with the flat of his hand. “King’s. That’s where they take all the stabbings, right? Just missed an artery. He’s lucky to be alive, man. But there you go. That’s life. Par for the course. Par for our family’s course, anyway.” He nodded, paused to let that sink in. A news cycle–based fear screamed at me, but I tried to ignore it.
“No different to other walks of life, really,” the young man continued. “I mean, if you’re a builder, you can get hit by falling scaffolding, right? It goes with the job. It’s part of the deal. You don’t complain. It’s what you expect. He don’t complain either, my brother. Getting chinged, it just goes with the territory. It’s nothing.” A shrug. “But I said to him: ‘You’ve got a daughter now. You can’t be going on like this.’”
“You said that to him?” My mouth felt dry.
“Yeah. I said that. I said: ‘You take it easy. Concentrate on your wife and kid. It’s up to me to get whoever done this to you now, not you.’” He turned to look out of the train window on his side: a huge excavated pit, concrete pylons, dust, cranes.
“Yeah. I’m his brother. So it falls to me. It’s my job. That’s the way it is. I’ll sort it out. We’ll drive round there. We know where the guy lives. It’s nothing to me, man.”
After a pause, trying not to show any reaction – I think I might have cleared my throat – I said: “He’s your older brother, is he?”
“Yeah. Two years.” A sigh. Then: “I bet you’ve never spoken to anyone like me before, have you?” He threw himself back in his seat, folded his arms, stared. For a moment I thought he was angry, that perhaps I had after all, despite my wariness, said the wrong thing or not paid enough attention. Or, simply because of who I was, from his point of view, perhaps I did represent a source of frustration for him and suddenly the feeling had got the better of him. Had a semiconscious memory surfaced, even, of some untoward day in my library? I pulled into myself. Where could I run to?
But he wasn’t angry. He straightened, chin up, chest out, looked around the sparsely-filled carriage as if preparing to take on the world. If there was any anger, I soon realised, it wasn’t against me: It was a sort of habitual bitter pride. “No,” – he nodded – “you’ve never spoken to anyone like me.” He sank back in his seat, relaxed. “How about you? Where are you off to man? Home?”
“That’s right, yes.” Even now I found myself afraid he would ask where that was.
“Been to work? Where’s that?”
“Grove Hill Library.” I jerked my thumb over my shoulder in the direction of my workplace, trying for a dismissive gesture in case he really did remember me on a bad day, or the idea of talking to a librarian struck him, anyway, as too funny. I felt conscious of my worn olive jacket with its leather elbow patches, my tie with gold tie pin, the reading glasses poking out of my breast pocket. I do like to cultivate the image of “librarian” – learned man, book man.
“I know exactly where that is,” he said. “Exactly.” He nodded vigorously. “Been there a few times. A few times. Mum always took me there as a kid. Always looking to do right for us. Set us up straight.”
He frowned and shook his head, stared at his stretched-out feet a moment – “Yeah” – then out of the window. Then he turned back to me with narrowed eyes.
“In fact I think I remember you, you know. Yeah. Your shoulders stoop a bit – I remember that. And your…excuse me, but bald patch?” He patted the crown of his own head, smiling.
“I’m sorry but we used to laugh at that, a bit, us kids.” He chuckled. “But you always used to help me and stuff. You did. Homework. Finding the right books. At least I think you did. Yeah, I do remember. You must have been working there for years, man.”
“Oh yes, years. Well, I’m glad I helped you.” Looking at the man in front of me, I couldn’t be sure I did recall the boy, not that precise one; but that same fearless stare at the world, the same immediacy, lack of any barrier – as if he didn’t trust the effectiveness of such a thing: How many times had I seen that in a cheeky child? If I didn’t remember him, I remembered many like him. But if he had ever come into my library as a boy, I realised, I might well have spent more time being irritated with his unruliness than helping him with his homework, contrary to what he said he remembered: Flashbacks came to me of chasing giggling delinquents around the tables and shelves, shouting, threatening. Certainly in particular moods. Then it occurred to me that he might recall such unfortunate scenes himself but prefer not to say.
With that in mind, I couldn’t look at him for a moment. I stared past him to where the building works around Battersea were still passing in the window, a huge swathe of old London lost to wrecking balls, gleaming new structures replacing ivy-covered brick. A city changing faster than anyone can keep up with.
“Well, thank you,” said my fellow traveller. “At least you tried.” But then he shook his head. Staring out at the same building works, he said: “Don’t be thinking I enjoy this life, man, the way I’ve ended up. People think we do it to be cool, or we’re proud of it. None of that, man. It’s not cool. In and out of jail. Everybody wants to get out of it. Don’t think I wouldn’t like my nice wife, my nice job, my nice car, my nice penthouse flat, nice holidays. Course I would. But it’s hard to get out once you’re in.” He sighed and stretched his fingers in his lap, staring down at them, and I realised it had cost him something to say that. And me, going home to my suburban house, my wife and child, a well-cooked meal and a peaceful hour in front of the telly – what could I possibly say?
“Maybe you’ll find a way.” It was about as lame an answer as I could give. I almost forgot to breathe waiting for the reply.
The young man nodded eventually, still gazing out of the window. “Yeah. I’m studying computers. A bit.” His shoulders slumped and his gaze returned to his feet. “Doing a course. Maybe that’ll be a way out. You never know.”
We were coming into Victoria, slowing, and the wheels on the track set up a new, special kind of squealing. Tower blocks on the right, offices on the left, as the train ground across an open sea of rails. When it drew into the station the young man stood up, leant over me, and offered his hand. I imagined knife scars, one day, in the compact body that arched above me.
“I never speak to anyone like this. Never. Never talked about myself like that. Take care, man.” He shook my hand hard.
“Good luck,” I said, even now not quite meeting his gaze. He took his phone out of a trouser pocket and went to wait by the door as the train slowed to a halt. It wasn’t fear so much now that held me back as another feeling, one I didn’t like to name. I stayed in my seat until two other passengers moved between the young man and me, then joined the short queue, looking down at my satchel.
“Yeah, he’s all right…He’ll just be in for a few days. Yes, I will. Sure. I’ll sort it.” As he stepped off the carriage he looked round his phone and gave me a thumbs-up. “Take care, man.”
“And you. Good luck,” I said again, this time managing to look directly into that open face.
I watched him stride towards the ticket barriers, hang back until the single guard was distracted, then dart through them against the back of another passenger before the gates closed. He turned and winked at the passenger, a young woman; walked in a half-dance half-swagger towards the crowded tube entrance, his T-shirt flapping around his waist like a kid’s on a beach. I hoped he was right, and I had really tried to help him years back, after all. I hoped my shame was misplaced. And I hoped that someone – maybe a kindly IT tutor – would help him again, more successfully this time, give him the simple chance he deserved.