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Among the usual collections of garbage on Oxford Street, there were still Friday’s newspapers blowing in short spirals over the pavement. Joseph Hellman, his gaze fixed outside the bus window, was drawn to a copy of the London Gazette caught on the windscreen of a parked Immigration Police van. On the front page above a picture of the new prime minister and leader of the Everyman Party, the headline ran: NEW BEGINNINGS, OLD ENGLAND.
It had just gone seven o’clock. Though there had been no special mention of it on EBC News, it felt safe to declare it the coldest day of the year thus far. Not even Joseph’s thickest winter overcoat could insulate him from the dismal March morning. He knew a quick swig of rum would warm him in all the right places, but it was foolish to risk it. Though the rum was nonimported, meaning legal, and could be proved so with a United Counties of England receipt, it was always safer to avoid suspicion where one could manage it, especially those already vulnerable to scrutiny as Joseph, due to his skin colour, undoubtedly was. A newspaper, he figured, felt like the only suitable distraction. There was one underneath the neighbouring seat that had been skidding up and down the bus aisle for most of the commute. He stretched over and plucked it from the floor, parting the pages roughly in the middle. It was a copy of the Gazette. He knew this not only from the overload of pornographic material filling the pages (a now customary feature in most tabloid publications), but because they were still running the story that had been troubling him all weekend. The very sight of it still taking up space in a major newspaper seemed to wrap the miserable March air a little tighter around his bones. Still, even with this, he couldn’t resist reading again:
Prime Minister Nigel White has received numerous plaudits after announcing that all government support funding going toward art colleges, galleries, music venues, theatres, record stores, bookstores, libraries, and independent film studios, should be rescinded and rerouted toward further investments in pubs, breweries, prison centres, border control, and the Immigration Police. This being part of his 100-day promise as popularised in his manifesto –
Joseph folded the paper and slung it onto the neighbouring seat.
He departed the bus a little further on at Shaftesbury Avenue where the huge advertisement screens overlooked the street. At one time or another, precisely when was difficult to estimate, the screens had endorsed a wide range of products, varying in everything from holiday packages to even books. Branded on the screens now was a topless woman glugging from a bottle of beer. It was an advert for Miner’s Cream Ale, an inexpensive brand of bitter. Joseph ignored it and moved briskly passed the old theatre buildings, though even with his head down the advertisements were still visible in the rain-filled potholes.
His head wrenched up a moment later as two figures emerged from the corner of Rupert Street. Even from a distance, their bald, broad-shouldered statures were enough to intimidate even the most assured person, which Joseph certainly wasn’t. What was more worrying, however, was the song they were singing. It was the old traveller’s hymn that had been revived and bellowed around London since Nigel White’s campaign trail and subsequent inauguration. It seemed to resonate with the public greater than any single piece of music had in a long time. The hymn went:
Take me back to my old England,
Where the skies were so blue,
Take me back to where Anglo-Saxons,
Marked the pathways for me and you.
The performance hit its final crescendo a few feet from Joseph and was delivered with a great deal of gusto and extra emphasis upon the noticing of him. At the instant that both parties crossed on the pavement, one of the men cocked his head and belched into Joseph’s ear. The stench of stale lager, helped by the wind, brushed across Joseph’s nose and made his body twitch like he was fighting to keep down vomit. The man instantly exploded with an ugly howl of laughter, encouraging his friend with a sharp elbow to do the same. The attack was too violent to yet be humiliating. Joseph could still feel the grotesque warmth on his ear as he marched forward with the sound of the men in the background, both still too amused to consider the possibility that Joseph might turn and retaliate. The precise second that a safe enough distance had been set, Joseph’s cheeks stiffened with humiliation.
The storefront of Hellman’s Books & Coffee was situated toward the end of Rupert Street. It was a building typical of the borough with its mismatched brickwork and soot-stained patina consistent with every other business, as if it were mandated by law. Hellman’s Book & Coffee was not typical, however, in the product that it sold; in fact, in Soho, it was the last one of its kind. At the main door, a half-posted leaflet flapped fitfully from the letterbox. Joseph plucked it out and considered it with teary eyes from the wind. The leaflet’s background was the United Counties of England flag (the Victory Lion: it was called) with the infamous lion devouring the unicorn crest centred ahead of the red, white, and black background. At the bottom of the leaflet where the morning rain hadn’t completely spoiled the writing, a set of capitalised words ran across it: the everyman party – a party for you, run by you. Joseph squeezed the leaflet into his fist and unlocked the shop. The bell chimed as he walked in, and the store lights automatically buzzed on. The store was exactly how he had left it Friday evening when he had decided not to return on Saturday. By the window there were old pieces of furniture; chairs; sofas; tables. It was a comfortable layout with wicker baskets on each table stuffed with brown and white sugar bottles. At the opposite end where the toilet was sited, the room narrowed into a corridor where bookshelves lined the walls, each filled with the spines of classic literature, plus a few cookbooks and celebrity autobiographies to help pay the bills. Joseph locked the door and took his seat behind the cash register. From his pocket he removed the envelope he had been studying all weekend. He needn’t to have removed the letter for he could recite, word for word, the infamous paragraph which had caused him a near sleepless three nights. “We regret to inform you,” it stated, “that the Preserve & Inspire grant afforded to your bookstore has been terminated due to new government policy. Any existing payments will not be made.” Joseph knew it was the end of Hellman’s Books & Coffee. The rent alone was too substantial. Increasingly he had depended on the grant to survive. Soon, he knew, the books would be cleared out, the coffee machines ripped from the plumbing system, and the pictures of Charles Dickens and James Baldwin relocated. A pub, he thought, would no doubt replace it.
Joseph turned to the window and regarded the street with a vacant stare. Even from the view of his most optimistic of dispositions, he knew his relationship with London was drawing to a close. Being the son of Jamaican parents, he knew the Immigration Police would get him eventually. Some fairly credible news outlets had already reported that Nigel White and his parliament majority were weeks away from passing an immigration bill which had the power to skip back a generation, meaning they could deport Joseph because of his parent’s heritage even though Joseph himself had been born in England. To be classed as a legal minority national one had to have been born in England as well as have parents who were also born in England. Theoretically, if Joseph were to have a child with an England-born woman, his child would stand to have more rights than he. The age of seclusion, Joseph pondered. England had spent its infancy building boats and planes to travel the world, only to withdraw in on itself like nervous hermits, ready to employ those very boats and planes only when a rival country needed bombing or foreign people deporting. Hellman’sBooks & Coffee, Joseph thought, turning the name of the store over in his head. His parent’s surname was actually Gunbury. His foster home had told him that his parents had thought it to be too Jamaican sounding if he was to survive in England. They feared he would go through life unable to get a job interview or a mortgage for a home if Gunbury was the name that appeared on the application form. Before Joseph’s parents had died, they had changed it to Hellman: a German name.
The sky over Soho bruised to a murky blue, and the street gradually upped its population. Joseph dragged a wooden broom over the main floor and wiped the weekend’s dust from the tables. He reversed the OPEN/CLOSED sign on the door, and it was not long after that Beatrice, a “dancer” at Club XO (one of the all-night bars down the road), finished her shift and collected her usual afterwork beverage. The bell above the door chimed and Joseph straightened himself from behind the counter; he had been organising the medium-size takeaway cups.
“Morning, Joe,” she said, cheeks red with makeup and her forehead sparkling with glitter under the store lights.
“Morning,” Joseph replied, asserting himself in the most welcoming manner he could muster while short of breath.
“Medium cappuccino,” she said, “six sugars.”
Her knee-high boots clicked on the wood panels as she settled in front of the counter. She undid one of the buttons on her leather trench coat and scratched around her forearm where Joseph had once seen syringe scabs. “I say,” she said with a sudden twitch of vigour, “I bet you’re in a good mood after the news.”
“The grant,” she replied. “Management were all happy. They got a letter from the council saying they’re eligible for a grant or something. It means we can install a VIP room for the best dancers,” she explained. “I just presumed everyone in the area had gotten one.”
It seemed to Joseph that they had simply transported his grant over to Club XO. They didn’t even have to alter the postcode on the form.
“O, yes,” Joseph said. “But I’m…err, I’m actually thinking of giving the place up,” he said – anything to affect the natural course of the conversation. He pulled a serviette loose from a pile on the counter and dabbed his forehead with it.
“What?” Beatrice snapped.
“Yes,” he said, attempting a well-considered tone. “I’m thinking of selling the place. Fresh start. Maybe move abroad. Somewhere warm.”
“But you can’t. What about my morning coffee?” she said. “Plus, they’ll never let you go abroad. Who’s allowed to go abroad these days. It takes years for an application to even get reviewed. One of my cousins had been trying forever – ”
The bell above the shop door chimed, and the two gazed over to meet it. It was a man in a high-visibility vest. He shouldered his way through the doorframe and approached with a yellow hard helmet cradled in one arm. Beatrice swallowed her words and corrected her stare back toward the counter. A gruff, mumbled voice, one suited almost perfectly to the individual, fell from the man’s lips: “Tea,” he said.
“Of course, and how do you take it?” Joseph asked, still with one eye overseeing Beatrice’s order.
“White,” the man said, blowing a short snigger through his nose, one that sounded vaguely like an amused grunt.
A sterile, tiring silence hummed throughout the store while Joseph finished Beatrice’s order, a silence not even the mounting traffic on Brewer Street could disturb.
“Sorry, you were saying?” Joseph said to Beatrice, encouraging her to conclude her point.
Beatrice, with a subtlety that was nearing nonexistence, shook her head in an effort to bat off the question. Her eyes were busy flitting over the menu board, though too manically to accurately digest anything that it promoted. Joseph finished her coffee and set it on the counter.
“That mine?” the man asked.
“No, no, your order’s next,” Joseph replied. “That’s $5,” he said to Beatrice.
Beatrice proffered the exact cost, collected her coffee, and hurried out of the store without wasting another syllable. The register sprung out, and Joseph dropped the scrunched note into the centre; the register was so bare that he no longer required the use of the different compartments to separate each individual coin or note. He returned to the machine and prepared the next order.
The man’s fingers soon began to tap over his hard helmet. He blew a gravelled sigh over the counter and asked with a tired petulance, “How long is this gonna take?”
Joseph presented it on the counter; however, the man’s concern was no longer on his order. He was in the process of lifting his shirt sleeve into a vest, all it seemed with the purpose of revealing a tattoo on his upper arm. The tattoo depicted a roaring lion of incredibly shoddy detail, though the words England First were written unmistakably beneath it. He was making a show of displaying it and having it noticed. Joseph withdrew his eyes and said: “That’s $4.50.”
“How much?” the man said.
Joseph gathered in so few words that he wasn’t a London native. The horror of London prices often triggered customers to recoil in this fashion. “$4.50,” Joseph repeated.
The man produced his wallet. “Did you vote?” he asked.
The question struck Joseph’s ear uncomfortably. “In the election?” Joseph puffed out his bottom lip and rolled his head to either side.
“I didn’t feel like it,” Joseph replied.
“Nobody called out to you?”
“Something like that.”
“What about Nigel White? You’ve got admit, he says it like it is.”
“$4.50, please,” Joseph said upon seeing that the man had stopped searching through his wallet.
“He’s a good man. He’s going to get this country back where it belongs. Before job shortages – before housing shortages – before the crime. I mean, it’s not safe to go out anymore.”
“And where are you from?” the man asked, with a grotesque look forming on his face.
“England,” Joseph sighed. He had already cottoned onto the path the dialogue was venturing down.
“England?” the man scoffed. There seemed to be genuine offence on his face. “Come on. Where are you from?”
“I’ve just told you: England.”
“Jesus your breath stinks,” the man said with start-inducing raise in volume. “How many have you had this morning? Three? Four? Smells like you’ve been sleeping in a brewery.”
Joseph, composed and expressionless, lifted a glass of water from underneath the counter and took a sip. Though he already knew the result like he had lived this interaction all his life, he said one more time, “$4.50, please.”
“You know what,” the man said, committing fully to the hostile atmosphere that suffocated the store, “I don’t feel like spending my hard-earned money at a foreign business.”
He stuffed his wallet into his overall bottoms and turned to leave the store. However, a moment of inspiration seemed to strike him on route, for just before he swung open the main door, as quick as a tic, his hand swiped across a table and sent one of the wicker baskets full of sugar bottles to the floor. The bottles, with a loud, flinching crack, fragmented into a hundred shards of glass, each shard mixing indistinguishable from the grains of sugar that pooled over the floor. The man had already skipped onto Rupert Street by the time every grain had settled into a still position.
I could pack up and migrate, Joseph pondered with an assured, solemn nod, a nod which was founded in the zero likelihood of it happening due to his dire financial circumstances and the often illegal process in attaining a “rouge ticket,” meaning one without return. Somewhere warm with any luck, he thought. I could drink rum all day and bury my toes in the sand…let the breeze whistle me to sleep. Similar thoughts often filled Joseph’s head following such exchanges. He was getting good at them, too. He could quite easily loose himself in them for a few minutes at a time. At the most lucid point of the fantasy where Joseph could almost feel the breeze tickling the faints hairs on his earlobes, a police siren wailed on the north side of Soho and threw his attention brusquely back into the present. He then, with an almost mechanic function, submitting to the task at hand, retrieved a dustpan and brush from the side of the counter and began scooping up the broken glass and grains of sugar. The volume of the siren waned in the distance, but as it faded, its presumed visual counterpart appeared outside the store. An Immigration Police van, as black as a giant beetle, inched over the grimy road. However, the timing of the siren and the appearance of the van were completely arbitrary and unrelated, for unlike the Metropolitan Police Department, the immigration sector operated without the aid of a siren, thus always possessing the element of surprise. The van squeaked to a stop directly outside the windows of Hellman’s Books & Coffee. Joseph persisted with the task at hand, though he shrewdly turned his back to them. One day they’ll get me, he thought. No use fighting. It’s inevitable. The van loitered until Joseph’s nerve ends resembled that of a frayed elastic band stretched to the point just shy of breakage. Then, welcomed with a deflating sigh of relief, the van drove soundlessly away up Brewer Street.
At one o’clock, with no customers on the horizon and having taken in just enough to afford a reasonably sized meal, Joseph locked up shop and headed into Leicester Square to one of the only cheaply priced food carts in the area. He bought a pot of bolognaise pasta and wolfed it down at the bench in the square that offered him the best view of the area. Afterwards, with the rumbles in his stomach finally tamed and the worry of his next meal at least five hours in the future, he pondered the area, wondering with a strange inquisitiveness what London was like when tourists had roamed these streets and shopped in these stores. He had one hazy memory from his first day in London which informed him what that would be like, but he knew it wasn’t genuine. Going off the dates, it had just been the regular hustle and bustle of London which his anxiety at the time had now retrospectively overpopulated. Since that first day the mania of London, the traffic and the crowds, had felt normal. It was only recently that it had again become a place stuffed with unfriendly, suspecting eyes.
Joseph shook the thought a few minutes later and found the square to be much busier than when he had first taken his seat. At the rusted gates a group of people holding placards had quietly gathered. From their multicoloured shoes and tight-fitting jeans, a style which 12 months ago had littered the highstreets, Joseph deduced they were on the young side of life – around 23, he guessed with confidence. Amongst the group there seemed to be an even representation of ethnic backgrounds: black, white, Chinese, Indian. They were all wearing matching T-shirts with a message Joseph’s eyes were too blurry to read.
“Enough is enough,” a voice called out on an overly tinny megaphone, though Joseph couldn’t see who from his low position. “Do not be fooled by the media. People of minority make up only 14 percent of crime in London, yet their crime is represented as 80 percent in the media.”
Joseph shifted his body to listen. It was the protesters he had seen on EBC Morning News. At least 10 minutes of every news schedule was dedicated toward their latest scandal. The megaphone was passed amongst them, each time with a new member elected to read from a small cue card.
“Last week a crime was reported in Brixton as being perpetrated by an ‘ethnic gang.’ Interesting choice of words. Well, we have a video acquired from a store CCTV camera proving that the gang were in fact white, middle-aged, and with one even donning campaign merchandise from one of Nigel White’s rallies. Here are the photos attached to our leaflet. You will not see them on EBC News or in the pages of the London Gazette. Take one. Take one.”
A group of men in high-visibility vests clustered outside the Moon Under Water pub, each with half a pint of bitter swilling in their black hands; one of them was even picking chips from a sodden newspaper cone. They were collectively sneering at the protesters, and with each swig of their drinks, their sneers grew more animated and more genuine. Joseph sensed that the atmosphere had the immediate potential to teeter into violence. He decided to go. There was no place for him here. As if he were in no rush at all, he pushed himself up and shimmied as unnoticeably as he could through the crowd of protesters.
“Take one. The revolution will not be televised. The media won’t allow it. Here, take one. Take one, sir.”
Joseph, as an involuntary action, more out of avoiding an awkward encounter than being polite, accepted a leaflet and stuffed it into his overcoat pocket. Before he could be associated with the group, he moved smartly onward toward Charing Cross Road.
A leaflet was then shoved into Joseph’s palm. He swiftly stuffed it into his overcoat pocket and set a brisk pace toward Charing Cross Road, leaving the sounds of the megaphone and its rebukes from the dinner-time drinkers behind him.
It was difficult for him not to arouse suspicion as he staggered back onto Brewer Street, for his walk sporadically devolved into a limp due to the size of the blisters on each of his heels. He felt like a drunkard escaping an unpaid tab, and increasingly the eyes of the street gravitated toward him. What was troubling him more, however, was his store. He was trying to calculate how many customers he would need for the day’s intake to be considered satisfactory – to be worthy of waking up and burning electricity for. He advanced down the street after racking his brains but was unable to gauge a definitive figure. Soon the storefront of Hellman’s Books & Coffee grew into view, distinguishable among the rival businesses. Even from 30 paces off, he could see there was something unusual about its appearance. A colour he was unfamiliar with seemed to overrun the store window like a glare of light. The sun’s reflection, he initially thought, though his estimation grew less credible the nearer he got. There was a whiteness where he had never noticed before, a harsh clashing of colour that didn’t match the palette of what he had come to know as the ordinary outer décor of the store. With every step he neared, the clearer it became, until finally, like a developing polaroid after being fanned, there it was – clear as day. His jaw fell slack, and his skin buzzed anxiously around his entire skeleton. There were large splashes of white paint dripping down the main window of Hellman’s Books & Coffee, an act undoubtedly perpetrated by vandals. Joseph stopped in the middle of the path. While it was true an act like this had never occurred before, somehow it felt typical. He offered a glance around the street, yet it continued like clockwork, unflinching – ordinary.
When he finally let himself in, following a quick slug of rum to dull his nerves, he braved the street with a bucket of steaming water and an old sponge. He turned his back to the street but could somehow still feel the eyes of the other businesses burning critically over his back. What had they presumed about the paint? Had they thought it vandalism with racial motivations, an accident, or even a private matter – revenge from a jealous lover or a drug dealer angry about a late payment? Their minds had the capacity to reach for any reason that had half a fraction of credibility to it. It didn’t do their conscience any harm to weave all these rumours and presumptions to Joseph’s name.
It was evident only 10 minutes later that one of the businesses had thought the motive to be deeply illegal in nature for they had called the police. It must have caused quite the confusion to the mystery caller when only a journalist from the London Gazette was seen sniffing around the storefront of Hellman’s Books & Coffee. Such practises were growing increasingly more procedural of the Metropolitan Police Department. Underfunding and a shortage of Met officers had seen journalists scouting to determine whether an incident was worthy of publication, then if serious or interesting enough, the police would be called upon to help further the investigation or story. As things went, Joseph was low even on the Gazette’s priority list, for to interview him they had sent a youth of about 20, one undoubtedly employed on an internship, waiting for that very story that would propel his career into the big leagues of mainstream journalism. The boy’s unenthused expression revealed his instincts to believe that this was not that story.
“I was talking to some construction workers down the street to see if they’d witnessed anything,” the journalist said. He braced himself and asked, “How do you feel about the culprits being… err, fellow people of colour?”
“Black boys?” Joseph said. “What makes you think this was done by black boys?”
“Well…one of the construction workers stated that he saw a group of black males throw paint over your storefront and then sprint off down Brewer Street. How do you feel about this?”
Across the street Joseph’s eyes met the man who had knocked over the sugar bottles in his store earlier. He and three other construction men were painting the new parking lanes along the road. Their overalls were splattered in white paint.
“This was not done by black boys,” Joseph said, though he had perhaps said it too quietly as the journalist then commented: “I guess it’s a pretty standard case. I can fill in the rest of the information myself.” And then he added, “Can I just take your name?”
Joseph stared at the journalist.
“We need it for the article,” he insisted.
Joseph dug his hands into his pockets to remove his identification card. He didn’t feel like mixing words with this man. However, in his pocket he did not feel his ID. He withdrew his hand and pulled out the leaflet the protesters had given him. On the leaflet was a picture of a gang vandalising what appeared to be an Indian clothing store. The gang were white. Next to it was a clipping of the London Gazette article claiming the perpetrators were an “ethnic gang.” The text at the bottom of the leaflet read: ignore the media’s meddling. join the people’s revolution. Joseph thoughts began to wander. I have been blind, he thought, but now –
“Your name?” the journalist asked, interrupting Joseph’s train of thought. The journalist glanced up to the sign of Hellman’s Books & Coffee and said with his stylus hovering over a small electronic notepad, “Hellman, is it?”
Joseph felt a strong urge to rebel. Not only against the journalist but against everything – everything that had put him in his current position, everything that had navigated him toward this miserable destiny. He paused for composure, filled his lungs with a shallow breath, and replied:
“It’s Gunbury…Joseph Gunbury.”