Do you remember Pavlos Maropoulos from school? Was in the same class as us all the way through middle school. I think you do, actually, because I seem to remember you seeing a girl for a while about ten years ago that you told me was Pavlos’ ex. I think. Wasn’t she the girl that used to live at the bottom of the hill next to the cemetery? It sticks out in my mind now for the fact that you told me at the time that she said Pavlos had beaten her up when they were together and that he was a loose cannon. I remember I believed it at the time, mostly because I hadn’t spoken to him since school but had seen him walking around the streets a few times and noted that he had looked angry and weird. He’d grown his hair long, was always dressed in black with angry slogans on his t-shirts, wore dog collars and spikes and stuff like that, and when he walked past you you could hear the tinny noise leakage emanating from the headphones that covered his ears, aggressive screamy metal music. And he had been lifting weights since we’d left school, had added a bit of bulk. He always looked like he might throw a brick through a glass bus shelter, just for the hell of it. So the idea that he would partake in a bit of domestic abuse was easy to buy into. Then again, though, at that age I used to pretty much believe anything I was told, so long as it was interesting. As I sit here now I’m not so sure that I believe the story. I’m not as prone to judge people on rumours as I once was. Especially considering how many tall tales used to get thrown around our neighbourhood. Anyway, the reason I ask if you remember him is that a couple of weeks ago he sent me a friend request on Facebook. Out of the blue. I hadn’t spoken to him in 15 years, not since we left school, and hadn’t thought of him in about ten years, not since you were seeing that girl.
Except I wasn’t concentrating on what he was saying because I was reading this article on the internet about a kid in New York who had been arrested on suspicion of stealing somebody’s rucksack, just 16 years old he was, and they stuck him in jail to await his trial, except his trial never came up, so he spent three years in this prison, three years! waiting for the opportunity to defend himself, his day in court, but it never came and in the end all charges were dropped as there wasn’t enough evidence to even prove he had committed the crime. So they just said sorry and opened his door. Like that kind of thing was alright. There’s no way they said sorry. And I couldn’t stop imagining that happening to me as a 16-year old. All the firsts I experienced between the ages of 16 and 19. First smoke, first pill, first sex, first job, first holiday without supervision. Exciting years; the world in front of you; free from school; young, able-bodied and full of energy, often misplaced, but full of energy all the same. A good time to be walking around the streets. This kid wasn’t afforded that luxury. But even worse, this kid’s time inside was horrific. He decided not to join any of the gangs that operated in the prison. Then one day a gang leader spat in this kid’s face in the canteen and this kid knew that if he didn’t stand up for himself then his face would be spat in every day, so he punched this gang bloke on the nose, bang, and within a couple of seconds this kid was having his head kicked in by like 50 gang members, and the wardens basically stood and watched. The attack went on for ages, this kid was beaten senseless.
The reason the story was being reported now was that CCTV footage of the incident had been released, showing the brutality of the attack, and this video accompanied the article I was reading, so I saw it. I’m not just going on hearsay. And after that day life in the prison wasn’t safe for that kid so the guards moved him to solitary confinement. And that’s where this kid spent three years for a crime that he was never convicted of. But the thing I found most interesting was that the person who had written the article seemed as outraged by the fact that this kid had had to endure solitary confinement as he or she was at the violence he’d been subjected to. I found this curious because to me solitary confinement seems like the perfect scenario to hope for if you ever get caught doing something naughty and have to go away for a bit. I always assumed everybody else was with me on this. This isn’t just something I think now. I have always had it in my mind. You remember how I was always in trouble when we were at school? Hardly a day went by that I wasn’t sat outside Miss Bleatley’s office on detention. Usually for fighting. Nah, it was for everything, come to think of it. Stuff that I had done and stuff that I hadn’t. How many times was I suspended from school! I felt like I couldn’t avoid trouble even if I tried, which on rare occasion I did, unsuccessfully. So my natural fear during those years was that authority would continue to pick on me after I left school, and that detention would be replaced by prison. It genuinely occurred to me. And so I had this plan ready. The first night of my stint behind bars I would do something fucked up, like do a shit on the dinner table, inside a Yorkshire pudding or something, and then vow to squeeze out a shit every time someone said the word sausage. Or cigarette. Or bird. Or another word. Some really messed up shit like that. Just to get stuck in solitary. Because the last thing I want to do in prison, just the same as on the outside world, is socialise with other humans. I wouldn’t want to know my fellow inmates, I wouldn’t even want to know what their faces looked like. I imagine the prison social club is an alright place to hang out if you’re like a natural criminal or something, they say that when you come out you’ve learnt from all the other criminals in there and you’ve honed your skills, ready to go back to your life and start doing naughty stuff again but only better than you did it before. But the thing is I’m just not a natural criminal. I don’t want to learn how to blow open a safe or nick a car without detection. I can’t drive. So I wouldn’t fancy it. I’m a disobedient little bastard, but not a criminal. Not a real one. I suppose this is obvious enough already for the fact that this prison story of mine is hypothetical. But what I planned to do in prison once I’d got myself sectioned off to solitary confinement was to spend all my time reading literature, teaching myself a foreign language or two, if they’d let me get the books from the library, and if not I would just meditate facing the wall. In peace. Not getting in any more trouble. Not having to talk to anyone. Not having to listen to anyone. I always thought that would be alright, actually. No one boring me. Just send the guard along twice a day to push my little bit of food through the flap in the door, I’d be sorted thank you very much. And I’d exercise a load, too. Push-ups round the clock. Healthy body, healthy mind. One thing my environment during adolescence taught me was that prison gave you muscles. Every single one of the kids from my year that did end up going down after we left school together went in there the same size as me and came out a couple of years later a gorilla. Seriously, arms like Popeye, every one of them. But this kid’s experience of solitary confinement didn’t play out like that. Another released CCTV tape showed the morning that one of the guards came to escort the kid to the shower. The guard had had a row with his wife or something before coming to work, had the right ‘ump, and so when he opened the door to the kid’s cell and the kid stepped outside, the guard just laid into him, slamming his head repeatedly against the floor. You don’t need that when you’re serving time without trial for a crime that you’re never going to be convicted of. All of a sudden solitary confinement didn’t seem like the paradise I had conjured it up to be in my mind. What’s the point of not having to worry about other prisoners if you still get kicked around by the guards? That’s even worse, cos you can’t really fight back. Well, you can, but you can’t win. I really felt bad for this kid, it moved me, made me angry and sad at the same time. And yea, I really couldn’t get out of my imagination that this could have happened to me. Only, it wouldn’t happen to me. Because I’m not black and I’m not in America, and what happened to that kid wouldn’t ever have happened to a white kid, of this I am positive. The system wouldn’t let it get that far. There would be press outrage for a start, and from the beginning, not just some article published more than three years after I was arrested. And that actually made me feel even sadder and even more angry. Anyway that kid’s out now.
The narrative above is fiction and just an excerpt from a longer story that I am currently working on. However, the story about the kid in America, sadly, is a true one.
‘It’s like the film Being John Malkovich, innit?’ he said to the man standing over him. And then he remembered that the man didn’t speak his language. So he asked it again, this time in the man’s national tongue. The man’s response was ‘What?’ except it wasn’t exactly ‘What?’ because it wasn’t said in English. But it meant ‘What?’
‘You wouldn’t get it,’ he said, reaching down into the side pocket of his bag that sat between his feet and pulling out his ticket, which he handed to the man. The man took it, crossed it with a biro, handed it back, and carried on down the carriage. He turned his head to the left to stare out of the window, to lose himself on the distant horizon, to be taken there by the current and left to float over the edge, peacefully on his back, he imagined a bottomless waterfall, perpetual motion, the eternal drop. Would it be noisy, he wondered. What did it matter? He’d get used to it. That’s what you do; you get used to stuff. He had forgotten that it was past ten at night, that the sun had long since set, that the window at his side now only served as a mirror, revealing his surroundings, bright under the train’s lightbulbs, as it rolled along the tracks that hugged the shore line. He fought the temptation to check his reflection, he knew what he looked like; tired. And empty. But mostly tired. He didn’t need reminding. His eyes looked older than they were. As luck would have it, the rest of him didn’t. Not that it mattered. There were people, about eight in total, sharing the carriage with him. Eight other humans, possibly nine, and not a sound to be heard. Not a voice. Not a laugh. Not a sniff. Not a shuffling of papers. Not an itchy arse being scratched on a seat. Just faces looking at mobile screens. Or in the case of one lady, looking at the backs of eyelids. She was asleep. But she wasn’t resting her head on anything. She sat upright. And she dozed peacefully. He thought this must have taken training.
The woman sat opposite him was also surveying the scene via the reflection in the window. Their eyes met in the glass. She had nice hair, he thought, and pretty eyes, hooded, deep. No make-up. None needed. She didn’t smile, she wasn’t a smiler. He used to be. She just looked into his reflected eyes. The glass a bulldozer to the social No No wall that existed in the physical. Without the glass to act as a filter, this kind of behavior would not be acceptable. You do not stare at strangers on public transport. It’s bad form. She had started it, though.
‘Don’t you eat?’ she meant nothing by it, but it cut. Of all the times he didn’t want to hear it, now, her wrapped round him, fingertips pulsating down his back, clothes discarded carelessly across the floor, humans glowing, sweat, saliva, now was definitely one of those times. Normally the next words to leave the offending female’s lips were, ‘I’ll have to cook for you.’ And he always clammed up. And he didn’t see that woman again. But tonight she didn’t say, ‘I’ll have to cook for you,’ in fact she made no unfounded assumptions about his future, she invited herself to no parties. Instead, as she felt the backward shift in his comfort, she said, ‘It’s just that you’re so thin!’
How Does This Type Of Ancient Sexist Attitude Still Persist? (Alternative title: The Boss Of London Idiomas Language School)21 Sep
‘Take her for example,’ he said, peering over the top of his cheap, mirrored aviator sunglasses, whilst nodding in the direction of a dark haired woman in her mid 30s as she casually strolled past our table, taking her dog for a walk. ‘Back when I was single, whenever I was feeling down or stressed like I am now, I would go out to a bar, pick up a woman like her and take her home to do dirty things to her,’ he smirked before continuing, ‘I don’t know her, I don’t care about her, she’s just another woman for me to let it all out over. I would disrespect the shit out of her and then once I’d shot my load she’d be kicked out the door. And to be honest, that’s all I can think about lately. I just want to forget my worries by fucking all these Spanish sluts. What’s the point of living in a place like this, where the women look so good, if I can’t use them to service my needs? I’m a man, they’re women, they know what they’re here for.’
I didn’t say anything but just looked at his face to try and work out if he was being ironic. He wasn’t.
‘The thing is, Em knows this is how I am and she knows that this is what I need to do, she understands. She knows what I was like. I was literally shagging little whores like that one over there every night of the week. The fact that I can’t do that now is just making me tenser.’
I subtly attempted to switch the direction of the conversation by asking after his wife. ‘How is Em today?’
Allow me to reminisce briefly about a funny thing that happened to me one early morning thirty years ago. I was born! I climbed out of another human being’s body! Mental, right? Now I’m not going to claim that I remember any details from the day of my birth, because that would be an obvious lie, wouldn’t it? but I do clearly remember this: that when the midwife put me on the scales for the first time in that delivery room, she turned to my knackered looking mum and said, ‘Your son weighs 6 pounds and 2 ounces, which is quite tiny. Also – and I’ve never had to tell a new mother this before – half of that body weight is made up of thick, dark hair.’
To which my mother responded chirpily from just above the rim of her cup of tea, ‘Yea, that’ll be the Indian in him.’
Everyone gathered round was just about to chuckle politely, when a moment of silence descended for them to quickly ask themselves whether my mum’s little quip had been politically correct or not, everyone coming to the same conclusion: that this was the early 80s and we were in South London, so who really gave a shit? Also my mum’s granddad had been an Indian immigrant to Britain, so she was allowed to make comments like that, alright? Also, she never really said it, did she? This whole scenario up until now has been, if I’m truthful, made up as I go along. Why? Who knows? So yea, once everybody in the room had realised all of these things, they each allowed themselves a grin, before stopping what they were doing for a moment to enjoy a biscuit, picked from an assortment atop a plate that a passing ambulance driver had carried in to the room just seconds earlier.
‘I was just on my way home with this tray of biscuits, when I heard the screams of a newborn and followed my instincts (and my ear) to deliver this celebratory selection to the welcoming party! Congratulations!’ the nice man said.
A hospital orderly then handed everyone a fresh cup of tea, for biscuits to be dipped in. My dad politely turned down his offering, however, preferring instead to dip a Custard Cream in his beer. Each to their own. And then the hairy newborn baby in the room (the hairy newborn baby that was me, remember) raised his tiny little finger into the air, cleared his tiny little throat, and asked in a voice that shocked people by how deep it was for a baby, ‘What about the welcomee? Doesn’t he get a biscuit, too? I could murder a Bourbon.’
Everyone looked at each other confusedly, saying nothing, before their minds were put to rest by the calming words of one of the doctors in the room, who said, ‘Don’t worry; he’ll grow into that voice one day.’
There was then a period of silence; a silence that was broken by my mum asking, ‘Can the same be said of the hair, doctor?’
The doctor’s words on this occasion were less reassuring: ‘Even if your son grew to the size of André the Giant, which he won’t, he will never grow into all that hair.’
This cultural reference worked better then that it would today because in 1983 everyone on the planet (mostly) knew who André the Giant was. Today, not so much. Today in a similar situation the doctor might say, ‘Even if your son grew to the size of Wikipedia, which he won’t, he will never grow into all that hair.’
Everyone just smiled silently at the doctor’s knowledgeable input; everyone except for the passing ambulance driver, that is, who broke the silence for the second time to say, ‘Hang on a minute! Is that what everyone thought was weird about the baby asking for a Bourbon – that he asked for it in a deep non-baby like voice? Not one of your confused expressions was brought on by the mere fact that the newborn baby just spoke? I thought we were all on the same page back then! Obviously not!’
My dad then uttered his first words of the occasion, saying, ‘Runs in the family, that. I been speaking since about three weeks before birth. Nothing weird about that.’
The ambulance driver was lost for words, literally, and so just shook everybody’s hand and left the scene.
‘I never knew that about you!’ my mum said to my dad, after the ambulance driver had shut the door behind him.
‘That’s because it’s not true!’ he replied, ‘How could I have been talking from before I was born? I can’t believe that worked!’
The midwife then tapped my dad on the shoulder and asked, ‘What was the point of making that up?’ to which my dad uttered his now infamous words, ‘I just said it without thinking first.’
‘Genius,’ said the hairy newborn baby, ‘Genius.’
The hospital orderly collected up everyone’s empty mugs on a tray – she also took my dad’s empty can and said she’d find a bin for it – and then the midwife picked up the hairy newborn baby (aka Me) and said, ‘Right you, you’re coming with me!’
‘Where’s he off to, then?’ my mum asked.
‘Remember I said that he weighed 6 pounds and 2 ounces, and that that was quite tiny? Well it’s very tiny; probably down to the fact that he wasn’t meant to be born for another three weeks,’ the midwife explained, whilst giving me a little beanie hat and telling me to put it on; which I did obediently.
‘Is that why he’s a bit blue?’ asked my dad from across the room.
‘It is, yes.’
‘Ah that’s alright then, for a while I was secretly wrestling with the suspicion that my wife had been having a Smurf round the house while I was at work,’ my dad said. ‘So where’s he going then? You still didn’t tell us.’
‘Oh yea, sorry, I’m a forgetful thing sometimes,’ said the midwife, giggling, ‘He’s going to live in an incubator for a while.’
‘Oh. Okay then,’ my mum said, ‘Can you turn the light off on your way out, please, I’m about ready to pass out.’
The midwife picked me up and we headed to the door together. Just before she switched off the light she said to me, ‘Wave goodbye to your mum, if you don’t die then you’ll see her in a little while.’
‘Wait! What?’ said the hairy baby.
I didn’t die, and a week later I was taken home to meet the family dog.
‘Put your gloves on, it’s cold outside. And hurry up, or you’ll miss Father Christmas!’
‘But what about Dad?’
‘He must’ve missed his train home from work. We’ll have to go without him. He knew what time we were leaving. Now come on, the pair of you!’
Disappointed as we both were that Dad was gonna miss out on a few mince pies and the chance to meet Father Christmas, who, by some incredible feat of persuasion my school had managed to book for a personal meet and greet session, for one evening only, and just a week or so before the busiest night of his year – I heard a rumour many years later that this was down to the school secretary of the time Ms. X, who had had an abortion on the quiet fifteen years earlier at the aggressive insistance of the unwilling father, and had never uttered a word of it to anyone since. Not until the day the Chuckle Brothers had cancelled at short notice the appearance they had been booked to make at my school for what seemed like forever. Everyone had been devastated by the news. Some kids reported that their parents had taken down the Christmas trees they’d only just put up a day or two before. It looked to some like Christmas 1989 was going to be cancelled. Ms. X couldn’t just stand by and watch helplessly. She knew what she had to do. She made the phonecall. Sure, getting the real Father Christmas to turn up at our Christmas fair would never fully fill the collective gap that existed in all of us as a result of missing out on meeting Barry and Paul Chuckle (Some of us kids had had a bet on who would be the first to say ‘To me, to you’ to them), but it would at least go some way to restoring Christmas – my sister and I both knew not to dilly dally. We were out the door with Mum and breathing in the crisp air, under the clear sky, illuminated with bright stars, walking down the hill to where the magic was to take place: our primary school.
*I feel I should point out that since hearing that rumour about Ms. X, I now know it to be false; made up by a couple of urchins that I shared detention with one afternoon. Well, I shared detention with them (and many others) almost every afternoon for four years. But that’s not my point. My point is the rumour was bullshit. While we’re clearing the air like this, I also want to get it off my chest that Ms. X wasn’t her real name.
My school (which seemed massive to 6-year old me, but looks no bigger than a few sunday league changing rooms joined together when observed through my grown-up eyes) was buzzing with energy, excitement and festive cheer as we walked through the main door and were greeted by a few of our teachers, who were dressed as elves. ‘Nice touch,’ I thought to myself. All the grown-ups did the ‘Merry Christmas! Here, you must try one of these mince pies!’ thing, while I entertained myself by sliding around on my knees on the polished floor. ‘Oh look, mine does that as well. Little buggers, ain’t they?’ one of the grown-up ladies said to my mum. My mum ignored her to march over and pick me up off of the floor by my collar. I stayed up.