Clapham Park: Two lovers ostensibly: he’s got his arm lovingly around her; she’s got her hand in his back pocket. Bitch.
About a hundred yards away, a naked black boy, his skin glistening with sweat in the hot midsummer afternoon sun was casting a fishing line into the silvery pond; unhurried and quite careless that he caught nothing. Elegant white swans coasted smoothly over the placid water, proudly aware that they were protected from the table.
Being unemployed did offer ample time for trivial observations; and Fred Harrison found himself making mental notes of his surrounding as he sat in the park. Fred had just left another job interview, nearby with the anguished impression that there was really no job available, and the whole arrangement had been an elaborate ruse by idle staff to appear relevant. How better to escape redundancy than to appear busy making great growth plans for you employer.
Dark clouds of despair and despondency overhung all avenues. The American Dollar had again depreciated, and the Pound Sterling was precariously balanced at the edge of a cliff overlooking the deep abyss of a property market crash. Worldwide food prices were climbing higher by the day and everywhere flames of xenophobia were being fanned by gallimaufries of financial discontentment.
Nevertheless, Fred was again at this time drawn to reconsider his brother, Lloyd’s invitation to come over to New York. It was okay for Lloyd to make suggestions .Lloyd worked as a hot shot attorney in a hot shot legal practice.
“I’ve got a couple of friends in the construction business who could fix you up”, Lloyd had advised.
Fred had never been out of England before, save for a couple of brief trips into Europe for holidays. New York was unknown territory; an uncharted wilderness and therefore the thought of upping and leaving for New York was something he had always felt should be seriously discussed with his brain. Fred had indeed been considering this offer for a few months; and each time he did the only emotion that came to him was fear. Usually and from experience, the couple of friends never show up, or they just failed to live up to their billing. Each time his brain always told him that it was too dangerous a move; and so back into the deep locker at the back of his mind the suggestion always did finally go. But at times like this, they did come out again - dead bodies that refuse to stay buried.
There were also some situations that were more depressing than being unemployed; and visiting the Jobcentre was one of them. From a construction engineer earning one hundred and fifty pounds a day to mingling with the congenitally idle, drunks, streetwalkers and the down and outs was quite a great psychological defeat. And even though he always was careful to quickly extricate himself from their ignominious pursuits and to go consult the job search computers, sometimes he felt that the rest were not impressed. And as he too was beginning to find out, the searches were becoming predictably hopeless, each job lead always terminating in a request for a CV and eventually another pointless interview.
To many the Jobcentre offered a place to appear busy doing something about a life going down the drain; to many others the Jobcentre did offer an alternative suicide pill.
“Why don’t you just sign on?” an employment case officer had helpfully advised.
With bank and credit card accounts severely overdrawn and bills queuing up every morning at his front door, Fred had indeed been much tempted. Unfortunately at this particular moment, the mail man – a mere boy, had passed by. Their eyes had met fleetingly and in those eyes Fred had seen so much disgust. It was a look which had made him look so small and filthy that Fred had felt the need to go take a long bath.
“No I don’t want to sign up”, he had finally decided.
“Well it’s up to you really”, the lady had shrugged. “You don’t have to feel bad about signing up; a lot of people do”
“I am not a lot of people”, Fred had confidently replied.
“Oh, it’s an ego thing then? Like I said it’s entirely left to you’
He certainly could do with some free money, but all that Fred could see was himself on an ignominious queue together with the social castaways and it was an image that filled him both with revulsion and intense dread.
“No I certainly don’t want to sign on”, he had affirmed.
That had been about three weeks ago and even though Fred was quite proud of his decision, the consequence of scraping the shelves at Tesco for cut price groceries was not one he was so proud of. At this crossroad, one decision turned him into a scavenger, and a contrary to the same.
An effeminate lad subtly attempting to show him his own naked pictures from the screen of a mobile phone jarred Fred back to the reality of his present environment. He looked again at his wrist watch and found that it was still about an hour to his next appointment. Nevertheless he felt the need to leave immediately.
Fred Harrison’s next appointment was with Mike Wallace, a fellow whom he had met on the web site pages of Gumtree - the fellow who had five new iPods to sell for seventy quid less than retail. Fred really didn’t need an iPod. It was a luxury that he simply could not afford. But he had simultaneously found an opportunity, through the local newspaper, to sell each of the iPod for fifty pounds more than they would cost him. It wasn’t a lot of money, he agreed with himself, but it certainly did look a lot more dignified way to make a living than claiming unemployment benefits. This afternoon Fred was hoping to pick up five new iPod from a complete stranger in Brixton at a substantial discount.
Fred had always wondered why buses heading in the same destination should have confusingly different routes; but that was the grand mystery of the London bus network. This not being his territory and not willing to risk an unwanted trip, Fred decide to take his confusion to the nearest bystander - a lady dressed up in a white trouser suit and a white tasseled fez. She looked rather like a fortune teller or a magician’s apprentice and appeared quite impatient to get her large suitcase into a bus and to the next gig.
“Can you tell me what bus goes to Brixton?” Fred asked Madame Zizzi.
“You need 37”, she had impatiently replied.
Feeling an urgent need to distrust this advice, Fred consulted the route map on the nearby shelter for confirmation.
“No’ I don’t think so”, he disagreed with Madame Zizzi, “37 goes to Peckham. I’m sure 35, 45 or 345 will do a better job”
Madame Zizzi looked affronted,
“So why did you ask me then, if you knew which bus to take?” she rebuked, screwing a stiff finger into her head.
“Well I thought you might know’, Fred was apologetic.
“Of course I know; you are the one who’s lost innit?” Madame Zizzi gloated.
“Thanks all the same “, Fred told her.
Thankfully the 45 bus arrived at this moment and took Madame Zizzi away to her infernal destination. Bus 35 was also not too far behind. It was crowded but since Brixton was a mere ten minutes away Fred reasoned that there was no need to wait for another bus.
Ras Taba was sitting on the aisle side of the only available seat on the lower deck of the bus. Ras Taba couldn’t have been his real name of course but it was the name that had occurred to Fred. Ras Taba was staring blankly through the window at some unseen wonders completely oblivious of his surrounding. The thought of being able to find an empty seat in the packed bus quite thrilled Fred.
“Can you move so that I can have this seat “, Fred had asked.
Ras Taba brought suddenly back to life looked first uncomprehendingly at Fred’s face and then contemplated the one foot distance by which he would need to move his buttocks. The required effort appeared quite daunting.
“Go upstairs”, he dozily indicated with his head. “Why you telling black man to move like eighteenth century colonial slave master ? Go upstairs “
“I am also black, excuse me”, Fred unnecessarily pointed out. Ras Taba was heavily dreadlocked; his vacant face inscrutable, and Fred’s prejudice meter indicated potential danger.
“You look black is all I see, There is no space down here; go upstairs”, Ras Taba insisted.
“No I’d rather not go upstairs. Don’t worry I’ll stand; my stop is not quite far away.” Fred cheerfully told him. But Ras Taba was unrepentant. He shrugged and went back to gazing through the window.
Ras Taba appeared to change his mind, a couple of minutes later, and invited Fred to take the inner seat. Again Fred’s prejudice meter kicked up a warning of a possible knife stab in the stomach, so he cheerfully declined. He could see that Ras Taba was looking him over, extremely amused and somehow absentmindedly fingering Fred’s BHS Khaki jacket.
“I’ve never seen a coat like this since second world war”, he taunted. “What patrol did they put you in blood?”
“Lion killers”, Fred nervously replied
“Lah-yan Killas.” Ras Taba had amusedly echoed; dutifully resuming his engagement with the window.
Ras Taba was also disembarking at Brixton.
“Oi mate , can you tell me where the Brixton Library is ?’, Fred had asked him.
“I look like gay to you?” Ras Taba scolded taking a wary step backwards.
“Of course not” Fred laughed uneasily.” I am trying to locate Brixton Oval; I learn it is in front of the library”
“Oh; the place where they keep those book ting “, comprehension appeared finally to reach Ras Taba, and he indicated with his head. “It’s over there man “
Over there, was a concrete paved court about a fifth of a football field, right in front of an ancient edifice that was the Brixton Library. A man in string vest and hideous sunglasses was doing complicated pirouettes on roller skates. A miscreant was playing loud tinny music from a mobile phone and simultaneously having a loud and angry argument with another phone. Pockets of idlers aimlessly milled around, engaged in one form of non-activity or the other. A couple of police patrols stood menacingly in sight, but some recalcitrants nevertheless defiantly shared fat marijuana cigarettes; the fragrant smoke wafting lazily over the square.
Fred considered going into the library; it certainly looked a lot cooler inside and he still had about half an hour to kill before his appointment. But he again reconsidered: Brixton was miles away from his native Romford and Fred thought what a waste that his only memories should be about the magazine racks in the local library.
His indecision was put to rest by a rowdy exchange of greetings nearby. A uniformed street cleanser dutifully trundling his dustcart along, was being hailed by a middle age West Indian and Polish pair lolling on a bench.
“Erasmus, come down here, will you; lots of rubbish here”, the Pole was yelling.
“Dzien dobry .What you doing there Casper? Get of your arse and look busy or else you’ll get the sack”, Erasmus morosely replied
“Fuck off, it’s my day off “, the Pole laughed.
“Street cleansers shouldn’t get days off ,rass. Don’t you know that dogs have to crap everyday; or you idiots want London to smell? Take five minutes off Erasmus; you look like you dead already”, the West Indian advised
“Yes, do as Fish says and take a break, Erasmus. You leave the house too early in the morning before we wake up and you are not back by the time we go to sleep. Come sit us for a while; then maybe I take you to the cinema and then the pub later. You only have on life you know”, Casper said.
“Cinema; you expect me to sit with you in a cinema and then in a pub and just waste my life doing nothing?” Erasmus sounded incredulous.
“Leave the man alone Casper; the man come to this world to sweep London; that’s the purpose of his life. Isn’t that right Erasmus?” Fish said wickedly.
Erasmus stuck a finger abusively in his face.
“I do not understand why anyone comes to this country; it is cold unfriendly and so expensive”, he sulked.
“So why you come here then; to see the queen?” Fish asked.
Fish looked familiarly like Pork Pie from Desmond’s and Fred could almost hear the soca music just by looking at him.
“Yeah Erasmus”, Casper said. “You should have stayed home. Things can’t be much better there for all I know; else all of you wouldn’t be coming here by the plane load everyday”
“My country is exactly the opposite, Fish. It is warm, friendly and cheap; and certainly a lot more civilised”
“Civilised? You need to be civilized to become a street sweeper in London; you gone crazy man”, Fish laughed.
“Crazy is what I said I’ve become; they don’t even like me here: I am a nuisance”
“Yeah man, fuck off; go back home to your country. I don’t like you either”, Fish insisted.
“I only wish people would learn to be kind to immigrants; afterall nobody had a choice of where they wanted to be born or whom their parents should be. They should learn to try and understand why they come here”, Erasmus philosophised.
“This is the place you come to make progress with your life isn’t it?”
“I doubt it Fish. Look at you; almost all your life you spent here and you can’t even speak English. You call that making progress with your life? “
“Yeah man; let me be. At least I speak better English than stupid Casper here from bloody Warsaw; bloodclat”
“Yeah man; bloodclat “, Casper mimicked.
“I am an accountant you know”, Erasmus boasted. “I swear by the head of Charlie’s mother I studied Accountancy in university”
“Charlie’s mother?” Casper appeared confused,
“Bloodclat is talking about money.” Fish explained. “You know the system got head of the queen on the money; and the queen is Prince Charlie’s mother. Now do you get it?”
‘So what happened to your own mother then? Very convenient to swear by the head of somebody else’s mother” Casper scolded.
“As a matter of fact my mother will die of a heart attack if she learnt of what I do here. I told her I worked for the council, but certainly not as a street cleanser. I must have been crazy to come to this bloody country. Back home I had respect”
“Respect doesn’t put money in your pocket, friend”, Casper pointed out.
“Yeah man; everyday he complains but he never goes back home “, Fish said.
“Okay, I don’t have a job to return home to “, Erasmus conceded. “And I have a family to take care of. But I swear if any of them ever saw me on this job they will die of the shame”
'You know sometimes I think this television and cinema ting is to trick black people to come to England .See how they come across to you: London, the most beautiful place in the world; London, the richest city in the world. Come to London and you will return home with enough money to spend for the rest of your life. You will ride the biggest cars, live in the biggest houses; get all the beautiful girls’, Fish ruefully shook his head.
“I would have said that sounds like a good enough reason to do anything”, Casper laughed.
“Yeah man”, Fish agreed. ‘Unfortunately, it's sixteen years since I got here. Sixteen years, and all I have seen so far is filth and harassment”, he said morosely. ”Everywhere Babylon”
“Babylon; why do you always call them Babylon? The police is your friend Fish; they like you “, Erasmus chuckled.
It was Fish’s turn to give him a stiff finger.
“You know it’s like slavery days again, man? Only this time they hand out candy; they give you eye candy to make you come here by yourself; instead of bringing you in chains. It’s the new slavery”, Fish agonised.
“That’s not quite right you know. Look at me I’ve been here only four years and it is not so bad really” Casper told them.
“And so you will be a star when you eventually return home then. You’ll be best English speaker in Warsaw. Probably get you medals then”, Erasmus was sarcastic.
“I’m not going back to Warsaw; I like living here. It’s nice”, Casper confided.
“Nice; you call this nice? This place is evil. Nobody talks to anyone else. You could go fucking mad here you know’ Fish snorted.
“Worse in Warsaw” Casper disagreed “It is much colder and you could get killed for laughing at all. In fact people get killed everyday for being happy at all”
“Wow, I never thought there was a more terrible place than this”, Erasmus said wondrously. “This is the worst country in the world, man”
“So when are you going back home, rass?” Fish asked.
“Before next winter I swear. One more winter here and I am ready for the place where they put mad people” Erasmus told him.
“Every year you say that”, Fish sneered.
“I swear by the head of Charlie’s mother”, Erasmus took a pound coin from his pocket and bit on it in an oath.
“What’s wrong with your own mother then? Why can’t you swear by the head of your own mother?” Fish taunted.
“Do you see my mother’s head on any currency?”
“Meaning I am only here for the money. You think I came to see bloody Buckingham Palace like you nincompoops? “
“Yeah man, I miss Jamaica’, Fish shook his head ruefully. “You know what I’ve been eating for many days now man? Greasy fried chicken and potato chips. Now does that look like black man’s food to you? Nice to have a decent meal everyday without spending an arm and a leg”
“It’s not really all bad; see all the nice cars. Yesterday I saw a Hummer and I said to myself, Casper one day this will be yours” Casper said dreamily.
“You will probably have to steal it then mate, you don’t get a Hummer sweeping streets for Lambeth Council” Erasmus wickedly told him.
“Back home people call me by my name. Here, I am just a forgettable face; no one knows my real name.”
“Your name is Erasmus; or have you forgotten?” Fish pointed out.
” No sir, I call myself Erasmus because nobody can pronounce my real name. Here I am just another nameless hungry immigrant. I’m sure Casper is not your real name either”
Casper was non-commitant. “So go back home then”, he said to Erasmus. “Stop whining and go home”.
'But I have no money', Erasmus protested.
'Neither did you when you got here. Tell the police you need to go back home and you do not have any money and I’m sure they will arrange a free trip for you”
“Yeah man; Babylon always ready to do that”, Fish agreed.
'Look here mate, since you got here what kind of job have you been doing?', Casper asked.
“All sorts “, Erasmus replied, quite horrified. “Construction site labourer, security man, street cleanser. A couple of times I even sold my sperm to the hospital for twenty quid a throw. I could have sold my blood for sixty quid a pint too only they wouldn’t take mine. Fuckers even discriminate to suck your blood”
All three collapsed into loud laughter.
“When I sick and in danger of dying, please nobody give me no poor man’s blood “, Fish jibed.
“You got yourself an easy life, mate”, Casper said. “When I got here I sold things door to door. Now imagine a man who speaks no English come knocking at your door trying to sell you a telephone set. That is how I expected to earn a living. Lucky for me I got another job working as a labourer, Only problem is that as a construction labourer you starve in winter , so good for me I got this job with the council”
“I am not going to sweep no streets for nobody .I’m a musician; no compromise” Fish affirmed.
'From what I know there is no money in that either; it only keeps you on the benefits queue. But you can continue to receive unemployment benefits if you like; it doesn’t go very far anymore, I’m sure. Casper teased “The way I see it, you should both be giving thanks instead of complaining' “At least you always have the chance to get a decent meal to eat',.
'Animals think with their stomach', Erasmus said with contrived contempt. 'Animals have animal needs and animal demands. For a real human being, bread without butter doesn’t appear quite so good to eat, does it?'
'And of what use is butter without bread?’ Casper sneered ' Tell me you jackass. You are the one who went to university. Funny I find that every Nigerian I meet has been to university and London probably has got the most educated security guards and parking attendants in the world. Pompous twits.'
'Yes I went to university dummy; that is why I can reason at a higher plane than you. Because I’ve got superior education', Erasmus declared, strutting proudly, back and forth for a while apparently enjoying the advantage of his superior education. ‘Erasmus, Bachelor of Arts, in Classics; that's me. I took a degree in Classics you know, before I studied Accountancy? Do you know what Classics means, you idiots?’
'It means you are unemployed', Casper spitefully replied.
'Classics is the study of ..........', Erasmus dreamily began. But Casper was not interested.
'To me it means that you are a bloody street cleanser”, he affirmed.
'You are wrong, my friend. This season of adversity is coming to an end very soon. As my mother used to say, when God wants to open a new door He closes the old'
‘It looks like God is really quite angry with you then’, Casper observed.
“Not quite; I am an honest man just like that man Job in the Bible. I am a good man and I am sure to eventually reap the reward”, Erasmus assured.
‘London is full of good folks who become criminals without even trying, man. It’s a tough city you know. Everywhere you see Babylon; going up and down, like madmen in Brixton', Fish warned.
“Well, very soon I will be gone. I’m done with this place; I am praying that God will make a way for me to return home very soon. I think it is criminal to pay three hundred quid a month for a poky little room hardly big enough to swing a cat. Back home for that amount I could rent a whole house”, Erasmus sighed.
'Why should you want to swing a cat? You only needed a place to sleep', Casper mischievously said to him.
‘I was only speaking figuratively', Erasmus tiredly tried to explain. Fish rubbed his eyes and yawned aloud. Fred Harrison could hear his stomach rumble.
'God, I am starving', Fish said to himself. “Give me two pounds for a meal brother“, he asked Casper.
“Why should I give you two pounds? And don’t call me brother; we don’t even look alike”, Casper protested.
“Of course we look together bloodclat; are you colour blind ?“, Fish scolded. ‘What about you Erasmus; I’ve got a great tip on a horse and this is going to pay big money; lend me a fiver will you ?’
“You want to bet my hard earned money on a horse; don’t you have any shame?” Erasmus sounded distressed.
“Plenty of shame, that’s why I am not scooping dog crap; yeah man”
“Of course you don’t have any shame Fish? Si possis recte, si non quocum que modo rem' “, Erasmus muttered.
“Speak English to us you idiot; not your stupid African nonsense “. Casper scolded
Erasmus sighed wearily. ‘Actually that was Latin; I was quoting Horace'. He tried to explain. 'It meant - money by right means if you can, if not by any means, money'.
'What does he do for a living?' Casper seemed genuinely interested to know.
'This your Harris bloke”
‘Horace? He's dead, you fool!!', Erasmus yelled at him.
Casper shook his head morosely. 'He must have come to a violent end, I am sure', he pointed out.
Erasmus, finally deciding that he was in a hopelessly irredeemable company, gathered his brush and picker and trundled off with his litter cart.
“See you idiots back at the house”, he tersely told them.
“Bloodclat”, Fish summarised.
Subject: middle aged white somewhere in the forties.
Fred Harrison’s phone rang. It was his seller, Mike Wallace, wanting to know how to locate him. Fred found him barely twenty yards away, with his mobile phone clapped to his ear and waving. Mike Wallace looked nothing like the sort that anyone would expect to go peddling cut price iPods, but then debt did strange things to people. All you needed to do when desperate for cash was order five iPods from Currys on your credit card, and then flog them off on the street, and leave the debt collectors to do the worrying later. Fred was encouraged by Mike’s trustworthy appearance. No lengthy introductions were necessary. Wallace handed him the boxes, neatly packed in a Currys bag; and Fred handed over the money.
“Are you sure they are working?”
“Never opened”, Wallace assured him, and indeed they had never been opened.
Fred looked inside the large bag, counted the packages and made to go. However a thought occurred to him: he had heard stories of people who had made purchases in this way and arrived home to find boxes stuffed with useless merchandise, or bits of rubbish.
“Sure it’s working?” he again asked. Wallace looked hurt. Fred considered that a good sign. He gave him a thumbs-up and hurried away towards the tube station.
Fred found Ras Taba again standing by the Kentucky Fried Chicken bar, looking as spaced as ever. Recognition enlivened Ras Taba’s face.
“Can you spare two pounds, brother?” he asked in his characteristic lazy and completely careless voice, fingering his clean shaven chin. “Black man hasn’t eaten anything since morning”
Fred Harrison again felt his prejudice machine come alive, flashing first a picture of money and drugs changing hands; flashing next the possibility of being violently dispossessed of his purchase.
‘I don’t have any money”, he said to Ras Taba quite warily and with as much sincerity as he could muster, which wasn’t quite much.
And he could feel Ras Taba’s hard piercing eyes boring into his skull; dissecting his brains and finding no truth there.
“You lie brother “, Ras Taba shook his head accusingly, “If Jesus Christ came back again and asked you for money to get a meal wouldn’t you give it to him? Think about it; I could be Jesus Christ and you lie to me”
It was an argument so insane and ludicrous that it stopped Fred stopped dead in his tracks. He took a five pound note from his pocket and handed it to Ras Taba.
“Thank you brother; Jesus Christ thanks you”, Ras Taba saluted as he pocketed the money, a smug grin lightening up his face.
About twenty yards from the Brixton tube station a disheveled fellow dressed up in colourful African garbs was spiritedly beating a Djembe while chanting incomprehensible songs; stubbornly hoping for a donation into his tin plate. Two geniuses one white one black, one male one female, were having an extremely important argument about the sex of apples and oranges. A dozen or so European immigrants desperately studied the casual jobs and cheap accommodation notices in a newsagent’s window. The newspapers foretold more troubles for the world economy. An Antipodean, completely out of his elements was by the market stalls setting up a didgeridoo.
For another long and fearful moment Fred Harrison’s thoughts lingered on an image of himself down and out in New York Central Park. He saw himself, after all might have failed, huddling together with half a dozen or so financially crippled and emotionally damaged persons, around a brazier in the depth of winter; trying to keep warm.
“You really should sign on you know”, a timid small voice said to him.