Jambo, by Stevie Kilgour

London, November 2016.

Allow me to show you the kind of situation that I felt really mattered in my life when I was a young adult. Looking back I now realise how insignificant that and many similar situations were. They were mere inconveniences and in the grand scheme of things – they really didn’t matter. Decide for yourself. This is an email I started to write to a multi-national fast food chain:

Leeds, July 2008

DEAR KFC CUSTOMER SERVICES

I recently purchased a Variety Meal from your Burley, Leeds branch. I was shocked to find when I got home that I was two pieces of chicken short. Yes, there were Hot Wings, chips and one piece of chicken. But I was short two pieces. I mean how hard can it be to put chicken into a box? I know it isn’t hard because I worked at KFC in Bedford while at college and I managed to successfully put pieces of chicken into various boxes and buckets for three years with relative ease and few mistakes –

It was at this point in my life that I felt I was so busy and important – living in a big northern city and touring the country with a band that I didn’t feel I had time to be robbed by a fast food chain. Anyway, the email got worse –

I am so disappointed that I don’t think I will return to the branch unless I receive a gesture of goodwill, or money off future orders. This is not the high standard of customer service I expect –

Awful, I know. Clearly, I wasn’t too busy and could somehow find time to type a pointless email to KFC. You’ll be relieved to know that I didn’t send the email.

Day 1, Mombasa, January 2010.

The flight to Mombasa was uncomfortable at best and my average sized legs were still too long for the space between seats. The hot air stank of weak coffee, processed meat heated in tiny airplane microwaves and the over flow of toilets. Every bump in turbulence unsettled the tanks deep in the planes bowels – disturbing smells and sending them up to the passengers.

“Not long to go,” I kept telling myself.

As the plane touched down in Mombasa the bright East African sun cut through the cabin. Stepping out onto the steps to place my feet on African tarmac – the heat wrapped itself around my face like a hot towel. Suffocating. No tall buildings here even the terminal building is just a shack. The security is minimal and hardly any passport control.

“The flight was nine hours! Nine hours and I’m sure the tail fin was held on with electrical tape,” I can barely hear her over the crackling phone line. I am relieved there is only an hour’s difference between Leeds and Mombasa – however the communication may be a problem. I have the feeling the thirty second call has probably cost me an arm and a leg.

“Calm down. You’re there now enjoy your holiday and relax,” she says.

“I just wish I was there too,”

“I wish you could have come,” I say. “This place is boring as shit already. No Wi-Fi.”

My first thoughts are for a Starbucks and I’d even settle for a Café Nero I’m that desperate for a good coffee. But this is Kenya and I’m I have seen Kenyan coffee by Nescafe on all the supermarket shelves. Plus, I’m sure Kenco is Kenyan.

“Welcome to Mombasa,” says a large Kenyan official.

Making my way out of the tiny airport which is no bigger than an East London bus stop. I’m greeted by a chicken, a goat and several taxi drivers. I wonder what I am doing here.

“Mzungu! Mzungu! Come. Taxi,” I hear a man shout in broken English. “Nice cap. One thousand shillings and cap. I take you Mombasa shops,” the driver says.

I scramble about for a printed email which outlines the location of my hotel.

“Shanzu. I need to go to Shanzu,” I tell the driver.

The heat is boiling the rubber on the soles of my shoes. The black plastic straps of the rucksack burning through to my torso. The taxi driver beckons me to a tuk-tuk; a three-wheeled vehicle. One front seat with handle bars and two seats in the back. Each of these vehicles is brightly coloured to appeal to all tourists. This one has American rapper; 50 Cent emblazoned on the side.

I climb inside and place the bag down. The taxi driver starts up the two-stroke engine and glances back in the rear-view mirror.

The landscape is vast, sand and sun but no water in sight. Humid and hot. Flared shirts and shorts are the fashion. I didn’t factor in what might be needed as soon as I stepped off the plane. This isn’t Paris, New York or Manchester. The hotel isn’t five minutes away and the choice of hooded top and jeans was not a sensible choice. The fabrics stick to the skin and hydration is becoming an issue. Locals shout as we pass, “Mzungu!”

“What are they shouting?” I ask,

“They are shouting ‘white person’, we call you Mzungu. It is not bad.”

The driver asks, “You like diamonds?”

“What do you mean?”

The driver turns to me taking his eyes off the road. “You have a diamond on your neck. You like diamonds? I can show you diamonds. How much you want to buy for?”

I reach to touch the diamond tattoo on my neck.

“Oh no. It’s just a tattoo. I don’t want diamonds. I’m too poor,” I laugh nervously.

The driver turns back to the road and lights a cigarette, not speaking another word the whole journey.

All I can think is about how I want a long bath and a boxset to watch in an air-conditioned room with a cold beer.

Day 6, Shanzu, January 2010

They take your word here – there is no getting out of a deal with a verbal contract. If you promise to return tomorrow and buy a cup of tea – then you had better return and buy two cups. The young man who works on the grounds of the hotel has offered to show me his father’s shop. Philip spots me across the dusty road and shouts,

“Commissioner Steve! Prime Minister Steve!” I am face to face with Philip ‘The Christian’ – as he likes to be known. Today he has his brother with him and they are full of questions about London. They still don’t understand I live three hundred and fifty miles from London. I should know better than to think they judge any distance with difficulty – they would walk hours from their coastal villages through safari to the Tanzanian border for school supplies. I am ushered into the father’s shop. Which is just a small hut covered in vine leaves and surrounded by sandbags. The cardboard door closes behind me – but there is no need to feel trapped.

“Just like Woolworths,” The father says.

I have no idea how he knows about Woolworths and I feel it would be wrong to mention their decline back home. I smile and look to the ceiling which is covered in a large fishing net. It feels like at any minute the net will drop and I will be caught and displayed as an object for sale. My imagination running away with me – I know that isn’t the case.

There is no such thing as browsing in the shop – you will leave with several useless items which no doubt I wills struggle to get back to the UK. I may have only been here a short while but I have already learned that you never walk out of the shop without an item. Philip, with a huge smile on his face ushers me around the ten-foot squared shop and insists I touch all the items for sale. The first thing he thrusts into my hand is 13inch Masai warrior club, carved from wood – I have no idea which kind. It weighs the same as a cricket bat and is quarter the size. The ended is bulbous with a sharp spike in the middle. It resembles a large stick with a breast on the end. Philip smiles at me – showing all his teeth.

“Tit stick!” he smiles, raising his hands to his chest as if to grab imaginary breasts.

Taking the stick from my hand he shows me how he would hit someone in the head with it. His brother is the willing victim in this example. My empty hand is not empty for long as a large meat cleaver with homemade rope handle is placed in it.

It is not long since the election violence here in Kenya – many people were killed and the footage I have seen shows many people being chased with weapons like this one. I look down at the dried red, roped handle and notice the red doesn’t look like paint. I look up at Philip with what I assume he sees as a disgusted face – I offer the knife back to him. His smile fades and his eyes open wide.

Day 10, Mombasa, January 2010

My third visit in ten days to Mombasa for supplies. The route has become easier with the help of local knowledge and the use of Philip and his motorbike. The scrambler off-road bike he has makes the journey a lot quicker than in the tuk-tuk. I am left to my own devices again whilst Philip visits his friends in the city. They sit on walls and smoke while ogling girls. I make my way into a café where I ask for a coffee and chunk Ugali to eat. The café owner an old man in his seventies – is in an apron and asks me to take a seat. He spends the next hour with me at my table, talking about England – where he has family and the future for Kenya. He keeps refilling my cup as soon as the bottom appears through the liquid. The coffee is good. He explains how he is forced to hand over protection money to local gangsters and how his business has suffered through the lack of tourists because of the election violence.

“When the British were here we had more. We felt part of something bigger. Now we are forgotten,” says the old man.

There is sadness in his voice as he explains that there is nowhere for the kids to go. That drugs are a problem here and he often see them pickpocket not only tourists but also locals,

“Glue,” he says. “They sniff glue and their eyes are red like the devil.”

He tells me his name is Jomo. I tell him my name is Stevie. We shake hands and he asks that I come and say good bye before I fly back to England in four days. I agree.

Mombasa is a bustling city with main roads that wouldn’t look out of place in any UK city. The pollution is an issue when you are here, but the locals have more pressing things to get on with. I walk down a small alley way and inhale a stench. There is no immediate source of the smell but it gets stronger the further I make my way down the alley. The smell of remnants from a fire fill the air. Burning rubber, urine and faeces, rotten food and animal flesh. There is a man on top of a pile of rubbish – the smell is coming from the mountain in the middle of the alley. I approach slowly but the man in the pile shouts, “No! Go!”

I stand and take a second to look. I reach for my camera. I manage to take a photo before the man swings around and jumps out of the mound. He races towards me,

“Mzungu, go! Now,” he shouts at me.

“Sorry,” I say. I begin to walk away.

“Go away Englishman,” He ushers me away. I begin to walk away.

My final stop is back to the meeting point by the petrol station where I will wait for Philip to pick me up so we can head back to Shanzu. I make my way across the street where I feel a hand on my shoulder – I turn to see three young men each of them no older than twenty-three years old.

“You got some nice things American,” they say.

“I’m not American, I’m from London,” I reply. It’s at this point I hope whatever special relationship Britain has with Kenya may help me.

“You are a long way from home. You want some tea, Englishman?”

“No, I’m fine thanks. I’m just waiting for my friend,” I tell them.

One of them begins to pull my backpack – pulling it from my shoulders. Another man starts emptying my pockets,

“Give us money Mzungu or we cut your hands,” one of them says.

As they almost free the backpack from my shoulders I am pulled away from the group of men by an elderly man. He shouts at the younger men in Swahili and pushes one of them away.

“Englishman,” one of the men calls and makes a slit throat motion as he walks away.

I am ushered through a restaurant where I am told I can wait for my friend. I am taken to the roof and given a Coke Cola. The man who helped me introduces himself as Elim. I thank him and take some time out on the roof overlooking the main street. I watch for Philip on his motorbike.

 

Day 13, Shanzu, January 2010

The conversation I had with Jomo is still fresh on my mind as my two week stay comes to an end. I fly home tomorrow and I can’t help but think about how he and many others remember British rule here. For all the progress and great things that has happened since Kenya’s independence – they feel forgotten. Jomo and others I have met seem sad at the plight of the younger generation and my run in with many of them seems to be a standard approach here to tourists. While Jomo and Elim enjoy the tourism as it brings in money – there are many others who seem to just want to steal it while creating a bad name for the independent Kenya. The election violence hasn’t helped either.

I make my way to the main corner in the village to buy tea when I see two small children across the path. They look lost and lonely. A young boy in a red shirt approaches me as another is standing by a broken gate. The young boy in the red shirt comes over and reaches out to touch my hand. Holding my hand, I look at his eyes and see they are bloodshot red. He stares at me for what feels like a lifetime but in fact was just a few seconds,

“Hello. What’s your name?” I ask. No reply from the child as he looks up at me. He holds out his other hand gesturing for some money – a gesture I had seen hundreds of times every day while I have been here. I look over at the young girl stood by the broken gate – she is holding a small plastic bottle. She holds it to her nose and inhales. The young boy lets go of my hand and runs back across the road. He stops, turns and looks back at me. At that moment, I decide to cancel my flight the next day.

Day 14, Mombasa, January 2010

I returned to the café in Mombasa courtesy of Philip and his motorbike. I pay a visit to Jomo. I enter the small café and the windchime on the door grabs Jomo’s attention as he pokes his head from the back of the café.

“You came to say goodbye. Let me get you some coffee,”

He shows me to a table and takes my bag to keep it safe behind the counter. Jomo comes over and wishes me a safe journey and how he wants me to come back and see him one day.

“I’m not going, I’m staying longer,” I tell him.

His eyes widen and he grabs me by the shoulders kissing the top of my head.

“You’re staying. I’m so happy. You are a Kenyan now,”

“I want to stay and help, Jomo, I don’t want to go home yet,” I tell him.

Day 15, Shanzu, January 2010

I am introduced to Aliziz who invites me to Shanzu Orphans Home. The next two weeks is spent helping the children of the village to read and write. You know what, I don’t even miss Starbucks anymore either.

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Coffey of Cork, for Chris Coffey

From the life of Chris Coffey

By Stevie Kilgour

Name – Chris Coffey

Age – 76

Born – Cork, Republic of Ireland

Lives – Hackney, London.

Occupation – Retired Stonemason.

A dull November night in Hackney, East London and Chris walks slowly and aided by an old walking stick to his regular table with a familiar comfortable chair and a reliable newspaper. “One red ale, please.” he asks in a strong Southern Irish accent. He doesn’t look up from obstacles in front of him. Table – sturdy. Chair – soft and pulled out enough for him to get on to. His walking stick is hooked on the edge of the table. A pint of red ale from the local Truman’s brewery is put in front of him as he takes his seat. He places a £5 note and a tissue on the table. He pushes the money to the barman and slowly unwraps several small biscuits he has brought from home. He arranges the contents of the table; paper dead centre. Ale to his left in a short reach. The candle on the table is moved as far from him as possible. He places the tissues on his left – takes a bite of one of the biscuits and puts it back in the tissue. He looks up and smiles,

“S, s, s, s, so, so what’s his name? The darts player. Phil Taylor. He got beat by the bald guy.”

We begin to talk.

Chris lived by the docks in Cork which was a hive of merchant ships, coal and oat ships. There was also a Ford Motors plant which when it closed offered its Cork employees a choice of redundancy or relocated jobs in Dagenham, England. Industry was leaving Cork.  Like all Irish school children, he left school at 14 and went straight into work. He worked as a delivery cyclist for a chemist – delivering medicines to local schools and elderly homes.

In Ireland, young men would be paid a ‘schoolboy wage’ from 14 to 16 years old. At the age of 16 they would be paid a full time adult wage. Chris was promised a job with full pay when he turned 16 years old – this promise was never delivered and he was forced to leave his job. He took the opportunity to visit England, London whenever possible as he had an older brother who lived in Shepherd’s Bush. His brother visited Cork and Chris went to London with his brother as he was out of work. Chris grew homesick and made several visits between London and Cork over the next year till he could decide where his future was.

Chris paid another visit to Ilford and met his future wife – a woman from Cork. Chris soon married and with his new wife at the age of 22. His wife and child made various moves between Cork and London over the years and Chris eventually settled back in London which was the final move him and his family would make. His wife also became homesick and moved back to Cork with the child – Chris stayed in London to work. He lived in various locations working as a stonemason working on Regents Canal in East London.

2016 sees Chris at the age of 76 years old and regular customers in a local bar called the Sebright Arms – a pub he has frequented for a decade. Today he sits and shares stories of trying to get over Tower Bridge as it began to raise up. He talks of being conned as a youngster in Edgware Road by a man he trusted. He is cared for in his Hackney flat. He enjoys televised sports and a recent bout of ill health has raised some concerns and made his life uncomfortable at times. He sees his son on a regular basis – who now lives in East London also. Chris still walks the short journey to the pub from his flat. He is respected and known in the local community by people of all backgrounds – something rare in London especially. Although old fashioned in his demeanour, Chris has respect for all people. He has never returned to Ireland and still does not own a passport.

“I’ll tell you what Steve. You, know, you know, what’s its name? Err. “

Like most of the conversation I struggle to know how to help – I have no ideas where he is going with this. I feel the need to blurt out a random name of someone we both may know. Or even to say a place name in Ireland.

“Err, what’s it called.” Chris gestures with his hand two arms in the air

“Tower Bridge” he says.

“Well, I tell you what. I was going to work across to err, South London and I ran through the barrier and I tell you what. I had a few drinks and the bridge was opening up to let a big fecking ship though.”

I listen on wide eyed and shocked – Chris begins to laugh. Clearly enjoying the shock on my face.

“I tell you what, I was running and it was getting harder and harder to run. It was steep. And I was struggling.”

Taking another sip from my pint of ale and adjusting the voice recorder for the climax of the story. Chris leans over the table.

“I got so close to the top it was so steep but I could see the gap and suddenly my feet left the surface and you know what?”

Chris is smiling.

“And, and, and you know what?! It was a police officer picking me up by my collar and walking me back down.” Chris begins to laugh as I breathe a sigh of relief, but I’m not sure what I was expecting from his story.

“Wow! When was that?” I ask

“1972.” Chris replies instantly almost like he was remembering a birthday, wedding or special occasion.

“1972! You are lucky. Nowadays they would have shot you dead. They’d think you was a terrorist.”

Chris sips from his ale.

“Speaking of terrorists.” He says

He rolls up his sleeve to reveal an Irish flag with the words ‘Óglaigh na hÉireann’ tattooed around the top. Being familiar with Irish Republican Army tattoos and the culture from my own family – I can’t read Gaelic.

“What’s that translate as?” I ask.

“Soldiers of Ireland.” He says.

“Does that have something to do with you being in England?” I laugh nervously.

Chris remains silent. He sips from his ale again and looks up at the big screen in the corner.

“Van Gerwin. That’s who beat Phil Taylor” he says.

I think back to our earlier conversation about Darts.

“All the years I have been coming here to this pub and all the jobs I have had and places and people I have known in London – I loved all of it. But I do miss Ireland now, more than ever.”

London Calling, by Rebecca Hawkins: Brentwood School, 17 years old

Congratulations to Rebecca for this wonderful, eloquent piece on London. The CityLife team and UEL are absolutely thrilled that she is the winner of this years inaugural CityLife Prize for Fiction by Young Writers.


There had been an accident on Fenchurch Street. A cyclist lay on her side on the tarmac, back arched, legs splayed out as if in mid run, blind eyes turned to the sky. The red bicycle lay just behind her, the two wheels like two malformed wings. She could be a bird in flight if not for the trickle of blood pooling around one ear. Now she was a bird pressed and preserved, a curiosity of Natural History. Arad, standing unnoticed on the street corner, had seen it all: the collision, the graceful flight through the air, the impact of flesh on tarmac. Traffic swirled around the cyclist like a cyclone. Police cars and ambulances with flashing lights and screeching sirens whirled past Arad as he stood watching.

London had claimed one for its own.

Now that she was dead he felt empty, like a deflated balloon. He shuffled a little closer, past the officials with their high vis jackets and loud, brusque voices. Nobody noticed him or tried to stop him. If he kept moving, nobody ever did. He cut an odd figure. Untrimmed beard burst out from beneath his tattered woolly hat, three coats added bulk where there was none. He was sure he wouldn’t recognise himself if he looked in the mirror. All the fat had drained off his cheeks and his eyes were sunken, like the bases of candles melted to wax. But nobody noticed him as he edged closer. Their eyes slid over him like they would any other piss stain on a subway wall.

He was a part of London too, the London behind the shiny, red gloss. The London of dark alleyways, broken bottles and tower blocks.

Something close to guilt curdled in his stomach. It wasn’t right, this woman being labelled up and packaged off like this. A few metres away, the paramedics were dispassionately unfolding a black body bag. They would zip her up and cart her off and nobody would blink, not in London where seconds were dearer than gold. But Arad had nothing but time. He tugged off his hat and held it awkwardly in front of him, fumbling with the unraveling tassel with chapped fingers and black nails. He would pay his respects, even if the rest of London had no time to spare. In the end, there would be nothing he could do but shuffle along with them, try to keep warm, but it didn’t sit right letting this woman pass on unnoticed. Though he reckoned she never bet on a homeless man being the one to mourn her death.

Homeless. The word sat oddly on his tongue, not quite fitting to the shape of his mouth. He did not think of himself as homeless, though the only home he had now was London, the whole expanse of it: suburb and city and river. In his mind, he was still himself – still Arad, an English teacher from Hounslow. Yet he had blinked and the world had seemed to shift around him. The walls had dropped away from his tiny rented apartment and London had swallowed him.

London had swallowed this woman too.

Men and women in dark suits rushed past, faces set into grim lines, steel eyes fixed firmly on the horizon. Many of them didn’t notice the woman lying on the floor, about to be shipped away. Many of them saw the high vis jackets and the ambulance and chose not to notice. Arad gave one final nod at the woman, murmured a quick prayer to Allah, and turned to shuffle on.

He almost crashed into a man charging past. Dressed in the same black suit, grey tie, shined shoes, he was the clone of everyone else on the street apart from Arad. Surprise sparked in his eyes as he momentarily registered what had got in his way, but then his eyes dulled, rolled away from Arad to the dead woman on the ground. The man, businessman or banker, balding with sagging chin and inflating belly, peered over at her. He frowned in mild distaste. There was nothing in his eyes, not pity, not even relief that it was her instead of him. Nothing except annoyance that his journey had been interrupted. The man shoved his way past, his briefcase smashing into Arad’s stomach and knocking the air out of him. Stunned, Arad watched the pale white head bobbing up and down, borne away by the flow of the street.

Arad stared after him. The rest of the world seemed to blur and distort, leaving just that man with his immaculately pressed suit and leather briefcase, marching on with his nose in the air so he didn’t have to see reality around him. He saw only a whitewashed world. Arad’s nostrils flared. His fists curled into claws, bitten black nails carved into the flesh of his palms. Arad hated him. He hated his single mindedness, his fat, his arrogant stride. He hated that imperious expression. He hated that man like he had never hated anyone before. That man, businessman or banker, strode around London as if he owned it but he didn’t know what the city really was. Arad had been a part of the streets for six months now, and he knew the truth. He started pacing after him, limbs charged with energy, empty stomach forgotten. London streamed past in a blur of grey, streaks of red – a cacophony of noise and chaos.

Behind the towering skyscrapers, through the thick coat of smog, the clouds were turning the shade of gangrene. Tendrils of black snaked their way up from the horizon and spread across the sky. The sickly, pulsing light made war paint of the black circles under his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks. He elbowed his way into the evening crowd, eyes fixed on the man’s balding skull. He sucked in air, tasted smoke and sweat on his tongue. One shoe was losing its sole; it flapped aimlessly against the floor, but he ignored it and pressed on.

People slid out of his way. They did not notice him, they never did. They only noticed him when it was time for him to stop and pray and face east. Then he would be tapped on the shoulder by a policeman, or spat at, or kicked. But now their eyes followed the neon lights of London as if hypnotised. Never consciously recognizing him, they nevertheless parted seamlessly for his approach. Maybe it was his smell – six months of grime and decay – carving out his path, maybe it was his ragged coat. Maybe it was his eyes. The dull sheen had been replaced by a ferocious, glittering intensity.

Slightly ahead, the man ducked down into a tube station. Arad curved after him, slithering down into the underground with the other commuters, sliding unnoticed through the faulty ticket barriers. He passed by buskers strumming guitars and beggars with silver tins. Arad had tried to beg too before his tin got stolen in the night, too hungry to be proud. Nobody had given him anything. He knew why. He knew what they said about people like him. He would spend the money on drugs or alcohol, or maybe he didn’t need the money at all. Maybe he was secretly rich, just like them. Arad had said the same things to his English classes once. Now he glanced down at the beggars lining the white tiled tunnels. Their tattered hats and dented tins were empty too and their eyes followed him blankly, recognising him as one of their own.

When he looked up again, the man had disappeared. He slammed to a halt at the intersection, glancing frantically down the different tunnels, nose tilted to the air as if trying to catch the scent. Panic beat a thundering ostinato in his chest. But there was nothing, the balding white head had disappeared, lost in the relentless crowd. His whole body started to shake. There was too much adrenaline inside him, too much raw need. He had no weapons; with his hands and his hatred he had no use for them. He only needed that man, businessman or banker, with his starched shirt and ironed suit and flabby jowls. He needed to show him what London really was.

He glimpsed a flash of white down the left-hand passageway. He lunged forwards, the rapid ostinato still echoing through his skull, and charged onto the platform. There he was – Arad had him – waddling further down towards the tunnel’s gaping maw. Arad exhaled slowly. A dark shadow, he padded forwards, slinking after the squat, ugly figure. The ground beneath him was starting to shake; he felt the vibrations throbbing up his spine and tingling in his fingertips. A beating pulse echoed from the tunnel, getting louder and louder; light flickered and flashed, raking over the waiting crowd. Wind pummeled Arad’s skin, whipping his hair back from his forehead, and then the train emerged in a fanfare of screeching steel.

One carriage up from Arad, the man dutifully waited for the flood of disembarking passengers to drain away. But just before he ducked inside, he paused, one foot on the platform, the other inside the door. Arad, mirroring him, halted. The man turned slightly and nervous, bloodshot eyes – weasel eyes – roved across the platform. For a second, the man saw him. He saw his dark reflection, the shadow stalking him through subterranean rivers. His eyes widened. Then he turned and heaved himself up onto the train, and Arad did the same.

Arad watched his quarry’s shifting, swaying image through the carriage door as the train rattled through the darkness. Every few seconds, the man threw tentative glances over his shoulder. He was scared, thought Arad. For the first time in his fat rich life, he was scared. Arad’s lips jerked upwards, a spasm of glee that twisted half his face. For the first time since he’d lost his job, he was having an impact.

The man clambered off the train three stops later, and Arad followed, keeping a few steps behind. In perfect imitation, he clattered up the steps after him towards the open air, stepping over the sprawled legs of a passed out drunk at the top of the stairs. They resurfaced on the corner of a residential street, into an onslaught of ice cold rain. Tall, narrow houses with immaculate gravel pathways fringed the opposite side of the road; a fence of steel spears lined the other. The night had turned the shrubbery beyond to wilderness. Ahead of him, the man picked up his pace. Already the rain had plastered his remaining hair to his skull, soaking through his fine suit. The beat of it upon the earth worked in counterpoint with the pounding inside Arad’s own head.

The man threw a glance back at him and for a moment Arad glimpsed the fear on his face, but then he tucked his head down and ploughed on, working his legs even faster. Arad strode after him. He wasn’t tired. He barely felt the rain striking against his cheeks.

He was so close. He upped his pace, drew nearer, barely containing his excitement when the man noticed and scurried ahead again. He was so close – he only had to reach out and his fingers could grasp around the man’s collar, yank him backwards. But still he pushed on, relentless, driving the man forward. He would show him. He would. He extended his arm, and his fingertips brushed against a tweed clad shoulder.

The man twisted and darted to his right, into the road. Arad faltered, losing his balance and stumbling. The man was halfway over to the other side.

He heard it before he saw it. The roaring engine, howling of the horn, wail of tyres skidding against tarmac. Then the onslaught of crimson. The lone figure suddenly stricken paralysed before it.

It took Arad less than a second to realise the collision would be fatal. London was going to claim another for its own and Arad had delivered the man right into its hands. A sacred offering.

His eyes widened. The man, businessman or banker, husband or father, was going to die.

Arad ran forwards, arms outstretched, to save him.

Smile, for Pam Moore

From the life of Pam Moore

By Suzanne Wilson

A pretty young girl of eighteen stepped out of the front door of her family home in Bedford, clutching a small suitcase, and jumped into a taxi. Pam was escaping, ready to answer her calling to become a nurse. The taxi was only taking her half a mile up the road, and it would still take her family three days to find her, having moved into the local nurses home, but she felt free. Free from the pressure that was put on her by her family to enter into an arranged marriage, free from the cultural confusion that came from being from an Indian family in 1970’s England. She was living in a world full of dark prejudices, reflected on both sides of the community. This strong woman had had enough; she was going to make her own decisions from now on. She was going to date the handsome white boy that she would later marry, less than a year after meeting him; become a nurse; and care for people – help them to see the beauty in life. Nothing would stop her. She now tells her nieces and nephews who are entering into mixed-race marriages, “You should thank your auntie for the ability to do this! She set the trend for this, she was a pioneer; you just did not do that in the seventies!”

Born in India, and moved to the UK aged nine, she had always found it difficult to make the transition from her English identity at school to her Indian identity at home, where she tried to remain true to the traditional values that her family held. One thing was for certain, she did not want to marry someone she had no feelings for, and she didn’t want to end up running a corner shop. Marrying a white guy at the time was certainly not the done thing, but this was a woman who didn’t care about convention; she did what she knew was right. Even if, on meeting her mother-in-law, she heard, “…oh, well, she’s… pretty! A lot darker than I thought she’d be but… pretty! She’s got very white teeth!”

It would be her work in the burns unit in Chelmsford that would bring back thoughts of her own cultural upbringing. Previously having only seen Chelmsford as a white, middle class area, the introduction of the burns unit brought in a far more multicultural demographic. It was the attempted honour killings that hit her the hardest. It isn’t something that anyone could imagine would still be happening in today’s world. There was a woman who, according to her family, had just ‘spontaneously combusted’, but unaware that our nursing hero could understand how they told her to “Just die,” in Punjabi. She clocked straight away what was going on and alerted the appropriate people. Unfortunately, the woman died, and she never found out if action was taken against the offending family. However, a part of her knew that it could have just have easily been her teenage self that had ‘spontaneously combusted’. She knows that, in some sense, the people who do these terrible things feel that they are doing the right thing; these actions are coming from a place of supposed love. They were restoring honour to the family and the victim’s memory.  She did have to seek trauma therapy for her work on burns unit, which just wasn’t provided back then, but she won in her fight to achieve this and she got it, to help her cope with the effects of the job. Trauma counselling was not available to nurses at the time, so, in a way, she set another trend.

A more bittersweet experience from working in the burns unit came from a young man suffering with ninety percent burns covering his body, following a motorbike accident. He was an intelligent chap, but had been silly enough to neglect wearing his leathers that day. After three months of caring for him and his family, his body went into multi organ failure. She was devastated but knew that the kindest thing would be to let him go in peace. After informing the mother, one last request was made. During his care, she, as his nurse had been the only one who could make him smile, and so she was asked by the mother to do so one last time. She still thinks about the young man and his family fondly. She is still in touch with two of her burns patients who sought her out. She was a stand-in mother to them when the birth mothers were too exhausted, and one of the those mothers reminded her just the other day of how Pam shooed her away because she was so ill from tiredness and worry. They laugh about it now. Back then there were enough nurses and support and funding for the service to be a personal, caring service. However, if the government continues to decimate the NHS, the general population will be worse off than they are already.

Working as a nurse for the NHS opened Pam’s eyes to a lot. There is a very active bullying culture within the NHS, which is ironic for people in a profession that is supposed to be caring for others. One of the things that really bothered her was that in working in an NHS-run hospital is that everything is scheduled and time based, and staff are not allowed to go the extra mile, which is something she has always prided herself in being able to do. This was particularly evident in a case where she was caring for a three month old baby that was dying. The parents couldn’t face seeing their child in that state and she had five other babies to care for at the time. All she wanted was to hold that baby, and show it some affection, but she wasn’t allowed. The three month-old died that night. She handed in her notice the next day. She doesn’t want to be associated with bad practice, and at this point in her life, from years of experience and growth, she knows that if she doesn’t like what is going on, she can change it.

Joining the team of the Richard House Children’s Hospice in early 2016, the contrasts between the NHS and Richard House became very clear, and having only been with the organisation for a short while, she has already made quite an impression. The families at the hospice become her families too; she uses her outgoing and bubbly personality to lift the spirits of both the kids in her care, and their parents. Just a little bit of help can make all the difference, even if it’s just the parents getting a few minutes to themselves to have a cup of tea and relax. The relationship that is built with the families is something special and not easy to let go of. And to her, the best part of the job is being able to make the kids smile, and it is the intimacy and caring environment of Richard House that allows this. There is something about the hospice that has her totally magnetised. Richard House has a sense of family not only with the patients but with the staff as well. Once, when the weather was particularly bad and their cook got stuck in the Dartford Tunnel, pizza was ordered in for everyone and they had a quiz day, which was really helped the staff to get to know one another.

“Live for today.” That’s her motto. Pam doesn’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and that’s okay. (Well, she knows she has her gym class, because it has to be booked in advance.) If the weather is good, everyone should head out somewhere; if not, that’s all right, she can find something else to do. All she wants is to be a good person and help others, something which she would prove over and over again.

She doesn’t see the people in her care as just patients or guests, but as an extension of her family, and she feels proud in knowing that her family extends all over the country.

She always remembers her patients, but has taught herself not to let the feelings and connections she has with her patients consume her. There have been a few occasions where the connection to a particular patient has been so strong that she has been able to feel when something has gone wrong, or even sense that they have passed away. This is when she realised that she needed to disconnect from that aspect. She has learnt how to care for herself, as she is just as important and loved as any of her patients. Travel is one of her passions and each old church she visits, a candle is lit for the people she has cared for, past and present. It is strange how something as small as a candle can create such a bright glow that touches every corner of the room. Much like how every smile of hers touches the patients she cares for.

Forty years on and that glow has never left her. She carries with her a smile which brings hope to everyone she meets.

Hope, for John Roden

From the life of John Roden

By Samuel Hardy

Hope: a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.
: John’s granddaughter’s name.

***

The East End. The sixties. A small boy can walk around his street in Shoreditch and be assured that his neighbors will watch out for him, that the postman on his daily route will lead him back when he’s too far from home. The children run around and jump and laugh and play until night comes and they’re called in. Families can chat with friends and move around with unlocked doors because the people around them are trusted. They come together, a community ready to help one another in times of trouble or hardship or simply because one can, and a small boy is filled with pride for this small slice of earth he lives on without needing to truly grasp the reasons why.

In this moment, it just is.

On his trips to the market, he stands and watches a man at the stall, waiting for his mother to get what she needs and come back. There’s no need for her to rush in a panic, fearing that her child will disappear once her back is turned. He is calm and the man at the stall is fascinating, working in a section of the city that the same people frequent regularly. They know one another. Children know to stay still and wait. Parents know to leave when fights break out. In this section of the city, their community watches out for one another, keeping fear away. The children are ushered away in school; whispers of the Kray twins outside are being denied by teachers, but the police have come to ensure that they stay away from the gates. Still they believe that their shelter remains intact.

Until, at sixteen, he comes close to death. A friend is ill, they say, and he’s being cared for in the hospice not too far away.

When they go in there, John, they don’t come back out.

His shelter is shattered. It comes between the age of boy and man, when his time of school and being guided is over and he must make it on his own. But he is still young and the loss of a friend breaks apart the feeling of security that came with his home. Priorities are shifting, people more out for themselves than for helping each other, and slowly snipping away their assurance that their neighbors are looking out for them. A friend is in a hospice; no one talks about it. Disability and illness are hushed words and a hospice is a place to die; they’re cast aside, kept away from chatter in the street.

He goes on with his life; working across London, settling down with his wife, and watching the East End he grew up in grow and change into something he no longer recognizes. But he is the generation that cannot talk about difficulties above a whisper, if they can’t avoid it at all, and he has no need to change that.

Until, at fifty-six, his granddaughter is born and those difficult words become a part of his life.

It’s a metabolic disease, detected earlier than doctors usually do. She is beautiful, always smiling, and in need of help and care. He becomes her guardian, is thrown back into a world of nappy changes and scheduled feeds and caring for an infant. It’s a brand new experience; once a working father, now a retired grandfather, he has the time to care for his baby girl and relearn what it means to be a parent. But there are still treatments to look at, help to turn to, a place that can be there for them.

Richard House Children’s Hospice.

When they go in there, John, they don’t come back out.

That can’t be true…

He remembers, a long time ago, the friend who was sent to a hospice to be cared for until he died. He remembers the whispers people had about death, their need to stay away from the topics of disability and illness. He remembers his generation, who still stay away when his granddaughter is near. But Richard House does not conform to the stories of isolation and death that people had heard about hospices, and now their lack of understanding has become fuel to fight the stigma. The hospice staff, who look after the rest of the family as well as the children, are warm and supportive. He brings his granddaughter in for her treatments and he takes her home, he sits with other men on ‘Dad’s Night’ and they share their struggles in a setting that allows them to end the night a little lighter than before, with people who understand. Years of ideas and harsh words have been reevaluated, his perspective of a once daunting place changed to accommodate the reality he faces every day.

Life is a learning curve; it never stops.

The East End. Now. A small boy is now a grown man, with a wife, two children, and a grandchild of his own. He cannot walk around his street and be assured that his neighbors will truly watch out for him and doors are locked tight wherever the neighbors go. His sense of community has faded and, once or twice, the pride that once just was is turned to shame when he remembers how things used to be.

But he has Hope.

The Best of Both Worlds, for Gowhar Shaikh

From the life of Gowhar Shaikh

By Jack Pascoe

Sam and I reached Richard House Hospice at around ten o’clock in the morning. I hadn’t slept particularly well due to noisy neighbours. Also the noise of the planes taking off from London city airport that morning didn’t help matters. We signed our names on the visitor form at reception and were lead inside. We walked down the bright corridors, passed the play area filled with colourful bunting and elaborate wall displays, through the cafeteria with the round beechwood tables and high glass ceilings to the meeting room where Gowhar was waiting for us.

Gowhar and I had met previously but never one on one. I was slightly nervous about how the talk would go, after all we were to be sat in a room for up to an hour together. I’m not the most talkative of people at the best of times so this would be a true test of my character. If I could just shake the lack of sleep from my eyes and engage as best I could without being nervous.

She was sat in a single chair with her hands in her lap. She wore a long skirt and a shawl with small orange and red patterns dotted across the front. Next to her on the table was a copy of the hospice magazine explaining the great work Richard House does for children and their families. As we entered she turned with a warm smile and greeted us. I felt at home instantly. She spoke in a soft, breathy voice with a distinct London accent that reminded me of the women my mother would often converse with when we lived in Bromley. Strong but sweet women with the best of intentions.

I began to set up the recording equipment as we talked. She had mentioned that her Grandfather lived in Cardiff (a place I had lived for nearly half my life) the last time we had talked. This time she had come equipped with photographs and a willingness to tell me her story. I couldn’t have asked for anything more as a writer. I hit record and she began to tell me about her Grandfather.

Butetown, South Wales, is widely known as one of Britain’s first multi-cultural communities. A concentrated mass of terrace houses, connecting Cardiff city centre and the docks. It consists of about ten thousand people from over fifty different countries. The locals affectionately dubbed the area with the title ‘Tiger Bay’. The name has since become a worldwide label for the area. Even museums dedicated to the history of Cardiff would print the title in their exhibitions.

If you walk down Bute Street today, you can still see the remains of the recent decades. St Mary’s Church still stands at the start of Butetown where the city centre ends. Grand stone turrets with black painted tips shoot up towards the overcast skies where seagulls sway in the wind. The turrets shadow the Greek Church of St Nicholas and the Salvation Army hostel right next door. Everything further down this historic street is now a mere result of modern housing developments throughout the years since the 1960s. Warm red bricked terrace houses with charming chimneys have been changed for the slicker look of beige walls and light brown roofs.

In the middle of Butetown sits Loudoun Square. A crooked two lane road with broken pavements that surrounds a pair of concrete tower blocks. Before the towers existed, Uba Hassan lived at number nine on the square with his wife. The driveway was cobbled and crunched when you approached the front door which was usually open. As you walked into the house and through to the living room, you would witness a table laden with lentils, bread, and various other food stuffs accentuated by the overpowering smell of chicken stew coming from the kitchen. The more the smell permeated the air, the more neighbours approached the door and were welcomed inside.

Uba was from Yemen. He had moved to Butetown like so many others looking for a new life in Britain. Once he and his wife were settled in their new home, they made it their mission to spread love and acceptance through the community. They accepted all other faiths with open arms without question. They would take in local orphans and dress them in outfits that Uba’s wife had made. Lavish and colourful velvet outfits that would be sported for family photographs and the local Muslim processions that meandered through Butetown. He was also instrumental in building Cardiff’s first mosque with a man named Shayek Zayed, another pillar of the Muslim community. Between them they would bring the community together through their faith and enlighten youngsters with what it means to be a good Muslim.

The first flight of stairs at number nine lead to Uba’s prayer room. He would burn incense and hold court with the local children. His stories were mainly about the prophet, but he would also slip in a couple of tales from his youth if they had particular relevance to the teachings of Islam. Even if they didn’t he took great pleasure in telling stories. He would captivate his audience and teach them the value of accepting other faiths. He would give lines from the Quran for the children to remember, and if they recited them back to him he would give them a sweet out of his pocket.

Gowhar would often be one of the children in the prayer room hanging on his every word. She would be warmed by his generosity of spirit. Filled with chicken stew and the odd sweet here and there. Her parents would travel down from East London to pay the family a visit. When she would play in the garden of number nine she would often turn the bars in the fence and run off to the park to be with her friends from the neighbourhood. They sat on the swings near the railway track chatting and watching the trains crawl from the city centre towards the docks. Luckily everyone in the neighbourhood kept and eye out for them. They could run through the streets of Butetown without a care, but if anything happened while they were out that would disappoint their families it would usually beat them back home.

Her Pakistani father worked on the buses and also at Frankenberg’s, a department store owned by Jane Seymour’s father. Her Welsh mother worked at the Pakistani embassy and the education department throughout her time there. Gowhar was blessed enough to have a family that consisted of many cultures and she was well aware of this.

She was raised in Whitechapel and attended Tower Hamlets Girl’s School on Commercial Road. Later on she went to St John Cass in Aldgate. As a very creative student she enjoyed art as a subject. She was especially fond of waxwork in painting and also sewing. At the end of the school day she attended after school club where she loved to read the many books on offer. Her favourite books were the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series which warmed her with it’s tales of close family coming together through all the adversities of nineteenth century mid-west America.

The school environment she was bought up in was very multi-cultural and open to every kind of child from any background. At one point she was an angel in the school nativity play even though she had been raised a Muslim. Every Sunday they would attend the East London mosque that stood right next to a synagogue and the whole family would also run errands for neighbours of all faiths. Back then neighbours used to keep a set of keys on a piece of string just inside the letterbox so that others could let themselves in should they need to. You slipped your hand in the letter box, felt around for the string then pulled out the key to unlock the door. Needless to say, there was a great deal of trust and a larger sense of community in the East End.

Life with her family was a balance of discipline and warmth. Every Saturday their house would be cleaned from top to bottom without fail or complaint. The lights always went out at eight o’ clock on a school night once the children were tucked up in bed. This would be right after they came home from school and had their fix of television from four until six; Tom and Jerry cartoons followed by Blue Peter and Crack a Jack. It was Gowhar’s job to maintain the fireplace and help the coal man when he would make his rounds to the house on a Tuesday. She would curl up in front of the fire that warmed her entire family, all of them watching the hot rocks burn to the end before making their way to bed and the following day.

Shortly after Uba’s wife died, he was due to set off on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Before he left he gave the contents of their home to various family members and friends. His friends thought it strange, but not out of character, that he was being overly generous towards them. His family knew from his actions that he was ready to go.

Whenever he travelled to Mecca he would normally go with the same group of people each time. This particular journey was no exception. They made the normal route through Europe completely unaware of Uba’s intentions. His usual stories would not flow from his mouth so easily and his responses were almost monosyllabic; strange for a man of such openness and creativity in his communication. During the journey he became separated from the group. Naturally his friends tried to find him but to no avail. Eventually he walked up to them out of the crowd that surrounded them. His pockets had been emptied of money and all his gold had vanished. When they asked him what had happened he offered them a simple explanation that rolled off his tongue like the lyrics of a captivating and heart-felt soul song; “I don’t need it anymore.”

He was prepared to leave his life in the way he had always lived it, as a servant of humanity. He had given up his worldly possessions to those he loved as well as those who needed it more than him, and given his efforts to his faith one last time in the noble manner that he always carried himself with. He knew, but didn’t revel in the fact, that he had lived as an example to those he cared for right up until his last warm and solitary breath. On the coach ride through Turkey, on his way back to Butetown, he passed away.

Once she had finished school, Gowhar worked in Enfield as an admin worker for the council. In 1987 she gave birth to her first child with her new husband. This daughter was born profoundly deaf, and prompted Gowhar to move to Pakistan and teach English as a foreign language up until 1991 when she fell pregnant again and returned to London. She gave birth to a little girl who passed away three months later. Gowhar would be met with speculations about the cause of these tragedies. Since she had been married to her cousin, many people assumed this was the cause of the health complications with her children. Gowhar simply believed that what is meant to be is meant to be and that we cannot control it no matter what the circumstance may be. After all, life doesn’t care about your plans or your current situation. The couple lost six children in total. Thankfully, Gowhar’s strength was unrelenting. A trait she had no doubt picked up from Uba.

Their son Murad was born by caesarean and given two days to live by the doctors due to complications with his kidneys. Gowhar and the family bought everything for the baby on deposit so as not to tempt fate. Her lasting memory of the birth is the deafening silence before the birth. Up until that moment the room had been filled with happy and hopeful family members. All of a sudden, everything went quiet.

Murad is now seventeen years old. He’s partial to wearing suits and ties like his great-grandfather Uba, and like both of his great grandfathers, neither of whom he has ever met, he wears shalwar kameez for prayers. He also has a taste for old television shows like On The Buses and even Charlie Chaplin. However, all of this is overshadowed by his undying creativity which he gives back to the world at the drop of a hat.

His love of singing takes precedence above all else. Even when he’s being driven to hospital to address complications with his kidneys, an ongoing problem throughout his life, he would sing in the car. He loved one particular song called ‘Teray Rang Teray Rang’ (God’s colours God’s colours) by an artist called Abrar ul Haq. On a trip to Pakistan he was lucky enough to meet Abrar who kept in touch with the family. In an act of overwhelming kindness, he came to see Murad while he was in critical condition at the hospital. He sang the song Murad would sing by his bedside. It echoed through the hospital and mixed with the tears of gratitude from the family just outside the cubicle. The next day, his test results picked up and he began to feel better.

Despite the love and support around him, Murad’s life has been anything but carefree. It’s often fretful going back and forth to hospitals, in and out of doctor’s offices, up and down drab staircases owned by the NHS. Richard House Hospice was the family’s ultimate support in making their lives easier. The eternal compassion and acceptance has paid off in the generations. From Butetown to Pakistan, Yemen to the East End of London, Richard House to Mecca, a powerful connection is held in place. A connection in the goodness of people and the strength of integrity.

Sam returned to the room where Gowhar and I were talking to let us know we were out of time. I was nearly speechless from the information I had received. It was like somebody had taken me from the back streets of a council estate and thrown me into the vastness of the countryside. Before I left she showed me a video of Murad from her phone . It was taken in East Ham registry office waiting room. Murad sits on a chair in his suit and tie with the broadest grin on his face. It is a grin that spells contentment in any language. He is dangling his legs off the edge of the chair and singing to himself completely oblivious to the world around him. That’s when I nearly started to well up. He’s singing and looking sharp with a big grin on his chops. I caught a precious glimpse of his spirit right there and then. The last few seconds of the video showed a security guard asking Gowhar not to film in the waiting room, but it didn’t matter, the moment had already been beautifully documented.

I said goodbye to Gowhar and left Richard House. As I walked back to my flat I started to reconsider my attitude that morning. I had been moaning about noisy neighbours and loud planes with an ugly sense of entitlement. Now I was aware of the real hardship that families go through in East London, and the character that carries them through. Whether it’s learnt from the community you live in or the family that supports you, it seems to be character that helps us all make it through. I learnt a lot from Gowhar that morning and was inspired by Murad’s attitude to life. Now, as I paced down the cracked tarmac in the shade of the trees with pollen drifting on the breeze, I could feel the presence of Uba Hassan like he was strolling next to me telling stories and filling me with chicken stew.

Songs for Samuel, by Suzanne Wilson

 

When I was four years old, we listened to Ska and danced in the living room.

Our house, in the middle of our street…

We wanted a fixer upper. Why don’t you have a job? Because I spend all day doing up the house for your mother. Mind your feet. Don’t be going around without slippers on. OUCH. What did I tell you?! And there’s the wee shop wrecked. The volume created when he blew his nose could give you a heart attack. The sneezing was worse. Flannel shirts and overalls. Our house it has a crowd… The boss. The big scary one. Better clear it with her first. There would be a shouting session. Often find him hiding with his fishing equipment upstairs or in the garage, pretending to fix the boat. Do you need your bottom scraped? HAHA. Hey girl! What are you playing at? Don’t be acting the cuddy now. There’s always something happening… Locked in. Smell of timber and guinea pig crap. JULIA! Don’t take off your coat! Ok Daddy my coat is off. No! Get your mother. Daddy, are we going to die in here? You had your lunch half an hour ago. Mummy call the police! Why? I locked Suzanne and Daddy in the shed. Everything’s a disaster in this house. And it’s usually quite loud… Stop shouting! Stop shouting at me! Turn that down. Go to sleep. Don’t let them catch you. Sneak sneak. Creak creak. Our mum she’s so house-proud… You’d think a bomb had hit the place. You need to learn to hoover. You need to learn to iron. Hold this spindle. Tighter. Come here, I’ve got a wee job for you to do. Smell that wood. Wood is good. Smooth. Like a hug. Nothing ever slows her down… You dance like you are running on the spot. No you have to do it PROPERLY. You’re not playing PROPERLY. Down the park. Out the back. Stop picking at that scab.  And a mess is not allowed… Next time I see this left lying on the floor at your backside it’s going in the bin. No! I hate you.

At nine, I was making life more difficult, so I was introduced to the soundtracks of Tarantino. They never get tired… It’s so cold. Stood here at the television with my finger on the button. 2am. Waiting for the creak of the stairs. There are no ghosts. If there were I would have found them by now. I’ve been in every nook and cranny. Dash under the covers. Heart racing. It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. Now, now, now. GET INTO YOUR BED. Hideous brown carpet in an old, old, house. Snot all over it when in trouble and no harm is done. Of puttin’ me down… Big nose, baldy head. Am I getting fat? For I know you certainly are. Let’s go for a run. Run Run Run. Feeling the heartbeat in your face. Those awful checked shorts. Pick me up from school in a pair of fishing waders. But more on that later. And I never know… Laugh with teeth. Feed me. Feed me teeth. Crown chipped as I tell a story about chasing a cat. Slipping in the snow. Feeling the ice in my nostrils. A shell embedded in cement. Broken nails. Broken screws. Broken toe. Foot trapped in a spindle. Those bloody pegs of oak. The bane of everyone’s existence. When I come around… Watching a small head rattle in time to the motion of the car. Black coat and smell of smoke. Believe everything that I am told. Paint stripper strips the skin under my fingernails. Stupid girl. What I’m gonna find… Empty cans of cider. Empty friendships consoled. They never wanted me around. I was told that. A maroon duvet trimmed with gold. Watching everything, including us. Goodfellas. Big Labowski. Everything with Arnie. Everything with Jim. Defiance was awful however. So awful that we laughed. Don’t let them make up your mind… Am I going to have to go there and deal with it myself? Just take this, he would point at his fist, and make a connection with this, he would then point to his nose. That’s how problems would be solved. But I just wanted to hide. Behind both of them. Don’t you know Girl, you’ll be a woman soon… Look at that big bullet hole between your eyes. I know that it’s there don’t need to point it out. Old terry cloth dressing gown soaked in milk. Hot oats. Why are we up if it is still dark outside? I don’t want toast. Radio begins to play the School Run and I’m still not dressed so we know that we will be late. Again. Please, come take my hand Girl, you’ll be a woman soon… Running so fast I would get carried away. The horror. The burning as flesh was ripped from my knee so I bled. Hold your breath and count to three. The worst was having chewed up hands. Immersing them in an antiseptic, milk-like substance. Pick out the stones and gravel to ensure a scar is left. Soon you’ll need a man… Deliberately driving around the back of the supermarket, just to beat a nursery bus. Trying to make the trip to school slightly more appealing. I’m not going, I’m not going! Well I hated it more than you. I’ve been misunderstood for all of my life… It was love at first sight when she first saw him running away from a large group of men over a small bridge. So she packed him into a large cardboard box. He then knew that she liked him. But what they’re sayin’… Purple paint. But it just caused laughter that is still reminisced about to this very day. But only by me, as it is with many things. Girl, just cuts like a knife “The boy’s no good”… There is no God. There is nothing. But if there was, I would ask Him to make it Christmas again. Just one more time. So we could all be together. And no one would be dead. Please.

Ten years later, he shuffled away from this earth and left me to choke on my own youthful tears.

I hurt myself today… Walked nine miles from Linda’s in Moorfields to the Green Road at the screech of cats. The January snow was a knee deep. To see if I still feel… Lips split. Brown slops soot compacted. I focus on the pain… I stood on the path only six hours before trying to capture a blizzard in my mouth. Smoking a badly made roll up. The only thing that’s real… While the parents are away. Mentos in coke are replaced with fags and a sense of rebellion. Tobacco grips to the underside of a fingernail. The needle tears a hole… Are you impressed yet, little sis? I have travelled the world. Seen it all done them all. The old familiar sting… Meanwhile footsteps are thudding towards us from miles away. Counting those last few heartbeats. Try to kill it all away…  I thought I was drowning, but I turned out to be sorely mistaken. But I remember everything… It wasn’t me at all. Door slams. I take no heed. What have I become… I dream of Mitchell. I breathe in slumbering bodies and sweat. Then she is there. My sweetest friend…  Standing over me, with that usual expression and speaks the words Have you seen your daddy? Everyone I know goes away in the end… No. And don’t watch me while I sleep. Like in that awful cartoon, I really hated it. Should I wash my hair this morning? Then comes the screams. The incessant screaming. How long she had been screaming for I don’t know. It felt like for hours but could only have been a minute. It still hasn’t stopped. Bleating, sharp in my ear like a trapped goat. Over and over. My ears are fizzing. And you could have it all… I am there in a clatter of thunder. I scream at an ambulance. Like a response to a mating call, it is there in an instant. But the snow. There is so much snow. Frozen piss that burns my hands. It’s not real, nothing is real. It’s all a rehearsal for a play that will never be performed. Everyone is acting their part as best they can. My empire of dirt… So many people and so much snow. He had a shower, that much we know. The condensation was fresh, I could still see it. I wanted to touch it but there was no time. I will let you down…  The police were here and I had to answer some questions. I used Buster as a guard. Held that little paw as tightly as I could. Those big black eyes had seen it all. Let out to do his ablutions. To piss up the snow. Seen more than anyone.  He knew what was going on just as much as we did. But growls and barks replaced the cries. I will make you hurt … The only man left in our home.

For the next three years the music became vulgar and hate-filled, much like his eldest daughter.

In your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure… Thrust myself far enough so I might break. Stick a hockey stick through the neighbour’s living room window. It looked like sugar all over the garden path. It earned me a slap and nothing more. Pour bleach in the garden, but no one batted an eyelid as I screamed at them. I screamed until my eyes blurred and dribble ran down my chin. “You’re the man of the house now, Suzanne.” It was my time to shine, be the adult they wanted, so I became more irresponsible than I thought I could ever be. Deep greedy and Googling every corner… I ran away, like a nasty little bitch, left them to deal with it. Fucking, sweating, crying, laughing. More drinking than ever. More men and more nights out. Australia welcomed me to this. But it wasn’t enough, never enough. Then came the powders and the smokes and the crystals and the trouble. At one point an overdose and another point the police. Dead in the middle of the C-O-double M-O-N… You all need to get over it, because I’M FINE. Nothing can touch me. Crying, fucking aches and pains. Slut, slag, little punk. Black hair, black clothes and two black eyes. Little did I know then… I said that I’M FINE. Spittle, terrible spittle, run away again and again. You aren’t part of the pack anymore. I don’t need no pack. You started a pack and now look at you. Call yourself a mother. That the Mandela Boys soon become Mandela Men…. Fingernails packed with dirt, grit and puss as I weep in the corner of a burnt out building. My face repeatedly scraping against a blackened brick wall. Mouth filled with the taste of blood and snot. Tall woman, pull the pylons down… Knuckles chewed by teeth. Feeding myself then feeding myself teeth. Heave and spit. The lunge of my stomach almost orgasmic. Thinner wrists and brittle bones. Your electrolyte count is low but I’M FINE. And wrap them around the necks… Rope, dangling, knotted. Heart stops body dangles. Then everyone started to scream and take notice. Of all the feckless men that queue to be the next…. I was wanted. I was sexy. For the first time in twenty years of being the goofy second choice. I could have whoever and whatever I wanted. I went through many. Maybe this one or this bloke. Maybe just one of them will care. Steepled fingers, ring leaders… I stopped sounding like myself, sounding like my new self. Crash around. Snort everything in sight. Never alone, can’t be alone. Don’t leave me alone but I’M FINE. Queue jumpers, rock fist paper scissors, lingered fluffers… Everything ended up half –digested at the bottom of the bowl. Crying at the sky. Laughing, smoking, mistaken for a prostitute. Too thin, too aggressive, too reckless. In your hoof lies the heartland… Not addicted to the drug, but addicted to the feeling. Feeling loved and loving back. Look over the water with lights in my eyes. I need no one and nothing, just the knowing that I’M FINE. Where we tent for our treasure, pleasure, leisure, les yeux… Early mornings, trekking through London not knowing where I am or who I am with, seeing stars and convinced that life couldn’t get much better than this. This unwashed body covered in scars and dirt and filled with chemicals that would make my mother weep. It’s all in your eyes… That’s all very well and good but what you are all are failing to see is that I’M FINE. In your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure… Used, dirty, abused, unloved and up for anything. I’ll be the Nancy to your Sid. Deep greedy and Googling every corner… The sad damaged eyes ask me why? Take a deep breath and let it out. Blended by the lights… I’m not fine.