The bouncer wouldn’t let him in with the bag.
He didn’t want to go in anyway.
It was Friday night, there was no space inside, and it was some part of London he didn’t know or care about. Jay wanted to come here, not him.
‘I told you, not with the luggage, mate.’
‘There’s nothing in it.’
‘Just some books…’
‘Not with the bag.’
‘…not…I’m not doing anything with it.’
‘I’m not telling you again.’
‘Okay, relax, man, I’m going…see, I’m going.’
Billy tried to go, but there were too many people to get past.
A few seconds later, the bouncer put a hand on Billy’s shoulder.
‘Move to the side, mate.’
‘You’re in the way.’
Jay said it didn’t really matter, the place was just too packed. It wasn’t an indictment of London or anything.
Billy didn’t care.
‘Man, why do you always go out on Friday?’
‘Why? You serious?’
‘People to talk to, bats. Women who don’t have anything tomorrow.’
They tried to get into a bar with its entrance under one of the tunnels, the one Peter Coyote got stabbed outside of a few years back…there was no sign anywhere so it was unclear what the place was called…but the bouncers didn’t like the way either of them were dressed.
Jay said one line, how he’d just come from court and the suit was a good one, but it didn’t matter.
They walked down the street and bought a couple of beers from one of the shops and then stood on the pavement, talking about all the other things they’d done before.
‘You gotta cut the negatives, man.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’re feeling sorry for yourself. It’s not a good face to have, not if you wanna…’
‘I don’t have that face.’
‘What? You’ve got it right now. Sean Penn face.’
‘I feel good.’
‘No, you don’t.’
‘I do, really. Things seem okay, I’m not down about anything. I’m just lying low, waiting for…’
‘You’ve been gone for weeks.’
‘You’re burying yourself, bats. I did it when I came back too.’
‘I’m not burying…’
‘And that’s why I can tell you this…I know what’s happening, and I know how to beat it.’
‘I’m okay, really.’
‘You’re at half speed, that’s what it is. And it stays with you for…two, three months, whatever…but once you’re past it, things get bright again.’
‘And you don’t even have to do the three months. You can fast forward, because I’m your mentor, or guider…whatever you call it.’
‘Are you listening? I’m fine.’
‘You’ve just gotta force yourself out, go to events, meet people, then it won’t get a grip. Yeah, I’m listening, course I am. I’m pulling you out of this fucking thing.’
They drank the beers and bought some more and talked about other things and a couple of hours later they were in another bar, a more casual place where everyone looked like shit.
They stood near the corner, talking over what sounded like post-feudal rock.
‘Gotta write that script, bats…’
‘You write it, I edit…’
‘Me write it?’
‘You want me to…’
‘I write the script?’
‘You write, I edit….then we take it to Hollywood, bats.’
‘Go to Hollywood?’
‘I hate Hollywood. New York’s…’
‘Yeah, go to Hollywood and sell it. But the only thing is…how to stand out from the dregs, brother?’
‘Man, I can’t…’
‘I can’t hear a word you’re saying.’
Walking back home at three in the morning, Billy talked about his problem with London, his constant dreaming of 70’s New York, the bizarre positivity he had for everything he was on the verge of doing…but mainly his problem with London. Meanwhile, Jay fucked about with his type.
‘I know everything here already…’
‘…the way the buildings are set up, the trees, the shitty grey pavements…the roads…’
‘…the parts where it’s under construction, and the other parts where they say it’s under construction but no one’s there, no one’s doing anything…’
‘No one knows…’
‘I mean, what’s so good about this place anyway?’
‘As good as it gets…’
‘If you’re not from here, then yeah, maybe it’s okay…maybe all these things are new and exciting and…you know? All those Ozzies and North Koreans and Polish guys…’
‘But it’s not the same for us, man. It’s…I don’t know…what is it?’
‘Maybe I’m being too harsh…’
‘Harsh? You whine like a mule, brother.’
By the time they got to Paddington they were playing the movie game.
‘Jason Lee. Kurt Russell. Go.’
‘…and Kurt Russell.’
‘And it’s a movie?’
‘A real movie?’
‘What do you mean ‘real movie’?’
‘It’s not animation?’
‘Nope. Real live faces.’
‘And it’s got Kurt Russell in it?’
‘Nothing. I was just…never mind.’
‘Never heard of it.’
‘Is Jason Lee in it?’
‘No…not really. Well, kinda. It was Jason Scott Lee. A different guy.’
‘That’s not him.’
‘Do you know who Jason Lee is, bats?’
‘You sure? Cos it’s okay not to know something. I won’t shame you or brag about it or…’
‘Fuck off. He was in Mallrats.’
‘The thing with the…’
‘With the what?’
‘Give us a sec…it’s in my head, I just can’t…’
‘You won’t get it.’
‘You’re not even close.’
‘I am…I got it, I just…’
‘Face it, bats, you just don’t know film like you thought you did.’
On the train Jay told Billy again about the importance of getting a job. Apparently, it was non-negotiable, and the sooner he stopped fucking around feeling sorry for himself and got out there, the sooner he’d have a more positive outlook on things.
Billy tried to say he had some cash saved from the last place, but Jay shook his head, said it wouldn’t last long and kept talking.
‘No job, no cash, no happy face,’ he said fifteen minutes later, folding his arms.
‘Talking, yeah. But don’t say that, man…it makes me think you weren’t listening.’
‘I’m not…I was.’
‘Cos I can start up again…’
‘No, I got it.’
The next day Billy walked around the apartment with a bag on his shoulder, trying to think of reasons to go outside.
On the living room wall was a poster. It wasn’t his, it was there when he’d arrived.
Inspirational quotes, it said.
He read through them and tried to disagree. He knew they were motivational, and all those lines by clever people, all bunched together should have no other effect but total positivity. Yet still he disputed.
‘If everything could be said with words there’d be no reason to paint.’
That’s bullshit, he thought. Spoken by a painter, had to be. He thought about philosophy and the programmes he’d seen on TV where smug people would talk about art and explain what it meant.
Those were words.
How could paint reveal anything that words couldn’t?
It was ridiculous.
Tell me painters…tell me something that can’t be explained with words.
One hour later, he was on his way to 56a zine store in Brixton.
He’d been there before, but it was too brief…he’d looked at four or five zines then felt bored and anxious with the owner still in the room so he’d turned and left without leaving his contact info.
He’d regretted it on the train back, but he’d regretted a lot of things before and never corrected them.
For some reason, this time, today, he was correcting something.
‘If you don’t get to know these people, you’ll just push yourself further and further and deeper into your rabbit hole and then where will you be?’
It wasn’t in his head an hour earlier, but then suddenly it was. That’s why he was on the train to 56a.
It was weirdly persuasive, as if it was actually himself talking to the person who’d been using his brain and body for the past 29 years.
That person was him, but not really.
An increasingly louder part of him.
A part of him that…
It was hard to classify.
Another thing that played in there…up there…there:
‘You’ve got another 10 years then you’re dead. The world’s a shit place. Do something, fucker.’
It was angry and it was persistent.
And for some reason it was telling him to buy a lomokino.
Outside 56a, there was a long row of council houses and a shitty-looking park. There were no needles or graffiti or broken bottles, it actually looked quite clean, but Billy still knew what it was.
The place people come to get mugged.
The mug zone.
Death to people with futures.
He put his hood up and stared at the three kids standing by the entrance rails.
Not that it would make much difference.
Everyone knew students [and ex-students] did the hood trick.
The key factor was: did he look like the kind of person who’d stab someone for looking at him funny?
He passed the kids and walked another ten metres to 56a.
Apparently, according to their site, 56a was trying to help these fuckers. Give them skills like repairing bicycles and zine-making and watch them grow.
That’s what I want to do too, thought Billy.
That’s why I’m here.
Do something, fucker.
That’s what I’m trying to do.
If I get the chance.
As long as they don’t stab me first.
He stayed inside the store for almost three hours, reading as many of the zines as he could, even the ones that looked like a waste of time.
The woman behind the desk was responsive, but limited.
He tried to ask her about other zine stores doing similar things, or if there were any local kids who were interested in zines, but she said no, most of the zines came from other cities, like Brighton, Nottingham, Bristol etc., and most of the local kids were too busy doing other things to come and visit the shop.
‘Busy? What are they doing?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You mean, are they in gangs?’
‘I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them.’
‘Maybe I will.’
‘Hmm, well, good luck with that.’
After that last line, Billy ignored her for the next hour, going back to zines he’d already read and dreaming about finding a kid who was on the verge of becoming a drug dealer but didn’t want to, and then the two of them forming a bond and making a zine together and…and then going further, talking about politics, how unfair Brixton and the world were and if they could form a party and stand for election and transform an area like Brixton then they could…
When he stepped back outside the shop, it was dark.
He checked his watch.
5 in the afternoon and it’s fucking dark already?
Only in London.
He thought about taking the long way around to the train station, avoiding the park where two of the kids were still standing, but then he switched, telling himself it was the sign of a pessimist to avoid things, and if he judged these kids just because they looked like motherfuckers then he was already doomed.
They’re just kids, he told himself as he walked past them.
And they were.
They didn’t even look at him.
Maybe he did look like the kind of guy who would stab…
When he woke up, the woman from 56a was standing over him, asking if he was okay.
‘Yeah, I’ve called the ambulance. Police too.’
‘I think you got hit by that.’
She pointed at a brick lying on the ground next to his feet.
They didn’t even hide the weapon.
The police didn’t say much.
Apparently, it was his own fault for walking through the area alone at night.
‘It’s 5 in the afternoon…or it was.’
‘It’s a black spot. There’s been 10 of these incidents in the last month alone. I’ve stood in this alley so many times I feel like I live here.’
Billy tried to say ‘but’ again, but the ambulance woman cut him off and said they should get him to the hospital for a check-up.
‘I feel okay now…’
‘Yes, I know, but there could be a delayed reaction. Better to be safe.’
‘You mean I could die later?’
‘No…nothing like that.’
He breathed out, unaware he’d been holding any in.
‘Well, it’s unlikely. Anyway, better to get a scan, let the doctors have a look.’
Even though he was pretty sure he could walk, the paramedic made him sit in a wheelchair with a tin foil blanket draped over most of his body. She tucked him in at the sides and wheeled him to the back of the ambulance.
‘Any pain yet?’
‘Not really, no.’
‘Bit of a headache though.’
She smiled and patted him on the shoulders. ‘I’m guessing you’ve never been hit by a brick before, right?’
‘Well, that’s something at least.’
In the hospital ward, he lay on the bed, bandage wrapped around the cut on his head like Gorman in ‘Aliens’, and wondered what those little fuckers were spending his cash on.
And what they were doing with his type.
It was only twenty quid.
And the type was cheap.
The guy in the bed next to him got up and pulled a chair over.
‘Wanna play uno?’
‘Uno. The card game.’ He held up a pack of cards with ‘uno’ written on the front. ‘This.’
‘You should do, it’s a decent game…and there’s not much else to do in here.’
‘Yeah, guess not.’ Billy pulled himself up so he could reach the table. ‘I don’t even have my type anymore. Those little…kids took it. Hit me with a brick and took my type. Sorry, did the nurses tell you about this already?’
‘Seven cards to start, no ending on a special.’
‘I’ll go first.’
The guy handed out the cards.
Despite not having played since he was a kid, Billy won the first four games. It was better than losing, he figured, but it didn’t make him feel any better about things, and it didn’t do much for his opponent either.
‘How are you doing this?’ the guy asked, flicking at his cards after losing the fifth game.
‘I don’t know, just luck.’
‘Yeah, I know it’s luck. I’m just wondering why you’re getting it all and not me.’
‘I don’t know.’
The guy shuffled the cards, saying it must be because he’s tired.
‘Nah, it must be. I’ve been in here a week already. My mind’s just gone a bit dull…that’s what it is.’
He handed out the cards, slower this time.
‘I mean, it’s not like it’s anything to do with intelligence…it’s not that kind of game. I mean, I could be playing a five year old and, he gets the right cards, nothing I can do about it. I could be Stephen Hawking, doesn’t matter. Nothing I can do.’
‘Actually, there are some tactics you could use…’
‘You give away your cards a lot.’
‘Huh? You looking at my cards?’
‘No, I mean…when you change colour, you always change to the colour you have…so then I can know what colour you have. It’s too honest.’
‘Bullshit. Why would I say a colour I don’t have? It’s stupid, too risky.’ The guy stared at his cards like they were sentient [and annoying]. ‘I’d have to pick up another card…for nothing.’
‘Okay, man, it’s your call.’
‘What call? Your tactic makes no sense.’
‘Well, it does if…’
‘It’s just luck, for fuck’s sake. You’ve had good cards and I haven’t. Good cards at the right time. That’s why you’re winning. It’s not skill, or intelligence or…whatever. It’s luck.’
‘Fucking uno…it’s not even a hard game…anyone could win this. Babies could beat both of us, doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing, does it?’
‘Okay, man, maybe we should…’
‘Chess, though…that’s a game. A baby wouldn’t last ten seconds against me. No kid would. Can’t fluke a game of chess. This one, you get the right cards, you win, fuck all anyone can do about it. Chess, no chance. Ha, you’re smiling. You think you could beat me at chess too, don’t you? No?’
‘I wasn’t smiling, I was…’
‘Yeah, you do. Arrogant prick. That’s what happens when you base things off a few games of uno. Seriously, you think this means something, these last four games? Uno’s a kids’ game, mate. If they had a chessboard here, I’d destroy you…I’d fucking annihilate you…’
‘Okay, man. Maybe we should take a break, calm down a little.’
‘No, we’re still playing. What, I’m calm. What are you talking about?’
‘We’re playing until I win, which will be this next fucking game, I guarantee it.’
‘Actually, I’m a bit tired…’
‘No, you’re not.’
‘Really, I am. My head’s starting to hurt.’
‘No, it isn’t. You’re just scared…’
He put down three cards with the same number and stared at Billy.
‘Your turn, genius.’
Three days later, Billy was declared ‘alive’ and sent back home.
He took the train back, stared at everyone who looked like they might be over 15 years old, got back, locked the front door, locked the windows and crawled into bed.
The next day, he waited until there were a lot of normal-looking people outside, then put the flat keys between his knuckles and walked to the nearest ATM.
After drawing out the minimum possible amount he needed, he walked a bit further to the nearest type shop.
It wasn’t Brixton, but there were still dangerous people in Bermondsey.
Fuckers could be anywhere in London, even in Kensington.
That was the curse of the place.
That’s why it was better to hide.
Or, not hide, avoid.
He bought the cheapest type he could find, cursed his dwindling reserves of cash then went back home and did the same routine as the day before.
A small, tiny, faint, faint, faint little voice said, ‘don’t let it own you, man’ but he kicked it in the head until it went away and then there was peace again.
He didn’t tell Jay what had happened.
He didn’t tell anyone.
Why should he?
He knew what he had to do.