I usually walked to the station like something that has been spat out – if such a thing could walk. Events at home were not the reason for this. I had no early morning fights with the wife which I could point the finger at or premonitions about the day which I could blame. I simply felt that way. Everyone I imagine had a way they feel and this was my way. The first time it occurred to me to change the way I feel was the morning I witnessed my first fatal accident. It was quite grim by all standards. Quite simple too. An uncomplicated waste of life. A car sweeping away a teenager as he tried to cross the road, the teenager up in air, then landing, badly, head first, the car not stopping, at least that was what I saw.
That was what I told the police officers too. One of them actually, the bald one who took my statement. Impossibly I was the only one who saw this accident, later declared a crime. A hit and run. The officer took my details in case I was needed later. From the look in his eyes, I got the feeling I would be. I had gone out of my way to wait for the ambulance to arrive, the police officers to cordon off the scene and for them to take my statement. So I turned up to work late. Deji grunted something about having to wait for me and why it was rude I did not call ahead. “But you’re taking the time,” I said as I clocked in. Deji hissed, “And so.”
I don’t get on with Deji anymore which is quite bizarre given it was Deji who got me this gig. I wasn’t ungrateful to him even if he thought I was. Our supervisor Kirian simply liked me better. I put on the serious face needed for the security guard role, I was bigger and taller than Deji, the school children did not mess about in the shop when I was on guard. Kirian said later that Deji was lazy, he would sit in the store room below the shop floor, counting down time, drinking the same chai tea he claimed he hated. Kirian wanted to sack Deji, I pleaded on his behalf. When I told Deji this, he flipped, not at Kirian but at good old me. I was caught lousily in the middle.
There was a good reason, I suspect, why Kirian did not fire Deji outright if he felt the way he did. As unremarkable as we were, we were that rare thing to find in a job like ours. Young ethnic minority men who had the papers to work in the country but not skilled enough to work better jobs, who were willing to work in a cold shop, standing for 8 or so hours and who would accept 7 pounds an hour for doing so. In London. Well, in the middle of a recession London. So Kirian used me to whisper in Deji’s ears, clearly not wanting to rock his boat with Deji, quite happy for me to do his dirty work. I suppose my price was the shifts he threw my way, like juicy bone to a lap dog. It did work though, Deji no longer sat to drink chai tea but then he no longer laughed with me either.
I stood at my favourite corner, near the newspapers. I of course only read the headlines and if I could manage to flip it, the back sports pages too. In all, across seven or so papers, I would have read a grand sum of 300 or so words by the time my shift was over. If I wanted to read more, I’d have to read a day or two day old paper in the cold store room below the shop floor. One thing I did feel working these shifts at this store was no matter how well presented it was, every store had to be skanky below. The toilet was always a mess. Rats, unquestionably ubiquitous, ravaged the stock. I could hear them chewing away as I read a two day old Metro which I presume Kirian had tossed in the bin because I was sure Deji did not read. Porn was Deji’s thing. Reading meant wasted time, and time was precious to Deji. When not used drinking tea, it was better used watching BBWs. Who was I to suggest to him a better way to kill time in this ghastly place?
The Metro front page had some spiel about the recession, a plunge in house prices and how repossessions had increased tenfold. I would not normally be interested in this. I do not own a house. At the rate I was going, I do not think I was in danger of owning one in the foreseeable future. So why worry? Well it had to do with the wife. Remember we don’t fight? There’s a reason for that too. Kirian was not the only one afraid of rocking boats. I held a degree in that when it comes to the wife. Florina has made it be known that she will leave me soon. It did not matter how much I begged and begged. When she had had enough she will simply walk out – ostensibly back to Romania because they aren’t many lovers waiting in the wings for her. Florina said she was fed up of our bargain. She said she wanted real love now. She was tired of pretending. I felt zapped with shock when I first heard these midway mutterings. When we came to this arrangement we both understood what we were getting out of it. For me it was my papers, and for her, a man who would make love to her (her words not mine) and hold her afterwards – all two hundred and ninety two pounds of her. I was willing. It was either that or deportation. The last I checked, things were not looking too rosy in Sub-Saharan Africa.
This was all before the recession so needless to say, things changed. Florina grew ideas. The economy tanked. I lost the job I held working as a bank teller. I needed two more years from Florina. But her patience with me was fast waning. I no longer could bribe her with fast food and trips to all you can eat restaurants. I literally could no longer buy her time. So here I was in this dark and damp store room wondering if my landlord was in danger of having his house repossessed, working through all the implications that would have. And in all the scenarios I ran in my head, none of them had Florina sticking around.
Florina is a poor cook so even if she wanted to cook for me – which she most certainly didn’t, it would be something quite revolting. An unworthy attempt at something worthy. A real mess. So lunch was as usual white bread stuffed with sardines, sliced in a triangular shape to imitate store bought sandwiches. Lunch, munched in silence in the store room heralded the period during which I earned my wage, at least from Kirian’s perspective.
“Nice nice customers, they come in, buy their stuff and move on. They have no time to chat to anyone. They buy their cat food and keep it moving. Don’t try to speak to them either. No need to give them ideas, oh, I don’t like the security guard in that shop. Let them buy, pay, go and come back again. See, simple,” Kirian said on training day.
He would land. “The only hour you have to really work is when school closes and all the kids run in here to steal one thing or the other. That’s your wage right there. You gotta stop them thieving kids. Don’t beat up anyone though. You beat a kid up, you go to jail, end of. Mr Patel can’t save you from that. You hear? Don’t beat anyone up. But don’t let them steal either. One guy, yeah, he went to prison for that. The store had to close a week. I tell you, Mr Patel was not happy.”
Of course I got the sense that Kirian thought there were similarities between me and the guy who went to prison, the most obvious: the colour of our skin.
After lunch I went back upstairs to earn my wage. I gave the girl at the till a nod as I stood erect by the store entrance, in my neat all black attire, perfectly poised to give off the air of a well secured premises. Soon the children began trooping past the shop front. They mostly knew the rules. I imagine it was the same wherever rules are needed; two school children at any time. The first group of kids observed this rule. Leaving with ice creams and energy drinks. Some ambitiously tried to get me to buy cigarettes for them. No chance. Clear off, I said in a faux London accent. But these were not the kids who ran rings around Deji. I knew them by face. They tried their luck every day. About five or six of them. All lived in the nearby Crowntree estate, notorious for skinheads and druggies or so Kirian said. Kirian kept a secret picture book of the kids from CCTV images. But I had dealt with them enough not to need reminding.
When the Crowntree boys came, I was picking up a promotion board which had fallen over under a gush of wind. The first three ran in. I quickly followed after them, behind me the other three rushed in.
“We just wanna buy beers what?”
“How old you are?”
“What you think we too young? Are you daft? Three of us could take you still you know that?”
“That’s it leave the shop.”
“What you gonna do old man?” Another said. A scrawny kid – will probably break under my grip, but you couldn’t tell this by the snarl on his face.
Another kid had opened the fridge and was now swigging a Stella. I proceed towards him. “You can’t do that.”
The kid gulps a mouthful of beer, spits it out, the projectile splashing all over my face. I swing a right arm at him. He’s sprawled on the floor. The other kids had formed a circle. One pulls out a shiny blade. I quickly retreat, escaping through the open fruit aisle, out of the premises. I did not intend to die on account of seven pounds an hour. The kids, to my surprise, were chasing me on the streets. I began to run, not stopping until I was sure I had lost them. Then I head to the station, I had had enough for the day, Kirian can dock whatever pay he wants.
Kirian had rang ten times by the time I got back to the tiny one bed flat I shared with Florina. He’d sent two text messages. I read the first one.
Let’s chat when you’re in tomorrow. These kids and their knives. Good job though.
At least the girl at the till had seen them pull a knife I thought but then I immediately felt guilty that I had ran off, sort of leaving her at their mercy.
The second text would leave my head spinning.
I warned you. Kid in hospital. Fractured skull. Police involved, might be coming your way. M Patel wants nothing to do with it. Don’t bother come in tomorrow….if you can that is.
“This is for you,” Florina said, casually. There was nothing to be read from her voice, nothing to indicate the soup I was in with her.
“What is that?”
“I dunno.” She walks back into our tiny room.
Talk to them again and you’ll be next, the piece of paper read. I follow her in, alarmed. The police might be coming for me. That idiot Kirian had already sacked me. I step into the room, Florina is busy packing her things. “What is this babe?”
“Don’t call me that. We’re finished. I’m going back. Not staying in this shitty place.”
“But babe…..its two years left. Eh, two years.”
“Find someone else. Someone more foolish. And listen Patrick, don’t call me babe again.”
I swallowed spit. The paper was still in my hand. “Who brought this?”
“Some guy. Said you will know what it’s about. Something about someone flying in the air. Look I don’t care Patrick. The only flying I care about is a plane back to Romania. I hate the UK. I hate London. I hate you. I hate you Patrick. What kind of man stay with woman for papers?”
He or they had to be local, I thought, ignoring for a moment, Florina’s jabs, to know about my police statement and to find where I lived so quickly. I should be kneeling and pleading or at least stopping Florina from packing the next bunch of granny sized knickers into her box, but I did not. It was dawning on me that I was in waist high trouble. Someone or some people were threatening to kill me. The police were on their way to get me for a fractured skull. Florina was leaving with my right to stay.
I hear the sirens. The police are here. And in that moment, Sub-Saharan Africa could not have looked rosier.