EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT TUXEDO HAS GOOD ideas about as often as a hen has teeth. Which is why Tuxedo is on his own this particular night, crouching with his ear to the tumbrils of a small safe behind the counter of the video shop. The snag is that Tuxedo is not built for crouching lower than a pool table. His left foot has cramp and his blue satin boxer shorts are twisted in his crotch causing him aggravation. On top of all this, twiddling the knobs on the safe is getting him nowhere and he is overcome by a craving for sweet potato pie.
Anybody, from the Frontline to the Backline, could tell you that Tuxedo is jinxed. Take one instance. Yesterday Tuxedo buys a second-hand car for three hundred and fifty, cash. This guy gives him all the documents but when he gets home the log book turns out to be an old parking summons and the car is clearly hotter than Tina Turner; if Tuxedo thinks he has just laid his hands on some pure Jamaican sensimilla, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will turn out to be homegrown from Kensal Rise; even the all-night Kentucky Fried Chicken runs out of corn on the cob as soon as Tuxedo steps through the portals. Anybody could tell you that the day Tuxedo gets lucky will be the day it snows ink. Which is why he has this near-permanent frowning glare on his face, a wicked screw that most people mistake for hostility when in fact it’s the anxious stare of one who knows that God has been up most of the night laying traps for him, sometimes in the shape of things, mostly in the shape of people.
Tuxedo glares at the safe:
‘Come on, you bastard,’ he mutters, then adds: ‘It’s all right, God, it’s the safe I’m talking to, not you.’
Of one thing, Tuxedo is certain. God is white. Once, when he was younger, he had listened to his militant cousin explain how white people had tricked the world into believing that Jesus was white when he was really black and so it followed that God was black too, or at least brown, more likely brown seeing that he was from the Middle East. Tuxedo told all this to his mother who gave him several licks for daring to call God ‘a dutty half-breed’. In the end, Tuxedo came to his own conclusion, simple and to the point. If God isn’t white, how come black people have such a hard time?
Anyway, Tuxedo is in this office which is short of space what with the desk and the metal filing cabinets. The light is on because Tuxedo doesn’t much like the dark ever since the school caretaker accidentally locked him in the boiler room where he was hiding because he couldn’t remember the lyrics of the seven-times table. Since then, Tuxedo gets jittery in the dark. So he is tackling his first safe, solo, with the light on in the back of Edwards Electronic and TV Rental shop. As it happens, he has only discovered the safe by chance, stubbing his toe against it while he is in the back of the shop looking for some Vaseline.
The reason Tuxedo is looking for Vaseline is this. He has broken into the shop to get a video recorder for Dolores Burton, his current mainsqueeze. Now all the episodes of Hill Street Blues would lead you to believe that during the commission of these minor felonies, people break out in a nervous sweat. Just when the music gets tense and trembly and the camera goes into close-up, you can see sweat streaming down their faces. Not so Tuxedo. His face goes all dry and cracky, especially the lips, which prompts him to put down the video recorder and look in the back of the shop on the offchance of finding some Vaseline or even a little Johnson’s baby oil to rub in his face. And this is precisely what he is doing when the safe attracts the attention of his big toe.
Outside, the August night is warm. The street is still strewn with litter from the market and the sweet glutinous smell of rotting vegetables hangs in the air. The street lamps cast a bilious glow over the row of shops. Parked outside the video shop is Tuxedo’s getaway car, a powder-blue Vauxhall Chevette, the same one he got yesterday. The choice of this particular model, he considers to be a stroke of genius. Any passing beast would think it belonged to an estate agent or a lady doctor. Not that many lady doctors park their cars outside a video shop at three in the morning with the driver’s door open and the sound cassette pumping out into the night air:
‘Trouble you de trouble mi – no I I woudda jus’ flash me ting.’
The car chants away rhythmically to itself. A few doors down, the burglar alarm in the chemist’s shop shrills monotonous and unattended. Tuxedo twists the knobs on the safe impatiently. Nobody is about.
Nobody is about that is except Frankie Formosa, known to his girlfriends as ‘Mr Too Handsome to Work’ who happens to stroll around the corner on his way back from picking up a ten pound draw from Mr Mighty’s Ace Shebeen. He is draining the last drop from a can of vanilla nutriment so he doesn’t at first spot the car. But just as he throws the empty can into the gutter, he sights up the means of transport that would save him a fifteen-minute walk back to Ladbroke Grove. Besides, there is no one around to admire him walking through the streets in his new Tachini tracksuit and trainers to match. Don’t think that Frankie is in any way unfit enough for such a walk. Frankie is always super-plus fit when he comes out of jail because he spends all his time there in the gym. Although this time he could not get all the exercise he wanted on account of a little squirt called Mouth-Mouth. Mouth-Mouth is Frankie’s sister’s boyfriend and it is sheer bad luck that he turns up in jail at the same time as Frankie because Frankie did not really want it known that he was inside for such a minor offence as driving round the streets without a licence and had put it about that he was in jail for the more prestigious and universally popular offence of assaulting a policeman. Then Mouth-Mouth comes in and spills the beans which meant that it was Mouth-Mouth who got assaulted and Frankie had to continue getting what exercise he could in the restricting confines of the punishment block.
So Frankie pulls to a halt on the opposite side of the road to the Chevette.
‘Yuh free to look but don’ you dare stare,’ chants the car happily. But Frankie is not staring. He is giving quick looks up and down the street checking out whether Fate has actually come up trumps and offered him a deserted street and an unlocked car at one and the same time. He crosses back towards the car. On the pavement are large fragments of glass from the plate glass door. The door itself swings carelessly on its hinges and although there is a light on in the back, nobody seems to be there. This is because Tuxedo is bent double on the floor having about as much luck with the combination on the safe as he did with his seven times table. Frankie waits for a moment or two in the doorway of the Ace Liquor Mart.
‘When something good – we say it Bad. Bubble you de bubble mi – yes I I woudda jus’ dip an’ run een.’
The car has now given up all pretensions of good breeding and is singing in a gruff, suggestive voice to the accompanying sounds of a deep thumping bass and whistling bullets. Frankie peeps out warily from the doorway. Nobody in sight. He slips round the front of the car and slides into the driver’s seat, shutting the door gently behind him. Ten seconds later, Frankie Formosa is heading smoothly towards the block of flats in Notting Hill Gate which the council uses to house, temporarily, people they don’t like.
Tuxedo has cramp. He shifts and stands up. He abandons the attempt to open the safe in the shop and decides to take it home with him along with the video cassette recorder. That will impress Dolores. On the desk is a grubby cream telephone and Tuxedo is sorely tempted to give Dolores a bell just to show how cool his nerve is under pressure. Sensing, however, that time like most things is not on his side, he resists the impulse. Which is just as well because Dolores has long time since taken her tail off to Ozo’s Club where she is sandwiched between two gentlemen both with wet-look hairstyles smothered in Dax pomade and each competing with the other as to who can buy her one of the over-priced drinks at the bar.
Life never deals out a hand of entirely bum cards. Mr George Evans, proprietor and manager of Edwards Electronics is a man for whom the notion of good salesmanship is twinned with the notion of well-greased hair. In the third drawer of the desk, Tuxedo comes across Mr Evans’ king-size jar of Vaseline pure petroleum jelly. And it is while he is rubbing it on his face that he becomes aware of a change of sounds from outside. The raunchy upful beat from his car has been replaced by the disjointed, mechanical, crackling voices that spurt so unexpectedly from the radios policemen wear on their chests. Tuxedo steps cautiously from the lighted office holding up the jar of Vaseline like a candle. In the darkened exterior of the shop he makes out three silhouettes, one of them pushing away broken glass with its foot.
Wappen Bappen – Tuxedo is under arrest.
It takes him five seconds to decide against pleading racial harassment and on his face as he walks sheepishly to the door is the same expression of disgust, disbelief and exasperation as when he misses an easy shot in the snooker hall. This expression changes when he reaches the street. His delicate pale blue ladies’ saloon car has metamorphosed into a big, business-like Rover with jazzy red and blue markings and a revolving blue light on top, for all the world like it is the Metropolitan Police mobile disco.
‘Just a minute. Just a minute,’ says Tuxedo in pure bewilderment before accepting the invitation from two of the police to step in the back of the car. The third one remains behind reasoning seriously with his radio.
The night sky has that purplish haze and Tuxedo catches sight of it between the faded, peeling, white house fronts. He is gazing up in that direction because he is conducting one of his silent conversations with the Almighty as the car cruises along:
‘You bastard. Yes guy, it’s you I’m talkin’ to. Nuff trouble you give me. Spiteful I call it. Fucking spite.’ Tuxedo talks to God in the same way he talks to the police, in his London accent, saving the Jamaican for his mates. Then suddenly he remembers the small packet of herb in his underpants. Casually, he slips his hand into the elasticated waistband of his boxer shorts. The move goes unnoticed. He slips his hand further down and starts fishing imperceptibly for the tiny packet of ganga secreted in his yellow underpants. All the while, he stares morosely out of the car window. One discrete cough and Tuxedo has in his mouth about two square inches of ‘The Voice’ newspaper, umpteen seeds and bits of stick as well as several heads and leaves of ganga.
‘Lock the fucker in the cell if he won’t talk.’ Detective Sergeant Blake sounds weary. Tuxedo’s mother has taught him never to speak with his mouth full. ‘Check with the owner what’s missing from the shop.’ Tuxedo is taken downstairs and put in the fourth cell along the row.
One hour later, Mr Evans of Edwards Electronics has checked and double-checked and confirmed to the remaining policeman that the only item missing from the premises is the pot of Vaseline. Tuxedo is sprawling on a hard bed with the grey blanket wrapped round him and one big smile on his face. He has discovered that he can talk to God Jamaica-style like one black man to another. It makes God feel more like one of the boys:
‘Is wha’ mi a go do? Oonoo help mi nuh? Is jus’ one lickle degi-degi ting me a tek, one lickle pot of cream fi oil mi face. Mi a hear seh yuh work in mysterious ways. Show mi nuh. Don’ gwaan bad about it. Remember Tuxedo don’ business wid voilence.’
The more Tuxedo chats in this confidential manner, the more he realises that things are not nearly as bad as they might be. He could have been caught with the stolen Chevette, the video machine, the office safe and a bunch of weed. As it is, there is only the Vaseline to be reckoned with. A little fine probably. Dolores will no doubt kick up because her favourite tape has gone with the car. Tuxedo thinks of Dolores for a minute, tucked up under the candlewick bedspread, her right hand under her jaw, which is how she sleeps, and wonders if there is any sweet potato pie left in the fridge. Tuxedo wants to get back to Dolores and hug her up for a while. He gets this rush of warmth towards her which spills over and includes God. On the whole, events have not turned out too badly:
‘Yes mi baas,’ says Tuxedo to God. ‘Now me see how it is yuh work dis ting out fi me in the best possible way.’
In the charge room, Detective Sergeant Blake is getting confused as he tries to take down Tuxedo’s statement:
‘So you broke into the TV shop …’
‘To get some Vaseline,’ adds Tuxedo, helpfully.
‘Why didn’t you go into the chemist’s?’
‘The chemist’s was shut,’ says Tuxedo.
Detective Sergeant Blake decides to charge Tuxedo quickly and go home. Tuxedo has much the same idea. Once charged, he asks if it is OK for him to go now and get ready to appear in court in the morning in case the magistrates do not fully appreciate the vision of him appearing before them in his boxer shorts.
‘You’re not going anywhere,’ says Blake tetchily. ‘We haven’t been able to establish that the address you gave is the correct one. So you will stay here and we will take you to court in the morning.’
‘Phone my girlfriend. She’s at home,’ protests Tuxedo.
‘We’ve already tried phoning twice and a constable has called round there. There’s nobody there.’
Mystified, Tuxedo allows himself to be led back to cell number four.
‘What’s the time?’ he asks anxiously, as the policeman is about to bang the door to.
‘Half past four.’
Where is Dolores? Why isn’t she asleep in bed the one night he needs her to be in? Where the hell is Dolores?
Tuxedo is mightily vex. He walks up and down the cell for a bit then looks at the window which is set high up in the wall. The top is curved, the bars are painted cream, the panes are of unbreakable, dingy plastic. Behind them the sun is beginning to rise. He crosses the room and stands on tip-toe to look out.
‘White bastard!’ he yells at the pale, dawn sky.
‘I’M JACKING,’ SAID MCGREGOR.
It was ten o’clock in the morning. The other scaffolder hadn’t turned up. It had taken him half an hour to unload the freezing scaffolding tubes from the lorry, the ringing clang of tube against tube increasingly setting his teeth on edge. That done, he set about emptying the lorry of piles of metal fittings so that the driver could get away. He banged on the side of the cab. The driver raised his thumb and backed the vehicle off the site. McGregor looked up at a sky laden with snow. Then he examined the palms of his hands. They were a shiny, raw pink where the frozen metal had taken off the first layer of skin. They burned him. Flexing his hands, he walked over to the foot of the unfinished, eight-storey building and began to base out the scaffold. On his own, he erected the first level, using the heavy, twenty-one foot tubes as uprights. With deft, experienced twists of the podger on the metal nuts, he fastened the four foot tubes to the uprights, some slantwise and some horizontally so that they reached the wall. One by one, he heaved the wooden planks from the pile at the foot of the wall and laid them out along the structure. Then he decided to quit the job and go drinking.
‘I said I’m jacking,’ shouted McGregor to the site foreman, trying to make himself heard over the grinding roar of the cement-mixer. The foreman motioned to the hod-carrier, showing him where the bricks were to go. Then he turned to McGregor with drooping shoulders:
‘What’s up, Jock?’ Steam issued from his mouth.
‘You can stick your fucking job up your fucking arse.’ McGregor grinned. ‘I’m jacking.’ The foreman looked pained for a minute and then shrugged:
‘Go and tell them at the site office. Tell them to phone head office and send me down two more scaffolders.’
McGregor went over and unhitched his jacket from where it hung on the end of a piece of scaffolding. He undid his belt with a mounting sense of freedom and took off the leather frogs which held his half-inch Whitworth spanner and the seven-sixteenth A.F. He chucked the podger and the spanners into his canvas tool-bag and walked over the icy, rutted ground to the portocabin by the gates. He began to whistle.
Inside the portacabin, the air was fuggy from the calor gas heater. Mr Oates, the site manager, was on the telephone at a desk littered with papers. Pinned to a noticeboard near the door was a letter from a Mrs Kathleen Doherty, written in a loopy scrawl, thanking the men for the collection after her husband’s accident. McGregor read it idly as he waited. Mr Oates put down the telephone. A cigarette with long ash burned between his fingers. White hair with nicotine yellow streaks lay stiffly on either side of his head like bird wings. He looked at McGregor enquiringly.
‘I’m away,’ said McGregor. ‘Just phone the office and tell them to make up me cards and me wage packet. I’m on me way over to get them now.’
‘It’s only ten o’clock. Can’t you finish the morning?’
‘No. I’m away now. Sammy says to tell you to ask for two more scaffolders.’ McGregor turned to leave.
‘What’s your name?’ asked Mr Oates, wearily.
‘Jock the Jacker.’ McGregor gave a wry smile. ‘Mac. McGregor,’ he said as he left. He walked through the site gates. On the street, he took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. Rows of mean, secretive, terraced houses stretched down the road in front of him. McGregor paused to inspect the contents of his pocket. Forty pence. He set off at a brisk pace to walk the two miles to the main office. Unexpectedly, the day felt full of promise.
‘Mr McGregor, is it?’ The dumpy girl in a brown sweater greeted him from the cashier’s desk in the construction company’s main office.
‘Ay. That’s it.’
She reached in the drawer and pulled out a buff wage packet and his cards:
‘We’ve deducted the twenty pound sub. There’s five weeks’ holiday stamps on your holiday card and you can pick up the week in hand next Thursday. OK?’
The wage register was pushed across the desk and he signed it.
‘Don’t forget I done three hours this morning,’ McGregor reminded her.
‘Well that won’t be due until the Thursday after next. You see today’s Thursday and the work up until today, that’s your week in hand, gets paid next Thursday, but any work you do today doesn’t get paid till the Thursday after that. OK?’
McGregor felt a tightening in the muscles of his neck.
‘Thanks,’ he said. He took the wage packet and went.
At eleven o’clock precisely, the publican unlocked the doors of his Fulham pub and McGregor stepped over the threshold into the quiet, gloomy interior. The low moan of a hoover came from somewhere over his head. Sleepily, the publican made his way behind the bar.
‘Gi’us a double scotch there, please,’ said McGregor.
McGregor’s drinking habit ran to a formula; two whiskies in quick succession while he stood at the bar and then straight out and onto the next pub. By the time he reached the fourth one it was snowing. He was somewhere in the back streets of Chelsea. The whisky had begun to do its work, cutting a warm channel through the centre of his body. For the first time, he relaxed enough to take stock of his surroundings. The pub appeared to be empty. Then he caught sight of an old man seated round the corner, his figure half-eaten up by shadows:
‘Can I get you something there?’ he called across to the old man. The man’s head moved a little:
‘Half a pint, thank you.’ The voice was cracked and thin. McGregor ordered a scotch for himself and a beer for the man. They sat in silence for a while. The pensioner spilled his beer as he sipped it. He had eyes that watered permanently, the colour of faded bluebells:
‘You a soldier?’ he asked.
‘I was once,’ replied McGregor. ‘I was slung out. Retention Undesirable in the Interest of Her Majesty’s Services.’ He delivered the words with a flourish as if they were poetry. And laughed.
‘I was in Spain,’ said the man.
‘Oh yes?’ McGregor seemed interested.
‘I fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.’
‘Is that a fact?’ McGregor waited. The old man leaned forward into a shaft of dull light from the window. McGregor saw motes of dust dancing down the light onto the amber liquid in the glass.
‘I was with them in Madrid in 1936. I saw such things. Such terrible things.’ He wiped his chin with his checked scarf. ‘When I came back to England I had to tell everybody what I had seen. For thirty years, every Sunday, I took, a soap-box in Hyde Park Corner and I told what I had seen to anybody who would listen. I never missed a Sunday for thirty years. And then I stopped.’ He leaned back into the shadows. McGregor finished his drink. The old man’s glass was still nearly full.
‘Will I get you another?’ McGregor asked. But the old man had closed up in the darkness like a flower in the night. A restlessness overcame McGregor and he stood up:
‘Good luck, then.’
‘And you, sir,’ came the voice from the invisible man. Flakes of wet snow came to rest on McGregor’s eyelashes as he walked with the urgency of a man not knowing where he is going.
An hour later, poised between conviviality and violence, McGregor stood in a bar crowded with lunchtime drinkers. He was locked in intense conversation with the father of a baby with no future, a pale young man with red hair. The young father’s lack of optimism was depressing him:
‘How old did you say the baby was?’ asked McGregor. The man consulted his watch.
‘Eight and a half hours old,’ he said dejectedly. ‘He’ll never get a home of his own, poor little blighter. Look how many homeless there are.’
McGregor became determined to raise the man’s spirits. It was like pushing an enormous boulder uphill.
‘And there’s no jobs,’ said the man. ‘He’ll never get a job. That’s for sure. No chance.’
McGregor tried harder.
‘Och, I dunno. You’ve got a wee boy. Kids are clever these days. They understand computers. They go to college and all sorts of strange things.’
‘Only if they’ve got money.’
McGregor’s face was flushed. He tried again.
‘They get grants. They can do anything.’
Suspended in a corner of the bar was a television set with the sound turned down, showing images of soliders chasing and firing on people somewhere in the Middle East. McGregor hoped the young man wouldn’t see it.
‘D’you reckon?’ The red-haired man looked faintly hopeful. McGregor began to sweat:
‘Jesus. Kids are magic these days. They speak out. They don’t put up with any shit.’ Somewhere in the back of his brain, McGregor knew that if the man slipped back into despondency, he would be obliged to punch him off his stool.
‘Maybe you’re right,’ said the man, reluctantly.
McGregor’s voice rose above the buzz of conversation around him as he made a final effort:
‘Of course I’m fucking right. Kids have got everything. I wish I was nine hours old. All snuggly and comfy. I wish I was a fucking kid. And another thing. Kids love music. He’ll be a musician. That’s what’s going to happen. He’s going to be a great musician. They all play in bands. They make terrific music.’
McGregor held his breath.
‘Yeah. You’re right, I suppose.’ The man managed a wan grin.
‘Right y’are then,’ said McGregor, triumphantly.
The future of the child assured and the man saved from injury, McGregor made to leave. He drained the remains of his whisky:
‘Slainte Mhath,’ he said in Gaelic.
The high street looked familiar but he did not recognise it. A lighted bus drew up beside him like an invitation and he stepped onto it.
The upper deck of the bus was brightly lit. Stale smoke and a litter of cigarette ends on the floor gave it the bleakly cheerful air of a public bar that had unexpectedly taken to travelling through the dark afternoon. McGregor sat bolt upright in the back seat. The beginnings of a transformation were taking place. His hands gripped the rail in front of him as if he were on the Big Wheel of a funfair. One blazing green eye was wide open, staring ahead with fierce energy, the other was lazily half open like that of a waking child. Faint streaks of mud from the morning’s work still decorated his face. Dried mud stiffened his jeans. Somewhere along the way, his jacket had taken off on a journey of its own. The same fine dusting of sand and cement that covered his navy-blue polo-neck sweater caused his hair to stick up in pointed, uneven spikes. Here and there in the spikes sat spangles of snow. Altogether, he looked like one of those creatures that has lain immobile in mud-flats for the duration of a drought waiting for the rains to come in order to return to life.
The wide-open eye focused with dislike on the passengers ahead of him. Suddenly, his expression changed. A look of intense delight spread over his face. His shoulders moved from side to side and he tapped his feet as he whistled the tune of ‘A Hundred Pipers an a’ an a’’. He sang the words out, savouring each one, on his face an expression of menacing bliss. The passengers remained silent. No one looked at him. McGregor finished the song and looked expectantly round the bus. The look twisted into a sneer:
‘You’re all dead people,’ he shouted.
The man in front of him stared deliberately out of the window. McGregor rose to his feet and held onto the rail to steady himself:
‘What would you say if I said “Let’s all get off the bus and light a big bonfire in the street”?’ he enquired, enthusiastically.
There was no response. Two women at the front of the bus continued to talk, one of them in a voice as clear as a bell in winter.
‘How about setting fire to the bus?’ he suggested. ‘How about giving it a Viking’s funeral?’
No one responded. Attracted by the only sign of life, the conversation at the other end of the bus, McGregor stepped carefully down the centre aisle like a seaman navigating the narrow passageway of a rolling ship. With a jerk, he sat down in the empty front seat next to the two women:
‘Excuse me, lady.’ He spoke in the dangerously polite tones of the extremely drunk. The crippled woman with the shining face pulled her lame leg in towards her. The leg, much shorter than the other one, was fitted with a contraption of metal and leather, terminating in a shiny, black, surgical boot that seemed too solid to contain a foot.
‘Never mind the leg, lady. Legs aren’t important. What happened to your leg, anyway?’
The woman, unruffled by the question, began to give the history of her malformed foot. Her rational explanation and unwavering gaze horrified McGregor. He shut his eyes. When he opened them again, the woman had turned back to her friend and was discussing the essay she had to write on Jane Austen for her evening class.
‘A man’s a man for a’ that,’ he mumbled, attempting to roll himself a cigarette from his tobacco tin as the bus swayed. He lit the cigarette and fished out the brown pay packet from his pocket. He took out the long, thin wage-slip:
‘Forty-eight pounds fucking emergency TAX.’ He bellowed the last word. ‘I’ve been mugged by the government.’ He scrumpled up the paper and flung it down. Annoyed by the lack of impact, he ground the paper serpent into the ridged floor with his foot. Suddenly, his limbs turned to lead and a great weariness took hold of him:
‘Mud. Cold. Shit. Wind. Steel. Rain. Tiredness. That’s all I’ve got to look forward to for the rest of my life. The grants have been granted and I haven’t got one,’ he proclaimed, bitterly. His eyelids drooped shut. To the concern of the two women, who were watching with polite attention, an extraordinary force of gravity seemed to pull McGregor’s features earthwards. He forced his mouth open, baring his teeth in a fixed death’s head grin. His fists were clenched. He remained like that for several moments in an epic struggle against invading tiredness. Then his face relaxed and his eyes shot open:
‘A hundred pipers an a’ an a’,’ he sang, enticingly, with the faintest of threats. The bus rounded a corner and the tobacco tin dropped from his knee to the floor. He regarded it with awe:
‘Isn’t it a wonderful thing,’ he said, ‘that the floor exists to stop things falling through the air?’ He pocketed the tin and staggered to his feet. Eyes shut, he put both hands to his head. The mud in his hair gave it the texture of bark. McGregor enjoyed, for at least a minute, the knowledge that he had turned into a tree. He had the distinct sensation that his feet were putting down roots into the floor of the bus; his head sprouting branches that were about to push their way through the roof, each branch adorned with tingling, green buds. He shook his head and opened his eyes. The passengers sat dully before him. He regarded them with disdain and announced in the grand manner of an actor:
‘I am leaving this travelling hearse!’
He made his way to the head of the stairs and turned once more, with a theatrical flourish, to address his reluctant audience:
‘I hope your legs turn to gristle and chickens eat them!’
They heard his boots clattering, too fast, down the steps. The bus stopped. The word ‘WANKERS’ drifted up to them. Nobody moved. The passengers remained pinned to their seats by this new definition of themselves as the bus drew away.
In the underground station, the driver of the tube train leaned from his window and glared at McGregor with such malevolence, such implacable hatred written on his swarthy features, that McGregor was brought to a halt on the empty platform. The doors shut in McGregor’s face. The driver continued to stare. The train remained stationary. McGregor launched into a sweet, tuneful whistle. Without warning, the driver turned and pressed a button. The doors hissed open. Within minutes of boarding the train, McGregor slept a profound and dreamless sleep, his legs stretched out across the gap between the seats.
In this way, McGregor was borne, deep in the intestinal passages of the earth, across London. Through the black tunnels, under the river, he was carried along, first in one direction and then another. Overhead, the mammoth city, with its millions of citizens in their neon-lit offices, went about its business. And not a solitary soul was aware that far beneath the ground underfoot, McGregor was voyaging.
McGregor opened his eyes. The train had stopped. The doors stood open. He got off without knowing which station he was in. The platform was deserted. The air was warm. A numbness in his feet made him unsure that they were touching the ground and gave him the feeling of floating through the yellow-lit passages and hallways. For all he knew, he had slept for three days and three nights. Under one arch, a black dog that had strayed into the underground blocked his way, bristling and barking. McGregor stopped and whistled at it. The dog lost interest and padded away, sniffing at the grimy, cream-tiled walls.
And then a wondrous sight met McGregor’s eyes.
Where the tunnel opened out onto the flat area below the escalators, a black woman, in her forties, was dancing vigorously on the concourse under the high, domed ceiling. All on her own, she boogied and partied to strains of music that filtered down from the station entrance, a beatific smile on her face. In one hand she held a can of lager, taking swigs from it as her hips swung from side to side. Some other black commuters passed by, giving her a wide berth. McGregor watched, enchanted, as if all his travels had been expressly to bring him to this one point at this particular moment. One side of her coat hung down lower than the other and she’d hitched up her skirt into her belt. She finished the lager and threw down the can. It skittered over the floor with an echoing rattle close to where a uniformed transport guard was sweeping. Then she bebopped over to a pile of carrier-bags, dumped where the curved wall reached the ground and rummaged for some more beer. The side of her shoe was split open by the big-toe joint:
‘Lard,’ she said. ‘Look how me shoe is poppin’ offa me foot.’ She opened the can, took a gulp and jived her way back to the centre of the hall. McGregor looked on appreciatively. Then she spotted him. Her eyes gleamed with pleasure:
‘Come daalin’.’ She addressed him with carefree boldness. ‘Dance wid me, nuh.’
McGregor approached bashfully:
‘Och. I canna dance,’ he said.
‘Everybody can dance,’ she insisted and continued to shimmy round the hall. Suddenly, McGregor joined her, leaping into the air and executing a wild, jerky Highland fling accompanied by a joyous, warlike scream. The woman shook with laughter.
‘You’re beautiful,’ said McGregor.
‘Yuh lie,’ she screeched with laughter again and stopped to catch her breath. ‘It still snowin’ up there?’ she asked.
‘I dunno,’ said McGregor.
‘Lemme tell you sometin’.’ She beckoned him closer. ‘I was up there and a cold wind from Russia came an’ fasten in me back. That damn wind bit me like a snake. So I come down here.’
‘And let me tell you something, lady,’ said McGregor. ‘You are the first person I have seen all day with a big smile on their face. And I love you for it.’
They regarded each other with mutual approval.
‘Yuh sweet, man. Yuh come to carry me way wid you?’ she teased. ‘First yuh must gimme a kiss. Come nuh, man. Yuh gwaan kiss me or what?’ she said boldly.
‘Lady. You are the first real bit of humanity I’ve come across today, the first person with a wee bit of optimism and I’d love to kiss you.’ She was close to him. Her breath smelled sweet and sharp like olives. He glanced round. The station had filled up with black people. He felt a little unsure of himself:
‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute, lady.’ He approached the guard who was still sweeping:
‘Excuse me, sir. Excuse me – er this lady would like me to give her a kiss. Would that cause any bother at all?’
The guard stopped sweeping and surveyed the concourse. Three youths were lounging against the wall opposite. He scratched his head:
‘Well, it just could do. A lot of these youts still hotheaded after the riots, you know. Them could jus’ get hold of the wrong end of the stick, if you know what I mean. Them could jus’ think “Here is another white man who think he own a black woman like all through history”.’ The guard touched McGregor kindly on the arm. ‘I tell you what I suggest. You go on ahead up the stairs and let the lady follow you. Then we don’ have no trouble. You can go for a nice drink together somewhere and see how you get on?’ He winked. ‘Lemme go tell her.’
He walked over to the woman who was fumbling in her plastic bag. He spoke to her for a few moments and then came back:
‘You jus’ go on up de stairs like I said. Don’ even look back. Let she jus’ pick up she bags and follow you.’
McGregor hesitated but the woman was smiling and blowing kisses at him:
‘Right y’are then,’ he said.
‘Go on up. She will follow you. OK man?’ The guard slapped him on the arm amicably.
McGregor did as he was asked. But he was hurt. Some poison had entered him. What the guard had said about history and white men went round in his head. He held onto the rail and the escalator carried him smoothly upwards. Half way up, he turned to check that she was following. Her eyes, blank with disappointment, were fixed on him and she was walking slowly backward away from him through the arched hallway, carrier-bags on each arm like white water-wings. He watched her disappearing as if she were being drawn back into the dark tunnel. Trying to get back down he slipped, cursed, stumbled and clung onto the rail. The escalator bore him steadily up towards the curtain of snow that hung in the station entrance. Something was happening to him that he did not recognise. A hot substance, like lava, crawled slowly down his cheeks.
Later that night, the police arrested a man in Camberwell. He was smashing shop windows, one after the other with a scaffolding spanner. As the glass exploded in each one, he yelled:
‘I want you to know that I never owned a fucking slave in my life. Never.’
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