Fiction


Tuesday, December 8th, 2009


RE-ENTRY

Courttia Newland

 

Outside the underground station, everything and nothing like the Ladbroke Grove of his memories, Craig realised he hadn’t told Drake about the beard. He sighed at the oversight, something else he’d done wrong that day, bowing his head towards the pavement. It had taken a long time to get into Paddington, partly because he had errands to run, partly because that forced him to catch a later train, mostly, he admitted as he circled on one spot, cold hands pushed deep into blazer pockets, because he’d been putting the whole thing off, using the distractions as an excuse, a deeper part of him scared of what he might find. Laura thought it was a good idea, saying she could look after Toby and Jake well enough for a few hours, although he felt guilty about that too. Leaving them at the station he couldn’t help but note the tiredness in her eyes and the unbrushed hair that fell to her shoulders, limp as string.

 
Orange sodium light made city faces look sickly, he’d always thought that. Above his head, the stream of cars on the A40 Westway calmed him somewhat. That hadn’t changed, probably never would. The row of shops across the street was a strange mixture of things that hadn’t been and always had. The bright lights of the estate agents, new; the gloomy façade of the former Lazerdrome, old. The huge shop that sold custom refrigerators, old. The post office, well old. The dentist’s, refurbished, but old still, likewise the charity shop and bakery. He almost smiled when he saw a lumbering 452 double decker - he and Drake had regularly caught its older sibling, the 52, when his friend went out with a mixed race girl from Willesden Green. He bounced on his toes, fingers clenched in his pockets until he thought that might make him look too out-of-place, too foreign. Then he took another look at the pedestrians and knew somehow, that didn’t matter anymore.     

 
A familiar face, walking past the empty Lazerdrome building on the opposite side of the road, Craig smiling in recognition and raising a hand until he noticed the stumbling gait, the fixed look in the eyes, and zoomed in on the rest. Skin the colour of paving slabs, protruding cheekbones, a rapid pace of walk, pedestrians sidestepping. He watched the skeletal man walk on, beneath the motorway and rumble of train tracks, heading up Labroke Grove for God alone knew where, Craig not even wanting to guess.

 
He turned his back on the sight, just in time to see Drake attempt to sneak up on him, which had never worked even when they were kids, Craig relieved to see his full, weighty frame and face, bright eyes, clean clothes, a casual black jacket and jeans way more fashionable than his. A green striped polo shirt and crisp Nikes with a grass coloured swoosh, the Lakers cap on his head. They hugged tight for a long time, Craig surprised after all.

‘Damn bruv,’ Drake said, voice muffled. ‘Damn.’

‘How are you?’ he mumbled, glad when Drake didn’t answer, knowing his penchant for rhetorical questions, comfort in old habits. They let each other go. Drake stepped back and looked him over like a proud grandparent.

‘Man’s got a beard an everyting…’

‘I didn’t think you’d recognise me.’

 Looking at the shadow of the Lazerdrome as he said it.

‘How’m I not gonna recognise you, man looks the same.’

‘Yeah?’

‘It’s only the beard.’

‘Safe…’ Stroking the thick hair beneath his chin, feeling the weight of that one word on his tongue. ‘And you, you still look twenty-odd.’

‘I wish…’ Drake was beaming. ‘Come we go… Any place you’re feelin?’

 They began to walk, the wrong way for the first location conjured from his memory, but he didn’t care, he felt so good, nerves gone.

‘Tabs?’

‘Ah, they shut dat shit down time ago. Come we go Inn On the Green, yeah?’

‘Where’s that?’

‘The old pool hall? Over Portobello Fitness centre, by the Green?’

‘Yes… Yeah… Sounds good…’

 
They crossed the road and took a first hard right, following the trail of the underpass, Craig looking around, expecting to see more familiar faces, but he didn’t recognise anyone. It was difficult not feel cheated, especially when Drake raised his hand and nodded every few steps or so, talking rapidly about eveything that had happened, including that years Carnival, even as Craig smelt it in the air, a left over funk of spilt alcohol and uneaten food he remembered for the first time.

 
Then they were turning through metal doors, up some stairs and into a bar where the lights were bright and the place was full of people, and it was like a surprise party arranged for his benefit, only it wasn’t, they were just there; his old youth worker and her husband who’d both known him since he was fourteen, had first taught him to use computers and helped him fill out his college applications. The rapper he’d seen perform in the parks all those years ago, the local who knew everyone and got the rounds in, the sexy girl from school, older with two kids, still wearing the smile that had danced above his teenage head at night, maddening him into hardness. The musician, the actor, the dealer that offered him pills for nothing, all the faces he’d known. He smiled in every direction, glad he’d listened to Laura’s advice and made the long overdue phone call in return.

 

 

They sat on the balcony overlooking Portobello Green, erect pints bubbling on a precarious table with spindly legs as weak as a foal. Inside, his pack of well-wishers fanned across the bar like a magician’s hand of cards, backs turned so he couldn’t read faces. Drake was still smiling, his grin looking much the same, perfect apart from a crooked tooth stained rain cloud grey. Craig eased back in his chair, testing for give, relaxing as it took his weight. He reached for his pint, knocked back gulps.

‘So what’s gwaanin man?’

 He shrugged.

‘Just doing what I have to, you know.’

‘Your wife sounds lovely.’

‘Yeah thanks…’ Another gulp, swallow. ‘Yours too…’

‘Yeah, you know…’ Drake turning side on, eyes cast over the Green. ‘How long you bin married?’

‘Five years.’

‘Enjoy bein a paps?’

‘Best feeling in the world.’

 Nodding, reassuring each other.

‘Got three boys myself, little terrors. You remember Kaylan right, my oldest?’

‘Yeah course, from when I used to babysit. How is he?

‘Seventeen.’ Drake gauging his reaction. ‘Man’s beard look like yours.’

‘You’re kidding me.’

‘Swear down.’ Drake took a sip of his own pint, gasped and grinned wider. ‘You have to meet em all. His brothers are twelve and ten. They’re good kids bruv, believe.’

‘I do.’

 
He noticed Drake’s leg bouncing under the table. Once sighted, it was difficult to take his eyes away. It made him suddenly nervous.

‘I can’t believe Kaylan’s seventeen. What happened to the time?’

‘We’re old now bruv, that’s what happened. Dem yout’s live a different world, dealin wid shit you wouldn’t believe.’

‘Makes me glad to be down in Lewes,’ he said, instantly regretting it. A flash of surprise darkened Drake’s features like a cloud passing before the sun. Craig found it hard to forget once the light was back.

‘How’s business treating you?’

 Not meeting his eye, scaring him further.

‘Oh good, good…’

‘Saw that new ting, Vintage Racers… The boys were killin me for it… Forty pound a piece blud, what’s goin on wid dat?’

‘I know…’

‘Tried to drive like dat on the way home, thought I’d impress the kids. Got tugged goin down Notting Hill.’

‘Serious?’

‘They were. Gave me two points, six month ban.’

Fuck.’

‘Just my luck innit?’ Drake had the good grace to look amused, even if he wasn’t ashamed. ‘So what bruv, you can’t bring man in?’    

‘Well…’ Feeling his heart plummet, thinking already, even though he knew what Laura would say considering he was always giving games away; sometimes freebies for Toby, sometimes for his friends, a lot of the time for the fathers of Toby’s friends. He felt bad once again, irritated by his guilt. ‘I suppose I could put something in the post…’

‘Yeah… That would be cool…’ Drake was turning his head from left to right, scanning the full tables around them like a Cold War spy, Craig all of a sudden guessing the real reason for his phone call, remembering why he’d been so scared when Laura passed on his message, knowing why he hadn’t picked up the phone until she pestered him for days on end. It was that foreseen look in Drake’s eye that had stopped him, as if they were colleagues involved some great conspiracy. All the way from Lewes to London he’d wished things might have changed, but they never did in places like these, it just kept the wheels turning and the people running in place, panting with the effort of staying upright.     

‘What’s on your mind Drake?’

 
He knew he’d misjudged his tone when he saw Drake falter, his shield of confidence dented, thrusting him back a measured step.

‘Know me too well still, innit bruv…’

 Craig’s laugh was bitter, the taste of it sharp in his mouth.

‘It’s all right, it’s all right…’ Drake was saying, still not looking him in the eye. ‘I was thinkin maybe I had a little idea you could use… We could work on it together you know, me an you… Lissen dis yeah, jus lissen one minute… I was watchin the youts by my yard play GTA and I was like, yeah man, dere ain nuttin representin dem you know…  So you could ave like, a game set in the ends where mans is on the estate, an he’s gotta shot tings on the other side a town right, like in a nex code where man like him not supposed to go, but it’s bait cos dem man don’t like it yeah; den feds are on his case, and the olders don’t like what man’s dealin wid so he’s gotta dodge alla dem man and get the work to dis nex ends on the ovva side a town… An while he does dat he’s got side missions innit, his girl, his mum, beef his boys get him into… I ain really thought it out proper, but I jus wanted to run it by you, see what man thinks…’

 And the worst thing about that whole conversation, the thing that stung him most, wasn’t his thoughts that it was the worst pitch he’d heard in all his years of developing; or that he didn’t understand fifty percent of what Drake was saying because the slang had changed, of course it had; but despite his disgust, driven by his guilt, he found himself nodding in all the right places, saying how good the idea was, that it was something he could use, even as he mentally dismissed his awful sounding game, the visit home, the dialling of Drake’s number, even the possibility of seeing his former best friend again.        

 

 

Later they were back on the streets, a bitter wind blowing through his winter clothing, copper leaves chasing at their feet like a dog trying to catch its own tail, Drake walking head down, talking fast. Craig didn’t know why he’d agreed when he felt so bad, melancholy sucking the words right out of him, seemingly transposing them into Drake’s mouth, making his jaws flap and sentences tumble onto the pavement before them. There was no reason to follow, no need, and yet Craig took right turns and lefts, sighting houses that had previously been squats and crackhouses, but were now penthouse apartments, studios, gated communities. Drake bowed his head and led him further off the main road, away from the sirens and take aways until they entered the estate he remembered, chalky walls and pententiary landings, a raw wind howling through long corridors, pushing him from behind as if forcing him not to lag no matter how much he wanted to, making him walk faster.

 
Drake took a key from his pocket just before he reached a battered red door. His full grin was back, grey tooth visible, Craig noticing that the colour matched the estate walls, hating his own observation. His friend was winking as he unlocked the door.

‘Let’s have a drink an celebrate blud… We’re gonna make history - me an you like old times…’

 
He tried not to wince as Drake ushered him into the flat, which caused him to grimace instead. The musty smell of contained air flavoured by an odour of old household items. Weed smoke greeting him at the door. Drake sauntered through the house flicking on light switches, stumbling over blackened trainers and broken toys. There was no one in the kitchen, but his sons were in the bedroom worshipping before the alter of yet another Super Mario adaptation, gazing at the screen, pads in hand. The oldest, Kaylan, was a man before his time, sporting hulking muscles and tattoos to go with his Islamic style beard. The younger children were skinny in comparision, flat-eyed and sullen even from his position by the door.  

‘Yes my youts!’

Grunts and groans, flouting their father’s presence.

‘Sit up when I’m chattin to you! Dis ere’s Craig yuh know, the one I was showin you about? Makes dem games you lot are always playing.’

 No one even looked in his direction.

‘What’s wrong wiv you man, say hello nuh? Ain you lot got no manners?’

Longer grunts and groans.         

‘I give up man, I tell yuh.’ Drake turning on his heel, bumping into Craig, almost sending him flying. ‘Sorry blud; let’s got meet Karen.’

 
He flattened himself against the wall and let Drake lead again, wandering into the living room. There was time to look at the pictures on the wall; Drake’s Grandmother Irene, who’d brought him and his siblings up, an older brother and younger sister Craig remembered, probably too well. The siblings themselves, Jonathan, who’d done manslaughter time, and Christie who’d come on to him when they were teens and stopped speaking to him when he’d turned her down. He stood staring into their pixelated faces, recalling all the things he’d pushed into that locked room of his mind, before he heard Drake’s voice calling him over the bass thunder of a television.

‘Sorry, just checkin out your photos,’ he called back, dutifully following his voice.

 
Karen was frozen in the midst of a minature forest of bottles, some empty, some not, most containing alcohol. She had a thin sheet of Rizla in hand, while a girl friend sat next to her broke weed above the cigarette paper. There were a few men too, lounging with their legs spread, ignoring him, drinking amber liquid from cups adorned with purple and orange spots, watching the huge screen hung on a far wall; MTV Base, Craig reckoned from his quick glance. It was on very loud. Drake was stood by his partner’s chair, swaying the beat of the TV, smiling.

‘Craig, this is my fiancee Karen; Karen, my best friend Craig yeah?’

‘Please to meet you,’ she told him. Her grip was light, featherweight, and her dark skin glowed as though it trapped and threw back the light of the room. He thought of Laura; freckles and red spots left by the imprint of his fingers.

‘Yes, and you,’ he said, feeling eyes on him.

‘Sit down, please,’ Karen continued, licking and rolling her joint. Her eyes were large, confident. ‘Make yourself at home.’

‘Well actually, I was just leaving.’

 
He imagined he could hear the room breathe out, as one. Relief. This had been expected. Hoped for, except by his host and hostess.

‘You’re not stayin bruv?’      

‘I gotta train to catch, sorry mate.’

Craig held out a hand. For a while it hung there, stiff as a broken branch.

‘That’s a shame,’ Karen said, not looking at him. Her voice was level.

‘I thought you was staying,’ Drake muttered, reaching for Craig’s hand and grasping the fingers as though he’d been forced into a pact against his own will.

 

 

He walked to the train station alone, nose pointed at the pavement, fists clenched deep in his pockets. Once in a while he wiped at his damp cheeks and told himself the wind was blowing much stronger now the sun had gone. It had to be.  

 

*****

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