ONE

 

‘You can’t change the size of fire.’
     The first words he ever spoke to me were half lost in the rumble of traffic along Ladbroke Grove.
     I’m sure he thought he was being poetic or something, but right then I didn’t care: someone had just nicked my aunt’s lawnmower while I’d been inside the repair shop.  I stormed up to him from the curb, where I’d been scanning the road for some sign of the thief, and barked down at him, ‘Where’s the mower?'
     He gave me a crooked smile, delved into his trouser pocket, pulled out a stick of Dentyne and offered it to me.
     I paused.  How did he think a stick of gum could help in this situation?  How would that help when my aunt went batshit?  It was weirdo stuff like that that made everyone at school run whenever they saw Nathan coming.  It also didn’t help that he was supposed to be part of a gang – The Grove Runners – and it was actually this that made me weary of him now.  If any of the girls from school saw me talking to him, they’d be gone.
     So I smacked the gum out of his hand, sending it flying onto the concrete.
     ‘Which way did he go?'
     ‘That way,’ Nathan finally said, jerking his thumb towards the Harrow Road.
     I quickly turned from him then ran off in what would turn out to be a futile search for the lawnmower.

*

The next time I spoke to him was two days later in Mrs Bradley’s history class.  For some reason, he threw himself into the chair next to mine, flung his graffiti-covered bag onto the table, just as my girlfriend Karen – the girl I was supposed to be saving the seat for – walked up, saw the two of us, gave an exaggerated huff and strutted away again.
     ‘Yeah, cheers for that,’ I said to Nathan as I watched Karen’s arse sway tauntingly as she walked away to look for another seat.
     ‘Sorry, mate.  I didn’t mean to –'
     ‘Save it.'
     Besides, he didn’t seem sorry.  He looked amused.
     Ignoring him, I perched myself on the edge of my seat, watching to see where Karen would sit.  I could still salvage the situation, follow her over there, tell her she looked beautiful today.
     She finally sat down over in the opposite corner, at the farthest point away from me.
     But then I saw she could have taken the seat next to this other girl, but hadn’t.  There was an empty seat next to her.  She wanted me to follow!
     I grabbed my books and pens, but just as I was about to leap from my seat, Mrs Bradley clapped her hands, told everyone to shut up and draw the curtains.  Too late to change seats.  I slumped back into my chair and dumped my books on the desk as far from Nathan as I could.  Yeah, petty, I know.
     Mrs Bradley then inserted a video into the player, switched off the lights and ordered everyone to put their pens down.  Seconds later, Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog flickered across room.
     As the opening credits began and the haunting music rippled through the sweaty air, I soon forgot about Nathan and the trouble he’d just caused me with Karen.  That film is probably why I remember the events of that day as well as I do: Jews stripped, shaved and tattooed; a man who’d been shot, lying on a barbed wire fence; a bulldozer shovelling raw-boned and skeletal bodies into a ditch...
     About halfway through, I snuck a look at Nathan.  Odd: he seemed just as disturbed by the film as I was.  Usually he’d sit at the front, cracking wise, but now he was gazing at the screen, the flecks of green in his brown eyes shimmering, the Dentyne frozen in the side of his mouth in mid-chew.
     When it was over, as Mrs Bradley ejected the video and switched on the lights, I found myself whispering to Nathan, ‘That film was insane.  I can’t believe –'
     He held up a chubby, scarred hand to silence me, an odd, faraway look on his face, and huskily said, ‘I know where your lawnmower is.’

*

This was back in ’91 when I was living with my aunt in a small flat off Portobello Road.  She’d taken care of me since I was eleven, when my parents, away on their second honeymoon, had drowned off the coast of Antigua (that small island in the Caribbean where I was born).  My father had jumped into the sea to save my mother after she’d been swept away by the swelling waves in the rainy season of 1987.  Since that time I’d been living in west London under the stern guidance of my aunt.  I always had plenty of friends and girlfriends, and usually managed to stay on top of my homework and out of trouble.
     But something must have happened when I turned fifteen.  Whether it was the nightmare of exams and having to make decisions about what I was going to do with my life, or whether hormonal changes had twisted my way of thinking – whatever it was – something had changed in me.
     So, that afternoon after Mrs Bradley’s history class, I skipped football practice and lied to Karen about where I was going – something the old Ryan Williamson would never have done – and walked through Notting Hill with Nathan Dawes.
     ‘Where are we going?’ I said as we turned onto All Saints Road.
     ‘You’ll see.'
     I think he thought ‘You’ll see’ would be enough to get me off the topic.
     It wasn’t.
     ‘Come on.  Don’t be lame.  You said you knew who took my lawnmower.'
     ‘Yeah, and I bet you wish you could go back in time and stop that kid from taking it.'
     ‘So what if I do?'
     ‘My point is’ – he broke off to take a hefty drag on his cigarette – ‘that stuff what happened in Germany would have happened anyway.  Determinism, innit.'
     Nathan had already gone home to change, and he was now wearing a shirt, trainers with big floppy tongues, and aviator glasses, now balanced on his head.  His hair was slicked across his brow, partially covering a broad face that seemed both welcoming and belligerent.
     It was that look on his face which was going to make me argue that what happened in Germany could have been stopped, perhaps asking him if my parents’ death was also inevitable.  But I didn’t.  Instead, I asked, ‘What you doing after exams?'
     He seemed to struggle with this question, his brows jagged in an intense frown, his pockmarked, nail-bitten hands scratching at each other.  ‘I don’t know… I just… Whatever I do, I just want to fit in.  I want the girls to like me.'
     I laughed, then, seeing that he was being serious, shut my mouth again.
     ‘Well, what are you gonna do?’ he asked.
     ‘I want to make films and maybe get married, I guess.’  The vagueness of my answer was worrying, and, as if to steer the conversation back to the safety of the present, while realising that Nathan seemed to have derailed the conversation in the first place with all that determinism bollocks, I said, ‘What did this kid look like, anyway?'
     ‘Can’t remember,’ he shrugged, ‘all kids pretty much look the same.'
     ‘You’re right useless.'
     Nathan laughed, as if I’d fallen into a trap he’d just laid.  ‘Well, as Chaung Tzu said, “All People understand the use of the useful.  But few people understand the use of the useless”.'
     I waved him off.  ‘And you said you want the girls to like you?'
     But he’d already moved on, his attention caught by a group of boys waiting outside Vidur’s Videos.  ‘There’s some people I want you to meet,’ he said.
     I stopped dead, eyeing the boys wearily.
     ‘Come on,’ he continued, ‘your aunt wants her lawnmower back, don’t she?'
     ‘But I didn’t think I’d have to meet your dumbass friends in the process.'
     ‘Get over yourself.  You need to see what’s on the underside of life.  You need to –'
     ‘Shut your trap.  I need to go meet Karen.  I need to go to football practice.'
     ‘Look.  Come with us just this once,’ he said.  ‘Then after that you can go back to your hot girls.'
     I looked at him, studying his face, wondering whether he could hear the crazy things he was saying.
     He looked back at me, and we tried to stare each other down, the traffic along Ladbroke Grove spluttering around us.
     I don’t know how long the two of us stared at each other like that, but it felt a long time.  Then, unable to remain serious any longer, we both broke into laughter.
     ‘You’re fucked,’ I said, my reluctance at meeting his gang crumbling the longer I watched Nathan’s animated eyes.
     ‘Let’s do this,’ he said.
     I glanced over at the boys, who’d begun to saunter towards us, and I cursed under my breath, knowing it now too late to simply walk off without looking like I was scared of them.
     First, Nathan introduced me to Dwain Tapper, the leader of The Grove Runners, a curbside gang which had strong ties to a Yardie outfit headed by Dwain’s cousin, English Victor; then, Fahad Kandala, son of Vidur, the Indian proprietor of the video shop we were stood by now; Courtney Hoxton, another boy with Jamaican parents; and lastly – although everyone was clearly uncomfortable with his presence – Aidy Small, now half-hidden behind a wall because he knew he wasn’t welcome due to the fact of him being only eight years old.
     We ambled up Ladbroke Grove to the Harrow Road where, according to Aidy (whom Nathan had sent to follow the thief), the lawnmower could be found in a shed at the end of an alley behind Lee’s Arcade.  We stood across the street, eyeing the arcade, watching old men and kids trundle in and out, until it finally became apparent to the other gang members that they had no idea why we were there.
     Dwain, grouchy, marginally overweight, with a short Afro, leering smile and dark confrontational eyes, stepped right up into Nathan’s face, looked him up and down, as if Nathan were emanating some faintly pungent smell, and said, ‘Why you bring us here for, star?'
     Nathan placed a hand on my shoulder.  ‘We’re here to get Ryan’s lawnmower back.  Look how upset he is.'
     I looked down at the floor, embarrassed that Nathan, despite Dwain’s glare, was just laughing him off.
     Dwain kissed his teeth, eyed Fahad and Courtney, thrust his glare upon me, then focused back on Nathan.  ‘Ain’t no reason why we should help this bumboclot.  My man looks like a batty boy.'
     ‘Don’t be like that,’ Nathan said, ‘he’s gonna help me get laid.  The least we could do is this one little thing.'
     ‘I’m going to what?’ I said.
     Fahad and Courtney began to laugh.
     ‘You ain’t getting no pussy,’ Dwain said, ‘not dressed like that.  You look like you’re dressed for the beach – raas.'
     Nathan flattened out his shirt with his palms.  ‘This was my dad’s.'
     ‘No shit it was your old man’s.  If I were you, I’d mash up his face; he’s laughing at you, star.'
     I wondered what Nathan saw in these kids.  Courtney and Fahad were OK, I guess, but Dwain was just…ugh.
     ‘If you batty boys fink I’m gonna watch while you steal back some pathetic lawnmower and drag that shit halfway across London, you’re on a jolt flex.’ Dwain hunked up a gob of spit and fired it three feet from Nathan.
     Nathan blew air from his lips, causing his fat lower lip to wobble.  He didn’t speak, just turned to eye the arcade again.
     Suddenly feeling stupid for ditching football practice and Karen for these bunch of losers, I decided I’d have to make it up to my aunt in some other way.  So I turned and walked back.
     Nathan called after me but I kept my head forward and my feet moving.  They were proper doing my nut.  I had to go ring Karen.
     Now about twenty meters away (I could hear Nathan and Dwain arguing again), I stomped on to the nearest bus stop.

*

When I arrived home, Aunt Esther was stooped over the stove, boiling rice, a wooden spoon in one hand, a bible in the other.  She was stood between me and the phone.
     Acting casual, I strolled up to the biscuit tin, prised the lid open and picked out a chocolate Digestive, knowing this would get her attention, cause her to turn, allowing me to squeeze by her to the phone.
     It worked, but she ignored the pre-meal biscuit and said, ‘How many sweet potatoes you want?'
     My stomach flipped, both at the thought of eating sweet potatoes and at the prospect of being accused of rejecting my West Indian heritage. I took a bite of the biscuit and said, ‘Do I have to?'
     She kissed her teeth, something I was fully used to her doing for the last four years, but this time it reminded me of Dwain, catching me off guard.
     ‘Look here, boy,’ she said, ‘I don’t never give you no yam, no plantain, dasheen, green banana, okra, aubergine, callaloo –'
     ‘I know.  Just one then.'
     I slinked on past her, the phone now in my sights at the end of the hallway.  But just as I was about to leave the kitchen, she said, ‘Any sign of my lawnmower?'
     ‘What do we need the lawnmower for, anyway?’ I said, backchatting her against my better judgement.  ‘We live in a flat.'
     ‘Don’t make me walk my hand around your face, boy.  You’re lucky Gertrude can’t hear you.  She box your ears.'
     Gertrude was my grandmother in Antigua.  Esther always said that Gertrude wanted nothing more than to get me out of the satanic cesspool of London and over to the Caribbean, to straighten me out, teach me the ways of the Lord.
     Obviously, I hated the idea, so in order to steer the conversation away from that, I stepped outside the kitchen and said, ‘God, I’m starving, maybe I’ll have some plantain if you’re doing some.'
     ‘Eh-eh.  Now you want my cooking.  Have mercy.’  Despite herself, she laughed and waved me out of the kitchen.  ‘And don’t go runnin’ up my phone bill.'
     ‘I won’t.'
     I closed the door behind me and dialled the number.
     ‘Who’s this?’ Karen’s mum asked even though she knew who I was.
     My hands began to sweat, and the receiver fell lower into my hand so that I now struggled to grip it by the earpiece.  ‘It’s Ryan.  Is Karen there, please?'
     There was an awkward silence, then: ‘Hang on, I’ll go see if she’s in.’ I flinched at the sharp knock of the phone being placed onto a table.
     At last Karen came on the line.  ‘Hello,’ she said, her voice oddly blank.
     ‘Hi, it’s me,’ I whispered.
     ‘Oh, hi,’ she said, the background noise at her end fading as she went into another room, ‘I thought you were with that Nathan Dawes.’

 

TWO

 

When people ask me about Nathan, about what he did, especially later, I always find it impossible to answer, as if some cute, neatly boxed-up explanation could ever explain why he turned out the way he did.
     They talk about how his mother Iris used to stare off into the distance, a distracted look coming into her eyes, her mind somewhere other than her only son’s future; and his father Paul who, shortly after Thatcher had come into power, had been moved onto night shifts at the factory where he worked, perhaps adding another layer to the ‘lack of parental guidance’ theory.  But these arguments seem weak, especially as they both loved and tried to help Nathan as much as he would allow.
     The fact was most of his close friends, me included, came from real broken homes, yet Nathan, with his stable home life, fell harder and faster than all of us.
     If I had to mention one thing, some defining moment that set him on a strange trajectory through life, it would be his childhood illness, the inflammatory bowel disease, which caused him to undergo temporary bowel diversion surgery and kept him in and out of hospital for a year, bringing him close to death at the age of five.  It was also there, in hospital, attached to an IV, when he first discovered books, which would ultimately lead him to become fascinated with the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.
     But I guess one of the reasons I’m writing this is to try and find out who he really was.
     He was like the positive curvature of space: begin with him, keep moving in a straight line, and you’ll always end up at the same point from which you began.

*

I was late for school the next day because I couldn’t get out of bed at the thought of seeing Karen.  When I did finally arrive for the first lesson of the day – maths – I was greeted by Nathan’s ridiculous grin.  I immediately saw what he was smiling at: the seat next to his was the only one free.  I scanned the class, searching for another chair, but they were all taken.  So, nodding at Peter, who was still angry with me for missing football practice, and ignoring Karen and the raised eyebrows of Mr Harrington, I slumped into the seat next to Nathan’s.
     As soon as Mr Harrington’s sweaty back was turned, I pulled out my note pad, ripped out a sheet of paper and scribbled, what happened after i left?
     Nathan activated the red nib of his four-coloured pen and wrote back in capitals (he had this really annoying way of writing all his notes to me in capitals): MISSION ABORTED.
     karen dumped me last night because she found out i was with you.  she hates you, I wrote, tossing the paper back at him.
     But as soon as Nathan began reading the note, I regretted what I’d written.  I didn’t think he’d care either way, but his shoulders sagged down, he unhooked his left foot from his right knee and placed it back on the floor, began to rub his fat lower lip with his thumb, then gently folded up the note and stared down into his textbook.
     This last act must have been particularly painful for him because he hated maths.  The shape of the E Mr Harrington awarded him on every piece of homework reminded him of a rake slowly scrapping off precious cells from his brain; and when you turned the E ninety degrees clockwise, he would tell me, manically flapping his arms about, what did you get?  M: M for maths.  The ‘therefore’ symbol, that small triangle of dots, was like the laser targeting system the Predator used to hone in on his victims before he skinned them and ripped off their skulls.  The square root symbol was like the meat hook from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the pie sign like the wire speculum used to force Alex’s eyes open as they tortured him in A Clockwork Orange.  So to bury his head in his textbook must have meant my note had hurt him.
     (Although, I still wonder whether he was less concerned with his role in my break-up with Karen and more the fact of being hated by a girl, any girl, feeding into his insecurities about never having had a girlfriend and his hopeless relationship with the opposite sex in general.)
     Shifting my gaze towards the back of Karen’s head, my thoughts pulled back to last night’s devastating phone call, I ripped out a fresh piece of paper from my note pad, began to write a letter asking her for a second chance, then changed my mind and screwed it up.
     But the sound of the paper being crumpled cut through the silence of the class, drawing all heads in our direction and all eyes onto Nathan, the pupil everyone thought most likely to have caused the noise.
     Mr Harrington strolled over to our table, inserted his hand into Nathan’s closed fist and extracted our note.  He uncurled it and read it, his eyes flitting over our written crap.  With a disappointed sigh, he finally placed the note back into Nathan’s hand, pointed at the two of us then over to the door.
     Nathan closed his eyes and slowly shook his head, not in anger or outrage at some injustice he’d just suffered, but rather at the inevitability of the situation, as if the concept of determinism had finally been proven right.
     I sank back into my seat, cringing at the disappointed looks I was getting from Karen and Peter.
     ‘Can’t we just discuss this?’ Nathan said.
     I stood up.
     ‘Sure,’ Mr Harrington said, ‘come back here at three forty-five and we can discuss it in depth.  But for now, could you and Ryan please leave the room.'
     Nathan flushed, and for an instant he looked distraught.  For the first time ever he actually seemed gutted about getting detention.   ‘Can’t we do this another day?  I was going to get Ryan’s lawnmower back.'
     Mr Harrington seemed confused by his remark, as if it were inconceivable that Nathan might have something to do after school that he actually cared about.  ‘Well, you should have thought about that before you started sending notes.  Now, go report to Mr Whitehead.’ His expression turned sour, daring Nathan to say another word.
     For a moment it looked like Nathan was about to speak again.  Instead, he stuffed his books into his rucksack and stood up.  My legs buckled as we trudged through the desks towards the door, and I was way too embarrassed to look in either Peter or Karen’s direction.
     Closing the door behind us, Nathan said, ‘I’m sorry about you and Karen, but she probably wasn’t right for you anyway.'
     ‘What would you know?’ I said a little too loudly, my voice echoing down the deserted corridor.
     ‘Probably not much.  But before we go to Whitehead’s office, let me show you something.'
     ‘Uh, no.'
     ‘It won’t take long – we’re just going to the science department.'
     ‘Fuck off,’ I replied, quickening my pace.  ‘I’m not getting chucked out of school for your bullshit.  Fuck that.’  The thought of my aunt squinting at an expulsion letter made me feel sick.
     Nathan caught up and walked along with me.  His eyes now had a pathetic, pleading look in them, and he was breathless, his hands all jittery.  ‘Just let me show you this one thing,’ he went on.  ‘Tonight I’ll get your lawnmower back and you won’t have to hang around with me again.’  His eyes widened in hope.
     This made me pause; it certainly didn’t sound like he was asking me to join him in the toilets for a crafty fag.  Then I remembered where we were going – Whitehead’s office – and that I didn’t really want to go there either.  Hearing the fight gone out of my voice, all I could think to say was, ‘That’s what you said yesterday.'
     ‘Yeah, I know, but this is important, if not the most important thing.'
     ‘OK, but I swear it had better be worth it.'
     He didn’t give me the grin I had expected him to, instead, without another word, he took hold of my arm and marched us to the Science labs.
     Standing to one side of the classroom door so that we couldn’t be seen, we peeked through the window at the class full of kids, stood over experiments involving petri dishes, Bunsen burners, glass tubes, and pipettes.
     ‘What I am supposed to be looking for?’ I said.
     ‘Over by the window near the cupboard, you see…?'
     I pushed my face up against the glass and scanned the area he’d referred to.
     ‘Standing next to Taylor,’ he continued, trying to catch a peek over my shoulder.  ‘You see her?'
     ‘Yes,’ I sighed, ‘I see her.'
     Stephanie Redding was a high-achieving student who'd joined our school at the end of last term.  She hadn't made much of an impression on the boys, as she wasn't one of the prettiest girls in our year.  She was almost too thin for her height, with a chin a little too elongated, so at first glance I couldn't understand why she got Nathan so excited.  But as I continued to look, Nathan's cinnamon breath hot in my ear, I could see she that she had a head of rich dark brown hair, which, in the light from the window, gave it a radiant, velvety sheen, luscious hazel eyes, a pretty nose and clear white skin.  But the thing that struck me most was that when she laughed you could see her front teeth were slightly angled inward, an unusual trait which made her look (and I know this makes no sense) exotic, European-looking.  French.  I finally turned from the door, moved out of sight and leaned against the wall.
     Nathan didn't have a chance.
     'That,' he said, moving into the position I had just vacated, straightening the thin end of his tie dramatically, 'is the girl I'm going to marry.'

 
 
the distant sound of violence

★★★★★