Jumat, 11 November 2011

DARK ALLEYS by Peter Nolan Smith

Not many alleys in America survived the urban renewal of the 60s and 70s. Most cities have eradicated these curious phenomena as a danger to the public safety. There were too many people no wanted to meet in a dark alley for them to survive the times of law and order. Those passages remaining in Lower Manhattan owed their existence to property lines following Indian trails and cowpaths.

Liberty Place used to be Little Green Street, Coenties Lane ran to the East River, and the infamous Mudd Club was located at the T-intersection of Courtlandt Alley and White Street.

Muggers hung out in the shadows of the short-cut leading to Canal Street. Ripping off drunks reeling out of the club was a good business in the late 70s and 80s.

Last month the ambassador and I attended a poetry reading at a long-standing pub on the Harrow Road. Twenty years ago I had witnessed a fight evolve into a bloodbath at the ground-floor bar. The establishment served French food in the dining area and charged four quid for a pint. The only broken noses in the place were from corrective surgery.

I kept my observations to myself. Younger people cringed upon hearing the words ‘used to‘ from older gits. The beer was cold and the performers were entertaining. After thirty minutes I was ready to change venues. My time in London was limited to several days.

Friends from Cornwall called with an invitation for a late dinner at The Cow. After an extremely thin man finished his slot, I excused myself from the show. The ambassador understood my departure. I hadn’t been in London for over ten years.

“You want to join me?” It was a polite offer.

“No, you have a good time.” Alysa dismissed me with a whisper. Her eclectic friend was MCing the evening. He wore a black and gold Elvis suit.

“Thanks.”

I caught a bus down to Westbourne Grove Park and walked up All Saints Road. Thirty years ago Jamaican reefer dealers operated a gauntlet of illegal free enterprise. This cold evening I was the only person on the sidewalk. Bad neighborhoods had been hard hit by the real estate frenzy. Volvos, BMWs, and Land-rovers demonstrated the spending power of the ‘new’ people and even more telling was that these high-end vehicles wore all four tires.

I cut through a basketball court to a housing estate. Westbourne Park Grove was on the other side.

Fourteen years ago my flight New York had landed in London on the morning of Princess Diana’s funeral cortege. The mourning city was neutron bomb quiet. I took a taxi from Nottinghill Gate to Shrewsbury Mews. Sam Royalle owed a duplex in the mews. The bar owner and his French girlfiend were paying their respects to the woman who could have been Queen. It was a sunny day and I sat the steps of the closed Domino Pizza shop with no particular place to go.

I loved Chuck Berry. His songs had a phrase that worked in almost every situation.

Forty minutes later a van stopped in front of the Mews. The back door popped open and three short-haired black men jumped onto the pavement. They wore bright red training suits and brand-new sneakers. The baseball bats in their hands were aluminum. The one with the newest suit was their leader and I knew what the first words out of his mouth would be before he even moved his lips. He had scars on his knuckles.

“You know a Sam Royalle?” His stance was a threatening provocation. His back-up surveyed the street for witnesses. This scene from a post-apocalypse movie had four characters and I was no extra.

“I’m heading to Ireland.” It was always better to tell the truth. I had rented a house west of Galway for the autumn. My deceased mother had told me to go to Ireland and find a woman like my sisters or aunts. I was brought up to obey her every wish.

“Reggie isn’t interested in your vacation plans.” The fat boy on the right weighted close to ten stone. That was 280 in America. “He asked you a question.”

“And I told you I was going to Ireland.” Sam’s world was not black and white. He ran in the gray territory between the two camps of law and outlaw.

“Thick Mick.” Even yardies had picked up the prejudice against the Irish from their English schoolmates. The fat boy lifted his bat. There were no witnesses. Everyone was at the funeral procession.

“It’s the Jamaica of Europe. Where you think they learned how to make people slaves? Nowhere but the land of the leperchauns.” I tried to say it like I had been brought up in South Boston instead of a trolley car suburb south of the Neponset River.

My comment earned a laugh from Reggie and he released one hand from the bat. The metal end clonked on the sidewalk.

“Heel, Bunny.” Reggie was a natural with authority, but his relaxed pose transformed him into a Little League dad. He had kids somewhere.

“You’re a lucky man.”

“And so are you.” I turned my head. The mourning city was coming back to life.

A police car was prowling slowly up the street. They were trawling for an arrest. Bunny, Reggie, and bats were the something wrong in the picture. The cruiser slowed down to a crawl. I waved to the cops. Three blacks bracing a white man in a leather jacket could mean anything. My smile kept them going in the direction of The Cow. Reggie clicked his fingers and woggled his hand for his boys to get back in the van.

“Good you didn’t say nothing to the coppers.” No one in England called the police Bobbies anymore.

“I’m not snitch.” The word in English slang was grass. I was not English.

“You see Sam. You tell him Reggie is looking for him.” New Yorkers have a low regard of the toughness of other cities. It’s a good thing they don’t travel too much. The rest of the world would come as a big surprise.

“Like I said. I’m going to Ireland.” When was none of his business.

“Make sure you do that.” Reggie had redeemed my one-off go-free card. "Have a good time in Ireland."

I didn’t bother to say good-bye.

Sam showed up an hour later. His sexy girlfriend had red eyes. Love for Diana was not a monopoly of the British. The French felt the pain too. I suspected more to the accidental death than reported by the newspapers. Sam was more interested in Reggie’s visit than my conspiracy theories.

“Did Reggie look mad?” Sam doubled-locked the front door. He had bought the Mews house a year ago for 400K. His renovation had brought up the value to over 600K.

“Mad would be an understatement.” I threw my bags in the downstairs bedroom and pulled the drapes.

“Did he say he was coming back.” Sam was short, but muscular. His family were good people from Luton. Their only son tried to stay out trouble. The twenty-seven year-old wasn’t very good at playing the saint when the devil had a better playlist.

“No, but I’d bet the house on a repeat appearance.” I had planned to stay with Sam for a few days before traveling to France. He was selling it at month’s end. My father and I were touring the Loire Valley by car. He would arrive in a few more days.

“It’s all a misunderstanding.” We went through his house securing the windows. His facial bruises hadn’t come from an argument about shaving cream.

“Better that than a case of mistaken identification.” The innocent have a funny looking guilty to the guiltier.

“Someone contacted me about a bank wire transfer.” The stone walls were stout to withstand a point-blank shot from a 45.

“I want to know nothing.” Ignorance was the best refuge of the uninvolved.

“I did nothing.” Sam was scared of the Jamaica crew. He had good reason. Reggie didn’t play games.

“Never say that in front of a judge.” Everyone was a criminal in their eyes and criminals knew an excuse when they heard one.

His girlfiend was upstairs smoking cigarettes. French girls were experts at killing time with a pack of ‘clubs’. Sam pulled two beers out of the refrigerator.

“Have you tried talking to them?”

“There is no talking with these people.”

Sam explained the situation, despite my protestations.

Reggie had contacted him for a job. Someone’s aunt worked in the office of a bank’s wire transfer section. Sam had opened an off-shore account for Reggie. The aunt had sent 180,000 quid. It never got where it was supposed to get. Reggie had excused Sam of ripping him off. He wanted his money. I told him that I didn’t have it. His posse showed up at my bar with shotguns. A big fat one shut the car door on my head.”

“Bunny.” The big man liked his work.

“That’s the one.” Sam rubbed his face in appreciation that he still had a nose.

“A piece of work.” Big boys like Bunny had two options in Brixton.

Bullied or bully. Bunny had voted for the latter at an early age.

“Reggie told me to sell my house on the Mews and give them the money. I didn’t do wrong.”

“I believe you.” At least 50%. “But getting involved with Reggie and his crew was a questionable career move.

“180K is what I’d make on the sale of the house.”“That’s not a coincidence.” Sam acted as if he was being set up, but the Rastas were convinced that he was lying through his teeth. Reggie’s posse fancied themselves gunmen. “You’re fucked if you stick around here.”“What are my options?”

There was one plan A.

“Runner.”

“Where?”

“I’ll meeting my father in Paris tomorrow.” He liked taking trips with me. I reminded him of my mother. She had been dead for a year. “Best you come with me.”

Nothing bad was happening tonight. Reggie looked like a family man and tonight was about Princess Diana and not a deal gone bad.“Sounds good to me.

Sam wisely did a runner to France. His girlfriend stayed behind at the flat. She wasn’t scared of Reggie and that said set-up.

Sam and I drove through the Loire Valley with my father. We drank wine and toured castles. Sam was on the phone with Reggie every time we stopped for gas. When he came back to the car, Sam shook in his seat. Reggie was not the type to make empty threats.

“Your friend have girl troubles?” My father had a pension from the phone company. He liked people using the phone.

“Something like that.”

“They can be a problem.” My father came for Maine. People from Downeast refrain from any involvement in other people’s lives. I had been born in Boston and one night in St. Malo after my father went to his room, I asked Sam, “You have any money?”

“Enough to stay away from London and I’ll be set for a long time once I sell the house, yes.” His sister was handling the sale. She worked for Scotland Yard.

“Then I suggest you get on a plane to Thailand.” I spent most of the 90s in the Orient. Thailand was the easy place for a foreigner to live in South East Asia. The food was good and the women were easy, plus Bangkok had another thing going for it. “I haven’t seen any Brixton rastas out there.”

“Then that’s where I’m going. What about you?”

“I’m heading to Ireland. You could join me.”

“Too close to London.”

That night we ventured into the dark danger and walked over to Kensington Park. Sad Londoners were offering flowers and stuffed animals before Diana's palace. The condolence were rising waist-deep. Sam and I laid a wreath atop the pile. It was buried within seconds.I was half-Irish on my late mother's side. A great-great-grand-uncle had been hung by the British. His name was Michael. My baby brother had been named after the potato farmer. Michael had succumbed to AIDS two years ago. Princess Diana supported gays. She was my princess too and I dropped my head to hide my tears.A week later I dropped the two of them at Charles De Gaulle aeroport. My father was returning to Boston and Sam was flying to Thailand. Bangkok was a good city to hide from Brixton gangsters. The Thais were short and he could see Bunny coming from a mile away on Sukhumvit.

“Good luck and stay at the Hotel Malaysia.” Room 203 was my home away from home. It overlooked the swimming pool. Nothing really bad ever happened there.

“Thanks for the advice.”

We shook hands and he threw me his keys.

“Anything that fits is yours, but keep an eye out for any suspicious Jamaicans.”

The warning was well taken, even though Nottinghill Gate was known for suspicious Jamaicans and whiteys too. Sam had a leather jacket from Agnes B that was my size. I risked the the danger for the fashion and stopped in London on my way to Ireland.

Across from the cul-de-sac was a grocer. I stood at the door for thirty minutes. He asked, if I was going to pay rent. I bought a bag of ginger snaps. My purchase shut him up.

After thirty minutes I decided that it was safe. I crossed Westbourne Grove and entered Sam’s apartment without turning on the lights. Everything was there. The yardies hadn’t broken into the place. I pulled the leather jacket from the closet ready to leave.

The motion detection lights illuminated in the alley. Someone had followed me. I ducked under a table.

Knocks sounded on the door. I did not answer them.

My blood pounded out a bongo beat like the heart in Edgar Allen Poe’s TELL-TALE HEART. I heard voices. The accent was from Kingston. The shadows were not black enough to camouflage my white skin.

The high windows was crowded with the silhouette of heads. A heavy thud rocked the front door. It did not give way. Several minutes later the light in the alley went out.

I waited a half-hour before exiting from the house. No one was in the mews. No one confronted me on Westbourne Grove. I had the jacket in my hand. The leather was soft as a baby seal.

I walked out of the alley and down to the Cow. A few friends were having dinner.

“Nice jacket,” one of them said feeling the leather.

“I picked it up in a dark alley.” I didn’t tell them where.

“Scary.”

“A little.” I downed my wine in one gulp.

My hands shook even after the second glass of wine. I was steady an hour later. In the morning I was flying to Ireland. Reggie would like that.Not much had changed at Shrewsbury Mews. The Domino Pizza was serving take-out and the light shone in the short alley. I walked down to Sam’s old house. The door was still the same color.

There were no lights lit and I took a photo to send Sam.

He lives in Thailand. I was heading to The Cow. Reggie was probably over with an ever-bigger family in Brixton.

I walked back to Westbourne Park Grove and scanned the neighborhood.

I wasn’t scared this evening, because some dark alleys aren’t so bad as long as you don’t walk into them when they are dark. Fear is 90% lighting. The other 10% is anticipation of Bunny. He was a big boy built for a dark alley.

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