The tall overhead lights came on along the path as Ness circled around a low brick building on the edge of Meanwhile Gardens. This was a child drop-in centre—devoid of children at this time of day—and when Ness glanced at it, she saw a lone Asian woman within, who looked to be closing up for the evening. Beyond this place, the gardens fanned out, and a serpentine path wove through tree-studded hillocks, tracing the way to a staircase. This climbed in a metal spiral to an iron-railed bridge, and the bridge itself spanned the Paddington branch of what was the Grand Union Canal. The canal served as the northern boundary of Meanwhile Gardens, a division between Edenham Estate and a collection of housing where sleek, modern flats sat cheek by jowl with antique tenements in a declaration of the fact that life overlooking the water had not always been so desirable.
Ness took in some of this, but not all. She homed in on the steps, the iron-railed bridge above them, and where the road crossing that bridge might lead.lead.
Inside, she burned, so much that the very heat of her made her want to fling her jacket to the ground and then stamp upon it. But she was acutely aware of the January cold beyond the heat inside her, touching her flesh where her flesh was bare. And she felt caught inextricably between both of them: the heat within and the cold without.
She reached the steps, unmindful of the eyes that watched her from beneath one of the adolescent oak trees that studded the hillocks in Meanwhile Gardens, unmindful also of the eyes that watched her from beneath the bridge over the Grand Union Canal. She didn’t yet know that as darkness fell—and sometimes even when it was far from falling—transactions were made in Meanwhile Gardens. Cash was passed from one hand to another, it was counted furtively, and just as furtively illegal substances were handed over. Indeed, as she reached the top of the steps and gained the bridge, the two individuals who’d been watching melted out from their hiding places and met each other. They conducted their business in such a fluid manner that had Ness been looking, she would have known that this was a regular encounter.
But she was intent upon her own purpose: an end to heat that burned from within. She had no money and no knowledge of the area, but she knew what to look for.
She stepped onto the bridge and took her bearings. Across the road was a pub, and beyond this ran a stretch of terrace houses on either side of the street. Ness studied the pub but saw nothing promising within or without, so she headed in the direction of the houses. Experience taught her that somewhere nearby had to be shops, and experience did not lead her astray. She came upon them within fifty yards, with Tops Pizza offering the best of the possibilities.
A group of five teenagers mingled in front of it: three boys and two girls. All of them were black, to one degree or another. The boys wore baggy jeans, sweatshirts with their hoods drawn up, and heavy anoraks. This was something of a uniform in this part of North Kensington. The kit as a piece told an onlooker where their loyalties lay. Ness knew this. She also knew what was required of her. Match rough with rough. It would not be a problem.
The two girls were already doing this. They lounged back against the front window of Tops Pizza, eyelids lowered, breasts thrust out, flicking ash from their cigarettes onto the pavement. When either of them spoke, they did so with a toss of the head while the boys sniffed around them and strutted like cocks.
“You a star, yeah. Come wiv me and I show you good times.”
“What you want wiv hanging ‘bout here, darlin. You out here seeing the sights? Well, I got a real sight to show you.”
Laughter, laughter. Ness felt her toes curl inside her boots. It was always the same: a ritual whose outcome differed only in what came of its conclusion.
The girls played along. Their part was to act not only reluctant but scornful. The reluctance gave hope, and the scorn fed the fire. Nothing worthwhile should ever be easy. Ness approached them. The group fell silent in that intimidating fashion adolescents adopt when an intruder appears in their midst. Ness knew the importance of speaking first. Words and not appearance produced the initial impression when more than one person was chanced upon in the street.
She jerked her head at them and shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket. She said, “You lot know where to score?” She blew out a laugh and threw a look over her shoulder. “Shit. I’m aching for it.”
“I got somet’ing you ache for, darlin.” It was the expected response. It was given by the tallest boy in the crew. Ness met his eyes squarely and looked him over top to toe before he could do the same to her. She could feel the two girls bristle at this, her invasion of their territory, and she knew the importance of her response.
She rolled her eyes and gave her attention to the girls. She said, “Bet no one scores from this lot. Right?”
The bustier of the girls laughed. Like the boys, she eyed Ness but this was a different kind of evaluation. She was assessing Ness’s potential for inclusion. To help things along, Ness said, “Get a hit?” and indicated the cigarette the girl held.
“Ain’t a spliff,” was the reply.
“Know that, don’t I,” Ness said. “But it’s something anyways and like I say, I fucking need something, I do.”
“Darlin, I tell you I got what you need. Jus’ step round the corner and I show it to you.” The tallest boy again. The others grinned. They shuffled their feet, touched fists, and laughed.
Ness ignored them. The girl handed over her cigarette. Ness took a drag. She eyed the two girls as they eyed her.
No one said a name. That was part of the dance. An exchange of names meant a step was taken and no one wanted to be the first person to take it.
Ness handed the cigarette back to its owner. The girl took a drag. Her companion said, “Wha’ you want, den?” to Ness.
“Hell, it don’t matter,” Ness replied. “Jesus, I go for coke, weed, olly, E, anyt’ing. I’m jus’ fucking itchin, you know.”
“I got a way to scratch—” the tallest boy began.
“Shut up,” the girl said. And then to Ness, “Wha’ you got on you? It ain’t free round here.”
“I c’n pay,” Ness said. “Long’s cash i’n’t wha’s required.”
“Hey, den, baby—”
“Shut up,” the girl said to Tall Boy once again. “I got to say it, Greve. You vexin me, man.”
“Now, Six, you gettin ‘bove yourself.”
“Dat your name?” Ness asked her. “Six?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Dis here’s Natasha. Who might you be?”
“So where we score round this place?”
Six jerked her head at the boys and said, “Not from this lot, you c’n be sure, innit. Dey is not producers, lemme tell you dat.”
Six looked at one of the other boys. He’d hung back, silent, observing. Six said to him, “He deliverin any substance tonight?”
The boy shrugged, revealing nothing. He looked at Ness, but his eyes weren’t friendly. He finally said, “Depends. An’ if he is, no saying he plan to skim. Anyways, he ain’t givin it away, and he don’t do deals wiv bitches he don’t know.”
“Hey, come on, Dashell,” Six said impatiently. “She cool, all right? Don’ be nasty.”
“Dis ain’t no one time deal,” Ness told Dashell. “I plan on being a reg’lar.” She shifted from foot to foot, then, from to foot to foot, to foot to foot, a little dance that said she acknowledged him: his position in the group and his power over them.
Dashell looked from Ness to the other two girls. His relationship with them seemed to turn the tide. He said to Six, “I ask him, den. Won’t be before half eleven, though.”
Six said, “Cool. Where he bring it?”
“If he goin to skim, don’t worry bout it. He find you.” He jerked his head at the other two boys. They sauntered in the direction of the Harrow Road.
Ness watched them go. She said to Six, “He c’n supply?”
“Oh yeah,” Six said. “He know who to call. He real enough, i’n’t he, Tash?”
Natasha nodded and gave a glance in the direction Dashell and his companions were taking. “Oh, he take care of us,” she said. “But cars goin’ two ways down dat street.”
It was a warning, but Ness saw herself as a match for anyone. As she evaluated things in that moment, it didn’t matter how she got the stuff. The point was oblivion for as long as oblivion could be prompted into lasting.
“Well, I c’n drive a car, can’t I?” she said to Natasha. “Where we stop, den? It’s a long time till half eleven roll around.”
In the meantime, Joel and Toby continued to wait for their aunt, obediently sitting on the top step of the four that climbed to her front door. From this position they had two choices of vistas to contemplate: Trellick Tower with its balconies and windows, where lights had been shining for at least an hour, and the line of terrace houses across the lane. Neither prospect comprised much to occupy the minds or imaginations of an eleven-year-old boy and his seven-year-old brother.
The boys’ senses, however, were fully occupied: by the cold, by the unremitting noise from the Westway Flyover traffic and from the Hammersmith and City line of the London underground, which—at this section of the route—was not under the ground at all, and by a growing need in Joel, at least, to find a toilet.
Neither of the boys had any knowledge of this place, so in the gloom that fast became the darkness, it began to take on disturbing qualities. The sound of male voices approaching meant they could be accosted by members of whatever gang of drug dealers, muggers, burglars, or bag snatchers dominated life on this particular estate. The sound of raucous rap music from a car passing on Elkstone Road just to the west of them declared the arrival of that same gang’s kingpin who would accost them and demand a tribute that they could not pay. Anyone entering Edenham Way—the little lane in which their aunt’s terrace house sat—was someone who would notice them, who would question them sharply, and phone the police when they did not provide appropriate answers. The police would then come. Care would follow. And that word Care—which was always rendered with an upper case C, at least in Joel’s mind—was something akin to the bogey-man. While other children’s parents might have said in a fit of frustration or in a desperate attempt to garner cooperation from their recalcitrant offspring, “Do what I say or I swear you’re going to end up in care,” for the Campbell children the threat was real. Glory Campbell’s departure had brought them one step closer. A phone call to the police would seal the deal.
So Joel wasn’t sure what to do as he and Toby entered the second hour of their wait for their aunt. He needed a toilet terribly, but if he spoke to a passerby or knocked on a door and asked could he relieve himself inside, he ran the risk of attracting unwanted attention. So he squeezed his legs together and tried to concentrate on something else. The options were the unnerving noises already mentioned or his little brother. He chose his brother.
Next to him, Toby remained in a world where he had long spent most of his waking hours. He called it Sose, and it was a place inhabited by people who spoke gently to him, who were known for their kindness to children and animals, and for their embraces, which they gave freely whenever a little boy felt afraid. With his knees drawn up and his life ring still around his waist, Toby had a place to rest his chin, and that was what he had been doing since he and Joel had situated themselves on the top step. For all that time, he had kept his eyes closed and had gone where he vastly preferred to be.
Toby’s position exposed his head to his brother, the very last thing that—aside from the occasional unnerving interloper on the estate—Joel wished to see. For Toby’s head with its great gaps of hairlessness spoke of a failure of duty. It made a declaration and an accusation, and both of them pointed in Joel’s direction. Glue had been the cause of Toby’s hair loss, which wasn’t actually loss at all but rather a painful removal by scissors, the only way to free his scalp from what a ring of young bullies had dumped upon him. This ring of thugs-in-the-making and the torments they had foisted upon Toby whenever they had the chance were just two of the reasons Joel was not unhappy to leave East Acton. Because of bullies, no walk for sweets to Ankaran Food and Wine was safe for Toby to make alone, and on the rare occasion when Glory Campbell supplied money for lunch instead of cheese and pickle sandwiches, if Toby managed to keep the cash in his pocket until the appointed hour, it was only because the local miniature yobs had targeted someone else for once.
So Joel didn’t want to look at his brother’s head because it reminded him again that he had not been there the last time Toby had been set upon. Since he’d appointed himself his brother’s protector in Toby’s infancy, the sight of him wandering up Henchman Street with his anorak’s hood pulled up and fixed to his head with glue had caused Joel’s chest to burn so much that he couldn’t breathe, had caused him to duck his head in shame when Glory in her own guilt-driven fury had demanded to know how he’d let this happen to his own little brother.
Joel roused Toby as much not to have to look at his head as in desperate need to find a place to empty his bladder. He knew his brother wasn’t asleep, but getting him back to present time and place was like awakening a very small child. When Toby finally looked around, Joel stood and said with a bravado he didn’t particularly feel, “Le’s check this place out, mon.” Since being called man was a source of pleasure to the little boy, Toby went along with the plan without questioning the wisdom of leaving their belongings in a place where someone might likely steal them.
They went in the direction Ness had taken, between the buildings and towards Meanwhile Gardens. But rather than pass by the child drop-in centre, they followed the path along the walled back gardens of the terrace houses. This gave onto the eastern section of Meanwhile Gardens, which here narrowed to a mass of shrubbery beside a tarmac path and, beyond that, the canal once again.
The shrubbery was an invitation Joel did not decline. He said, “Hang on, Tobe,” and while his brother blinked at him affably, Joel engaged in what the London male tends to do unashamedly whenever he’s caught short: He peed on the bushes. He found the relief enormous. It gave him a new lease of life. Despite the fears he’d earlier harboured about the estate, he cocked his head at the tarmac path on the other side of the shrubbery. Toby was meant to follow him, and he did. They trotted along and within thirty yards they found themselves looking down at a pond.
This glimmered with black menace in the darkness, but that menace was vitiated by the waterfowl perched along the edge of the water and clucking in the reeds. What light there was shone on a little wooden landing. A path curved down to this, and the boys ran along it. They clomped across the wood and hunkered at the edge. To their sides, ducks plopped from the land and paddled away.
“Wicked this, innit, Joel?” Toby looked around and smiled. “We c’n make it a fort here. Can we do dat? If we build it over’n dem bushes, no one—”
“Shh.” Joel put his hand over his brother’s mouth. He had heard what Toby in his excitement had not. A footpath accompanied the Grand Union Canal above them and just beyond Meanwhile Gardens. Several people were coming along it, young males by the sound of them.
“Gimme toke ‘f dat spliff, blood. Don’ hol’back on me now.”
“You c’n pay or wha’ cos I not off’ring charity, man.”
“Come on, we know you deliverin weed an’ bone all over dis place.”
“Hey, don’ fuck wiv me. You know wha’ you know.”
The voices faded as the boys passed on the path above them. Joel stood when they had gone and made his way up the side of the bank. Toby whispered his name fearfully, but Joel waved him off. He wanted to see who the boys were because he wanted to know in advance what this place promised him. At the top, however, when he looked down the path in the direction that the voices had taken, all he could see was shapes, silhouetted where the tow path curved. There were four, all identically dressed: baggy jeans, sweatshirts with the hoods drawn up, anoraks over them. They shuffled along, impeded by the low crotches of their jeans. As such, they looked anything but threatening. But their conversation had indicated otherwise.
To Joel’s right a shout went up, and he saw in the distance someone standing on a bridge that arched over the canal. To his left the boys turned to hear who’d called them. A Rasta by the look of him, Joel saw. He was dangling a sandwich bag in the air.
Joel had learned enough. He ducked and slid down the bank to Toby. He said, “Le’s go, mon,” and pulled Toby to his feet.
Toby said, “We c’n have the fort—”
“Not now,” Joel told him. He led him in the direction they’d come until they were back in the relative safety of their aunt’s front porch.
The art of writing is what you get to do once to do become familiar with the craft.