Monday, 27 May 2013

Novel Extract - Tong Street Blues - chapter 38 of 'The Other Elephant' - set in London in the 1970's

He wakes up. He was dreaming of the smell of patchouli.

The day pokes fingers of sunlight between streaks on the grimy window and into his dry eyes. His head is parched from last night’s intoxication, last night’s dream. He feels like he’s slept for three weeks. Only he knows that’s wrong. It’s three weeks since the funeral, but he knows. In that time he’s hardly slept, except for last night, this morning. This morning’s dream. He was dreaming of the taste of apple, dipped in cinnamon sugar.

He sits up. He’s in his own bed. Some remaining inkling of self-preservation had made him leave Alvin’s pad, late in the night and seek his own, safer place. He pulls protesting limbs to the sink and gulps water. It oozes over his wizened tongue and down his throat in slow motion, like a stream of new rain creeping over a parched desert, with the burning ground sucking moisture from beneath as it tries to run. He was dreaming of the wetness of fucking, with her wonderful, fair skin sliding beneath his sweating body, his mind burning with the joy of it.

He remembers yesterday, before the dream, he had climbed to the top of Sandringham flats because he couldn’t bear it any more. Oblivion beckoned and he followed and he toked on Alvin’s pipe, and now he understands. It’s something else, the fulfilling blast of smack, but it’s not real, because this morning the world is still dry. He feels parched from his skin to his core, like brittle, bark-less twigs high on a beach, bleached and sand blasted. Out of the reach of the water.

He was dreaming of Sandy. Now he needs to find her.
Once more he climbs up the six floors. Sammo answers the door, smiles a greeting, he seems relaxed this morning. He must have had his fix. Joe feels pleased for him, and superior. He knows it’s not real, the release of the drug, the relief the boy obviously feels.

‘Where’s Alvin?’ he asks.

‘He’s still sleeping.’

‘Wake him up then, I gotta talk to him.’

‘I can’t do that, Joey.’

‘Well I fucking can.’ He pushes past Sammo. Touching the boy doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore. But Alvin takes a lot of rousing, a lot of verbal badgering, prodding the reluctant, blanket wrapped figure with his impatient feet.

‘You want more already, Joey?’ Alvin is up, finally. He is sitting at the table, wrapped in the grey army surplus blanket. His naked, bony feet stick out of the frayed legs of faded brown flares. ‘That was fast, man! Take care, you’ll overdo it.’

‘I don’t want any more of your fucking junk, Alvin. I wanna know where’s Sandy? You were giving her stuff. When did you see her? Where does she live? I need to find her.’

‘Cool it, Joey! Gotta think. Can’t think till I’ve had a cuppa.’

So he waits, he’s left it so long, two years? More? Time still doesn’t work right, in his head. He tells himself that another half an hour, while Alvin gets his shit together, can’t make any difference.

‘Anyway,’ Alvin says over the third cup of tea, the second cigarette, ‘information like that has to be worth something, you know.’

‘I’m not paying you for information, you prick! I'm your friend, remember?’

‘Yeah man. But I’m also, like, a businessman, remember?’

‘And a fucking junkie.’

‘Joey! Course I’m not. It’s all under control, man!’

‘Yeah, yeah. Where’s Sandy? You must have some bloody idea.’

‘Haven’t seen the chick for months, Joey. She’s been going, like elsewhere.’

‘Like, elsewhere? What the fuck are you talking about?’

‘Valuable information, man!’

‘Fucking hell, Alvin! Ok! I’ll buy some of your Nepalese dope, if it’s any fucking good.’

‘Course it’s good, man! Don’t you trust me?’

‘I’ve got a fiver and I want something better than your stingy quid deals.’

‘Come on, man! I just might know the approximate location of your ex-lady love, remember?’

‘I thought we were mates, you fucking dickhead!’

‘Ok Joey, ok! Don’t get heavy.’

He finds he’s standing over Alvin and he can see fear behind the junkie’s stretched smile.

‘She was living down Clapham,’ Alvin says, ‘with some spade called Lucas. I think it was like, near a launderette... Tong Street?  Where’s that fiver?’

Joe clenches his fingers around the note in his pocket. ‘Where’s my fucking dope?’

Alvin stands. He looks at Joe as if uncertain of something.

‘Yeah,’ Alvin says at last, he gropes for his glasses. ‘I’ll get it.’ He puts on the glasses. Their round lenses are held into the wire frame with red insulating tape. As he goes to uncover the stash, he seems as if he’s diminished, flawed, like a snowman in the early sun he’s lost part of his height, his scale. Joe’s breath catches in his throat. This is over, finished.

Alvin spends some time precisely slicing through the block of dark yellow hashish with a scalpel. He carefully wraps a generous, crumbling slice in clean foil. The foil makes a crumpled, metallic sound as he folds it around the hash. hH holds the packet out.

Joe takes the silver packet, carefully avoiding contact with Alvin’s hand. He holds out the fiver, then drops it onto the floor. He watches the junkie who used to be his friend, scrabbling at his feet for the money. The boy Sammo hunches in the mangy armchair, clutching his own knees with bruised arms. He can’t save them all.


Tong Street is a short, neat through road a couple of blocks away from Clapham Junction, with a terrace of thriving shops. It's better than he expected, better than Sandringham flats, better than a lot of Soho and Covent Garden with their vast, empty demolition sites.  A green-grocer’s wares line the pavement, trestles draped in cloth brim with oranges, mangoes and the great, clawed green hands of plantains. The unfamiliar, slightly alcoholic scent of ripe mango wafts over him as he passes. A hardware shop spreads its wares of plastic bowls and brooms of many colours. A demure, net-curtained curry house shares a frontage with a record shop, which streams reggae around the passers-by.

Next door to the curry house is the launderette and above them all are three stories of flats. Beside the entrance to the launderette four steps and a locked door leads up to the flats. He counts ten bells with untidy labels, the names mostly faded away. Up and down the street are several similar doors; none are labelled Lucas and Sandy. He sits on the steps by the laundrette and rolls a straight. What did he expect? Even if Alvin told him the truth, how did he actually expect to find her? Stupid!

‘What you doing smoking dope on me step?’ A big, middle-aged woman deposits two large, tartan shopping bags onto the step, one on each side of him. Her face glistens with indignant sweat.

‘Sorry,’ he gets up, aware of the foil wrapped package of dope in the inside pocket of his leather jacket. ‘It’s just baccy.’

‘Oh yes! I suppose you think me other leg got bells on it too,’ the woman pulls out a large bunch of keys and begins to struggle up the steps. She opens the door and turns to descend and collect her bags. He takes them up to her. She looks him up and down, with her lips pursed. ‘Wha’ you want?’

‘I’m looking for someone. Can you help me? Please,’ he says, remembering how to ask, remembering to speak politely to an older women. It’s a long time since he’s spoken to one. ‘A girl, she lives round here, she’s tall, sort of fattish, with long blonde hair. Her name’s Sandy, do you know her?’
‘Why would I know some hippy white girl?’ The woman sniffs and turns to go in through her door.

‘She’s got a black boyfriend called Lucas,’ he says quickly, before she can vanish inside.
‘Ask in the music shop,’ she says. 

He sits down on the step again, after she closes the door. He finishes his cigarette. The only black guy he knows is Mahmoud Felah, who is British born, with Nigerian parents. He can talk to Mahmoud, but Jamaican guys? Even their music, reggae, alarms him. He associates it with agressive, short-haired white boys in Ben Sherman shirts. It’s a discrepancy, a fault in his memory, he knows it is. Bob Marley is black, with long hair.
He braves the reggae, enters the shop. He expects the place to be full of dread-locked Jamaicans and a fug of ganja. He finds a rotating fan blowing clean, cool air around tidy racks of albums. He recognises a few names, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters. There are no customers. At the back, a neatly dressed old man with straightened, Brylcreamed hair, sits on a high stool, reading a newspaper.

‘I’m looking for a guy called Lucas,’ he says to the old man, thinking this is hopeless. ‘I think he lives above the laundrette. Do you know him?’
‘Why you looking for Lucas? What do you want with him?’

‘It’s about a chick.’ As he says it he realises how stupid this is. How can he say he to this old man that he wants to take Lucas’ woman away from him. ‘She’s called Sandy, do you know her?’
‘What does she look like?’

‘Tall as me, she’s a big girl, long blonde hair, do you know her?’
‘And white?’

‘Oh. I suppose.’
‘Then why don’t you say so, white boy? There’s no supposing around here.’

‘No. Sorry. I’m not from around here.’
‘I can tell,’ the man grins at him. ‘Nor am I, but I been here twenty years. The best jazz and blues shop outside of Tottenham Court Road. Do you like jazz?’

‘I dunno.’
‘All right, maybe you need educating, young man. What’s your name?’

‘Good. Hallo Joe, I’m Michael.’ The old man holds out his hand. Surprised, Joe shakes it.

‘Good,’ Michael says again. ‘Now you can sit down, Joe, and we will drink lemon tea, and listen to good music and maybe even talk about why you need to find Lucas and his lady friend.’ He produces two folding chairs from behind the counter, carries them out onto the pavement and opens them in the sun. Joe sits.

Michael goes back inside. He returns carrying two steaming glass mugs, with floating slices of lemon. He is followed out of the shop by the sound of a steel stringed guitar, skilfully strummed, then a high, mournful voice joins it. Michael sits down with a sigh.
‘Don’t you need to be inside for, like, customers and things?’ Joe says.

‘Do you see any customers? There are no customers until half past three when school is out. You see, the jazz is my life, but the reggae is my living. And the school kids all come in for the latest imports from Kingston. Some of the school kids are even black.’ Michael laughs at his own joke. He sips his tea and taps his foot, picking up the guitar rhythm. ‘This is Blind Lemon Jefferson,’ he says, ‘pure blues is the roots of jazz and of white man’s rock and roll. Did you know that, Joe?’
‘I think so.’

‘Good. But did you know that the best rock and roll is played by black men?’
‘Yeah. Chuck Berry.’

‘Good man! Then you will know that Elvis Presley is just a white trash upstart. So you are not as ignorant as you think.’
Joe sips the hot tea, it’s sticky with sugar but still surprisingly sharp and it coats his tongue with tannin. He smacks his lips, and waits.

‘All right,’ Michael says, after tapping his foot through another song. ‘Now to talk some business. Lucas is my nephew. How do you know him?’
‘I don’t know Lucas. I know Sandy, I mean I knew her,’ he adds, suddenly realising there could be misunderstanding. ‘I knew her before she came to live here.’

‘And are you in love with this girl?’

‘Are you quite certain about this? So why you want to see her?’
‘I’m worried about her. I’m afraid she’s ill, or something.’

‘Or something.’ Michael nods slowly. ‘And are you the man who been selling her whatever it is that has made her ill, or something?’
Joe grimaces involuntarily and shakes his head, too surprised to protest. He is accused of the one thing that he hasn’t done to her. The only thing.

‘All right,’ Michael says. ‘So maybe you think that Lucas can’t look after a white girl? You don’t trust him?’
‘Don’t even know Lucas, I told you. I just wanna see Sandy’s okay.’

‘And if she is not okay, Joe, what are you going to do about it?’
‘Help her, if I can.’

‘All right, Joe. Then I shall tell you something. You are right to be concerned. Lucas is not cruel but he is a stupid boy who could not look after a cat, never mind a woman. This girl Sandy, she has been poorly and Tish his sister take her to the hospital because Lucas is too stupid to see how poorly she is. He is proud to have a white girlfriend with blonde hair, but I don’t think he love her. He hasn’t even visit her in the hospital, only Tish has been up there.’
‘Is she all right, now?’

‘I don’t know. You want to ask Tish?’
Joe shakes his head, courage only goes so far. ‘What hospital?’

‘Saint Thomas' Hospital I think they take her to,’ Michael says. ‘Maybe she’s still around, if you are quick, Joe. Are you quick?’
‘Is she dying?’ As he asks the terrible question, the fist of panic begins to close inside him. Quick? Is it a year and a half since he left Amsterdam? Two years? More than that since he even saw her? Damn his bloody memory! He’s stupidly, wickedly slow.

‘No no, calm yourself,’ Michael is saying. ‘She recovers, soon they might even let her out. You had better be quick.’
St Thomas’ hospital is near Waterloo; he jogs most of the way, following Michael’s directions. He passes the gloomy hulk of Battersea power station, the riverside road leads him on. Great skeletal cranes haul giant parts on a monstrous building site. As his lungs begin to close up, a hoarding proclaims A New Flower Market - from Covent Garden to Nine Elms. He runs past bridges, he doesn’t cross any this time.

‘You should go past the park and follow the river Joe, but stay on the south side,’ Michael has told him. He follows the river, slower now, but still moving. He can’t get away from Sandy any longer. He mustn’t let her get away from him.

To see other extracts from this novel, click 'the Other Elephant' label below.

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