The Weekend Read
By Jendella Benson
14th Dec 2018
The streets were empty now that the riot had come and gone. But to Lauren it still felt like the city was burning. The only sound she could hear was the soft beat of her bag against the back of her left thigh, punctuating each step. She adjusted the strap slung across her shoulders, changing the bag’s position and silencing its rhythm. As she walked down her road, she imagined the gangs of volatile young men at home dressing their bruised knuckles, getting ready to return to school and work the next day.
Rumours about the Sikh taxi driver burned alive in his minicab had sent warnings ricocheting around the community. Mobs were said to be out on the streets seeking retribution by dragging unsuspecting black motorists from their cars at traffic lights. No one seemed to know for definite if either story were true – like how no one knew for definite if the incident that triggered the unrest had actually happened – but either way, the stories had been the fuel that caused the streets to blaze.
The shrill tone of Lauren’s mobile phone sliced through the quiet.
‘Lauren, where are you?’ It was her mother. ‘I called the house phone twice and you didn’t pick up!’
‘Oh, yeah… I just had to quickly go Melissa’s ‘cause, erm, she has a textbook I need for an assignment that’s due tomorrow.’ She was getting better at lying.
‘You can’t go to Melissa’s, it’s not safe. Wait until we get back and we’ll give you a lift.’
‘I’ve already left, Mum, and it’s only round the corner anyways.’
Her mother paused.
‘You said you weren’t well enough to come to church with us, but you somehow found the energy to go see your friend?’
‘I’m feeling better now, ennit?’ Lauren’s ears burned. Her mother sighed.
‘Call me when you get there so I know you’re safe. We’ll pick you up on the way back.’
‘OK. Bye, Mum.’
Her first hurdle cleared, Lauren found the last message she’d received from Zee and tapped out a reply:
On ma way xox
A few seconds later her phone chimed with his response.
She didn’t like the way he typed ‘orite’, instead of ‘alright’ or even ‘alrite’. ‘Orite’ sounded like ‘oh, right’, which felt to her like a sigh of resignation rather than genuine enthusiasm. She also didn’t like the fact that he never signed his texts with an ‘x’, but still, there was so much else to like about Zee. First of all, he was quite tall. Lauren didn’t know if she had a ‘type’ yet, but if she did – or if she was developing one – tall would definitely feature on that checklist. She remembered the way he had sauntered onto the top deck of the No. 11 bus the first time she had seen him. He walked erect, chest out, shoulders stiff, the waxed peaks of his hair almost brushing the ceiling of the bus. He sat across the aisle from her, one row back, and every now and again she was sure she could feel the heat of his gaze rest on her briefly. As the upper deck emptied out she heard him clear his throat.
She turned to look at him in anticipation.
‘You’re really pretty, y’know,’ he began casually, the absent-minded tapping of his lighter against the seat in front of him the only thing betraying his nerves.
She smiled and said, ‘Thank you’, not sure how to prolong the conversation.
‘Can I ask you your name?’
‘Nice to meet you, Lauren,’ he tilted his head. ‘I’m Zee, ennit.’
‘Nice to meet you, too.’
The conversation ambled along self-consciously. They exchanged superficial details: the colleges they were at, what subjects they studied, and where they lived. He teased and flirted, easing into a confident swagger that made her skin tingle.
‘This is me,’ Zee said as the double decker approached the green bus stand. Lauren had already passed her stop a while ago, but had stayed on the bus under the pretence of going to meet a friend. ‘I enjoyed talking to you though, let me get your number so we can continue, ennit.’
He reached over, handed her his phone and she eagerly tapped in eleven digits.
‘What should I save it as? I bet you’ve got pure girls in your phone! Probably can’t tell who is who…’ She giggled, but her ears were pricked for his response.
‘Ah, so you think I’m a player, yeah?’ Zee smiled.
‘Nah, I’m just saying because Lauren ain’t the most original name, ennit.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll remember ya… but will you remember me?’ He winked and sloped off the bus.
Lauren was still grinning when the text message popped up on her phone:
Nice 2 meet ya sxy. It’s Zee. Inabit.
The quiet of the residential side streets was nothing compared to the silence that swamped Lauren when she reached the main road. At any other time, Soho Road was a bustling artery of the city with buses nosing their way through traffic lined up end to end, and people spilling onto the streets from newsagents, banks, supermarkets and fast food takeaways. Even on a Sunday evening there would be the footfall of worshippers, making their way to and from church services and Sunday dinners. But today the streets were completely deserted, except for the fluorescent jackets of police officers studding the empty road at intervals in either direction, as far as the eye could see. They glowed in the weak October light.
Lauren dug her hands deep into the pockets of her cropped white jacket, wanting to draw the fur-lined hood up and over her ears to ward off an imaginary chill. But, conscious that the action might make her look suspicious, she settled for clenching her fists inside her pockets and kept walking. Each officer she passed mutely watched her go.
As Lauren approached the turn that she needed to take, she glimpsed a small fluorescent cluster outside the blue shutters of the afro hair and beauty shop ahead. Maybe they were there to collect forensic evidence, she thought. Maybe a young girl had been raped after she was caught shoplifting. It seemed plausible enough: everyone knew someone who had stolen something from a hair shop, that is, if they weren’t a thief themselves. Whenever she went into one of the Asian-owned shops on the high street she would be shadowed by one of the shopkeepers as the employees talked over her head in Urdu or Punjabi, or whatever language it was that they spoke. If the young girl was assaulted then the fear alone would be reason not to go to the police immediately. Lauren could sympathise with that, but if the girl was here illegally too? Of course she could never report it.
‘I heard that she probably didn’t report it because she voluntarily spread her legs,’ Melissa had said with authority on the phone the day before. ‘She probably got caught teefin’ and when they threatened to call the feds she got shook because she’s not got papers and offered up the pum-pum! But you know how them men are – what’s the word? – repressed, ennit, and they think we’re easy compared to their women. Their religion only lets them sex their wives to have kids – they ain’t allowed to use johnnies or nothing!’
‘Ain’t that Catholics, though?’ Lauren had asked.
‘Catholics, Pakistanis, Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s all of ‘em!’
She hadn’t told Melissa about Zee, of course. She could already imagine the look of disgust darkening her face and her reaction – ‘Blood! Are you mad? You wa’an end up chop up in likkle bits when they come for the honour killing?’ Or maybe she’d just be shocked that Lauren was talking to a boy, any boy, Asian or not. Melissa often teased her about her inexperience, and when Theo at college had sidled up to her as they waited outside the chip shop, Melissa had cut in: ‘You’re tryna chat to Lauren?! I’ll tell ya now, you’ll be disappointed! Her pussy’s tighter than a cat’s arsehole!’ Then she had cackled wildly, savouring the sting of her vulgarity.
Lauren hadn’t realised that she’d stopped in the street, staring in the direction of the alleged crime scene until an officer approached.
‘Miss, are you lost?’
‘N… no, I’m sorry.’
‘You best be getting home, not the safest time for a Sunday stroll.’
The officer nodded towards the hair shop, and Lauren quickly turned the corner, not slowing down until she reached the end of Zee’s road. She stopped to inspect her reflection in the window of a parked car, rearranging the two braids that snaked out from the nape of her neck. She smoothed down the careful display of fine hairs that radiated from her hairline and tutted to herself for not bringing any Jamm gel to slick down the few wayward kinks. For a second, her mind strayed to the image of a frightened fourteen-year-old in the back storeroom of a hair and beauty shop. She shook the image from her mind and pulled out her phone. She was ready.
Am on ya road xox
Orite. Com 2 numba 46.
She began walking past the terraced houses.
Shud I knock on or w8? xox
Na u can knok. Ma rents av gon out.
Panic flared through Lauren’s mind. Did Zee expect her to come in? Everyone knew what a ‘free yard’ meant, but he’d never even hinted at it on the phone or in any of his text messages. Her stomach fluttered as she approached the door. The brick wall that enclosed the small concrete rectangle in front of No. 46 felt like an omen, but against her better judgement, Lauren announced her arrival with a flap of the black letterbox. The door opened and Zee stood in the crack. He greeted her with a crooked smile, his brown eyes twinkling behind long lashes, and Lauren relaxed instantly.
‘Oi, Zameer, who’s that?’
‘Nun’ya business!’ Zee turned to holler at someone behind him and Lauren could make out a shadowed profile approach before the door was whipped open wider, and a slightly younger boy peered around it, his eyes narrowed.
‘Didn’t know you was into black bitches, cuz!’
‘Shut the fuck up, ya prick!’ Zee spat.
‘Out in da street, dey call it muuuuurdahh!’ The boy’s voice cracked as it sang. Zee wrenched the door from his grip and slammed it shut behind him.
After a few brisk paces down the road, he apologised gruffly. Lauren nodded in acknowledgement, but she wanted to ask Zee what the bad impression of Damian Marley was all about. She waited a few moments then decided against it, feeling shyness weighing down her tongue. It was a lot easier to talk for hours by text or under the cover of darkness on the phone, but having Zee right here, striding alongside her in his dark blue Armani jeans and crisp white Nike windbreaker, she was lost for words.
‘So where d’ya wanna go?’ He finally asked her.
‘Erm, I don’t mind.’
Zee stopped and surveyed the street.
‘Let’s go park, ennit.’
He crossed the street without waiting for her and she skipped a little to keep up with him. As they cut through the gullies that ran between the tightly packed red-brick houses, they made small talk, slowly warming to each other’s physical presence. Neither of them mentioned the riot, the rumours, or the deserted streets around them. But when they turned onto another main road, Zee’s swagger disappeared, stopping Lauren mid-sentence as she followed his hard stare.
Ahead of them was a tight knot of black boys, uniformed in dark clothing with hoods and hats. Their hands were tucked suggestively in the low waistbands of their sagging tracksuit bottoms. Zee regained his posture, setting his jaw with his chin in the air before continuing with an exaggerated lean.
‘Come, let’s cross the road, it’ll be quicker.’
Lauren’s stomach turned as they crossed, Zee practically sprinting ahead of her. The cohort of boys turned in silent unison to watch them, before one called out.
‘Yo! You got a fag, blood?’
Zee paused before replying but didn’t break his stride.
‘Nah, blood. I don’t smoke, ennit.’
Lauren felt their stares burning holes through her. She heard one of them mutter something to the others and they all cracked into a menacing snicker.
‘Where you running to, blood?’ Another called out.
Zee drew parallel to them on the opposite side of the road and stopped, turning to face them square on.
‘Nowhere, blood. Just got places to go, ennit.’
‘Where you going with her, though?’
Zee drew himself taller. Lauren nudged his arm, her heart thundering in her ribcage.
‘Come on, Zee, let’s just go,’ she said in a low voice.
‘You like Asian boys, yeah?’ One of the group called out to her with a sneer. Zee frowned, his jaw set even tighter.
‘Zee, let’s go.’ Lauren’s voice trembled.
‘You must wanna get fucking raped as well, ya slag!’ The sneer bubbled into anger, and he jumped down from his perch on a wall.
‘Oi, leave her, blood! If she likes Paki dick, that’s her business, ennit,’ a voice said, before turning to Lauren. ‘We’ll remember ya face! Make sure we don’t catch ya on road again, or you’ll catch a dutty slap!’
He spat on the floor and Lauren pulled Zee away, her hands shaking and tears caught in her lower lashes.
They walked in silence until they reached the empty park. The perimeter was ringed with short evergreen bushes, and as they entered Zee aimed a vicious kick at one, scattering leaves and dirt.
‘Fucking pricks! I should have called my cousins down and we’d have fucking battered them!’ He spat, before adding under his breath: ‘Fucking black dickheads!’
‘You what?’ Lauren stopped and looked at him.
Zee breathed heavily through his nose.‘Soz, I’m just angry, ennit. Fucking dickheads, man – all of ‘em!’
‘There’s no need to make it about skin colour, though.’
‘What d’ya mean?’ Zee looked at her. ‘They called me a Paki first!’
Lauren took a deep breath, trying to discreetly dab around her eyes. ‘It’s probably just the atmosphere, ennit, a lot’s happened. I heard a black boy got stabbed and died the other day. Frustrations, ennit.’
‘So you don’t mind that they said they’re gonna slap you?’
‘Nah, obviously, but –’
‘Listen, it’s all lies anyway. We don’t do that, that’s not our culture.’
‘You know… people are saying a black girl got raped, ennit, I’m saying we don’t do that.’
‘So you know the man who owns the shop?’
‘Nah, I’m just saying, we’re not animals like… like other people. The girl probably made it up, they’re all liars.’
‘Nah… no, I mean, I don’t know, man. All I know is –’
‘You people don’t do that, I know, I know! So which people do do that?’ Lauren’s tone was confrontational. She could feel the adrenaline still in her system, but the fear had been replaced by the impulse to fight.
‘I don’t know, fucking… fucking white people, ennit? They’re the ones that sold you lot into fucking slavery!’
‘Not all black people are slaves, you know.’
‘Nah, man, you don’t get what I mean – fuck it! Why are we fucking arguing about this shit anyway? Don’t make no fucking sense!’ Zee sat down heavily on a park bench, but Lauren stayed standing. The ground had shifted beneath her feet.
‘What?’ Zee lifted his head. ‘You wanna go home or something?’
Lauren didn’t answer. She could go home, but it would mean a long walk by herself and maybe another run-in with those boys on the corner, or maybe the police would see her doubling back and get suspicious. She had come so far, she had lied to her mother twice already, she might as well stay.
‘Just sit down, man, relax. I’m sorry, man, we shouldn’t even be talking about this shit. It’s got nothing to do with us.’
Lauren slowly sat down next to him. They both stared ahead in silence.
‘I don’t like this bench,’ Zee said after a while. He stood up and held out a hand. ‘Let’s go by the canal, it’s better.’ Lauren allowed herself to be pulled to her feet and followed Zee.
Crossing the empty park made Lauren feel like they were soldiers moving across No Man’s Land. They walked diagonally across the open green, winding their way behind the empty basketball court, and towards the canal. Lauren didn’t relax until Zee had finally settled on a bench near the low bridge where, thankfully, they’d be out of sight.
‘You know what messed this whole thing up from the beginning?’ Zee asked, his brow furrowed and serious.
‘You didn’t give me a hug when you first saw me.’
He let a sly smile creep across his lips. Lauren shook her head, turning away to hide her own grin.
‘If you had give me a hug, none of that shit would have happened – I promise ya!’
‘Well, it’s too late now, it happened,’ Lauren mumbled into her collar, but she was still smiling.
Zee stretched out his arms and Lauren feigned reluctance as she leaned into him. He smelled of Joop! Homme and hair wax. After a brief embrace she began to pull away but he locked his arms around her waist and pulled her in closer, so close she could see the spray of dark hairs beginning to form a moustache above his mouth.
‘What’s that on your lips? It looks nice.’
‘Just lipgloss, ennit.’
‘What’s it taste like?’
Lauren licked her lips. ‘I dunno.’
‘Let me have a taste.’
Lauren’s giggle was silenced as Zee pushed his lips against hers. He held them there briefly, before pulling away.
‘What’s wrong? Why you so stiff?’
‘Nothing, I just… I mean, I –’ Lauren stuttered.
‘You’ve never kissed someone before?’ A wicked smile played on Zee’s lips as he felt her shift in his grip. ‘Wait – how old are ya?’
Embarrassed, Lauren tried to turn and push him away, but he tightened the lock of his arms and pulled her closer.
‘I’m just playing, man, chill out. Just do what I do.’
He kissed her again, and her body relaxed into his. She felt his hands travel from her waist up her back, and slide into the warmth beneath her jacket. A police siren wailed past on the bridge above them and at the same time her phone began to ring buried deep within her bag. It would probably be her mother. Maybe she had called Melissa’s house and realised that Lauren wasn’t there. If so there would be hell to pay at some point, but right then the only thing that Lauren could think about was how Zee’s tongue tasted of peppermint.
Featured in The Book of Birmingham by Comma Press