Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
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A Riot

The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”
—Edgar Allan Poe

They set the city alight and they laughed as they did it. They called out one another’s names and sometimes the names of the estates nearby, as well as other sounds that were not even words but were nonetheless testaments of a kind. London was boiling and in other parts of the amaranthine city the police were already forming lines with helmets and sticks and shields.

One of the boys from the group near to where David had come to stand pulled out the metal bin from inside the plastic street cover even while another still kicked at it with the heel of his shoe. They moved like this, in violent starts of action, pushing at the bounds of what they knew and what they didn’t. But otherwise, the boys stood together as gently as cows, swaying in the dark. They wore their hoods up and the bits of their faces that could be seen showed green in the street lights. Everywhere about were laughter and yelps of delight or warning and the sounds of feet running. There was a carnival feeling. A light smoke drifted over the road and from time to time a wad of still-glowing newspaper ash rose up indiscriminately like a moth and dissolved back into nothing in the darkness about their heads. Elsewhere, the streets were empty, though it was not yet late. The metal gates to the Tube station at the crossroads had been pulled shut and padlocked from within.

When he had lifted the metal bin up to the height of his chest, the boy ran across the road and threw it with a scream of insubordination at a shop front. The window cracked and seemed to bend inward but did not break and so another boy rushed forward to kick at the glass too. There was a ritual to their violence and a randomness also. They were in thrall to it themselves. It was a beast that had been set free but had yet to find its new reach. Someone turned onto the road from a side street pushing a plastic bin on wheels and ran it into the shop front, letting go only at the last moment. Even after the window had given way, the group held back to see what else might happen, but once one had climbed through into the shop, they all went, and so too did David.

The owners had cleared away most of the stock in anticipation of the night’s troubles. But the boys pulled over shelves and threw what they could find of its stock onto the floor anyway and pried open the drawer to the till, which was empty. David rattled through the pens in a plastic tray on the counter and took one that drew in silver glitter.

Most of the people crowding about were boys. All of them were young. David knew that he stood out as far as the others were concerned, but he knew also that he wouldn’t at first to the police if they came. Outside again, someone ran past him from farther up the street, bleeding from the nose, and a girl passed by next, holding so many shoes in her arms that some fell as she went and she didn’t stop to gather them. He saw a hammer held low and two girls who might not even have been teenagers yet each carrying a car aerial. Every wing mirror on the street side of the cars still parked along the road had been kicked off and left hanging from their fastenings or else were scattered on the tarmac like creatures that had crept up from the drains to die in the moonlight.

A siren sounded once as a police car crossed the far end of the road and the driver saw the group, but it only slowed and didn’t stop. Most likely a van would be coming soon. The news reports had said there would be more police on the streets than on the other nights of looting, but many more revelers were out too, caught by the fever.

A boy who only came up to David’s neck grabbed his sleeve and pulled him round to look up into his eyes.

“Valley or Coggsy?”

The boy’s voice was shrill and he panted for breath as if he had been running. He wanted an excuse, he wanted validation. David pulled his sleeve free and, without giving himself the time to think what he would do next, he shoved the boy so hard in the shoulder that it turned him half round and made him stumble backward.

“Fuck off,” he shouted, and he laughed at the boy though he knew he was in danger and the laughter sounded desperate.

Some of the people nearby looked round as David started to run, and two or three of them even followed him, but half-heartedly, and before he had started properly up the hill, drawing them away from where things were happening, they had fallen back again. He felt something small bounce off his arm and there were shouted curses from behind. A catarrh of exhilaration and fear rose up in the back of his throat and he could hear his heart beating blood in the numb of his ears. The people he passed on the hill were all walking down toward the shops, and all had their hoods pulled up and scarves over their mouths, except for two fat middle-aged men who held their heads up high and were almost running.

David slowed and then finally stopped outside a mansion block of flats near to the top of the hill and looked back down the road again, reluctant almost to leave the streets but aware too of his boldness melting away now. There had already been two nights of lawlessness, with oddly ordinary days in between, and the other dinner guests had arrived before the start of the latest rioting. Ollie had only sent out his invitation email that morning, so there was a daring to it all. More than just dinner, even if the gathering was too small to really be a party. They were perhaps a dozen in all, and before David had arrived the others had agreed that they would stay there the night. There was safety together.

The flat was solemn, with a vintage dubstep playing loud, chosen in counterpoint maybe to the disorder elsewhere. Most of the guests lay about on the sofas and lounge chairs, close to one another but as separately as if they had been set to be painted. The television was turned on to play silent news in the corner of the room and two laptops had been left open between the empty dishes on the table so that there was constant access to the news of what was happening out in the laboring, sickening city. The worst of the unrest was in the south tonight, where fires were burning and people were rumored even to have died. The only light other than from the screens came from an opaque glass lamp in the corner of the room that Ollie had put by the window. A great clouded eye glaring out unseeing into the night.

A woman with wet-looking black hair held back in a thick silver band leaned toward David when he sat and reached out to touch his arm.

“You’re very brave to go out walking,” she said, and when she spoke she looked only at his mouth.

“I had to hide in the sewers,” David said, and waited until she smiled but still she didn’t look up, as if she might be a basilisk who could turn him inadvertently to stone were their eyes to meet.

“I shouldn’t be in company tonight,” he said.

“Ha,” she said gently.

There was a serenity to her expression and a tightness to her mouth that lifted her so far away from him when she turned her head. Nothing he could say would be clever or surprising in the right way. Ollie’s friends were used to the success they sought and seemed mostly weary of it. David was pale beside them and intangible. A counterfeit that was about to be revealed.

“The real stuff is in Tottenham and Croydon anyway,” said the man who was sitting with his arm around the woman and her chair. “This stuff round here is just more like a squabble.”

He lifted himself up in his chair and turned open his palms toward David to show his probity.

“Right? I mean, you’ve just been out there.”

“Don’t be a wanker, Clive,” Ollie said. The name that David had heard in so many stories even if he had never met the man before.

Clive only shrugged and frowned.

“I really don’t think I am being. I don’t know why we’re all sitting here. We should get out and see what’s happening. I mean, this is real.”

It was a deep, easy voice. A gift he had been given by life. The words came without effort, rising up through his chest, though there was also a hint of something richer behind, a baritone hidden beneath.

“It’s ready to kick off,” David said. He put his hands into the pockets of his tracksuit jacket nervously.

Clive directed what he said at David, the man from out of the darkness, the man perhaps to beat.

“Who’s out there?”

“The Dark One that walks among us?” the woman in the hairband said, and pressed a finger to her nose. Mocking or conspiratorial.

“Kids from the estates,” David said. “Anarchists maybe. I don’t know. People looking for trouble. They’re all wearing hoodies.”

“Hoodies.” Clive turned his head to look across the room, his interest already fading. “Ah, hoodies.”

“It smells a lot of piss out there, and they kicked in a shop,” David said. “A newsagent’s.”

Clive laughed sharply and David closed his mouth.

“They can’t get in here,” Ollie said.

“They probably could if they wanted to,” Clive said.

“It’s six floors up.”

“They just needed an excuse,” Clive said. His voice was a dreadnought bronze bell hanging in a stone tower ready to ring out. A hive brimming with bees. “We’re hanging over an abyss.”

A woman wearing a top covered in gold sequins came in from one of the other rooms, followed by a skinny man who was already so drunk that he walked into a coffee table and only lifted his arm to acknowledge the setback but didn’t try to pick up the overturned glasses.

“Are they still all out there?” the woman said in a voice marked with cigarettes.

“A throng,” Clive said out loud to himself. “A swarm.”

He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

“Well?” he said with his eyes still closed. “What are we going to do?”

His face changed without his glasses. His eyes seemed closer together and the mass of his face became vulnerable almost. He pushed a hand through his hair and put his glasses back on. “We can’t just sit up here all night scared.”

“There’s no fucking way I’m going back out there, mate,” the woman in golden scales said.

“Come on, Rachel. No one’s going anywhere,” Ollie said.

“For God’s sake,” Clive said. “Bollocks to this.”

He stood up and turned away from David to look around the room.

“I’m not staying here, waiting for some little scrot to come and piss on your door.”

“Everywhere’s shut. Everyone’s inside watching telly and getting drunk.”

“I’m done,” Clive said.

The woman in the silver hairband started in her seat, as if she had only just realized what was about to happen. She touched Clive on the arm.

“What?” she said, turning her face up to look at him, and the quiet word was filled with pleading, responding to something far more intimate that had not been said. Clive reached down and touched her hand but then stepped quickly away, out of her reach.

“Croydon’s on fire,” he said. “The least I’m going to do is go and fucking see it.”

David reached out for the wine bottle on the table and saw for the first time that his hand had been bleeding from between two of his knuckles. His fingers were trembling.

“Here, Ol, look after this for me,” Clive said. He picked through his wallet and took off his rings and his watch and put what he was leaving on the table.

“You should put some boot polish on your face,” a man said.

Clive looked at David as if it had been him that had spoken and frowned and didn’t reply.

“What? Where are you going?” the woman who had been sitting with him asked.

“To walk the earth,” Clive said. “And get a police helmet.”

“You’re a prick,” the woman said, fierce suddenly. “You know that? A complete prick.”

“You should be careful out there,” David said. “I don’t think they’re playing.”

Clive stared back at him. The man who had challenged him almost without speaking.

They watched from the balcony as Clive walked out into the street below, a tiny figure tucked up in his jacket with his hands in his pockets.

“He’s such a dick,” Ollie said. “Sorry, Carrie, but he is.”

The woman he had left there alone rubbed at her lips.

“Don’t you think he’s starting to look like Guy Fawkes with that beard?” someone else said.

“Don’t be a twat, Dom,” Ollie said.

Carrie moved to the sofa and sat curled up in front of the television. Rachel stroked her hair and then lit a cigarette, and they smoked it together staring into the thick of the creamy rug.

The room felt emptier now, the night perhaps more predictable. People invited Clive because they knew he might get drunk and walk along the railing of the balcony, or kiss the host’s girlfriend in the corridor, or punch someone in an argument that started over something that neither of them knew anything about. Because he made things happen.

“He came into work the other day with a black eye,” Dom said.

“Obviously,” Rachel said.

“He said he’d got into a disagreement with someone on the last Tube and the bloke had just hit him. Right in the face.”

“He can be so rude,” she said, smiling now.

“But the thing is, he just shrugged and said, ‘It happened last week too.’”

They laughed and the laughter brought them close.

“Have you heard about the Peckham Butler?” Rachel said.

“Oh, no. God,” Ollie said, laughing with his fingers pressed to his forehead. “This is brilliant.”

“He got him from the car park of a B&Q in Peckham,” Rachel said, and she sat up straight.

Two of the boys had come from the balcony to stand in the doorway to the dark warm room and everyone was listening.

“Someone told him about this place on the Old Kent Road where people go looking for work. East Europeans mainly. Dunno. People who want cash in hand, no questions asked. So I guess people, builders or whatever, who have jobs they need doing, casual things, can turn up and pick up a few laborers to take along. Anyway, we went down there one Friday in the morning.”

She stopped to stub out her cigarette. She grinned, ready; her eyes gleamed because she knew that, of all of the stories that could be told about Clive, this was the crowning example, the measure of the man. His peculiar power and his special flaw.

“And some of these guys were terrifying. Really big blokes and tough looking. The first one who came up had a black fish tattoo under one of his eyes. You know?

“But Clive just stood there like he does, looking them over. Walking among them. He tried to feel this one guy’s arms, like he was going to buy him, but the bloke wouldn’t let him. I thought he might get beaten up, I really did. I tried to get him to give up on it, and I went back to the car. But he just carried on. In the end, he settled on this young guy. I thought he looked a bit nasty, but Clive seemed fixed on him. He brought him back to the car, and put the bloke in the back, and then we drove off, and he went right back to chatting to me as if no one else were there. Every time I looked up at this guy, he was just staring out of the window.

“Anyway, Clive dropped me off and drove away with this guy still sitting there in the back, like Clive was his chauffeur or something, and I didn’t see them again that day. But the next day, Saturday, it was that big party out in Richmond for Sophie’s engagement thing. Her dad had spent something like, what was it, Ol? Well, thousands, anyway. Really lavish. All those people on stilts with wings. Like butterflies.

“Linen and taffeta. The girls wearing masks over their eyes and the boys in silk ties and silver cufflinks. So elegant and all of them so beautiful.

“But so Clive brings the guy from the B&Q. He has cleaned him up, taken him to get a haircut, and has him wearing this sort of uniform. A T-shirt with a tie printed on it and some white trousers and white shoes. It was brilliant. No one knew what to say. He just followed Clive round all day doing stuff for him, getting him drinks and things to eat and when we all left, he drove us in Clive’s car. That stupid Beetle he used to have. The convertible. We went up to Denver’s in town, and they nearly didn’t let him in with us, but Clive talked the bouncers into it. I think he even danced a bit when we were in there. I guess he was enjoying himself. Mike said that Clive had given him two hundred pounds for the weekend. It was crazy, really.”

“Was it Gabriel?” Ollie said.

“No, it was Gavril with a v. Because it was Butler Gav.”

“Yes.” Ollie clapped his hands. “Then later he was Vodka Gav and Whiskey Gav.”

“And in the end he was just Bovril.”

They were both laughing. Carrie started to laugh too, though she covered her mouth with her hands and turned her head to the side.

“I think I actually hate him,” she said.

“No, the guy got paid to run around with a bunch of idiots. He had a great time. We went on to this house party near the river in Putney. Clive got him to put on a white baseball cap when he was driving,” Rachel said. “I don’t even think Clive knew what he was doing, but they sort of got along. He didn’t try to understand him or talk much. I think to begin with, he had him cleaning up his place. Polishing his shoes or whatever. But after a bit, they were hanging out more as friends. Or like the young guy was his pet.”

“Clive took him to the Oval one of the afternoons too,” Ollie said. “I think he sort of cared for him in a way. Wanted to share some stuff.”

Dom leaned forward to interrupt, to take some of the light of the story.

“I reckon old Bovril was a bit in love with Clivey by the end,” he said, and they turned to him. “It definitely all got heavy. Afterwards, Clive said he used to see him sometimes outside his place, as if he was just walking past, and one night he looked out of the window and saw Bovril in the street looking up. Weird bloke, really.”

Dom took a sip of his drink. “That night, after Sophie’s thing, when we all ended up in Putney, a load of us just crashed out there. It was the night that Clive got off with that girl who had shagged Robert Plant.

“I passed out on the terrace in a deck chair and woke up when it got light and went to try to find somewhere else to sleep. I remember walking down past the room where most of the others were sleeping, the sitting room or whatever, and I could see through the window that Bovril was standing up, right next to where Clive was asleep on the sofa. It was really peculiar. He didn’t see me until I went in the door, but for a minute or two he stood there, staring at him, without moving at all, then he reached out and touched him with his fingers on the face. I thought he was going to kiss him or something. When I went in, he looked at me then sat down again on the floor. I tried to wake Clive up, but he was fucked, so I left them all there. When I called Clive the next afternoon, he said he had given the guy his money and dropped him off at the car park where he found him.”

“I think he let him keep the T-shirt,” Rachel said.

David looked around at the people listening, the ones who had been there or who had heard the story before and were laughing now again and he thought that perhaps they laughed more with each telling, as it passed from being something that marked an event to being an event in itself. But he could think of nothing to say, so he smiled awkwardly and shook his head. In the end, it was Dom who spoke.

“What a tool,” he said.

“The butler?” Ollie said.

“No. Clive.”

And they laughed again.

The noises still came sporadically from the street outside, shouts and the occasional icy tinkling of a nitrous oxide whippet dropping to the ground. But they seemed to notice it all less as the night drifted on and everyone became daring and helpless. For a while they played a game of hazard and gossip that Ollie said he had invented, even if they were not all clear on the rules. Buoyed up by the excitements of the night and the game, some of them would reveal secret things the others didn’t already know or else tell each other terrible lies that revealed other things altogether. It was an excuse for them to do whatever it was they wanted to anyway. It let them push at the limits of what they had done before and if they felt bold enough, it would let them try new things out that they might be proud of later.

David left before dawn and walked in the streets thinking about the woman who had been with Clive at the beginning of the evening. She took his hand when they kissed goodbye and twisted her fingers around his. But when he looked at the phone number she had written for him on a piece of cardboard torn from a cigarette packet he saw that it was missing a digit and so he folded it in half and let it fall away forever. Rubbish was spread across the roads and all of the rioters or opportunists or whoever they had been were gone.

He waited at a bus stop opposite a shop that had had its front windows smashed. Whatever it sold seemed to have poured out through the empty frames so that only ragged leftovers remained caught on the broken glass. This wasn’t from any righteous anger, David thought. It was something brutal and playful. The anger of license, which was perhaps more dangerous. He felt in his pocket for the pen he had stolen at the beginning of the night. An unremarkable object. Something from a place he should not have been.

It was almost six o’clock and the sky was a fuzzy gray that would turn to white and then be flooded in blue. It was the same time of day that, some years before and in a story that was scarcely credible, a boy wearing a white T-shirt that was not his own had found himself standing in a strange room surrounded by the slumped and spluttering bodies of people he didn’t know, sleeping out the effects of a debauch that was for them familiar and for him mystifying. Below him lay the form of a man he had known for only a day. A tall man with the thick chest and large, flat, oxlike face that mark out the descendants of the great Norman barons. A man with a proud nose and a chin that was strong enough to face down the whole world, but with small eyes that were also weak eyes without his glasses to keep out those parts of the same world that were not of interest or use to him.

The boy reached out his hands, which were shaking even though they were used to swinging a lump hammer and carrying rubble. He had seen the bulge inside the man’s breast pocket that must be his wallet and knew that the man was too deep in sleep to feel if he took it. The boy knew that there would be no way for the man or any of his friends to find him again and he knew that, although this was the sort of man who would be furious at the theft of any of his things, there would be nothing the boy could take that would really be important to him. But he knew also, in the clarity of the grainy light that comes just ahead of dawn when thoughts feel at their most compelling, that he could as easily put his hands on this handsome stranger’s stretched out throat, with his thumbs pointing toward each other along the crease under the man’s chin and his fingers spread out under the man’s ears where he somehow knew that a vein would rise up to the surface of the skin a moment after he began to press down. And he didn’t understand why he was thinking it or how he had ended up where he was or even where they had come to in this sprawl of a city he had been living in for only a few weeks and where things like this might happen to him often now.

He looked at the man’s thick, dark eyebrows and his nostrils and his lips that had been dried and lined by a night of drinking wine and felt all of a sudden the power and responsibility that come with being so near to another human in a state of such vulnerability, and with a turning up of his lips he sat down again where he had been sleeping. And he set himself to waiting.  

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