Tap, tap, tap…an apple drops from its pink foam encasement and rolls away down the pavement. The stark fluorescent lighting makes an intermittent fizz and posters flap as the wind weaves its way through the mazes of streets. The shop fronts are laden with an explosion of exotic fruits, as many different shades of red apple as in a Dulux paint chart, big hairy fruits and long unidentifiable vegetables. Doors open and close, their bells chiming a symphony of transactions.
The faded red and white overhanging awnings billow every time a sharp gust blew, as if they areoff somewhere, but the empty boxes piled high, corners slightly sodden from the morning dampness stay resolutely forlorn. The ever present police sirens call in the distance, a smooth melody over the pumping bass lines emanating from the dark windows of cars etching down the street, looking menacing even at 5pm as the sun starts to fade.
Dylan doesn’t really want to be here. He doesn’t get it, the thrill of hanging on the streets, head down and hood up, trying to look hard. He isn’t hard, he’s just cold and bored. Dark is starting to descend on the streets, and the puddles reflected and refracted back the orange glow of the street lamps. Stopping at the edge of the pavement to cross the road, he stares into one so large that it just seemed black, with no light within to bounce back.
The gang are playing some reggae music from their phones, the sweet roll of the tune and lazy contentment so far from reality. He likes the gang’s music, but not the gang’s life. Their world is anything but glamourous – damaging and disturbing humans living in the shadow of the felt but never seen ruler. He doesn’t want to be one of them. So he’s just dabbling. Just hanging out enough to be left alone the rest of the time. Saving face whilst saving his own ass. And he if he happens to get a few quid in the process, that’s a bonus.
Dad’s been on at him to get a job for ages.
‘When you gonna start to work son?’ he says, a loud voice richocheting from the kitchen to the front room where Dylan sits writing.
‘When you gonna take some responsibility? When you gonna be a real man?
‘When there’s fucking jobs out there dad. When someone has enough money themselves to start paying me.’
He gets a slap to the ear. ‘Don’t you talk to your dad like that.’ Rings his mum’s vibrant Caribbean voice.
He does want a job, he just can’t find one. He can’t afford the bus journey into town, and none of the shop keepers around here will give him a job now they’ve seen him hanging around with Karim and the boys. Not after they’ve been robbed by Karim and the boys. One day it won’t matter. His lyrics and his words are going to save him. He starts tapping a beat on the table to the poetry he has just penned, a hip hop tune forming in his head. That’s what he wants, to spend his days writing and his nights performing. Not his days being yelled at by his mum and his nights being yelled at by Karim and Marcus.
Two days later his dad has some news. Dylan’s phone buzzes in his pocket, but he is hanging around the market with the others and doesn’t want them to hear him chatting to his dad.
‘Off for a slash.’ He says, to make an excuse. He does actually need a piss, and the piles of pallets against the defunct cash machine round the back of the building seems the ideal location.
He calls his dad back. ‘What do you want?’
‘I got you a job.’
Dylan tries not to squeal, but he’s pretty bloody excited. Cash in his pocket, the money to ride up into the city and hang out with the real artists.
‘Cool man. When, where?’
‘Library, you start at 9am tomorrow.’
‘I can not be seen at the library dad.’
‘I thought you liked words son.
‘Yeah but dad, you gotta tell them…’
There’s a beep. His dad has hung up.
There’s one person that Dylan doesn’t want to let down, and that’s his dad.
Brixton looks different at this time of the morning. It’s still busy, but with less of the hum that Dylan knows. The homeless man sitting in the corner of a boarded up bargain store stares at him. His shelter was made of cardboard and crates, his home created from the debris of this small corner of the city. Dylan tries not to catch his eye, scared he’ll ask where he is going this morning.
His eyes scans up and down searching for who knows what, whilst inside shops fathers called out in a language that the Clapham tourists don’t understand. A wind blows, whipping up crisp packets and chip wrappers, bottles as debris from the night before, and he watches them dance in a frenzy, a blur of brown and green and vinegar-sodden white. Ladbrokes was always the busiest shop on the street, the musty scent of stale cigarette smoke and squashed dreams being channelled out every time that someone passed through the doors. Every spoiled betting slip seemed to be a ruined dream. Even McDonalds is empty.
Outside the library he has one last quick look around, just to check that no one has seen him, and darts in through the white doors.
A lady wearing a blue cardigan and with piercing green eyes smiles at him. She’s gorgeous.
‘You must be Dylan.’
‘Pleased to meet you darling.’ He nods.
‘Hitch your trousers up, and then we can get started.’
The day passes quickly. Every time someone came through with a book, which was pretty regularly despite what the newspapers seemed to say, Dylan flicks through it and tries to remember the first word he saw. He starts to write them down.
‘Flavour. Esoteric. Boundless. Duvet. Ambling.’ There would be a track in there one day.
Not so bad after all he thinks – no one will ever see him in here. No one who matters. He walks home, towards high rise blocks of flats decorated with laundry hung on the taut washing lines on balconies, brightly coloured, like a bag of skittles has been sneezed over them.
A week or two passes. Dylan’s starting to enjoy his new life. Librarian by day, gang member by night. He gets to write his words and look cool. It’s what all seventeen year olds want.
It’s Thursday. A blue bicycle leans against an open telephone exchange. The buckled wheels are rusting, but its frame still cheerful and striking. Karim walks over to it, wraps his big fingers around the wheel and tries to twist it back into shape. His brown Fruit of the Loom shirt stretches around his stomach and his faded jeans are slung low. One eyebrow is longer than the other, his jaw covered in pock marks. He can’t do it, and looks weak in front of us, but his brother’s got a gun, so we don’t laugh at him.
The number 72 bus pulls up at the overflowing stop, as ladies with Iceland carrier bags competed to get on first and get a crumb strewn blue seat on which to rest. Exhaling, the bus opens its doors and lowered the chassis to let the braying punters on and deliver them to their next destination.
‘He’s yours.’ Marcus nudges Dylan and nods at the man who is just starting to walk away from the bus stop.
Nerves flickered through his veins, unstable but sort of thrilling, like the glow of the car headlight’s shimmering in the rain rolling down the bus windows. He starts to follow the man in the sharp suit. He notes his expensive pointy shoes – clearly not made for running away.
Just outside Iceland he tugs he barges into the man and grabs his wallet from his pocket. He starts to run.
‘Hey.’ The guy shouts and runs after him. The padding of his feet on the ground is heavier than his body looks like it should be. Dylan’s trousers are starting to fall down, and the fried chicken he ate earlier is laying heavy in his stomach. He can feel it flapping.
He darts down an alley and slows down, leaning his back to rest against the wall. Panting, his breath is too loud for him to notice his target come up behind him. ‘You bastard.’ He shouts, squaring up to Dylan. He looks bigger from here.
‘Give my wallet back you son of a…’ He stops, raising a quizzical brow at Dylan.
‘Ere, don’t you work in the library?’