© christine Power
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A Short Story
Pain jolted me awake. I was lying on my back in the dark. I tried to move but it was as though a knife ripped through my body. How long had I been lying there? Hours? Days? Or only minutes? I tried to think through the grey mist clouding my mind. Where was I? Had I been mugged?
Oh God, no! The fog thinned as I frantically fumbled around for my laptop.
I tried again to get up but the pain was too severe. My hand was limp. It felt as though I had broken it. I tried the other which seemed OK but, when I tried to move my legs, nothing happened. It was then I dimly remembered a crunching-sound in my back when I was hit. Fuck, was I paralyzed? Would I be able to walk again? It was unthinkable, not now, not after all I had achieved.
All thought was displaced by agonizing spasms. They were like nothing I had experienced before. Immobilized, there was little in my First Aid training I could do; I was helpless.
In desperation, I tried the breathing exercises Jenny used when Alice was born. Thinking of my five-year-old daughter made tears well up. When the spasms passed, I found comfort remembering the moment we shared that morning; whispered secrets when I hugged her goodbye. Or, was it yesterday morning?
“Daddy, do you have to go?” Her tiny arms clung tightly around my neck.
Then another seizure dragged me down. It was some time before the agony receded, gradually diminishing from excruciating to barely tolerable.
I attempted, again, to move, but just ended up screaming out and was reduced to sobbing like a bloody kid. Even praying, something I hadn’t done for years.
I still had no idea where I was. There were no sounds to place me at home. No dog barking, no childish chatter, no refrigerator clunking; just a low, steady hum in the background.
When I wiped my sweat-slimed face, I winced. Gingerly examining my forehead with my fingertips, I felt a deep gash just above my right eye. It had bled some but it was congealing.
After some time, I managed to raise my head a little. This time, I was able to make out a faint reassuring blue glow in the dark. I recognized it. Thank God, my laptop was still there. On the wall behind my computer, I saw my W.H. Smith calendar. I was still in my office in the Yarwood Youth and Community Centre.
Then, it all came back to me, I relived the moment the contents of my computer was exposed. It was then my whole world collapsed.
* * *
“Have you got all you need?” Jenny had helped me to pack for the weekend training session: Advanced Team-Building Techniques, in London. She and Alice kissed me goodbye at the door. They did not expect me back until Monday evening. I lied when I told Jenny I was staying in the campus residences during the training and promised to call the next day. She would have discovered by now that I left my mobile behind. Now, I realized there was no likelihood that she would report me missing for at least a day or so, if then. This was bad. No-one would be looking for me.
I was soaked in my own sweat. The smell was rank, mixed with the stench of fear - and I think I had pissed myself. Overriding these was a musky, sickeningly heavy odour. My one functioning hand groped the grotty, wiry carpet tiles which should have been replaced years ago. The staff had joked about the danger of “carpet burns.” I felt something wet and sticky. It spread beyond the reach of my finger tips. I knew instantly that it was blood, a lot of blood, my blood. Fuck. What the hell had I got myself into?
I must stay calm.
However, the more I tried to think, the worse things seemed to be. Not only was it Friday and we closed on weekends, it was also the start of the summer holidays for the kids. The centre was effectively closed until the next school term.
I could almost hear Bill’s oft-repeated words, “Bloody stupid - closing a youth centre in the school holidays. That’s when it’s most needed.”
Bill was the caretaker. He lived in a flat adjacent to the centre. He was also the local activist and hero; he fought for the community like a rabid dog tucking into a postman’s leg.
I told him we were not a babysitting service and, anyway, most of the staff must stay at home to look after their own children. At that, he looked as though he was about to bite my leg.
What did all that matter now? The fact was no-one was booked into the centre for weeks. That is, except for the community meeting and I was responsible for sending out notification of date, time and agenda.
I panicked then; started screaming, out of control. I was so fucking scared. Was I going to die in this Godforsaken, stinking hole, lying in my own blood? I, more than anyone, knew there was no-one to hear my cries for help.
Yarwood was a no-go area for police.
I had certainly heard that complaint enough times from the residents who came to the community meetings.
The only person who might have been able to help was Bill. I started yelling as loud as I could, screaming for help. Then I listened. Was there a response? I prayed that Bill’s yappy little dogs could hear me; wake him up.
Again, I of all people should have known better. There would be no response.
I lay there exhausted, almost ready to give up, accept my fate which seemed at that moment to be a slow, agonizing slide into darkness, death, oblivion. I couldn’t believe it. I had so much to look forward to: a brand new building and promotion to area manager. I’d earned it, Goddamn it. I had been a dedicated worker.
In the darkness, I lashed out in frustration and despair. My hand hit something metallic. I groped at it, gradually pulling it towards me. As it drew near, I could make out the long, pointed shape. It too was tacky; my blood smeared it from the tip along the sharp two-edged stiletto shape. I recognized the weapon that had clearly done me so much damage. My brass letter opener, part of a desk set; a gift from a grateful community when I left my last job, youth worker at the Dugmore Community Centre.
A shadow of regret passed through my mind as I handled the weapon and remembered a past deserving of pride and satisfaction. They were days full of energy and optimism and a belief that I could make a difference.
It had not been so long ago that I had marched alongside Bill in protests against injustice. We had taken sandwiches and flasks of coffee. But, with a new town council, one that professed to uphold my own values I had become complacent.
Even then, Bill was sceptical, taking the piss out of The Social Realist Party, calling the new councillors, “The Real Pseudo-Socialists.”
Now in semi-retirement, his tall, gaunt figure was a regular presence in the community. He never held back when putting the council officers in their place. In community meetings, he publicly shamed them for their failures. Whether housing, environment, or education, Bill would stand up to them and the residents listened to him.
Bill and I began to fall out when he told me that I was “putty” in the hands of the Council Leader, or, “that bloody bitch, Brice,” as he put it. He hadn’t a good word to say about her. “She was cast out of the same metal as Maggie Thatcher,” he said, “shiny on the outside, bold as brass and hard as bloody nails.” Then, with a grin on his face, he added, “At least old Maggie had nice ankles!”
Shortly after Councillor Antonia Brice became Council Leader, she visited Dugmore Centre; told me how much she admired the work I had been doing. She had another job in mind for which, she said, I should apply. I was surprised, but murmured my thanks at this unexpected recognition.
“James, don’t thank me, we need people like you. Anyway, don’t be so formal, call me Antonia.”
OK, I admit it; I was a little bit awe-struck looking into those unwavering, cool blue eyes.
* * *
When my appointment as Manager of the Yarwood Youth and Community Centre was confirmed, I was so bloody sure of myself; believing I had all the answers to the ills that befell impoverished communities. It was an opinion nurtured by Councillor Brice.
The brass desk set symbolized my work in a project that showed just what a difference a thriving community centre could give to people’s lives. At Dugmore, we encouraged kids into sports and other activities. They were too busy focusing on their aspirations and being helped with their life skills to bother about knives or hanging around cold street corners. They were in regular contact with elderly tenants who came for friendship and a good cooked lunch. None of those kids would mug helpless old men or women.
I had been so full of ideas and good intentions. Those had been years when Bill and I had been comrades.
I dropped the letter opener as though it had just come out of a red-hot furnace. Bill fought me all the way when he began to see what Antonia was up to.
“You have to look at the bigger picture,” she said, as she announced one cut after another to Yarwood’s community services,” she said., “The priority is to get investment into the area, for the future,” she said. “Get real, James. Central Government won’t give us grants and neither will we be able to access European funding unless we can demonstrate that there is a measurable need.”
When I told her I wasn’t too sure, she said, “My dear, I’m afraid things will have to get significantly worse before the government will contemplate investing in the area.”
I could smell her perfume when she moved closer to me.
“Only then will we be able to get our people into training, provide them with better community services, and get access to more funds to spend on our youth.” She assured me, “Once we get the tenants on side with our housing plans, everything else will fall into place. We will be able to apply for generous grants. You will be in line for a brand new youth centre.”
Seeing that I was still a little uncertain of the methods, she said: “You will be robbing these people of a much better future if you do not persuade them that we must get rid of all these awful tower blocks. We will turn it into a place where their children will be safe with enclosed playgrounds and decent homes.”
Then, I swear she actually purred, “They trust you. You just have to persuade them to vote ‘Yes.’ Only you can do it.”
It did not take long for her to paint a picture that became too tempting to ignore. Gradually, she wore me down. Slowly, surely, surreptitiously and seductively, Antonia Brice played on my ego and my ambition. The salary I was receiving was just too good to ignore. I put down my first payment on my boyhood dream: a pre-owned Jaguar. After all, I had earned it, working so hard in the toughest district in town.
* * *
Now, lying here, it was a bit too late I bitterly admitted to myself. Too late to regret my naivety and the slow and imperceptible surrender of long-held ideals. The memories which plagued me now, were as troublesome as the pain in my back. For the newspapers, Antonia painted a grand picture of her plans for the future; a future that would reverse the grim local statistics of violent crime, high infant mortality, crumbling housing and unemployment.
Bill wouldn’t have it. “What a bloody hypocrite,” he kept saying. He was like a talking sandwich board, spouting all the buzzwords he used in his leaflets! “If she didn’t want druggies and prostitutes in our community, why does the Housing Department keep dumping them here? Why are they housing suicidal mental patients from all over the town in flats at the top of our local high-rises?”
I still didn’t pay attention to him even after a few demented souls had, indeed, jumped off balconies.
Antonia just kept repeating the mantra over and over, “Our council will go further than “bricks and mortar;” we want to improve all aspects of people’s lives.”
I believed her. I wanted to believe her. I repeated her words, over and over again, to every member of the community. I was their trusted friend. They believed me. I was too far in to start questioning her methods, let alone her true intentions.
Now, I was too much in debt to question the plans she had ruthlessly put into motion, plans to ensure the success of her hidden agenda: a transformed and sophisticated town centre. I dared not face the fact that the vision was to be built on the rubble of the lives of the poor and vulnerable. I dared not see that there would be no smart new walled complexes for them, despite the glowing promises from councillors. Dared not face the rubble I helped create.
I convinced myself that it was for the best; eventually colluding with her questionable plans to clear the area for regeneration.
Bill pleaded with me, “For God’s sake, don’t you see it was she who set the policies for the departments who dragged the area down by ignoring complaints about rats and rubbish?”
I tried to tell him to be patient; tried to persuade him that the tenants would be better off in the long term. He just became exasperated and shook his head, as though I were a lost soul.
He pleaded with me to open my eyes, “Our tenants are suffering,” he said, “Most of them are tolerant people. They were bound to be ground down by compassion fatigue. You saw what happened when she changed police priorities, turning a blind eye so drug dealers and prostitutes flooded into Yarwood.”
At the time, I figured Bill was pissed off because he hadn’t been made chairman of the local party. I thought he was exaggerating, that he just loved campaigning for the sake of it; his latest project was going on a march to support impoverished Chilean Llama farmers!
Bill looked on incredulously when I continued to support Antonia; a woman, he said, who cared nothing about destabilizing the children of the already unstable. I still did not see it when the local school was closed, forcing children to take a couple of buses to other districts. The kids were deprived of time (before and after lessons) to spend with friends, family or community.
“It’s all designed to soften-up tenants so they’ll bite off the hands of the council when offered a measly relocation grant to move closer to the ‘countryside’,” said Bill. “You must know they’ll just be shipped from one slum to another.”
* * *
Lying in my own blood, I was ashamed to admit that I should have known better, should have backed off when I finally realized he was right. It was now too late.
I think I got a bit hysterical then. I lay there; helpless, wounded and without hope of help in a community I had betrayed. It had turned on me. I was isolated in a building at the centre of a now-derelict and dark sinkhole in the middle of town. No passers-by, no police patrols, just stray dogs, cat and rats. Even the muggers and thieves had moved onto better pickings. I might as well have been stranded on a desert island.
I screamed again for Bill’s help. He was my only possible hope of deliverance. It was so fucking ironic. The old bastard, once my friend and comrade, had become a bit of a problem to Antonia’s secret pre-regeneration agenda. Canny old Scot - he saw right through Council Leader Antonia Brice, her council colleagues, and the patronizing council officers. Saw through all the phony assurances that, if tenants voted to transfer their life-long tenancy rights, they would be given the choice to return to an area transformed into a child-friendly, green, safe haven.
Bill knew that, once moved out, the tenants would never enjoy the fruits of regeneration. The true agenda was gentrification and Antonia was buzzing with her bright new slogan, “Town Homes for the Discerning.” She was already planning a new park to be named after her.
All the time, Antonia kept assuring the tenants of a bright new future. How many times did I hear her on TV and radio?
“This is not just about bricks and mortar,” she said in her most seductively breathy voice, “I ... the Social Realist Party is dedicated to looking after the poor, the disadvantaged, giving them hope for a better future.”
And a lot of people believed her.
Even I suspended disbelief. I wanted to believe too; I was enjoying the perks that came with my new job; the upkeep of the Jag and the mortgage for the new house.
No matter what I said, though, I could not convince Bill. He was becoming a fucking pest. Antonia complained that he could hinder progress. I tried to get him to calm down a bit. But to no avail. This was his community and he was damned if they were going to be conned.
He held meetings, leafleting the area, telling tenants to read between the lines, encouraging them to ask awkward questions. He advised them to insist that any promises made by the council officers were put in writing. That, or “Tell them to stick their promises where the sun didn‘t shine.”
Then he spread the news of Charlene’s suicide. A single mother, she had been moved to the outer city, isolated with three young kids. She had only accepted the relocation grant, a few hundred pounds, so that she could pay off her catalogue. Then, there was old Charlie battered to death walking home one night after a game of dominoes at the pub. Three druggies waited for him in the dark with no reason to fear retribution. The police had other priorities.
As the pernicious incidents multiplied, people were beginning to listen to Bill.
* * *
Just thinking about Bill as I lay there on the floor, seemed to aggravate the spasms that were wracking my body. How often had I said, “Bill is a bloody pain in the butt?”
Of course, Antonia had to shut him up. She told me to find a way to make the area too uncomfortable for him. She’d make her intentions known to Housing who would relocate him elsewhere.
Funds became available. We bought some nice big amplifiers for the centre. Then, we made the facilities available to little terrorist teens from all over the city. It was as though all their Christmases and birthdays had been rolled into one. The kids started up music practice sessions in the community room which had a shared wall with Bill’s flat. Sessional workers were employed so the kids could play on into the night. Their aggressive raps become more anti-establishment, anti-everything and LOUD!
Didn’t work - Bill just had a builder friend beef up his sound insulation. We could have let off a bomb in the building and he wouldn’t hear. He certainly would not hear my weakening cries for help.
I knew that unless I could manage to get myself up off the floor, and drag myself over to the phone, I would lie there and bleed to death. The prospect terrified me. But, even then, I had become so exhausted that part of me had begun to give up. I was losing the will and energy to help myself.
I cursed myself for having left my mobile phone at home. Aretha had a bit of a temper and I didn’t want Jenny calling me at a most inconvenient time. Oh, didn’t I tell you, the training sessions were a cover for a weekend with Aretha and her darling daughter.
* * *
Things had been quiet in the centre all day. Everything was winding down. I had cleared up a couple of bits and pieces from my “In Tray”. Not expecting Aretha for a few hours, I decided to entertain myself with a little bit of computer-generated titillation. I brought up my favourite photographs and was in the process of playing with my new software.
I was so engrossed, I hadn’t heard Aretha creep into the office; just felt her soft, warm hands covering my eyes. “Guess who?” she whispered. I felt her sweet breath being blown into my ear. But, when I heard her sharp intake of breath, I knew she had taken a look at the screen before I could push the button to close. Then I heard her screech, “You bastard,” before she slammed her suitcase-sized plastic handbag across my head. I tried to get up out of my chair but caught my foot in the wheel. Then I felt a forceful punch in my back. I turned to see that she had my bloodied brass letter opener in her hand. It was raised high. I tried to stave off the next blow but, being half in and half out of the chair, I stumbled. All I remember is that I hit my head on the filing cabinet and then everything went black.
Aretha was the only one who knew I was here and she would certainly not be back. I had just about given up, was mumbling prayers, when I heard voices. I wondered if I was delirious. Or that I had just wished so hard, I was imagining voices. Then the voices became clearer. Surely God had answered my prayers. There were definitely people inside the centre. I couldn’t believe my luck. But who the hell was it?
Were they thieves, or, please God, police? But I knew the latter was highly unlikely with Antonia’s new priorities.
There seemed to be three or four distinct voices; all male and young by the sounds of it. Then I remembered I had left the Jag over the road. It was bound to be too much temptation to pass unnoticed. I’d hoped to impress Aretha. I’d done that all right but not in the way I had wanted. I’d be lucky if she hadn’t slashed all my tyres.
Voices echoed along the corridor; they were getting closer. Aretha must have left the main doors open when she left. Whoever it was, they were full of drugs by the sound of it. Their hi-fives echoed around the cement walls. I could picture them sneaking along, past the displays of famous black icons; Martin Luther King, Bob Marley, Mary Seacole the black Florence Nightingale. The focus was another of Antonia’s attempts to persuade the majority of white English and Irish tenants they were no longer welcome in the area. Divide and conquer was a favourite tactic of hers.
She knew she could mop up what she called “the remaining undesirables” afterwards. Wielding the bludgeoning hammer of political correctness, we prevented local residents from publicly criticizing the changes.
Now I could hear the kids rattling the door handle, trying out combinations on the security lock of the entry door. When they ran out of patience, they smashed the glass out of the side window. I heard them giggling, their drug-slurred voices were familiar.
They could smash all they liked. I was sure my luck was in. They were some of the few locals I could hand-on-heart say had been provided with community resources. They were some of the kids who took part in the music programmes we hoped would drive out Bill.
In fact, one of them, Jimmy, owed me. I’d been to court to vouch for his genuine remorse and progress. Although the magistrate seemed not to believe me, and who could blame her given his appearance and attitude, he had been let off with a conditional discharge.
I tried to call out but my throat was rasped dry and croaky from my earlier attempts to get help. I needn’t have bothered. After smashing the window, they went on a rampage in the reception area. I could hear them throwing magazines and leaflets around.
“So, man, where’s the equipment? Let’s get it and get outa here. We’ve got wheels, now. I know I can get that Jag on the road.”
What little was left of my blood, ran cold. Whatever doubts I had about making a sound, it became academic once they caught sight of the blue glow of my laptop. Within minutes, they pushed through the door.
“Whoa. What have we got here?”
Jimmy nearly fell over me in his eagerness to get at my computer. He switched on the light, blinding me.
“Hey, man, whatcha doin’ on the floor?”
“He’s bleedin’, you wanker,” said another, who I had once banned him from the Dugmore Centre because he’d been trying to sell coke.
“Help me,” I croaked.
“He’s in a bad way.”
“Yeah, but we just broke in, man. He’ll have us busted,” said the youth I did not recognize.
“Nah,” said Jimmy, “He’s OK man…”
I prayed that he could influence the others.
But that hope faded as Jimmy tapped a few keys on the laptop opening up the last document, taking it back to the photos I had brought up earlier.
“Hey, man, what the fuck,” he spat at me, “you’re a fucking dirty nonce.”
“Hey, Jimmy, that’s Talisha. Aretha’s little girl.”
“Yeah,” said Jimmy, now standing above me. I lay there helpless and saw his mind considering all the options. The words of his friends sealed my fate.
“He shouldn’t be taking that sorta photo of her. Aretha would kill him.”
Little did he know.
Then Jimmy recognized the photo of Alice; my sexy baby who loved her daddy to take photos of her when mommy wasn’t around. This was bad, really bad. I cursed myself for having opened that page up here.
“That’s his daughter. Fuck, you’re a real creep, a sicko, man.”
“Yeah. Maybe we should finish off the job someone else has started. Get the amps and speakers into the car. Go on. I’ll catch up with you.”
He threw the keys to the kid I didn’t know.
Then Jimmy put the boot in. He called me every name he could think of. He played football every weekend, had already caught the eyes of big league scouts. Each kick would have taken the ball all the way down the field. I heard my own bones crack and splinter. The pain I had experienced earlier was nothing to the suffering he inflicted on me. I passed in and out of consciousness. By the time his pals came back, they pretty much knew they had to get rid of the evidence, meaning me.
The coke-head said, “I know someone who is night watchman for the new flats. He’ll let us in. Let’s give this bastard a real taste of bricks and mortar!”
As they carried my helpless, broken body over to my car, I managed to look back towards the centre. Through the red blur drowning my eyes, I swear I saw Bill peering out of his window. Surely he could see what was happening, what they were doing. He knew it was my car. He’d know these kids had no business being around it. He must surely see what they were doing.
I tried desperately to raise my head; he was my last and only chance. I managed to raise my arm and attempted to signal to him before Jimmy and his pals hefted me into the car boot.
Why was Bill not moving, running over here? He must have heard the voices. He just kept peering out, doing nothing.
Then I remembered he’d been complaining for months that the fucking street light wasn’t working and that the tenants were scared to go out after dark. Just another of Antonia’s attempts to persuade tenants they no longer wanted to live there.
As they wedged my broken legs up against my suitcase, I could still see the dark shadow of Bill’s head against the light in his tiny kitchen. If he couldn’t see us, perhaps he could hear me. Unable to move, I tried desperately to scream but all I could get out was a gurgling sound.
After what seemed long breathless moments of wretched desperation, his curtains twitched as they were dropped back into place.
As Jimmy slammed shut the lid of the car boot, Bill’s kitchen light went out.