It’s six months to the day since I discovered that crime fiction bears no resemblance to the real thing.
This is how crime really works:
B pisses off A.
A kills B.
I should know.
I found out the hard way, last summer when my brother Ron visited me.
He and I were very close. My Dad was killed in a car crash when I was a baby, my Mum worked full time to support the family, and Ron became the nearest thing I had to a father.
He protected me from the local yobs. When he realised I couldn’t fight, wasn’t a natural like him, he enrolled me into a boxing club so I could learn how to defend myself. It was tough, but it worked. I desperately wanted to impress my brother, so I got stuck in and learnt how to throw a punch.
Ron didn’t need boxing. He was big, but that wasn’t what made him formidable. He had a primeval sort of power. You just had to point him in the right direction and set him loose.
That summer when he visited, I was at my peak.
I was a solicitor working at one of the magic circle firms in London. Even though I was only three years qualified, my salary put me in the top five percent of earners in the country. Senior people in the firm were referring to me as “partnership material”. My future held out the promise of glittering prizes that were mine for the taking, if only I worked hard and kept my nose clean. Fortune was beckoning me with open arms.
How could my downfall have been so sudden, so swift, and so complete?
Our weekend started innocently enough. We wandered around Brixton on a hot Saturday afternoon, eyeing up the talent, and browsing in record shops. We got chatting to a couple of girls and made a date to see them in the evening. Then we bought some albums, two by Prince Buster, three by the Skatalites. They were the real thing, vinyl that could have been brought over in the 50s on the Empire Windrush. After we paid for them, we set off home to listen to some classic sounds.
Because of the traffic, we’d taken the bus to Brixton.
While we were waiting at the bus stop, a couple of white guys appeared on the other side of the street: black jackets, black boots, blue jeans, short hair. They crossed the road, walking briskly in our direction, then broke into a run. I wondered if that was because there was a bus coming, but when I looked, there wasn’t, which puzzled me.
It should have been obvious why they were charging towards us, but some things are so hard to accept you refuse to believe they can happen. Right up until the point where they’re actually happening, you cling to the belief that everything is normal.
It wasn’t until they took baseball bats out from under their jackets I realised why they were in such a hurry.
They were white, with short hair and attitude; we were black.
Why didn’t I work it out sooner?
Probably because I’d never encountered anyone like that in real-life. My only contact with that kind of person had been via the television, where I’d occasionally seen bolshie people holding rallies, protesting against Islam, and waving the cross of St. George.
I believe in standing up for yourself, especially when you’re black. You have to, because you seldom get a fair deal if you don’t. That lesson was drummed into me day after day by Ron while I was growing up. But much as I believed in what he’d taught me, I wasn’t going to stand up and take a beating with a baseball bat when I had only my fists to defend myself.
“Fucking Hell, Ron,” I said. “We’ve got to run!”
He hadn’t noticed the danger.
“Ron, get a fucking move on!” I shouted.
He turned, saw the two guys wielding the bats, and froze for an instant, caught between flight and fight. Flight won, because I grabbed his arm and dragged him.
Stand your ground – that’s what Ron told me when I was a kid. It was almost a religious commandment: Thou Shalt Not Run Away. He would’ve probably taken his chances if I hadn’t been there, putting him under duress.
We fled, dropping our records so we could run faster. One fell from its cardboard sleeve and splintered on the pavement; another rolled like a wheel, overtook us, then headed into the road where it was run over by a passing car.
That hurt – as did taking the coward’s way out.
But what option did we have? No way was I going to be brave and get my skull stoved-in, and nor was Ron – not if I could help it.
Because I was busy watching a record getting crushed beneath the wheel of a Volvo, I wasn’t paying proper attention to the terrain and caught my toe on the edge of a paving slab. My feet left the ground as I launched myself into an involuntary dive. For an awful moment, time stood still while I was suspended horizontally in mid-air. Then I came crashing down, face-first, sticking out my arms to break my fall.
My hands hit the pavement smearing it with blood. I was vaguely aware of skin being shredded. There must have been gravel or broken glass lying around.
On any other day that jolting impact would’ve been painful, but I didn’t feel anything other than fear.
I immediately got to my hands and knees, all too aware that danger was fast approaching. My back tingled with consternation.
Ron helped me to my feet, the footsteps of our pursuers getting ever closer.
So close I heard their laboured breathing.
The imagined arc of a bat-swinging made me put a hand protectively over the back of my head. I pictured the weapon making contact with my cranium, bringing me down like a baby seal in a cull. Ron gave me a pull, the images receded, I got into my stride, and we began to leave our attackers behind.
We didn’t stop running till we’d turned a few corners and they were out of sight. Luckily we’re both fit guys, which is why we were able to outpace them.
While we were busy escaping, I was too stressed to give the situation much thought, but once I got home the injustice of it made my blood boil. I played that scene at the bus stop over and over in my head, imagining what I’d have done to those shits if they hadn’t had baseball bats. It wasn’t a healthy thing to do, and I wanted to think about something else, but I couldn’t help myself. My brain was out of control.
It was as if there was a video in my head stuck in repeat mode. I couldn’t switch it off.
It might have been good to talk about the incident with Ron, get it out of my system, but I knew the subject would just wind him up, so I decided not to mention it.
My brother’s different to me. He won’t let things go. He burns until he’s done something about them.
Somehow, in spite of the agitation we were feeling, we got ready to go out and meet the ladies we’d got to know during the afternoon.
We had an enjoyable night which took my mind off things for a while. One of the girls came back to my place and Ron went to the other girl’s flat.
When Carol – that was her name – had nodded off to sleep, I lay awake, dwelling on things. I hadn’t thought about the attack all evening, and now I couldn’t stop.
I’ve had to deal with bad attitude on and off my entire life, but that was the only time I’ve come up against such venomous racism.
You have to be philosophical about it and pick the fights you can win. That’s my view. The fight at the bus stop was best left alone, so I wasn’t ashamed of running away, just mad about it.
When I got up the next morning I shook with anger as I climbed out of bed. Then I forced myself to calm down, shoving it to the back of my mind.
Don’t get me wrong, I felt no forgiveness for those white lads with their baseball bats. It’s just that I don’t go looking for trouble, if you know what I mean. If I’d have been armed when they’d tried to jump us, I’d have fought back, hard. But I’d no interest in going out and getting revenge.
Ron arrived after Carol had gone. We talked about music, our dates, stuff like that. Neither of us referred to the elephant in the room.
Then Ron got up and started pacing. He became this huge silent brooding presence in my crib. He seemed capable of anything. It terrified me. He’d done that pacing thing when I’d come home, aged sixteen, and told him I’d been beaten up by a gang. He’d paced silently around before going out. Later, when he got back home, he said:
“Everything’s sorted now. It won’t happen again.”
And it didn’t.
Because the people who’d picked on me were in hospital.
“You all right, bro?” I said.
He didn’t answer. Just paced into the kitchen and paced out again.
“I’ve been thinking. I’m going back to that bus stop where those white cunts tried to get us. I reckon they must live round there. If either of them show their faces, I’m gonna make sure they think twice about beating up a black man again.”
“Leave it, Ron,” I said. “They’re not worth it. They’re scum. They’ll get their comeuppance some day.”
“That day has just arrived. Are you in or out?”
“I’m out. I ain’t looking for trouble.”
“Suit yourself,” he said as he left.
I’d been bluffing, hoping my brother would see sense. When it came to it, I couldn’t let him face danger on his own, so I followed him. I had to be there with him, at his side. I just hoped we’d find them unarmed. If we didn’t, Lord knows what could happen to us.
We took the bus from outside my flat to the bus stop where we’d been attacked.
When we got off the bus my every instinct told me I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I had to look after Ron, save him from himself, so there was no escape.
The white trash who’d tried to assault us were nowhere to be seen.
Thank God, I thought. All we have to do is hang round here long enough and Ron’ll see sense, then we can go.
Long enough proved to be a very long time, because Ron insisted on walking round all day in search of them. My stomach churned, my mind churned even more. Fear embraced me tightly, treating me to a lingering kiss.
I was in the middle of a debate with myself about whether I had any courage to speak of when Ron nudged me.
“There,” he hissed. “Right in front of us.”
It was them all right, coming out of a barber’s shop with their heads freshly shaved right down to the scalp.
Both wore t-shirts, which meant they couldn’t be carrying baseball bats. They walked down the street with me and Ron following on their tails.
“Too many witnesses around to do anything here, bro,” Ron whispered. “We’ll bide our time.”
As they cut across a patch of wasteland we closed the gap until we were a yard or so behind them. Only at that point did one of them hear something and turn his head. My heart began beating against my ribs. I felt sick
“Oi! Remember me?”
Then we both rushed to attack.
They readied themselves. It was going to be a square-go, no baseball bats this time, two against two in a fair fight.
Fear bore down on me like ten-ton weight on my shoulders. Somehow I shrugged it off and tore into the one I’d chosen for myself. He was big, but size doesn’t win fights. Fighting wins fights, and I’m a trained boxer.
The fear left me – funny how it does that once the action starts – and instinct took over. I was in the zone, fighting on automatic pilot.
I jabbed him a couple of times then decked him with a crisp left hook. He went down as if poleaxed. It was over disappointingly quickly. I’d wanted him to absorb a few good punches before hitting the canvas.
When I turned to see how Ron was getting on, I got the shock of my life.
Unknown to me, he’d brought a knife – my carving knife. He must’ve picked it up when he’d been in the kitchen.
He was carving up his opponent like a Christmas turkey.
I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since seeing him do that. I need therapy, but there’s not much chance of getting it anytime soon.
“Fucking hell, Ron, we gotta go,” I said, grabbing his knife arm.
He wrenched it from me, plunged the blade deep into white bloke’s stomach, and yanked it sideways.
When he pulled it out, the bloke fell to his knees. Only when his victim’s face hit the dirt did Ron allow me to drag him away.
“What did you do that for, man?” I asked.
“You know what. The knife business. You didn’t need to do that. All we had to do was rough them up a little. You might’ve killed him.”
“So what? What d’yer think they were going to do to us with those fucking baseball bats?”
“That’s not the point. The point is, we could get sent down for this.”
“You worry too much, bro.”
The coppers got onto us in a matter of hours and interviewed us under caution.
My brother was charged with murder and I was charged with murder too, as an accomplice, even though I hadn’t done anything much wrong.
We both got life.
So here I am, looking out of my cell window on Christmas day evening, quietly getting pissed on hooch.
This is real-life, not a crime novel, so there won’t be any miracle reprieve, pardon, parole, or jailbreak.
I’ll see you here next Christmas.
And the one after that.
And the one after that.
And so on.