The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Countdown: 5 - Kiss & Tell (Part V)

I might have bettered my lot by blabbing about the harassment. One reason not to might have been The Code. You know the one: Deal with it yourself and don’t run crying to the grown-ups. Is it a stupid code? Of course it is. Is that any help in breaking it? Not much. I happen to believe in that code. Also, do I think peeps would have believed me? Certainly, there were the vids and it probably would have been possible to scrounge up some witnesses, though one never knows with these things. Smarter men than me have noted that the truth is a whore, willing to go to bed with whoever pays her best. And the real question probably rather was, who did I think the relevant peeps – teachers, principle, rents, etc. – would have wanted to believe? Me, or tall, good-looking, well-dressed, well-spoken, promising Samuel Richter? But be that as it may. None of it was the real reason to keep my trap shut anyway.
The real reason was that I would have had to tell them about it. Tell them about the piss and the cat litter. I would have had to show them the vids, those beautiful, shaky-yet-spot-on captures of the redness in my face, the glistening in my eyes, of me trying to blink it all away. And it wouldn’t have been just once, to one teacher. I would have had to tell all of them, over and over again. And I would have had to tell them the reason for it all. I would have to tell them about Tim, about the kiss. I mean, come on. You didn’t really think I would do that, do you?
So I took the punishment in stride. And funnily, when I returned for the remainder of that school year, I discovered that I had become something of a celebrity. Turns out it’s okay to be queer as long as you prove your manliness by violence. Seriously, all you queer boys out there. If you are getting static at school, just go berserk. It might get you into all kinds of hot water with the grown-ups, but it’ll counter most of the homophobia from your mates. As for queer girls, you’re on your own. Butch behaviour isn’t going to earn you any points, I guess. But then, do you want to earn any? I couldn’t make myself like those kids anymore. I couldn’t forget what had happened. I couldn’t forgive.
The other consequence was that I finally had my official coming out in front of my mum. The fight had happened on the Friday before mother’s day, and she was not amused when I told her about the suspension.
My mum must have known I was queer. I mean, I knew ever since I was eight or so. Lukas found out one day when I was nine or ten. He asked me if I was queer, not because he had any reason to question my sexual orientation or anything, but just because it’s something kids say as an insult, meaning soft or wimpy or something of the sort. Too bad it had been mere minutes after I had been wanking to thoughts of my assistant football coach, and when Lukas asked me like that I took the question literally for a second. And the guilt and shame written all over my face was too obvious for him to miss.
He grabbed me by the t-shirt and slammed me against the wall.
“Don’t you ever tell anyone, not while you and I are still living under the same roof, you little shit,” he snarled, his nose almost touching mine. “Or I’ll have to break ever bloody bone in your body. Got that?”
Of course, that same rule of discretion didn’t count for him. He told ‘Nessa the same day. But ‘Nessa never gave a damn. She sometimes made snide remarks – and she didn’t care if mum heard those – when she was feeling mean, but you could tell it was just any damn thing that came to her mind she could use to cut me with. She certainly never minded me looking after little Nicky.
From time to time mum must have noticed how I reacted to some bloke on the telly. (Amına kodum, did I ever have the hots for Harvey Keitel in National Treasure. Wouldn’t have minded him slapping cuffs on me…) She must have noticed that there were never any straight porn mags in my room, not like she found in Lukas’s from time to time, but sometimes well-thumbed, dog-eared girly teen mags with pictures of male emo band singers. And at least one time, almost 2 years before all this, she caught me and Jonas making out on the living room couch. We let go of each other at once, of course, but, I mean, 2 flustered boys, red faces, wet mouths, mussed hair, clothes in disorder, sitting next to each other on a couch, looking up at you decidedly sheepishly, how can you not know what’s going on?
But she had never mentioned it, never commented upon it in the least way. No clumsily probing questions (that wouldn’t have been her style anyway), no quietly sarcastic, knowing remarks (that would have been more what I’d expected from her), not even some hasty channel changing on the telly if homosexuality came up as a topic, or when someone happened across some culture program about dance theatre or so. Nope, she displayed total ignorance, until I came home and had to tell her why I had been suspended from school for 2 weeks.
I mean, at first all I said was that I’d been in a fight, and normally that would have been that. But she was so hurt, hurt that I couldn’t pull myself together that once, that I’d made a mess of things already again, not a quarter year after having been released. I couldn’t stand her wounded, disappointed eyes on me. I mean, my mother has had reasons to be disappointed in me plenty of time, and neither of us really expected much else from each other. But that time, well, I suppose, I could understand the blow this gave her. I wanted her to know how much I had tried not to, how hard I had struggled with myself, what I had endured, before I couldn’t take it any longer.
So I told her. Told her what had happened. Told her I was queer.
She took it with a stony, tired face. She thought about it for a while. And then she asked me, still so tired, so weary: “Can’t you try not to be that way?”
And when I just stared at her, she continued, still too tired to display even any haste in explaining herself, as if it was a bother that she had to clarify this at all: “I know it’s not fair, but people will react that way to you when they know you are, well, homosexual, if we like it or not. And with all your other problems, do you really need this one, too?”
I was that close to asking her how being straight had worked out for her: Almost 50, dumped by her worthless toe-rag of a husband, with four kids, one of whom had gotten herself knocked up at 18, and her oldest apparently hell bent on doing the same to any one of his many flings before long. I didn’t. Maybe I wasn’t pissed off enough. Maybe because following that argument would have lead dangerously close to mentioning ‘Nette. And that was something I knew mustn’t be done. So I didn’t say anything. I just left.
After that, I was back in my old rut. I got into a fight at football and was kicked off a team I had been a member of since I had been six years old. Then I had a bad one with Leo. He forgave me, afterwards, but that fight was what lead to me being on my own that Friday night in early July, when I woke up not knowing where I was, or even, for a delicious few moments, who I was.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Countdown: 5 - Kiss & Tell (Part IV)

There was a clique of blokes two years above me, lead by swimming ace, wealthy lawyer’s son, and ditsy girl’s favourite Samuel Richter. Samuel had two lieutenants and a couple of sycophants, plus two or three female groupies, and at school you rarely saw him without his entourage.
He and I hadn’t really crossed paths before. I had only been aware of him because early on Tim had pointed out that Samuel was known to be the meanest bully in school, and I had decided to stay as far away from him as I could. Not because I was afraid of what he might do, but of what I might.
Wednesday I had to live through a lot of whispering, staring, and averted glances when I looked back. But on Thursday happenstance took me on my way from one classroom to another past Samuel’s posse. There was a lot of hushed giggling as I approached. Suddenly one of the girls stepped up to me and asked me loudly:
“Hey, um, I have something of a problem. Could you…?”
I looked at her, guarded, uncertain what this was about. The way the posse nudged and snickered I suspected it wouldn’t be anything I would find amusing.
“Well, you see, my period just started, and I forgot to bring a tampon.” Here the giggling from the group broke out into loud snorting and gwaffing, and the girl herself couldn’t bite her dumb grin away any longer. “Can’t you help me out with one… Patricia?”
I blushed – damn that blushing – and just walked on.
Things quickly got worse. Nobody threw tampons at me, there was no concerted effort to attack or anything. But the requests for make-up tips, the lewd winks and blown kisses didn’t stop. I gritted my teeth even though it was hard. It was so damn hard. But I did keep my temper bottled up. I doubt I could have done it for as long as I did without Uncle Valya, but well, I had Uncle Valya and our work together to look forward to, and that was what I concentrate on while I bit on the insides of my cheeks until I tasted the blood or clenched my fists hard enough to hear my knuckles pop.
Then, sometime next week, I found that during gym class someone had pissed onto my clothes. And a few days later someone used my same inability to have an eye on my stuff during gym to cram my backpack, books and everything, into the toilet, before pissing on it and flushing. One day I found a pile of dog crap on my bicycle seat after school, and another time someone poured what I think was soiled cat litter into my backpack.
(I kept all of this from my mum and from ‘Nessa, mostly because at the time I had more money than I knew what to do with from my work with Uncle Valya, and so I could relatively easy replace the stuff they ruined.)
I never caught anyone directly, but from the way there was always someone from Samuel’s posse around to watch and giggle when these things happened, it wasn’t hard to figure out who was behind it.
And then there were the vids. One morning in the second week of this, a small bevy of beauties stood tittering around a mobile phone, going into whisper mode as I approached. However instead of regarding me with the amusement or scorn I had come to expect, they did something far worse, they regarded me with pity.
I was about to skulk past them when one of them almost shyly tugged me on the arm.
“Patr…” For a second she stopped herself, horrified. I am certain, that she had almost called me Patricia to my face. Then she forced herself to go on: “..rick. I think you should, uh, see this.”
And she showed me her mobile. On the screen the boy’s locker room. My class, changing back into street wear after gym. I could see myself, alone, silent, untouchable, a ghost amongst boys. I could see myself undress and reach for my jeans, start to get in, hesitate. The camera man, whoever he was, zoomed in, not on the wet trousers, but on my face, caught the flashes of shock, rage, and humiliation, before I clamped down my visor of haughty street nonchalance.
“I’m sorry.” She said, and she even looked as if she really was. I mumbled a quick thanks. Later I palmed the mobile of some arsehole I was certain would also have this vid, which sure enough he had, and a few more, including one that showed the cat litter being poured into my backpack, and my reaction when I found it. Also some of me being cat called in the halls. Most were done by the same artist, the one with a penchant for capturing the humiliation in my eyes.
That day, on the way back to Kreuzberg, I threw the phone into the canal.
Only once Samuel stopped me in a hall directly. He looked at me, his face serious, slightly shaking his head, like a disappointed father, and said:
“If I found out I was a dirty faggot pig, well, I hope I’d have the strength of character to ask a vet to put me down. But then, I guess when you are, you are also too sissy for a clean solution like that.”
His mates slapped his shoulder for the good line and they all trundled off, joined in satisfaction about having stuck it to the queer kid.
Now, please do not think that everybody participated in this. The more public displays of homophobia usually earned the name-callers disapproving looks, especially from the more socially minded girls. And as far as teachers took any notice, they too were of course very much against bullying. Of course that only made things worse. This form of a disapproval was after all part of what the comedians where after.
And when I couldn’t hide the results of the cruder (if more anonymous) jokes, most witnesses were shocked and appalled. But I suppose I couldn’t deal with the support any better than with the attacks. For one, I hated those girls who thought they could make a political symbol out of me. It hadn’t worked when I was the ex-con from the bad side of town, and it worked even less when I was the boy with the sexual identity issues. Also with a lot – not all, mind you, but enough – of those displaying shock and disgust at the practical jokes I had my doubts. Faces were turned away too fast to hide anything but amusement. Voices raised in the name of justice were too smug, too certain, to sound anything but happy about this opportunity to polarize. There’s no better news than bad news, right? I was a spectacle, and if people were on one side of the argument, or the other, none of them were on mine. Well, I suppose, I wasn’t on anyone else’s either. So maybe it all worked out.
What little social contact I’d had dried up with Tim. Even positive attention solely turned around my role as pariah, and mostly served to make those willing to talk to me feel better about themselves. So I more or less stopped talking at all, and did what I always did when facing an unconquerable enemy. I withdrew into books.
Of course, this was only a big thing for me. Every day school stuff went on as usual, tests, sports, school yard romances. Even for Samuel’s posse, this was just one amongst many amusements. There was other kids to torment (under other pretexts), girls to impress, teachers to toady to. This was just one small part of life. Only for me, for me it meant the end of my attempt to fit in and get along.
I was sitting by myself on a boulder in a corner of the school grounds more or less hidden from the main yard, reading Douglas Hofstaetter’s excellent Escher Gödel Bach, when Florian found me. Florian Maxim was one of Samuel’s chief lieutenants and one of the creative brains behind the campaign. If I’d have to finger anyone as the video artist, I’d have named him. Of course I had no direct proof, but he always struck me as a man who understood real pain. He grabbed the book from my hands and tossed it to one of his mates. They started throwing from one to the other, glancing at me from the corners of their eyes, expecting me to chase after it like a nervous squirrel with a bladder problem. I just leaned back and enjoyed their skilful passes. The blood in my mouth was soothing.
Florian turned the book around to read the title and overjoyed he called out: “Hey, Samuel, guess what, Patricia is reading about Dödles.” (Dödle is a silly kid’s word for penis, and it rhymes with Gödel, the mathematician mentioned in the book’s title. I know. Haw-haw.) They amused themselves a while making Dödle cracks, but I was more concerned with checking out how deep my fingernails would go into my palms to pay them much attention. Eventually Samuel got bored with the whole game.
Two days before I had made a pretty bad mistake. A girl had asked me how could I put up with all of it when she saw that somebody had written “I take it up the rear” on my hoodie with indelible magic marker. I tried to appear nonchalant and quoted a German proverb: What does the oak tree care when the boar rubs against it. It’s a good sentiment, even though like most sayings there is something of a lie hidden inside. Like the one about the sticks and stones. It would be nice, but it just is not so. Anyway, I said it while Florian was in the room, and he must have heard it and reported it to his leader.
So when Samuel was bored with the taunting, he took up position in front of me, hands on his hips, pelvis thrust forward.
“Hey, Patricia, hungry for Dödle?”
I looked up at him. At my old school peeps might have warned him that the flickering in my eyes was a serious warning sign. But even if, I suppose it had been too long since anyone had challenged him in his position as top honcho of the school yard, and if there would have been someone he might have considered a risk that someone wouldn’t have been a short, queer kid two years his junior. Also, I don’t think that he had ever been in a real fight in his life.
“Don’t know, Sam. Haven’t seen yours, have I? Is it any good?” I asked through clenched teeth. There probably were hectic red splotches all over my face.
He laughed, carefree. “Better than all the Turkish dick-kebabs you’ve been getting at home, you can bet on that.”
And then another idea occurred to him.
“Hey, tell me Patricia…” He nestled at his fly. “Does the oak tree mind if the boar waters it? Cuz, I really gotta take a leak, you know.”
“Samuel,” I croaked. “Don’t take out what you don’t want to lose.”
He decided to call my bluff. And that was when I decided to end my period of non-violence, the one that had started when Hendrik had had me in a head lock almost a year before, and then had kissed me long and hard.
The fight was short and ugly. This wasn’t the back gate of an insignificant Kreuzberg primary school. This was a high school for the pride and joy of Berlin’s most influential national and international leaders. We had hardly found our stride when the first teacher was trying to break us up. But I wouldn’t let one lady in high heals and a tight skirt keep me from trying to put hurt onto Sam. After a second’s hesitation he, too, got back into the spirit of things. It took three teachers and two 12th graders to finally separate us.
By points I clearly lost that fight. And I have to be fair: none of Samuel’s sycophants joined in to help their glorious leader. Once he got it that I meant business, he didn’t wimp out. Of course, he was two years older, about 15 kg heavier and a good head taller than me. Anyway, I like to think that I gave him a run for his money.
Afterwards, when we were waiting in front of the principle’s office, me with a split lip, a closed eye, and torn up paper tissues stuffed into my nose, and him doing his best to prevent anything from touching his swollen family jewels, he suddenly grinned at me.
“Hey, Patricia. I take back what I said. You may be a poof, but you’re no sissy. I guess you can stay at my school.”
And he offered me his hand. But Samuel was no Leo, and I wasn’t six anymore. For a moment I was very, very tempted to hit him again, as hard as I could. Just to see that grin turn red as blood gushed from his nose. But I decided to find back to Ghandi and Jesus. Well, almost.
“And you may be an arsehole, Sam, but I promise you, I’ll never put my Dödle in it.”
We shook on it.
I was suspended for two weeks after that, while there was an official inquiry at the school. It ended with me having to state a public apology, being warned that the least antisocial behaviour on my part would lead to an immediate relegation – and that any more display of violence would also be reported to the police. After this I could feel how the administration was just waiting for another slip up so they could get rid of me rikki-tik. They had proved their social responsibility by accepting me in the first place and now by showing me leniency once, but that was it. The rest was a foregone conclusion, a pre-written script they expected me to play out.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Countdown: 5 - Kiss & Tell (Part III)

I picked him up Saturday morning shortly past 8. His rents were both there to see him off. As always, I was on my best manners, and shook hands with them.
Tim apparently had never been on a bike tour, or if, at least he had never packed his bike by himself. I had to laugh when I saw how (and what) he had stuffed into his backpack and how he just stuck the rest under the simple spring loaded clamp of his luggage carrier. Most of it would fall off at the next corner, and his shoulders would be stiff and sore by nightfall. I made him leave half of everything at home, redistributed the rest and secured it all on his rack with a couple of spare bungee cords.
Like most rents his dad could be trusted to do the most stupid, insensitive thing, like, clap me on my shoulder and tell Tim what a practical and sensible fellow I was, and that he should learn from me. Apparently the old chap thought I would have a good, manly influence on his wimp of a son, or something. And not wanting them to rescind their permission, I smiled stupidly and promised I’d bring back their boy in one piece by Sunday evening. I know I’m far from the first when I demand a test and licence for the right to raise children, but anasını satayım, I mean, sheesh, what a salak!
It was about 65 km each way, a nice, relaxed ¾ day tour, half of that through the city, half outside. The weather was fantastic and we had great fun. Not far from the city border we stopped at a supermarket to get lunch. I taught Tim how to raise change, mostly to secretly spite his dad, and he did it beautifully. A bit later we went for a swim at Kleiner Stienitzsee, a small lake not far off our route. Tim claimed to have forgotten his swimming trunks (I mean, come on, what was I supposed to think?), so I said, that was okay, we’d both go commando. Good thing the water was still freezing cold. Or perhaps not. Maybe if it hadn’t been, things would have been different. Maybe that was one of those moments that pass totally unnoticed at the time, but where secretly life suddenly goes off on a totally different direction than it would have otherwise.
We camped wild in Rotes Luch, a beautiful, shallow moorland valley surrounded by a forest of tall spruce trees. We cooked sausages on a stick over a small campfire, had beer and talked until late into the night. He had seen my tat during our swim, and the scars on my arms, and he shyly asked me about them. Later he told me a bit about his own dad and their problems with each other: How he had to play-act a role all the time, but didn’t dare to just drop the act. He didn’t actually come out, and say anything directly, but what would you have read into this?
He obviously wasn’t used to the beer, though, and when he fell asleep pretty much as soon as he laid down, I blamed it on that and the long tour under a scorching spring sun. It took some time, hot and bothered as I was, but eventually I found sleep, too.
Sunday we went for a quick swim at another small lake, and had breakfast in Buckow, a nearby village. We had a look at the house were Berthold Brecht had lived for a while and then went to a small fun fair. The cherries were in full blossom, and it was totally romantic. Tim seemed happy, and we kidded around. Nothing overt happened, and maybe that should have tipped me off, but, well, hope keeps the misery in place, huh?
Eventually we went back. The return trip was long and tiring, but in a good way. If you’ve never biked down Frankfurter Allee in East Berlin in full end-of-weekend rush hour you may not know what I am talking about, but something tiring and even a bit  monotonous and dull can still sort of create a bond with the person you are doing it together with, you know? At least that was what it felt like to me.
I delivered him to his rents’s house. We stopped in the drive way. He got off his bike and opened the door to the garage, while I remained standing, my own bike still between my legs. He came over to me and asked if I wanted to come in for a drink or something. It was late, and I was tired, and didn’t want to overdo it. So I said, no thanks, I’ll head back to Kreuzberg. He said okay, and thanks for a great weekend,  and we’d see each other Monday in school. I said sure, and then there was a silence, the sort of silence, you know, that asks to be broken by a good-bye kiss, chaste but hinting at, well, at possibilities.
Was it a risk? I suppose so. Hey, you have to admit, the cues had all lined up pretty much, and given his usual shyness, I figured I would have to be the one to make the first move. Maybe I should have just held hands under the cherry blossoms in Buckow. Things might not have gone quite as bad then, although maybe it wouldn’t have made any damn difference.
I kissed him. He froze up for a second, just long enough to make me realize that this had been a bad mistake, but not long enough for me to brace myself. Then he gave me a savage push. I feel over, bike, luggage and all. For the briefest of moments he looked down at me, and all I could see was his face awash in horror. I just have no idea what the horror was about. Me? Himself? Something else? Then he disappeared into the garage, the door slamming shut after him. I was alone.
After a while I extricated myself from the bike, put my luggage back into order, and rode off, unable to think anything but an endless repetition of “stupid, stupid, stupid,” the entire time. I went home, sick to my gut, and spent the rest of the evening lying on my bed, listening to Belle & Sebastian, staring at the ceiling, and feeling very sorry for myself.
To this day I do not know the truth. Had I so completely misread him? Was he straight and I had just been projecting things? Was he queer, but unable to admit it to himself? Had he suddenly been afraid that someone, his rents, might see us, and had gotten cold feet? Much later, when I met Alex, I got the idea that maybe Tim had been abused and physical intimacy caused him to go fight ‘n’ flight. But the end of it is that I don’t know. We never spoke again, except for the most perfunctory and unavoidable exchanges in class.
He did however talk about it. To his best girl friend, who went to the same school as us. And she told her best friend. Who told three others. By the time school was out on Tuesday everybody knew that I was not only an ex-con and a thief, but also a queer pervert who had tried to kiss-rape poor, little, vulnerable Timmy.
And then the taunts began.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Countdown: 5 - Kiss & Tell (Part II)

As I discovered during the next couple of days, Tim was neither a troublemaker, nor a teacher’s pet. He was an outsider, but of the more or less accepted kind. He was a bit of a music nerd, you know the kind who spends his free time either tinkering on his stereo or browsing dusty, under-lit off-high-street music shops for ultra rare CDs or even vinyl.
And while I suppose that most of our class mates were still blind to it, I could already see that in two or three years, Tim would shed his shy cocoon, and find a place amongst some hip crowd, as a DJ perhaps, or even in some indie rock band. He’d probably not be the lead singer, but I could picture him as the taciturn bassist, you know, the bloke who secretly is the backbone of the group.
He was terribly cute, too, in spite of his argyle slipovers and colour-matching knee socks that his mum made him wear. He had soft, floppy, dark blond hair, large, baby blue eyes, and a small and pouty but very kissable mouth. He was terrible at football, but a surprisingly good track and field athlete. He read a lot, and mostly stuff like French poetry at that. Almost all of his friends were girls, but none was his girlfriend, if you know what I mean. Hey, sue me, but we all have our prejudices. Why should I be the exception.
Our taste in books differed, but books were the first ground on which Tim and I could found a tentative friendship. Up to then, I never had much patience for poems, and French was to me just the school subject I loathed most. Tim gave me Baudelaire and Villon, and no matter what happened later, I will forever be grateful for that. (I gave him William Burroughs and Denton Welsh, and he seemed to like them, too.)
There were a couple of other boys, mostly the sporty ones, I got along with okay, but I didn’t really feel comfortable around them outside of the gym, just as they very obviously didn’t feel comfortable around me. Those girls who took an interest in me – amongst them some of Tim’s friends – seemed to see me mostly as a welfare case. Sticky tolerance oozed from them like sap from a wounded pine tree. When I didn’t react to that with the expected fawning gratitude, they put me down as an unwashed, football playing hooligan, and I suppose they weren’t all that wrong.
Tim stuck with me, though. He provided me with info not only on other kids, but also on teachers and the administration. For all his seeming wide-eyed innocence, his vague social confusion, and not-quite-stuttering demureness, he was a keen observer, and I liked that a lot in him.
We met a couple of times after school – always at his place, though. My mum’s flat isn’t exactly the place where you want to take a new friend whose father owns an 8 room villa in Zehlendorf. We played Guitar Hero and Bioshock, and watched tivoed episodes of CSI Miami or House MD. Slowly the weather got warmer and spring began to really show off.
One evening in late April I was lying on his balcony (yeah, his room had it’s own balcony facing the park sized garden) smoking and staring at the sky. Tim was sitting inside at the open door, cross-legged, and trying to repair something in a model airplane. It was getting late and I knew I should get going. The house of Tim’s rents was close to the school, and the school was a good 15 km, that is about 45-60 bike minutes, from my mum’s flat.
Not that I minded. Quite the contrary. After half a year of having been locked up, I really looked forward to those daily rides. I dunno why, but riding my bike through the morning and the afternoon rush hour traffic was about the closest I came to even remotely feeling free, until I got through my shaking spell outside Wotton-under-Edge that is. The wind cooling the thin film of sweat on my face, thigh muscles working, denim caressing the skin of my legs as I peddled down Schlossstraße and Unter den Eichen, ducking and weaving through the avalanche of steel all around me, with engines roaring, purring or idling, car horns honking, and the multitude of breakfast radio stations blaring through rolled up car windows from all sides… it was half workout and half waltz.
No mind.
All presence.
Sheer bliss.
But right then, on that balcony, I felt lazy and complacent, as I watched the smoke dissipate in the sky above me. I looked over to Tim, his face screwed up in concentration as he reached with a pair of delicate pliers deep into the body of the air plane. I remember the tip of his tongue, surprisingly pink, peeking out between his narrowed lips. I scraped together what little courage and self-confidence I had left and asked Tim: “Want to go on a bike trip with me?”
“Hmm?” He looked up, trying to focus on me and this new idea.
“Just a one night camping trip. Maybe to the Märkische Schweiz? Next weekend? We’d be back by Sunday evening.”
He looked at me as if it was the most outrageous, absolutely unheard of suggestion. But then, after a brief hesitation, his customary shy smile appeared. And then he said: “Let me ask my parent’s for permission.”
He put down the plane, jumped to his feet and darted out onto the landing. There was the subdued murmur of a conversation, and the distinct sound of Tim’s voice pleading: “Please, mum!” And when he came back, he had a bounce in his step and a broad smile on his face.
“They said yes.”

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Countdown: 5 - Kiss & Tell

Violence it ripped through the old dogwood fence. See the hope, see the gravel.
- Band of Horses: Cigarettes, Wedding Bands (2007)
I told you that my last serious fight before I discovered stealing had been with Hendrik, in June ’07. The peace lasted until next May. After that there really didn’t seem to be much point in good behaviour.
I was released from juvie that April. It was clear that my old school wouldn’t have me anymore. Their statistics are screwed up enough with drop outs, fights, and drug busts to put up with a convicted criminal like me. Since I was still over a year away from being released from compulsory school attendance, there was talk of putting me in a school for difficult teenagers. But that would have meant graduating with no more than GCSE equivalent, and probably not even that. My mum wouldn’t hear of that.
She left school with no more than a CSE equivalent, and she suffered from her lack of education all her life. She was determined that her own kids were all going to pass A-Levels. She had managed to get Lukas to succeed, and she had bossed ‘Nessa to go through with it. She would be damned if I was going to mess up her quota.
So she went to town, talking to people, asking around, writing letters, begging, cajoling, pleading, appealing to generosity, magnanimity, and playing on their sense of shame if necessary. And finally she convinced the administration of this one rich kids’s school in the Southwest of Berlin to give me a chance. It was my German-English bilingualism that gave me the opening. Since I entered in the middle of the school year they made me take a bunch of tests, though, to see if I was up to speed. I passed and was accepted.
The first day in the new school was awkward. My mum had made me dress in my best, and she had made me get a decent haircut, and I looked like a total dweeb. What I wore was nothing like what the rich kids wore. And even if one of my new class mates had given me a go at their wardrobe, it would have looked all wrong on me. I walked the wrong way, with too much swagger and rolling, and I stood the wrong way, too hunched and scowling, and I very obviously spoke the wrong way. I suppose you can take the delinquent out of Kreuzberg, but you cannot that easily take Kreuzberg out of the delinquent.
The form teacher introduced me with my full name, which I hated. Then he had me take a seat at the very front. I don’t know if that was out of convenience, because it was closest, or if it was to better have me under control, or if he intentionally sat me next to the other boy at that table. One look at him showed that he wasn’t there because he was a troublemaker. If anything he looked a bit like a teachers pet. I mean, he wore a pale yellow argyle patterned slipover over a button down shirt. What more can you say?
‘Great,’ I thought. ‘He sits me next to the only one who looks even dweepier than me.’
Then the boy smiled shyly and gathered up his book and pens to clear my side of the table.
“Hi. I’m Tim,” he whispered.
“Rikki,” I said, and offered my hand. He looked at it for a brief, confused moment, then he shook it. Turns out rich kids don’t shake hands. They just say “hi”. Another thing to make stand out.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Chapter Four: Bleeds (Part VII)

There was no more talk of the missing 200, of course. Bryan even tried to give me back my 500 and wanted to talk about how much of what we had made the past three days should be mine. I took a perverse pleasure in refusing all of it. Bryan couldn’t understand me, but Julie did. In the end she told him to leave well enough alone.
The next day, around noon, the crew met in the pit again. Bryan paid out 100 pounds to everybody, and an extra 200 to Tyler and Roger each, for watching me, another 200 to Melanie for catching me, and 400 to Julie for handling me.
“I think, Jan and we are quits now.” Bryan said.
“I think he needs a little memento,” Lonnie said. “Something so he doesn’t forget the lesson he’s learned.” He took out his knife, flicked it open, and looked challengingly at his leader. I saw at once that Bryan wouldn’t dare to refuse him.
So did Julie. She stepped up to Lonnie.
“You’re right,” she said. “And I’ll be the one who gives it to him.”
Lonnie eyed her suspiciously.
“You’ll not go all soft on him?”
Julie gave him a contemptuous look.
“You know I’m better than that,” she said. “And so is he.”
Reluctantly Lonnie gave her the knife. Julie came to me.
“Take off your jacket and roll up your sleeve.”
I looked into the semi-circle of faces around me, some pitying, some eager. One or two looked away. Not Melanie or Lonnie though. I did as told and gritted my teeth.
I hissed and winced as she made two deep cuts into the flesh of my upper arm, just underneath the shoulder, one perpendicular to the other. Like a rough L. Her eyes held mine, while she cut. Her eyes. Wide, and dark, and warm.
“So you’ll always remember us.”
Blood ran down my arms and splattered onto the concrete floor. Pat-pat, pat-pat-pat, pat, pat-pat. Roger took off his bandana and tied it around my arm. Mark offered me a fag and then gave me the whole pack and his lighter – a beautiful Zippo with the Death image of the Rider Tarot engraved in it’s side.
“Keep it man,” he said and averted his eyes.
I put on my jacket and hung the satchel over the other shoulder.
I walked 20 minutes to the Richmond Hill bus stop on York Road. My arm hurt like hell. I got bandages and some ibuprofen at a pharmacy I passed. I munched the Ranger candy while I waited for an eastbound number 18A, and put on the sterile pads and gauze with one hand and my teeth as good as I could.
Nate was waiting for me in Garforth, at the end of the line. He gave me the parcel, it was about the size of a one pound brick of coffee, if maybe a little bit heavier, and wrapped in plain brown paper. To this day I have no idea what it contained, although the idea of drugs certainly crossed my mind. I also considered simple cash, or jewels, or a disassembled gun or some electronic gadget or data storage medium, maybe packaged in polyethylene foam. Anasını satayım, for all I know it might just have contained a Bob Marley fan T-Shirt. After all, since the box underneath the brown paper might as easily have been made of plastic as of lead, the weight didn’t really tell me anything either.
I did shake it once and listened. Nothing clattered inside. Other than that I made no attempt to figure it out.
On Aberforth Road I put out my thumb. The third car to stop was northbound, a Volvo driven by an overweight and wheezing software sales rep who almost before we got rolling again began telling me in mind-numbing detail the advantages of the products he sold over those of his competitors. The ibuprofen dampened the throbbing in my shoulder while Leeds faded behind me in the drizzle and the gloam.
Why didn’t I run, when I could have? Why did I offer to take the parcel? Why didn’t I simply dump it in the first rubbish bin after I left town? I told you, I have no answers. I cannot even claim that it seemed like good ideas at the time. Everything about Leeds seemed like a bad idea, but I did it all anyway.
So, somebody tell me: Was this destiny? Was this providence? Because in a way, this was when this whole story truly started. This was when its inexorable end began to sneak into my cards. From here on out those three shots fired by the Aegean Sea were beginning to reverberate down the skein of fate that tied me, and Sim, Alex, Charley, Meryem, the Serrathas, that arsehole in Berlin, the chicken hawks of Jelenia Gora, the Ahimsa Corporation, even Steward, all of us together.
It is funny to think about it that way, to think about those brief moments in time, these random, ill understood choices that I made so unimaginably long ago now. But you cannot turn back time. The past is with you, always, and you just gotta learn to stand atop the rubble and to continue on your way, best as you can, until you finally run out of road.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Chapter Four: Bleeds (Part VI)

After the final count I was only 200 short of the 1.5K. So when Bryan was wrapping a rubber band around the bills and tossed the emptied wallets into a bin bag to dispose of them later, I took the tracker from my pocket and tossed it onto the table.
“That one should also fetch a nice price. What do you think you can get for it? Fifty? Seventy-five?”
Julie at least had the decency to blush. I think. I find it hard to tell with a black girl. Bryan just picked it up and gazed at it.
“Quite a bit more, man. When did you find it?”
I stared at him. I wanted to lie for some reason, no idea why or even what I wanted to say. But in the end I said the truth. Because everything else would have felt like cowardice.
“Today. Sometime in the afternoon.”
He regarded me impassively. There was some serious High Noon shit going down between him and me, me glaring fiercely and feeling somehow betrayed, silly as that might sound, and he all pensive and cool as a cucumber. He broke the eye contact, but it still felt to me as if I had lost the stare-down.
“Can you put him up for the night?” he asked Julie, as if I was just a friend visiting and he needed to scrounge up a bed for me. That was how I spent my last night in Leeds a guest instead of a prisoner, on a bed sofa in the living room of Julie’s grandmother. And that was how I heard that bloody conversation I wasn’t meant to hear, and how everything went off course.
It was a lot later. I had been tossing and turning on the couch. Whatever troubled me, and something did, it was bad enough that I didn’t even want to think about it. It had something to do with Julie’s grin when she had called me “Fido”. And something with the tracker. And a lot with the darkness in her eyes when she had smiled in the kitchen, when I had brought up Bryan.
Julie and Bryan came out of the kitchen. I could hear him put on his jacket, keys and coins jingling inside the pockets. They were murmuring quietly, covert lovers stealing a hidden moment, stripped of all sarcasm and coolness, of all the bravado they hid behind during the day. That was not the make-believe of teenage romance, not the coy flirt or the hard to get games of people too lost in self-doubt to take another person for more than a test of their market value. Right then they gave each other that rare gift only true courage is capable of giving: Presence without calculation. Two people wearing no masks.
I wasn’t listening to their words, just to their voices. Was it envy I felt? Jealousy even? I don’t think I begrudged them their brief moment of honest intimacy, dear enough, painful enough as it must have been. But I was only too aware that this was something I had never experienced, not with Hendrik, and certainly not with Jonas. The only person who had ever seen me anywhere nearly that naked had been ‘Nette, and I had been 10 years old.
I became aware that something in their conversation changed. I am extrapolating here from what I sensed and what I thought I knew, but I had the impression that Julie at last pushed Bryan to tell her what really had been bothering him all evening. And as he finally began telling her his real troubles a desperation crept into his voice, a helplessness I knew too well, because it had been the background sound of my childhood: Before my father had left, and when ‘Nette was dying, and when my mum had talked with social workers, shrinks and lawyers as they all tried to keep me from slipping over the edge into the darkness, there had always been this murmuring in the hallway.
The thick tufted polyester carpet soaked up the sound of my naked feet as I snuck over to the door and listened closer. There was a lot of disjointed mumbling, names and references I didn’t understand, and most of it made no sense to me at all. But slowly I pieced that much of the puzzle together:
Bryan had something in his possession that he needed to have delivered to someone by Sunday, or he would be in deep shit. The sort of deep shit that really scared him. Whatever it was, he couldn’t entrust it to the mail service, probably because it was quite illegal, and because the recipient wouldn’t be willing to pick it up from a post office, sign for it, or provide a traceable address. Neither Bryan nor Julie, not even Nate, could be there in person. (At least with Julie, I knew that she would get a visit from the social worker who was keen on sending her, Nate, and the grandma to state homes if they so much as gave her a reason. Hence all the housecleaning I had been doing.) And apparently he seriously didn’t trust anybody on his crew enough to let them deliver it either – from what I gathered less because they might keep the something, but rather because they weren’t supposed to know about the whole transaction at all.
I quietly pushed open the door. Bryan was sitting on the narrow stairs, head in his hands, and Julie squatted between his splayed legs, her hands on his bony knees.
“I’ll take it.” I said, rushing the words to keep my brain from stopping me. I cleared my throat belatedly.
Both looked up, tired even in their surprise.
“What have you heard?” Julie asked. I shrugged.
“Does it matter? I don’t know what it is, and I suppose I don’t want to know. I don’t know where you want to have it taken, but to me any place is as good as any other. It’s not like I have much of a goal anyway.”
They looked at each other again. The question written all over Bryan’s face was unmistakeable. Julie thought long and hard, and finally she nodded.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Chapter Four: Bleeds (Part V)

All would have been well if it hadn’t been for the problem of the observer. You see, whenever we did that lift and passing off routine, we would walk away from the mark in opposite directions. If I had been made making the lift, it was my job to draw any rozzer or other witness away from the goods in Julie’s possession. But even when I really lost sight of Julie it was never more than ten minutes before she was suddenly walking by my side again, ready for the next lift.
I kept looking for the watchman that I was told had me under observation at all times, but aside from the occasional glimpse of Tyler or Roger in the distance, I never spotted anyone. Even when I went inside one of the arcades and department stores, even when I went to the loo of some fast food restaurant, nobody hurried after me, and still, a few minutes later Julie came towards me, as if she’d known exactly where I was.
Part of the reason I wanted to know how they were keeping tabs on me was of course that I thought about escaping but was too scared to try. Colour me yellow and call me a sissy, but I was pretty certain that if I tried to run and was caught by, say, Melanie or Lonnie, my chances of leaving Leeds alive would have been bloody slim indeed. I didn’t intend to do anything rash. But I wanted to know how they always knew.
It was more than that, though. I consider myself pretty sharp and keen eyed. I mean, anasını satayım, Uncle Valya and I had trained how to make and shake a tail and how to find a spot where you couldn’t be observed. And it bugged me badly that I couldn’t figure this out.
Then, Friday afternoon, Julie and I were at the Burger King at the back of the railway station. I was queuing for those mini pancakes they serve and going through my pockets for change when I noticed that some coins had slipped through tear from the pocket into the lining of my jacket. You know the bother when coins or pens or something slips through such a tear into the lining? Well, I dug around in there, rather absentmindedly, when I noticed something stuck in the seam that was about the size of a thumb-drive.
I wormed it out and looked at the thing – and that was when the penny dropped. The cunts had bugged me. It was a bloody tracker, too small for a real time GPS tracker I’d say in retrospect, but obviously with enough range for downtown Leeds. Julie, or someone, must have had an app on their smart-phone telling them exactly where I was at any given moment. They probably had slipped it in while I was taking that shower on Wednesday, before we went to town to work the first time.
Of course, that was when I could have walked. The next moment the smug bastards let me out of sight I could have slipped the tracker into someone else’s pocket, someone boarding a train or getting into a car, and quietly left town while they were chasing the decoy. Hell, I probably could have slipped out some back way right then.
Why didn’t I? Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill, huh?
The tracker bothered me a lot. It wasn’t that I was being guarded, I mean, they had told me as much. I didn’t mind Nate waiting outside the shower with the taser, I didn’t even so much mind the 14 hours of sensory deprivation, even though I didn’t exactly relish that either. Too many memories, too many ghosts. I don’t think I would have minded if they had snapped one of these ankle monitors onto my leg. But the sneaky, covert way they’d gone about it bothered me a lot.
I thought about scarpering. But it felt as if running would be like leaving a sentence hanging before you made your point. Maybe I am flattering myself. Maybe I just didn’t want to stop being their dog. It was just that after I could run, staying implied consent. And I couldn’t give that either.
As I said, that was Friday, my third day with the Harehills Crew – not counting that first evening when I ran into them. That day it wasn’t Tyler or Roger or one of the others who took us back to Julie’s grandma, it was the boss man himself. Bryan was in a grim mood, you could see that at once. He picked us up in front of the rail station and one we got to the house he came in with us. He knew Julie’s grandmother and went upstairs to say hello.
“What’s with him?” I asked Julie while we waited in the kitchen.
I didn’t say anything, but I suppose my face said it for me.
“When Bryan took over last year, there was some bad blood. Some of us feared he was just going to annex us to the Beeston Crew.”
“I see. At least I would if I lived in a universe where that sentence made any kind of sense…”
She rolled her eyes, not really pissed off.
“The Beeston leader, Asiv…”
“The bloke you wanted to send a message using my dead body?” I interrupted and she nodded, not breaking her stride.
“… he and Bryan used to be mates, been to prison together and stuff. But then Asiv…” She made a vague gesture. “He made some choices for his crew that Bryan couldn’t go along with. Difference of philosophy.”
“Philosophy…” I echoed dryly.
“Fuck you, man.”
I held up both hands. “Difference of philosophy, fine. Still, Bryan is a Beeston man, has a falling out with his old boss. How’s he get to lead the Hillhares?”
She gave me a hard look, checking if I was taking the piss, and then continued.
“Bryan was as good as dead if he defied Asiv on… that. He needed protection. We knew he had contacts, intel, not just on the other crews, but also business. He knows people, from prison. Big fish. Still, some felt that was just enough to buy him protection, membership at best. Not the right to lead us. But Bryan has his pride. So he fought Dimitri.” And at my raised eyebrow: “Dimitiri was boss before Bryan.”
“Where is Dimitri now?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
“Prison. Has nothing to do with Bryan. Bryan and Dimitri got along pretty good afterwards, Dimitri was his second, like. If Dimitri was still around, they wouldn’t be weaving their little intrigues.”
“Melanie and Lonnie?” I asked. Julie nodded. Suddenly I understood something.
“So, the thing about killing me... that was…?”
“Yeah. Mel has been trying to get Bryan to hang himself for months now. But Bryan is too smart for her, and he got some, uh, loyalty in the crew.”
She fell silent, and her eyes travelled towards the door we were expecting him to walk through any time now – and beyond into memory. I remembered the flicker of eyes, the brief contact, back when they were deciding about my life.
“They… do not know about you… and him?” I asked carefully.
Her smile was paper thin and soaked in pain.
“And you have been…” I continued, tasting the words for their truth, following my intuition the way a snake follows its own flickering tongue. “…since long before he and Asiv… back when he was still…”
Julie cracked another beer. “Some of us are so sharp they might just cut themselves.”
I looked at her, sitting there in her camouflage clothes, her unlaced rude girl boots. She held her fag the way I did, between the thumb and the middle finger, index finger resting on the butt for control, glowing point cupped in the palm. I raised my bottle and clinked it against hers.
“To loyalty.”
She looked up, her grin so at odds with the darkness in her eyes as to be almost a grimace, and clinked hers back against mine. And she muttered:
“Sure, mate. To loyalty.”

Friday, 22 October 2010

Chapter Four: Bleeds (Part IV)

So far, so simple, right? Because that should be all I have to tell about Leeds. For the next three days Julie and I worked the arcades and high streets on her crew’s turf, and by Saturday I had bought back my freedom and left town. And if that had been all that happened, I probably wouldn’t even have mentioned any of this in the first place, or at best skimmed over it. Because, in the end, what does it tell you so far? That crime doesn’t pay? That there is no decency amongst thieves, no hospitality amongst crooks? My, what news, eh?
If that had been how things had gone my story probably would have ended here, too. I would have continued my journey, and eventually I would have been caught and deported to Berlin, or I would have tired of the whole stupid Huck Finn shite, and slunk back myself, or, most likely, I would have just… oh well, what is the point of guessing, huh? As Aslan says in the Narnia books: “To know what would have happened, child? No. Nobody is ever told that.”
So, what did happen? Well, I may not understand my own choices, but I can try to tell you what they were.
I woke up sometime later in the darkness, shivering and hurting. I had to piss but nowhere to do it. Feeling around I found a corner – pissing hurt like the devil, and would for a couple of days – and then I crawled as far away as I could.
The smell of the piss was strong. I could imagine the puddle spreading outward, eating up grains of sand and dust on the way, until the concrete’s capillary suction and gravity’s pull overcame the surface tension, and it would soak away into nothing but a dark, wet stain. I remembered the taste of Hendrik’s piss, the pain from his beatings, the night in the forest, the cold and the dark and the fear. I cowered in the corner and tried to cling to his image and how we would get a kick out of all this.
I had no idea what time it was. What if they had decided to just leave me there. It didn’t look as if Britrail or whoever officially owned these premises was still using them. How long could you survive without water? Three days? Wasn’t dying of thirst supposed to be really, really unpleasant? Didn’t it drive you insane, wasn’t that what we’d told each other as little kids?
But I didn’t cry, even then, I didn’t cry. I couldn’t.
Eventually the door was opened.
“Want something to eat, before we go to work?”
It was Julie again. She hadn’t turned on the worker’s torches this time. Faint, grayish light filtered in from outside. I nodded, blinked up at her, limped out of my cell.
“Did you piss in there?”
“And let me tell you, the state of your facilities are a disgrace.”
She shook her head, as if dismayed by my manners.
“You locked me up in there,” I snapped. “What did you want me to do? Suck it up?”
In the first room stood a boy, no older than ten, skin as black as Julie’s. He wore a gray sweatshirt, hood drawn up over his New York Yankees baseball cap. In his hand he held what looked like a blue and yellow plastic Nerf gun.
“Who’s the…” I was going to say ‘squirt’ when my body went rigid. My jaws clamped down, almost severing the tip of my tongue. I rose up on the tips of my toes, and all the air went out of me with a whistling sound as if I was a bicycle pump. Somebody was beating a rapid-fire nun-chuck tattoo on my thigh, while the other muscles in my body seized up in one massive cramp. I toppled like a felled tree, everything stiff, right onto my face. Then the nun-chucks stopped pummelling my leg, and I lay there, twitching and moaning.
“What the fuck? Nate! What you do that for, you knob?” Julie shouted.
“It was an accident. I didn’t mean to. It just went off!” the little boy shouted back.
Julie knelt down next to me and removed something from my leg.
“You okay?”
I rolled onto my back. Blood was streaming down my nose. Groggily I tried to sit up. I felt as if I had just run a marathon. I was badly winded and shivering all over.
“What happened?”
Julie held up two little metal barbs on wires, thin as hairs, and coiling away to the tip of the nerf gun.
“You got zapped by a taser.”
She helped me get up, lead me outside. The sky was overcast and spitting, but the air was indescribably warm and sweet. I leaned against the wall under the bridge. Nate came out after me, looking embarrassed, angry, and rebellious.
“Got a fag?” I asked Julie. She dug out a pack Mayfair King Size. For some reason the health warning labels were in Spanish. I tore off the filter and Julie gave me fire.
“Sorry about that. My bro is a fuckwit.”
“Am not!” Nate flared up, but Julie hit him good-naturedly on the bill of Yankees cap, making it slide over his eyes.
“Cut it out, Julie,” he complained.
“You okay again? Getting zapped is a bitch, I know.”
“Oh, do you, now?” I said, sarcastically.
“Yeah, I do.” She took the big blue-and-yellow gun from Nate and showed it to me. It said x26 on the side, and west yorkshire police. “Bryan got it off a copper. Gave it to me. For protection.”
“And you gave it to your baby brother ‘cuz your rents can’t afford real toys?”
She rolled her eyes. “He was supposed to zap you. If you try to run.”
I smoked some more and wiped the drying blood off my lips. A commuter train roared passed. From within peeps in suits and ties stared back out at me, for a moment almost close enough to touch but still worlds apart. The train faded with the familiar sound. Tack-tack, tack-tack. Tack-tack. I flicked the butt of the fag onto the tracks and nodded.
We went into the house at the end of the row. Like all such houses everything inside was narrow and shoddy. The kitchen was filled with junk, microwave, blender, bread-maker, electric coffee grinder, espresso machine, juice extractor, you name it. On what little countertop was not occupied by all that crap, unwashed dishes were stacked.
“Can you cook?” Julie asked.
“Uh. Depends.”
She got orange juice, eggs, and bacon from the fridge, several cans of baked beans from the shelves and sliced bread from a bread box.
“Wash a couple of pots, pans and plates and make us breakfast.”
“You’ve got to be joking.”
“You are here to work off one and a half K, aren’t you? Stop complaining and get to it. Maybe we’ll let you have some.”
Food turned out okay. I got my fair share, too. Afterwards I had to wash up everything, scrub the counters, and wipe the goddamn floor, while Julie lounged on one chair, a foot in an unlaced Doc Martens boot on another, smoking Mayfairs. Her brother was sitting on a third chair, hugging the back, chin resting on top, fag in one hand, the x26 in the other.
The council house officially was Julie’s grandmother’s. During the three days I was there, I never saw the old lady leave her bed-room. I just heard her shout slurred orders to Julie or Nate from time to time. Julie’s mum was away for a couple of years for some drug offence. The corresponding grandfather had died a few years ago. Julie’s and Nate’s dad, a refugee from some Caribbean island state, had been deported shortly after Nate’s birth.
Julie and Nate had been left in the care of their alcoholic, bedridden grandmother. Or the grandmother had been left in the care of Julie and Nate. Who keeps score anymore, huh? All those kitchen appliances, the bloody big flat screen TV in the living room, the stereo, all that was paid by Julie, mostly from selling dope I think. She also had gotten her little brother an X-Box and a wii and bloody BMX bike that he never used. Cleaning up the house was that last inch that she couldn’t go without giving up her integrity, I guess.
After housecleaning I got to take a shower. Nate watched me all the time, but it still was heaven to wash all the blood and grime from my skin, and put some disinfectant and plasters on my various scraps and cuts, and tend to my feet. By the time I was dressed again Tyler was there to take us to town.
It took some effort from both of us, but after maybe six or seven attempts Julie and I had our routine down. I picked the marks. I would have preferred a third man to scope out potentials and “mark” them with a chalky handprint (yes, that’s where the term is from, and a damn good technique, too), or at least someone who would conspicuously bump into the mark, so that he pated himself down and showed me where he kept his stealables. But we had to do without.
Of course they said that there was a third man, keeping an eye on us, or rather on me. That Wednesday it was Tyler, on Thursday a bloke called Roger. I caught a glimpse of them every now and then, but he wouldn’t participate.
Anyway, the way we made it work, I picked the mark and made the lifts. Julie didn’t have any training beyond low-level shoplifting, but she had enough people sense that she soon figured out how to tell when I would move. She came my way then, passing me just as I had the wallet. I would drop it into her hand and overtake the mark, with hands and pockets as clear as my conscience, while Julie would walk off in the opposite direction.
We did that all afternoon and most of the evening, until the streets began to grow empty and it became hard to find excuses to get close enough to peeps. Tyler took us back to the house, where we sat for a while in the kitchen, counted the money, drank beer and just joked around. Without Melanie around, Tyler was pretty amiable. But they kept me cornered the whole time, so that I would have had to go through one of them to reach a door or a window. And when I had to go to the loo, Tyler went with me.
Later the whole crew would meet somewhere in Harehills. Julie got a lilo and a sleeping bag from a cupboard. Stacked neatly in one corner of the cupboard was a bunch of sandbox toys: A dark blue plastic bucket, the handle of which had long ago been torn off and lost, a shovel, and two or three sand moulds. I remember a yellow one of a plane and a red one of an elephant. But most of all I remember the way Julie took them down and the way she held them.
“They were Nate’s.” She tried to say it with a laugh as she handed me the bucket, but her eyes couldn’t help but stare past me and a couple of centuries to the last time he had been child enough to use them.
“If you have to go.”
It was about 10 pm when she locked me in again. It wouldn’t be before noon the next day that she let me out again. She hadn’t thought to give me any light, and somehow I was too kahretsin proud to ask for one. 14 hours of sensory deprivation. The only thing I heard was my own breathing and the rustling of the nylon sleeping bag on the rubberized fabric of the lilo, and the occasional ringing of a coin on the concrete floor when I dropped it – practicing sleight of hand with a coin was the only thing I could think of to pass the time. (I felt still too battered to practice aikido.)
Thursday went similarly to Wednesday: I had a noonday breakfast with Julie and Nate, and cleaned their bathroom while we waited for Roger to pick us up. I watched Julie water down her grandmother’s gin as much as she dared. Nate told me how Julie had once tried to concoct a mix of water, syrup, food colouring, and artificial rum flavour to create an alcohol-free rum substitute, but how their grandmother had got serious DTs, and so they went back to the gin. Nate laughed as he told this. I had to think of the sandbox toys again.
In the afternoon and the evening we made more money until it was time to go back. We had a couple of beers in the kitchen. Roger and Julie slagged some of their friends for fucking around behind the backs of their respective boy- or girlfriends. Finally Roger reminded Julie that they were expected at the Leeds International Pool, and Julie sent me to the loo before lockup. When I took too long, she whistled and called me: “Heel, Fido. Heel.” But her grin when I came out was infectious. After that followed another 14 hours of sleight of hand and bad dreams.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Chapter Four: Bleeds (Part III)

The pit, as the Harehills Crew called the place, was one of several points in East Leeds where they met and stashed dope, cash, or weapons. The room you entered behind the steel door was large, maybe 10 by 10 meters. It was illuminated by workman’s torches, the ones on a stick, to hold them high, and with a hook on one end, so you can hang them on something and have your hands free to work. The room was furnished with a colourful mix of chairs and a mildewy couch. Half a dozen blokes and a couple of chavettes waited for us, greeting each other by touching knuckles and saying stuff like “my man”, and “what’s up”.
Their erstwhile ruler was Bryan, a sinewy black bloke in threadbare army fatigues, with a colourful, woollen Rasta cap and shoulder long dreadlocks. Purple boy – his name was Lonnie – made me kneel down in front of Bryan. When I wasn’t quick enough, I received a kick that made my legs buckle so that I feel hard on my knees. The impact ran through my body the way energy runs through Newton’s balls, and my teeth clicked audibly.
Lonnie then grabbed my hair and jerked back my head, forcing me to stare up into Bryan’s face: Long and horse-like, eyes heavily lidded, cheeks dotted with little black scars, his thick, expressive lips gripping a fag. When he took it out he pulled back his lips to reveal long, strong, yellow teeth. He went to his haunches in front of me and looked directly into my frightened eyes.
“Tell us your name, little boy,” he said in a voice so gentle and malevolent I broke out in goose bumps all over.
“Jan…?” (He pronounced it almost like Ian.)
“Jan Niemiaszek.” That had been the name I’d used since leaving the Big Chill.
“Where you from?”
More blood trickling down my throat to be soaked up by the hem of my T-shirt. Lonnie tightened his grip on my hair and jerked my head back up.
“Hes from Germany,” one of the chavettes said, grinning.
Without getting up, Bryan turned to her.
“He just called himself Jerry Kraut in Polish,” the chavette added. “Sort of.
And to me, with a half-apologetic shrug: “My family moved here four years ago from Gdańsk. Not long enough to forget.
Turns out the Harehills Crew (that claimed not only the district of Harehills, but also Gipton, Halton, Halton Moor, Osmondthorpe, Cross Green, and part of East End Park) was involved in a territorial dispute with another gang based in Beeston and Holbeck in the South of Leeds. When I was spotted picking pockets in the city centre, part of the disputed area, I was mistaken for a member of that Beeston gang.
It didn’t take me long to convince them that I wasn’t affiliated with their rivals. But then they made me strip and when they found not just the wallet I had lifted but the 400 plus quid I had been carrying they became suspicious again.
“Let’s gut him and leave him in Cross Flats Park. Let Asiv know what happens to poachers,” Lonnie demanded.
Bryan took a drag on his fag and pensively scratched his goatee with a pinkie and ring finger.
“No matter if he works for Asiv or not,” Melanie, the girl who had spotted me, cut in, “he did poach, Bryan. You goin’ to go back on your word now?” She chewed bubblegum thoughtfully as she leaned into the arms of Tyler, her faithfully tattooed boyfriend, but there was something about her, cat-like, ready to pounce.
Bryan quickly exchanged a look with Julie, the black girl who had opened the garden gate, a mere flicker of eyes and probably unnoticed by anyone not as close to – and focused on – Bryan as I was. Then Bryan said: “Maybe you’re right, Mel. But we’ve got to do it right, so that nothing leads back to us.”
He gave me a last pitying look. “Lock him up.”
Lonnie and Melanie smiled, more triumphant than sadistic, as Tyler pushed me through a second steel door in the back wall. The second room was no more than 3 by 4 meters, raw concrete, as windowless as the first and completely bare. Naked as I was I stumbled in and the door closed behind me, leaving me in total darkness.
I don’t know how long I had to wait. Could have been thirty minutes, could have been three hours. For a few minutes I occupied myself by feeling around for an air duct or sewer grill I might have overlooked in the brief moment of light I’d had, but there was nothing. I ran my fingers across the door, the hinges, the lock. I suppose I might have had a chance to pick the lock given the right tools, but I didn’t have anything. The door was too heavy and closed too seamlessly for me to hear anything, get the least gleam of light. It was just black, cold, and silent. Only when a lorry passed across the bridge overhead did I hear or rather feel a faint rumble.
I tried to cling to anger, mostly at myself, for not fighting back, for letting them catch me, not running faster, doing the bloody stupid lift in the first place, but the anger didn’t last. In the cold, damp darkness of that cellar it guttered and died, and left me only the fear. Was I afraid of death, of dying, the pain, of watching life flow away? Maybe. Was I afraid of what I thought would come afterwards? Yeah, probably. I mean, kahretsin, I knew where I was going, didn’t I? I bloody knew! But mostly I was so very much afraid of the lonely, indignant, pointless way to go. God, was I ever afraid that night. I think there have been only two occasions I have ever been more afraid, leaving the prison of Jilava, in Romania, and in Greece, waiting for her those last few hours.
Eventually the door was opened again. I was trying to rekindle the anger, enough to maybe go down fighting. No idea if I would have.
I couldn’t recognize the person opening the door at first, that was just a silhouette against the bright light. But I saw the disappointment and loathing on Lonnie’s face, and I knew I’d gotten another lease.
It was Julie at the door, again, who guided me out. Had she seen the brief desire to fight when she came in? Or was it just what she would have done and assumed I would as well?
“Don’t give them a reason,” she whispered as she took me by the arm, “to change their minds.”
Bryan waited for me, standing tall and appearing very regal, even in his dirty olive fatigues.
“Tyler, Mark, hold him.” Tyler and another bloke each wrestled one of my arms behind my back. Bryan nodded to Melanie who stepped up in front of me, cracking her knuckles.
Afterwards while I was kneeling on the floor, heaving and gasping, Bryan told me the sentence. CCTV had saved my life – there was a camera near that church that I had run past that would have recorded me being chased by them. Lonnie probably wasn’t on it, but Melanie definitely was. So they wouldn’t execute me as an example to others. They would however enforce an act of contrition. On top of the almost 500 quid they took off me I would make them another 500, and since I need to be watched, I would have to reimburse the crew for those man-hours as well, coming to a total of 1,500 pounds sterling I would have to steal for them before they would let me go.
Julie would be my handler, working with me, I was told, and some other member of the crew would have an eye on me from afar, making certain I didn’t scarper.
Then they dragged me back into the second room, kicked my clothes in with me, and shut the door for the night. In the darkness I crawled around like a dog that’s been hit by a car. I groped for my stuff, dressed against the cold, and tried to find sleep on the hard ground.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Chapter Four: Bleeds (Part II)

As much as I try I cannot come to a conclusion about what happened next. I mean, the facts are simple enough, but they do not make any sense, not to me. Especially not what I did. But I must admit, given the circumstances, I cannot imagine making a different choice.
Picking that pocket was stupid, no two ways to see that. I still had over 400 quid from Queen Mum and from Frank the tout. The mark didn’t even do anything to deserve it, other than carry a visibly bulging wallet in the back pocket of his jeans. Probably full of fading receipts and ancient parking stubs I figured. I did it out of sheer boredom. For the heck of it, you know.
It must have been around nine in the evening, the sun had just set. Not long before it had stopped raining and the clouds were breaking apart in a blaze of blood, peach and salmon. I had eaten a slice of take away pizza and was still holding the piece of cardboard they had served it on. I folded up the cardboard until it had roughly the dimensions of the wallet. Then I shadowed the mark for a while until I saw that he was about to enter a small, incidental crowd.
I quickly walked up behind him, close enough to be jostled against him by the peeps around us. One hand pushed up the wallet and – while it toppled into the other – slipped in the folded-up piece of cardboard. This was the exact grift that got me sent to Plötzensee. But I was curious if I was still up to it. And I was bored. And lonely. Maybe I just wanted to touch somebody.
The lift went beautifully, the mark never noticed anything. But I was caught again.
I saw right away that the girl wasn’t a rozzer: White, gold-trimmed trackies, Adidas trainers, no older than 17. But her face left no doubt that she had made me as she grinned at me from between two overweight shoppers. We were on a small plaza surrounded by department stores. The girl belonged to a group of scallies loitering around the statue of a fat man carrying a beer barrel. She must have been waiting for me to make this mistake. I decided not to stick around to find out the back-story.
As soon as I made a break two blokes from the group took up pursuit. They chased me through an opening between a shopping centre and a departments store and on through a green churchyard. When I came out on another street on the far side a bloke in a black Nike tracksuit came at me from my left, forcing me to turn right and run down the hill. My legs were pumping like pistons, soles slapping the rain-slick asphalt. I picked up speed. Faces of elderly pedestrians flashed by, snapshots of disapproving fearfulness. Before I could reach the open crossroads at the bottom of the hill, another bloke came my way out of a street to my right. As I dashed around a corner and past an American pool hall to avoid him I could see that he wore a handless mobile phone in his ear and was shouting something. The answer came in the form of a fourth runner straight ahead. But instead of tackling me he kept to my right cutting off another exit there. The bastards were coordinating their hunt, herding me.
The chase ended on a car park between an inner city motorway and another small green space. My breath was going ragged, nothing but adrenalin propelling me onward. I tried to get to a narrow walk way between two grassy knolls when the door of a car opened directly in front of me. I didn’t have the time to even slow down, ran into it full tilt. It completely knocked the air out of me. The ground came up behind me, gave me a hard slap on the back and smacked me once roughly across the back of my head. Six pairs of trainers formed a circle around me, the faces blacked out by the fading purple light in the cloudy evening sky above.
“Poaching, are we, love?” a husky girl’s voice asked, as soon as she had caught he own breath. The same white and gold Adidas I had seen in the plaza kicked me painfully into my thigh. “Take him to the pit.”
Two pairs of hands grabbed me by the arms. One of them had melanie tattooed across the knuckles of the left. The hatchback of the car opened. It was a Nissan Silvia, the colour of brushed steel with a matte black roof and hood and a showy rear wing. The boot smelled so strongly of lubricant, solder, and naked metal that it made my tongue tingle. I struggled when they stuffed me into it, earning myself a sharp jab of the tattooed knuckle to my shoulder, right on the knob of bone there. My howl of pain was cut off by the hatchback slamming close.
Ten minutes later I was pulled out again, deafened and disoriented by the wide bore exhaust and a weapons grade subwoofer. Dusk was getting on. The Nissan stood in a dead end street. Red brick terraced houses all around, the sort with artificially tarnished wrought iron bars in front of the ground floor windows and doorbells disguised as brass knockers, meant to look posh but only looking naff. Screws crooked, so that you could rip it all out with one, two good yanks. Even the red bricks looked fake somehow.
A lanky, crop-haired bloke in a vile electric purple tracksuit, the one who had cut me off while talking on his handless phone, flicked out a switchblade and pressed its point under my chin.
“Try to run again, and I’ll cut your throat.” His Yorkshire accent made that roon and cout. He was joined by Melanie’s boy and two other blokes.
Before I could say anything a gate was opened in the wall at the end of a row of houses. A stocky West-Indies girl in blackcamo tank-top and trousers stood in the small garden behind the gate.
“He’s waiting.”
Purple boy grinned happily. He pressed the tip of the knife deeper into the soft flesh under my chin, deep enough that a small trickle of blood began to run down the blade and onto his hand. He took the knife away from my throat for a moment and licked the blood off his fingers. “Go on, scream, run, fight,” his eyes said. “I dare you.”
At the end of the garden was a chain-link fence with another gate in it. Behind that lay a narrow gorge with a sunken railway line at the bottom. The slopes were steep and wooded, the sort of area where people dump their old washing machines and broken bicycles, and where torn plastic bags flutter in the branches like the ghosts of last year’s birds. Crumbling concrete steps lead from the chain-link fence to a litter strewn path by the railway tracks.
Bridges crossed the gorge every few dozen meters, and set into the base of one such bridge, covered in twenty years worth of tags spray-painted over each other and half-hidden by blackberry brambles and a thicket of nettles, was a steel door. The black girl did the super secret knock. The door was opened from within and sulphur yellow light spilled out into the darkness under the bridge.