by Bwalya Newton
I’m cold, you’re cold, we’re all cold and all that cold frankly stopped being romantic about five shared houses and two slug infestations ago. For some reason, Joyce was sucking down a large Oreo milkshake in mid-December whilst we stood waiting amidst Camberwell’s tower blocks. I was armed with one vote for me and one for a white man. There was an absurdity in possessing two defunct golden tickets that seemed criminal not to share with the rest of the 70 fidgeting people refreshing their phones in the queue as damning exit polls rolled in. Two useless tickets to democracy for a black woman in Peckham, there was a good joke in there somewhere.
Perhaps it was my barely concealed agitation that first drew his attention to me, mine and Joyce’s audible back and forth about the merits of continuing the charade of queuing had not been carried out in the doctors’ surgery hushed timbres English spaces often demand. The scowling, boat-shoe clad ginger two places in front of us was in the company of a mixed-race woman he was clutching too earnestly, they seemed recent. I wondered how many readings of Bukowski she had had to endure.
I had always had a problem concealing frustration within polite parameters. Don’t complain if you have to pick grit out your knees from the playground. Don’t roll your eyes in class when Mrs Roberts excitedly uses the word nappy. Indignation hadn’t been a problem until those Isles had quickly learned me.
“I had always had a problem concealing frustration within polite parameters.”
“Come outside,” he yelled, stepping out of the Salvation Army hall and positioning himself by the jauntily hung A3 laminated sign that read POLLING STATION. I supposed that was his attempt at a pithy retort. Mildly amused and charged with wasted polling adrenalin, I obliged, jostling my way from Joyce’s grip on my coat which now left my right sleeve awkwardly longer than the other. Surprised by me advancing, his lanky 6-foot frame attempted to puff up the way birds do when mating, it was all so fucking silly yet fraught with danger. His hand reached for the door between us, his desperate, dry, white-knuckled grip of the handle in severe need of e45, “you really have to work hard at ashy white skin,” I thought, cringing and now distracted. Slam. The garish red hall’s wooden framed glass door made contact with my head with that funny dull thud of finality, “good one whiteboy,” I thought, continuing to charge. I hoped my gait was as sarcastic and haughty as my internal monologue.
“You, you’re a disrespectful lil’ piece of shit,” he huffed like an angry child amid a bedtime dispute. His horrified girlfriend looked on in a mix of embarrassment and shock.
“Please, Mark,” she hissed transfixed from a foot away.
The left-hand corner of my lip lifted and presented a convincing wry smile on my face. The problem with short people is they often have a propensity to overcompensate, particularly in altercations, so predictably there I was, all 5ft 3 of me, jutting out my chin, the right sleeve of my coat still clumsily longer than the other.
“Really? With your whole black girlfriend in tow, hit me or fucking leave… MARK!”
I didn’t have much in the way of an education about invisibility as a child, posturing and performing was highly effective in gaining favour amongst children and adults alike. Of course, there were subtle nuances, for instance I’ve found that children are less enthused by perfect renditions of the King James Version of Psalm 91. The school yard in Zed was where perfect yet imperfect visibility was honed. Where dusty swirls would form around the girls’ feet, their polished black leather shoes would hungrily take on the ochre dust, eventually losing their earlier gleam. The white and blue checked dresses sashaying, streaking colour across the playground, as little melanated deities with braided crowns, afro puffs and canerows would scream and laugh madly into the honest sun. I leapt deftly over the multicoloured tires that had been half planted into the ground and dotted sporadically in our play zone, which we used for our competitive games of leapfrog. I always won, keen to show off how light I was on my feet and how graceful I could make my increasingly elaborate landings.
I lead the girls in chorus, all of us circling Agnes, who, bless her, would look on pleadingly. I was thrilled, she was larger than us. The whole premise of the song was that an enormous person who was so large from greed would sweat oil from overindulging in greasy market snacks. Everything was visible.
I lean against the mistral letting it give my cheeks sharp kisses, closing my eyes momentarily, enjoying its force pushing at my weight.
I blurt out, a little too jumpily at the unexpected exchange, too heavy on the N to pass for French. A woman with peroxide blonde, heat damaged hair and burnished orange skin and I laugh. I’m not sure if it’s the wind that’s tickling us or that nice moment you have when mutual absentmindedness makes you collide into each other’s daydreams. I look back at her black and gold trainers, 3 quarter length sleeved leopard print cardigan and dirty denim mini in admiration. I hope I’m jokes when I’m 70. The boulevard outstretched before me is a dogshit minefield, STOP CACA reads a large faded blue graffiti on the pavement, evidently ineffective but entertaining, nonetheless. I march on, carefully, towards my arranged meeting spot hoping Marseille’s witty back and forth with me continues. Saint Victor curves round, natural wine cave, then cave, Italian grocer, another natural wine cave, pizzeria, épicerie, tabac, it’s unflinchingly middle-class. Soon her curves begin to reveal the sea, chairs are being brought out for today’s performance of the sun, bobos right on cue take their seats for today’s matinee, served with panisse and a 4-euro wine.
“I didn’t have much in the way of an education about invisibility as a child, posturing and performing was highly effective in gaining favour amongst children and adults alike.”
Meandering round through the old port and skipping the pubs along Vieux Port, I slow down to watch a couple fight. I’m tempted to applaud when the woman spits out a highly satisfying
But decide against it when the irony of the tall black graffiti on the wall that reads, L’AISSEZ LES FILLES TRANQUILLE, seems to accomplish more than I could in that moment.
A glance at the coffee shop tells me Louns is predictably late. Deciding to wonder into the tailor shop opposite, garbled French leads me into an inquiry about the possibility of fixing a pair of old trousers I’d become attached to.
“Je suis Zambie,”
“Zambienne! Me, I am Algerian, two Africans, ha!” he gestures proudly slapping his chest.
“Oui, c’est vrai,” I smile, much more generously than normal to make up for my lack of articulacy.
"Oubliez Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, on est pas bien là bas. Ici, on est une ville de mélange." I nod in agreement, not wanting to break his stride with more monosyllabic musings.
“Ici, on tourne le dos à la France et on fait face à l’Afrique." He’s shaking my shoulder a little too vigorously whilst grinning and pointing South towards the coastline, his index finger is poised in front of a large blue poster of black-bespectacled Umm Kulthum.
"Voulez-vous un café, monsieur?”
"Non non merci, apportez votre pantalon la prochaine fois et je le réparerai"
“Merci! Bonjournée, Monsieur,”
“Bonjournée à vous Madame.”
“For fuck’s sake,” I was already regretting choosing to wait for Louns in the queue, thankfully my lack of access to language left me my anonymity intact. I still hated queues. Having coffee at home seems less of a demand for myself, but rather an opportunity to spare some semblance of embarrassment when you offer visitors a beverage and all you have available is Orangina, tap water, or wine which, no matter how French of a lifestyle you try to adopt, seems wholly inappropriate for 11am. Middle class options are seemingly an important signifier in grown-up interactions, ‘would you like some cake and coffee?’ Sometimes I wonder whether I’m mimicking some bizarre Beatrix Potter idea of what I should and shouldn’t behave like. The upper echelon tones of distinct North London accents cut mercilessly through the hum of French.
“I can’t vote anywhere, so I vote for decadence,”
My stomach lurches, maybe I shouldn’t have had that spliff earlier.
“Although going to a protest here is so rad, honestly still buzzing from the atmosphere from that last one,”
“We should take a beer next time,”
My rabbit heart is going for it even without the coffee.
“You know, sometimes when I look at the Mediterranean Sea all I can think about are all the bodies littered in it of migrants trying to make it to shore.”
I see only their long dark hair grazing their shoulders, almost identical in style, I don’t look directly at them, Britishness is almost immediately detectable, even by sight. I can’t do this again. My stomach churns, I want to vomit on them, I might. I taste pennies.
The smell of tobacco clung to the fingers and then me, a boy who taught me to roll appeared in my mind. My limp hands were grappling at the dry white knuckles and fingers, I couldn’t loosen their grip around my neck, my feverish attempts were unaided by the sleeve still not yet properly adjusted. I tried to fight the increasing whirring growing in my head, kicking my leg out and connecting only with the air. What if it’s now? My eyes felt like they might burst, more tightness, more throbbing. I’m going to leave an indelible mark on you, Mark, I thought, trying to remain present as snot trailed down to my lips leaving salty mucus and a hint of pennies on my tongue. Tugging, I hear something rip. From somewhere there was screaming, then nothing.