Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Waiting for The Man - Short Story

Looking back my collection of short stories in order to post them here, I was surprised to find that I had entirely lost one story, it is nowhere to be found. That is a shame, it was a companion piece to 'Neck on the Line' being written in another of genres that the writing course intially banned, in this case, namely historical romance. I remember the outline and will see if I can re-do it. In the meantime, I found that a story I thought was incomplete had a actually been finished. I started thinking about this story while I was living in East London but only began writing it when I moved away. It draws heavily on things I experienced while living in London but adds fictional elements. As I wore a raincoat, unlike all of my neighbours, I was often being mistaken for a drugs dealer. Eight-year old children would try to scrounge cigarettes off me too (I do not smoke) and disliked it when in response to their complaint that no-one smoked any more I told them that there were good reasons for that, namely poor health. Anyway, out of these incidents and other things I saw moving around East London eventually came this story. It was written later than the others set there, but I have included it here now because it comes from the same source as those.

Waiting for The Man

It’s not a bad bit of Poplar that I moved to when I split with Jackie. I didn’t have much worry when it was Steve’s weekend to stay with me. We could go into the small park behind my low-rise block and kick a ball around without being troubled. In a couple of years I’d let him go down to the shop and buy his own sweets. The couple than ran it the Veenas were a great couple, packed into the back of their crowded convenience store, trying to clamber further up the ladder and in the meantime selling pretty expensive packs of ham to the locals.

In East London people litter with a vengeance, they throw the rubbish at the street with a force, not just drop as people tend to in richer parts of London. Yet, the clutch of streets around my flat were not too bad, only the odd crisp packet blown into the corners along with soggy brown leaves from the trees by the swings on that other bit of grass. Yes, it was off the main route to the Chrisp Street market and few families had cars, and half of them were painters’ vans. There was the one blue BMW convertible, but everyone turned a blind eye to that. The lack of cars meant the streets were probably little different to what they had been forty years before. Children could chase the ball across the road without too much danger and old couples could sit out the front, him to the left of the doorway, her to the right. They could be there all day gazing at people going with fixed toothless jaws like they were some kind of ornament, bookends I suppose. Well, no traffic meant they were not covered with an inch of dust by the time they went inside.

The neighbours on my level were a nice bunch. the small Spanish woman whose name I could not pronounce; Mrs. Hardy whose daughter and son-in-law lived on the floor below and Mary, who I would often go and pick up fags for from the Veenas’ shop. Of course I never told any of them that I was a copper. If they asked I worked in security, and I changed out of my uniform at the station a few more stops up the District Line.

So it was not a bad place. I suppose, looking back, people were poor, on a copper’s wages I was the wealthiest man for streets around. Too many of the children, mothers too, might have looked clean enough, but it meant that their skin had that lifeless pale grey colour, that you can see in any big city, too many meals just of crisps to keep them filled up, too few vitamins I guess. We’re not as badly off as a hundred years ago I suppose, no real smog and I haven’t heard of anyone with rickets round here, but TB’s back in the neighbourhood for sure.

Then one day The Man came, he must have moved in one day when I was at work. The Man, somehow the kids called him that. I don’t know where the name came from, but I guess it was because he stood out. Most people round here wear tracksuits and puffa jackets, but he would set off in the morning and come back in a suit and a raincoat, not seedy mind, just smart. I heard from Mrs. Hardy that he worked at the college, about quarter of a mile away down the Mile End Road. I don’t know how he ended up round here, but I suppose it was a bit like it was for me, a decent place to live, handy for work. Anyway the smaller kids, afraid of nothing, used to cluster round him pestering him for fags. They asked me for them too, but I just ignored them and walked on, The Man came back at them, trying to change them. The chat would go:

“Got any fags?”

“No they’re bad for you.”

“No they’re not. Have you got any?”


“No-one has any fags.” One boy would moan.

“Well, why do you think that is? They’re bad for you.” So the thing would go round until he reached the security gate to our block and got out of their reach.

So this went on. The kids, as I said, were fearless. So much for not talking to strangers, these, well anyone under the age of fourteen I suppose, anywhere East of Aldgate would do the same sort of stuff. Just a few examples. At one end of the trouble they caused round my way, there was trying to get money out of the phone boxes with ice lolly sticks, that was just annoying, though most people were getting mobiles then, so I suppose that was less of a problem than it would have been a few years ago. Then there was the three morons nicking the temporary bus sign, put up when some joyrider crashed through the old one. I shouted from across the street at the three of them, trying to make them see how stupid they were being. They were a sight anyway, the two smaller ones at either end and the bigger one in the middle all with this bus sign under their right arms. Then they stopped at the top of the road and pushed the sign over the wall into that dingy engineering place by the railway bridge. Why they did that, I have no idea.

Then there was more serious stuff, well the swing was not criminal just more madness. They strung it from the second floor passageway of the block across the road from me. There was nothing on the first two floors so fire engines could get through to the big courtyard behind it. So anyway they get on this rope with a bit of wood tied on it and swing down, probably thirty feet, over concrete all the way. Why not one of them ended up in a pile of blood on the ground I’ll never know. They weren’t like monkeys so much as like those gargoyles you see on churches, but they were sitting on the slanted roofs of the lower blocks, still thirty-five, forty feet off the street, and occasionally they would be over those roofs and in through an open bedroom window even broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon, one time. That’s what happened to Mrs. Poulter and her daughter. Most of the flats round my way had very little cash in them, and there’s no way you can get a telly back with you. They nicked small change and an earring, just one, from the Poulters and they had to go back the way they came, because the doors round here all have deadlocks, so there was no way out the front door for them.

Anyway, I’m getting off my story which is about The Man. Just to fill you in, he was about thirty, six footish, fair hair, glasses sometimes, probably contact lenses the rest of the time I suppose, maybe he just needed them for reading. He always had a black shoulder bag, always looked like it was bulging, probably books given that he worked at the college. It was late one afternoon and I was popping over to the Veenas’ shop for a copy of the Standard and I see The Man coming down the street. There are the usual kids about but they’re not following after him asking for fags. For the moment I guess they’ve tired of that game. They’re all over on the steps of the old library, the only bit of that square which survived the bombing by the way. They’re looking at The Man and muttering. I wonder if he’s thumped one or something, though if he had I’m sure I’d have heard some furious father stringing him from one of the balconies. So I go into the shop and by the time I get out The Man is over by the steps with the kids around him. I can’t be fussed if he’s finally given in and is handing out fags, though the youngest can’t be more than eight. I knew boys at school who were smoking ten a week by that age. But no, it doesn’t look like fags, no-one’s lighting up, they’re all creeping into corners, by the swings and that rough bit of trees and bushes. My mind comes up with all these explanations now. I can see The Man buying ecstasy tablets off his students to supplement his lifestyle by selling them on to these kids at a profit. He’d even stayed away from the teenagers, who could do him over if they didn’t like his prices. The younger kids seemed happy enough, the drugs, the dealing, made them feel grown up.

I walked back to my flat thinking it over. I should be calling up the local nick and getting him taken away, I could testify straight off. I could drop a few words in ‘The Bricklayers’ Arms’ saying he was a pervert, tempting kids with stuff. He’d have the shit kicked out of him and his flat torched by the end of the week. I liked that power, I had so many choices to pick from. I knew I had to pick something that kept me out of it. I was not keen for my neighbours to know what I do for a living, I like the quiet life. Too much of what goes on around here relies on the dodgy economy, knocked-off stuff, nothing serious, but fake stuff, stuff off the back of a lorry and having a copper around scares a lot of that off, and I know they’d resent it even more. So I had to think of a way. I needed to get a pusher off my patch, especially one pushing to kids.

Anyway, my chance comes soon enough. I’m on duty at Upton Park, not that I do it that often. Fortunately most of the footie fans round my way support Man U or Chelsea, rather than West Ham, though you see the colours enough around Poplar too. I always think I’m probably safe, as kitted out in my uniform I look different enough from Alan the security man in his jeans and jacket, for no-one from my street to know for certain. I see The Man coming out of the stands with some bloke, fifty something, with a beige raincoat and a strange flat cap, waving his hands around as he talks. You’d think he was the Hammers greatest fan, fired up about the match, even though it was a draw. I walk casually over to them, and realise I do not know what to say. I don’t know his name, I doubt he’s carrying any ‘e’s on him at the moment, but somehow it’s all started and I’m going through the motions.

“Excuse me sir. Would you please come this way?”

I can say this for him, he doesn’t look worried, probably thinks it’s personal service, we’re telling him we’ve found something he’s lost on the tube, I don’t know. He comes without complaint, the older guy following along.

“What’s this about?” The Man asks, but not nervously.

“I think you know.” I try.

“No. Has my flat been broken into?”

“No, it’s not that.” I look over to the older man, for some reason I’m more worried about him, but he’s chatting away to an old couple. “It’s about your business, I’ve seen you. I’m not having any bastard pushing on young kids on my patch. Do you understand?”

He seems to get the message. “Oh yes, well it was a joke, I didn’t think it’d do much harm.”

I just laugh bitterly at him.

“I want to see it stopped, I want it to happen now. If I see you doing it again, you’ve got a choice between being taken in or me dropping a word to some of the thugs round my way.”

“You’re Alan Young.” The Man says, pleased that he’s seen through me. “You live at number 11, don’t you? I didn’t know you were a pig.” He seems to be oblivious to what I have been telling him.

“Listen you prick. Stop the dealing or you’re out one way or another.”

He smiles and I want to slap him. “Okay, I’ll bring the stuff round to yours tonight, you can deal with it all.”

“I don’t need it. Flush it down the bog or something.” I am getting irritated with this moron.

“Everything alright?” The older man has come over now.

I look at him seriously, but he starts off on a story, dropping in names of supers and a deputy assistant commissioner I’ve heard of. He’s doing it with cunning, but he’s trying to scare me off. I let him, I think I’ve got what I want.

“No, we’re just neighbours, back in Poplar. I didn’t know you were a Hammers fan.”

“Not me, Peter’s the one who comes regularly, I just tagged along this week.”

“Oh right.” I say, my voice cheerful, matey. “Better get back to business. I’ll see you around.” I say, conscious that I still don’t know The Man’s name. Anyway the two of them smile and walk back towards the tube station.

As I walked home at the end of shift, I thought how much I had mucked this whole thing up. I should have put what was right ahead of a quiet life in this neighbourhood. I should have pulled him over and arrested him straight off. He had enough gear on him to make it stick. I decide that I’ve got to get back in control of things, and I head straight for his flat. I’ll confront him and get it all sorted, whatever problems it causes.

I expect him to be out when I ring the door, despite the lights being on, but he appears and lets me in.

“I know what it looks like...”

“Yes, you selling e’s...”

“Es, Bs, Cs, some iron, some zinc. You get it all in these multi-vitamins.” He says as he walks off into the kitchen.

“You’re having a joke.”

“No, here it all is, my stash.” He says pointing to a few cartons of vitamins on the kitchen table.

“You’re pulling my leg.”

“Ask the kids. This is what I’ve been selling. Anyway, have you ever seen a ‘e’ that’s not printed with some logo. These are smooth, red, vitamins. You see the kids round here, there’s no way they get enough. They look half dead. You can search the place, no need for a warrant, I’ll not resist.”

I thought he was an arrogant sod, trying to pull a fast one, but he certainly didn’t sound like any drug dealer I’d met.

“But you make a profit.”

“Most of it goes back on buying these, they’re not cheap you know.”

“What about the rest?”

“You know that charity shop, the one on Roman Road, ask in there, I bring them a donation every week. They know me, go and find out.”

“I don’t know whether you’re taking so much piss or you’re for real, but either way, you’re making trouble. It’s an easy step from buying ‘vitamins’ from you to buying crack from someone else. You understand?”

I snatched up the tubes of vitamins and stuffed them in my jacket.

“You understand?” I said louder. He nodded, it looked like I had scared him. “You understand?” I repeated, stepping closer.

“Yes.” He said looking embarrassed, maybe scared. It was the last time I ever saw him, in a week the flat was empty then went to that Chinese couple.

I said nothing else. As I walked back to my front door, I heard a bunch of kids yelping as they ran through the courtyard my block surrounded. They looked energetic, their cheeks seemed rosy, you know how they look in those drawings, Peter and Jane, Janet and John or whatever they were.

Anyway, are you interested in these vitamins? They’re dead expensive in the shops, they do you wonders, especially these ginseng ones.

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