Solo, A Cappella

Alison MacLeod

Everywhere in Tottenham that evening, you could smell summer: mown grass from the football ground, the stink of hot tarmac, rubbish from the baking bins, and the whiff off the WD-40 cans our yutes was huffing on the estates.  But up at the Pond, man, the air smelled good: all watery green and sweet with long grass.  The dragonflies were zupping, and high above them, the bats were zig-zagging in and out of the bat-boxes, knowing nothing in the world could touch them.  Me and Valentine, we just sat there, listenin’ to the males singing for mates – whistlin’ and wantin’ – as the sun fell out of the sky.

            Valentine said they was ‘pipistrelles’.  She’d been on a ‘bat walk’ with her class along ditches that used to be river.  I said, pipistrelles, lah dee dah, and pulled her close, so close I could smell the bubble-gum taste of her lip-gloss and the warmth of her skin. 

            She said one kind there at the Pond was rare, a soprano pipistrelle, which was different than the common pipistrelle.  I said, well if bats was human, she’d be the soprano and I’d be the common, and she said that if I’d stop mouthin’ even for a minute she might be able to hear the pips what bats bounce off everything.  So I went quiet and she went still, and then her face lit up and she nodded like an old African wise woman, and I said, ‘I can’t hear nothing,’ and she said that’s because mostly only teen-aged girls can hear those pips. 

            ‘Special feelers,’ she said, wiggling the ear lobe I longed to kiss. 

            But maybe that’s where she was wrong, cos later on, she didn’t feel no trouble coming.  Or maybe she did, but she did what she did anyway.

            In April, I was eighteen and she was still fifteen when I sidled into her booth at the McDonalds on the High Road, nervous as hell behind my smile.  She was with her friend Cherelle, but neither told me to bounce.  Valentine only corrected me, saying her name was ‘Valenteen’, because it was French, and not Valentine.  Just the fact that she wanted me to know how to say her name made me high with hope.  It didn’t matter none that she hardly looked up from her McNuggets.  So I was mannerly to Cherelle, but I talked and whistled and wanted for Valentine.   My thoughts zupped all over my head as I looked at her eyes – down-turned and fluted – and the bright heart of her face. 

            Her family were Congolese, which meant she sounded French and African both when she spoke English.  Maybe that’s why she didn’t open her mouth much, except when she had to, like at Community Choir practice on Tuesday nights.  Mostly it was white, old people in the choir but she said she didn’t mind, and I knew she didn’t mind because of that voice on her.  Pure like summer rain.  Once she sang for me up at the Pond – from a religious song called ‘Gloria’  – and I wanted to be like Simon Cowell when he’s amazed, actually amazed, and he says, ‘You nailed that,’ but none of that seemed good enough for that voice of hers rising high and sweet over the Pond, and making even the bats go still.  She said she’d been practising for months and was going to sing solo, a cappella.  Her piece was called the ‘Domine Deus’ which meant, she said, ‘Lord God’.

            ‘Lord God!’ I shouted up to the sky when she finished, and we both grinned. 

            She was opposite like that: shy but with a big voice when she was brave enough to use it.  Mostly, it was good I could talk for two.  I think she liked my talking.  ‘Course, my training was the best.  By ‘best’ I mean the jungle that is the shop floor of H&M where I work three days a week – or maybe never again, if the damned CCTV was eye-balling me as I ducked out of Superdrug on Saturday night. 

            My family’s from Ghana, and my father and two older brothers say they still feel Ghanaian.  I don’t, or I don’t any more, but I keep that to myself, out of respect.   Respect because my father started life in a dirt-baked village, but by the time he was thirty, he was bodyguard and driver for a big-wig politician in Accra.  Life never stays still though.  When things started to go wrong for the Big-Wig, most of his men were seized and stuffed into barrels that had been shot through till they looked like sieves.  Then they was put to sea. 

            My father got to London.  To Tottenham.  Don’t know how.  He drove buses by day and he worked at Pizza Hut by night until, eight years later, he could bring us over: my mother, my brothers and me.  He still drives the buses, and when I see gangs of boys as young as twelve start flickin’ the knives and vexin’ and callin’ him ‘old man’, tears stab at my eyes.  Once I strode up to the front of the bus to take on the little evils, but my father just said through the glass, John, Don’t be an idiot, and he nodded at me hard to sit down.  What he meant was, Isn’t one tragedy in the family enough for you? 

            My mother lasted almost two years after her stroke.  She was forty-five, which is far too young, everyone says in England, but old enough to die in Ghana.  Her smile was like a toothpaste ad on wide-screen plasma.  It filled a room.

            I told Valentine all this, one night at the Pond.  But she never gabbed about her fam.  I only know they’d been on the Farm two years – that’s the Broadwater Farm Estate to you and the people at the Council.  I got the vibe they was illegal; that Valentine worried that if she said the wrong thing to the wrong person, they’d be sent back to the Congo in a puff of smoke. 

            Maybe she was right.  Maybe they was.  Or maybe her family decided fast to move on, out of Tottenham, after Saturday night. 

            All I know is, she’s nowhere, and now, I’m not the only one wondering.  Cos there’s a video, supposedly of a ‘sixteen-year-old African girl’, posted on YouTube on Saturday night where you can’t see hardly anything, but man, it went viral.  There was an old woman eye-witness and a man watching from a church where he’d run for cover.  And there are reporters trying to find this girl.  And community folk scratching their heads.  And the police hoping to hell she was never real.

            But Valentine was real and warm in my arms that night as the sun set and the smog turned orange over Tottenham.  I found a stone in the grass that was pinkish and sort of in the shape of a heart, so I gave it to her, like it was a gift from the Pond and me both, and she turned it over and over in her hands while the bats whooshed above us.  Then I smiled, waggling my eyebrows.  I was well switched, but she said, ‘Nuh-uh, not without a condom,’ and I thought of my mother.  She was laughing again through that stroke-slumped smile of hers and passing me my first box of Durex and slurring, ‘Don’t you dare forget.’ 

            Valentine never said but I knew.  I knew it would be her first time.  Which meant it had to be the Pond.

            We had a plan.  I said I’d get myself to Superdrug.  She said she’d go home, chat with her parents, then slip out her window; it was the only advantage to a ground-floor apartment on The Farm.  Valentine was good at popping the grille.

            We said we’d meet at nine at the usual place, the old covered well on the High Road.  Sometimes we’d just stand there and try to imagine what Tottenham must have been like when it was a village, and what The Farm must have been like when it was a farm, with cottages and cows at the Pond, but we never could. 

            Most of the rest you know already.  You saw it on your IPod Touch or in HD on your plasma.  Maybe you watched it on YouTube on your day off. 

            There must have been a thousand yutes and by the time I got there, looking for Valentine, they was already chanting loud: ‘Whose streets?  Our streets!’  Then the Feds pushed up at the barricades near McDonald’s.  Up close, they say you could see the fear on their faces.  There weren’t enough of them, not at first, and they was afraid like we usually is.  Sometimes you wouldn’t change places for the world. 

            But soon enough the snatch-squads rolled up with their riot gear and their horses and their Alsatians ready to chew the legs off anything standin’ still.  So out came the ballies, the bottles, the bats, bars and bricks.  Out came the fireworks, the hammers and petrol cans.  The barricades were set on fire.  Blue lights flashed.  The helicopters overhead sounded like damnation.  Boss cars – Mercs and Beemers – got wrecked.  Petrol tanks went off like Christmas crackers. 

            ‘Dead the fires!  Dead the fires!’  I pinged that off as night fell, but two police cars was already shells, and by eleven, the double-decker on my father’s route was flamin’ high into the night, with its automated lady saying: ‘This bus is under attack.  Please dial 999.  This bus is under attack…’  Until she couldn’t take the heat no longer.

            Then Aldi got torched and CarpetRight too, with all those people burned out of their flats, and harassed on their way out, which was twisted.  Completely twisted.  I don’t know no one who thinks any different.

            The night was like a dream.  For once, the yutes were bigger than the police.  They were fightin’ like soldiers at those barricades, givin’ it large and serious.  They were the ones doin’ the stoppin’ and searchin’.  They had the Feds under manners.  On lock.  On smash.  Running away.  Gangs from all over London put down their beef that night to come together.  They had ransack of the place – and it was all being broadcast live, in real-time, on Blackberry.  ‘Let’s eat together,’ they said.  ‘Eat’ means get.  Let’s get stuff together.  People was part of something.  For once, they wasn’t nothing.

            Me, I just kept walkin’ the High Road, looking for Valentine.   At the barricades, the front half was holding the Feds back so the back half could rip.  Man, they had trollies and suitcases and wheelie bins.  For a long, stupid while, I tried shouting that the looting wasn’t helping nothin’, but I might as well have been singing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’. 

            I saw kids as young as ten.  I saw one take a golf club to the T-mobile window.  I saw an old geezer carrying ten boxes of trainers.  I saw people dishing out lottery tickets and cigarettes like they was sweets.  ‘Here comes the Revolution!’ one Paki guy was shouting.  Hundreds was walking round with the Nike, the Air Forces, the G-Star Jeans, the plasmas, the IPhone-4s, the IPads and the stereos.  They was trying on clothes in the front gardens of strangers.  I saw women walking away with nappies, soap powder and bags of rice.  I watched a skinny guy steal protein drinks from a health food place, while across the street, an old posh lady was waving a bottle of Lambrusco. 

            I saw old and young, African and Caribbean, White and Asian working together to push up steel shutters.  It was harmony for those guys.  It was euphoria, sweet and true. 

            I never saw Valentine.  I told myself she must have heard what was going down before she left the apartment.  I didn’t check my phone because she didn’t have a phone.  Her parents couldn’t afford even a pay-as-you-go.

            There was a fog of smoke all night.  People were making jokes, like about not burning down McDonald’s cos they might need a burger later; cos all this Ninja stuff could put a hunger on.  Me, I thought, who will care about anyone rippin’ one box of Durex?  I was still longing for Valentine, and the window at Superdrug was all smashed in.  If Saturday was totalled, there was still Sunday at the Pond in the twilight in the long grass.  There was still most of August.  I sauntered in. 

            Girls were in there before me, taking shampoo, false eye lashes and pocketfuls of lip-gloss.  It’s funny what people will take, given the chance.  Hope comes cheaper than you think.   My eyes met theirs and we all laughed like we was old friends.  

            The riot that night weren’t wrong and it weren’t right either.  It’s just what happens when a man from The Farm is shot dead and no one knows why, and the Feds close ranks and won’t talk till they are made to talk, and people have been there before – literally, at the door of that station waiting and asking for answers that aren’t in the leaflets they’re being told to read. 

            Sometimes, you just want to breathe.  Sometimes you want to know nothing.  You want to be pure and clean, like Valentine’s voice singing that ‘Lord God’ song up at the Pond.  That night I saw a Fed dragged off into a back alley by maybe six yutes, each with a torn-off plank.   I saw nails glinting in the streetlight.

            It took the Feds till midnight to grab back just 200 metres of the High Road, and by four, the riot had moved to the Station.  I’ve been in there myself and knuckled and all that, and when everyone was putting in their windows, I personally didn’t feel no inclination to stop nobody.

            There, as the night started to thin towards day, I checked my Blackberry and found the threads about the girl.  One said she was ten years old.  Another said she was pregnant.  But most everyone else agreed: it was a sixteen-year-old African girl what turned the protest into a riot.

 

Later I pieced some of it together.   While she was up at the Pond with me that Saturday, her parents was doin’ the march from The Farm to the Station – which was totally brave if they was illegal.  Valentine’s mum and little sister was up at the front with maybe fifty other women.  The women was leading, with their children, their buggies and their sad banners.  It was a way of saying to the Feds, this is a peaceful protest.  Behind them was their men, and behind them, was the yutes of the Farm.

            Five hours passed and the Chief Superintendent never appeared. 

            Cherelle told me that Valentine walked from the Farm to the High Road to find out what was taking her parents so long.  Her little sister would have been hot and hungry, and her mother, tired on her feet.             

            At half eight, the women said they couldn’t wait no more.  The children had to be put to bed.  Their men followed, defeat in the line of their shoulders.  Only the yutes stayed, humming like a nest of wasps.

            Then out came the first of the Feds.  Which is when the girl appeared, or so they say.  They say she walked up to one and, in a clear voice, much bigger than she was, told them that people needed answers.  He told her to get home if she knew what was good for her.  They say she threw a leaflet at them.  A few others came, looked down and laughed.  Or they did until she backed up, reached into her pocket and threw a stone.

            It bounced off a bullet-proof.

            Lord God. 

            Fifteen of them was on her.  They licked at her legs with their truncheons.  One raised his fist.  She was bleeding bad and people started screaming into the night.  Which is when word was pinged off on Blackberry, and London came to Tottenham.

 

For days after, I went to the Farm, first in the heat, then in the rain, trying to figure out even which high-rise was hers.  But people don’t want to talk after a night like that, not even to a black guy from the manor.  By the time I found Cherelle and got the address, Valentine and her family was gone.

            Fact is, I don’t know what’s true and what’s story.  But I know about Valentine up at the Pond, and the bats whistlin’ and wantin’, and the warmth of her skin, and her voice so pure it made a stillness of everything. 

            Sixteen-year-old African girl.  Solo, a cappella.

 

Alison MacLeod is a novelist, short story writer and essayist.  Her fourth and most recent book, Unexploded (Hamish Hamilton), was long-listed for The 2013 Man-Booker Prize and selected as one of The Observer’s ‘Novels of the Year’. She is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester.   For more info about her work, go to www.alison-macleod.com .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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