Irfan was run over by a van outside the shop. He’s turning round shouting ‘You want some?’ at Pervaiz, about to bounce his cone off Pervaiz’s head, then boom, the rattly van knocks him and the chips right out the way. It didn’t kill him but he had broken arms or legs or ribs that kind of thing. A bit mashed up.
They put signs up. Speed kills. They’re not good signs. They look like a little kid did them. I could have done them better. I’d have done them on the computer, so they looked professional. I said that to Mr O’Brien and he said ‘I know you could, but nobody asked us Mo, did they?’ He did an assembly about road safety. ‘Be safe, be seen’ he said.
Because the signs look stupid nobody pays any attention. The cars come down here at 90 mile an hour. At least. Too fast to see the drawings of little stick men stuck to the lampposts.
The only person who really complains is Scotch. He sits on the wall outside Mace and he shouts at the cars as they go by. He waves his fist or his bottle. Scotch has the biggest ears of any human being. They’re bigger than my hand. I know he drinks alcohol all day long, but I think the problem actually is his ears. They’re like Sky dishes on the side of his head. He’s probably picking up sounds from all over, streets away, Wolverhampton even. He’s not talking to himself, he’s replying. I wouldn’t be surprised anyway.
So, I don’t know why. It’s months since Irfan got hit by the van and even longer since the Polish kid was killed on the corner but a few weeks ago they put the posts up everywhere. And now they’ve put the cameras on top. Atif said it’s just robbery. They just do it to tax the drivers for going too fast. I didn’t say anything, but I think they should pay. I said to Mr O’Brien that it was good the cameras were there. Be safe, be seen. But he just said ‘We’ll see, Mo. We’ll see.’
Late afternoon and you can’t understand anything Scotch has to say. He just sounds like a swearing bear, growling and effing. He goes‘shaggafraggashaggafragga’ at everything. Waving his bottle as the cars go by. That’s what people think he’s like. Pisshead. In the mornings he’s different. He sits quiet and still, apart from the shaking. He sometimes has bits of bogroll stuck to his face where he has cut himself shaving. He shaves. He’s not a tramp. He lives somewhere. I don’t know where his family is.
Another thing. He’s not Scotch. He’s Irish.
A lot of people are angry about the cameras. They don’t like being watched. But as long as they’re not driving at 90 mile an hour what have they got to be scared of? I heard dad talking about them. I said ‘But what about Irfan?’ And he said ‘Who?’ And I said ‘You know – Irfan-hit-by-the-van.’ Dad said. ‘They’re not speed cameras. They’re watching us. This community. Me. You. They think you’re suspect.’ I looked at him and laughed ‘Dad, I don’t even drive.’
I whisper things as I pass Scotch on the way to school. Testing his ears. He never answers directly but I know he hears me because whenever he sees me on the way home, he stops shouting and gives me a salute. Like we’re soldiers.
There was a meeting on Sunday night. A policewoman saying sorry for the cameras. They were nothing to do with Irfan. They were to catch terrorists. People were angry. Jaz’s brother stood up and said. ‘I got a beard, I say my prayers. If I carry a backpack does that make me a bomber?’ The truth is he doesn’t carry a backpack, he never has. The cameras were watching us, not the cars. Watching my mom and dad, my brother and sisters. Watching me coming in and out of the house, getting teabags from Mace. Boring telly.
I’m watching hi-viz man up a ladder put a bag over one of the cameras. He’s done the rest in the street already.
‘Is it Lent already?’
Scotch is sitting in his usual spot. He shouts out to the man up the ladder. ‘Have you no purple? It should be purple.’
He’s somewhere in the middle. Not the quiet shaking stuff in the morning and not the angry bear shouting of the afternoon. He turns to me.
‘They had men you know. I saw them up at the Rotunda, shapes at the windows, watching us on St Patrick’s Day.’ He takes a drink from a can. ‘There were coppers in the Crossways even.’
‘And then the one goes: ‘Paddy bastard’ and I’d have given him a clout in his teeth. Johnny Begley was pulling me away. In the Crossways even.’
I don’t think he’s talking to me. It’s his ears. Picking up chitchat from Springfield Road. I walk away and he starts talking louder.’
‘Sure what difference does a bit of cloth make? They still see you. The eyes burn through. That’s what mammy used to say anyway.’
I’m crossing between parked cars and the taxi’s going too fast. He stops like a milimetre from my legs and he’s out and shouting. Words and words and words. I point up at the cameras.
‘Careful man. They’re watching you. They got your number.’
And suddenly he’s not angry. He just laughs and laughs.
Catherine O’Flynn is the author of three novels. Her debut, What Was Lost, won the Costa First Novel Award in 2007. Her short stories and articles have featured in Granta, The Independent, The Observer and on Radio 3 and 4.
She lives in Birmingham with her husband and two daughters.