Some uncomprehending seconds passed before the large, frazzled woman sitting by my side banged the ashtray down in front of me. I understood: the punch she had aimed at my upper-arm had been only to alert me to her impending politeness.
I had been stretching over the table every so often, tapping my cigarette and catching glimpses of Maria out of the corner of my eye. She was tippling from a can of Special Brew, priming her mottled red complexion with this high-octane moisturiser as she sucked on a succession of cheap cigarettes.
“Oh, thank-you”, I said, attempting a smile.
Maria’s style was just a little perturbing, and I was quite content just to sit here, sipping my Guinness and observing the street life that washed in and out, circulated round the bar, hung around by the entrance, loitered outside.
“That’s alright”, she growled back in her light-heavyweight accent. That, I hoped, would be that.
Slowly emptying and then filling again, the pub’s clientele reminded me of my stout: a larger body of darkest brown with a smaller contingent of paler faces. Except you’d be pushed to say that the pale faces were the cream that had risen to the top.
The older black men sported their poverty with a relaxed, Caribbean jauntiness; the younger men were at war with theirs, standing or strolling about the pub, their eyes betraying the tension beneath the easy, muscular gait.
The few whites meanwhile, mostly women, seemed to clutch at their neediness as if it were the only thing they had, and looked considerably poorer for it.
Maria was such a one.
“You’d better watch yourself in here.”
“Oh, I think I’ll be okay”, I replied.
“Oh no, you’d want to watch it. They’re all thieves in here. Thieves and murderers. “
“I think that’s a bit strong. I’ve never had any trouble.”
“Oh, you don’t know the place like I do. Take you for a ride as soon as look at you. I used to live round here. What’s your name?”
“No, you’d want to watch it,” Maria continues, “I get very nervous when I’m down here.”
Despite her brusqueness, she does seem ill at ease: her eyes dart about; she smokes as much as she can.
Taking another belt from the can, she looks me in the eye: “You’re a gentleman?”
“Well, yes,” I say, reluctant to deny it. And even though I can sense that this is a loaded answer, Maria’s quirky manners have encouraged the fantasy.
“You’ll take me to the end of the road then?”
“Well, I …” I suppose if Maria had been slim, blonde and beautiful, I might have been a little less reluctant. But she isn’t: she’s dark, fat and looks a lot, lot older than I think she is.
“I thought you said you were a gentleman?” Maria’s look and tone is accusing, and then suddenly pleading: “I get very nervous…”
Oh, why not? The pub is closing up, I have to go anyway, and well, perhaps I am a gentleman.
“I’m not on the game anymore, y’understand?”
In quick succession Maria grabs her Londis carrier-bag and my arm, and marches us both out of the pub and onto the street.
“You watch yourself, yer dirty nigger!”
Although I should have been ready for it, I’m nevertheless startled by Maria’s tough attack, and not a little worried by it. A young man glares back but says nothing. If Maria is emboldened by my presence, well heaven help us.
“You didn’t need to say that, did you?” I remonstrate as we move swiftly up the road. Maria stops suddenly, so we both stop.
“You’d like a drink?” Without waiting for a reply, she draws a can from the bag, unzips it and proffers it me. I’ve never been too fond of the treacly concoction, but politeness dictates I take a sip.
“Oh, you’ll want more than that. Have a good drink of it!”
I take a gulp and hand it back to Maria. “Your turn”, I say.
“Oh no, a lady doesn’t drink on the street. You hold on to it. Have a cigarette.” Maria holds out a half-empty packet.
“No, no, have one of mine”, I say as I reach into my pocket, my blood warmed by the Brew.
“Oh no, a lady doesn’t smoke on the street. Here, have one.”
I take one of the cheap fags and wait as Maria lights it.
“No. A lady doesn’t smoke or drink on the street. Me mam brought me up well. I never forget that. What you doin’ down here? y’after a woman? … I’m not on the game no more. y’understand? …You want to buy some of that stuff them darkies smoke? Eh? …C’mon, I’ll show you where to get some. No? What is it yer after exactly?”
Maria gives me a stiff look. “You a cop?”
I shake my head briskly. Maria, apparently satisfied with my answer, turns her attention to other matters.
“I needs some more cigarettes. C’mon. We’ll go and buy some together.”
As we turn the corner at the bottom of the road where the pub waits happily for all-corners: “Grass?”
“No, we’ll not be having any of that tonight, thank-you”. Maria gives the big, deep-voiced dread locked trader a sharp look, and bustles us both round the corner. The street is alive with bodies and tiny shops selling the night’s necessities: fags, booze, soft-drinks, fruit, fritters and drugs.
“You want something man?”
“We’ll not be needing anything off you”, Maria remarks as we enter a shop. Letting go my arm she joins a small queue at the counter. Gazing about, I am met by gazes. I smile, sort of. I am gazed at. Who’s looking after whom?
“I’ll have ten King’s Royals.”
The shopkeeper’s brown tones rumble lazily across the counter. “I’m not paying that. I’ll give y’fifty pay.”
My ears prick up. More words, Guinness and Special Brew, rumblings and retorts, and then Maria is with me again, smiling.
“Off we go,” and we do.
Turning a corner, the shops behind us, but a few bodies still drifting about unhampered, unwelcomed by the nine-to-five, Maria confides: “Think I’ll have a little drink if no-one’s looking.”
We sit on a wall, the half-lit Victorian streets with their imperial names, mocked and mocking.
Maria knocks back the can’s remains, and lights a cigarette. And then leaps up with a startled shout.
“’Ts a wolf!”
I leap up and try to see what she’s staring at. A dark shape is sitting at the other end of the wall. “A wolf. They turn into wolves at night.”
“Give me a light.” The wolverine is talking.
“It’s only a kid,” I assure Maria, and light-up the child’s face with my match. She accepts the light, sucks on the cigarette, and turns her back. “You watch it. They do you know. Wolves.” Maria unzips another can, takes a sip and passes it me, glancing occasionally along the wall at the bowed back of the kid.
“Give me a light.” It’s the girl again.
“Here. Have these”, I say offering my box of matches. The girl gives them a cursory inspection.
“I don’t want your matches. Give me a light.”
I do so, and then hand her the box. She looks at it again, takes it and takes off, slipping from the wall and disappearing into the dark.
“Oh jeez, I’m dying for a widdle. Here.” Maria hands me the can. “Don’t you look now”, she adds as she walks a little way up the road, nips behind a van and lets go. A torrent of barely-processed liquid runs out from beneath the van and slides, snake-like, into the gutter.
Maria re-emerges, takes the can, and knocks it back. “We’ll be off now.”
As compliant as ever, I offer my arm and we walk unsteadily up the street. Maria tells me about the little one at home, in Streatham.
“I’ve me own place you know. I’m respectable; I don’t let her go without. You’ll come back?”
Before I can reply (I’m going to say no) we are at the end of the street, the big White Town Hall lit up, and someone is lurching towards us.
“Hey, Maria!” A short black guy is beaming at us both, a pint glass in his hand, a few drops of Guinness at the bottom. “How ya’ doin’, eh?”
Maria greets the man, and almost shakes him by the throat. “This is … Kevin. He’s my good friend. A gentleman.”
The old man gives me a good long look and then proffers his hand. “How ya’ doin’ Kevin!”
“Fine, fine thank-you.” His hand is big, hard-skinned and strong. He turns his attention to Maria. “Ya got any booze?”
Maria retrieves another can from the bag, unzips it and primes the old man’s glass. No sooner has she finished than she admonishes him:
“Now be off with you, yer dirty nigger!”
Maria grabs my arm and we are off at a brisk pace, across the road and past the Town Hall.
“Look behind you,” she whispers. The old man is following at a safe distance. “You watch him. Just look at him, will ya.”
Reaching into a passing litter-bin, Maria retrieves a Lucozade bottle, bangs it down on the side of the bin and shakes the shark-toothed object at the old guy: “Be off with ya, j ‘hear me?!”
The oldster stops, grimaces and turns about.
“He’ll still be following~ us, mark my words.” And sure enough he is a little further behind, but still there.
“Look, Maria. Let’s take a taxi. I’ll drop you off at your place.”
“You’ll not be coming back?”
“Let’s just get a taxi.” The drink is wearing off and I can see a cab steaming down the street.
We are at Maria’s, the cab shuddering and smoking in the cold night air.
“Here, have this. You’ve been very generous. Take it.” I offer Maria a few fivers. They disappear into her purse…
“Won’t you come in?”
“I can’t. I must get back; I’ve work tomorrow.” I get back into the cab.
Maria leans in and addresses the driver: “Hey! Mr Driver! You just look after this gentleman, j ‘hear me? You make sure he gets home. He’s a … he’s a… a … Maria looks at me:
‘… A criminal!”