When Arthur Runel had been a younger man, sure of his place in the neighbourhood, he’d hated the sight of starlings, and for a while had become obsessed with the idea of killing them. They hung around all day amongst the stone ornaments in his tiny front garden disturbing him and Alice with their twittering and squabbling. Then, as if obeying some celestial command, they whirred away as one brown speckled mass to the three holly trees on the Commercial Road and roosted there for the night, invisible amongst the densely packed leaves and dusty berries. ‘They’re what you call vermin, those jerky birds are, I’d shoot the lot of them given half a chance,’ Arthur used to mutter to Alice as he watched them leave.
But now that he was old, Arthur deliberately lingered beneath the roosting trees when he was taking his evening walk and listened out for the cacophony of feeble shrieks and atonal whistling above the din of homeward bound traffic. He had come to realise that starlings had no song and he’d grown fond of them for that, because he no longer had a song himself. In fact the whole neighbourhood had lost its song, the old ways of doing things had gone, and just about everything was wrong. He and Alice felt as if they were living under siege; front doors were never left open on summer evenings and nobody lingered for a chat on the street anymore, it was too risky. You never knew when some tight strutting gang would round the corner, their eyes as hostile as sharks’, their faces shadowed in hoods. You could never tell if they’d noticed you and had watched to see where you lived.
Mugging the elderly was fashionable amongst the child gangs; they loitered outside the local post office and stalked people going home with their pension money. Arthur was waiting for them to try it on him or Alice, and then they’d see what was what. ‘They don’t see them they mug as grannies,’ Alice explained more than once. ‘Their grannies are different, Arthur.’
Gangs of older boys had taken to burning cars and leaving the blackened wrecks in the old streets of the neighbourhood, beautiful streets with glazed blue brick roads and narrow pavements. It was as if the cars’ melted interiors, heaped with domestic rubbish to make them burn faster, mirrored the pointless fury of these boys. When they were not burning cars, they destroyed bus shelters and phone booths and left evidence of their majesty plastered on walls in bizarre graffiti. Places Arthur had known when he and Alice were courting had become soiled by their ownership of them.
Lately, the gangs’ savagery had turned in on itself; they wanted to kill each other, and often succeeded. Every week the local paper had another article about a gang killing. Arthur was tired of spotting patches of heavy sand on the roadsides hiding yet another boy’s spilt blood, or turning away from a street cordoned off with police tape. Alice herself, returning home at dusk, had come across a kid lying in the middle of the road in a drift of thick liquid that crept slowly to the gutter. She hadn’t told Arthur the whole story she’d been so shaken. She’d come in quickly through the front door and fallen on her knees in the hallway. ‘Go over the pub and get us a whisky quick, Artie,’ she’d sobbed.
‘Oh My God has someone hurt you, Doll? I’ll kill them, I will.’
‘Kid had no fingers.’
‘Come on Alice, get off the floor. Come here.’
After a whisky she’d calmed down but wouldn’t say anything. Arthur wrapped her in a blanket and took her upstairs, and there they lay together until the next morning.
Arthur had no problem about fighting, fighting was good for young men; it kept down their bullish energy and established the order of things. He’d had many a good fight himself in his time, but it was man to man with fists, bare-knuckle fighting, and there was honour to it. It seemed these boys had no guts, they could only work in gangs and as likely as not, if challenged, they’d run away like rats disturbed on a rubbish dump.
Details of what Alice saw came out slowly over the weeks and at the oddest times, sandwiched into ordinary conversations. She expected no response; it was as if she could rid herself of the images by saying them out aloud.
They talked about moving but neither of them wanted to. ‘People have come and gone from the East End throughout history, Alice. These people will go too.’
‘Not in our lifetime they won’t. They’ve no jobs. How can they go with no jobs? Look at those tiny flats they’re crowded into, how’re they ever going to get away from those?’
Arthur nodded. There were whole estates that no longer seemed welcoming to walk through, even the washing strung on lines across flaking balconies looked menacing. In the old days people had infused their poverty with pride, they’d grown flowers and kept their windows dead clean even if they didn’t have two pennies to rub together. If a woman’s windows got dirty it was how you knew the family was in trouble, and then you’d try to help. This lot grew vegetables, stunted tomatoes and green stuff in the narrow window boxes up the sides of the high-rise blocks.
More than once Arthur had come across abandoned objects that disturbed him as he walked smartly down the old short cuts through the estates. He’d been filled with anxiety when he came across a girl’s single shoe, hardly worn, and a man’s new jacket left on a path signalling some recent sinister and intimate event. Things like that made Arthur shiver because he came from a world where personal things were kept indoors.
Arthur’s motto, or so he told himself, was ‘live and let live.’ But things had taken a bizarre turn recently. There’d been uproar when the council wanted to call the streets around Brick Lane Banglatown. Infuriated Eastenders had bombarded the local paper with protests. Then Arthur and Alice heard that Stepney itself, with its ancient church where the bells still rang on a Sunday, was known locally as Little Bangladesh.
‘The problem is they don’t understand how things are done here. But when you think about it, these kids could be mugging someone who could’ve put the fear of God into them when they were younger.’
‘Like you, you mean?’ Alice asked.
‘That’s right. Like me.’
‘Yeah, but nobody respects old people anymore no matter what they was before, you know that, Arthur. I couldn’t see well in the dark so I bent down close to him. I couldn’t understand what had happened to the kid’s face.’
Arthur touched her arm. ‘Things was black and white in those days; there was rules, Alice, rules that if you broke you were finished. Let’s get the old scrap book out, so we can remember.’
Alice sighed. ‘You’re a silly old fool, Arthur Runel, what’s the point of going on and on about the old days? You make them sound glorious when they weren’t. You know the game Pick-a-sticks we used to play. Boy’s fingers were like that. I put my coat under his head. Oh, go on then, let’s see the old photos.’
Arthur and Alice spent the evening talking about the people they’d known, some of them famous in their time. ‘D’you remember the King of Aldgate, Alice? He had a special boy to shine his shoes each morning. And the suits he wore; never seen anything like it. Handmade. Then after that, the Twins came. Born and bred here those two was, by Bethnal Green, and they loved their mum.’
‘She was twisted, that woman.’
Arthur and Alice had never seen eye to eye about the old days, and when the big funeral was on at Bethnal Green, he went without her to watch the procession taking Charlie, the twins’ older brother, to St Matthew’s church. A gigantic teddy bear made from thousands of flowers with the word ‘Granddad’ picked out across its belly rode on top of the hearse. Behind that, on another car, a bouquet of red and white flowers spelt out the single eloquent word ‘gutted.’
All the important people had turned out, and the suits and sunglasses of the men, and the jewellery of the ladies, had to be seen to be believed. The service started with the hymn ‘Morning has Broken,’ and at the end, as the congregation shuffled out of the packed church to Shirley Bassey singing ‘As Long As He Needs Me,’ Arthur could see tears on the faces in the crowd. He turned up his collar against the April wind and started to make his way back, and at that moment he was sure he heard someone say, ‘Look, that’s Rattie Runel isn’t it?’ and he blushed with pleasure the whole way home.
An idea had come to Arthur as he had wandered back into the old days with his wife that would not leave him over the following weeks. If these young thugs could get a feel for what the East End was like when he was young, maybe it’d help them to grow up. It didn’t matter where a person came from, there were rules in every society, Arthur knew. The trouble with this particular lot was their rules didn’t work over here. They did some bloody funny things like marrying people they’d never met before as though love didn’t matter in the slightest.
Arthur told Alice his plan.
‘You can’t go there,’ Alice screamed at him, ‘Have you lost your marbles? There’s not a white person left in that community centre. They’ll laugh at you, you great big fool. Anyway what d’you want to prove?’
‘Was that a white boy who bled onto your coat then?’
Alice sagged. ‘That was different. He was just a kid and he was nearly dead when I got there, as cold as stone. His legs and feet were all at a funny angle and there were big slices gone from his head.’
‘There you are then, it didn’t make no difference to you what colour he was. You was just being human. I could talk to them; explain how things was done here. I want to understand them and get them to understand us, Alice.’
‘So it’s Professor Runel now, is it? If you’d heard the noises those kids were making when they came out of Garden Street you wouldn’t be talking about understand. They put him across the road and this car came while I was looking at him. I had to stand there with my arms up to stop it running over him.’
Arthur steered Alice over to the sofa and pushed gently on her shoulders. ‘Come on then Doll, tell me about it.’
‘I’ll tell you something, Babe. I used to walk straight through those kids; you know when they’re hanging round smoking in those pixie hoods all huddled together. We used to have pixie hoods when we was still in our prams, d’you remember? Now they’ve made something childish into something nasty. I used to look straight into their faces before that night, bold as brass. I can’t do that now.’
Arthur went anyway. As he pushed open the doors of the community centre, a hush fell and small children scuttled to the cover of their mothers’ robes.
The young woman at the reception desk fingered her necklaces nervously and smiled at him. ‘Advice sessions are over for today. Can you come back tomorrow morning?’
‘No, it’s not that. I was wondering about the hall, hiring it for an evening.’
‘When were you thinking of?’ the woman asked, pulling a book out of the jumble on her desk and flipping through the pages.
It was fixed. The hall was his on the last day of November and it cost less to hire than he’d thought it would. Food. Food would be needed and some hand leaflets. He began to think of his introduction. Welcome everybody. I’m pleased to see so many people here tonight. I’m glad to see we can all come together to enjoy ourselves no matter where we’re from. Didn’t sound right. Better not to bring it up. The Bengali kids would probably drift in late anyway and stand at the back in a huddle. They’d sneer at first, but later their faces would change and they’d look at him in wonder. Then he’d call them to the front and tell them about the medals he’d won. He’d even let them touch them.
Alice didn’t really come round to the idea. Although she went along with it, it disturbed her and made her chew the inside of her lip. ‘Who d’you think’ll come?’ She asked, as she pushed the darning mushroom into one of his socks.
‘Everybody likes stories,’ Arthur explained. ‘They’ll all come. There’ll be something for everyone. The young ones will be interested in power lifting. I’ll take my medals to show them.’
‘Those women don’t go out at night, they’re not allowed, so they won’t be there.’
Arthur was relieved about that. He’d wondered what it would be like talking to black masked faces and not being able to see how they were reacting.
‘Food, Alice – that always brings people together. These handbills cost more than I thought, do you think you and Mary could make a nice finger buffet?’
One of the wonderful things about Alice was that Arthur could never predict what she was going to say. He’d always thought that that fact alone had kept their marriage working. But this time she shocked him.
‘Oh, finger buffets is it? What fingers do you want Arthur, the fingers of a bleeding Asian kid? Not much meat on them, they was shredded through to the bone on both hands and just lying there on the road beside him. Or would you prefer the fingers of Johnnie Carstairs who had the gentlest hands in the world. You could have that big diamond ring he wore as well, if you like, the one that flashed when he played piano.’
‘Alice, please. It’s just an expression. Little sausages and things, you know.’
‘Yes I do know, Rattie Runel. I do remember. You still got that old razor haven’t you, the one you used to slice through your enemies arses with as they sat in some dark pub?’ Arthur covered his face with both hands. He knew what was coming. ‘Johnnie Carstairs was a good man; he respected me and my family. He never hurt a fly.’
‘Alice, it was the rules. I had to do it.’
‘Well, this is a funny to-do isn’t it? Arthur Rattie Runel, East End hard man and weights champion, trying to bring the communities together. Wonders will never cease.’
Arthur picked up one of the handbills and stared at the photo of himself. It was a slightly fuzzy black and white shot, but he looked imposing with his face in half shadow, his mouth down turned. For the photo session, he’d worn the suit he was going to wear on the night of his talk, pin striped and dapper with turn-ups, the same suit he’d worn when he smashed Johnnie’s hands with a mallet. He ran his finger down the column of words that framed each side of the photo, ‘Tough Talk’ on one side, and ‘Arthur Runel’ on the other.
Alice had come to the corner of Garden Street and a close-packed mob with sweating faces had lurched past her within a few feet. The sounds they were making made her clutch her heart and stop; they were unnatural noises that humans shouldn’t be able to make. When she looked down Garden Street, she saw what looked a bag of rubbish lying there in the greyish light. It was close to the old oak tree that had ripped up the pavement with its might over the years.
The kid had been sliced from ear to ear, a clean cut that went under his nose. His top lip was hanging and she could see his teeth through the cut, as if he had two mouths.
When the policeman came to interview her, Arthur said to him, ‘Go easy on her mate, or there’ll be Niagras.’
But Alice didn’t sob; she trembled and held her back very straight. ‘It doesn’t make sense. Wouldn’t their parents know something was wrong if kids who’d just done a murder walked into the house? There’d have been blood.’
‘It was a matter of honour,’ the policeman explained with no hint of sarcasm, ‘the community told us it was about a girl who was hanging around with the leader of one of these gangs. She was sent off to Bangladesh to marry a farmer, but it made no difference, as soon as she got back here she left her baby with her mother and went to find the boy again. So the mother told her son to go and sort it out. Nobody will tell us who they are for fear of reprisals.’
‘Honour, what can honour matter if life is meaningless for Mercy’s Sake?’
The policeman shrugged. ‘We see honour all the time Mrs Runel. We scoop kids off the street nearly everyday in the name of honour and shame. Would you recognise any of them?’
Alice shook her head, ‘I thought I saw some of them going to school the next day, but they was wearing blazers and ties and I couldn’t be sure.’
On the last day of November, Arthur woke up nervous. Perhaps Alice was right, and it was just sentimental of him to think that people as different as them could ever become friends. But if you never tried, you’d never know.
Alice and Mary had made scotch eggs, tiny ham sandwiches, cheese triangles on cocktail sticks, miniature sausages, and a few slices of plain bread and butter. They’d given Arthur two red and white checked table clothes and packed the food in a hamper.
At eight o’clock the young caretaker at the community centre, who’d helped Arthur lay out the food and set the chairs, opened the doors. Fog drifted into the reception area and outside the night air seemed to glitter.
Arthur made his way to the raised platform at the end of the hall and laid out his championship medals on the table next to his speech notes.
‘You’ll have to be out by ten sharp,’ the young man said, throwing his cigarette stub out through the open door and making his way between the chairs towards the platform.
Arthur nodded and stared at the open doorway. ‘D’you think there are enough chairs?’ he asked. There was no answer, and when Arthur looked at the man’s face, he thought he saw him flush up. ‘What’s your name, then?’
‘Masum. Masum Choudhury.’
‘Do you live around here Masum?’
‘You must be joking mate. I’ve got kids to bring up.’
‘You don’t like Stepney, then?’
‘I was brought up here, in those days it was a good place, but look at it now. It’s out of control and there’s worse to come.’
‘What d’you mean?’
Masum sat on the edge of the platform and offered Arthur a cigarette. ‘Somalis.’
‘Yeah?’ Arthur didn’t know what he was talking about.
‘Yeah. Moving into the area in scores. Foreigners.’
‘The East end has always had that,’ Arthur explained.
‘The gangs aren’t going to like it. There’ll be wars.’
‘But there already are. My wife found a dying boy a few weeks ago slashed to pieces
in Garden Street.’
‘Yeah, I heard about that. They got his mate too, further down by the park and ripped his face open, top to bottom. But I mean real killing. When the Somali thing kicks off it’ll be Hell here.’
‘When we was young there were gangs as well, but I’ll tell you what, once girls was around everyone cooled down.’
‘Girls. You had girls in gangs?’
‘Naaah, of course not, but they’d meet up with us, you know. It kept things more peaceful.’
‘Well, there’s a big difference between you and us for a start off. We wouldn’t let our girls out to hang around with street boys, it’d be shameful; girls need to be good to marry well. That’s what the Garden Street killings were all about.’
‘Yeah, I heard that. So there’s nothing stopping the boys, then?’
Masum shook his head. ‘Nothing at all. Their parents don’t know what’s going on. The elders can’t influence anything, and their older brothers who’ve gone straight, and work for the council, don’t make a jot of difference. It’s drugs, see? Heroin. That’s what the fuel is.’
Arthur sighed. In his day, drinking was the thing, and even if a fight broke out or someone got shot, it was certain that by the end of the evening everyone would be singing and having a proper knees-up. He and Alice had watched old pubs close down and sink shabbily beneath weeds and blown rubbish over the last few years. ‘Everybody’s history is in those places, everybody’s story. So it just goes to show there’s no respect left anymore, don’t it Arthur?’ Alice had said.
‘D’you like a drink, Masum?’
The young man flashed Arthur a look, and smiled. ‘Yeah, I like a pint or two, but only with trusted friends, it’s un-Islamic if you know what I mean.’
‘Where d’you live, then?’
Masum waved his arm vaguely in the air. ‘Stratford way.’
‘So you’re glad you don’t live in Stepney then?’
‘Tell you what mate, you ever heard birds singing round here? I can wake up in my house and hear bird-song from morning to night. You ever heard the sound of a black bird after rain? I’m not being funny or anything, but it’s like liquid gold; it’s heart breaking.’ He twisted his head away and his voice softened. ‘There’s a black bird that sits in our tree at home. After it’s been raining and the grass smells good, this bird starts to sing. There’s nothing to beat it.’
Arthur didn’t say anything.
It was nine thirty before Masum shut the main doors and began to put the chairs away. He worked fast, eager to get moving. Arthur placed his weightlifting medals in their velvet-lined boxes and pushed his lecture notes into his coat pocket.
‘Alright, mate?’ Masum said, turning to look at Arthur as they walked out onto the street. ‘Never mind, eh?’
As Arthur passed Garden Street that night, he considered dropping into The Peacock to catch a last drink with Alice and Mary. A few of his old friends might be there as well. But he had no heart for it. He’d eaten a few of the scotch eggs, but the caretaker wouldn’t touch them, or the little sausages. He’d eaten one cheese triangle, and Arthur got the idea he’d only done it to be polite.
‘Dump the food in the outside bin so people don’t see those sausages tomorrow,’ Masum had said.
‘Pork, Mr. Runel. We don’t eat that, didn’t you know?’
‘I can’t bin the stuff; my wife and her best friend made all that. If I go home without it, the old girl will think people came, and I’d have to tell her a lie. Anyway, it’s a waste of food, mate. We’ll eat some of it for our tea tomorrow. Then Alice will take a bit over to the lady on the corner, she’s one hundred and two years old. We did that in the old days – still do, look after our elderly.’
‘We look after ours too,’ Masum had replied, flicking his cigarette butt away. ‘But they’re already old when they’re forty, and there’s something you can’t do anything about, Mr. Runel.’
This story is based on a real incident to which the author, Rebecca Lloyd, was a witness. She says the police wanted to take away her writing notebook when she started notes for the story, as she was the only witness. She contributed the following on the episode:
I found Habib lying on his side on the road. I tried to put my coat under his head. I dared not move him. There was something very wrong with his legs. Then at the top of the road, I saw another boy, Mohammed, bloodied, still walking with a huge gash in his head. I took him by the shoulders, stopped him and made him sit on the curb. His hands were mutilated; he held them in the air. By this time, people had started gathering.
I had been within feet of the gang who'd tried to murder the boys. They came up Garden Street in a tight bunch and passed by me, and they had become one beast, transported – they wouldn't have even seen me.
Habib was an eighteen year old care worker who'd been mistakenly attacked. I visited him a couple of times at his home. I needed to tell the story of finding him and he needed to hear it. He tried to hide his hands and I had to persuade him to show me. He didn't have many fingers left. For a few months, I was on call day and night; relatives needed to talk about it, and quite often, I met people and took them to the spot where I found him because they needed to see it too.
Rebecca Lloyd is a novelist and short story writer. Her short stories have been published in Canada, USA, New Zealand, and the UK. She won the Bristol Review of Books Short Story Prize 2008 for 'The River.' Her adult novel 'Under the Exquisite Gaze,' was shortlisted in the Dundee International Book Prize 2010. She was a semi-finalist for her short story collection 'Don't Drink the Water,' in the Hudson Prize 2010. Her first children's novel, 'Halfling,' is due for publication with Walker Books in January 2011.