Keel

We had stayed inside for the previous two days, hoping it would clear up, to no avail. Now I had to go out. The fridge and cupboards were empty and my younger siblings were hungry. I was the oldest male and we didn’t really have a dad. I was reluctant, but the beleaguered look on my mother’s face persuaded me. She handed me a ten pound note and turned to my three-year old brother who was insistently tugging on her clothing. As I made for my front door, I glanced to the left to see my sister of ten, staring blearily at the television, with barely enough energy to keep her head up. On the flickering screen, BBC news displayed the same loop of riot footage I had watched hours earlier. I took my jacket down from the hook in the passage, put it on, and stooped to slide my feet into a pair of trainers. I stood up hesitantly, listening to the sound of a siren growing fainter. I waited there, until I could no longer hear it.

As I stepped through the threshold, my brain was jolted out of its sedentary slumber by the bright white lines on the scabrous macadam. I was hungry, and everything was mediated through my undernourished brain. It was mid afternoon and my eyes were not yet inured to the reflected sun. I had to clench my jaw to keep myself upright as I locked gazes with the regiments of windows and garage doors. Even the familiar worn concrete was like a grindstone under my scalp.

Tense and dizzy, I turned the corner, to have my nasal passage coated with the acrid smell of burned upholstery. This emanated from the charred chassis of a car. I had witnessed the brightness of the conflagration from my bedroom window last night, but only now did I see its source. I slid my hands into my pockets and paced quickly down the street. The pavement was littered with more than the usual cigarette butts, aluminium cans and crisp packets. There were oddments of packaging and discarded clothing, some price-tags were still visible. Quite a few of my neighbours were at it, I guessed.

I turned the corner and something crunched under my foot, it was broken glass. To my left, through a splintered shop-front and a web of police cordoning tape, was the gutted interior of a corner shop. This was where I would usually buy staples like bread, milk and breakfast cereal. I scanned it more closely; there appeared to be no one inside. I looked over my shoulder, the street around me was deserted, most of the shops were boarded up, ransacked or securely closed. I wormed around the plastic tape and sidled into the premises. The neon strip-lights inside were not on, but at the far end I could still make out dimly lit fridges. I wondered if they were still on. Manoeuvring through the debris, I noted that most of the items behind the counter were gone, most likely purloined, but the general foodstuffs had merely fallen from their shelves. Around me lay packets of rice, flour, beans, pulses and loaves of bread. Some packets had split open and their small, hard contents rendered parts of the smooth, beige-speckled floor hazardous.

I stood there for some time, considering the bread on the floor, the bottled preserves and canned food on the other side of the aisle. Most of it would go to waste anyway, and what were the chances of finding anywhere open? “Oi!”, cried a voice from behind me. I tried to turn rapidly, sliding in a pool of spilled mayonnaise. I stumbled towards the door, spotting two men in police uniform, standing in the doorway, I couldn’t make out much, as they were lit from behind. They just stared at me as I walked forward, unsure of myself. I displayed my open hands at my sides, hoping that this would convince them that I wasn’t carrying a weapon or any stolen goods.

“What are you doing in here?” The smaller of the two inquired. I stammered something about just looking around and added that I normally buy food from here. The officer’s expression softened a little. “You understand that you can’t just go nosing around a crime scene?”. I nodded. He turned to his companion, “Should we let him off with a warning?”. The larger officer nodded. I felt the knot in my chest loosen. The larger officer spoke, “On your way son! And you won’t find any shops open on this street. You’d best just go home”. My body slackened with defeat, the idea of coming home empty-handed made me want to collapse. I regarded them briefly and began to make my downcast way away from there. I heard the voice of the first officer, shouting from behind me, “You might have more luck with the petrol station on the main road” I turned around. “You just take that street” he said, pointing at the beginning of a side street on the other side of the road. “then turn left and it’s about half mile on your right.” I shouted my thanks and made my way across the road, catching sight of someone looking down at me out of a window above a closed hairdresser’s. Their arms were folded and they wore a sour expression. Maybe they thought I was a looter.

The residential side-street was mostly unmarred by the violence. Today could almost have been an ordinary day. My surroundings were quiet as I traversed the pavement, I saw no one leave or enter the tightly packed terraced houses. No doubt they were all attached to their computer monitors and TV screens, feeling vicarious outrage. I neared end of the street and began to make out the forms of moving traffic on the motorway ahead of me. The noise of their tires and engines grew louder. The officer had instructed me to turn left, so I did, although there wasn’t much by way of a pedestrian walkway. As I hugged the metal rail, I felt distinctly vulnerable as each vehicle tore past me. I decided to find a way to get across the road at the first possible juncture.

The first major feature I encountered was an overpass bridge. I looked out at the stream of traffic below me for some time, yielding to the impression of standing at the crossing of two automotive arteries. A woman screamed something out of the window of a passing car; it sounded abusive. Above a scrap of concrete and scraggly grass and weeds was a billboard; its content consisted of a black and white photograph of a handsome man next to a mirror, smiling slightly and caressing his smooth cheek. To his right was an image of the five-bladed razor which purportedly helped him achieve this state of bliss. Ahead of me, I saw what I hoped was a pedestrian overpass. I was beginning to sweat as the structure loomed closer. It was certainly an overpass, and next it was another billboard. It appeared to display a gathering of people on the deck of seafaring vessel of some sort.

I mounted the structure, griping the iron handrail and ascending the grit-coated steps. My legs felt fatigued as I rounded the final bend in the metal construction. I was much relieved at the level surface that stretched out in front of me. I could make the billboard out more clearly now. It depicted a group of statuesque, scantily clad young people enjoying drinks aboard a yacht. The logo, “Keel Cruises” was printed in yellow against the pristine blue of the sky. “fortnight Pacific cruise for just £2399!” The holidaymakers depicted were all inexplicably young, attractive and presumably very wealthy. The image, due to its elevation, beauty and the dominance of the colour white, reminded me of a large religious painting. My sweat was cooling and I resolved to make haste, as I needed to get back home before my mother perished with worry. I had just descended several short flights of stairs when I took out my mobile phone and looked at the time. It had been over half an hour since I left my flat. I decided to text my mum to tell her I was all right.

I was halfway through writing it when I heard raucous laughter and voices from below. I peered over the railing to see that the source of this din was a group of boys, around my age, with a shopping trolley. This sight wasn’t unusual in itself, but the trolley was full of shopping bags and commodities. They appeared to be unloading them and preparing to take them somewhere by hand. By the time I had hurriedly written and sent my message, they were already headed up the stairs towards me. I considered trying to get away before they reached the top, but no, I had nothing to be afraid of. I might have even known them. I continued down the stairs and began to make out their conversation. “Did you clock the look on ‘dat fed’s face when I chucked a open bag of dog-food at ‘im?” – “Bruv, don’t lie. You was tryin’ to munch it. You jus’ threw it ‘caus you was shook!” They laughed and the first started to retort, “You dickhe…” At once, I was face to face with him. He quickly concealed his shock and held up a bulging shopping bag at me, grinning. Several others arrived, one of them spoke, “Oi rudeboy! Where do you live?” He was quite tall and I could make out Caucasian features beneath the shade of his hood. I replied evasively, “Near here”. “Do you know who I am?” he barked. I shook my head. One of the others howled “Oh shit”, with mock-incredulity. Seven of them had gathered around me. “Le’ me educa’e you” said the one whom I assumed was the leader “I’m a top badman in ‘dis area!” With the last two words he gestured aggressively and moved closer to me.

“Um, good for you mate” I reply after a tense silence. “I’m not your mate, wasteman!” – “Fine by me” I return, and try to make it so there is some distance between us. There is really nowhere to go, so I push forward, into the group of thugs. The leader is taken by surprise and staggers back a little, “What the fuck!” he roars. “Batter him fam!” another boy shouts, “Don’t let some next pussio move to you.” Spurred on my his friends, the leader lunges at me and takes a swing at my head. His knuckle hits my temple, a glancing blow but still dizzying. I try to push forward and gain a bit of ground, but am forced further down when I catch a brutal kick in my side. I am on the hard floor, and am dazed. I feel blow after blow after blow, but the intensity diminishes with each. My body is numb. My arm is wrapped around my face but I can’t feel it there. I brush my hand across my face and feel a wet and swollen mass. A distant stab of pain. I am vaguely aware of more blows. I gaze through interstices of the lashing limbs and vertical iron railings at the Keel Cruises billboard. The beautiful, bronzed people smile down at me. They are garbed in white, and not of this world. Saints of the 21st century.

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