Black Lazarus
(Maxine Beneba Clarke)

Posted on August 1, 2010 by in Novel Excerpts

It was close to six by the time Sonny finished up at the Basement. The twenty wedged deep down in his pocket, he made his way to his leafleting post at Piccadilly station.

Sonny fished inside the deep pockets of his long, black overcoat, brought out a wad of postcard-sized pamphlets, overturned a wooden fruit crate he’d pilfered from outside a green grocer on the way from the basement and stood on it.

“We want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of our black community. We want full employment for our people!”

It was a Sunday morning, and the streets were still mostly empty. On a business day, even at this god-forsaken hour, the early morning business crowd would be starting to drizzle into the city: early risers in their fine cut suits and stiff shirt collars. But today the Sunday morning stragglers making their way home from all-night bars variously stared at Sonny, walked quickly past with their eyes cast down, or shuffled over and grabbed a leaflet with such dexterity he hadn’t a chance to ask for their details. Most of the brothers did the latter.

“We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black community. We want housing fit for the shelter of human beings!” How long had Sonny been yelling out these words? He didn’t even need to think them anymore, they scrolled monotonously from his lips like television credits.

“We want…” That was what the struggle wanted, but what did he want? What did Eddison Methias Finnigan Gray want? Damn Olivia. Damn her. Tears streamed down the man’s face. Several stragglers glanced over at him, quickly walking toward the station entrance. Sonny thought about what he must look like, standing up there on that crate, stammering. Tear droplets were falling on the BPP pamplets, blurring the ink and crinkling the paper-thin pages.

“We want…land…bread, housing…” That wasn’t right. That was the final demand. He’d missed one. Sonny’s chin dropped down to his chest. He climbed down off the crate and angrily kicked it aside. Cramming the pamphlets back into his coat pocket, he buttoned up against the cold morning and walked quickly toward the station entrance.

Sonny saw them at the same moment they noticed him, their thick black truncheons swaying at their sides as they picked up step.

The man had been picketing or pamphleting or something, it was obvious: that long, black jacket, the crate upturned behind him. He looked strung out, red puffy eyes. One of the Officers thought he’d seen the this layabout down the rebel squat in Brixton. He might even be one of the Railton lot. “Step aside please, Sir.” They came toward Eddison head on, blocking the station entrance.

Sonny made to walk past them and the shorter officer put a hand on his upper arm.

“Don’t fucking touch me.”

“Sir, we don’t want any trouble. If you’d just step over here thanks.”

“Don’t want any trouble.” What a fucking joke.

“We want an immediate end to police brutality.” Sonny suddenly remembered the demand he’d missed out earlier.

“What’d he say?” The tall officer turned to his colleague.

“I said we want an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of black people, other people of colour and all oppressed people in London.” A small crowd had gathered, so Sonny knew he was relatively safe.

“Empty your pockets please.”

“Why?”

“Empty your pockets.”

Sonny sighed. He was tired, didn’t want another night in another police cell. Last time he hadn’t been able to get hold of the Panther’s brief. They’d put him in a packed cell for an all nighter – five of them in there and only three sleeping spaces. The others had been vagrants – grimy skinned and smelling like god knows what, still drunk enough to toilet down their trouser legs. He’d curled up on a corner of the cold cement floor and woken with a cough so severe it had taken him a quarter of the year to get rid of it.

Sonny pulled the fliers out of his pockets and handed them over. He took his coat off and dumped it on the floor. The smaller cop picked the coat up, ruffled inside the coat pocket. He flashed Sonny’s licence card at his partner, disappointed.

“Got an address here.” Maybe they were wrong and the man wasn’t one of those squat blacks. He was fairly well spoken, despite his agro. Come to think of it, that coat had to be expensive as well. A crowd started to gather.

The cops looked at each other. The small one shoved the leaflets into his pocket and returned the twenty and the licence to the Sonny. “Thankyou Sir, you can be on your way.”

Sonny spat at their heels as they retreated…

…A group of young brown men appeared in the entrance of an alleyway near the Curtisfield turn-off, carrying baseball bats and identical wild eyes that glared out bloodshot against the sooty morning sky. Sonny smiled back at them. He stopped at the red light on Wincheslea and stared at the balconies of the four storey concrete Housing Estate. The string washing lines strained in the breeze. These days the distinction between the cracked, grey-beige exterior of the Estate buildings and the surrounding terrace houses was becoming increasingly difficult to note.

Even at the late business hour it was, the grocers along West Green road were doing a roaring trade in all things down home: jerk seasoning, tinned ackee, smoked salt fish and bruised plantain. Educated Black was hanging by a thread, the sign declaring the shop was now only opening on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The African Children’s books in the window had faded covers. Sonny remembered them being put on display almost five years back: Jalawah and the Beanstalk, and Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp.

The salon spilled to the side-walk with racks of multi-coloured hair-weave, giant tubs of sticky lock wax, Even Tone skin bleach and netted sleeping caps.  Nearly-girl women flicked through Ebony under hairdryers getting ready for their Friday night, as heeled even-younger things in goose-bumps, white singlets, spray-on peddle-pushers and bling layers attended.

“Jesus fucking Christ.” Sonny turned the corner onto Curtisfield and navigated a pile of rubbish flowing onto the narrow street. The bin workers of Haringey Council must have been on strike yet again. The plastic bins were full to rotting, double bin-bags no match for the razor-sharp gnaw of local rats, who seemed to have carried word of the strike as far as Hyde Park on the sewer line.

Sonny jumped as a clanging around the back left wheel of a passing car signaled it’s attachment to a garbage bag of rum and soft drink cans. A group of almost adult-sized black kids loitering on the nearby street corner, ginger-rum cans in hand, turned sharply at the raucous, ears pricked to run. Eddison stared at the teenagers. These days, the Tottenham youth walked to fit in. By nine, every brown boy would know the subtle swagger, hip-sway and blade-two buzz-cut that says they belonged here. But they needed more than this little corner of London. They needed more.

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