“This wheel’s on fire, rolling down the road,” I sang along to the radio. Took another gulp of cheap whiskey. No grass tonight. Whiskey.
Shelley, beautiful Shelley, spoilt daughter of a rich mining mogul, slumming with us in Earls Court, was drinking too. Straight from the bottle. She was learning fast. Learning how to be cool, learning how to be hip, learning how not to be square. Or maybe not.
Earlier she had come with us to Notting Hill to score some dope. That was brave. The place had a reputation for being dangerous – full of Spades angry at the broken promises that the Empire Windrush reception had implied, angry at the way white men refused to give black men jobs, angry at being lumped together with gypsies and dogs.
We reassured her it would be okay. After all we weren’t like the rest. We were different. You could tell this from our hair, from our dress, from the way we spoke – our language and our mid-trans-Atlantic accents picked up from Dylan and Hendrix and Jim Morrison. We told her that there was solidarity between the Spades and the Heads because both groups were outsiders, were The Other, were part of the revolution. We told her the two of us, me Ralph, and him, Eric, were honorary Blacks. We told her it was cool, baby, cool.
We told her we had done this often (which was a lie – we normally scored from Victor Bec at the Kings Head who we suspected was in the drug squad watching for the big fish and so was a safe person to deal with) because we wanted her with us as we reckoned that if there was any trouble she could play the cut-glass upper-class Duchess thing with them and scare them into backing off.
We took a taxi. Shelley was paying. She usually did. We saw it as fees for the education she was getting. We sang, Eric and I to hide our nervousness, Shelley because she loved the song, “Best notify my next of kin/This wheel shall explode!”
The cab drew up outside a pub. The driver said, ”You get out here. I ain’t going no further. It ain’t safe.”
Shelley insisted on ordering the drinks. “Three of the best, my good man.” Best Swiss finishing school accent. Those few heads that hadn’t turned when two unkempt white men and one dressed-out-of-Vogue white woman walked in now joined the others, watching, waiting.
The barman stopped washing glasses and looked up. He looked around the half-empty, smoke-filled room, at his customers, his patrons, his audience. He slowly dried his hands on a brewery branded towel, reached for his cigarette which was smouldering away in a battered ashtray on the bartop, and smiled a smile. “My best?”
“Yes, please, my good man, your best.”
Eric muttered something that despite the absolute stillness in the room I couldn’t quite hear, but I thought that the third word was “Fuck” and the first and second words sounded remarkably the same. I measured the distance to the front door and calculated how long it would take me to be one hundred yards down the street. Shelley would be okay; her dad made sure she had private health and accident insurance. As for Eric, well in this sort of situation he’d be way ahead of me.
“Oh Carolina,” playing softly on the juke box.
“C’mon, Stan,” a bear of a man seated in the far corner boomed out, “Give the princess three pints of the best, and make sure you fill the glasses this time.”
“Yeah, Stan,” rang around the room, “Three of the best and make it snappy,” with more than one of them supplementing their demand with a, “My good man”.
It wasn’t long before we were part of a large group. Everybody laughing and talking over each other and buying rounds of drinks. Everybody excited. The bear was smiling quietly, modestly pleased with himself. Shelley sat next to him talking at him non-stop about daddy’s second home in the Lake District and her annual skiing holiday in Switzerland. “Don’t you think Windermere is just super?” she asked. And “St Moritz! Will you be there this winter?”
Stan came over and shook hands. His son was just about to go to university. “To do medicine.” His daughter had recently qualified as a nurse.
He asked the question. I said, “Studying law.” I didn’t say I had recently dropped out of the social studies course I had been doing (my parents/my next of kin didn’t know either). Stan looked impressed, pretended not to notice the lie.
We didn’t hear the van approach. We weren’t listening out for anything. No need. We were a roomful of good people, friends, enjoying an evening of entertainment. It was a good few minutes before they noticed Eric and Shelley and myself. By then it was too late. We had witnessed it all, had heard the language, seen the steel bars flying, and watched as heavy boots crunched into defenseless limbs.
One of them came over to where we sat. “You saw nuffink. You whisper nuffink to nobody, or youse dead. Not a word.”
Shelley! Shelley looks at him. Stands up. “You nasty little man, you. You rotten slug.”
I hear Eric saying something. I think I hear the word fuck again. Several times. Like a mantra.
The rotten slug stares at Shelley. Mouth open. He takes a step forward. Raises his hand. He hears a metallic click behind him. He freezes. The room is quiet. He turns around slowly. It’s Stan. With a shotgun.
Shelley again, “Shoot him, Stan. Shoot the little blighter. In his balls. Make it hurt.”
Eric mutters again.
The bear laughs. “Get out of here, you rotten slug,” with a passable Swiss finishing school accent, “And don’t come back too soon.”
And so they leave. And we return, sombrely, to our pints.
And now, back in our damp and mouldy two bedroom South Ken bedsit with its filthy shared toilet and a bathroom with barely a trickle of luke-warm water and forever-missing basin plug and six weeks’ rent owing, Shelley drinks from the bottle and says, “Forget cool, forget hip, let’s be square.”
And the music played.