This is a story that I first started writing in 2012. It's nice to see the progress I've made since then. I've decided to upload it here unedited so I can remind myself of improvement, and for nostalgia, of course.
There was something distinctly infectious about Peckham Rye on a Sunday afternoon. For the majority of Peckhamites, Sunday was Church Day, which was easily identifiable by their attire. Families passed through doors in their weekly best, some more extreme than others. The Celestials, for example, worshipped in white robes and bare feet and this practice brought me much glee when I was younger, until mum hit me over the head for laughing at a group of them as they passed us on the street. In all my life I was never able to identify their place of worship, but such was the case for many of Peckham’s churches. What was once empty loft space above butcher shops and hair salons became a place fit for a congregation and I was none the wiser of as to how anyone became a member of such churches. Later on in life, however, I heard through street mutterings that poverty-stricken parents, worried that their children had been possessed by a devil, would be recommended a visit to a high-rise pastor.
I never went to church. I was part of that feral generation the newspapers pontificated about. Having been a kid brought up by another kid, I was too unruly for church. God was always somewhere in my head, though and I had no vendettas against him for my lot, after all, the kid who raised me was fine by my standards: a single mother and black. We lived on an estate near Rye Lane. I was set for disaster.
Tai had it better. His parents were together and his grandparents lived in a six-bedroom house in Kent, a home they had brought during the recession in the 90s. All throughout that recession, and in the subsequent one during the late 00s, Granddad and Grandma Rowe had tried to coerce their children and grandchildren to leave London. Tai’s granddad was an odd one; despite being proud of his Jamaican heritage, he disliked his fellow members of the African diaspora that had settled into (what he called) ghettos across the city. He held Peckham especially in low esteem, and forever dubbed it “Likkle Nigeria”.
I looked over at Likkle Nigeria from my place next to Tai on our favourite wall in Peckham Square. It was Sunday, and to accompany our saltfish patties was a pile of flyers that had been handed to us by the church goers, inviting us to Summer Thanksgiving parties, baptisms and youth events. We had a bottle of ginger beer to share between us and a coconut cake that the lady from Gabby’s had thrown in for free—the Gabby’s employees were used to our faces, after all.
The summer holidays had just started. I was studying mental health nursing at LSBU and Tai had enrolled on a catering course at Lewisham College. Neither of us had anticipated just how busy our schedules would be. We were left unable to meet up to properly discuss the incident, but soon enough everyone—from the lowest prefabs in Nunhead to the highest flats on Rye Lane—had heard about Guinness, Nubia and the White Man. The gossip had spread like a plague of locusts, meaning that even at university, all the way in Elephant, I had opportunity to discuss it with someone. But I valued Tai’s opinions more than any other, so it was a great relief that the two of us were able to meet up on the first Sunday of the holidays.
Guinness was arrested during the May Bank Holiday of ’08. At first, most people put it down to another case of gang crime, but during the subsequent weeks, his mum made the rounds. She told the story, as her son had relayed, to her friends in the hair salons, the nail bars and the supermarkets, having refused an interview with The South London Press. Being male, Tai didn’t frequent the integral hotspots to hear the full story, which meant I had to tell it to him.
The legend told that Nubia had been approached by Bryant Cole, a man she had once attended sixth-form with. He had attempted to rape her; Guinness witnessed what was about to take place and stabbed Bryant in an act of chivalry. Nubia was unavailable to comment, having locked herself away in her flat since May, and neither I nor any of the local women were able to talk to her.
“Poor girl,” said Tai. He opened the ginger beer first, took a hearty swig, and closed it so tight that I groaned inwardly—I would remain thirsty until I arrived home.
“Indeed,” I said.
“You know what I hate about all this, Jade?” he said.
“What’s that?” I said.
“No one’s pressed charges against the attempted rape. Guys like Bryant always get away with shit, until they hurt a little white girl and then everyone cares.”
“He comes from a powerful family, apparently,” I said.
“Oh, I know all about the Coles.”
I looked at him quizzically.
“The Coles,” said Tai, “they’re like some quasi-Kray family. It’s all a bit sad, really, how they buy out houses and let immigrants live in them for favours and all that nonsense. Apparently, before Guinness’s dad got his visa, that family let him lodge in one of their flats whilst he was still illegal.”
“Is this a soap or something?” I said.
I watched him stare into the distance. He had such a strange look on his face that I pressed him about his thoughts.
“Something doesn’t add up,” he said. “This is Guinness we’re talking about. He doesn’t hurt anyone! Where’d he even get the knife from in the first place?”
“He was going shopping for his mum,” I said, “Getting kitchen knives from Argos.”
“For fuck’s sake.”
At that moment, a group of hooded youths rode past us on their push bikes. They acknowledged Tai with a cursory nod before hollering into the distance. I was used to this; Tai knew everyone in Peckham, regardless of age, gender and status. He had a personality that attracted people easily, but even if he didn’t know them, there was something about his appearance that commanded respect from local youths and street kids. He was six feet, rich mahogany in complexion, and had dreadlocks that fell to the small of his back. He had a gold tooth and a keloid scar on his left arm, which he had acquired from a moped accident. A lot of the time I looked like his unwilling tag-along and throughout school I was made aware by others of how lucky I was to be his friend. His popularity didn’t faze me. I remembered when Tai was bespectacled and scrawny. We attended the government-funded Saturday music centre together, which is how we became friends. Together we played the oboe, but Tai never quite got the hang of it.
“And Nubia’s on lockdown, is she?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “She’s definitely not coming out for anyone.”
“I wonder if that side of the story has been reported?” said Tai. “Or if everyone’s just concentrating on a white kid from a well-to-do family getting stabbed?”
“That’s life, right?” I said.
“My arse it is,” he said. “I was stopped twice last week. And why? How many six foot-dreadlocked robbers are there?”
“Mum’s been getting stopped a lot recently,” I said. “She’s got a new car.”
“Yeah? What one?”
“That must have taken a lot from her benefits, isn’t it?”
“She saved up!” I said. “It’s finance anyway. Used some of my child benefit as well.”
“Good to know her priorities were in order, then.”
I punched him in the arm and we both laughed. We knew that mum would rather self-immolate than put her own needs before my own. Tai had said many times that my mum worked harder than his own, and his mum had a degree. There was no denying, though, that my dear mother had a penchant for collecting expensive and glossy things.
“I wanna see this car for myself,” said Tai. “My Corsa’s on its last legs.”
“Teach me how to drive before it packs in, then,” I said.
“Yeah I will,” he said. “I’m getting tired of lugging you around everywhere.”
“Bloody cheek!” I said before jumping down from the wall. Tai followed suit, scrunched up our paper bags and put them in the bin. He left the church flyers on the wall for someone else to take.
“So what’s happening at you house, then?” I said.
“I got something good for you,” said Tai. He put his arm around me and we walked out of the Square.
This had been a Sunday tradition for Tai and me for years. Before study took control of our lives, we would go to Gabby’s for some food and chill by the Square before traipsing to Tai’s house, where he would try new recipes on my undiscerning tongue. As we walked down the busy high street, Tai was saluted by people who were strangers to me, but he seemed to know them well enough to engage in deep conversation. There was one man in particular, whom Tai had addressed as “Shorty”, who decided a bright Sunday afternoon was the time to start a debate about Pan Africanism. From the man’s African-print attire I deduced he must have been a friend from Tai’s “Back to Africa” days, a period that left me, a mix-raced Londoner, confused and uncomfortable. Not wanting my appearance to add fuel to the discussion, I turned into WH Smith to browse the magazines.
I scanned the shelf, not quite knowing what I was looking for, but deciding to choose something at random to pass the time. I was about to pick up Neo when I felt a firm tap on my shoulder. Upon turning to see who it was, my stomach quivered.
“How are you, Jade?”
“Fine thanks,” I said to Michael Terrance, the boy who lived in the block next to mine.
He peered over my shoulder at the magazines. “What were you about to read?”
He saw Neo and frowned before picking it up. As he flicked through, his frown became one of confused interest.
“I didn’t know you were into anime,” he said.
“I’m not,” I said. “Um. Are you?”
“Kind of,” he said. “I used to watch a little here and there in school. Sometimes hung around with the Asian kids, but it got kind of weird. You know, this one black guy just chilling out with Asian kids, made me look like a beg.”
I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “Yeah, I see.”
He looked at me and opened his mouth to say something more, but seemed to think better of it.
“What—what anime do you watch?” I said.
“The usual. Bleach, Naruto, Fairy Tail.”
“Fairy Tail?” I said.
“It’s not as stupid as it sounds,” he said. “So, do you watch cartoons?”
I shook my head. We stood in silence for a while. Michael flicked through the pages of the magazine absently, occasionally raising his brows at something of supposed interest.
“I’ll see you,” I said. “Tai’s probably waiting outside for me.”
“All right then,” said Michael. His eyes remained fixed on the magazine. He continued to turn the pages. “Have a good day,” he said.
I left WH Smith feeling slightly discombobulated. I wasn’t entirely sure what had just taken place, but I decided not to speak to Tai about it. I found him vigorously shaking the hands of the Pan African man before waving him goodbye.
“You all right?” he said when I was by his side.
“Why d’you look so suspect?”
“So?” I said.
I stared at Tai. He looked at me, dumbfounded. “What are you on?” he said. He looked over my shoulder at the entrance of Smiths and raised his brows. “Right,” he said. “Any-who.”
“So what was the Pan African guy saying?” I said as we resumed our walk.
“Nothing of major interest,” said Tai. “Not to you, anyway.”
I saw the corners of his mouth twitch goadingly, and decided not to enquire about the conversation. I refused to crumble at the first sign of teasing. It didn’t take long for Tai to tell me about the conversation anyway: Europe is evil; Asians always sell out Black people; Black Women disrespect Black Men and pander to the oppressors.
“That’s very interesting to me,” I said.
We continued along Rye Lane and past the bridge that separated the metropolis from the markets. Not only were markets plentiful in this part of Peckham, but the hair salons were in abundance. Things were not always this way, but Rye Lane underwent a transformation which meant that every other shop became home to a hairdresser and her army of nail technicians.
“Why d’you think there’s so many?” asked Tai as he scrutinised the shop fronts.
“Mum said some of them are drug dens,” I said. “There are a lot of darkly cladded men passing through these places. And they’re all bald.”
We could have taken the bus, but we ended up walking all the way to Tai’s house. He lived on King on the Rye, named after a pub that had long been demolished, in a house that overlooked the common. It was a beautiful place that his parents had lived in for over twenty years, with the green view rivalling Wandsworth or Clapham. Only the random street fires ignited by the local homeless, and the gangs of hooded youths cutting lines in the grass with their bikes reminded us that we were in Peckham.
Mrs Rowe worked in the civil service and her husband was a carpenter. She liked to think of herself as middle class because she went to museums and only owned one Dutch pot, but there was no hiding the Caribbean twang that clung to the end of her words. Her whole persona would change when family came over for summer barbeques. Guinness punch, pineapple punch, jerk chicken and potato salad were enough to bring out the Spanish Town in her, to the point where her neighbours were scared away from attending.
Mr Rowe was in the garden when we arrived home, tending to his gazebo. He had started making it in the bank holidays, but late April showers brought his work to a halt. Little more than a skeleton had been made, but the potential was clearly evident. The gazebo wasn’t the only thing that Mr Rowe had made for the house; his oaken footprint could be found all around the residence, from bookcases to tables and bedroom chests. I always took it as a positive sign of his presence and as a cause for envy—after all, my father was long gone.
My mind wandered on Guinness as Tai pottered about the kitchen. Guinness and I had never been particularly close; he was more Tai’s friend than mine, but we spoke enough times for me to respect him. He had been well known in school and was popular with girls because of his strange appearance: black as tarmac, with a mass of blonde, coolie hair—giving birth to his nickname. His parents were both from Melanesia, where blonde hair was common. It seemed as though the recent events of street crime in London had affected the best of us; from Nubia getting attacked to Guinness attacking someone else. I didn’t like the thought of my friends becoming statistics; the nightly news painted a picture of a warzone and race tension, riddled with single parents and broken homes. I only hoped that Guinness’s parents had the support they needed, as I was sure that Bryant’s family had support in abundance.
They lived in Nunhead—a village that tried with extreme vehemence to separate itself from Peckham. Nunhead folk didn’t like Peckham folk during the best of times; Peckham stood between it and the affluent East Dulwich, an area that would have boosted the Nunhead house prices and brought more prestige to the area, had it been Nunhead’s neighbour. There were more white people in Nunhead: a sure sign of a good area. Following the incident, I could only imagine the vitriol running rampant about ‘my kind’ through those particular streets. The thought made me uneasy.
“What are you making?” I asked Tai after a while.
“You’ll love it. Rustic Jamaican, m’dear.”
I perked up. He was preparing pastry and I found myself pleasantly impressed. Pastry had been the bane of his life for years; pies and rolls fell flat and gave both of us a rubbery aftertaste on our tongues. I could tell he had been working hard at it; his hands kneaded the dough expertly and it looked tasty enough. Next to his mess was a bowl of brownish-pulp, which I soon discovered was spiced and seasoned coconut. Jars of vanilla pods, cinnamon, nutmeg and spices framed a messy border around his workstation.
“Gizzadas,” said Tai. “We don’t make these things at college, obviously, but all the techniques I’ve learnt are needed for this. I’ve always wanted to make gizzadas. Mum makes them too good. And drops.”
“Hmm. Drops,” I said.
“And grater cake.”
“And sweet bread.”
In my hunger (or cravenness, as Tai would have said), I rummaged in his cupboards and made a sandwich. He had fresh hard dough bread, unopened, and a jar of guava jam.
My mum was born in London so I had a somewhat Anglicised upbringing. When she was old enough and able to move out of her parents’ house, our Sunday dinners consisted of cod, chips and curry sauce. She didn’t teach me how to cook, or kanerow hair, or tie a nice-looking headwrap, so I learnt most of these things from Tai’s mother. For years, I only felt in touch with my Jamaican heritage when I was at the Rowe’s, until my mum was reunited with her estranged parents and started visiting their house with me in tow. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable around grandma and granddad; they were traditional, stayed with their own people and kept pressuring mum and me to go to church and beg God for forgiveness. When they finally got over this shaky stage, our relationship grew by inches till the point where we were going over for dominoes on Saturday nights and rice and peas and oxtail on Sunday afternoons.
Tai’s gizzadas were delicious: spiced coconut cradled in a sweet shortcrust pastry. He made quite a few, so we ate quite a few, whilst still managing to save some for his parents. I wrapped one up in clingfilm for mum and took a picture of the rest with my phone. Tai bought his camera down and took photos for his portfolio. I smiled at the proud expression on his face.
“You’re getting there, Tai,” I said.
“Yeah. I’ve been looking at the spot. My spot.”
I sat on the barstool next to his workstation and pressed him for more.
“On Rye Lane there’s a place that’s been empty for months—maybe even a year now. I’ve asked around about it. When I finish my course I’m gonna buy it.”
“Have you thought about what you’d call it?” I said.
“Something easy, innit?” Tai walked around the kitchen. He stared at his dad hammering nails into wood as he spoke, “something like, ‘Tyler’s Kitchen’, or ‘Tyler’s’ or … well, you know. I’ll think about it.”
“I’ll think as well,” I said. “And I want a cut.”
Tai smiled. “I wish you’d be my assistant. You can cook pretty well now, you know. It’ll be nice to have your help. You sure you still wanna be a mental health nurse?”
“But … it’s so depressing,” said Tai. “And ain’t it dangerous? What if a patient tries to strangle you or something?”
I reassured him in the same why I had had to reassure my mum on a weekly basis: there’s protection in store, it’s not as bad as everyone thinks, I can look after myself, not all mentally ill people are dangerous, don’t listen to the media, fatalities are rare, until his worried features relaxed a little. When Tai was somewhat satisfied, we prepared a tray of hard dough bread, guava jam and gizzadas for Mr Rowe, with a glass of ice-cold sarsaparilla on the side. He took a well-deserved break once he saw the food and the three of us chatted in the garden until the evening.