The Sound of the East Dry River

The bus sped past and the raw power of it made him shudder and want to weep. He hadn’t put his arm out to stop it. He’d seen it turn the corner at the bottom end of the High Street next to Oxfam, and watched it hurtle up the road, the driver obviously trying to make up time. Now he could still feel the air buffeting around him. He sat with his head lent back against the glass of the bus shelter. Beneath him the slippery surface of the plastic seat had lost its original chill. It was a dreary day, and he looked around, feeling as if all his senses were newly opened to the world, the sights, sounds and smells barging in on his mind, clamouring for attention. Next to him, a woman with a large suede coat sat muttering.

‘These drivers, they’ll kill somebody one of these days. Mark my words, someone will stick their hand out and the bus will come right on and plough into them, just like that. Mark my words.’

She was saying it to no-one in particular, and turned her head away to look into the distance, clamping her lips tight. Jacob looked at her. At this moment, people seemed alien and inexplicable, full of hidden fury, capable of almost anything. Had he come here for this, to this grey country with its skies like smudged charcoal? To end up on a single mattress on the floor downstairs while Esther kept the double bed upstairs. And now – how would he tell Esther? Something else to blame him for, to screw the hate deeper into her soul.

The police had offered to drive him back, but he’d refused. He didn’t want to be suffocated by their condolences any longer. He could see himself through their eyes, an old black man with white hair, fingers cracked from working with his hands, moving slowly like a bewildered cow. Inside he wanted to scream at their professional sympathy and the air of inevitability. Another black kid, another gun.

A shadow loomed in front of him. He looked up and saw a bus waiting. The woman in the coat was already shuffling up to it, her large frame rocking from side to side across the pavement. She got to the door and placed her shopping bags inside, gripped one handle and winched her herself up. Then she paid the driver and shuffled along inside to find a seat. The driver looked at him through the open door.

‘You getting on mate?’

He was young, probably the same age as Dwaine, but white, with hair slicked into a sort of messy fin, an earring glinting in one lobe. Jacob looked back at him, then stood up and got on the bus, moving his body as if for the first time, aware of each step, of putting his hand lightly on the yellow handle, feeling its indentations, fumbling in his pocket, lifting his arm to show his pass to the driver. The doors shut and the bus shuddered off as he slid into the nearest free seat. He looked out the window as they drove up through Kentish Town and towards Gospel Oak, questions ringing in his mind.

It had started to go wrong when he announced one evening at dinner that he wanted to go home. He wanted to see the cargo boats in Port of Spain again. He wanted to take Dwaine to Maqueripe and eat boiled corn and roti and baked shark on the beach like he had when he was a boy. Esther looked at him as if he were mad. What did he want to go back there for after thirty years, she’d said. His head must being coming off in his hands, she’d said.

‘It’s noting but island of thieves. And that Basdeo he’s the worst. Some Indian boy from Princes Town, think he all smart with his papers, up and running it all. Ah’s not going back there.’

Jacob slumped back in defeat, but at night he dreamt of the salty air and smell of bitumen that wafted from the docks across the city. The plumbing business suffered and he stopped going to St Mary’s with her. On Sunday’s she’d put on her smart dress with the flowers and big black hat and ready herself in the mirror, while he watched her from the stairs in his vest, unshaven. She’d mutter about him not coming to church and staying in and drinking Captain Morgan all day, adjusting a scarf or pinning a broach to her lapel, asking him what sort of example he was setting ‘the boy’. Week by week she grew more bitter, more disgusted by him, while the longing for home grew in his belly.

Dwaine was still going with her then, and would look up with serious black eyes, his face full of pleading. After a while he stopped going to church as well. Sometimes Jacob would try to persuade him to go to a QPR game, but more and more Dwaine wanted to go out and do his own thing and Jacob stopped asking. He could feel the boy slipping away, but he watched it happen like a man under water.

One day they got a knock on the door. Dwaine was at the police station after getting in a fight outside a pub in Harlesden. Esther thought she was going die of shame, and told Jacob over and over, her eyes bitter with accusation. Her boy, a good Christian boy getting into a fight outside a pub.

When they brought Dwaine out of the cells he seemed like a child again. He was quiet, apologising to them and to the policeman. Jacob wondered when he had grown so large. His neck was huge and he had a man’s hands. Seeing his son in a police station should have brought him to his senses but it didn’t. After a few days he watched Dwaine’s confidence returning. The episode became a joke between him and his friends, a badge of honour, and Dwaine slipped further into his own dark world leaving his parents far behind.

The windows of the bus were steaming up. Jacob heard disjointed snatches of conversation from the other passengers, two boys talking about a new computer game, a girl complaining to her boyfriend that her mum wouldn’t let her use the car at the weekend. He was struck by a profound sense of sadness and regret for himself and Dwaine and Esther. He wondered how it had ended up like this, and his mind insisted on raking through the ashes of the day. He remembered sitting in an armchair staring at the faded rose wallpaper, a terrible numbness inside him. Esther was at a friend’s. She’d said she was going to pray, but he knew she couldn’t stand being in the same house as him. Then he heard a rap at the door.

They were polite and told him without messing around. They said that no, they didn’t think it could be someone else’s boy, someone who looked like Dwaine, but they would need him to come down and make a formal identification. So he went with them. He got into the back of the car and looked at their pink, neatly shaved necks as they drove him to the station in Chepstow Road. The detectives talked quietly to the uniformed officer at the desk, and he was taken though the glass doors into the back. He noticed nobody looked at him. As they walked along the corridor people nodded to the detectives, but never caught his eye. He began to wonder if he were in a dream. They came to a door and stopped.

‘It’s through here, Mr Latapy.’

Behind the door there was a man in a white coat who said he was very sorry. Jacob nodded, his heart beating like a fist inside his chest. They walked over to a large table in the centre of the room. There was a body under a green covering.

‘You remember we said there were injuries to the head, Mr Latapy. Please prepare yourself. Just take your time.’

The man in the white coat rolled back the cover, revealing the head and shoulders of a young man. The top left hand side of his skull was missing, as if it had collapsed inward. His mouth was open slightly and Jacob could see his two large front teeth, one slightly crossing over the other. Over his left eye was a scar he’d got from falling off his bike when Jacob was teaching him to ride in Gladstone Park.

‘That not Dwaine. That not my little boy,’ Jacob told them.

‘We know it’s difficult Mr Latapy. Please just take your time.’

The bus stopped and the driver rang the bell. Jacob looked up and realised they were in the bus depot in Wembley. The bus was empty, but he didn’t move. The driver unlocked his cabin and came down the aisle. Jacob told him he’d missed his stop and the driver said he’d have to get another bus back. He nodded, stood up, walked slowly towards the door, stepped down onto the pavement, and walked to the seats at the bus stop. Opposite workmen were re-laying the road, and the smell of bitumen washed over him bringing memories of the street he grew up in Laventille, the sound of the East Dry River, a vision of men in three piece suits giving speeches in Woodford Square and he knew with sudden clarity that he’d never go home, he’d never see any of those places again.

Published in Stories for Homes 2.

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