Paris Lit Up: the Trials of the ‘JC’

My Paris Lit Up debut, 20 October 2016.
My Paris Lit Up debut, 20 October 2016.

A few days ago, I made my second appearance at Paris Lit Up: a cool, slightly anarchic, gathering of poets, writers and assorted other creative types (mostly English-speaking ones) who spend Thursday evenings reading – or otherwise performing – to each other in a bar called Culture Rapide.

The first time I went, I read War, Blood Diamonds, and Now the Ebola Virus – a piece I wrote for the Greenbelt Festival’s website in 2014. This time round, I decided to share some more thoughts on the experiences of a Sierra Leonean living overseas. And so I wrote a piece specially for Paris Lit Up, which I titled the Trials of the JC. Here it is:

Weird things happen to a Sierra Leonean on re-entry after spending any amount of time in the First World. For starters, nobody seems to want to converse with you in the native languages any more. The number of times I’ve gone into a shop in Freetown, and ended up yelling at the shopkeeper – “Man, ah beg – talk Krio to me! PLEASE – NO MORE ENGLISH!!”

You walk along the street, minding your business, enjoying the heat, and you notice someone giving you a friendly smile. You smile back – I mean, it would be rude not to. So he says hello. “Yay! I’ve made a new friend!” you think to yourself. So you say hello back… and then he replies with: “Dollar or pounds?” They never say “Euro”. Missing a trick there, if you ask me…

Encounters like this happen every time you set foot out of your door. Eventually you realise what’s happened: You, my friend, have become a JC.

Yes – a JC. That’s the special name the locals in Sierra Leone have for me and my kind.

JC. Just Come. Just two letters, but they carry a lot of weight. To be fair, everyone from overseas who comes to Sierra Leone is a JC. But the word takes on a whole extra level of meaning when it’s applied to people like me. People who have Sierra Leone in our blood, but clearly haven’t lived here for a very long time – or maybe never lived here at all. Your JC status becomes apparent the moment you step off the plane at Lungi Airport. Now that I have a nice green passport – dual citizenship rocks – I don’t get the dirty looks at immigration any more. But I’m still expected to tip folks for smiling at me.

But the real fun begins when you hit the mainland and start to mingle. There was this one time my two uncles took me to a nightclub. They waited until we were seated round a table, a thousand watts of Afrobeats blasting in our ears, and then one of them pulled me to one side and said: “Oh, George – the rule here is that the JCs buy the drinks for the homebased.”

Ah, lovely. If your ‘homebased’ ass came to London, I’d consider you a guest and I’d buy drinks for you. Now you’re telling me that I’M the guest and I have to buy drinks for the host?!?

It always amazes me how quickly people can tell that you’re a JC. Alright, maybe we do give ourselves away when we get into a taxi and put the seatbelt on. And walking about supping from a bottle of Evian you just bought from a supermarket; nobody else does that. I can see that now. But even when you don’t do any of those things, the locals can still pick you out from a mile away. Them’s some mad skills there.

To be fair, those skills aren’t restricted to Sierra Leoneans. I can recall sitting on a beach in Gambia once, and having an unsolicited conversation with one of those fly guys who comb Gambia’s beaches looking for tourists to hook up with:

“So, you’re from England, yeah?”

“No, I’m from Sierra Leone.”

“Yes, but what part of England are you from?”


At first, I resented being called a JC. “How dare you!” I used to think. “How dare you belittle a huge, formative chunk of my life? I may not have been born here, but I came here as a child and left here as a man. I haven’t ‘just come’; this is my home too!”

I’m not sure I went through all seven stages of grief, but I can definitely say that I’ve moved on from anger and have arrived at acceptance. I now hold my head up and say my name is George, and I’m a JC. JC and proud.

But even though I accept that I’m a JC, I’m not buying the drinks when we go to a club. It’s the principle. I’m your guest, for God’s sake…


Film review: ‘the Quickener’

The time has comeBirmingham, Saturday 21 September, 8.10pm: My train home leaves in an hour, and I’ve decided to spend my last few minutes in our second city doing a brief review of the film I’ve just been to see in the Midlands Arts Centre. I find myself fired up, having spent an afternoon in a cinema full of very talented, slightly Bohemian people. They included Joel Wilson, director of the short film The Quickener (whose premiere is taking place here) and various members of the cast and crew.

Joel Wilson, the director
Joel Wilson, the director

The Quickener is one of those films that would leave people scratching their heads and muttering “Yeah… right” if you tried to explain it to them. It’s set in Medieval times, but the entire dialogue is done in a hip hop style. That’s right – Medieval hip hop. With a poor artisan couple on the run from a loan shark who speaks something akin to Parseltongue (for which he needs one of his heavies to act as his translator), corrupt officials, a power-hungry gangster and a friendly hermit, this is really an urban street movie with chain mail. And bubonic plague…

Osbert, a struggling artisan. Very good at sculpting scary statues. A bit broke.
Osbert, a struggling artisan. Very good at sculpting scary statues. A bit broke.

Joel got the idea for the film from another project he’d been

Tipharah, Osbert's missus. You don't want to mess with her when she has a sword in her hand...
Tipharah, Osbert’s missus. You don’t want to mess with her when she has a sword in her hand…

asked to work on. He’d written an epic poem about a gargoyle being decommissioned, so to speak, having lived on a church wall for about 600 years. Writing about the gargoyle’s last day on the wall, he wondered, What would its first day have been like? Cue a fantasy tale about a poor sculptor and his wife – who, having been commissioned to make the gargoyle, then being told on completion of the job (and a huge debt incurred in the process) their services were no longer required, and that they wouldn’t be getting paid for the job they’d done. It’s only half an hour long, but it’s a very fascinating half hour, full of passion, tension and quite a few dead bodies.

"Hiss, hiss, hiss" (translation: "We'll cut off your fingers")
“Hiss, hiss, hiss” (translation: “We’ll cut off your fingers”)

Me llamo Alvaro

(a work in progress)

“No hay que llorar, la vida es un carnaval…”

Ah, Celia Cruz – she was a legend. She sang that life is a carnival and so there’s no need to cry. Well, Celia, no se; I like your songs and all, but right now, my life isn’t a carnival. It should be, but it seems that you just can’t have one time when everything in your life is perfect. So although I’m supposed to be the happiest man in the world right now, I’m not. I’m not ungrateful; I’m just not 100% happy.

Anyway, I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Alvaro Montes, and I am a carpenter from Cali, in Colombia. I’m actually not really from Cali itself, but Cali is the biggest town closest to my village, and everybody knows it. You know; it’s like if you’re from Croydon, you’re not really from London but you are. But “the carpenter from Cali” has a nice ring when you say it, no?

I’m actually not really a carpenter either. I do do carpentry, but I’m more what you call a handyman. A very handy man! I can fix anything: furniture, electrics, your kitchen sink, your kid’s bike… anything. You just bring it.

I’ve been learning my trade ever since I was a muchacho. My tio Jose taught me. When I was small, Tio Jose was the handyman in our village. He could fix anything. I used to sit in his little workshop and watch him work. It was so much more fun than going to school. He could see how interested I was, and he would give me little things to take apart. “Nobody is allowed to sit idle in my shop,” he would say with a smile. “You want to sit in here, you fix something.” and he would throw me an electric plug and a screwdriver. I would take the plug apart and put it together again. From the plug we moved up to a toy car, and then a bicycle. I would take them apart, and then I would put them back together again. Sometimes I would even get all the parts in…

That was how I got my first cassette player. It was a battered Philips machine, flat and rectangular with five keys in front. It used to belong to my abuela, but she gave up on it when it stopped working. “It needs a belt,” Tio Jose said. “You could maybe improvise with a rubber band.” I took the toughest rubber band I could find, and just like that I had my first cassette machine. The sound was rubbish, but it was my machine.

It wasn’t only how to fix things that I learnt in Tio Jose’s workshop. This was also the place where I discovered my love for music. Tio Jose always had the radio on while he was working. He would sing along to every song that came on the radio. Always very loudly, always out of tune, and he always got the words wrong – especially with the English songs. For a very long time, I thought the Beatles were singing “Hey, Jew” because that was what Tio Jose used to sing. But his big love – our big love – was salsa. I already mentioned Celia Cruz. And she’s good, but my main man – my hero – is “El Malo”, Willie Colon.

Willie Colon’s music was my big love when I was younger. It taught me about politics; it taught me about life; it taught me all the other things that Tio Jose’s workshop didn’t teach me. But my biggest love of all was – is – la luz de mi vida, Luz.

I was a cheeky boy in school – always looking at the girls who were older than me. Luz was two years ahead of me in school, and she was very popular. All my classmates went to her quinceañera. She looked so beautiful in her white dress. I said to my friends, “The next time she wears a dress like that, it will be at our wedding.” Of course they all laughed at me. But guess who had the last laugh, eh?

To this day, I don’t know how I got Luz to marry me. But Dios mio, I’m glad she did. She kept me out of a lot of trouble when we were together. When I was 19, I had some problems with the Police. I was so angry – at them, at all the corruption going on, at all the people who were ruining our lovely country. I wanted to do something; to change it all. FARC started the year I was born. For a while, I was seriously looking to them as the answer to Colombia’s problems. Thank God Luz is cleverer than I am. Wise woman – she saw where I was headed and she stopped me before I got in too deep. Some of my old friends actually did join FARC; they never forgave me for not joining their revolution. But I trusted Luz and valued her opinion. She said, “stay away.” I did. She supported me when Tio Jose died and I took over his workshop.

We had two beautiful children. Clarita is the eldest; she looks so much like her mama, it’s unbelievable. But she has all my ways of thinking. Victor looks like me but thinks and acts just like his mama. It’s like Luz and I exchanged bodies, or something.

And just when everything was going well, it happened. Luz’s mother lived in another village miles away, and was very ill. We begged her to come and live with us, but she wanted her independence – which meant that every other week, Luz had to take a very long bus ride to go and see her. And then one day, she took the bus and we never saw her again. They say it crashed, but we never saw the wreck. Or any bodies. The driver, his assistant, all the passengers… no sign.

I knew immediately that I had to get away. As much as I love ‘Locombia’ and will always be a Cali boy, I couldn’t stay. In the years that I was building my business, my old ‘friends’ were moving up the FARC food chain – and those guys had long memories. Every business in the village pays FARC a ‘pension’; that’s just how it goes. But I was paying double what the other local businesses were paying. But as long as Luz was with me, I had the strength to stand up to the bullying. With her gone, that would only get worse. And so I gave away everything and brought what was left of mi familia with me to England: Clarita, Victor, my Mami and my hermana Sylvia. We arrived here the same week that Tony Blair became Prime Minister. I thought that was a sign: new life for me I n a country that was also having a new life. What could possibly go wrong?

I do love London. It’s a nice place. But if you’re not careful, London can turn you into the kind of person you don’t like. Everybody keeps to themselves. That’s hard to get used to when you’ve spent your whole life in a small village in a country where we’re all friendly. Back in Cali, I was always trying to solve other people’s problems. But after a year in Londres, I started to avoid people who might need my help. I didn’t even notice that I was doing it – until one hot afternoon when Victor and I were waiting for a bus on the Old Kent Road.

One good thing about having children is that when you start going bad, they can help bring you back to how you should be. If it had just been me on my own at the bus stop that afternoon, I would have just looked the other way the moment I saw that skinny black boy with the torn plastic bag crying bitterly. But l had to have Victor with me! He insisted that I ask the muchacho what he matter was. And so I did. And he told us – when he could stop crying – how his uncle had thrown him out of his house and he had no more family left to go to. And that was how this young African boy called Brima ended up becoming the newest member of our familia.

Thanks to Victor, I gained another son. He’s a good boy. But don’t tell him I said that; he’ll just try to use it to make me allow him to watch MTV. I like my music, but that boy is too small to be watching that channel!

Brima has been a great addition to our home. He reminds me of myself in so many ways, and my heart breaks for both our countries. Some truly great things have happened in my family’s life since Brima joined us… and then, just when everything seemed to be going great for all of us, all of a sudden the Police came to lour home and arrested Brima. They accused him of murdering his old boss at work. I know for a fact that he is innocent, because I was with him at the time they say killing happened – very, very far away. Where? Well, that’s a bit hard to explain…

And now this innocent man is in prison. They have set the bail so high, Victor’s grandchildren will still be paying it. But he is family, and so we’re committed to getting him out. “Todo para la familia,” as they say on that TV show Clarita likes to watch. Bailing him out will be hard – no, it’s impossible. But it’s the only real option I have that doesn’t involve me getting locked away myself.

So if you know half a million people whose doors need fixing, give them my mobile number, por favor

My Name is Braima

“Party like it’s 1999.”

Hmm, sounds like a plan. Yeah, I know everybody says that, but trust me – I for one will be glad to see the back of this year. And this decade. In fact, the whole century can jump off a bridge. Like I had to in order to save my life. Only without the surviving bit at the end of it.

Sorry – didn’t see you there. Been a bit preoccupied with my own thoughts. A bit too much for a 16-year-old, I’m told. But then, being a war orphan kind of forces you to grow up faster than one would like to. And then something big comes along and hits you, and you realise that you’ve only partly grown up…

But I digress again. Where are my manners? Hello – my name is Braima. Braima Sesay. Braima William Sesay. Please don’t ask how I ended up with William for a middle name; it’s kinda embarrassing. Let’s just say it involves a future King of England and leave it at that, shall we? You can probably tell from my accent that I’m not originally from round here. Actually, I’m not even sure what my accent sounds like now. There’s a bit of London in there, because this is now my home. The odd palabra might slip in, because I’ve kind of been adopted by some friendly Colombians. Long story – but as no-one can afford to bail me out right now, I think I’ve got enough time on my hands in here to share it with you…

So let’s rewind back a year or two – and go back to a little village just outside Makeni. That’s in Sierra Leone. You know, where Ryan Giggs’ granddad came from. In Africa. You didn’t know that? Actually, half of Sierra Leone’s population supports Man U, and I’m sure not all of them know that either. Sorry, floating off point again. Me – two years into secondary school; loving English a lot but loving Chinese films even more. I regularly kekked – sorry, I’m in England now; I mean I regularly bunked off school to go and see them. It was just what you did. If you had to choose between simple equations and Jackie Chan, who would you go for? Seriously!

I got my love of Chinese films from my father, I think. Well, I guess I must have. We never talked about them at first, but when he found out I was a fan, that was it. We had something we could bond over. Which was good because he’s from the other half of Sierra Leone’s population (the half that supports Arsenal). My dad worked in a bank. I think he would have liked me to do that too, but I’ve always wanted to be an engineer. Maybe I still will. My dad loved his palm wine; he loved his friends; he loved my mum, and he loved the BBC World Service. And like me, he loved Chinese films. I discovered my dad shared my love of Chinese films the day my mum caught me going to one when I should have been in school. Of course, kekking – sorry, force of habit. Bunking off – is a gamble. And I lost big time the first time I did it. I had to choose the day my mum decided to do a mid-week food shop in the market just next to the cinema! Woman dragged me home by my left ear. I do miss her…

When she wasn’t using my left earlobe as a pulling handle, my mum was the best. I suppose she was still the best even when she was – I mean, I shouldn’t have allowed myself to get caught, should I have? Fatmata, her name was. Shorter than me. So much so, that her arm hurt her more than my ear hurt me that day she dragged me home from the cinema. It wasn’t so much me walking with my head down as her walking with her arm up. It goes without saying that the first words she said to me after letting go of my ear were “Wait until your father gets home.” And I did, expecting a fate worse than death. I felt like a cockroach as I stood in the middle of our parlour while mum recounted the afternoon’s proceedings to my dad. Then she left the two of us alone in the parlour and went off to attend to some other business. Me and Dad alone in the parlour. “Tense” doesn’t even begin to describe it…

But to my surprise, the expected beatdown never came. Instead, my dad sat me down and asked me, “So who’s your favourite Chinese film actor?” I would have pinched myself – but as I could still feel the extended ear pinch inflicted on me by my mum, I knew I couldn’t be dreaming. Dad and I talked for ages about the Chinese films we’d seen; he told me about the old-school masters from the films he saw when he was my age: Wang Yu, Carter Wong, Sonny Chiba… and the master of them all – Bruce Lee. That day, he promised that we would both watch all Bruce Lee’s films together. And then – more out of husbandly duty than anything else – he said, “and don’t do that again.”

I’m not sure how my mum would have reacted if she knew that he hadn’t beaten me as she’d hoped he would. But I’m not mad at her. I can’t be; she’s my mum. Was my mum. She was lovely. You haven’t eaten ‘casada leaf’ until you’ve eaten it cooked by my mum. And she always cooked it in a pot the size of a bathtub because of the open door policy she and my dad had going on. Anyone could come in and eat. And somehow there was always enough, and even though times were hard the pot was never empty.

When I meet God – if I do – he’s going to have to explain why the nastiest things always happen to the best people. With a diagram. Actually, on second thoughts, I’ve seen enough graphic nastiness to last a lifetime, so I’ll pass on the diagram. But I definitely do want to ask him what kind of loving deity allows one’s home country to be overrun by vicious rebels who ransack whole villages, make people choose how much of their limbs they want chopped off, and then force children to watch their parents being murdered and their mothers being raped – just before carting them off to be stuffed full of drugs and sent off to inflict the same sort of nastiness on other innocent people.

That’s my story – well, part of it. The ‘rebels’ stuck a load of us kids in the back of a Land Rover – me and some of my friends from school and boys who were my neighbours. I have no idea where they were planning to take us to, but by the time we got to Lunsar, I knew I had to escape. So I waited until the Land Rover got to this rickety old bridge. And when it was halfway over the bridge, I jumped.

What happened next is kind of a blur now. Well, actually it isn’t – but I’ve decided that I’m going to write a book about my life when I do get out of here, so I can’t give away all the juicy bits just yet! But to summarise, I lived on the goodwill of strangers as I trekked all the way out of sierra Leone to Guinea, where I ended up in a refugee camp. Then by some very good fortune – or so I thought at the time – I managed to make contact with an uncle of mine in London. I came over here and lived with him for a while – and that brought a whole heap of its own problems. Long story short, Uncle threw me out of his house. And then so did another uncle. And another one. And another one. And just when I’d run out of uncles with homes for me to be ejected from, I bump into this kind, friendly Colombian man and his son. Their family gave me a home and I started to get back on my feet. Found a job in a fast-food restaurant. Got some college applications in. Bought a Man U shirt from a stall in East Street Market. Discovered it wasn’t genuine. Also discovered that Millwall fans don’t like it when you walk down Ilderton Road wearing a Man U shirt, real or fake. Rescued by an angel. Then I caught my total toe-rag of a manager unawares in the middle of making a very troubling phone call. Next thing I know, I’m being accused of having my finger in the till and I’m given the sack. And then Toe Rag Manager winds up dead, and the Police think I killed him.

Of course I didn’t do it. I wasn’t even in the country when it happened – oops, I’ve already said too much. I could tell you where I was when the murder took place, but if I did that, I might as well just go ahead and phone the men in white coats myself, and give them all the measurements they’d need for my padded cell. Yes, it is that unbelievable. But it’s all true.

So I reckon I’ll be in here for a while, unless some miracle happens…

Train Wreck (a Storypraxis)

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I recently joined the Storypraxis community. This was my first attempt at 10-minute story writing; the prompt was ‘train wreck’. I’ve slightly rewritten it since I posted it on the Storypraxis website – but only just.  

“Pull up a chair,” Anna yelled at Ed and Joe. “This one’s a classic.”

Joe grabbed a chair and joined Anna in front of the large computer screen. Sometimes he felt guilty that he actually got paid to watch people’s home videos—but not for long, because after all, a job is a job. His just happened to be with the company that made one of the nation’s most popular TV shows.

Funny! Funny! Funny! had been an instant hit when it first went on the air four years ago, and work for Joe, Ed and Anna was to sit through the hundreds of videos sent in by viewers, and decide which were worth sharing. A dream job for some; it had been for them when they started it, but the novelty of a skateboarding dog wears off after you’ve seen it two dozen times. Besides, there are only so many times you can watch someone fall over before it gets boring. So if Anna said a video was a classic, you knew you were getting some quality disaster – a train wreck, if you please…

The image on the screen was blurry at first, but gradually you started to make out a primary school auditorium coming into view. A miniature plastic married couple stood atop a ten-storey tower of Babel covered in yellowing icing, which took pride of place on the centre of a high table. As Joe, Ed and Anna watched, a man in a badly fitting beige suit muttered some words before handing his microphone over to another man in an even worse-fitting tuxedo.

The best man clearly hadn’t recovered from whatever it was that he, the groom and their mates had done for their stag night. His fly was open, part of his shirt sticking out of his trousers. He lurched, grabbed the mike… and kept going – all the way down to the floor. He got up, dusted himself and muttered “Is this thing on?” into the microphone.

“Ladies and er, er…” he began. “I flubbalubba, flubbbalubba… I mean… oh boy, I’m plastered! We’re all plastered! Man, what a night last night was! That stripper was off the hook!”

The look on the bride’s face was priceless. The look on her father’s face could have been classified as a weapon of mass destruction. Oblivious to either of them—or to his undone flies—the best man blabbered incoherently, his fist gripping the mike as if his life depended on it.

The groom was even more drunk than the best man, but even in that state he knew his marriage would be extremely short if any more details about their mad stag night became public. No amount of yelling would get the best man’s attention when he was in full alcohol-fuelled flow. He would have to get up, go over and shut the guy up himself. Unfortunately, in his haste to do so, the groom accidentally jerked on the tablecloth. Ed, Anna and Joe watched incredulously as the wedding cake tilted and descended – plastic toy married couple first – onto the best man’s head.

Anna jabbed the pause button on the remote control she was holding. “I think we’ve seen enough,” she choked, tears of laughter streaming down her face.

Blurry (a Storypraxis)

Storypraxis is a community creative writing experiment practicing daily creativity. Or to put that another way, it’s a website which aims to encourage people to do creative writing by getting them for ten minutes every day. Each day you’re given a prompt – it could be a word; it could be two words or a short phrase – and the idea is that you spend ten minutes writing a story based on that prompt.

I joined Storypraxis last week; the story below is based on yesterday’s prompt (the word “blurry”). Read on…

The grey blob framed by the square of thick white lines was completely nondescript, yet the six-foot giant of a man held on to it as if it were a Picasso. On the pew next to him sat an elderly lady who was just as fiercely protective of her equally nondescript cocktail of yellow, green and blue.

Everyone in the chapel had one in their hand – a Polaroid photograph that you knew was supposed to be of something, but just couldn’t make out what. These people had pretty much nothing in common except for one thing: at one time or other, they had been photographed by the occupant of the exquisite oak coffin that was about to be carried down the aisle out of the chapel.

Simon was only five when the accident that left him severely brain damaged happened. Every year he held on to after that had been a miracle – albeit one tinged with the worst kind of suspense as his family still expected the inevitable to happen at any time.

When he turned 11 and death showed no sign of making that visit, Simon’s mum and dad had a brainwave: why not encourage him to take up a hobby? Simon always seemed fascinated by cameras, and so – despite the fact that he suffered terribly from ‘the shakes’ – they bought him a Polaroid camera.

Simon took an instant liking to his new toy. Friends, family, neighbours and his sister’s classmates were all eager to encourage him in his new passion, despite the fact that his hands shook so much, all you could see in the resulting photographs was a blur.

When Outkast told the world to “shake it like a Polaroid picture”, this obviously wasn’t what they had in mind. But it really didn’t matter. Something about Simon’s Polaroids just grabbed your heart and refused to let go. Somehow, within the blurry mass of colour, you could sense the love pouring out from Simon’s heart to his subjects. The wedding pics that looked as if the bride and groom were standing in front of fairground mirrors; the close-up of Miss Frank, his sister’s history teacher, in which she appeared to have three eyes (six, if you took her varifocal glasses into account); the enormous blob of brown, orange and grey that was supposed to be Uncle Ted at the beach (the only way you could look at Uncle Ted in Speedos and not feel violently sick); the picture of Amma winning the 100 metres at her school sports day, which looked like she was breaking the sound barrier…

All these pictures and others took pride of place in different locations. Until this morning, Uncle Ted’s beach atrocity had been pinned to an office wall next to a potted plant that was dying a slow death by dehydration. Suki used hers as a bookmark and swore that it was the lucky charm responsible for her getting a first at uni. Pop into the Lucky House for a chicken chow mein and you’d see the entire Hau family (sort of) on either side of the giant-sized menu.

Simon’s four uncles took their positions by the coffin, and with military precision lifted it to shoulder height. At that very moment, a hand in the crowd shot up, holding a Polaroid high in salute. By the time the coffin had made it to the chapel door, the entire chapel was a sea of little white frames. The 500-Polaroid salute stayed aloft all the way to the cemetery.

My first premiere (and Happy New Year?)

It’s been a while, I know, since my last blog post. A whole three months, in fact. And I’m not even sure why I never got round to posting anything during the first quarter of 2010 – but the longer it got, the more I felt pressured to make my first blog post of the year a really good one. Pressure can do bad things to creativity (yeah, I know – sometimes it can do good things to it too). And then the first time I tried to write this particular post, Micro$oft Word decided that it would be really fun to kill it on my first save and leave no trace of its existence (I’m rewriting it with Open Office now, if you’re interested).

Anyway, I’m back now – and I’d like to use my first blog post of the year to congratulate an old friend on two major milestones.

I’ve known Shabazz Graham for over a decade. A friend introduced me to him years ago when he was a comic illustrator and I was just starting out in this writing game. The first time I realised that important people read the stuff I wrote was when I did a piece about Shabazz’s comics for the now defunct Christian Herald newspaper – and received a phone call from Radio 4, asking me to put them in touch with him (even before I’d seen the piece in print myself!). When he had a go at being a rapper, I wrote about his music for some music mag (can’t remember which; there’ve been a few in my career). And when he started to work on his dream of being a filmmaker, I wrote about that a couple of times too.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in BAFTA for the premiere of Malachi – Shabazz’s directorial debut. It was my first premiere (I’ve done loads of previews; that’s part of the job. Premieres – that’s the pretty people’s department). I absolutely loved the short film about a young Sickle Cell Anaemia sufferer who gets a bit more than he bargained for when he uses his camcorder to capture the good things in life.

Malachi was shot very close to where I live, so it felt familiar in a way films don’t normally do. The daughter of an old friend of mine has a small role in it. Luke Carradine’s score was excellent. And in the film says more about love and relationships in half an hour than your average telly soap does in years.

Master storyteller that Shabazz is, even his film premiere had an unexpected twist. We saw the film, the cast and crew came up onstage and talked about the experience, and then Shabazz called out a few people he wanted to thank and give small gifts to in appreciation for their work on the film. Last on the list was Oliveene Whittaker, who had taken photographs on set – and who also just happens to be Shabazz’s girlfriend. She went up to collect her gift and next thing we know, our man’s on one knee in front of her! Yes – he went there… and she said yes!

There’s not much more I can say, really. Shabazz, my boy, I wish you Palme d’Ors, Oscars, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes by the shedload. But above all, I wish you and Oliveene an extremely joy-filled marriage.


Captain Birdseye, the Green Cross man and the Scotch Videocassette skeleton pulled up a chair each at the large oak table in the middle of the common room. The Green Cross man sorted out the chips; the skeleton opened a pack of cards and began to shuffle them.

“Hey, Hartley – you in?” said the skeleton to the old man sitting at the opposite side of the table to his. JR Hartley looked up from his copy of the Sunday Telegraph.
“Sorry – not today, old chap,” he replied, sadly. “I’m a bit skint. But if you could loan me some cash to play with, I’d be delighted to join you.”
“Skint?” said the Green Cross man. “Have you been taken to the cleaners again? I keep telling you – stay away from the Bear Enclosure! Those two will bleed you dry if you let them!”

‘The Bear Enclosure’ was the residents’ nickname for the corner of the common room where the pool table stood. Long ago, that would have been the spot where you’d find the old boys gathered on afternoons like this; flexing their cues, enjoying a pint and friendly banter. That is, until the bears arrived at the home. Cresta and Hoffmeister were the biggest pool hustlers known to man. Before long, the pool table became their turf. It wasn’t that other people weren’t allowed there (in fact, as far as they were concerned, the more mugs, the merrier); it was just that playing pool with those two was the quickest guaranteed way to lose all your money. Everyone was convinced that they cheated, but so far nobody had been able to prove it. Needless to say, both bears were barred from the old boys’ Sunday poker games.

JR Hartley blushed slightly. “Okay, so I lost a couple of games to the bears,” he said. “It’s really no big deal.”
“A couple?” Captain Birdseye quipped. “More like a dozen!”
“What you guys don’t get,” said JR Hartley defensively, “Is that this is just part of my strategy. I’m playing a long game here. As any good fisherman will tell you, patience is as essential in pool as it is in fly-fishing. I’m just letting the bears think they’re outsmarting me. I lose a few more games, they grow over-confident and let their guard down – and that’s when…”
“…you lose your shirt to them?” Captain Birdseye interjected.
“I give up,” JR Hartley sighed. “It’s pointless explaining it to you.”
“Oh, don’t take life so seriously!” said the skeleton. “And anyway, we’re not playing for money today. We’re playing for Werther’s Originals.”
“Lemme guess – his grandson’s been visiting again, has he?” Captain Birdseye said, waving at the elderly man in the far corner of the room.
“Well, at least his offspring care about him,” the skeleton snorted. “Look at our French friend over there. Poor sod hasn’t seen his daughter since she dumped him here last year.”
“Ah yes, Nicole,” said Captain Birdseye, not even bothering to hide the lust in his voice. “She was fit. I so would!”
“Birdseye, you’re a perv,” said the Green Cross man. “I honestly don’t know what all those parents were thinking, leaving their kids unattended with you.”
“You can talk!” Captain Birdseye spat back. “What were your lot thinking? One minute, ‘Kids – don’t talk to strangers!’ Then the next minute, ‘Kids – let this strange man with green leggings on help you cross the road!’ Talk about your mixed messages!”
“Oi! Children! Break it up!” said the skeleton. “Let’s play some poker! Hartley – you speak the lingo; ask him to join us, will you? I hate seeing him on his own, so depressed.”
JR Hartley turned round. “PAPA!” he shouted across the room. “MON ARMY! VOO-LAY-VOO JEW-EY LE POKER?’
“Mais oui!
” Papa replied, and headed towards the table.

“You know,” the Green Cross man said as he gathered up the chips he’d just won, “we’ve got some really good players in this little group of ours. If we went on one of those poker leagues on telly, we’d do really well.”
“Oh no, not that again,” said Captain Birdseye. “You say this every time we play. Be honest: this isn’t about wanting to play poker on TV. You know we’re nowhere near that good. You just want to be back on telly again!”
“Well maybe I do. What’s so wrong about that?”
“Look, I know you miss it; we all do. But face it, those days are over!”
“But who says they’re over?” JR Hartley chipped in. “I think Greeny has a point. Oldies come back all the time.”
“Exactly!” the Green Cross man said, happy for the support. “All I’m saying is, it’s possible. Look at Vera Lynn. She’s in the charts again, and she’s what – 150?”
“Well, it might happen again for you lot,” said the skeleton, “but I’m stuffed. People still eat fish fingers; they’ll still need to find a plumber’s phone number every now and then – but NOBODY USES VIDEOCASSETTES ANYMORE! I used to tell people that they could re-record on their videocassettes for 25 up to years. Boy did we get that wrong! Now it’s all DVD this and Blu-Ray that! Blu-Ray my bony…”
“Calm down, calm down!” said Captain Birdseye, doing his best Michael Winner impression (which, in reality, sounded more like Jimmy Saville). “Don’t get your ribs in a twist! They could bring you back for something else, like they did with that monk-”
“Shhhh!” the Green Cross man whispered, jabbing him in the ribs. “Don’t say the M-word when they’re in the room!” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the table to the left of theirs, where the PG Tips chimps were having their afternoon tea.
“Oh. Still a sore point, is it?”
“Thing is,” said JR Hartley, “The new talent’s really not up to much. You’ve got that panda who can’t even pronounce ‘biscuits’ properly. He’s dodgy, that one. I swear he makes those two look like amateurs.” He motioned towards the Bear Enclosure. “And as for that bloody bulldog – do I want to grab him by the neck and strangle him until he’s dead? Oh, yes!”
“The meerkat’s good, though,” said the skeleton.
“Hear, hear,” Captain Birdseye nodded. “Class act, that meerkat. Simples.”

Over on the other table, the chimps were having a similar conversation.

“Those Cadbury’s people need a slap,” Dad said angrily. “Anyone can tell that’s just a human in a gorilla suit. I mean, come on – he’s playing a Phil Collins song! PHIL COLLINS!! No self-respecting primate likes Phil Collins!”
“Speak for yourself!” Mum replied. “He’s made some good tunes in his time. Besides, I love that gorilla; he’s a real hunk! Top totty! And anyway, his drumming’s much better than your piano playing!”
“Ha ha! Got you there, dad!” one of the younger chimps chimed in.
“Shut it, you cheeky monkey!” Dad retorted.

Afternoon turned to evening, and as darkness drew in outside, the nurse arrived to give the Smash robots their nightly dose of WD-40. All the old boys fancied the nurse. It wasn’t hard to see why; she was delicate, serene and stunningly beautiful. It was just the taser gun she always carried in case Tango Man tried something stupid that shattered the ‘perfect angel’ illusion.

“I swear I know her from somewhere,” Captain Birdseye said.
“You say that every day,” said the Green Cross man.
“I just can’t place her. But it’ll come to me.” Captain Birdseye paused and racked his brains.

“Eureka!” he half-shouted. “The penny’s dropped. I know where I remember her from!”
“Come on, then!” said JR Hartley. “Tell us!”
“Here – watch this,” said Captain Birdseye. “Hey – Nurse?”
The nurse turned. “What can I do for you, Captain?”
Captain Birdseye reached into his pocket and pulled out a yellow packet. “Oh, nothing,” he replied. “I just wondered if you’d fancy a Flake.”

© George Luke, 2009

The Shed

THE SHED (A parody – well, sort of)

Muck stirred in bed, semi-awake as Morrissey’s voice whined Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now on the radio.

Half of him felt cheated that God had chosen half term to cover Camberwell in two feet of snow; the other half was just glad to have a break from the torture school had become. Either way, he had the whole house to himself today and was determined to spend it doing as little as possible.

The shower was quick and breakfast suitably unhealthy, as befitting a 14-year-old with free rein of the house. Muck entered the front room and was about to settle down in front of the telly when the plop-plop-plop of letters landing on the doormat signalled the postman’s arrival. He went to pick them up. In amongst the gas and phone bills was a blue envelope with his name on it. No stamp; no postmark; no return address; just his name.

Muck ripped the envelope open. Out fell a page torn from a ring-bound notebook, with handwriting that looked like a spider had tried to mark out its territory on the page.

“We need to talk. Meet me behind the bike shed. Signed, Your Daddy.”

Your Daddy. Muck had heard those words several times recently, always accompanied by something painful: a punch, a slap, a kick, the sound of his Musical Youth cassette being smashed to pieces… “Who’s your daddy?” was the Ladykiller’s catchphrase; taunting his victims with it seemed to enhance whatever twisted pleasure he derived from bullying.

Your Daddy. The words brought a bad taste to Muck’s mouth as they brought back memories of the worst day of his life. Sissy was a year behind him in school, but ever since the day he first saw her, he’d had a massive crush. When she agreed to go and see Return of the Jedi with him, he’d walked on a cloud all week. Ever since then, they’d been inseparable. School discos were heaven. And then came the Ladykiller.

“If you like a girl and he looks at her, forget it,” Muck’s best mate Billy said to him during Double Maths one Tuesday afternoon. Sure enough, Muck became the Ladykiller’s prime target. For a while, he toughed it out… until that Friday afternoon when he saw – through two black eyes – his beloved Sissy disappearing behind the bike shed hand-in-hand with his nemesis. The Great Misery descended upon Muck like a ton of bricks that day. It had hung around like a bad smell ever since.

But sending cryptic notes wasn’t the Ladykiller’s style. He was more your bog-standard, give-you-a-wedgie-then-knock-your-books-into-a-puddle type of bully. Not the kind who went in for psychological warfare – mainly because he didn’t believe in doing stuff he couldn’t spell.

Well, there’s only one way to find out what this is about, Muck reasoned with his saner side. All right then, commonsense replied resignedly. Off to the bike shed it is. But have a word with Billy first, and see if he knows anything about this. Billy’s house was on Muck’s route to school, just a five-minute bike ride away. It can’t hurt to show it to him, Muck thought. He might even know who wrote it.

“I haven’t a clue whose writing this is,” Billy said after examining the note. “And I really don’t think you should go.”
“I know,” Muck replied. “But I have to find out what this is all about.”
“Just be careful, mate.”

Billy disappeared for a few minutes. When he came back into the room, he had a shiny H-shaped object in his hand.

“Here,” he said. “My Dad uses this for DIY. Says it’s better than a hammer. It fires staples. If anyone tries anything, you can really hurt them with it.”

Muck took the staple gun hesitantly, and put it in his jacket pocket. “Cheers, Billy,” he said. “Sure you don’t want to come?”
“No, thanks. You be careful.”

Denmark Hill was a tough cycle, even without so much snow on the ground. Muck wheezed his way past King’s College Hospital, thinking how handy it was to have a Casualty department within spitting distance if he and his bike ended up under a bus. The way his wheels were slipping, that seemed extremely likely.

Eventually, Muck gave up trying to cycle and pushed the BMX the rest of the way to the schoolyard. Even when deserted, the place gave off bad vibes. Muck approached the bike shed with trepidation, wondering exactly how much real damage a staple gun could do at close quarters.

What the-?

It wasn’t a sound or a sight that had triggered Muck’s surprise; it was the sudden change in temperature of the air hitting the back of his neck. In a split second, it had morphed from an arctic wind into a pleasantly warm summer breeze. As he turned to look round, he noticed the place getting brighter. The snow under his feet melted quickly and disappeared. Young flower saplings burst through the already green grass. Suddenly it was summer in a tiny corner of south London, with Muck the only witness to it.

As the weather changed, the forbidding presence of the bike shed also appeared to be going through a transformation of its own, into a welcoming house with double-glazed windows and stone cladding on the front wall. It looked just like Muck’s grandmother’s house. Nan’s house had become a refuge for Muck since the Ladykiller’s terror campaign began. It was the one place he could escape to and just be… loved. But why was he imagining Nan’s house in the middle of school… and in the one place he’d come to hate so much?

The house’s front door creaked slightly ajar. Muck could hear raucous, warm laughter from within. “Here goes nothing,” he muttered under his breath as he ventured up the steps and pushed the door open. As he stepped in, a very loud Nigerian accent boomed out.

“Well, you took your time!”

Muck turned in the voice’s direction and found his eyes level with a massive bosom adorned in the most flowery fabric he’d ever seen. He tilted his head slowly upwards, taking in the sight of an enormous black woman in a voluminous flowing print dress.

Any minute now, he thought to himself, she’s going to whip out an umbrella and start singing ‘It’s Raining Men’.

“So glad you could join us.” Two other people had entered the front room to form a welcoming party for their shell-shocked guest. “This,” the woman said, motioning to the tall Latino man on her right hand side, “is Jesus. And over here…” pointing to the Oriental-looking woman on her left, “…we have Soraya.”

“And you are…?” Muck asked.
“Well, most people call me God – although that’s actually all three of us. I prefer Pops myself.”

Hmmm. The temperature outside just went from 0 to 60 in three seconds; the school’s bike shed has turned into my Nan’s house, and I’m inside it with a Puerto Rican bloke called Jesus, some strange Chinese bird and a fat African woman who says she’s God. That’s it – I am officially mental.

“What – you’re God?” Muck spluttered. “That’s impossible!”
“How so?” said Pops. “It’s the dress, isn’t it? Humans! You have no problems with men in frocks claiming to be my representatives on earth. But when I rock one myself, your minds can’t handle it!”
“No, it’s not the dress. It’s… it’s…”
“Is it cos I is black?”
“Er… um…”
“It is! The idea of me being – how can I put this – non-Caucasian – disturbs you! I blame George Burns for this. I can’t wait until Morgan has his turn!”
“Who’s Morgan? Have his turn at what?”
“Oh, you’ll find out soon enough.”

If the few occasions Muck had been to Sunday School had taught him anything, it was that the Wrath of God wasn’t the sort of event you wanted a front-row seat for. He decided humouring Pops might be the safest option all round.

“Don’t humour me,” said Pops.
Oh, sh-
“And don’t even think of swearing!”
“I – I – I’m sorry,” Muck managed to spit out. “I’m just not that used to God inviting me to hang out with her-him-them… I mean you. And certainly not in a bike shed.”
“Why wouldn’t I, child? What parent doesn’t want to spend some time with his boy?”

Something inside Muck snapped.

“No offence, but if you’re God and I’m ‘your boy’, why is my life so rubbish? What kind of mother – father – whatever you are – lets ‘their boy’ get all the crap I’ve been having? My life’s bloody awful!Yeah – I said ‘bloody’! Are you going to strike me with lightning?”
Pops hardly broke a sweat.
“No, son. But calm down. That’s exactly what we’re here to talk to you about.”
“Go on, then,” Muck said calmly.

Pops paused. Soraya put a reassuring arm on Muck’s shoulder and sat down with him, facing Pops. Jesus, who had briefly popped out of the room, came back in and took a seat on the sofa next to Muck and Soraya. Pops started to speak.

“Look, son. I know things have been rough for you. I hate it as much as you do, but that’s just what happens in a fallen world. But trust me, it won’t always be like this. It will get better. And all of us here are looking out for you – even if it doesn’t always feel that way.”
“And what about Sissy? What do I do about her?”
“You’ll get over her. I know it hurts now, Muck. But being dumped isn’t the end of the world. There will be other girls – girls who won’t leave you for the first thug who comes along. You’ve got a great future ahead of you – not just relationships, but every area of your life. See those computers you love playing with so much? The other kids give you so much stick about it now, but all the knowledge you’ve gained about them will be worth gold dust in the 90s. The meek – the geeks, if you like – will inherit the earth. I said it, and what I say goes.”
“And the Ladykiller?”
“Well, I don’t want to give too much of the future away. But let’s just say that next summer, he’s going to choose the wrong boy to pick on. Rajesh might be short and skinny and wears glasses, but he’s also his school’s junior kickboxing champion.”
Muck stifled a laugh.
“Don’t push it, lad. He may be the one making your life a misery, but vengeance is still mine.”

A loud ‘ding’ from the kitchen signalled that dinner was ready, and the four of them went into the dining room. Dinner was hot, delicious and loud. Muck had heard it said that God had a sense of humour. But now he was witnessing it up front over rice and peas and a wicked curry, topped with a tall glass of Um Bongo.

When dinner was over, Muck stood up to say his goodbyes, unable to stop the smile taking over his face. The Great Misery was still hovering away in the back of his mind. But its power was now considerably diminished. The fog was clearing, and Muck could sense it.

He turned round for one last look at his three new friends before setting off for home. Jesus threw an air high-five and shouted “Siempre contigo, hermano.” Soraya smiled and gave him a hug. Pops stood tall, arms akimbo, and flashed him a broad grin and a wink. Her warm voice boomed out again.

“Muck, we’ll always have your back. Never forget who your daddy really is.”

© George Luke, 2008.