Not many alleys in America survived the urban renewal of the 60s and 70s, because most cities eradicated these curious traces of Indian trails and cowpaths as a danger to the public safety.
Liberty Place used to be Little Green Street, Coenties Lane ran to the East River, and the infamous Mudd Club was located at the T-intersection of Courtlandt Alley and White Street. Muggers hung out in the shadows of the dark alley leading to Canal Street. Ripping off drunks reeling out of the club was a good business in those years.
Last year in London the ambassador and I attended a poetry reading at a long-standing pub on the Harrow Road.
Twenty years earlier at the establishment I had witnessed a fistfight evolve into a bloodbath at the ground-floor bar.
Now the pub served French food accompanied by four quid pints and the only broken noses in the place came from corrective surgery.
I kept my observations to myself, for younger people cringed upon hearing the words ‘used to‘ from older gits.
At the intermission friends from Cornwall called with an invitation for a late dinner at The Cow.
The ambassador understood my departure. I hadn’t been in London for over ten years.
“You want to join me?” It was a polite offer.
“No, you have a good time.” Alysa dismissed me with a whisper. Her eclectic friend was MCing the evening in a black and gold Elvis suit.
I caught a bus to Westbourne Grove Park and walked up All Saints Road on which thirty years earlier Jamaican reefer dealers operated a gauntlet of illegal free enterprises.
This wintry evening I was the only person on the sidewalk. Bad neighborhoods throughout the Smoke had been improved by the real estate frenzy ethnic-cleansing. Volvos, BMWs, and Land-Rovers were parked by the curb and even more telling was that these high-end vehicles wore all four tires.
I cut through a basketball court to a housing estate.
Westbourne Park Grove was on the other side.
Fourteen years ago my flight from New York had landed in London on the morning of Princess Diana’s funeral cortege. The mourning city was neutron bomb quiet. I took a taxi from Nottinghill Gate to Shrewsbury Mews on which Sam Royalle owed a duplex. The bar owner and his French girlfiend were paying their respects to the woman who could have been Queen. It was a sunny day and I sat the steps of the closed Domino Pizza shop to wait for Sam.
Forty minutes later a van stopped in front of the Mews. The back door popped open and three short-haired black men jumped onto the pavement. They wore bright red training suits and brand-new sneakers. The baseball bats in their hands were aluminum. The one with the newest suit was their leader and I knew what the first words out of his mouth would be before he even moved his lips.
“You know a Sam Royalle?” His stance was a threatening provocation.
“Who?” Playing dumb was a gift.
I shook my head.
His back-up surveyed the street for witnesses.
This scene from a post-apocalypse movie had four characters and I was no extra.
“What you doing here?”
Waiting for pizza, then I’m off to Ireland.” It was always better to tell the truth. I had rented a house west of Galway for the autumn. My deceased mother had told me to find a woman like my sisters or aunts and I had been brought up to obey her every wish.
“Reggie isn’t interested in your holiday plans.” The fat boy on the right weighted close to twenty stone, which was a linebacker’s 280 in America. “He asked you a question.”
“And I told you I was going to Ireland.”
Even yardies had picked up the prejudice against the Irish from their English schoolmates.
The fat boy hefted his bat.
“Ireland’s the Jamaica of Europe. Where you think they learned how to make people slaves? Nowhere, but the land of the leprechauns.” I tried to say it like I had been brought up in South Boston instead of a trolley car suburb south of the Neponset River.
My comment earned a laugh from Reggie and he released one hand from the bat. The metal end clonked on the sidewalk.
“Heel, Bunny.” Reggie was a natural with authority and his relaxed pose transformed him into a Little League dad. He had kids somewhere.
“You’re a lucky man.”
New Yorkers have a low regard of the toughness of other cities. It’s a good thing that they don’t travel too much. The rest of the world would come as a big surprise.
“And so are you.” I turned my head.
The mourning city was coming back to life.
A police car was prowling the street.
Bunny, Reggie, and bats were the something wrong in the picture.
The cruiser slowed down to a crawl.
Three blacks bracing a white man in a leather jacket was a clear and present trouble.
I waved to the cops.
My smile kept them going in the direction of The Cow.
Reggie clicked his fingers for his boys to get back in the van.
“Good you didn’t say nothing to the coppers.” No one in England called the police Bobbies anymore.
“I’m not snitch.”
“We call them grass.”
“I’m not a fucking Brit.”
“You see Sam. You tell him Reggie is looking for him.”
“I don’t know any Sam.”
“Everyone knows a Sam.”
“Like I said. I’m going to Ireland.” When was none of his business.
“Make sure you do that.” Reggie had redeemed my one-off go-free card. “Have a good time in Ireland.”
I didn’t bother to say good-bye.
Sam showed up an hour later. His sexy French girlfriend had red-rimmed eyes. Love for Diana was not a monopoly of the British. She felt the pain too. After entering the duplex I told Sam about Reggie.
“Did Reggie look mad?” Sam doubled-locked the front door. He had bought the Mews house a year ago for 400K. His renovation had brought up the value to over 600K.
“Mad would be an understatement.” I threw my bags in the downstairs bedroom and pulled the drapes.
“Did he say he was coming back.” Sam was short, but muscular. His facial bruises hadn’t come from an argument about shaving cream.
“No, but I’d bet the house on a repeat appearance.” I had planned to stay with Sam for a few days before traveling to France. He was selling it at month’s end. My father and I were touring the Loire Valley by car. He was meeting him in Paris in a few more days.
“It’s all a misunderstanding.” He went through his house securing the windows. His family were good people from Luton. Their only son tried to stay out trouble, however the twenty-seven year-old wasn’t very good at playing the saint when the devil had a better playlist.
“Better that than a case of mistaken identification.” The innocent have a funny looking guilty to the guiltier.
“Someone contacted me about a bank wire transfer.” The stone walls were stout enough to withstand a point-blank shot from a 45.
“I want to know nothing.” Ignorance was the best refuge of the uninvolved.
“I did nothing.” Sam was scared of the Jamaica crew with good reason. Reggie didn’t play games.
“Never say that in front of a judge.” Everyone was a criminal in the blind eyes of justice.
His girlfiend was upstairs smoking cigarettes. French girls were experts at killing time with a pack of ‘clubs’. Sam pulled two beers out of the refrigerator.
“Have you tried talking to them?”
“There is no talking with these people.”
Sam explained the situation, despite my protestations.
Reggie had contacted him for a job. Someone’s aunt worked in the office of a bank’s wire transfer section. Sam had opened an off-shore account for Reggie. The aunt had sent 180,000 quid, which never arrived to its destination. Reggie had accused Sam of ripping him off. He wanted his money.
“I told him that I didn’t have it. His posse showed up at my bar with shotguns. A big fat one shut the car door on my head.”
“Bunny.” The big man liked his job.
“That’s the one.” Sam rubbed his face in appreciation that he still possessed a nose.
“A piece of work.” Big boys like Bunny had two options in Brixton.
Bullied or bully and Bunny had voted for the latter at an early age.
“Reggie told me to sell my house on the Mews and give them the money. I didn’t do nothing.”
“I believe you.” At least 50%. “But getting involved with Reggie and his crew was a questionable career move.
“180K is what I’d make on the sale of the house.”
“That’s not a coincidence.” Sam acted as if he was being set up, but the Rastas were convinced that he was lying through his teeth. “You’re fucked if you stick around here.”
“What are my options?”
There was one plan A.
“I’ll meeting my father in Paris tomorrow.” He liked taking trips with me. I reminded him of my mother. She had been dead for a year. “Best you come with me.”
“Sounds good to me.”
That evening we walked over to Kensington Park. Sad Londoners were offering flowers and stuffed animals before Diana’s palace. The condolence rose waist-deep. Sam and I laid a wreath atop the pile. It was buried within seconds.
My younger brother’s name was Michael. He had succumbed to AIDS two years before. Princess Diana supported gays. She was my princess too and I dropped my head to hide my tears.
The following day Sam wisely did a runner to France. His girlfriend stayed behind at the flat. She wasn’t scared of Reggie and that said set-up.
The next week Sam and I drove through the Loire Valley with my father. We drank wine and toured castles. Sam called Reggie every time we stopped for gas. When he came back to the car, Sam shook in his seat. Reggie was not the type to make empty threats.
“Your friend having girl troubles?” My father had a pension from the phone company. He liked people using the phone.
“Something like that.”
“They can be a problem.” My father came for Maine. People from Downeast refrained from any involvement in other people’s lives. One night in St. Malo after my father went to his room, I asked Sam, “You have money?”
“Enough to stay away from London and I’ll be set for a long time once I sell the house, yes.” His sister was handling the sale. She worked for Scotland Yard.
“Then I suggest you get on a plane to Thailand.” I spent most of the 90s in the Orient. Thailand was the easy place for a foreigner to live in South East Asia. The food was good and the women were easy, plus Bangkok had another thing going for it. “I haven’t seen any Brixton rastas out there.”
“Then that’s where I’m going. What about you?”
“I’m heading to Ireland. You could join me.”
“Too close to London.”
A week later I dropped the two of them at Charles De Gaulle aeroport. My father returned to Boston and Sam flew to Thailand.
Bangkok was a good city to hide from Brixton gangsters. The Thais were short and he could see Bunny coming from a mile away on Sukhumvit.
“Good luck and stay at the Hotel Malaysia.” Room 203 was my home away from home. It overlooked the swimming pool. Nothing really bad ever happened there.
“Thanks for the advice.”
We shook hands and he threw me his keys.
“Anything that fits is yours, but keep an eye out for any suspicious Jamaicans.”
The warning was well taken, even though Nottinghill Gate was known for suspicious Jamaicans and whiteys too. Sam had a leather jacket from Agnes B that was my size. I risked the danger for the fashion and stopped in London on my way to Ireland.
Across from the cul-de-sac was a grocer. I stood at the door for thirty minutes. He asked, if I was going to pay rent. I bought a bag of ginger snaps. My purchase shut him up.
After thirty minutes I decided that it was safe. I crossed Westbourne Grove and entered Sam’s apartment without turning on the lights. Everything was there. The yardies hadn’t broken into the place. I pulled the leather jacket from the closet ready to leave.
The motion detection lights illuminated in the alley. Someone had followed me. I ducked under a table.
Knocks sounded on the door. I did not answer them.
My blood pounded out a bongo beat like the heart in Edgar Allen Poe’s TELL-TALE HEART. I heard voices accented from Trenchtown. The shadows were not black enough to camouflage my white skin.
The high windows was crowded with the silhouette of heads. A heavy thud rocked the front door. It did not give way.
Several minutes later the light in the alley went out.
I waited a half-hour before exiting from the house.
No one was in the mews. No one confronted me on Westbourne Grove. I had the jacket in my hand. The leather was soft as a baby seal.
I walked out of the alley and down to the Cow. A few friends were having dinner.
“Nice jacket,” one of them said feeling the leather.
“I picked it up in a dark alley.” I didn’t tell them where.
“A little.” I downed my wine in one gulp.
My hands shook even after the second glass of wine. I was steady an hour later. In the morning I flew to Dublin.
Ten years later I stood at the end of Shrewsbury Mews. The Domino Pizza was serving take-out and the light shone in the short alley. I walked down to Sam’s old house. The door was still the same color.
There were no lights lit and I took a photo for Sam.
He lives in Thailand.
I continued over to The Cow, feeling safe.
Reggie was probably over with an ever-bigger family in Brixton, but on Westbourne Park Grove I scanned the neighborhood, because some dark alleys aren’t so bad as long as you don’t walk into them when they are dark. Fear is 90% lighting. The other 10% is anticipation of the unexpected and dark alley were made for a man like Bunny, for he was bigger than life and life is bigger than us all.