My name’s Kurt.
It’s actually Courtney Lemar Delmont Learner, but Kurt has got me by since I was a kid. The Lemar and Delmont part was once a source of great humour to some and a genuine threat to my street cred but Cass, Kevin and Winston stopped laughing when we were about twelve so I’m relaxed in their company.
Rightly or wrongly, though, they think I’m good with words, but it was Roger, Gordon, and Willie who suggested I was the one to write this. We’d gathered in Gordon’s old garage tucked down the back alley off Park Road and, for a while, all we did was sit and listen to these three old codgers debating whether we were up to writing something whilst they drank mugs of tepid milky tea.
“It’s finished. Nothing to do with us anymore,” Gordon said in a deliberately loud whisper. “Let these young ‘uns get on with it.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Roger whispered back. “But are we sure we can trust them not to downplay our roles?”
“That’s the big question,” Willie said. “They think we’re just too old, past our sell-by date, and no longer able to think straight.”
Roger shrugged. “They’re all the same at that age. Think they know it all but underneath…well, you know.”
“Can they even read and write?” Gordon asked.
“There’s no harm in giving them a chance, I suppose,” said Willie.
We thanked them for the trust they’d bestowed on us and told them we’d head to the Queen’s Head pub to discuss it because we hated cold, milky tea.
Now anything that’s said about the Queen’s Head must take the form of an apology for Queen Victoria. If she knew her shabby portrait now hung, squeaking on a rusting bracket over the door, I’m sure she’d turn in her grave.
Perhaps it was a good thing that the Queen’s Head would soon close. Even Gabby, the Polish guy who owned it, had failed to make a profit on this sad, dilapidated shell of Victorian history that still smelled of the thousands of cigarettes smoked there before the ban was imposed. But it was a good-enough for us, and if what we spent on a few cans of lager helped pay for Gabby’s removal van, then we reckoned we’d done our bit towards helping a man when he was down.
All five of us were there that night.
Four of us - Cass, Kevin, Winston and I - had been at school together so we’d known one another for years. Walid was the exception. Walid had arrived from Syria about a year ago, had been looking for somewhere cheap to stay, passed through London and made the terrible mistake of taking my advice to check out the area around Park Road. I reckoned he’d have moved on already if it hadn’t been for Gordon offering him a job in his garage.
We found a corner table with a wooden table, hard-backed benches and even harder seats and tried to look cool. Why we needed to look cool, I don’t know because the Queen’s Head was not the place where anyone younger than fifty would go to be checked out.
“You can do it, Kurt,” they said as we discussed who would write what Roger had called a final report.
“Yeh, well, talking comes easy enough,” I said. “It’s putting stuff down on paper that’s the problem.”
We argued about it for a while. “But you’re the literary genius, Kurt,” Cass said “You even beat that Chinese guy from the Golden Gate takeaway who reckoned he spoke English like the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles. Remember him? Fu Manchu?”
“Plus, you always had more style than Fu, Kurt,” Kevin said.
“And a nice turn of phrase,” Winston said.
“And a much cooler haircut,” Cass added.
I agreed wholeheartedly with these observations and in the end, said, “Yeh, OK, then. I admit to my superior intellect. It’s my ethnicity. Intelligence flows through my veins. It’s in my African genes.”
I told them my vocabulary had improved exponentially after I’d moved from the cess pit around Park Road to Edmonton, North London.
“You should visit Edmonton some time,” I said. “It’s light years ahead of Park Road. It’s so much more culturally and ethnically diverse. We even allow Jews, Aussies, white South Africans, and Mormons in. And there’s a whole street for those who still haven’t worked out who they are or where they come from. And as a change from attending the Park Street Mosque, you could always try the Ministry of Mountain, Fire, and Miracles run by Pastor Jerry.”
To further illustrate my claim of North London’s diversity, I told them about a guy from Vanuatu who’d taught me a whole lot of new phrases. I could tell no one had ever heard of Vanuatu, but Walid was the only one to admit it. I told him it was the island in the Pacific Ocean, where Robinson Crusoe got washed up. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it didn’t matter because he then wanted to know who Robinson Crusoe was. I told him to call in at the library and check the kids’ book section.
“It’s closed,” Kevin said. “Council cuts.”
“Probably cancelled as well,” Winston added, “Too colonial.”
“Yeh,” Cass said. “Especially if Robbo was a white guy.”
We then spent ten minutes discussing how the hell anyone could read about history when it could only be downloaded from Amazon, which, of course, meant you needed a credit card, and that you’d struggle to get a credit card because of a non-existent credit rating.
“While I was away, I heard they decided to cancel history,” Cass said. “Nothing good ever happened. It was all bad, so why depress people even more? It’s Marxism. It’s social engineering.”
“And white supremacists like Gordon.” Kevin laughed.
“Gordon’s never moved from Park Road, let alone been a slave trader,” Walid said, defending his boss.
“He employs you,” Winston retorted.
“Yeh, but I needed a job,” Walid said.
Of course, we then talked about slavery and exploitation and about rape and pillage and decided that modern slavery still continued except it was now run by the children of old slaves and that the new colonialists were Bill Gates and the Chinese and that rich Arabs in the Gulf used Bangladeshis and Pakistanis as slaves and that the Pakistanis in Park Road had enslaved Kevin, who was neither black, white, yellow, or brown but a sort of light beige with long eyelashes.
Going round in circles like that makes you so dizzy you don’t know where you’re heading, so I reverted back to Vanuatu. “I reckon he was the guy who taught Bear Grylls how to light a fire with sticks,” I said, reverting back also to Robinson Crusoe. “And it’s got a real cool motto.”
“What has?” Winston asked.
“Vanuatu,” I said. “Keep up, man. They’ve got this high-profile black guy in a loin cloth and a spear called Long God Yumistanap.”
“Is that the guy who taught you how to speak?” Kevin asked.
“If he ever existed at all, then Long God Yumi’s long gone, Kev. No, I mean the guy I met in Edmonton. Now that you’ve got your freedom from homegrown slavery by your own relatives, you really need to get out more, Kev.”
“Go on then. Prove you can speak it,” Walid said.
“Speak what?” I asked.
“Vanuatu or whatever,” Walid said.
I had to think about that for a moment. “Proses fud mak causem plenty sik,” I said.
The four dumbasses stared at me, as if I was making it up, so I had to translate it for the uneducated. “Processed food makes you sick,” I said. “Don’t you understand any Vanuatu lingo?”
Winston was the only one who understood. Winston was from Lagos, you see, and he often spoke in a version of pidgin. “Speaking pidgin so no one understands is a black guy’s privilege,” I said.
“I thought you didn’t have any privileges,” Kevin replied. “That the evil white supremacists and slave traders had stolen everything.”
“Not true,” I said. “I got plenty of privileges. I’m not like you mixed-race heathens. I’m a true black with genuine African roots that go back to Voodoo days. It was us who invented religion by prancing around fires waving sticks with ostrich feathers stuck in our curls and wearing more organic make-up than you find in Holland and Barrett’s. Life was simple then and more fun. Now look - everyone’s totally confused. Have you ever seen a more miserable bunch of untidy-looking wretches than those that emerge from Park Road Mosque on Fridays? They’re supposed to look happy and fulfilled, man. They’re supposed to emerge looking content and motivated and set up for the weekend with plans for shopping at Tesco and evenings watching Simon Cowell.”
“When they come out, they’re deep in thought, Kurt,” Walid said.
“If they came out dancing, singing, shouting Allahu Akbar and waving black flags and Kalashnikovs like the guys I met in Turkey and Syria, you’d be right to be worried,” Cass added. Coming from Cass, who had had some recent hands-on experiences of Kalashnikovs and black flags, that line of conversation stopped dead.
Like me, Winston had done a bit of Christianity when he was about seven, His mom used to drag him along to the church on Midland Road. That was before the Archbishop of Canterbury ruined everything by spouting shit about God not being a celestial insurance policy.
So, what is he then if he’s not an insurance policy to keep you sane and on track? We all need some structure and direction in our lives. But let’s not go there right now; otherwise, I’ll ruin the rest of this story before I’ve started.
What I will say, though, is that it was Kevin who had the big personal problem when we were all much younger.
We all knew he’d missed a lot of school when he was a kid, but we didn’t know why and we didn’t care. Kids are selfish. What kid really cares about anyone else but themselves? Most kids think their own problems are the worst ever. I once knew a kid who dropped a plastic Homer Simpson toy, he’d found in his Shreddies down the toilet and flushed it away with the poo before he could snatch it. He cried for a week but when his dad finally left home and shacked up with a four-foot eleven-inch Somali woman from Cardiff he laughed about it for a week.
I digress but be warned. I might digress a lot.
When we got to understand Kevin’s background, we told him we were sorry, but by then, it was too late. He’d already gotten over it, and he didn’t care either. Instead, he told us to look at our own lives. Had we had it any better? Had we been better equipped to face the future? We shook our heads at that. None of us had fathers and, except for Kevin, we barely knew our mothers. I, myself, had had several uncles, most of whom were Rasta because my ma liked long hair and beads.
We’d known nothing about Kevin’s problems until Roger came on the scene. Roger was a truck driver but saw something worth saving in him. Whoever thought an old truck driver could turn out better than the Archbishop of Canterbury? But I supposed that’s not difficult.
Somehow, Winston moved the conversation onto the subject of cremation versus burial, Cass mentioned Buddhism, and I decided to opt for promoting the benefits of Voodoo.
“You might stick with one God for your inspiration,” I said, “but I’ve always gone for pick ‘n match.”
“Like picking up Jessie after school and matching her assets against Aisha’s. That what you mean?” Winston asked.
I grinned at him. “Don’t be flippant. I’m talking about picking and matching from the table of delights we call black magic. Get to choose your ideal witch doctor, ghost, or genuine spirit. Sort the wheat from the chaff, separate the good from the bad, and check out those you’ve never heard of before. Look at me and you, Winston,” I said. “Black as night and eyes that see. You know why? It’s because of our sun God. It’s not like we prostrate ourselves before him. We stand tall, stand firm, and salute like soldiers. Standing up shows genuine respect, and he reciprocates by giving us a decent sun tan. He takes no notice of all this false sun worship from your average white Anglo-Saxon because he knows they’re not genuine. Anything that fades within a week can never be the genuine article, man.”
That caused more discussion, of course, because while Winston was as black as me, Cass and Walid were brown, and Kevin was, as I mentioned, a sort of off-white beige with long black eyelashes.
Walid said that sun worshipping was pointless. Even if he changed from reluctant Moslem to Voodoo sun worshipper, he’d not seen the sun around Park Road since he moved there so what was the point? We agreed about that. Park Road is permanently damp. So, we returned to discussing North London and the need to experience new horizons.
Walid laughed at that. “New horizons? Jeez.” Then Cass joined in. It was not laughter like you might get for good comedy but more like mocking laughter, and I was the target. I’d experienced Edmonton, but Walid had walked from Syria, and Cass had been in Turkey and Syria and got mixed up with ISIL.
You’ll eventually learn about Cass but when I caught up with him for the first time in two years, I barely recognised him. He was thin and dirty like a starving refugee, and he smelled terrible.
As for Walid, when I first saw him, he’d just hitched all the way from Damascus. That was a lot further than Edmonton. Of course, Walid then had to remind them it was my fault he’d ended up in Park Road.
“But then you met Gordon, and Gordon offered you a job,” I reminded him.
Of course, we then needed to discuss Gordon, who definitely hadn’t been anywhere much. In fact, he’d not moved from Park Road since he was born, fifty or so years ago. Now he was the only white face still living around there, but he’d taken Walid under his wing. Walid had no need of a sun God or, indeed, the mosque. Walid had Gordon.
Kevin, on the other hand, now had Roger. Kevin was a thinker and still sensitive about things, but with Roger behind him, he’d changed a lot. Roger opened up Kevin and showed him the sky.
And who showed Winston the sky? There was no doubt about that. It was Willie Wilkins, our old maths teacher from school. Willie had spent hours sitting on the floor in Winston’s bedsit over the Egyptian’s place, on Shipley Street teaching him about computers and stuff. Winston slices bread at Hall’s bakery for a living but now tells everyone he’s a computer and phone hacker.
And what about Cass and me? Well, I suppose you’ll need to read on to find out but that night in the Queen’s Head, we decided we’d definitely record things for what Willie, Roger, and Gordon called posterity and took a vote on who should write it. The result was unanimous. I, Courtney Lemar Delmont Learner, more widely known as Kurt, was to become an author.