Harlem Jones

Harlem legs it from the job shop soon as the sour bitch pushes the button for security. Shoots like the fucken wind. She won’t call the coppers, he’s sure of it. Old cow’s just trying to give him a scare. As if he’d been serious anyway about that shit.

Harlem rockets out on to Tucker Street and takes the back laneway through the park, long legs striding out on the cracked concrete path. His still-new black work shoes strain at the seams, creaking at each push off the pavement. Usually Harlem’s mind goes blank when he runs. Only thing he can hear is his own even breathing, wind rushing past his ears. This afternoon is different. As he sprints away from the place, all he can think about is that fucken Mark Duggan. It’s the mug shot from the paper that rises up in front of him – not a real mug shot, but practically. The hard eyes, angry frown: the papers always drag out photos like that when London Met bullets get themselves lodged in some poor black bastard.

Harlem pushes the man’s face from his mind. He’s not Duggan, the pigs won’t catch him. He’s more fucken Linford Christie. Harlem reaches the Finsbury Park flats in less than five minutes, four even, not the slightest bit out of breath. Only reason they’d kept him on so long at school was because he ran cross-country like Wile E Coyote on crack. His running hadn’t been enough but, in the end.

Harlem opens the door to the flat and dumps his rucksack in the hallway. He showers and dresses, leaving his sweaty Tesco’s uniform in a heap on the bathroom floor. The kitchen still smells like that disgusting yellow porridge his Ma cooks in the mornings. Harlem opens the fridge, starts hoeing into the jerk chicken and sweet potato left over from last night’s dinner. Devours it cold, he’s that fucking starving, the whole container of it gone. When his Ma comes back from her shift down the Youth Centre, she’ll make some more. Harlem raises his right arm and aims the empty plastic container across at the sink.

‘And the crowd goes wild. Harlem Jones! Harlem Jones has got the ball! And he shoots. The ball is going in! I don’t believe it, it’s going in! And it’s a score! It’s a basket! Harlem Jones has won the game!’ Head thrown back, arms overhead, he runs mad circles on the small square of scuffed linoleum.

He stops to fill his rucksack with spray-paint cans from on top of the fridge, then shrugs on his new sweatshirt and opens the front door.

‘Harlem Jones,’ the tall copper says, knuckle poised to knock.

Ain’t a fricken question, they know damn well who he is. Harlem kicks himself. Course they have his fucken address. For all Harlem knows they might be the same filth that sent his brother down. Not that Lloyd didn’t deserve it. Janelle was real pretty before Lloyd lost it with her that night. When Harlem saw his brother’s ex a few weeks after, everything on her face looked swollen and crooked.

‘Been making death threats against ladies down the job office, Harlem?’ the ginger copper says.

Death threats his skinny black arse. Even the daft job-shop broad ain’t dim enough to really believe that. Harlem went to see about giving in the Tesco’s job. Got his first pay yesterday and the whole lousy shelf-stacking month gave him twenty quid more than being on the pension. Fricken slavery’s what it is. Time he pays his Oyster card fare he’s actually behind.

‘Sorry. Don’t know what you’re talking about. You got the right person?’ His word against fucken hers. Stupid cow told him if he ditches the Tesco’s job he won’t get benefits for three months. Casual, like she was used to dumping no-hopers like him in the shit. Fucken stuck-up bitch.

Harlem locks the front door behind him and steps out onto the front steps, forcing the coppers back towards the footpath.

He lost it at the job-shop broad, with her fancy clothes, the posh way she talked. Fucken raged out on her and once he got started, he couldn’t do nothing to stop himself. Not that he would have fucken wanted to in any case.

‘What’s dis going on?’

Jesus, his mother has bad timing. She’s looking from the coppers to him, like she’s gonna have a heart attack or something. Seeing her so worried makes Harlem feel like shit. He doesn’t mean to rub up against the law so much. He’s just so fucken angry all the time.

‘You this lad’s mother?’

‘Don’t be foolin wid me, ye know I damn am.’

He bets the pigs never counted on going up against his Ma. She can be a drag sometimes, but she always fronts up swinging when they come for her own. Harlem drops his rucksack off his shoulder, fishes out his ciggies and sits down on the front landing to watch the spat.

Three minutes with her and the coppers about turn back down the path. She’s getting smarter at this shit, his Ma. Harlem makes to leave as well, but his Ma’s not finished with him. She blocks his way out the front garden, right aggravated. Sweat’s pouring off her forehead like it’s her own chubby self that done that run.

‘Ye need te pull yeself together Harlem.’ Them veins in her neck are popping like the American weightlifters on the Nike ads. ‘Ye father and I never come te dis country te raise delinquent children. No child-a mine going threaten a woman! Ye not reading de news? Ye want te end up like dat other black boy dem kill?’

‘He was a grown man Ma, not a boy.’ It’s on the tip of Harlem’s tongue to remind her about Lloyd, but he doesn’t want to risk a slap across the face with the work bag the woman’s wielding. Besides, his Ma’s still in denial about Lloyd being inside. Won’t talk about it, even to him. Tells all them mates down the West Indian club that his brother’s in Trinidad for a while, doing some work for her builder cousin.

‘Harlem, me don’t want ye turning out like ye good for nothin dadda is all. Ye raise bettah than dis, ye know ye are. Look at me, bwoy!’

Harlem can’t look at her. She makes him too fucken irate. She always dumps on his Dad, whenever he does anything wrong. Ten years since the man pissed off, and she still can’t stop slagging on him. Harlem flexes his trembling fingers. He wants to fucken strangle her: his own mother, who gave birth to him. Really strangle the woman. He wants to wrap his fingers firmly around that fat neck and squeeze until her face goes purple.

Toby’s late. Even after the hold-up with the cops, Harlem reaches Seven Sisters before him. Dragging smoke deep into his lungs, Harlem sinks down onto the station steps and squeezes shut his eyes.


He exhales slowly. He can’t get Duggan’s face out of his mind – the half-cocked head, the scowl on the bugger’s face. Harlem takes one last puff of his rollie and crushes the glowing stub into the step below him with the back heel of his right sneaker. Gazing down at the running shoe, he spits on his right index finger and carefully wipes specks of London grime from the light grey Adidas stripes.

 They were both shitfaced yesterday when he and Toby agreed to meet up, but he’s sure they said five thirty on the steps at Seven Sisters Station. Toby’s a lost cause when he’s on the piss but. Could be the dumb fuck’s forgotten all about it.

Harlem runs an anxious hand over his buzz cut, pulls his iPhone from his hoodie pocket and scrolls down to find his friend’s number. Scatty as his mate is, Toby can pack a nasty fucken punch, and tonight isn’t something Harlem wants to be walking into on his own. Harlem presses send on the text message. He stops to examine his reflection on the mobile screen. Funny, he didn’t realise before how much he looks like that poor dead geezer.

Running late. Got caught up @ home. Soz.

Harlem reads Toby’s reply, annoyed. What the fuck was Toby doing up Brixton to keep him late? Caught up. Messing around with one of those Walker sisters, Harlem guesses. One of these days they’ll find out his mate’s horizontal with both of them. Watch the shit fly then. Harlem can’t never figure out what the girls see in his mate. Tobes is all pale English skin, lanky arms and legs.

Harlem stands, strides two at a time up the station steps, draws a gob of phlegm to the back of his throat and spits thickly on the street curb. Fuck the stupid git.

He swapped his Tesco’s shift with Ayana to make it tonight. The only shift she’d swap for his four hour evening at the supermarket was an eight hour Saturday. Done him right over she had, even though she’d figured out what he wanted the night off for.

‘You going down Tottenham way, innit?’ she’d whispered triumphantly from the other side of the wire shelving where she was re-stacking cartons of pomegranate juice. ‘Better be careful, ’cording to Facebook, it’s gonna be fricken war.’

Harlem hadn’t bothered responding, just continued turning the Yorkshire pudding packet mix around so they all faced the same way.

Harlem reaches into his trackie pocket and pulls out his grey beanie, jams it down tight over his head. It’s summer, but the clear evening has a chilly edge.

Tardy shithead.

He’s gonna miss the action if he waits for Tobes. Harlem crosses the road, turns the street corner and heads down Woodgreen. It’s been a few months since he came right into Tottenham. Several more island grocery shops have sprung up overnight. Through the grimy windows Harlem glimpses aisles filled with jerk seasoning, tinned ackee, smoked salt fish and bruised plantain: all the shit his Ma cooks from back home in Trinidad that Harlem mostly can’t stand.

On the corner of Woodgreen and Martin a new bookstore’s opened: kids books in the window showing bright, happy-to-look-at pictures. Jalawah and the Beanstalk, Jet Black and the Seven Pygmies. Harlem stops to read a few of the titles, smiling to himself. Black hair salons spill over the sidewalk with baskets of hairpiece, lock wax and netted sleeping caps: all that rubbish them girls back at school spent hours messing up their heads with. The barber shops are filled with brothers. They shake hands, man-clamp, bump fists and chat as barbers carefully pattern-shave the sides of their heads.

‘Harlem! Thought you were gonna fricken wait for me!’ Toby jogs into step beside him.

‘You’re late, you deadshit.’ Harlem stops to ghetto shake with his friend.

‘Yeah. Sorry about that. It was Camille. Y’know, I kept telling her I had to go, but she wanted me to, y’know, finish what I uh, started,’ Toby grins at him, gold-capped front tooth glinting from his pale white face.

‘Too much fucken sharing,’ Harlem grimaces. ‘You know where this place is then?’

‘You’re joshing me, right? You ain’t never spent a night in the Tottenham pig pen?’ Toby stops to stare at his friend.

Harlem ignores Toby, flicking through Google maps on his phone.

‘Fastest way is back up High Street,’ Toby flicks a thumb over his shoulder.

‘Nah, we should go Beaconsfield, then Philip Street. Back way.’

‘True. Don’t wanna get searched by filth.’ Toby pats his bulging backpack.

‘Fuck you got in there?’

‘Something I will not mention in questioning, and may later disown when evidence is given against me.’ Toby grins like a madman.

Harlem undoes the zip a few centimetres, peers in.

Molotovs. Bloody hell.

They step up pace as they turn the corner around Marcus Garvey library. A bunch of elderly African men chatting on the steps of the library building stop their talking to watch the two of them pass by.

‘Careful, sons,’ a man in a brown plaid bowling hat calls over the fence. ‘Lord watch over you all tonight.’

‘Fuck was that about?’ Toby asks Harlem, as they pass the bus garage.

‘You know what?’ Harlem smiles and squares his shoulders. ‘I think that’s ole grandpa’s way of saying go on boys, you have our full permission to burn London to the fricken ground.’

As they skirt round a trio of parked cop cars, Toby throws back his head, opens his mouth wide, and wolf howls.

‘Holy fucken shit.’ Harlem stops to stare at the rippling crowd.

Justice for Mark. Stop police brutality. Met Murder. Duggan is all of our sons. They pause a moment to survey the signs: professionally sign-written, home printed, hand-made, scrawled in children’s handwriting, dripped on with red paint to look like blood. Most of the placard-wielding lot look Harlem’s Ma’s age, or older. Harlem’s well surprised about that, though he guesses he shouldn’t be. After all, it’s all of them that are being royally fucked over – anyone down here, where him and Toby are.

Toby pushes through the closely packed crowd in front of them, elbowing his way closer to the cop station. Harlem sticks on his mate’s tail, eyes glued to the blue rucksack in front of him. Swallowed up by the mass, Harlem feels at home. Angry chatter hums over them, rising, collecting, pulsing like the gathering of a bee swarm.

The evening sunlight hits Harlem’s face. They’ve reached the front of the crowd. The coppers are out in force, ringing the whole police station building four or five deep. They’re strapped into bulletproof vests, clear riot masks and shields.

‘We are all Mark Duggan, we are all Mark Duggan, we are all Mark Duggan …’ a woman somewhere in the crowd starts the refrain on a megaphone, static electrifying her words. Within a minute, her voice has been joined by several hundred. The bloke standing next to Harlem, a burly middle-aged man still wearing his fluoro council workers jacket, raises his right fist and repeatedly punches the air to the staccato mantra echoing around them.

‘We are all Mark Duggan. We are all Mark Duggan. We are all Mark … ’

Harlem wishes they’d fucken stop. He – they – are not Mark. Duggan is dead. Shot by the cops, at almost point blank. Mark’s mother has lost her child. Mark’s children have lost their father. They are not Mark Duggan. He is not Mark Duggan. He is Harlem fucken Jones.

The cops shift in their positions, ears trained on their radios. Something’s going on. Harlem looks over at Toby. His friend is several metres away, has stopped mid-chant. Their eyes meet. Toby whisks his rucksack from his back and disappears beneath the crowd. Harlem watches the spot where his friend’s head disappeared, holding his breath.

The smashing sound comes sudden, shotgun like, scattering the petrified crowd. Harlem breathes out. He and Toby cocktailed a car once, that dickhead headmaster’s, back at the Comprehensive. It was fucken magic: crystal rain glittering everywhere, flame bursting into being from nowhere.

The crowd has been startled in every direction. The pigs step forward suddenly, shields raised in a single movement. Harlem steps back, eyes scanning the sixty or so youths now left in front of the station. Toby’s next to him now, passing something to him. Harlem’s fingers close over the glass bottle. The rag taped around it reeks of kerosene. His friend fishes around in his jeans pocket, quickly tosses something over to him. Harlem catches the red plastic lighter. The coppers are moving forward now, pushing them back towards the road. There isn’t time to think.

‘Don’t be stupid son.’ Muffled by the riot mask, one of the coppers tries to raise his voice above the smashing, shouting, running.

Harlem smiles. The pigs have no fucken idea what’s coming to them. It’s not just him this time. It won’t be just the few of them left behind to fight after the main crowd has scattered. There’s an army of them in the distance, all over London, just waiting for the word. They’re all angry, they’re all armed. They’re all Harlem Jones. Harlem flicks the lighter on with his thumb, holds the flame up in front of his face.

‘My name,’ he says, ‘is not son. My name, my fucken name, is Harlem fucken Jones.’

Holding the neck of the Molotov he touches the lighter flame to it, and quickly pulls back his arm.

‘Harlem Jones’ is from the collection Foreign Soil, which will be published by Hachette Australia in May 2014.


Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author and slam poet of Afro- Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction and the 2015 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her memoir, The Hate Race, her poetry collection Carrying the World, and her first children’s book, The Patchwork Bike, will be published by Hachette in late 2016.

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