I was interviewed by a local paper today
All the other kids are playing football outside on the green, I wish I could go down and play with them. Mum won’t let me out, she says it’s too dangerous out there, I might get taken away by a bad man. I don’t want to get taken away by a bad man but I do want to go outside and play football with the other kids. How come there aren’t any bad men that take them away? It isn’t fair, but she never listens to me! Dad just says you need to do what your mother tells you, he never sticks up for me. All I do is go to school and look out the window.
I watch all the people outside, I know them all but they don’t know me. The man that goes to the shop every evening and comes back with loads of bottles in a bag, the old man that walks his dog every night at five o’clock, the strange looking man that looks like he’s a bit crazy, his hair is all funny and he can’t walk properly. The kids laugh at him when he walks past but he doesn’t even look at them, maybe he’s scared, I’d be scared too, I’m glad that I don’t look crazy. I wonder if he has any friends? He might be like me but at least he can go out for a walk.
I can see into the window of the building across from our flat. There’s a woman cooking dinner, she keeps turning and shouting at someone, then she goes to the window and shouts down to one of the kids on the green. The kid looks up and then runs towards the door of the building. He looks like he’s pissed off, he shouldn’t be, he should know how lucky he is. The other kids carry on playing. I imagine myself down there playing with them but then I stop because it makes me feel sad because it isn’t real.
The crazy man walks back past the kids but they don’t look at him this time. He is wearing the same clothes he always wears: a red jumper and black tracksuit bottoms, he holds a hat in his hand but he never wears it. I don’t know where he goes, I don’t think he has anywhere important to go to. He stops and looks up at the window. I bend down so he can’t see me, why is he looking up at me? I’m too scared to have another look. I wait for five minutes and look again. He’s gone but the red cap is lying on the floor, one of the kids kicks it as they make their way home for dinner.
Should I go down and get it? Why should I go down and get it? I don’t even know who he is or where he lives. He’s crazy too, what if I go and get it and then he finds out and tries to find me? I can’t go and get it anyway, mum won’t let me out downstairs on my own. What if I sneaked out the door? Just for five minutes? She might hear me and then I would never ever be allowed out on my own. I want the red cap, I want to give it back to the man. There has to be a way I can get downstairs.
“John! I’m going out for 10 minutes, I need to get something from the shop, don’t answer the door to anyone.”
“Mum, my friend dropped a red hat downstairs on the way to school, can you pick it up for me so I can give it to him tomorrow?”
“What friend? What’s his name? Why can’t he go and pick it up himself? How do you know it’s his?”
“I saw him drop it.”
“He can pick it up himself, I’m not picking up things from the floor. I’ll be back in 10 minutes.”
The front door slams closed. 10 minutes. I can get downstairs and back again in 10 minutes. I open the door quietly to see if she has gone down in the lift. She’s not there. I don’t have a key though. Nobody will come in five minutes. I pull the door until it’s almost closed, I hope it doesn’t open again. I struggle down the stairs, going as quickly as I can, 10 flights, at the bottom I peer out the door to make sure she isn’t there. She’s gone. I can see the cap, I move towards it, stopping just in front. Looking up at my window it seems so far away, the building seems so big, I feel tiny.
I rush back to the door and up the stairs with the cap in my hand. If she’s back she’ll kill me. The door is still open, I move into my room and put the cap under my bed. Two minutes later I hear her come in the door. Please, please don’t let her have seen me! She goes to the kitchen, she can’t have seen me. The door bangs again, dad is home. Mum shouts at him, she says he is late and she had to go down to the shop on her own to buy some vegetables. Dad agrees with her and says sorry. Why is he so scared of her?
One more look out the window before dinner. I feel guilty, if the man comes back for his cap he won’t find it. Why do I even want it? What if he dropped it on purpose because he knew I saw him looking up at me? Why would he do that? I’m not even going to be able to give it to him. If I throw it out the window to him the other kids will see and then they’ll tell the kids at school that I’m friends with a crazy man. They tease me all the time anyway. I can’t go downstairs and give it to him because mum will kill me, he might kill me too.
I can’t believe I’ve lost it. How could I not even have noticed that it wasn’t in my hand? I must be really going crazy, all these years of people saying I was crazy and now I really am. It’s not on the floor, I’d have seen it, I don’t think anyone would have picked it up, why would they want my tatty old hat? Fuck! I promised her that I would always keep hold of that hat, I’ve let her down. I always used to let her down and now even when she’s gone I’ve let her down. I’m useless, completely useless, they’re all right.
This has been taken from my book The Unwashed which is available on Amazon Kindle below
This week I finally published a book! It was a long and tiring process but I finally managed to get it out. It’s a book of short stories about people living on a fictional council estate in London, it sets the background for my first novel Liar which will be out in the middle of September. I had been living in China for nearly six years before I came back to Ireland and lived like a hermit for the last nine months getting the books down on paper and eventually published.
The Unwashed is a book of nine short stories, each one is based on a different character but they all live in the same place. Council estates are often used to define the people that live on them, lumping them all together and people forget that they are places full of individuals who all have their own stories and have been through different things in their lives. They are also communities, something that is often disregarded, not just crime ridden dens of iniquity as they are often portrayed in the media.
When I write, I try to allow the reader to create their own image of the characters and the places that they are living in. I don’t often read fiction anymore because I find that it is far too descriptive and doesn’t allow you to use your own imagination.
Writing The Unwashed was difficult, it was emotionally draining, a lot of the characters are based on people that I have known throughout my life and a couple of the stories are based on my own life experiences. When I write I live the character whose story I am telling. A few times I just couldn’t write, not because I didn’t want to but because I knew what would happen in the story and I knew how the person in was feeling.
I was asked a couple of days back which was my favourite of the nine stories and I couldn’t give an answer. ‘This Time’ the story of an alcoholic who is battling with himself while trying to give up drink cold turkey was written from my own experiences and was probably the story that had most meaning to me personally but I enjoyed writing all of them. ‘Jules and Giles’ the story of two upper class Englishmen opening a juice bar on a council estate was the most fun to write but it also has a deeper meaning as gentrification in London is something that I don’t agree with.
Although the stories are based in London and there is quite liberal use of London slang and grammar, the stories are relevant to people anywhere. I based it on London because it’s where I grew up, it’s my home and it has a massive place in my heart. I travel often and there’s nothing that cheers me up more than hearing a London accent. I also know that London isn’t just Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, there’s so much more to it that people never see and I wanted The Unwashed to show that.
It was released on Tuesday and the reaction to it has been incredible, far beyond what I expected. So many people have said that they lived the characters and that is what I wanted to achieve, allow the reader to make their own judgments and not be led by me. I’m really looking forward to the release of Liar, it was hard to write too and it has a lot of emotion in it but I am sure that people will enjoy it.
Finally I want to say thank you to all that have read it, you’ve been amazing. I know I keep saying it but I am genuinely grateful when people take time to comment and let me know what they thought of the book. I would also like to say thank you to all of my WordPress followers, I’ve neglected my blog lately but it was on here that I first started writing publicly and it gave me the confidence to carry on and publish the The Unwashed. There’s a link below to the Amazon Kindle version of the book, it is going to be released in paperback very soon too and will also be available on iTunes in the next few hours and I’ll update with the link. If you have read it I hope you enjoyed it and if you are going to read it enjoy!
I have had an incredible response to the short story excerpt I posted the other day, well over 100 people have signed up for my free ebook which is released on 24th August so as a thank you I have decided to post the full story. You can still sign up for the book at the end. It took me a long time before I had the courage to post my writings publicly and I wouldn’t have kept it up if it wasn’t for the words of encouragement and praise I’ve received so thank you all so much and I hope you enjoy the full book when it’s released!
The bangs, the flashes, screams, people running and shouting. I am stuck, I can’t move, the group of men move closer and closer to where me and my sister are hiding. We’re covered by some baskets, I’m trying not to breathe, my sister is shaking, I am sure the baskets are moving as she shakes. One of them reaches out and grabs the basket, tossing it aside and looking down at us. His eyes are dead, there’s no emotion. He grabs my sister and pulls her up then throws her on to the dusty floor, she looks back towards me as she falls, I look up at him, he hits me and then it’s blackness.
The fireworks keep banging but I’m not back home, I’m here in this place, lonely and trying to make friends. I am not even sure what all the fireworks are about, what the celebration is for. There are kids burning dolls and pieces of wood, their parents looking on at them laughing while they drink from beer cans. A small boy runs up to me and smiles and hands me a sparkler, he lights it, gives another cheeky smile and runs away to where his friends are trying to set something on fire. I swirl it around, watching the orange glow, I want to throw it but the boy keeps looking back and smiling.
When it is finished I put it on the floor, give the boy a wave and go back to my new home. I don’t know how to mix with these people. They aren’t bad people, but their culture, their language, it’s all so different to me. I never wanted to leave home but I had no choice. They help me here, they’ve given me everything I need, I am grateful, but I don’t want to be here. I want to be in the fields where I grew up, looking after the goats, watching my sister play in the fields, hearing my mother call us to come and eat dinner.
There isn’t much in the place they’ve given me. There’s a chair in the main room, a table that I eat on each evening and another table with a television doesn’t work on it. My room has a bed and a small cupboard that I keep my few things in. I’ve put a sheet over the window so people can’t see in and the sun doesn’t wake me up in the mornings. The bed is uncomfortable, it is too soft and I am not used to it. Each night I go to sleep I take the small picture I have of my sister from pocket and look it at, remembering the good times we had together.
I awake to banging at the door, constantly knocking. I am frightened to open the door but I can’t ask what they want, I understand few words and can speak even less. I open it enough so I can see out, there is a man standing there with a bright yellow jacket.
“asdjo aosjd eowr English?”
“safdjon awerojnr oajewr money sofdoa oasdf”
“Sorry, no I speak English.”
“osfoer wernjon weorjo weorj wejr wperj”
He walks away and I shut the door. I am shaking, I don’t think he meant any harm but it frightened me. I am feeling sorry for myself, I have been through worse, at least it is safe here. I am going to have to learn the language, try and make things work. That’s what they would have wanted when we separated. It’s a bright day, looking out the window I can see the leftovers of the party last night. It is a strange place, people all live so close to each other. There’s a skinny kid kicking a ball against a wall outside, why isn’t he in school? Do any of them go to school?
I should go out for the day, try and see somewhere new. I grew up seeing pictures of London in books, seeing it on the television. I dreamed of going and now I am here I haven’t left this place that I am living in. How do I buy a ticket for the train? I don’t know which direction I am supposed to go in. Big Ben, I know Big Ben, I know how to say it too, I can say it to the man at the station, he will know where I want to go. I hope I say it properly though, if I get lost I’ll have a problem, I won’t get lost though, I can try and ask a policeman.
I want to get up out of my chair but something is holding me back, it’s like this every time I go out, like I am stuck. It feels like my mind moves forward but my body stays in the chair. This is stupid, I am in a safe place now, I have to try and make something of my life. Going out to enjoy myself will be the first step. There’s still guilt, every time I want to do something fun I think of my mother, my sister, that they can’t do anything fun, would they be angry at me for enjoying myself? Go! You are only torturing yourself.
At the bottom of the stairs there are three boys standing by a wall. The stairwells are dark, the light broken. They all stare at me as I walk past, I keep my head down, my eyes on the floor, shaking again. As I get past them they laugh. I hear the sound of something hitting the floor, a small copper coin. I want to look back, shout at them, tell them that really they don’t scare me, that I have seen things they will never see. But I am frightened. I keep walking, I can feel their stares on my back, laughing to themselves.
“adasjn don’t want aknewpq akdsn wer go home!”
I pass the little boy who I saw from the window. He looks at me, waves and smiles, I smile back, a small gesture that makes me feel safer, strange how a small boy can make me feel safe. He carries on kicking the ball against the wall, I look back, the boys that were in the stairwell are walking away, looking for someone else to bother. All of these concrete buildings so close together make me feel like I am trapped, like there’s nowhere to hide. When I walk out on to the street I have escaped, a different world.
The man says nothing, he just gives me the ticket. No smile, no words just a ticket. I was so proud at getting those two words out. I had been practicing it in my head all the way to the train station. A smile would have been nice. I look at the map for the train line, trying to pretend I know what I am doing. I look at the ticket and then back at the map, trying to find what I think is the place name on the ticket and matching it with a place on the map. A man stands beside me, looking anxious, as though he has somewhere important to be. I point at the ticket and then the map, he looks at me and shakes his head, hurrying off down the stairs. I’m not important enough.
I follow him, an important man must be going towards the centre of the city. On the stairs there is a man holding out a cup, his clothes worn, a big beard and bushy hair, next to him an old dog sleeping. I take a coin from my pocket and put it into the cup, he smiles and nods his head. I show him the ticket and he stands up and walks towards a map on the wall. He points at the station I am supposed to go to, gesturing with his hands and talking but I don’t know what he is saying.
There are no seats on the train so I stand, looking at all the different people. People from everywhere, different colours, different languages being spoken. If only she was here with me, she loved to listen to different languages on the television, trying to guess which ones they were. She would look at pictures in magazines and point to the models, guessing which country they came from, what it would be like to live in their country. “She’s Russian, it’s cold there. He’s American, they’re all fat, that man I think is English so he must be a gentleman.” I still haven’t seen a gentleman.
At each station I look at the ticket and then at the name to make sure it is not mine. A big group of tourists get on the train, I must be near. They all have large cameras, laughing and joking. Am I a tourist? Will I ever be able to go home again? Or is this my new home? I envy them, they have come to enjoy themselves and then they’ll go back to doing what they did before. Certainty, direction, I have none of this.
Stop! You need to start being more positive, enjoy your day, enjoy your freedom, for one day you can be like them.
It’s the right station. The words are the same. I climb the stairs and as I come out from the entrance, there it is in front of me. Big Ben. The place that was in our textbooks, the place everyone wanted to go to but never thought they’d have the chance and now I am here with it right in front of me. I know I am grinning, even a small tear in my eye. There are so many people, looking up at this big clock, taking pictures, bumping into each other. I see there is a green across from it, I can go there and sit for a little while.
I find a patch where there are fewer people. I look up at the clock and then look around to see if there is anyone looking at me, nobody, there are far more interesting things here than me. I take the picture out of my pocket, turn it so that her face is pointing to the tower, hold it for a few seconds, kiss the photo and then put it back in my pocket. At least now you have seen it, it’s the best I can do. I look behind me, there’s a group of people eating, one of them looks away as I catch his eye, he must have been watching, I don’t care though.
I am stuck again. I want to get up but I don’t know where to go, I am scared that I’ll get lost. This place is so big. I look around trying to find a road to walk along but I don’t know where any of them go to. I see lots of people walking towards the bridge, I force myself up, cross the road and follow the crowds. I can still see the station so I can’t get too lost. I stop in the middle, I wish I had a camera, people taking pictures with their families while I just stand and watch. I think it’s time to go, my adventure for the day over.
In the station I take one of the small maps, take it to the ticket man and point at the place I want to go back to. He smiles and gives me my ticket. I watch the people on the platforms each time the train pulls into a stop. Worried faces, stressed faces, aggressive as they get on to the train, no thought towards the people they are barging out of the way. Am I wrong for think that they don’t know what stress and worry is? Is it all just relative? I wish I could be like them, coming home from a job where they earn money, going home to a family.
I miss the open spaces of home, being able to look to the horizon and there being no buildings in site. The summer evenings when it’s cool, walking down to the lake with my sister, watching her play in the water, the sounds of birds and animals. Here everything is cramped together, people everywhere, buildings everywhere, so cramped, I feel suffocated. I wish this train would go faster, I just want this journey to end, I’m breathing faster and I’m sweating. The lady standing next to me taps me on the arm and hands me a bottle of water, I swig from it, she says something I don’t understand, I smile and make a thumbs up sign, I can feel her watching me concerned.
I can barely see out through all the people, I catch a glimpse of the station name, it’s mine. I push through them, none giving way. Fresh air. I sit down on the bench, my breathing slows. Why am I scared of everything? Why does everything affect me so much? I can’t even go out for a day without turning into a shaking mess, and now I have to go back to that apartment, sitting by myself remembering the past, trying to forget. I hope there are no fireworks tonight. I must eat too, I keep forgetting to eat.
The small boy is still there, still kicking his ball against the wall. Does he not have anywhere to go? He smiles as he sees me, kicking the ball softly towards me, I try to kick it back but miss, he laughs, I laugh with him. Laughter, something so simple can give you so much relief. He chases after the ball, picks it up and then runs towards me. He holds out his hand, I shake it and smile, he giggles as we shake hands.
“What’s your name?” I understand!
“My name Aisha. What is you name?”
“Michael. I live there.” He says pointing at one of the buildings.
“Oh, I live there. Sorry, English, no good.”
He just smiles, waves and goes back to kicking the ball. He doesn’t care if I can’t speak his language. The three boys I saw this morning come out of the building the boy lives in. They take no notice of me as they pass me by, they carry on towards the boy, one of them picking up his ball and kicking it on to the roof of a garage. The boy just stands there, helpless. Another one slaps him. What can I do? I walk to the boy, taking his hand, guiding him to his building. They look at me and laugh, the boy is trying not to cry but tears are starting to fall.
“What are you doing?”
“You go, no hit him.”
“Go home, asdjop aosjdas oasjd asdaosdk sdljf you!”
“Go! No hit boy!”
I carry on taking the boy to his building, he is he looks up at me for reassurance, he’s scared, I’m scared too but I rub his hair with my other hand. I feel a pain in my back, I can only see the floor, I look up and see the boy running away, I look back and the three of them are standing there laughing. I try to push myself up but it hurts, I manage to sit on the floor, my hand is cut and my back is sore. I look up at them, they turn away still laughing, one of them pretending to fall over, all of them laughing loudly. The small boy has gone.
I pick myself up, an old man walking past looks at me but says nothing. Why did I go out today at all? Walking up the stairs is painful, my hand stinging. The man in the yellow jacket is outside another apartment arguing with someone. I just want to get inside, hide away underneath the covers of my bed. I lock the door, checking it three times to make sure it can’t be opened. I fall onto the bed and wrap myself in the covers, my head covered, not wanting to ever leave. Why did I ever come to this place?
I cry, I can taste the salt in my mouth, the sheets are wet. I am back there again. I’m in that place that lead me to being here. That morning when we had gone out to fetch some things from the town for my mother, my sister skipping along in front of me, the two red ribbons in her hair floating about as she skipped, singing a song she had learned in school, looking back to make sure I was still behind her, smiling and laughing.
“Don’t go too far ahead, the snakes will catch you!”
“No they won’t! Not if you’re here, you can protect me!”
We reached the town but it was quiet. All of the shops were closed, nobody on the dusty streets apart from stray dogs. She seemed unnerved, clinging to my dress. When you live with war you become used to it, you try to carry on with your life, try to ignore what is going on around you but you know when something bad is going to happen, you have develop a sixth sense. We both knew that we should leave. It was too late, the cracking sounds began in the distance. The only place to hide was underneath those baskets.
“I’m frightened. Please don’t leave me.”
“I’m not going to leave you, it’ll be okay, just don’t make any noise.”
People began to shout and the bangs and cracking sounds got louder. A woman appeared in the middle of the street screaming, looking up at the sky then throwing herself on the floor. A crack. She crumpled to the floor and didn’t move again. I put my hand around my sister’s mouth to stop her from crying out, I could feel her tears running down my hand. Men with guns appeared in the street, searching for people, shooting at nothing in particular. He lifted the basket, threw her onto the floor, his fist hitting me on the nose. When I awoke she was gone.
The noise had stopped, the streets were empty still but there were no men. I walked back home to find it empty, the house had been trashed, belongings all over the floor, my mother and father gone, still no sign of my sister. How would I ever be able to find them? My heart told me they were all still alive, my head told me they were already dead, the only way to save myself was to flee. I took what little belongings I could, some money that was hidden, and of course the photo. I used all the money that was hidden for someone to fix me coming here.
I have no home, this place isn’t my home. I appreciate all the help, I appreciate all the kind people I have met here but it can’t replace my family. Then there are those that tell you to go home. How do they know? Is it the clothes that I wear? Because I can’t speak English? I don’t want to be here, if I could go home I would, but I have nowhere to go. My family are gone, all I have is one photo and my memory. The photo! I reach into my pocket, it is gone. I throw the bedcovers onto the floor, searching frantically. There is little to search, it isn’t here. I must have dropped it.
I can’t see anyone from the window, I must go down and look for it, maybe I dropped it when they hit me. I run down the stairs and out into the space between the building I live in and the one the boy lives in. It is windy, if I dropped it it would have been blown away. I still search, looking over every bit of the floor, picking up any piece of paper or wrapper just to make sure. I look on the grass, it has gone. I want to throw myself to the floor like the woman in the town but I won’t, I want to scream but I won’t, it was a small thing, but it was all I had.
I am sorry Alia, I am so sorry. I’ve never been able to say your name since that day. Now I have to say it, I’ve lost the last bit of you that I had. I promised to protect you but I didn’t, I don’t know where you are, I don’t know where mum and dad are, I can only hope that you are all alive. Every time I see a red ribbon I think of you, every time I see a child playing I think of you. I am sorry. At least you saw Big Ben. Hopefully one day you’ll find me here, or I will be able to go back home and find you. No matter how much I hate it here, it can’t be worse than where you are. Please forgive me…
A knock at the door. I look through the small hole in the door but I can’t see anyone, I go back to the living room and sit down, another knock. This time I open the door, the little boy I helped is there. He is smiling again, he notices my eyes are red and takes a tissue from his pocket and hands it to me. I smile back at him. I can see that he is holding something behind his back, I point, his smile grows even wider. He shows me what he has in his hand. It is my photo. He says something that I don’t understand. I kneel down and hug him and then kiss him on the cheek, his face turns bright red and he runs off down the stairs, I run after him and he stops. I point at the picture.
“This Alia. Sister, one day she come.”
This has been taken from my book of short stories called ‘The Unwashed’. All the stories are based on life on a London council estate and will be available from 25th August 2015. There will be another 10 short stories in the book. All digital copies of the book will be FREE and you can receive your free copy by entering your email address below. You will receive it on 24th August a day before it goes on Amazon.