by Richard Cabut
“Danger stranger,” sings Carol in the bathroom while putting on her make-up. “You better paint your face.”
Yeah, she thinks: better paint your face so people don’t notice the spots, scabs, scars, bruises, pock marks, bite sites, and common or garden pustule craters. Each blemish a memory, marking her skin to make up a map of mad experience. Signs pointing to excess, ineptitude, waste, squander and self-disgust.
The lyrics are from the old Clash song “1977” describing, amongst other things, the poor, class warfare and meltdown on the streets — sten guns in Knightsbridge. At that time, Carol called herself by names like Rancid, Piss and Suck to create a cheeky distance from the nauseating niceness of society. Now, after 36 odd — very odd — years of hard living (some of which have involved coming perilously close to dying) such monikers are but casual insults hurled at her in the streets and pubs of New Cross and Peckham, south London, the area she calls home – “Where the heartache is”, she says to herself.
Carol pats her growing gut. Up the stick again? No, but the atmosphere of this place is impregnated with a sense of failure and fucked-upness, she thinks.
Earlier, on Commercial Street, Carol had seen a black cat unlucky enough to have been hit by a car — or given a vicious kicking by some particularly stupid and sadistic kids. With cracked back and smashed head, the broken little beast flipped around like a landed fish in the middle of the road. Eyes rolled and blood sprayed from a shattered mouth, as the cat danced its violent death flip. Carol shuddered and moved on. Her universe, full of portents and signs, was marked by a sense of melancholy, isolation and the stomach-churning premonition that it is all going to go tits up. This is a bad sign, she thought.
Carol lives in a Peckham maisonette with two small children and a succession of different lovers — although what love’s got to do with it is anyone’s guess, she thinks. Here, there is no Only Fools and Horses-style jollity, but plenty of fucking fools, though, thinks Carol, especially the ones who buy the near gear from a dodgy dealer down the road. Or, those who queue for the rubbish bootleg DVDs from the Chinese man at the bottom of Rye Lane, situated a hop, skip and a stumble from the boozer Carol sometimes uses in Nunhead.
Later, down the boozer, Carol is really pissed, hasn’t been so off her head for a long time. In fact, the last time it happened on such a scale, she had woken up with a strange bloke. Nothing unusual about that, but this one had a really big black eye, at which Carol had burst out laughing. The bloke looked at her.
“I wouldn’t laugh so loud if I was you, darling,” he said. “Take a look in the mirror.”
Agh! Carol couldn’t believe her eyes. Where her two front teeth should be was a neat gap. Somehow, between leaving the pub and falling asleep, her teeth had been knocked out. How? Carol had no idea. No recollection. The grandparents of Carol’s first child were due round anytime to take the kid out for the day — which was more than the father ever did. If there was any shit, any suggestion of bother, they’d try to take the kid away from her, that’s for sure. Carol, head in hands, groaned.
Now in the pub, Carol is steaming after another bad day, when her youngest had been sent home from the nursery for hitting another kid. “He gets violent an’ they can’t handle him,” she told a mate. “But all they gotta do is put their arms around him, hold him for a bit and he’s all right. But they don’t bother.” The nursery incident had put the kibosh on a work shift, helping the bloke who sells the international phone cards. Instead, she spent her time feeding DVDs into the machine and crisps into the kid in the hope of getting some free head space. But after a couple of hours, Carol knew the only way to get through the day without going stark staring was to pop to the offy for a few cans. Whatever it takes to get through the day, she thought. She felt like shit. It was no big drama involving changes in the order of the universe, just everyday wear and tear while standing in the debris of ennui and hope denied.
Finally, the kid was put safely in the hands of a mate, who said to the pub-bound Carol: “Be careful out there,” in an American accent, like that yank TV cop.
In the Duke of Connaught, Carol is the nub of the hubbub. Tottering precariously from one drinker to another, the more drunk she gets the more of a hunk he becomes — if you put on dark glasses, squint, avoid noticing the beer gut and turn away when he speaks in order to dodge the dog breath. Flirting, flashing a bit of tit and shouting out stuff during the pub quiz, like: “Who’s the drummer in The Kaiser Chiefs? Dunno, but I bet he’s got a tiny cock. And I bet he can’t get it up in any case — like most of the alkies in ‘ere!”
Her conversation is loaded with trash innuendo and outrage: harmless nonsense; rubbish one-liners; the blessing of talking bollocks. Some people, though, are annoyed by Carol’s cocky craziness. Very annoyed. They think of her as … provocative, and Carol gets some funny looks from some very unfunny geezers; monsters seemingly disgorged by some dark underground.
Be careful out there.
“The best thing about being a bloke,” says Mark to some other blokes while wiping lager spillage from his face. “Is that even going to the toilet is a bonus.”
Eyebrows are raised in puzzlement.
“When I have a slash,” he continues, “and I’ve finished, yeah?”
“Well, I squeeze instead of shake.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he continues, arms spread. “I don’t overdo it – I don’t wanna be waltzing about the kharzi with a hard on, some fuckers might get the wrong idea.”
“Just enough to put a smile on my face — or, rather, on me head,” he adds, frowning because he’s not sure whether he should have talked so openly about his toilet habits.
“Ah, fuck it,” he says. “I’m going for a piss.”
The others jeer, making wanker signs at his back. He turns around looking daggers — a stare caught by Carol, who thinks: what a tosser.
But there are others in the pub who would certainly not dare to talk out loud about their extracurricular activities, their little peccadillos. Peter, for instance, who looks at Carol as she passes.
“I hate ugly birds,” he says.
“They’re all right,” says Don.
“How do you make that out?”
“If they’re ugly, you can do what you want to them in bed. And they take it, cos they know they’re ugly, and they’re lucky to get anything at all. They’re grateful. And then you boot them out in the morning.”
“Reminds me of the 60s,” says Peter, who spent the Summer of Love spreading diseases.
Carol vaguely hears this conversation, and absorbs it through the fuzz of booze. Her energy has dissipated to the extent that she thinks about getting home, navigating the endless impossibilities of brutalist council estates, sweltering in the summer night. The place is floundering, dehydrated, dying from lack. Speed frozen.
“So this machine…” pontificates a bloke, whose face suddenly contorts in anger after noticing his newly-poured pint of bitter.
“Oi, darling, I said lager,” he screams at the barmaid.
“I thought you wanted…” she starts.
“Nah,” he says.
“I thought…” she half whispers.
“Listen darling,” he says, making sure he’s got the attention of the blokes at the bar. “Don’t think. What you want to do is take another tablet, luv. Take another pill to help you with your head cos this pill, the one you’ve obviously been taking, isn’t doing anything for you. Cos you’re still stupid. You need something to make you a bit cleverer, girl. You need a clever pill. Just do us a favour and don’t think.”
Everyone laughs as the red-faced barmaid pours another pint. Of lager.
“…sell the machine for £400…” continues the bloke, who is interrupted by the barmaid trying to make amends by joining in with the mob.
“Why?” she enquires about the machine.
The man looks at her, then at his friends, and then at the barmaid again.
“Do you want me to draw you a diagram, luv!? he says.
“Paint you a picture, darling?”
“Do a little Pic-arse-hole, so that you can see what I’m on about?” he shouts: “IT’S NOT FUCKING ROCKET SCIENCE.”
Carol, meanwhile, makes it to the toilet cubicle, drool coming out of her mouth, but avoids being sick. “Fuck,” she says. “Fuck fuck fuck,” and wishes she hadn’t given her number to a couple of the pub psychos before she realised they were animals, wishes she hadn’t told the mental geezer with the toupee that he could walk home with her, wishes she hadn’t said at the bar loudly, “I don’t care if people think I’m a slag just cos I like blokes. I don’t care.”
Some people, she now thinks, may have taken it the wrong way. Carol smells of gin and lager and lime and regret.
The graffiti on the cubicle door reads: “Stuck? Have a wank!”
Yeah, right, Carol thinks. Instead, she pulls out her mobile.
A few people – most of them bulging with hang-ups and hatred – look on expectantly as Carol walks out of the bog. Their eyes say: your time is coming, girl. You’re going to get it.
As Carol moves away in the direction of the door, the men stand up to follow. A faraway energy envelopes everything: fear.
Outside, a trashed old couch, springs uncoiling, nestles in the corner of some waste ground. A small black cat slinks through the humid evening. There is the squeal of tyre rubber on tarmac.
Carol stops by the door. So do the men.
Another bloke looks up from the book he is reading and says to his mate. “Why are tales of poor people, the underclass, those who encounter daily aggro, crime, humiliation, disappointment and death, so titillating to literary thrill-seekers looking for books in which the dirt is a credential of reality?”
There is no answer.
Carol gulps. The men smile.
Suddenly, a bloke walks in to the pub.
“Mini cab for Carol?” he asks.
Carol breathes an audible sigh of relief. Saved!
The sense of disappointment emanating from the men is almost palpable and compensatory rounds of lager are ordered.
The cab driver looks around the boozer, takes in the vicious vibe, and leads Carol by the arm. “Come on,” he says, “Let’s get out of here quick.”
A parting v-sign, and Carol stumbles out of the door. Once more, she has looked into the abyss, but managed to break off the hypnotic, calamitous gaze before being sucked in.
“It was getting a bit iffy in there,” she says to the cabby. “Glad you responded to my call so quick.”
“Come on,” he pulls, his grip tightening on her arm.
“Where’s your cab?” she asks.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “It’s just round the corner,” he points to somewhere vague, dark and desolate.
There is silence for a minute while things – the horrible truth – sink in.
Be careful out there? Too late!
“Front or back?” he asks, rhetorically, as they approach his car.
Front or back? You couldn’t make it up, she thinks, dragged into the undertow of a dreadful dream with its unsettling logic, a silence in which a truth can be glancingly confronted — a truth which makes clear that in life, as in melodrama, those of ill-luck and no prospects are usually allowed to escape from sticky situations but only into even stickier ones.
“You couldn’t make it up,” says Carol, to no one, really as she is dragged into the car.