I’m sitting outside the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, one of the few places in London I enjoy. I lived here in the eighties, when the immigrant population was still predominantly Caribbean and Portuguese. Forty years on, I’m waiting for my daughter, all grown up and successful now. She slept at her boyfriend’s last night, and gave me her room. We’re meeting for brunch.
These days there’s a greater range of people – Turks, Koreans, North Africans, and an influx of white yuppies which is driving prices up and more interesting people away. Despite the gentrification, the vibe is still pretty good, with plenty of street food and music and preachers and a multiplicity of quirky independent businesses. Brixton, except when it periodically explodes in riots, greets change with sardonic humour. When a fancy winebar called Champagne and Cheese opened in the covered market a year or two ago, it was picketed by locals handing out out cans of White Diamond and Kraft Cheese Slices.
I’m having a bad morning. Problems with my bank, problems with my phone. I’m fiddling with it, getting increasingly exasperated, and when someone stops beside me and says ‘Excuse me, can I ask you…’ in a foreign accent, I don’t even look up.
‘I’ve got my own problems, mate,’ I mutter, but he keeps standing there.
‘I am sorry. I ask only one cigarette,’ he says.
‘Take a seat,’ I say, gesturing to the chair across the table. He sits down and waits while I finish what I’m doing. Eventually I succeed in making this phone address itself to the correct SIM card, and look at him.
He’s not a big man. His hair is cropped and receding, and his face is tracked with at least half a dozen razor-straight, six-inch raised scars traveling in all directions like a meteor shower.
I apologize for my rudeness.
‘No, no, no,’ he says, in extravagantly Italian-accented English. ‘I, I apologize to you. I do not want to disturb. I think only you look like a good man.’
I offer him a cigarette, saying, ‘If you’ll smoke it here.’ He assents. After some persuasion, he gives in to a coffee but refuses food. This despite the fact, I find out, that he slept in a garbage bin last night and hasn’t eaten yet today.
He is Giovanni, known locally as Johnny. Italian on his father’s side, Romanian on his mother’s.
I tell him I’m here from Saigon, taking care of my father for the summer. Feeding him up. Since the death of my mother six months ago, he has got awfully thin. A man of his generation doesn’t know much about cooking, and by the time he’s fed all the animals who have outlived her and done some work in the garden or the house, he’s too exhausted to do anything but microwave a TV dinner. He needs nourishment and company. I fill him up with fresh vegetables, chicken, meat and sauces and salad, and we drink sloe gin and wine and watch football games and talk about our lives, for the first time ever, really. He has accepted my mother’s death after so much pain, but still can’t talk about her easily.
Giovanni commiserates, and compliments me for being a good son.
‘Not really,’ I say. ‘Just trying to make up for being such a bad one.’ But I’m not here to talk about myself, I want to know about him.
He is – or was – a soldier: a secret soldier, as he puts it. He has fought in many places, but for whom, he won’t say. ‘Don’t ask me,’ he says. ‘I will never tell you that.’
In 2004 he was in Afghanistan when they, whoever ‘they’ are, pulled him out and sent him to Madrid in the aftermath of the bombing, ‘to put down Al Qaeda’. As it transpired, he didn’t get to kill any terrorists, and ended up pulling bodies, living and dead, out of the wreckage of Atocha.
‘I am strong’, he says. ‘I can carry…’ and he mimes carrying a burden under each arm – ‘two people, no problem.’ To demonstrate his point, he reaches across and grips my shoulder. ‘I am strong.’
I have never felt such force in a hand. Jesus! A hydraulic grip. The grip of a man who is used to handling heavy weapons. I don’t doubt for moment he could crush my throat with one hand.
He releases my shoulder and sits back down. I massage my shoulder, grinning, and ask him, ‘Was it real?’ He looks at me for a moment. ‘Al Qaeda,’ I say. ‘Was it real?’
He nods, but the nod is not his answer. ‘I don’t know,’ he says, with a twitch of the shoulder. ‘It was terribile. Terrible.’
My question is not to the point. While in Madrid, he got a message from his father in Romania. The message said to return home as soon as possible.
Soon was not a problem. Giovanni got himself on a military transport and was there within twelve hours.
At the house, his father, brothers and sister were waiting with lowered eyes. ‘Where is mama?’ he asked. And again. ‘Where is mama?’ From their faces he already knew the truth, but it was a long time before they could bring themselves to answer him.
Now, tears are running down his face, sliding like pinballs along his scars and snagging on his chin-stubble before falling. The zigzag of their trails reminds me, for a moment, of the roots of a mangrove tree.
They took him outside. Not only was his mother dead, she was already in the ground. This was too much for him. ‘Why you don’t tell me?’ he appeals to them. ‘Why you don’t send me message?’
He hadn’t even known she was sick. And between his broken English and the incoherence of his tears, I never get the reason clear – whether it was problems contacting him, or some family politics that caused the delay, or… At this point, leaning back to gesture, he over-stresses the flimsy plastic chair and topples backwards in a cartoon collapse, alarming the coffee-drinkers around us, and then excessively apologizing to all present before dusting himself off and re-seating himself carefully.
He is highly embarrassed, and he pulls himself together. He wipes his face.
‘After, I don’t go back. I have no…’ touching his heart and his stomach. ‘I don’t want – no more.’
So he went his own way. His employers, however, were not so easily shrugged off. Polite, but insistent.
He moved around, and eventually turned up in London, where he found a woman, moved in with her and worked for her uncle as a butcher.
He chops downwards with his hand. ‘Good job for me,’ he says.
‘Strong,’ I say, and leave it at that.
But the affair ended, the job fell through, and he ended up on the streets, sleeping in garbage bins for warmth.
‘They want me to go back. I don’t go. They want me to fight Putin. Putin is… hard!’ He shakes his head. ‘I am not stupid. You want to fight Putin, go ahead! Me, I don’t go.’
At this point my daughter turns up with her boyfriend.
I introduce everybody. My daughter is beautiful, in the most natural, unpretentious way. Huge eyes, beautiful face, she throws on some clothes from her exploding wardrobe, goes out with hair wet from the shower, and draws secret looks of outright hatred from jealous women looking her up and down on the underground. I’ve seen it. She is also very tolerant and open, and if she finds me sitting with some battle-scarred stranger she doesn’t bat an eyelid.
Giovanni stands to greet her with old-world charm, taking her hand with a little bow, shakes hands with the boyfriend, and we all sit. ‘We don’t talk no more about …’ he whispers to me. ‘Not polite.’ I nod.
Conversation flows easily, and Giovanni looks utterly thrilled to be part of an ordinary gathering. He asks questions and shows great interest in these beautiful young people’s lives.
I go inside to find the toilet, and while I’m there I stuff some notes into my nearly empty pack of cigarettes. We have already established that he won’t accept any money – it was hard enough to get him to have a coffee.
When the three of us take our leave, I shove the cigarette pack against his refusing palms. ‘Take it,’ I say, sternly, like I won’t take no for an answer. Then, as an afterthought, ‘Hey, you want to meet up tomorrow? I’ll be here same time.’ He just smiles, and raises a hand. But I catch another glimpse of that lingering, disorienting grief as I turn away.
My daughter is walking ahead of me. In these times I worry about her safety. She loves Brixton and was living here when the appalling violence of the 2011 riots erupted, lying low in her apartment over a shop in Electric Avenue, while neighbours stood guard outside their shops with baseball bats and shotguns. Bad things were happening in the streets around. Looting and fires, white people getting pulled from mobbed cars and stripped and beaten, the police standing down.
Next day I wait an hour for him but he doesn’t show. I walk around, but there’s no sign. I ask a few people, but they don’t know him. Maybe he didn’t catch what I said. Maybe the money was a mistake, and I embarrassed him. Maybe he used it to get on a train, who knows? God – or someone – knows where he is now. Out there, in the mouth of the wolf.
In bocca al lupo.
That wolf doesn’t stand a fucking chance.