That lot will be in Square now, ennet. I’ll have to hurry up to catch the game before they start. I tug on his leash. See the dog’s rough and muddied-up backside go by a tree stump. He ups his back leg to piss, sniffing and scratching and tongue out, blah. I shuck my hands in my pockets and wait. The taste of toothpaste on my teeth. I tug again at Max but he won’t go. Swear this dog can be so long.
Suttan catches my eye and I look down at the tree stump. There are messages cut into the wood, cut along chipped and pointed angles. Try read them. They names like Magda, Sylwia, Fozia. Forked lettering done with blades. Dorota and suttan like Mateja. It’s them Polish youngers who live around here, ennet. Tree stump already marked up by them yout. Unlucky fam, I say to Max as I finally pull him away from his piss mark. Place is already claimed by them Polish.
We walk on.
These names make me think about what my dad used to say about these areas. Cricklewood and them sides. Used to say how it was all Irish around here. Irish names cut into wood back then. Everything just switched hands at some point, like bish-bash-bosh to the next lot. Polish settled this time. Might be the Somalis next, or Albanians. Hard-nut lot, ennet. Fucking Turks, maybe.
I turn the corner into Market Road toward Estate. I draw the morning snot up my nose. I hear some grime beat from a block around the corner. I recognize it instantly. Course I do. It’s BowE3 by Wiley. I look up at the fly-papered wall at East Block. Try to figure which window it’s coming from. That’s music for a basic living. Filled with the noises of cursed foil, kicked-down doors and borough folklore. Same sounds found in all Ends, ours included. You trace the new music to the old and see the marks in it, same as them names in the stump.
I take out my phone and pass through a playlist. Look at these names. I got Lethal B, got Jammer. Bit of Wiley, bit of Bashy. Now these donnies are bringing it hard, Giggs and Scratchy and that. I need suttan early like D Double E, Ghetts, or Akala. Original street fighters, road rappers, champions. I skip back and find Kano. Kano it is for now. I tap for Home Sweet Home and move through banger after banger, P’s and Q’s, Typical Me, Mic Check, and then settle my thumb on How We Livin. Press play. A slow one, melodic and conscious. The tin intro starts where he has nuttan to say and I listen on.
Proper tune, understated.
Most man-tho, even Selvon and Yoos, they still on their Yankee-made hip-hop. Allow that. Why be on that gas when London’s got our own good moves? Even if. Even if it sounds ugly, cold, and sparse. Even if the beats are angry, under scuddy verses, it’s the same noise as on road. Eskibeat, ennet. Why would any man keep listening to Americans with their foreign chemistries after that? Nobody from Ends been to Queensbridge, get me?
I thumb the tracks and skip back to Skepta and tap a random track to hear them coarse, snarling bars. Gingerbread Man starts and I pass under the entrance to Estate. I hear it as a soundtrack. I see the lads playing in Square in front of me. The four blocks against the sky. Under Skepta’s clarity this place assumes a bashiness that makes the court come off like it’s a battle-dome. A place of ill-purpose, full of sketchy humor and distinction. Square played to meaning, ennet. Our meaning. My own.
I come up pulling Max along, scoping the scene and wary of any eyes on me. I see the Estate lot cotching in court. Richard and Omar by the fence. Had trouble with them before. Them idiots from East Block see me as a dickhead. Allow them. I shake it off, check my creps and make sure I’m looking fresh. Best not slip today. Best not say anything stupid or gay. They’ll call me a pussyo or say suttan about my mums, else. Just shut up and play, ennet, I tell myself. I pull Max closer. It looks like them Eastern European lot are here to play too. That’s good. At least I can deflect to them if I need to. No-one likes them off-Estate Polish lot, so it’ll be easier. Yoos and Selvon are on the other side of the court passing a ball between each other. I walk toward them. I listen to Skepta’s final verse and roll into a bop as soon it ends. I open the gate. I nod at Yoos and Selvon and walk through.
Yes, you man, I say. Selvon looks up at me and I grin.
Proper on that jogging shit ain’t you? I say. Why you running around Square for tho? I saw you. You asking to get robbed, blood? You off-Estate fucker.
I laugh like it ain’t nuttan, like I didn’t mean anything.
He shakes his head and digs in his bag, brushing it off. Richard and Omar are laughing too, watching me. They know I was joking. Selvon is just as Estate as me and Yoos and the rest. Selvon gets respect from everyone. What I said doesn’t stick anyway. Nuttan sticks to Selvon. Everyone laughs it off, meaning it as a joke, which it was. I’m glad about it and Selvon looks at me. He shakes his head and takes water from his bottle. I laugh back at him and the others laugh like it’s just banter.
Yeah, I’ll let you off. I’ll let you off, I say, and that’s the end of it.
I throw my bag next to his. I take the leash and tie Max to the fence. He sits and sniffs at the other bags and clothes. Take my earbuds out and pause the music. Unclip the wires and dash it at my bag. I keep my phone in my back pocket. I step over and use my BBK hoodie as a cover. It’s the black one with the white print that Ma got me for my sixteenth, ennet. She had to save for it. Worn now. I brush off some crust from the sleeve as I kneel down.
Them Polish lot today is it, we playing? I ask Selvon. He crouches next to me and looks out at the court.
Yeah. They’re Serbian, he says and spits.
I look at the spit stain on the concrete ground by his feet. His spit always darts out his mouth like the way you see footballers do in matches. I can never do that with my teeth. Maybe you need a gap like Selvon has. I stand up and stretch my arms. I think about the court and concrete and the goal on the far side. I go through the same motions as the others. I find space and raise my hand for a pass. Darren sends me the ball. I watch as it skids across the concrete to feet. I take my left foot and step back so my right foot can tip it up. I do a few kick-ups and catch the ball with my arms. I look up and see Yoos. He is stepping back, waiting. I let the ball drop from my hands and I send it high over to him. It drifts all the way up and everyone follows the ball and Yoos catches it with a nice touch. It’ll be two-nil in no time.
I lose them for a mo as I stare up at West Block rooftop. I think about how I feel good when I’m with this lot but I am never myself, like. I think about being careful and not saying anything unless it’s suttan everyone has heard before. Unless it’s safe and I’m safe and they think that I’m safe. I scratch my head in the sunshine and I feel the breeze growing on the back of my neck. Got bare issues, swear down.
Look at Selvon. The ball comes to me and I chip it to him who collects it easily. How can I be more like Selvon? I see him, tall and broad. I remember what happened that time one of my chains got nicked from my bag. Selvon had my back, ennet. We were all first-years at St Mary’s. All them fresh school uniforms and shoes too squeaky for them corridors. Truesay, them casual bullies from older years gave me a source for the odd rhyme later on, still. But it was one of them PE classes when I come back and seen my chain gone. Bare confounding drama if I told a teacher or counsellor or suttan so I stayed zipped about it. Ain’t no snitch, obviously. It was only Selvon and Yoos I told about how it was the chain my dad had given me. I’d worn it since Dad left and I was secretly brewing about it. Shit, we even knew who took it as well. It was all the same breddas in that year’s strata. Alex Mpenzu most likely or one of the other black-boy crews. Alex was the despot that first year, ennet, French-speaking Congolese or suttan else African equatorial. Anyway. Within a week my chain appeared back in my bag, proper bafflement. I felt like a donut thinking maybe I missed it when I was searching for it but I knew I never did. The dots weren’t worth connecting at the time but I remembered later that Selvon had mentioned once that he knew where Alex lived. Selvon. He was the one that reconned it and got my chain back for me. He must have snuck it back into my bag. Fuck knows why he did it honestly but I was grateful. Selvon was one of them ones where you never knew what happened to him in the hours when you weren’t with him. Always on his own ting as if he weren’t really part of the scene we were all part of. Either way, we never really spoke about it after that.
My ears twitch hearing suttan familiar.
Oh shit, they playing Roll Deep’s When I’m ’Ere. I look over to the corner of South and North Block. Where? The sound blaring out of Charles’s car. Roll Deep yuno. That Charles knows his tunes, man. Making my brain nod to it. Proper tune mate. Head starts flowing to that Danny Weed tune. My neck looser, my eyes narrow and hazing watching the football ping around. I hear myman Wiley’s voice and to my eyes the tune dictates the play. Listen. I feel the wave pass over their faces, the brap-brap-cannon light them up. All heads start going but none sway as hard as mine, going to the beat. The rest of them feel small to me now, distant and tamed. Right now I feel like a king between the posts, only my hands left and the Estate blocks around me buzzing. I remember what this music does to my bones, fam. I’m bait about it too. My feet start moving on the goal line. The tune holds me as I watch the game play and I feel the echo of the music around the Square.
Someone kicks Selvon’s ball over the gate and the game stops mid-flow.
Now the music swells as if it just won a battle. I close my eyes and think of nuttan except the music, hearing my own voice come back to me. I’ll make music like this one day, swear down, and I’ll press all the fuckery I’m feeling into it.
I open my eyes and look up at the silhouette in the sky blocking the sun. It’s Yoos. He’s sweating and grinning at me from above.
Yes, fam. I smile and he sits.