It'd been a lot of years since either me or Gauntlets had lived in Brixton but we still maintained "ties to the community" and both of us dined out successfully on having lived in Brixton, in the ghetto, back in the day.
For all I know the man who died was evil incarnate and the guys on the bike were the Angels of Heaven.
Gauntlets was house-sitting his girlfriend's flat off Brixton Water Lane and I was living on Kings Cross Road. He invited me south for dinner one night and I think it was lamb or something like that. I like lamb. It was a tight-fitting sweltering summer night. London on such nights has an atmosphere. No jackets or hoodies, just people in t-shirts or blouses or sandals.
After dinner we listened to music, smoked something, and I watched a classic boxing match on the TV. I remember hearing She Was Hot by the Stones. Gauntlet's girlfriend had satellite and it was Ali versus Joe Frazier. The second time. If my memory serves me well.
I saw Ali two times. One time uptown doing a book signing and one time in Brixton when he pulled up on the street close to the Tube station and was mobbed by about 500 hip hop black youth, plus proper Jamaican rastas, ragga boys from the boombox generation plus older black guys looking on shyly and admiringly - knowing they were young once when he was young and now look at him, look at even him!
It must have been a weekend night because I wanted to leave earlyish to avoid the white office folks drunken revelry. I never travelled through London on anything other than buses. I liked listening in on conversations; I still liked looking down on the world from the upper floor. It was cheap.
I made my way to the northbound 2 bus stop. It was getting on for midnight and there was barrio-style nightlife floating by. I stood alone at the stop. New generation squatters heading south and uphill to the same council estate buildings where I long ago squatted. Black schoolgirls in their fabulous array of black expensive garments. Handsome teenage black boys in shy noisy gangs. Poor older white men bustling home clutching plastic bags holding milk or a tabloid or two tins of beer. I saw it all, I watched it all, in a reverie of amazement and admiration.
A lot of people were gathered around the door of a basement nightclub about fifty yards south on the other side of the street. I counted two clusters of perhaps ten people lingering, mixed groups of boyfriends and girlfriends just waiting to get in. All black and, so far as I could tell from the accents wafting down the hill in my direction, mostly English. Fashions right out of the latest scene. Also there were five or six bouncer style black guys dressed in top-of-the-range black sports gear. They were that bit too far away for me to make out labels or facial features. It looked like a swell party.
The 2 was slow in coming; it had a long way to travel. South London is a vast, mysterious indefinite territory. I fiddled with my phone, erasing old messages. I heard a cheap sound system playing Nick Cave. I looked across the street. I looked at the fried chicken shack. There were two black women in their mid thirties who, a little drunk, clung onto one another, laughing hoarsely like they were sexier than they really were. I looked at Patel's newsagents.
I don't know how long it'd been there but I noticed for the first time this top end recent black Kawasaki parked directly opposite me near a street corner, almost in a shadow. The driver gently revved the engine while his passenger calmly alighted and rearranged himself. Both were dressed in brand new black leathers and both wore identical carbon full face motorcycle helmets with the visors down. They looked immaculate and anonymous, science fictional, on that littered side street.
The passenger strode purposefully uphill and away from us. He walked in the direction of the crowd on the street outside the club. As he did so he unzipped his black leather jacket and removed from some inner holder what looked like a cellular phone or a camera.
I saw it was a gun in one euphoric moment of realisation as the passenger's stride brought him up next to the clubbers at the very same moment that he raised his right arm, took aim at one of the crowd, they screamed, not all of them of course, mainly the women, the men were more inclined to duck for cover,
Like in an avant garde ballet move a young black guy fell to the ground as his assassin turned calmly and, at a moderate sprint, made his way back to his awaiting driver, who now stood up excitedly in the saddle before he guided the Kawasaki right onto the edge of the street corner and out of the shadow.
The killer mounted the bike, holding onto the driver's shoulders for balance as he did so. They seemed to pause of the street right opposite me before the bike revved off into the boisterous night. I watched it all calmly from the shadows. The Kawasaki headed uphill in the direction of Tulse Hill, passing the 2 bus as it came down the hill towards me.
The bus ground to a halt at my stop to leave off two besuited white men in their late thirties. There was something old fashioned or zoot suited about them. I decided not to grab that particular bus but to hang around a moment, see what happened next.
There were now three dreadlocked black youth staring down gloomily at their obviously dead companion. The clubbers who'd witnessed the killing had disappeared into the night and the basement club's patrons - maybe 70 of them - were streaming out onto the street and away with incredible decorum and lack of panic.
A huge lumbering old English car, a Humber or a Wolsley, drove past me and stopped in front of the club. Two older blacks with bodybuilder physiques emerged from the club carrying between them one of those old fashioned shipping trunks you never see anymore. The driver of the car got out, opened the luggage booth, and the other two flung the trunk in there. They couldn't close the booth down due to the size of the trunk.
The driver opened the car's back door and returned to his own seat, shutting his door inaudibly.
The two doing the heavy lifting took the corpse, one holding him by the legs, the other getting a grip under his arms, and flung him, limp, onto the car's back seat, shutting the door. The driver headed slowly off south, also in a Tulse Hill direction. Then the club dudes locked the front door, got into a four wheel drive with the dreadlocked youths, and they drove south.
As they reached the top of the hill I saw another 2 coming my way. I caught it.
Joe Ambrose wrote 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe sadly passed away in 2018. Visit Joe's website which was completed just before his passing, for more info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.
about Joe Ambrose »»
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