The train that arrives is either 28 minutes late or seven minutes early and Graeme is fairly sure which of those two it is most likely to be, even though the poster on the waiting room wall is telling him that 97.3 percent of all trains have arrived at or in advance of their ETA over the past month.
He takes a seat at the back of the carriage, unconsciously always giving himself easy access to an escape route, and immediately plugs in his earphones, starts listening to a mix he’s downloaded, one of the guys who works in the Shepherd’s Bush branch who has a micro label he’s running of what he’s called Post-Intelligent Dance Music, which lead Chris, the Metalhead, to say one night in the Pub, so you mean Stupid Dance Music? There’s already plenty of that around mate. You going to be re-releasing Two Unlimited’s back catalogue? To which Stan, face flushed, said Post doesn’t mean Anti or Non does it? It doesn’t mean the Opposite of, it means After, to which Chris said, what’s after Intelligent then? and Stan who basically went to Goldsmiths, came out with some long, complicated justification for the term and everyone got bored and started joining in the piss-taking saying stuff like, your missus is post-attractive and that band are well post-good, geezaaahhh and this beer is post-tasty and Chris’s mate Noggin started doing his famous spot-on Tick ‘n’ Tock comedy 80s robotic dancing by the pool table and going “this beat is Technotronic!” to general hilarity. Only Graeme didn’t join in, saying yeah mate you do your own thing, you do your own thing. He tries to be supportive of Stan, more maybe because he’s been on the receiving end of the piss-taking too than anything else.
The mix was of a genre that Stan was calling Weird Big Beat.
It is a long mix that doesn’t seem to be either weird or Big Beat and has what he thinks is actually a Tim Hardin track stuck in the middle for some reason that Graeme can’t quite figure out, but is probably a smart part of Stan's overall concept that he just doesn’t get, and he is still half listening to it, staring out of the window, his mind drifting when Joolzy gets on at Dartford and comes striding up the aisle toward him. Graeme pulls his earphones out to greet him.
“Badman!” Joolzy says and slaps his outstretched hand, sits down in the seat across the aisle. hears the mix, super tinny at that tiny volume, leaking from the earphones, pulls a face.
”That that Stan’s Weird Big Beat Mix, blud?”
“Yeah,” Graeme says, “ it’s...”
Joolzy sucks between his teeth and lifts his left eyebrow.
"Weird Big Beat? The FUCK is Weird Big Beat bruv? That is officially, officially, get me, the Least Weird Music. Ever. You might as well try and sell me, I dunno. Tranquil Gaba! Fucking. Downtempo Happy Hardcore! That. Is. Some. Bullshit that mix, bruv."
Verdict delivered, Joolzy settles back in his seat.
Grame’s spirits lift. He likes Joolzy, a regular from the record shop days and he’s glad he’s up for coming down to Margate. He’s a good laugh, even though, even though he’s had some hard times, Joolzy. He can tell you some stories. More importantly he isn’t on his own any more. Joolzy would have your back, if things got bad. Travelling alone these days he is anxious all the time. Never used to be like that even five years ago, even two years ago. He tells Joolzy about the confrontation in the Post Office the previous day as Joolzy shakes his head and whistles between his teeth.
“No respect, man. No respect. First up against the wall these pussyoles, man. Man say that to me he’d be brown bread bruv, get me?”
Graeme nods, yeah, yeah, Joolzy can look after himself all right, but they both know the truth. If anybody is going up against a wall in the near-to-mid term, chances are it’s them.
For half an hour or so they settle back into their own worlds, half private, half public, their interfaced bubble, fiddling with their phones. checking streams and feeds, messages, making sporadic conversation around clicks and scrolls, screen taps, downloads, games, showing each other photos.
Graeme gets a message from Nick Skilling aka DJ Skillz. Hi. Cheers.I can't get out of work early today, you’ll have to swing by my office. Cheers. Nick. and a link to Google maps. As he’s checking it out another message arrives. Just ask for Nick at reception.
Good, good. I love it when a plan comes together! Everything gonna be all right this morning!
At Ashford International a harassed looking couple in business suits get on and are angrily saying excuse me, excuse me, honestly, before Graeme has even had a chance to swivel back into his seat from showing Joolzy a particularly mentalist clip from the legendary Glasgow Gaba night Plywood back in 95, saying, looks tranquil to me and Joolzy laughing saying, that must be the chillout room bruv. The women muttering something under her breath, could be racial, hard to hear, plausibly deniable, the man behind striding past with what could be interpreted as an aloof, a supercilious, a disapproving air.
“Maybe you two need to chill out a bit. You look like you’re a bit stressed out.” Joolzy shouts over to them as they put their bags and briefcases up in the luggage rack and separate out the all-important laptops, the woman furiously brushing crumbs off the surface of the table they are about to sit at.
“I said you two look a bit stressed out.”
The woman bites first. “Yes well. We have been working, actually. Do you know what that is?”
Joolzy produces a can of Stella from his bag and cracks it. "Only fools and horses work, from what I have heard.” He raises it in a mock salute. “Looking at you love, I am not sure which one you are.” He slurps foam from the rim of the can ostentatiously.
“Well, " she says. She looks to be mid-Thirties and has a mass of damp curly auburn hair. "I am certain that you’re a fool. A non-working fool.”
“I am hung like a horse, though.”
Graeme laughs. Cheeky.
The man in the suit, still rummaging irritably in his travel bag, swivels on his heels. “OK,” he says “that’s enough of that.” He points at the pair of them. “You two need to behave yourselves. You shouldn’t be drinking on public transport.”
Immediately Joolzy stands up and Graeme feels his delight curdle. Joolzy isn’t especially big, five ten, but he seems bigger. Confidence does that. The sense that you have a right to occupy the space around you, the sense that you can expand into it. That sense that Graeme, always shrinking further and further away inside himself, has never really understood.
“I am not one of your employees, bruv. Do you get me? You might tell them what to do, you don’t start giving me orders.”
“Well you never will be one of my employees, will you? Or anybody’s,” Suitman says, and his jaw's tight, his eyes have got a shine to them and Graeme knows, yeah, that’s how it is, you are one step away, one step, one wrong turn, one wrong word from disaster these days.
Joolzy steps out into the aisle and leans confidentially forward, pouting, brow furrowed looking Suitman up and down. “The trains going to pull out of this station in 30 seconds. The next station’s fifteen minutes away. Do you want to be stuck. On this train. With me. For fifteen minutes. Cause you’re” he leans in even further, drops his voice to a near whisper “all alone, bruv.”
“Well the police will be waiting for you at that station.” Suitman’s voice stays professionally clipped but is thick with rage. He raises his Blackberry. “Shall I phone them now?”
“Phone them, make the call. That gives me 15 long minutes. To fuck you up.” The train has pulled out now with a clank and a soft, accelerating surge. “I don’t think I’m going to need that long.”
The woman, who has been busy opening and powering up her laptop says “Oh you two stop waving your dicks around, this is adolescent.”
“You giving orders too now, is it ?”
“Yes, that’s right “she says, “because someone has to. Someone in this country has to. Are you going to “fuck me up” too?”
Joolzy sticks out his bottom lip and raises his eyebrows. “ Why not? You might as well be hanged for a...... horseface as a ....pussyclaat!”’ Then, he can't help it, he half laughs at his own ingenuity. Where did that come from?
“Whatever, whatever.” He waves his fingers in Suitman’s face. Begone.
Suitman sits down, shaking his head. Joolzy screwfaces the woman for a few seconds then blows air out between his lips and shrugs.
“Pussyclat!” he announces to the virtually empty carriage.
Graeme’s relieved. Good, it has calmed down. He doesn’t want any run-ins with the police. From what he’s heard prison is even worse than Giveback, or as Hooky, the one friend he made on his Nursing course liked to say, Giveback by other means. It is easier and easier to get locked up these days mostly for resisting arrest when the police have “warranted suspicion”. Whatever that means. Total policing, tough sentencing, hard labour. He imagines he is only ever one step away from some infringement or infraction that will see him up in court. Prison, that’s the nightmare.
“You’ve been inside right Joolzy.”
Joolzy is sitting back down now, sipping at the can. He nods. “Twice bruv.”
“How was it?”
“I am not going to lie to you. Rough. But you know, prison now is not what it was, it’s a work camp. You’re on a twelve, fourteen hour shift, 20 minute breaks for meals, then ten hours locked down. No TV. No weed. No visits, no phone. Zero.”
“What were you in for?” Graeme knows but somehow it is comforting to hear it again, to imagine that it came about through some set of circumstances that could never apply to him, or that now, more clued up about it, he could somehow sidestep.
“Both times mate they fitted me up for civil disorder. That is a heavy charge these days. I am lucky I went away when I did. I know people getting ten years, ten, for that these days. First time was when they had the riots up in Croydon, they just took in anyone and everyone. Fitted them up. Second time I got two years for holding an illegal party out on the Isle of Dogs. Two years.” He shakes his head. “But you know what, if I need to go back again, I will. If that’s how it’s going to go down, fuck it.”
“Fuck it!” he announces to the train, then keeps going, his voice loud, aiming his words at the couple three seats down, heads buried in their laptop screens. “Lot of people in this country got nothing to live for. Lot of people in this country thinking more and more everyday, fuck it. Lot of the youth getting very restless, man. Very restless. What am I supposed to be telling them, you know, in my role as mentor to the troubled youth of London? Keep your nose clean, work hard? For what? It’s a piss-take.”
“It’s a piss-take,” he says again more quietly, and put his knees up on the seat in front. Vexed.
Fucking piss-take. This country.