Servant of the Gentle
by Sandeep Sandhu
“You sailed away on your own river, left this land—
O snapped branch of my passion’s storm.”
—Grief, Forugh Farrokhzad
The candescent street lamp spat out orange light. It slithered through the boarded-up window, illuminating the dust and smoke that was dancing around the room. Latif sat on a makeshift bed: a mattress, resting on a thin steel sheet in a darkened corner of the room. His flickering presence was only noticeable when he took another hit of his joint and a small ring of fire briefly burst into life. The harsh cloud rushed down then up his throat, and he watched the grey haze swirl into the light and disappear. He allowed static to engulf him, and soon he’d drifted off into an uneasy slumber.
When Latif awoke, the light that shone through was a different kind. It attacked his eyelids with a playful aggression, like a puppy learning the limits of its strength. He had wriggled into comfort during the night, but under daylight the bed was cold and scratchy on his bare skin, each little shift of his drawing out warmth from the duvet like a gas leak. The taste of the morning was settled in his mouth. He tried to hold onto the ghost of his slumber, but it had melted under the sun. It was time to get up.
There was no tossing and turning; he made the decision. Latif was on his feet and headed towards a mini fridge on the other side of the room, from which he conjured some milk. This became part of a bowl of cereal, which he mostly stared at. He lingered over the remainder for a few minutes, tapping the spoon against the side of the bowl like a metronome, before throwing the soggy remains into a bucket in the hallway just outside the room he currently called home. The bucket itself had been emptied of its more solid waste the previous evening, which meant the concoction inside now consisted of piss, milk, and bran flakes.
He jogged downstairs, opened the door of the abandoned factory that housed him, and momentarily relaxed, drinking in the day. The yawning sun caressed his skin and sent pleasure tingling through him, but quickly he was alert, examining the street for signs of life. In the distance, the skyscrapers of Bank glinted in the sun, a beacon of alleged civility just outside his reach. He pushed that thought from his mind and trained his gaze closer to home. The road was empty of people, although there were some vehicles driving up.
Once satisfied with the relative safety of the area, he sprung from the steps to the street. The concrete met the soles of his feet and his legs vibrated like an eighteen-wheeler was rolling by. Wind from a rushing bus sent litter flapping past him. It was Wednesday, which meant doing the weekly shop for his grandmother. He knew the list by heart now but kept it neatly folded in his wallet, occasionally taking it out to read her loopy prose before bed.
At the end of the road he peered around the corner. He didn’t recognise any faces; only men and women in cycling gear and suits, waiting for buses or bustling through crowds. They’d only started moving into the area a few years ago, but the transformation had been quick. Vibrant walls of graffiti drenched in grey and white; budget, betting, and chicken shops doused in cool, soft colours then moulded into coffee shops; public phone boxes cum public urinals mowed down for chrome bicycle stands. It was nice, in a way, but hadn’t made the place any safer for the original inhabitants of the area. They were bound by rules rooted deeper than any lick of paint could reach.
Latif turned down the road and walked towards the Tesco Metro. He glanced through the store window out of the corner of his eye, to avoid suspicion from the security guard. Satisfied, he walked in, unconsciously tapping the hidden knife by his hip and consciously grabbing a basket. He wandered over to the fresh-produce section, hands tingling in the chill of the open refrigerators, and began the most normal part of his week.
“Boy, what-chu doin’ with that?”
The accent was Caribbean; Latif would have guessed Trinidadian. He rounded the corner and saw a woman chiding a man around his age. A cringe rode down his back at the public chastisement, and for a second he was perversely glad this scenario would never be relevant to him.
“Just looking, innit.”
The man’s innocuous “innit” hit Latif with the force of a police baton. The phrase was common, but the way his voice was layered was specific, familiar; a rumbling timbre, like a night bus. Latif clung to his empty basket, but his free hand unfurled, his eyes took refuge behind their lids, and a wave of regret engulfed him, momentarily paralysing him.
* * *
Back at school from the February half term. Fifteen, fresh-faced, and a mostly clear conscience, the latter lightly stained by a few smartphones snatched from unsuspecting (probably) rich folk, sold to fund Chicken Cottage runs and ten-bags of potent skunk. Settled. But then, Eze.
A lingering glimpse, laced with fear. Eye contact between boys usually meant What you lookin’ at you pussy-ole, but with Eze it was a different kind of intense. Not icy, like clenched fists during winter lunchtimes, but warm, rushing; the comforting fog of marijuana smoke and pilfered beers in a council-estate courtyard; fumbling fingers racing up limbs. Then, the sickly feeling of wrong.
Class started and the teacher made the new boy introduce himself. Eze’s lilting Nigerian voice danced down Latif’s tingling spine. Lagos. Yes we have electricity. Yes I had a television. Arsenal. Each word was like eating a spoonful of maple syrup; delicious at first, quickly replaced by shame.
When the boy with the soft hickory eyes came up to him at lunch and asked about eating together, joy swelled in Latif’s chest. Disgust quickly followed, alongside a shake of the head, but not before one last too-long stare into those eyes that teemed with want.
Undeterred, Eze tried again. And again. Soon there were lunches; these became clandestine caresses in boys’ toilets. Latif was buoyed by new, this feeling of something whole. Then he was crying, shaking with hatred, picking at his skin just so some of him could be something else. Then ascendant, like birds who rose from trees as some snotty kid kicked a ball at them. He screamed at Eze, hulking and mad, trying to push him away, trying to exorcise himself of this sickness by fixing the most obvious symptom. But the boy from Lagos had heard worse. He kept trying, in his steady way. Eventually, he manoeuvred Latif’s fear of his own passion into something gorgeous, simply by being at ease.
Long days spent at Eze’s house as his mother worked while Latif’s grandma spent most of her day lost in their television. Late winter slipped gently into spring and then the beginnings of summer. Passion grew alongside the sun’s arc in the sky.
In that tiny flat which overlooked the skyscrapers they fell into each other, redundant uniforms tossed to the side. It quickly outgrew youthful desire, nourished by hours spent in the new terrain of honesty and love, something Latif didn’t know how to traverse. But Eze taught him.
Sometimes they were like an old married couple, holding hands as daytime TV prattled on, Latif too drenched in the buzz of Eze’s touch to even hear. They would laugh for hours at jokes neither of them would remember the next day and listen to music as Latif laid his head on Eze’s chest, his lover’s heartbeat the only rhythm he cared about.
* * *
The day that Eze was taken from him was like dozens the boys had lived through. The street was bathed in aged sunshine, the rays forever stretching out to form long, friendly shadows.
Ay, this batty boy needs a slap.
Eze spotted the boys before Latif, yanking his hand out of his lover’s. It was dangerous to show the simplest of affection outside, but love had blinded them to the peril.
That was the last thing Eze said to him. If Latif had known, he would have savoured the word; rolled it around in his tongue and let it melt onto his heart. Both shot off as the other boys began their chase. Latif was quick; Eze was built to stand his ground. After a lifetime of running without looking back, Latif did. Nothing. His adrenaline had carried him past danger, but his longing for Eze brought him back.
Eze had always stood up for himself, even when his jaw lay unhinged and the bite in his Fuck you was weak. But that didn’t make Latif feel any better. Fear ensconced him, shrinking him, freezing him to the spot. He stayed around the corner, where he could hear but was blind to the violence.
The dull thud of boots on flesh reverberated around the small alley they’d corralled him into. The memory of their snarls as they chased after him remained. He tried to blink the faces away, but it was like his eyelids had been branded with the image, hate cast in purple and white.
Latif breathed in the courage to have a peek around.
Ay shit, enough.
They stood in a triangle around Eze’s still body. The one who’d spoken was lanky, a little older than the others. He faced away from Latif, hands behind his head as if surveying a sunset view. The arm of his T-shirt rode up at the shoulder revealing a web tattoo above his right elbow.
What about the other one?
Anxiety burrowed into Latif’s chest. He shifted his weight from his heels onto the balls of his feet and turned himself away, ready to spring off.
The boys walked away. There was a dull ache in Latif’s stomach as he stared at the barely moving lump that was Eze. The wait for the boys to turn the other corner of the alley was agony, but as soon as they were out of sight he rushed over. The wind froze streaks of tears on his face, making his cheeks and chin cold, but then he was by his lover’s side.
Blood bubbled out of Eze’s mouth, each laboured breath pulsing out a little more of the precious stuff. His eyes were bruised shut, but a slit of caramel brown peaked out from behind his swollen right eyelid, the high sun making it shimmer with the little life he had left. Latif noticed his sock was sopping, squelching; Eze had another wound, and the blood from it had soaked through Latif’s shoe. And then, he was gone. Empty.
* * *
The knife had been serrated. It had been blunt. It had punctured Eze’s liver. Latif learned this later from a free newspaper, handed to him at the entrance to Shadwell station like a coupon for half-price pizza. Eze had died in his arms and he’d left the body there, love no match against a learned and predictable lack of trust in the authorities tasked with bringing justice.
Latif’s darkened bedroom. He screamed pain into the pillow until his throat felt flayed. He punched the same spot in the wall until he formed little blood-encrusted imprints. No catharsis. Just hypnotisingly circling the same despairing thoughts day after day until they percolated through despair and became dark rage.
He decided the only thing that might help to calm this internal typhoon was to make sure Eze’s attackers lost what they’d taken: an eye for an eye. There was nothing to stop him from completing his task; his class of thirty-five was packed into a twenty-person room, and his grandmother hardly left their flat. He was free, in a way that only desperate people can be.
Latif found two of them within a couple of months. It took a surreptitious investigation where he invoked all the favours he was owed and invented several more. The actual act of revenge had been easy. After seeing Eze’s life trickling through his hands, the creases of his palms stained to look like red rivers, something inside of him had been unleashed.
Latif enjoyed the satisfying crack as his first victim’s ribs had given way to the knife, which hadn’t quite slid through the boy’s body as easily as he’d expected, flesh putting up one last defence against steel. He also hadn’t expected the ironlike stench to follow him all the way back to his grandmother’s, but he wore the odour proudly.
After he’d finished with the first boy, nothing much changed. The victim’s friends saw it as an inescapable outcome of the life they lived. When the second boy was taken down in the same way—a knife to the heart and a slit across the throat to make the skin flap in the wind like a kite – the links became clearer. The third boy—the one whose “innit” bounced back and forth like a pinball in Latif’s head for the next half a decade—realised he was in danger and disappeared into the background.
Copyright © 2022. Servant of the Gentle by Sandeep Sandhu