The knuckle of the little finger of my right hand is a bit mangled. Only a tiny bit, mind. In a drunken 21st birthday accident I ended up smashing it to smithereens, ended up in hospital, operation, physio. There’s a funny story there that I’m sure I’ll tell you sometime.
It looks a bit wonky, but you’ve got to know to look, before you see. And I can’t straighten it out properly, so it remains slightly crooked no matter how flat my palm is. There’s probably a metaphor there that I’m sure I’ll use sometime.
It was the first time I broke. The first knock I got that was permanently left I my body, never going to quite heal. A reminder of a daft, drunken night out, of my 21st birthday in Queens Court. A daft story to tell when someone notices, asks what happened.
I like trains. I like hotels and I like trains, places where I’m suspended over and outside my life, away from cares. I’ve never had the kind of job that follows you on holiday and Christ knows I never want one; my worries don’t send me emails. In between the places life happens, I can forget and just enjoy. Or just sleep, while the train speeds along. Suspended animation.
So I was trying to sleep. I was doing a fair job, too. The train wasn’t crowded, I’m a big guy but I could stretch out, over the seats. Curl up and brush up against sleep. I’m skint so I’d got a cheap train from Birmingham to London, and cheap trains take forever. Stop at every stop. It was another reason for me to want to drift, and I was drifting OK until a group of beery lads came on.
I kept my eyes closed and tried to ignore them. They were loud and boorish at first but then eased off a bit, apart from one guy who was a chatter. Drunken chatter, an older guy by the gruff of his voice, nattering to one of the other passengers. Christ, I’m thinking, just shut up and let me be, just shut up and let him be, it’s obvious he doesn’t want to talk. Kept my eyes closed, tried to ignore him.
“So what language you speakin’, then?”
“Ah, Polish. Tell me a word in Polish. What’s Polish for ‘window’?”
So the guy tells him the polish for window, whatever that was, and there’s a chuckle, chatty guy repeats the word, mangling it, ‘see boys, I can speak Polish!’
And his mates laugh, and the Polish guy laughs, and Chatty’s mates tell him to hush, the guy’s on the phone.
He doesn’t hush. He’s pissed, after all. I keep my eyes closed, thinking just shut the fuck up, shut he fuck up and leave him alone, I’m trying to sleep.
“Now when my dad was in the war…” Chatty says, starts rambling on about his dad, some Polish guy, Jesus I don’t care, no one cares, the Polish guy doesn’t care, he just wants to talk in the phone to his mate.
“…but he always spoke English, you see? So what I’m thinking is, why don’t people speak English, we’re in England”
Polish guy mumbles.
“So why you speaking Polish then? Why aren’t you speaking English?”
“My friend… He doesn’t speak English”
“What, and he’s in Poland, is he? Funny kind of phone, I can never get a reception, but you’ve got a reception to Poland! Wish I had your phone”
Chatty’s mates tell him to quiet down.
“But what’s wrong with it? What’s wrong with speaking English in England? It’s our country after all, I just think you should speak English in England…”
On and on and on, I’m thinking shut the fuck up, just shut the fuck up; the Polish guy mumbling, whispering into his phone.
“I just think it’s rude! I can’t stand it, people…”
“Will you SHUT THE FUCK UP?!”
I’m on my feet, “just SHUT THE FUCK UP and leave him alone? It’s fuck all to do with you, I think it’s great people speak different languages, it’s a free bloody country”
He glares, stands up, how fucking dare I speak to him like that, show such a lack of respect?!
“I’m not going to respect a bloody racist!”
“How dare you?! Racist, me? I’m Irish!”
“So, so fucking what?!”
“I just want to talk to my friend, it’s a free country”, says Polish guy.
“And why can’t you do it in English?! This is England!”
“Because it’s nice to speak your native language! Because sometimes people get homesick! Because his mate doesn’t fucking speak English!”
“How dare you speak to me that way?!”
He walks to the back of the carriage. “Come here! I want to have a nice quiet chat with you back here!”
I have no fucking clue what’s going on now. Other passengers have turned to look, slack jawed at me, I’ve broken the British rule of ignoring this kind of thing. Don’t make a fuss. But I’ve started now. How could I not?
One of his mates comes up, starts whispering in my ear, and it becomes obvious that chatty isn’t the dangerous one, it’s this one, scarred face and thinning hair, beer on his breath. “It’s not him you need to be worried about, it’s me”.
Again I look around the carriage. No one’s looking now. Keeping their eyes closed and trying to ignore us. But I don’t, really, care. They’re picking on me now, not the Polish guy. Weird. I never thought of myself as brave. I don’t think I am. I just know what kind of a world I want to live in, even if it always falls short.
He looks at me, into me. Silent.
“Well what?” I ask. “What can you do, what are you going to do?”
“I could out a fist through your face”
I shrug. “So the police would be called and you’d be arrested”
“Do I look Ike I give a fuck about that? I’ve just done fifteen years inside, do I look like I give a fuck about the police?!”
He’s not lying. And… I’m not scared. What the fuck can he do?
“So? So what do you want to do, then? What am I meant to do?”
“Get off at the next stop and have it out on the platform.”
I shrug, baffled. Why the fuck would I do that? Apart from anything else I’m not sure if my ticket would be valid on the following service. I’m not going to do that.
Chatty comes back up, breaks us up. Pulls Ex-Con back. Puts out his hand too me and says, it’s OK, back off. I out my hand in his and he pulls it back, squeezes. Tight. Fucking tight. “I could break your fucking wrists if I wanted”. Keeps squeezing, tight.
The train stops. They get off. The third guy, quiet, eyes me as he walks past. “You got very lucky”, he says.
Polish guy gets off at the same stop. I look at my phone, not enough battery left to make a call. I hope he’s OK. I shake a bit. And hour ’til Euston. Fuck em, I’m thinking. I don’t wanna like in their world. I’ll fucking fight to make sure I don’t live in their world.
Fuck em all.
It’s really easy to hide, when you’re white. When you’re white and english. It’s really easy to keep your eyes closed and try to ignore them.
I’d like to say it was general disgust with them that made me speak out. I’d like to say I was the hero standing up for basic fucking human decency. And it was spinning in my head, as I lay there listening. Why am I not saying anything? Why is no one saying anything? Shouldn’t you stand up to bullies? And what does it say about me, about us, if we don’t? But I don’t know if that alone would have made me finally lose it.
I’d like to say I would’ve stood up to them even if I had known they were a gang, had I known it could turn violent, had I known it wasn’t just one drunken racist and actually a trio of violent, drunk fascists. Probably I wouldn’t. Probably I would’ve been scared, and that’s how they keep everyone quiet. By scaring them. So maybe had I known I would’ve held back and kept quiet and looked after number one. But maybe I would’ve still stood up.
Maybe I would’ve lost it no matter what. Because I lay there listening to this cretinous bilge, trying to shut him out and wishing he’d shut up and hearing this poor guy mumble uncomfortably, and I remembered my niece, my pequeña estrella, sat in my arms.
“It’s all in Spanish”, she says.
And I say, “That’s OK”.
And I knew what kind of world I wanted to live in.
So what could he have done? He could have killed me, at most. That’d be bad, very bad, but sugar I’ve tried to kill myself twice so that’s not really much of a threat any more.
He could have smashed my face in. Maybe messed me up bad, broken nose shattered teeth broken ribs broken wrists, blinded. But I know what world I want to live in. And he could have left scars and wounds and marks all over my body, badly healed arms and a skull full of stitches. And people would ask me how I got them. And I’d tell them.
And I’d be fucking proud.
“The Ukip leader told how he went on a commuter train journey recently through south east London and did not hear anyone speaking English, leaving him feeling “awkward” and “uncomfortable”.
He said: “So the answer is, I don’t feel very comfortable in that situation and I don’t think the majority of British people do”
The Telegraph, quoting Ukip leader Niger Farage