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He wasn’t sure if it was rude or not, leaving the club mid-conversation, but that stupid fucking song about being a firework had just started to play again and he knew that this was a sign that he should not be here. That song had been following him around New York for the whole week, blasting from car stereos to the bodegas up and down the West Village where he was staying. It didn’t make any sense, what did it mean to be a firework? Why did she sound so carefree singing that lyric about being on fire? It just made him angry. [private]So he told Derek, or Daniel, or David the eager young consultant who was talking to him (not the other way around) that he was going for a cigarette. He carefully descended the stairs of the club, making sure not to touch any of the sweaty shirtless bodies of the wide-eyed men. The surly blonde twink did not look him in the eye as he handed him back his leather jacket at the coat-check. Thank you, he muttered to himself. A perfect end to a perfect evening.
Out on the sidewalk he bristled as he felt the first blast of cold air. It was supposed to be warmer here; he had only brought one thin leather jacket to last him for the four weeks and he was already starting to get a cold. Yesterday it had rained all day, from the moment he woke up to the time he stumbled back to his apartment in the early hours of the morning. He might as well still be in London. If he was in London now, he would probably be doing the exact same thing, walking home on his own from the Joiner’s Arms, his local gay bar, semi-drunk and in a bad mood. If he was feeling particularly desperate he would probably call his ex Ruben, who would most probably ignore his call. He stopped himself mid-thought; there was no point thinking like this. He was here now, and he had to make it work.
For months he had thought of nothing but yellow taxis, brownstones and Times Square. New York was going to be his awakening; he would forget about Ruben and he would forget that he hated his job and everything and for four weeks he would feel life again. But so far it hadn’t really panned out like that. The only person he’d spoken to yesterday that he thought was nice was the girl in pizza shop at the end of his road. She called him honey as she gave him a lukewarm slice from the display counter. He’d liked how it had rolled off her tongue. During the week he had met people in bars, started conversations with strangers, but it always ended in the same way. He had to stop telling people where he was from because they always said the same thing, that they loved London and they wanted to come and live there. At first he tried to tell them that they were wrong and that life in London could be grey and fast and sometimes it could be so lonely that it would make you want to stab out your own eyes out with a fork but they didn’t seem to understand him, so he just nodded his head and waited for them to stop.
He was starting to think that maybe he had made a massive mistake in spending his savings on coming to NY. There had been no epiphany, no burning bush, just more of the same; busy people with fast lives and he still felt the way that he always did. Maybe his best friend Chris had been right: his demons would follow him no matter where he went.
He had to get out of the habit of taking taxis everywhere but it was too cold to walk the sixteen blocks home, his ears were starting to go numb. So he promised himself as he walked to corner of Eleventh Avenue that this would be the last yellow taxi for a while. Luckily there were four taxis all parked in a row. All the drivers were staring into the road with their windows and doors open. In front of them two heavily wrapped up figures were standing in the middle of the road. They were crouching over a bundle of rags, all grey and blue. He could sense that something was wrong with this picture. His pace quickened. As he got closer he could make out that the two figures in the middle of road were girls. One of them was now crouching down in the road over the bundle, but it wasn’t a bundle of rags, it was a body.
The panic starts to move in him, like wildfire at the edge of a forest. Without thinking, his legs accelerate towards them. Everything is in slow motion and for the first time he realises how drunk he is.
What happened? What happened?
We don’t know. We came out of a party and he was just stumbling in the road. We thought maybe he was drunk and then he just collapsed in the road.
He can hear in her accent that she is French, although he thinks she looks more Scandinavian with her blonde hair and Elvis Costello glasses. He can tell that she’s worried but she plays it cool. Her voice is calm and detached and he wishes that he had some of her insouciance right now. He is frantic as his words trip over themselves.
The other girl is kneeling on the pavement; she has a kinder face, light brown eyes and olive skin. She is gently slapping the boy’s face.
Hey man, stay with us, stay with us.
He can hear in her voice that she is not coping as well as her friend. There is a quaver that betrays her and he can tell she’s close to tears.
The boy on the floor is young, in his early twenties, light-skinned and handsome. His jeans are low and his cotton drawers are hanging out. In another life he could be a basketball player or a young rapper.
It’s the stillness of the boy’s body that he finds most terrifying. He lies crumpled like a marionette with the strings cut. His brown eyes are wide open and staring at the sky. He is lying lifeless, like a waxwork, with lips that are already starting to go blue.
Come on man, please stay with us.
There are no marks on his face so it can’t have been a fight and he doesn’t smell like alcohol so it must be drugs. He sighs: another party-boy casualty. He wonders if this boy could have been at the same club he was at moments before? Could he have walked right past him in the dark or waited outside a bathroom stall as he locked himself in and got high?
Why are none of these rubbernecking taxi drivers helping? He is starting to get angry. They probably see this all the time and have learned not to care. He wonders if he and the French girls had been American, not European tourists would they be avoiding this dying black boy on the streets too?
Even though the boy’s eyes are blank his chest is moving slowly, like a crawl. He is in there somewhere. There must be something he can do more than just wishing, there must be something practical?
He thinks back to the first aid training he received when he was in the Boy Scouts almost twenty years ago, but it’s all fuzzy. The only thing that he can recall is about head trauma, if a motorcyclist has been in an accident you shouldn’t move them or remove their helmet as it might make it worse. But this boy hasn’t been in an accident and there isn’t a helmet to be removed. Why didn’t he pay more attention as a child?
Have you called an ambulance?
Yes, just now before you got here, they said they’re on their way.
Oh OK. Maybe we should call his friends, find out what happened to him. Does he have a phone?
I don’t know, check.
He goes into the pockets of the boy’s jeans and pulls out an iPhone with a cranberry coloured rubber sleeve. Maybe his friends will know what he has taken so they can tell the medics when they get here. It might make all the difference, it might.
But he must be the only person in the world that doesn’t own an iPhone, he was always put off by their touch screens. With frozen fingers he manages to unlock the screen but he doesn’t know how to access the last number dialled. He feels like smashing the phone against the ground. Why won’t it co-operate? But it’s all right, he starts to hear the stuttering sirens in the distance, as he looks south down the block he sees the flashing red and white and disco lights lighting up Eleventh Avenue. He raises the iPhone in his hand and flags the ambulance down.
The kind French girl has started to cry.
Amadine, he’s not breathing, he’s not.
Come on buddy, stay with us, they are here now, he says but something has changed about the boy, his lips are completely blue and his chest has stopped moving. He has never seen a dead body before, never looked death in the eye. It chills him as he looks at the still boy: all he can think about his is his family somewhere. He thinks about his own mother crying in the airport as she saw him off. She told him to be careful and to come back in one piece. He had laughed at her as she cried. She was always thinking the worst.
The ambulance crew take over. They are well drilled and they move as one. A short butch female Italian-American paramedic comes up to him and he hands her the phone. She must have seen this a thousand times, there is no drama in her voice, just another day at the office. She asks him if the boy was his friend.
No, I don’t know him.
Well, we have it from here now, it’s time for you all to go.
There is something firm in her voice and he doesn’t realise until halfway down the block that she did not give him a choice. The French girls have already disappeared and he cannot feel his hands or his ears any more. Halfway down the block he turns back to look at the paramedics and sees that they have put a tarp over the boy’s body. Their work here is done.
It isn’t until he gets into the taxi that he realises he is shaking. All he can think about is the boy’s eyes, dead like marbles. He needs some sort of reassurance so he turns to the taxi driver as they speed down Eighth Avenue.
Can I ask you a question?
Have you ever seen a dead body before?
Yes I have … my grandmother.
I just saw someone die on the street. Does it happen often here?
The taxi driver snorted.
People die everywhere buddy, it’s got nothing to do with New York.
I know but I’ve never seen anything like that before.
There was a pause.
Well, it’s life buddy, you gotta toughen up.
The taxi driver turned on the radio and he got he message that the conversation had ended. He sank back into his seat.
He didn’t know what to do when he got back into his apartment, it seemed so small now. He felt so naive, the words of the taxi driver reverberating in his head. The skin of the world had been pulled back; he could see the blood, the flesh and bones and he did not like it. He called his mother back in London: it would be about 7am on a Sunday morning so he knew that she probably wouldn’t answer but he left a message on her answering machine. He told her not to worry, that he loved her and he missed her, and that everything was OK here. Everything was OK.[/private]
Kele Okereke lives in London and New York. He is the singer/guitarist of British indie band Bloc Party. He has had stories printed in Punk Fiction, Five Dials, and Attitude magazine. He is currently writing a collection of short stories called Midnight on a Bicycle. He has a blog at iamkele.com/blog.