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Tales from a Northern City: A full English

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‘Full English and a mug of tea, please, love’

Michael likes to meet for breakfast. He has a young family and gets up early. By 10 a.m. he is up and out of the house, ready to begin his working day. His early morning routine irritates many of his colleagues, the majority of whom have grown accustomed to a nocturnal working life and daily hangovers. Most take it on the chin and don’t mention it.

I have known Michael for many years. During that time he has helped me on countless occasions. He feeds me gossip about criminal markets, about new scams, about who is doing what, who is in prison, who is about to be in prison, and who is about to become very rich. On occasion he has also encouraged his supplicants and sycophants to help me with various research projects. On other occasions I have felt the warm embrace of his protective friendship after I have pushed too hard or said the wrong thing to the wrong person. I appreciate Michael’s friendship greatly, and not just because of all this. I stay in touch with him even though I have now forsaken street ethnography and chosen instead the routine comforts of middle-class academic mediocrity. He makes me laugh, reminds me where I come from, and how far I’ve travelled.

Of course, he takes the piss out of me constantly. He calls me ‘the professor’, among other things, and often comments on how much I’ve changed. He is right about that. He takes pleasure in making me feel uncomfortable, especially during our occasional breakfast meetings. He often pretends to be a paying guest at a large local chain hotel, and sneaks into the dining room for a free breakfast. The last time we met he made me accompany him on this mission. ‘Dragging you out of your comfort zone’, he calls it. But today we are at the greasy spoon cafe that also functions as his part-time office.

The cafe is on the edge of the estate where Michael grew up. It you by chance happened upon this establishment, it’s entirely reasonable to suggest you might conjure up the word ‘nondescript’ to communicate a sense of its sad exterior. Its decaying signage offers no name, and no indication of its business. Next door is a boarded-up shop, and on the corner is a small general dealer’s shop. A short walk down the street lies the local bookies, a larger convenience store, and a chippy. But other than that, there’s nothing around here but down-at-heel terraces and housing association semis.

Despite its bleak exterior the cafe is a hive of activity inside, full of steam and noise - and cloaked in the smell of frying food. Maureen runs the cafe with her husband, a wizened old man with heavily tattooed forearms who steps outside the back door to smoke his roll-ups when the custom thins out. Today he is clad in his usual white apron, stood behind the hot plate with a pained expression on his face. I don’t know his name and have never bothered to ask. He doesn’t say much. Maureen is altogether different. She is a large woman, to say the least. She is clad in one of those checked overall get-ups school dinner ladies used to wear. She shuffles between the tightly packed tables dropping off fried breakfasts and bacon butties to a clientèle of regulars who all know Maureen by name. She engages each in profanity-strewn small talk about family, medical ailments, weather and impending death. All of this contributes to my long-standing affection for the place, with its sights and smells, and its Runyon-esque ensemble of weirdos and oddballs. And sat right in the middle is Michael.

Many in this neighbourhood know who Michael is, but he doesn’t cultivate attention and never throws his weight around needlessly. He often meets other men here, men with large hands and significant facial scarring. I have often sat in the middle of this group and listened. Sit with these men long enough and you will see other men enter the cafe and strike up a conversation. This cafe is a regular trading venue for thieves and shoplifters, and Michael and his friends are regular buyers of stolen merchandise. For the moment there is just the two of us. Maureen takes our order. She’s friendly but doesn’t stay to chat.

Michael takes out a huge roll of banknotes and places them on the table. His goal is to make me gawp like a schoolboy, and he succeeds in this endeavour. In comparison with most of the customers in this cafe I’m very well off, firmly ensconced in the ‘squeezed middle’ of Britain’s post-everything social hierarchy. But, despite my relatively comfortable economic position, I rarely encounter a roll of banknotes like this. Michael, of course, is very different. He is a ‘ready cash’ kind of fella. I feel the need to cover this money up, and as I write these words I wonder why this was my first reaction to seeing such a large amount of actual currency before me. I imagine I was fearful that someone would take the money, or that they would see the money and hatch a plan to do so later. I also imagine that all of this has occurred to Michael, and his desire to see my anxiety is the real reason he dropped the money on the table in the first place. Michael isn’t particularly bothered who sees the money. He is usually a careful man and, to me at least, this seems like quite a reckless move. He removes the plastic band and holds the notes up to my face before asking:

“How much do you reckon is there?”

“You’re fucking mental. What you carry that about for?”

“How much?”

“No idea mate. Why don’t you tell me?”

“That’s nine and a half grand mate... what you getting all upset about?”

He makes a few jokes at my expense. He implies I always think the worst; that I automatically assume some kind of crime is involved. He’s probably right on this point - but then my assumption would not be without foundation.

Michael tells me he’s busy this afternoon; he’ll be travelling to some unknown destination to buy a nearly new BMW. Michael has bought and sold cars for many years, and his car business numbers but one in a pretty diverse portfolio of apparently legitimate commercial endeavours. It would be wrong to say his car business is just a front that enables him to declare a legal income. As with all his other entrepreneurial activities, he takes it seriously and usually makes money. Michael fills me in on a few recent purchases and sales, and we discuss the merits of various motors. At that moment Bruce walks in. I think I’d be right in saying that Bruce is Michael’s closest friend and business partner. I’m not entirely sure of the nature of their business relationship and haven’t bothered to ask. There is clearly money and commerce between them, but there’s more to it than that. I had once thought that Bruce worked for Michael in some capacity, but over the course of the last year or so I have begun to think differently.

Bruce shouts a ‘hello’ as soon as he enters and then asks if we’ve eaten yet. We haven’t, so he shouts ‘Maureen, get ez a full English and a mug of tea love’ before sitting himself down and jumping straight into the conversation. We carry on with car talk, until Maureen appears at our table.

“Three tea, 3 full English. Owt else?”

“Get ez some bread and butter as well will ya flower?”

“Nee botha”.

We haven’t been eating long before Keith joins us. Keith and Michael were at school together, and I’ve known Keith since my late-teenage years. This is the first time I’ve ever seen him in this cafe. Michael, Bruce and I are a little taken aback to see him, but move swiftly into the elaborate pantomime of warm welcome. Maureen shouts:

“Are you going to order owt, pet?” [which means ‘order anything’ in this context]

Michael looks at the food on the table, before responding:

‘Aye, I will. Can you get ez a full English please?” Maureen’s husband is a master at the hot plate.

“Do you want owt to drink?”

“Aye. I’ll have a mug of tea, no sugar.”

We spend the next ten minutes talking about friends, family and work. Keith is a local builder and is doing quite well for himself. As far as I know his business is entirely legitimate. Indeed, if I recall correctly, he did a loft conversation for a mutual friend who seemed very pleased with the price and the quality of work. This thought plants itself in my mind, and I begin to wonder on the appropriate point at which I might ask him to come round to the house and give me a quote for some building work I have planned. But I’m overtaken:

“Jade, I’m glad I caught you. Do you know owt about school fees? Like for private schools and that?”

We then establish that Keith is thinking of sending his son, Josh, to a private school in September. Josh currently goes to the local comprehensive, but Keith is beginning to feel that he might be better off elsewhere. We force our way through an awkward conversation about the various merits of the city’s private schools. He seems a little taken aback by the expense of it all and asks if I think it’s worth it. This question, of course, I can’t answer. Bruce enters the conversation and asks what’s the matter with the local comp. Gradually a sorry tale unwinds, and a happy get-together becomes decidedly darker.

Keith’s son has been having a hard time at school. He is being bullied and can’t seem to find a way to free himself from his tormentors. Bruce immediately offers the obvious advice:

‘Tell the kid to stand up for himself. It’s the only way innit? Even if he gets a kicking, it has to be done’.

What Bruce has missed, but Michael and I know immediately, is that Keith has already tried this approach. Keith is not a noted hard man or a criminal, but a man from his background would not shy away from this response. He is a robust and physical man and was not averse to the odd fight during his youth. I immediately feel uncomfortable for Keith, and I can imagine all the private distress that he would never dream of revealing around this table. Michael interjects:

“Have you been down the school, given these kids a shake?”

Keith tells how his son had returned home from school with a bloody nose one late afternoon. Keith immediately dragged his son into his work van and set off to try to track down his son’s assailants. Once they were located, Keith had apparently jumped out of the van and tried to grab the young men. Some ran, but he got hold of the ringleader, he boy he was after.

“I just got hold of him. He’s just a kid right, what, fifteen tops, something like that. I’m screaming at him to leave the boy alone, I’ll fucking kill him if he does it again, this and that. I couldn’t believe it: he tells me to fuck off”.

“Fucking hell. Then what?”

“I’ve just kind of shook him about a bit, and I’ve got hold of his head and I’m squeezing his mush like this. The kid’s screaming and shouting, ‘let me go or I’ll kill you’ and all that. Then I’ve just lifted off and smacked him. Not a proper punch Jade, just a slap. I mean I’ve properly hit him, but it’s just a slap.”

He seeks to justify this attack to me rather than the others. He sees me as legitimate and moral. The other two, we all know, haven’t really decoded the slap as a moral problem.

More of the story comes out: visits to the school, crying son, crying wife. Then one morning Keith discovers his van has been vandalised: a tire slashed, cuts to the paintwork, wing mirror ripped off.

“What should I do?”

Me: “Phone the fucking police. Fucking hell, you pay taxes. Get them to give the kid a shake.”

Michael, sage of the criminal justice system: “Too late. If the kid gives him up for the slap, he’s properly in the shit.”

Bruce: “This kid. What’s his name? Has he got a fatha?”

Keith: “I asked around. They’re proper no-marks. The fucking police know this little bastard up and down. He’s been in bother since he was a nipper. My problem is, if I see him again, like if he was outside now... what do I do? The way it is at the minute, if I saw him I’d have to just kill him.”

There’s a slight lilt to Keith’s voice and a look in his eyes that makes me believe this is indeed a possibility. Keith’s problem is a serious one and the mood around the table is solemn. We are all imagining being in Keith’s shoes, mulling over what might be the natural endpoint to what seems a conflict that must escalate. Keith is in crisis, and it’s now clear that he hasn’t wandered into the cafe by accident. He is reaching out for help.

Keith’s sizable physique and obvious violent potential hasn’t had the desired effect. His young adversary can be easily mastered in a physical confrontation, but he seems dedicated to immediately responding in kind. If this young lad is beaten up, then Keith’s son is beaten up and his property damaged. This young lad is not alone. There seems to be a sense that this is a confrontation that Keith simply can’t win. But then, sitting at this table in this dead-end cafe, it’s also clear that Keith is among friends. Friends who are comfortable on the other side of the line, the line that Keith came upon in his youth before backing away and dedicating himself to work and family. Keith is known around town. He also has money. If he really wanted to push it, he could get quite an army together. My fried breakfast is no longer appealing. I drop my knife and fork, turn my attentions to my mug of tea and I ponder the situation, the people involved and the possibility of a fatality.

I have sat with Michael on many occasions when he has fielded requests for help. These requests truly reflect the spiteful contingencies of life in these parts – a young woman with children to feed and a husband in prison; an untimely death; a recent burglary; a wayward son; problems with a disgruntled landlord. In most cases Michael does what he can to help. But on this occasion he seems a little unsure how to proceed:

‘What are you saying Keith? You want me to help out? Like what? What could I do?’

‘I don’t know mate, I don’t know. I just wanted to see what you had to say like. Just for a bit of advice and that.’

Bruce sees a route forward:

‘You’ve got to make the kid fear for his life. You’ve got to properly scare him, not just a slap.’

I interrupt: ‘Mate, do everyone a favour. Forget all this plotting. Go to the police and let them deal with it. If you go this other way, you run the risk of making everything worse.’

I’m immediately contradicted. Michael and Bruce unsympathetically slap down my unworldly suggestion, secure in the knowledge that the police always make things harder.

‘One visit to the police station and they’ll be all over you. They push you into a corner. They have this charge hanging over you as soon as you tell them what’s what. And these little fuckers don’t care about the police. Your house, your car, your boy... you just make it worse, honest, believe ez.’

I begin the long process of extricating myself from the conversation. I give them ‘I’ve got to get to work’. It allows them the opportunity to take the piss out of my routine lifestyle: me, the punch-in, punch-out, timeserving salary-man; them, the uncontrollable free spirit of the entrepreneurial adventurer. The cheap laugh allows me to get out of there and avoid having to sit and listen to them concoct a plan that in my heart of hearts I know must involve serious violence………

Two months later, I sit opposite Michael as he forces down another fry up. We’re sat in the nowhere-place of a corporate hotel dining room. I take in all the fake signs of locality and specificity and the cynical, shallow sense of homeliness that tries to cover up the oppressive sameness of chain hotels the world over. A uniformed waitress drops off another pot of tea as I press Michael for details of what became of Keith’s profound turmoil. It’s an unusual place to have a discussion like this. Michael leans in during our discussions, less sure of himself here than if we’d been in Maureen’s greasy spoon. The room is almost deserted, just a few staff busily cleaning tables and one or two travelling business types, all red-faced heart attacks waiting to happen.

I will not fully disclose the details of what came to pass. The problem appears to be contained rather than solved. I had thought that Michael felt a little unsure of himself among the young tearaways of the post-industrial North East. He has on many occasions suggested that there now exists a new generation of thugs who have no respect for the big-time criminals and no understanding that there are certain rules that need to be followed when one is attempting to carve out a career in serious crime. For Michael they are a generation of barbarians with no morals, and no respect for anyone or anything. They are the spawn of drug-addled mothers and absent fathers, of desperation and degeneration and hopelessness. But Michael does have connections and no shortage of people desperate to do him a favour. A group of nihilistic, knife-wielding teenagers present something of an insurmountable problem for Keith and I, but Michael is different. Indeed he has always been different. He is funny and intelligent, but also, in turn, coldly Machiavellian, instrumental and violent.

Bruce’s early conclusion, that ultimately someone would have to be made to fear for their life, appears to have been the strategy judged most effective. The sight of Michael and Bruce stepping out of a flash motor and walking towards these young men was judged unlikely to yield results. Even direct violence, the kind of violence that Michael and Bruce revel in, carried no guarantee of success. Their quarry appears disconnected from and unconcerned about established criminal reputations. Serious violence, for them it seems, carries little of the horror one might reasonably associate with it. They are unlikely to recognise either man, and may not even be aware of the portent their names carry. But there are other young men who have heard of them, men who know how things work and who are keen to curry favour. These are the men who deal with Keith’s problem. In this instance, like so many others, Michael is a facilitator, a strategist of sorts: a man who knows how to do a favour. All that is left is a sense of relief, gratitude and obligation on one side, and on the other, the appreciation of each new day that comes from feeling death’s icy hand on one’s shoulder.

Jade D’Anthro

From a social encounter in 2007.

Postscript: Keith and his family have moved away from their impressively extended, multi-bathroomed palace on the edge of the estate. Josh was spared the perils of acclimatising to private school. He now attends a local ‘comp’ close to their new house out in the sticks. He was recently arrested, but not charged, in connection with a fight in the city centre.

A stone-faced young man, still in his early twenties, is carving out a niche for himself as knife-wielding, lunatic, drug dealer.

Click on the title to see Tales from a Northern City: Zed, also by Jade d'Anthro.

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