Title: Sport 37

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, 2009, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Conditions of use



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Sport 37: Winter 2009

Lawrence Patchett

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Lawrence Patchett

Accommodations: 1

Five minutes' walk from Borough tube is Newham House, Peter's building. L-shaped, six-floored, old brick, Newham backs onto Kipling House and faces Mortimer. All three buildings are ex-council. A car park is in between them, a central sort of courtyard—in the summer evenings, this fills with a mingle of languages, as tenants stand on their balconies to talk across it, building to building, in Bangla and Spanish and Russian.

In this environment, Peter often finds it too noisy and too close for sleep.

He shares five rooms on Newham's second floor with two others— one Italian and one Pole; no lounge. The hallway is so small that only one person can walk down it at a time . At night, they must all be quiet or they'll all be disturbed.

When the Polish girl makes love to her boyfriend, Peter can hear her through the walls as they conclude: each night she makes a single suppressed 'uh!' near the end of their embraces, and then the boyfriend leaves at 11pm. Peter has met the boyfriend—he is from Newcastle and works for Bmw Tower Hill and is engaged.

One night because he is lonely Peter goes to the laundrette. Walking through the car park with his bag of clothes he smiles at the Bangladeshi girls playing badminton. They have no net but their racquets swish through the night air with a breezing sound, and they smile back at him.

In the laundrette, Peter finds Gianni. Gianni owns the flat in which he, Peter and the Polish girl live. He purchased the flat one year ago, very cheaply, direct from the council. He is forty-something; he wears a leather jacket; he hasn't shaved.

'These fucking parking wardens,' Gianni says in greeting. 'I park for two minutes and they put a fine on my window.'

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Gianni often talks of parking wardens. He owns a white vehicle and makes deliveries for money. The congestion charge makes him especially angry.

'So did you hear the Pole last night?' he says, watching Peter feed a machine with clothes. 'Uh! Uh! Jesus.' He spits out the door. 'It's getting worse. Uh! All night. She is rapacious. I can't sleep.'

'Well,' says Peter, 'she is leaving London.'

The Pole's brother has become very ill, and this weekend she will ride a bus across France and Germany to attend to him. The trip will take 26 hours.

'Well, I won't miss her,' Gianni says. 'I need to sleep. Jesus. And now this fucking machine's broken.'

The next day, Peter goes to his work. It's in a small computer and hi-fi shop on Tottenham Court Road. The firm has a policy of not honouring its computer warranties. This is what bothers him most about his job. Not one of the warranties has ever been honoured.

'Shah,' Peter says, 'Shah. Can I've a word?'

Peter's boss is known informally as 'Fuck Em' Shah. He has a similar shop in East Ham, and right now he seems to know what Peter wants to ask him. 'Yeah yeah,' he says, then picks up the phone and begins speaking into it in his own language at high volume.

Peter looks down at the mobile phones in the glass counter display. He's been owed £40 in commission for three months now. It's this that he wants to discuss with Shah, but Shah is on the phone, and now he's walking out the back, and the door is closing.

When he gets home, Peter eats macaroni in his room. He can hear the Polish girl crying in the next room. She sniffles and cries out angry questions. Intermittently, there is the sound of her striking the Newcastle boy. At some point the boy leaves the building—he has a car—and the noise of the Polish girl's crying builds in volume, and then dies away, and then Peter can hear her packing again.

Through the night the Polish girl goes between the kitchen and her room. Peter gets up to check on his cupboards, pretending that he needs to hang out more clothes on the balcony.

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Easing past him in the hallway, the Pole smiles at him. She is holding two boxes of crackers against her chest.

'Good luck, Peter,' she says. Her eyes are stained a psoriatic red.

Peter has the excuse that it is too close in the hallway to embrace her comfortably, so instead he just inclines his head. 'Safe journey,' he says.

She smiles, and squeezes past him, and pulls her door closed.

In the kitchen she has left a box of small cakes on the counter. 'To Peter and Gianni,' a note says, 'thank you. Much love from your neighbour and friend, Tanieke.'

Peter reads the note over. Tanieke. It's the first time he's seen it spelled out like that—her first name.

For much of the night Peter can't sleep. Tanieke is leaving after only two months in the next room. Suddenly this is disconcerting for him.

It is silent inside the flat but much too hot.

After an hour of quiet lying on the bed he opens his window and lets the noise of the girls playing badminton come inside. He thinks of the young girls out there, swishing their racquets and smiling.

'Tanieke is leaving,' he says to the room. Then he says it again, louder, 'Tanieke,' and wonders if the badminton girls outside can hear him, and what they think he is saying.

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Accommodations: 2

In the summer, in the East End of London, Drew's three housemates spontaneously turn Christian and leave. A new girl arrives and likes the place and comes from a small Mexican city called Queretaro. She has just blagged a job in a High Holborn store.

'I lied on my CV,' she tells Drew. 'Do you know anything about legal book systems and ordering?'

Drew shakes his head.

Her name is Samantha, and her uncompleted degree is in English language. 'I'm so pleased,' she says, about the job. 'I was desperate. Do you have a job too?'

Drew works in the post room of a government department on Millbank. With overtime, this provides enough money for rent and food.

'My father works in the government too, at home,' she says. 'He is very high up, but this job has made him crazy. I can't talk to him any more. But I adore him,' she says, displaying a photo she has taken from a suitcase. 'Papi. His first job was in a restaurant. He studied for a degree while he was working there. It was very hard. When he graduated I was three.'

She catches Drew staring. Delighted, she throws her head back to laugh, and he notices that her teeth are perfectly aligned. Her hair is black and long.

Samantha rings home often, using £5 phone-cards she buys from the off-licence. Afterwards, she reviews these calls in the bed with Drew. Although her father is evading her questions it is obvious he is having a bad time. She suspects a dirty senator is causing him difficulty. He has had trouble of this kind before—once, during school, Samantha was approached by a strange man in a suit who smiled and said, 'Tell your papi to behave.'

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'That's like a line from a film,' says Drew.

'This job is killing him,' she says. 'He is paying for house renovations—to take his mind away. He spent all phone call talking about those. He is busy cleaning, too. The maid doesn't clean thoroughly enough, he says.'

Samantha gets a promotion at the book store and Drew visits with croissants to congratulate her. It is a Saturday, and the bendy bus he takes to get to High Holborn is packed and reeking. The tube would be faster but hotter and in any case too expensive. At each stop more people press on. Someone is on Drew's foot. Another is pressing against his thigh.

Meeting Drew at Russell Street, Samantha is talkative all the way to the shop. In her new role, she will continue to man the tills but also work out the back. She will receive an increase of 75p.

'Come and see my desk,' she says, laughing, leading Drew through the shop to the storeroom. 'This is temporary.'

Out the back there are stacks of books and one computer on a table and a separate small office with a closed door and one desk in it. At the end of a short hallway there are three cardboard boxes piled up against a fire exit door. This is Samantha's desk. She shows Drew how, to write, she must sit with her legs going out to the side.

'How do you call this?' she says, looking up at Drew from the chair. 'Side-saddle?'

The sight of her sideways on the chair before the boxes makes Drew weak with a helpless rage. 'I can't believe this,' he says, looking around. 'They're exploiting you. Three boxes does not make a desk.'

But the door to her supervisor's office is dark and closed for the weekend, and anyway there is nothing the supervisor could do. Staff budgets are managed from the head office in another part of London.

'Don't worry about that now,' says Samantha. 'Look at this.'

She is processing an order for a set of legal volumes that costs £10,000 and is printed strictly on demand.

'And this book is one thousand pounds alone,' she says. 'Look at it. How can it be worth one thousand pounds?'

The book is thick and the print very small. Drew puts it down and page 49 brings the croissants from his bag.

'With my raise,' Samantha says, eating, 'I will be able to pay you back for all the groceries I owe you.'

For their second Christmas together, they travel to Queretaro. Samantha's father contributes money for the fares. Greeting them at the airport he is sharply dressed and hypertensive. A 4x4 is waiting outside. Sitting in the back seat, snarled in traffic while trying to leave Mexico City, Drew listens as Samantha's father rages in Spanish at the driver and at Samantha, who interprets.

'He is being unkind about my job,' says Samantha. 'He thinks I should never have abandoned my degree. He can't believe I am working for such a low wage. All of this upsets him. He calls me an arsehole who can't stick to anything. I am just like my mother, he says.'

Drew sneaks his arm around her as the car lurches forward. The father swears at his driver and continues talking to Samantha, in a different tone.

'He says he is honoured to meet you. You must make his home yours. Unfortunately he will be drawn away by the demands of his work. He is apologising—maybe the house will seem small or incomplete. The renovations are ongoing.'

Drew begins to respond but she stalls him. 'Don't try yet,' she says. 'He is mad with his work. This is why he swears at me.'

Turning to the window, Drew looks through another window into a bus, where a woman in business clothes is stooping to wipe a seat with a cloth. Rubbing at the seat in the bus, she spits on the cloth, then wipes again. At last, satisfied, she sits down. Then there is a break in traffic and the 4x4 lurches forward and the bus is left behind, out of view.

When they arrive at the father's house, every room smells hotel-clean and it is clear that his wife—Samantha's mother—has gone. The break-up has occurred since Samantha left for London.

'My father says make yourself at home. He has to make some calls.'

They watch as her father walks to a room that leads off the lounge.

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'This means,' Samantha says, 'that he is going to work for a time and then lift weights and cry.'

She takes Drew to the kitchen, and he stands against a bench while she makes food for him. He can't help because he doesn't know where things are stored. She is preparing totas, a meal she has promised a long time. Here at last she has the right brands of dried meat and beans; they have not been available in London.

Watching, Drew decides to make a drink for Samantha. Generally she prefers water, so he fills a glass from the tap but it's warm and she says no thank you so he tips it out again.

'Don't worry,' she says, 'I'll make something cold for us both in a moment.'

Resuming his position against the bench, Drew says, 'Okay,' and understands that on this trip he will feel even more ineffectual than before.

'Take your shoes and socks off,' she tells him. 'You'll feel better. Thank you for coming here, baby. It's important for you to see.'

The kitchen tiles are vast and cool under Drew's bare feet. Outside, he can see Samantha's father pacing in the garden, talking on a mobile phone. He is using a hand to emphasise the argument he is advancing. He looks so upset that Drew doesn't point him out to Samantha. Instead he says, 'I'm sorry about your mother. Where did she go?'

Samantha shrugs. 'To her family—in the city.' She flips the meat and scoops beans into the pan. 'She is insane. It's so stupid to go there. She won't survive.'

'Where, exactly?' says Drew. 'Which part?'

'I don't remember,' says Samantha. 'It's just the city. It's insane. They are poor. She won't survive.' And she shrugs again.

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Accommodations: 3

The crowd at the gala event is applauding the guest speaker. Matthew is at the back, clapping without passion. He is attending the event on behalf of Cardier. He has done many of these nights—it is the season. He will take one drink, circulate, then return to his apartment above the 24-hour Food Metro.

The speaker has made a joke—people are laughing. Matthew rubs his face, looks ahead, bleakly.

On his periphery, there's a young woman. She is not facing the front. She is watching him—closely. He tries to ignore her.

She keeps staring.

'So, you work for this charity?' he says, at last.

'No. I don't know any of these people. Except,' she says, pointing, 'those two over there. We all three work for this hotel. We all work here—how do I say this? On the sly.'

She watches him.

'My name is Helena.'

She talks more, asking questions and smiling.

At last Matthew acknowledges that, yes, he is very young for someone of his situation—a good position at Cardier, an apartment of his own. She requests his contact details, and he hands them over, on a business card.

'You don't have many visitors, do you?' says Helena, the next morning. She is standing on the balcony of his apartment without socks or shoes. 'Look!' she says. 'There's a parade! I can see Santa! Santa Claus, down there!'

Matthew is in the bedroom, sitting on the bed's edge. His elbows are on his knees. His head is down. He has no interest in looking out at the weekend.


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'Yes!' says Helena. 'And elves! There's elves too!'

Helena moves into his apartment, bringing two others—the two she pointed out at the hotel. They are all in their twenties, same as Matthew.

'These people come with me,' she says. 'Zak. Mara. They are from Plovdiv too.'

Matthew lifts a hand in greeting. Then he watches as the new pair try out his bedroom and clothes.

'We are a community, we three,' Helena says, following his eyes. 'And now four. I hope we can all become friends.'

Zak is putting on a white shirt, one Matthew intended for tomorrow's breakfast meeting.

'How long have you worked at the hotel?' Matthew asks Helena, still watching the other two. They are holding up clothes, comparing. They have impassive expressions.

Smiling, Helena licks yoghurt from a finger. 'This is probiotic,' she says. 'You're a good host—kind.'

'That's because I like you.'

'And I like you,' she says, as if surprised. 'More than I expected to, maybe.'

By the end of the week they have established territories. Helena has the double bed, Matthew the bedroom floor; in the lounge, Zak has the couch and coffee table, Mara the carpet. All share the kitchen and bathroom. Four toothbrushes—one primly intact, three worn— crowd a stainless steel beaker in the bathroom.

Running a tap, Matthew fudges his hair before work, thinking of Helena, of her two friends who now squat in his lounge. 'These are my decisions,' he says, working spikes into his hair. 'I make my reality. I can choose the right path here, or the wrong one. I can do this.'

This is the way he psyches up for work too—these same phrases.

At night, Helena teases him for not sharing the bed with her. Although they make love frequently he leaves the bed soon after, retiring to a floor-mat to kip down facing the wall.

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'Not yet,' he tells her from down there. 'I'm not ready.' It is still only one year since his last partner left him, leaving large ripped silent holes.

'Okay, silly,' Helena says, moving her legs up there on the bed sheets, in a running motion.

Every night he makes dinner for the four of them, and Helena collects contributions from her silent friends. All three receive gratuities from the wealthy guests at the hotel.

'Tips are up today,' she says. 'You could buy more feta tomorrow, maybe?'

'Yes,' Matthew calls from the kitchen, adding white wine to a sauce. He has become expert at meals that go far—pastas, stews. 'We'll receive the electric bill soon.'

'In that case, I shall smile extra hard at the hotel tomorrow,' says Helena. 'We all will.'

The others nod gravely. Mara is wearing a T-shirt that says, Cardier Wildcats Dragonboat Team.

'Things will improve,' says Helena.

She has the best English of the three, but like her friends she works for cash and has no friends at the embassy.

At night Matthew lies awake on his floor after the lights are all out, listening to the noises of the others in his rooms—their coughs, sighs, turnings over. These sounds merge with the hiss and sough of the electric doors at the downstairs Food Metro.

At last he says, 'Are you awake?'

Her voice comes down, 'Mmm.'

'I think I'm almost ready. I'll sleep up there soon. Tomorrow night, maybe.'

He listens hard, and he thinks he can hear her smiling.

Later that week, in the night, Helena pads from the bedroom to comfort Mara, who is coughing again. Waking up, Matthew goes to the bathroom. As he walks through the lounge, he doesn't look at the three with their backs turned on his sofa. They are swapping low urgent phrases in their own language. Recently, Mara has become page 54 very ill. She coughs and sweats and stays home. She has not been able to work at all.

'I am the one with options,' Matthew tells the tiled bathroom. 'I have this apartment that is almost mine. I have money. This makes me empowered and free.'

He remains in the bathroom for some time, repeating these phrases to his reflection.

When he returns from the bathroom, all the lights are on. Helena comes toward him with her arms open. Zak is on the couch now; Mara is on the floor. Both are very still, entranced by the glows and shapes that move on his television.

He takes Helena's outstretched hands. 'Whatever happens now, you, my love, are safe here. You can depend on me.' He holds her hands firm. 'I can help you—you and Mara. I want to. Knowing this, knowing I can say this . . . it's . . . I can't explain this feeling.'

Her eyes are so open and tender.

'Really,' he says. 'This is a new, big thing for me. I'm so grateful. You've helped me.'

He blinks—she is reaching both hands to his temples, wiping with deliberate slow thumbs at his eyes.

'Really,' he says. 'I mean it. Stay. I want you here.' Somehow he knows from the way Helena is holding his face that she will leave soon.

'You will find something else,' she says. 'You'll survive, baby. You'll find the next thing.'

'What do you mean?' says Matthew, blinking again, brave. 'What do I need to find?'