I was about to turn fourteen when Lucy Campbell came to live in Park Hill, just next to my house. A couple of days after the Campbells’ arrival, my mother had decided to invite them to tea because, she said, we had to greet them properly and to show them that, despite the short distance from London, the people living in Park Hill were worm, welcoming, helpful and, most of all, distinctively nice. I was well aware, and so was my father, that my mother’s purpose was to ascertain that this new family – a black family- would not have put any discredit to the high standard of the neighbourhood, in which case, she said, it was her civic duty to report the unfortunate situation to the weekly Park Hill Assembly.
I was annoyed by my mother’s haughtiness and by my father’s incapacity to say anything about it, and I spent the preceding hours of the tea-time locked in my room, imaging the Campbells to be a savage and barbarous family like the people in Heart of Darkness, and my father taking the situation entirely in his hands and saying to my mother ‘Dear, we are uncivilized as much as they are!’ However, nothing of this sort happened.
Lucy, the Campbells’ daughter, at that time was just fifteen year-old. I can still see her, that afternoon, in the entrance door, in her white dress trimmed with lace and her thick black skin shining from the neck-hole. I remember her glancing around and then at me, and then around and then back to me. I did not yet know the meaning of that glancing and, young as I was, I misunderstood it for shyness. When she sat next to me on the sofa, I felt my mind being inebriated and clouded by the pungent and wild scent of her skin. At first her smell made me quiver. But then, while she introduced herself adding soon after her name that she played the piano, I imagined her scent to be the smell of the earth at its centre, and that I was gently undulating on the crust, and then slipping, slowly, right into the centre of the earth. And it was so beautiful, she was so beautiful.
It was that night, around the dinner table, observing as for the first time my mother’s pompous manners and that narrow-mindedness that brought her to condense our and other lives to nothing more than nice, that I felt with clarity how deeply I hated her.
My mother had decided to resume us the information gathered during the afternoon, as if she wanted to practice for the next Park Hill Assembly. Ms Campbell, who standing to my mother dominated slightly too much the conversation, said that her husband had been working for over twenty years as paediatric surgeon in a prestigious Hospital in New York, and that he had been temporarily transferred to a very well established private clinic in London in a sort of an exchanging program. The training program would have lasted one year, at the end of which they would all have returned to New York. Mr Edward Campbell, my mother said, was a reasonable nice man even though he kept too silent for a man. As for Lucy, my mother decreed at last, she seemed to be judicious and nice. Therefore, my mother concluded, she would have reported to the Assembly that there was nothing to be worried about this new family because, even though they were not distinctively nice, they were still moderately nice. My steak, already badly cooked, got cold and chewy, while my mother went on saying how a nice family we were and what a nice impression we would have given in front of the Assembly. Eating the peas in my plate, and peeking now and then at my parents, I anxiously waited for mother to announce that she would have invited the Campbells to my birthday’s party, which was falling in exactly two weeks time. Chewing the peas slowly one by one, I imagined the dim lights of my living room, and my parents, faintly drunk, dispersing themselves amongst their friends, laughing, careless. And I, there, and Lucy, there, the thick black skin of her cheek against my cheek, just few words, I play the piano, and she breathed, and her breath went inside me, and I mutated, and I was older, and I was stronger, and she loved me.
I had finally decided to force in my mouth those pieces of cold meat, so to make a good impression on my mother in the hope she would have moved onto the subject of my birthday’s party, when she, crossing knife and fork on her empty plate, assured us that the next day weather was going to be very, very nice indeed. Ready to stand up, I suddenly felt my body becoming cold and heavy and my head dragged down to the plate. Small beads of cold sweat fell from my head on the steak.
No one of my family ever mentioned the Campbells again.
In those days, I never heard a sound coming out from Lucy’s house; not as single laugh of relatives or friends coming to pay a visit, not a voice raised from her parents, not a glass breaking, not a door been shut. Nothing, but her piano. At that time my knowledge of music was limited to the UB40 given repeatedly at the radio, which I invariably turned off with irritation. After school, in my bedroom, I would devour in silence adventure novels about some guy gone somewhere in world, and the farther he went from my home that better it was for me. With her piano, though, something changed in my reading. It was right when the notes were brutally falling down and then going up blaring, that the pace of my novels became unexpectedly alive. And so, a furious tempest would destroy my ship, and I would fall, the tempest coercing me down, and Lucy with me, into the abyss of the sea. And oh! We could not breath, and down there, a huge tropical fish was ready to kill us, but I would, quickly, seize strongly its tail, and Lucy to my chest, and with the fish we went up and up, and with my eyes I could see the sun, a pale and flat ball above my head, and I stared at it, and the fish went further up, until when I could see no more, the sun blinding me, but in the open air we breathed and then we screamed, a scream of fear and then of bliss.
After lunch, from my window bedroom, I would peep at Lucy’s back garden. She was always alone, sometimes making little drawings in the dry soil with a wooden stick, sometimes doing nothing, just fluctuating on the garden-swing. Her white dress would rise, and drop, and then raise and drop, for hours. Dawdling-after-lunch-times. But one of thoseafternoons turned up different. From her back garden, she had raised her head at my window for the first time. She stared at me and I felt as I had been naked. She walked through the garden and came right under my window, with her legs wrapped tight under a white skirt that seemed far too small for her size. Exactly like the first time I saw her, her big eyes glanced quickly around and then at me, around and then at me. From my top window, I gradually raised my hand and myy lips unclosed and closed slightly- Hello. Her throat contracted and her lips trembled as she smiled back. With her hands she made me signsto go over. And I felt my body shivering with cold, my legs turning into two straight thin sticks, my mind blanking with fear.
Only much later -and I’m still wondering to myself how long- when I realized that she had left the garden, I rushed down the stairs in an outburst of trepidation, with my heart all of a sudden beating so strongly that I thought it could explode. And, so, I tripped on my shoes, I tumbled over the stairs, I bumped into the commodes, I broke a china pot, I dropped photograph frames, but I ran and ran, and then I was out, in front of her house, and I rang the bell. And rang. And rang. But no one came. Not a single sound filled the air. Only my heart, with long strong beats of shame.
The night before my birthday was a sleepless night, because it was thenthat my sea world was drained. A car driving swinging on the street had awoken me in the middle of the night. I opened my eyes in the dark and listened to the car parking in front of the Campbells’ house. I heard the heavy steps on the floor and the car-door being shut with force. It was only when I heard the car-door being shut twice, that I stood up and went to window. What I saw, in the faint light of the street lamp, was Mr Campbell dragging Lucy by the hair. What I heard, in the stillness of the night, was Mr Campbell, calling his daughter, who just fifteen yeas old, stupid little bitch.
I stayed motionless. I knew that in the world there were children killing their own parents, mothers murdering their own infants, fathers molesting their own daughters. I knew all that, but there is a sour ocean between knowing something as a possibility and knowing something as a matter of fact. Now the fact was there, next to my house, in front of my thirteen years old eyes. And I wished that the window wasn’t there, that the night was not so still, that my parents were not downstairs, that everything wasn’t there, not even Lucy, just myself. But I hated myself. I hated what I could not understand. When everything was silent again, I returned to bed, weeping.
The following morning, when I woke up, Lucy was gone. Lucy was not to be found anywhere, the policeman was saying to my mother. On the edge of my bed, I felt the soil trembling under my feet. And I’d wanted to go, somewhere, anywhere, and I shut my eyes, and I called God, and I asked him God please make me go, and I asked him God please make me fly. But when I opened my eyes my mother was still downstairs, frying eggs that nobody would have eaten.
Mr and Ms Campbell left Park Hill a week later.
Yesterday night. The Grey Horse. West Croydon. Just a couple of miles form Park Hill. It was Jack’s idea; he arranged everything for my stag party. I’m not good at all in inviting people, making lists and phone calls. When Jack told me the party was going to be at the Grey Horse, I thought he was kidding me. Only last week, outside the nightclub, there had been a shooting among pimps. But Jack knows all sorts of people, and said that everything was going to befine and funny.
Inside the nightclub there were lots of girls, pretty much yours if you had money to pay them, but I’m not that sort of man. I did not want another woman; I had one I was going to marry in a week. I limited myself to watch the girls and let them do a bit of show with me in front of everybody.
We got all drunk, and we were having fun, laughing, careless, with all those girls dancing their nakedness around us, when a black man said something into my ears. The club was dark, and I could not see his face very well, but I am sure about his incredible skinniness. Skinniness in black people seems always very odd to me. He had a gold necklace into which was threaded a ring. The necklace dangled against my chest when he bent down to me. His drunken body almost touched me. I felt repelled and stood up from the chair. But the man got closer and, suddenly, in the dingy light, I felt his estrange and scraggy skinny figure against mine. He asked me if I wanted a woman, because he had a nice little woman for just twenty pounds. Do you wann’her, man? – he asked – few quid, man. Give her a try, man! Little baby, man. I said I was fine, and left him in the middle of the hall, incapable of holding himself upright, with his eyes half-shut and his fingers undulating in air.
I went to the bar and ordered one more vodka-lemon. From the bar, I observed Jack sinking into an armchair with two white girls sitting on his lap. He kissed them on the cheeks, and brought out of his jacket pocket few banknotes. The girls laughed, and Jack disappeared under their bodies. I envied his ability to make his life his own. I drank the vodka in one gulp, and with it I drowned the image of a long rope of ousted infinite possibilities that was my life.
I was about togo out to breathe some fresh air, when a hand grasped me. It was the skinny man. He asked me again if I wanted a woman. Five quid, man – he said. His voice now was trembling, and tense. I got out of the nightclub, nauseated.
It might have been about three o’clock and I walked for I don’t remember how long. Walking amongst those dirty pigeons I felt free as never before. I thought I could have gone away and disappeared in those filthy streets, if I had wished it. I reached 3 Windmill Grove by chance. That’s what happened. By chance. I didn’t think about the skinny man. I thought nothing. I just entered.
The door was ajar, but the lights were off. The house smelt of urine and damp. I didn’t hear any sound but the one of the rats twittering all over the room. When I turned on the lights, I saw her. She was wrapped in a dirty white sheet. Her right arm was hanging heavily from the sofa, her fingertips suspended right above a pool of blood. I went into bathroom and washed the bath with hot water. Then, I lifted her from the sofa and a stain of blood coming out from her head widened on my shirt. I laid her in the bathtub and washed her and the sheet with cold water. Then I laid her on the sofa, and closed the curtains. I undressed myself and lay down next to her, covering us from head to foot with the wet sheet.
And, then, I felt the black thick skin of her cheek against my cheek, and I smelt the scent of the earth at its centre, and I breathed inside her mouth, and she was, emerging again from the sea, with me, into the open air, and the music of the piano filled the air, and Lucy was there, and I was there, and Lucy was strong, and I was strong, and I loved her.
Then I fell asleep, finally.