Upon approaching Clapham Junction Station, Leah remembered just how narrow the ticket barriers were and flung her backpack off her shoulders. She edged it sideways, whipped out her Oyster card and shimmied on through. It had been a good idea to top it up at the off-licence last night because the mere thought of hearing the double beep whilst in a rush was not only an inconvenience but embarrassing. Besides, she could not miss this train.
“09:11 Southern service to London Victoria, platform twelve,” announced the customer service advisor on the right.
They were out in masses to contain the swarm of Londoners let loose for the Bank Holiday weekend. Men had traded their blue and black work blazers for a white t-shirt and pair of chino shorts whilst women waltzed in their floral summer dresses and open-toed sandals. The sun had a way of bringing out people’s true character. Platform twelve was at the far end of the tunnel, which meant a light jog and a brisk walk up the steps. The one good thing about this station was the departure boards periodically mounted overhead. Leah kept watch of the seconds ticking away at the bottom of the board and quickened her pace. This would be her first year taking part in the Notting Hill Carnival. Her uncle Trevor’s girlfriend Rosie managed one of the giant floats. The kind whose picture would be plastered across all the popular news sites’ culture section the following week. Yeah, that kind.
“Excuse me, sorry, excuse me.” Leah steered through the group of boys shoving bottles of Heineken into their drink cooler. Her black and gold feather headdress harnessed to her backpack jolted up and down matching the motion of her footsteps. Hannah would kill her if she didn’t make it. She’d got on the 09:00 train at East Croydon, and Leah promised she’d save her from getting off and jump right on.
The sound of a conductor’s whistle rang through Leah’s ears as she took a sharp right. He sauntered in his high vis jacket at the top of the staircase and raised his dispatched baton. ‘Please mind the gap,’ he echoed after the tannoy.
Everyone on the platform turned their heads to locate the voice.
“Hurry up miss,” he carped. He mopped his forehead and soaked up the pools of sweat dripping profusely.
The green LED lights on the baton flashed as the train engine let out a gust of steam. Like a scene out of the matrix, Leah whizzed past the conductor and lunged towards the train. She exhaled on her landing, looked back at the closing doors and smiled.
Ask anyone on Ladbroke Grove to describe Mr Watson, and they’d say he was the miserable white man at number thirty. And that he was.
“Morning Frank,” a voice yelled two doors down. “I hear it’s going to be a good one this year!”
If Mr Watson’s silence wasn’t telling enough of his mood, the whirling of his hammer drill was a clear sign of his intentions to remain inside for the next two days. He propped the board against his window and drilled in the last screw. It was sure to keep the mob away as it had done so last year and the ones before that. For him, the carnival was nothing but a weekend for youngsters all over London to come and trash the street he’d lived on for the last fifty-five years.
Ruth had known it was the one as soon as they turned the corner. Whilst driving up the road she wondered just how long she’d have to walk back to buy a pint of milk but then that didn’t matter. The brass knocker had a slight sheen to it that went nicely against the sage green door. “Frank, it’s beautiful,” she said flinging open the car door.
“The house or the knocker?” Frank replied sarcastically. He always knew what she was thinking.
“Both.” There were houses like these in the more affluent area of Whitby, but Ruth only passed them as she travelled to and from her apprenticeship at the local florist. When it was her turn to lock up the shop, she took the long route home down the thick slab steps and used her keen eye to study the exterior of the properties. Oh, how Ruth admired the Dutch roof on one house and the Victorian porch on another. She was fashioning her dream home on the spot. Frank thought she was crazy.
“You really are foolish,” he said one evening as they walked hand-in-hand towards the coastline.
“Don’t you want more?” she asked.
Ruth always wanted more. She knew there was more to life than cliffs and vast stretches of sea, so when Frank got a job offer five hours north to London, they loaded up his barely functioning car and avidly hit the road. Ruth loved the carnival. A few months had passed since Frank and Ruth moved to West London and they fit right into the neighbourhood. The August of 1966 was a hot summer. The wind was static which was precisely the reason why every window on Ladbroke Grove was wide open. A series of flyers fluttered through the Watsons letterbox and Ruth rushed to pick them up. At the top in bold red letters, it read Notting Hill Street Party. A street party on their doorstep, she thought. She had to be there and whether Frank wanted to not, he was going with her. He’d always been a simple man who enjoyed his own company but Ruth brought something out of him. That night at the carnival they danced till their feet ached. They tasted all the foods their stomachs could digest and then more, but that was then. It had been 10 years since Ruth had passed and Frank still wished he could bottle up the memories of that night and put it to rest somewhere in the house. He longed for one more dance, for a day filled with laughter but these desires felt impossible without Ruth.
“I might have to kill someone tonight. It could be someone I know. It could be a stranger. It could be someone who’s never battled before. It could be someone who’s a pro. It doesn’t matter how fast their fingers move or how clean their transitions are. I’ll have to kill them,” Hakeem recited in the portaloo mirror. The boy looking back at him was ready to annihilate the Rampage stage at 3pm. Anyone who thought they’d get the best of him was better off packing up their decks and going right back to where they came from, but the boy who ran into the grubby toilet for refuge was shitting it. But why? He’d been practising for the past two months. Hakeem hung his head in despair and plonked himself on the wobbly toilet seat. He thought back to the early morning trips to the record store where he queued to get the exclusive vinyls and the sleepless nights spent chopping and screwing tracks. He studied all the riddims. Ska, Ragga, Rocksteady, Calypso, Soca, you name it, he knew it. Then he thought of the competition this year. It was fierce. DJ Vision vs LocoBeats, Cosmx vs Keyyara, behind their questionable and rather comical stage names were years of experience Hakeem didn’t have. They’d worked enough clashes and won them to make a name for themselves and if Hakeem wanted to get to their level, to have a set on the main stage next year, he’d have to beat them fair and square.
“You can do it!” he chanted. “I’ll have to kill them.”
A loud pounding shook the portaloo almost knocking it over. Hakeem held his hand against his chest. “Oi bruv, I need to piss.”
“I’ll have to kill them,” Hakeem repeated.
“How many of you are in there?” the desperate voice asked.
Hakeem flushed the toilet in an attempt to disguise his panic then pushed the door open. This was it. He stepped onto the chaotic street, wiped the sweat from his forehead and steered through the dense motley crowd.
The carnival was in full swing. If you looked closely not a spot of pavement was in sight. The people who came to Notting Hill Carnival ventured far and wide to feed off of its energy. They shifted the crowd control barriers and raced towards Westbourne Park to find a spot in time for the start of the parade. Bursts of powder paint exploded in the air and participants covered in melted chocolate embraced one another. The Caribbean islands flags couldn’t be missed. If someone wasn’t holding it proudly in the air, they were drawn on the faces of children or hanging from the balcony of the local residents. A man wearing a turban was at every entry point haggling with customers over the prices of whistles and blowhorns. Leah had the best view of it all. She felt like an eagle soaring as she looked down from the carnival float. On either side of her float was a line of young boys and girls playing steel pans which made the sweetest calypso tones. Leah bent over the safety railing to gain a closer look. She watched the women’s waistline move to the beat from the sound system on the float in front of her and as she looked to her right there was another soundman roaring on the microphone. The array of colours from the costumes were blinding and their feathers were ten times bigger than the ones on her headdress. Hannah said there would be a lot of people but this was an understatement. From above everyone looked like specks of black and white dots huddled together. It was a huge melting pot of bodies. Leah grabbed Hannah by the arm and they laughed at the dancers gyrating on the police officers.
“Mmm, can you smell that?” Leah asked. She could smell the jerk chicken from a mile away. Even better, she could taste the sauce they splattered on top of the Jamaican hard dough bread. There was no doubt they were heading straight there once they got off the float.
As the floats ploughed on towards Ladbroke Grove, everyone scattered and gathered at their preferred sound system. No one ever stayed to watch the parade right to the end, because everyone knew the real party was wherever the stack of speakers were. Over at the Rampage Stage, Hakeem was psyching himself up. He hovered around the stage tent and guarded his decks just in case anyone tried anything funny. First, he opened his laptop and scrolled quickly to double check the order of the songs. It was DJ suicide if you were halfway through a set and you mixed two tracks at different tempos. That was sorted. Next, he reset his EQ’s and filters. He heard DJ’s sets from previous years with heaps of unnecessary special effects and the crowd wasn’t receptive at all so it was best to have that in check. Hakeem could hear the crowd going crazy for LocoBeats. That was a seamless fade from Beenie Man ‘Romie’ into Bounty Killer ‘Wotless’ Boy’, he thought.
The MC couldn’t contain himself. “I know you guys heard that,” he screamed. “Pull up!” That was code for a wheel up. Do you know how hard it was to get a wheel up? Hakeem stuck his head around the corner of the stage and saw everyone’s hands in the air. No, he wasn’t on edge at all.
“You’re up,” said the MC breathlessly. Like heck he was. Two muscular men wheeled Hakeem’s deck stand holding all of his equipment. Looking at the speed they thrusted his belongings on stage, there was no way he could back out even if he wanted to. He could hear the MC introducing him.
“Alright ladies and gentlemen, up next we’ve got a youngster who’s come all the way from South London to entertain you today.”
Hakeem took a deep breath.
“Let’s give it up for Hakeem!”
Hakeem stepped on the stage and the sea of people cheered but he couldn’t hear them. They were there alright. He could see them, yet it was all silent. The MC who was shouting moments ago had simmered down and stood on the side motionless. Hakeem’s eyes darted to the left to see the big countdown timer. Three minutes. That’s all he had. Three minutes to show everyone what he was made of. He gazed back at his audience. He couldn’t lose them, not now. Hakeem approached his turntables and jerked the jog wheel. It made a scratching sound that vibrated through the speakers. He hit the Beat sync button and the crowd erupted.
Mr Watson had been sitting in his armchair all day and successfully locked himself away. Though the racket outside was becoming unbearable, he held on to the thought that there were only a few hours left till the carnival came to an end. He was very satisfied with this year’s turnout and he planned to do the same exact thing next year. Like always, he thought of Ruth and how she was the only one who could possibly get him to leave the house and enjoy the festivities, but those days were long gone. The sound of the carnival-goers retiring from the parade grew louder. Yes, Mr Watson had boarded up his windows, but this didn’t make the house any more soundproof than it had been.
At last, he rose from his armchair, crept towards the front door and looked
The children stopped their chatter and froze. Leah and Hannah, who were making their way to the jerk chicken stall, paused in their tracks and glanced at the commotion going on across the way. The shapeless man standing in the doorway grew red in the face and clenched his fists. “Get off my…” he muttered.
In the distance, Mr Watson could hear the melody of Jackie and Millie ‘Pledging my love’. He loosened the firm grip that balled up a fist. It was his and Ruth’s song. They danced to it on the night of the carnival. Mr Watson grabbed the brass knocker on the door, closed it shut and followed the faint sound of the music.
Aiesha is an English tutor with an ardent love for the arts. From the age of eight, she immersed herself into the performing arts world and attended The BRIT School in 2013, where she mastered her artistry in music and theatre. For the past five years, she has spent her time nurturing young people’s passion for literature through her creative writing workshops and 1:1 tuition services. Aiesha has gone on to write poetry, short stories and screenplays that explore her interest in black culture. She admires the works of Toni Morrison and Angie Thomas, who also capture the black experience.