HeadCleaner: A Novella by Nasir Hussain

Part 2: May 2002

Things felt decidedly awkward for Nasir in the days and weeks that followed his no-show. Even though he now worked mainly at the school in Fulham he still came in for a few hours a day to teach at the Callan School in Oxford Street. The school was a huge place, but the Teachers Room,where everyone congregated between lessons to swap class folders and catch their breath, was far from huge. He had expected loads of awkward pauses and frozen smiles between himself and Simon, but it wasn’t as bad as that. Simon was too socially sophisticated to let his ill will linger. But his polite dismissal of their former relationship was in it’s own way far worse. He did not exactly ignore Nasir, but he did not encourage conversation. It was all nods, hellos and the occasional. 

“You alright?”

“Yeah, I’m alright.”

“Alright, see you later.”

“Yeah, see ya later.”

Nasir stopped working at The Callan school altogether and threw his lot in with the much smaller independent operation in Fulham. They paid more and the hours were fewer and more flexible. He began to feel a creeping guilt about letting Simon down again and again. He felt like a loser who promised flowers and came up with dead roses. Nasir would have probably felt worse had it not had other things on his, like Kinga for instance. She had only called him from Poland once and when he had tried calling her back got a deadline. He now wondered when, or if, he would even see her again and wished he hadn’t boasted about her being his ‘girlfriend’ to the boys in the backroom, brandishing the photo she had given him as evidence. In the meantime he had to find something else to take his mind off what had, or hadn’t happened, in Pimlico. He tried settling into his novel, yet every time he finished writing another section found himself so disappointed that it would take at least a week before he dared approaching it again.

The school was good in the way it took people in. People like Tamlyn (and probably even himself) who would have been regarded as weird and strange in any other environment, were not only absorbed in with like-minded characters, but slotted into a ready made regime of order, purpose and comradshipship. The thing that Nasir had really liked about the Callan school was how it took your mind off real life. There were of course teachers, usually young and often female, who had greater aspirations than explaining words and verbs. These were usually aspirant artists. People who were either in between projects or were trying to get projects off the ground and needed a bit of cash to tide them over in the interim.

There was a reason he spoke of writing a novel, or possibly doing some stand-up comedy. A man who taught English as a second language in a school where qualifications were not only necessary, but often a hindrance to get you to do what was required of you, which was reading pre-prepared questions and answers from a book. Teachers needed to have something outside of that life. Creativity, referred to by the Teacher Trainers as ‘personality teaching,’ was deplored. Students were not supposed to ask questions in class. That broke up the rhythm of the lesson.To depend on the job in and of itself was like a slow form of euthanasia; a reduction to the level of a factory worker layered over with a genteel veneer. Those who had been teaching at the school the longest knew this. These veterans revelled in a kind of ‘dance to the devil’s beat’ glee as they laughed at things that went awry or hopped up the stairs chanting things like: “Cash for questions! Cash for questions!”

A part of why Nasir and many others ignored the rules regarding banter and creativity was because they hated feeling like human tape recorders. Someone who was renting out his mouth for fifty minutes at a time to ask questions that had him sounding like an overanxious game show. Five years earlier he had been taking down notes in a huge lecture hall with a lifetime of writs, clients and contracts ahead of him. How the hell had this happened! What happened if his voice went? What jobs were on offer besides making wicker baskets?! On some days just walking up the flight of steps leading to the school felt like the death of ambition. It was on those days more than any other that he told himself that he was going to master the tools of a writer and write a book that would sail him away into a brighter horizon.Weeks had whizzed by without any communication from Simon or Kinga, the two people who had dominated his activities a month ago. He had tried calling Kinga only to hear the disheartening sound of a flatliner line. Nothing more to do then but could click the phone and mutter to himself.

“Well, it’s all in the mighty palms of circumstance now,” he thought after his last attempt at calling her from an internet cafe.

Nasir still came back to the school when he was shopping in the area on Friday afternoons. His jeans and access to free hours was his newest way of gloating to the other teachers that he had moved up the escalator to better things. The people he met at the school, including those teachers whom he thought had it in for him, seemed happy to see him. He would shake a lot of hands and promise to go to the Ben Crouch pub with them when Friday rolled around at eight-thirty. He would nose about the place, but never catch a whiff of Kinga.

Fortunately, the wintry period of he and Simon wearily circling each other had passed and they had started going for regular cups of tea and plates of chips and beans at the café where the po rn shops lay thickest. Nasir stood with his hands in his pockets while Simon chained his heavy looking bike to a post outside Bar Bruno in Wardour Street.

“I got a feeling I’m not going to see her again,” Nasir said once they had settled down and ordered.

“See who again?”

“Kinga.”

“Oh her,” Simon said in his usual inscrutable, almost downbeat manner.

“Yeah her,” Nasir said, suddenly feeling quite heavy even though he hadn’t eaten a bite for hours. “I don’t think she liked me half as much as I like her.”

“Of course she liked you. She let you fuck her didn’t she?” 

Nasir smiled at the memory. “ Yeah she did. Made me chicken too.”

“See, made you chicken too. Look I sometimes get down too. You’re not alone. But don’t give up on what you want. Don’t give up on your writing ambitions. Keep trying, don’t stop. You’ll find yourself improving with every other page. Never quit, don’t even think of doing that. Quitting is for amateurs, and you’re not an amateur are you?”

Nasir shook his head.

“Good, cos I don’t eat chips and beans with amateurs. Now look,” Simon said shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m waiting on my golden ticket too! Maybe it’s the age we’re at. Between 29 and 32 you’re said to get this recurring feeling of not exactly angst, but a feeling of worthlessness. But this is said to be Saturn’s return.”

“Satan’s what?”

“Not Satan, Saturn, as in the planet with the rings around it. They say it’s at this time that Saturn makes a return in your life. Saturn in astrology is the planet of restriction and inhibition. It comes back to the exact point in your life, as it was when you were born. You get this feeling of time running out and nothing makes you happy, not happy for long anyway. Am I right?”

“Please continue Nostradamus.”

A few months ago I used to wake up crying next to Sumiko. Big man tears running down my face. I thought it was going to be the end of the world. But it’s okay now. It’ll be that way for you too in time. I think it’s connected to death and rebirth.”

“Death?” said Nasir looking across the table with an ironic look on his face.

“Yeah, every birth involves some death doesn’t it? I see life as being made up of periods, bubbles of time. At least my life has been. We go through these interconnecting stages of life; boyhood, early manhood and all the rest of it. A few years ago we could really mess up and it wouldn’t matter all that much. Now, the mistakes we make, the things that go wrong, have so much more resonance. Our wrongs so much harder to undo because we’re not going to be young men for that much longer. We’re still a good way off from where we want to be and are starting to confront the notion that the journey may not end where we want it to.”

Nasir took a deep gulp of his coke and sighed feelingly.“Women…the good ones go, the bad ones stay and the rest I take for granted.”

“Do you want me to call her for you?”

“Who?”

“Why, Kinga of course.”

“Will you!”

“Give me your mobile.”

Nasir hurriedly reached into his pocket and thrust his mobile across the white table top.“It’s all yours.”

Simon didn’t get through to Kinga, but he did get through to her sister.

“My name is Nasir,” Simon said after clearing his throat. “I went out with your sister before Christmas and I haven’t been able to contact her since.” There was a pause where Simon listened intently before giving Nasir a wink and a thumbs up. “Oh that would be great,” he continued. “Just a second I’ll get a pen to write it down.”

Nasir sat opposite fidgeting anxiously with his fork.

“There you go,” said Simon. “She said Kinga lost her old phone and obviously must have lost your number in the process.”

“Thank’s Si. You’re the best friend a man, or a dog can ever ask for.”

It made perfect sense, thought Nasir, as he walked home staring up at the summer night stars above the church tower at the high end of his road. She must have been wondering to herself that if he was as interested as he looked then it was only right and proper that he should do all the calling and chasing from here. She’d already done the job of dropping the hanky in the grove and his job now was to pick it up.

HeadCleaner had been left to rot and rust, like a gardening tool left out in the rain when it was understood that the gardener was not going to get paid.

Tamlyn though had begun calling Nasir at least once a week. It had become something of a ritual for them to meet at the Pollo Restaurant on Wardour Street on Saturday evenings. Tamlyn would  peruse the menu like a man conflicted, and then always order the same thing; a plate of spaghetti bolognese and a glass of orange juice. He had a grand way of ordering that suggested someone who had known more opulent times. Nasir wondered how many Saturdays had whistled past with Tamlyn pretending to be preoccupied whilst secretly praying for the phone to ring. His inability to take proper care of himself brought out the compassionate side of Nasir. And Nasir believed, if only unawares, that filth was somehow tied up with the origin of compassion- that germs spread straight from sorrow. Simon however had barely spoken two words to Tamlyn since he had sat lamenting to him in the pub. Nasir suggested that Simon try to become friends in some way with him. Simon flat out refused.

“He frightens me. I don’t know. For one thing he has no interest in any kind of sex. And I don’t mean this in a crude or vulgar way, but men need women. Or bad things happen to us.”

“Like what?”

“We end up as unwashed hoarders, whose last frail ambition is simply to have someone there when we die. We become Monobrow.”

“He may be dirty, but there’s good in him that won’t wither,” Nasir explained to Simon. “For one thing he always tells the truth. It’s one of his great failings.”

Simon remained unmoved.“ He’s a tramp, and he’s conceited. That’s even worse, you can’t say anything to him. It’s like he won’t let anything filter in from outside of himself. He lives in his own private world right? You agree with me on that?”

“I won’t argue with you there.”

“Well, people who live like that only see things in images, projections and caricatures. Everything is funneled through the prism of imagination. He sees the world around him as a caricature rather than the reality itself. If he’s just seen Blade Runner or some poncey French film, he’ll go around thinking that he’s living in a world that’s very similar to the one he sat watching in the cinema.The dude’s trapped inside his own head. Living in a movie that gets a new director every six months or so.”

Nasir saw in that moment how he and Tamlyn were connected. “We’re all in a manner of speaking doing that.”

“No, not to the same extent. We need meaningful relationships with other people to save ourselves. By meaningful I’m not saying candle-lit dinners for two, followed by marriage and kids as the answer. Though it’s pretty close. I guess what I’m trying to say is that other people are the barometer, the key to ourselves. Everybody needs the mirror of another to drink from. The relationships we have with others, whether we like them or not are what makes us get up in the morning, brush our teeth and pull on a clean pair of pants. It’s making room for others and seeing them as they want to be seen, not as some character from a book or a play, or a film, that saves us from slipping into that place that your mate has locked himself into.

“And what place would that be?”

“The same place that all mentally ill people are in…”

“Okay man. You want to keep him at arm’s length, that’s up to you. But I think you may be mixing chaos up with confusion. I think the man’s an innocent.”

“So do I- and that’s the problem,” said Simon.

HeadCleaner was back on the menu. When Tamlyn was told that it was game-on again as far as HeadCleaner was concerned he was so elated that he said and did nothing but stare like a teenager getting to meet some singer whose poster they’d up stuck over their bedroom wall.

He spent the rest of the day going about his business in a quiet, valedictory and almost ‘not there’ manner. Monobrow’s room-stockpiled with all its runaway filth and absent-minded despair was recreated.

The last time he had shown up Nasir had felt that a sudden urge to neither care nor commit and of course that drug he had smoked had robbed him of the opportunity to be of any use to the project. This time he stayed alert and made up for his complete lack of knowledge and experience with being more than ready to be of service.The project had however moved on in a way that made him feel almost like a peeping intruder. Simon and Tamlyn were dancing partners,with one always leading and the other always following. Most memorably when Simon was pushing out his ass to show Tamlyn how to screw the VCR.

Simon loomed behind his tripod from various parts of the room, a shadowy presence that crept around in the dark like an uncompromising gravedigger. Tamlyn, the skeletal tramp, sat, bent, stood and posed in various parts of the room. Much of what he saw seemed disjointed and hard to understand to Nasir, but seemed to make perfect sense to Simon and Tamlyn.

They were now both on the same page and seemed to sense each other’s mind in what was to be done and how and why it was to be done.

Simon wasn’t calm and laid back as he had been the last time. He knew that it was now or never whether HeadCleaner would wriggle itself out of the womb of his imagination or remain an interesting idea to be talked about over pints at the pub and at times acted edgy and out of character.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” He’d say handing back whatever inappropriate props Nasir passed over.

“Get outta the way…you’ll have to stand at the side for this shot!… come on we ain’t got all bleedin’ day! It’s no good you’ll have to stand outside the room for this one!”

In a bid to be relevant Nasir would suggest ideas.

“No, Monobrow wouldn’t do that, it’s out of character.”

It had grown dark and quiet outside as Nasir crouched behind the camera with a bottle of blood in readiness for the last scene.The penultimate scene showed Monobrow brooding in bed, totally harassed by his ordeals at the hands of the evil tape. Again and again it had thwarted his attempts at finishing himself off. Monobrow had been resigned to this at first, but then the tape would start to play all by itself, like it were teasing him and his hands would unthinkingly reach inside his y-fronts and the same scenario of action without climax would repeat itself. Each duel with the tape would leave Monobrow that much more brittle and eroded. Matters reached a brutal point where all his ambitions had whittled down to just being able to watch and wank to the videotape. He lay on apathetically in his underwear staring lifelessly at the television and had been like this for hours before at last the tape came on again and played and played and played.

Monobrow’s hand pumped up and down with implacable rhythm while his face lit up with a joy so stark that the only description for it was primal. It was a face that went from feeling nothing, to feeling everything within the space of a second. And then, just as Monobrow’s eyes began to roll and dilate with ecstasy there was a stubborn click from the machine and the screen went dead.

The machine then spewed out long, shiny strands of tape. Monobrow filled with a rage that kicked his long neglected humanity back into place, sprang off the mattress towards the television, plunged his hands into the VCR and got them stuck. He then began to moan; making a sound that was almost inhuman and bordered on the comical. HeadCleaner ended with Monobrow retrieving his bloody fingers from the machine and staring at them in relieved shock.

“And cut.” Simon said with a wave of his hands.

It was over. They dismantled and cleaned the room in an almost mournful silence, bringing the room back to Simon. Nasir went about the task with purpose. Cleaning the room was his last act of fealty to HeadCleaner. Then he was out. He would owe nothing.

After they were done Tamlyn looked at his director and asked in a fragile, almost childlike voice. “Can I take a shower now Simon?”

They peered out the corners of their eyes as Tamlyn stripped himself out of his clothes and wrapped a towel around his body.Simon’s jaw tightened as he put a hand through his hair.

Nasir tried lightening the heavy feeling that seemed to hang over the room like a shroud.

He looked at Simon when Tamlyn was gone and the reassuring sound of running water could be heard from the bathroom.

“Did you see his body beneath those old, torn up clothes of his? God, it was all bones and hollows where there should have been curves and muscle,” Nasir whispered.

“I know,” said Simon in a hoarse whisper. “But there were marks on his back, did you see them? They looked like old bruises and welts…terrible. The only time I’ve seen anything like that is on those Old World War Two documentaries showing bony faced holocaust victims behind barbed wire…” He turned away, rubbed his eyes and seemed to shake for a moment. “Change the subject. Let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about something else, shall we?”

Nasir and Tamlyn went for a celebratory dinner afterwards in the Pollo restaurant in Wardour Street. He sat thinking that Tamlyn had been lucky not to have been around when Simon, during one of his blasts, lost discretion.

“This film is as much about you as it is about him! It’s about you, it’s about me!”

He waited for the waiter and thought: was Monobrow just a canny piece of perception on Simon’s part, slyly shining a flashlight on Tamlyn’s alter ego? Maybe it wasn’t just his alter ego, but his own too, Simon’s too for that matter? Perhaps Monobrow was the alter ego of all single men in that uncertain age bracket who find themselves pushed into that corner of themselves that couldn’t be shared with anyone else?’

He recalled asking Simon questions, as they lay spread-eagled and defenseless on the carpet while smoke swirled round.

“I need to have a girlfriend to save me from the squalor of myself.”

“What did you do before working at the school?”

“Nothing man. I wasn’t working for a while and I had a girlfriend at the time that I wasn’t really into anymore. I remember aggressively surfing the Internet for porn whenever she was out the house.”

And what had he said during an all too frequent moment of irritation?

“This film is about you as much as it is about him. This film is about you. It’s about him-it’s about me.”

A message appeared on his phone as they sat eating their ravioli and spaghetti as if in response to the doubt in his head. It was from Simon.

“I know I can be a pain in the arse but I love you. We made a great film.”

Nasir read it and felt better.They chewed in a silence that was out of character for both of them before Tamlyn asked him a question.

“You know that kid in school? The one with the piece of paper stuck to the back of his blazer that has ‘kick me’ written on it?”

“Yeah I think I do.”

“Do you? Do you really?”

“Well yes, that kid was me,” Nasir said with an honesty he hadn’t expected.

“Me as well…. I don’t think that kid has ever gone away,” Tamlyn said with a wan smile appearing on his face. “You know I thought I was really popular at The Callan school and then one day I found out that the teachers call me Professor Wolenofsky behind my back. You know that character with the funny walk that Max Wall used to play?”

Nasir nodded and contemplated how the most cutting insults always piggy backed on the truth. That’s why the knife sank so deep.Tamlyn indeed had a Professor Wolenofsky look about him and it didn’t just stop at the clothes. Always the same once white shirt and black trousers and jacket. “ That kid you were talking about, has he gone?”

Tamlyn smiled and shook his head. “Oh he’s still there, he just knows how to hide under the lies I tell myself. I guess that’s why my best friends have always been my books.”

“Books?”

“That’s right. Books don’t lie, cheat or leave you. They are always there for you, you know where you’ve left them and they’ll meet you where you want them too. The downside to this is that they’re far more interesting than life can ever be. Anyone who develops a love of reading is given entry into a kind of utopia, where everyone is raised or lowered to the same level. The dead can communicate with the living and the living can communicate with the dead. The dangerous downside of living in a world of books and ideas is that you find yourself unprepared and unrealistic for the trials of life.”

There was a short but fully loaded pause.

“I know why Simon holds a silent contempt for me. HeadCleaner was about the Ubermisfit. When he sees me he knows how he could very easily become Monobrow himself. And it terrifies him. How could this not be about him in some way? All stories that come from us or appeal to us only do so because we see ourselves in them.”

“Simon’s a good bloke,” said Nasir somewhat defensively.

“I’m not saying he’s not. But it’s strange that’s all.”

 “What’s strange?”

“Well people tend to show compassion and criticism to those who appear to exhibit the same failings as themselves. The exact type of compassion we show to others is to my mind an indicator of how we ourselves would like to be treated. The impatience or anger we feel towards others is so often in the very same things we see inside ourselves, but are too frightened or unwilling to do change.”

Nasir pronged a fat piece of ravioli, put it into his mouth and chewed in silence. For some reason he felt ashamed, but didn’t know why.

 “Some people are sufficiently close to the edge to loathe it. Others have been there and have sympathy for it.” Tamlyn soberly continued. “I really wanted to write, direct and perform in my own plays. I’ve waited my whole life for it to happen. I’m a patient person. In fact, I have so much patience that I think with me it becomes sort of a vice. I’ve been waiting for years for a golden age, until recently I never felt that my life might have entered into a place where success and failure had sort of ceased to touch me. But with each day that goes past I care less and less about success and failure. It’s strange how little a person can truly see or understand about their own life isn’t it? You know what I find most interesting? HeadCleaner was the type of role I’d wanted to play for years…but as far as Simon was concerned it was the role that I’d been playing for years.”

He looked down at his cold spaghetti and maybe it was Nasir’s imagination but he seemed to sag a little.

“You always looked to me like you were really enjoying it, that you believed in the part.” Nasir said.

“I did… But it wasn’t done with any affection or respect was it?”

He had screwed up the courage to contact Kinga, but not enough courage so that he could ring instead of text. There was a reply and he took a deep breath and called. She sounded upbeat and self-scurried.

“Oh-kay I see you on satorday outside the station, at 6 o’clock that is okay for you?”

“Can we say 7? My friend Simon wants me to go to his house to see how he has put the film we made together.”

“Oh, I preferred to see earlier, but it should be okay.”

He laughed. “Okay see you then.”

“Yes see then.”

That Saturday afternoon he showed up at Simon’s house. Simon was busy at his computer and threw him the keys from the window so that he could let himself in.

“Aaah, you gotta see how I’ve put this together.”

The net result of three men, a film camera and a really unpleasant room took Nasir by surprise. It looked and sounded so professional.

When he had first heard Simon use the word ‘film’ and invited him to participate he had felt artistic and important. Once commitment had been called for he had heard sounds of scoffing from a part deep inside himself and he’d thought, “who does he think he is Cecille B. Demille?”

But now doffed his cap to his long tall friend. Simon had done exactly what he said he would. He had knocked together a film that was worthy of an audience.

The scene where Tamlyn had pranced and preened in his underwear had been left out. The dinner scene and Monobrow’s stubborn attempts at throwing it over the thumb were decidedly Chaplinesque. The day and night scenes were divided by a brilliant montage of the duel between Monobrow and the machine. The duel was presented as a battle of wills and a montage of things going wrong set to the Flying Pickets acapella version of ‘Only You’. Only the competing ba-da-da-das were used; each ba-da presenting a different action and reaction between Monobrow and the video player.

“That’s something I did for fun, the flying pickets stuff. It’s not in the final cut,” Simon said looking at the screen with a big smile on his face.

During the night scenes the music became electronic and sinister again and the film made a switch from comedy to horror. These were the only scenes to which Nasir had given a real contribution and they came from his idea of what it would have been like for a sane condemned to a cell in Bedlam.

Monobow, stripped to his underwear, and with red lighting ominously filling the room, was shown in a sad succession of hunted and haunted positions. The first was of him pressed against the wall in fear. The second was of him keeled over on the bed with his head on the pillow and his backside arched up into the air, almost as if in invitation. The third was of him growling and hurling a sock at the television. The fourth was of him slumped against the wall in defeat and the last was of him kneeling on his foldout bed as if he were begging for some form of abstract absolution.

In the next scene he seemed to have found enough peace to be able to sleep before waking up and struggling against his belt, which had somehow managed to tie and squeeze itself around his neck.

The closing part, in which Monobrow’s angry fingers were trapped in the biting video recorder, was depicted in close ups to the face, body and abused fingers. The scene faded out with him in close up, screaming and staring down at his bloody fingers, while Mrs Miller could be heard singing  in the foreground.

Nasir found himself intoxicated by what Simon had visually cobbled together, and was awed and seduced by Tamlyn’s performance and frustrated at himself for allowing an opportunity to shine into an opportunity to look amateur and lazy. The screen went blank and Simon sat back with his hands behind his head and sighed.

“Well, what do you think?”

“Brilliant, I think it’s brilliant.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.”

“I’m still not satisfied with it though. It’s missing something and I don’t know what that something is yet. So what time are you meeting Kinga then?”

“In about an hour.”

“So you had better be leaving then hadn’t you? You must be happy about being reunited with the love of your life.”

“She ain’t the love of my life.”

“Could have fooled me, with the way you’ve been talking about her for the last few months,” he chuckled. “ I’ll let you know what we’re going to be doing about HeadCleaner.”

Kinga had moved into the plusher surroundings of Belsize Park; a giant step from where she had been living before. He sat on the train and wondered amongst other things how much her rent had increased and how she was dealing with the increase. He felt that familiar flutter of excitement in his stomach as the elevator in the station went up. Christmas seemed so long ago and if it had not been for that photograph he would have begun to entertain feelings that she was something his imagination had cooked together.

He stood outside the station. Within a few minutes she came along. She waved at him from a distance, all blue jeans, green eyes and light blouse.

He waved back and a few seconds later they were facing each other.He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Her soft skin felt perfumed and expensive to him.

“I have so much to tell you.”

Her lips curled politely. They walked briefly before coming to an Italian trattoria with seating outside.

“Shall we go in there?” He suggested.

“Are you hungry?” She asked quietly.

“No, but it’s quiet and empty. They might let us buy drinks and stay there for a while.”

A waitress ushered them to a table near the window. “ I don’t want to sit outside,” Kinga said with a slight frown. He didn’t order any coffee in case their mouths and tongues were going to be feeling each other out later on. He had a large pineapple juice. Kamilla wanted ice cream. She didn’t bother looking at the menu.

“What flavour?” He said.

“Anything, except chocolate,” she said.

He enthused about the HeadCleaner project as a way of showing her that he was going places.

“And your book?” She said not looking at him.

“Yeah, I’m still working on it, but I’ve had to give it a break for the moment so that we can do something with this film. I think it could be the start of something good, something big.”

“Uh hum.”

Afterwards he paid up and they walked to a huge park.

He talked about everything and nothing as away to goad her into doing something enthusiastic and stupid. He asked questions about Poland too, but she seemed as cool, distant and polite as a member of royalty shaking hands with celebrities after a command performance. They eventually sat down by a bench overlooking some kind of small river. Families went past with babies, buggies, ice cream and brollies.

He tried to remain upbeat throughout but he knew that she could sense the desperation behind the false jollity. He tried some of his comedy on her, but his timing was off balance and it was just vaudeville gone wrong. He asked her what she would do if he put his hands through her hair.

She shrugged. “You must see.” He leaned across and buried his face in her hair. “It smells so nice, like flowers from some fantasy garden.”

She stared ahead. “Hmm.”

“I’ve thought about you every day since you’ve been gone.”

Her gaze stayed where it was. “I don’t know what you want, but I’m not looking for a boyfriend and that’s what you want.”

He cleared his throat. “Look, you’re making a mistake here. And you’ll understand this, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow or next week or the week after. But you’ll know that you’ve made a mistake if you let me walk away now.”

“Why?” She said, finally looking at him.

“Because I’ve waited for you all this time like a thirsty man waiting for rain. And I was looking forward to making changes in my life, so that my life would become our life. I love you almost as much as Jesus.”

From the look on her face and the way she sat, like an effigy made of stone, he didn’t know whether he was singing hymns to a corpse or preaching to the converted.

She smiled at him and gestured with her finger at him to come closer, he did and she gave him a soft, breathy kiss on the cheek. She then shrugged and said, “You smile a lot Nasir. I never smile without good reason.”

“Well, I’m not smiling much today, am I?”

He found himself strangely empty of words and gestures and she had quietly retreated back into whatever unfathomable mood she had been in all afternoon.

As they were walking out of the grove of trees that led to the entrance of the park, she suddenly perked up. “What do you call this tree?” She said pointing at one of the sturdy elms.

“I don’t know.”

They reached her front door.

“Can I come in for a coffee or something?”

“Not today. I have to go to work in a little bit.”

“I don’t know what’s happened, but whatever it is that I’ve done wrong, but I promise not to do it again…. Can I call you? Can we meet again?”

She smiled wanly and squeezed his hand. “Yes.”

“What happened to you? What about Christmas? Your flat? Us? You know the way I feel about you, we, we, well you know…”

She closed her eyes, smiled and shook her head. “It was just sex, Nas. Just sex.”

The involuntary look on his face made her walk away from the door and take both of his hands into hers. “You are nice.” She said, then kissed him on his left cheek in abrupt fashion. “Okay, I will call you Nasir, bye!”

She then turned, put her key in the door and just like that she was gone.The door firmly closed behind her leaving the giant that had left her flat at Christmas reduced to little Jack Horner.

He never heard from her again and was too proud to dial her number.

There was a call from Simon later that week.

“We need to shoot a new opening scene for Headcleaner. I want to show how Monobrow acquires the video tape, my question to you is do you still want to be involved?”

“Yeah, of course I do.”

“So, you’re in then? You won’t be letting me down this time?”

“Yes I am and no I won’t. I thought he found it at home.”

“No, I’m going to cut out the scene we did in Brixton entirely. A bewildered stranger with a bandage over his hand will pass it on to him as they cross paths over a bridge and scram out of his life as immediately as he comes into it. We can shoot it in Brick Lane. You will be the bewildered man. This way you can get more involvement in the film and help justify your co-writing and co-directing credit, not that you haven’t contributed ideas and suggestions. But this way you get to do a bit of acting too. You’ve always fancied yourself as a bit of an actor haven’t you? A great lost talent that only needed direction and grooming.”

Nasir was delighted by the opportunity. “When do we do this?”

“Maybe the coming Sunday. I’m not sure yet, but I will tell you. If it is next Sunday then we’ll meet you at Liverpool Street station at eleven in the morning. Be there?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“Tamlyn will let you know if I don’t confirm first, and be on time, Nas. Be on time.”

That Saturday Nasir took a trip up to Oxford Circus to filter through goodies in HMV and then to the Record and Tape exchange in Berwick Street and then perhaps wander through Soho and Piccadilly or Bond Street. Such trips were a habit that had started when he would come home for the weekend from university and want to feel and hear London. Then when he experienced a long period without work he would make strange pilgrimages into the city just to feel like part of a crowd again. The trip would start from south Harrow station to Oxford or Piccadilly Circus stations, ostensibly to buy a book or a CD, but it wouldn’t take him long to find himself in Soho. He would make his way up Berwick Street to the small junction between Walkers court and Peter Street, where addicts of all description liked to congregate and forget themselves. It was the nexus where the dispossessed and strung out mingled with members of the corporate and artistic elite. The place where the occasional stiffened junkie could be caught grimacing and doubled over under a lamppost holding out an arm for someone to take. Nasir’s feelings towards what he saw were an odd mingling of sympathy, awe and contempt. Sometimes the dope fiends would be women with hollow faces and dark, sunken eyes. Their feminine charms had long been lost to the needle or some other unforgiving addiction. Many of them still suggestively sashayed their bony hips as they walked up and down those narrow streets. But it was the tiny video shops selling recorded sex of every conceivable and inconceivable variety, round the same spool of streets, that he found himself continually drawn back to. They by turns fascinated, horrified and titillated him. 

So he thought his own personal experiences gave him a fair idea as to the things Simon meant when he muttered cryptically about the effects of pornographic imagery on the lonely male psyche. 

He had spent a pleasant enough few hours. He’d picked up a first edition copy of Captain Beefheart’s The Spotlight Kid for only ten pounds in Record and Tape exchange in Berwick Street as well as a Tape from HMV with 3 episodes of Season 1 of The Sopranos. Then topped off his purchases with a slice of beef and tomato Pizza from the Morrocan run coffee shop a few metres away from the Windmill Gentlemen’s club.  It had started raining and on the way back he saw what may or may not have been Kinga arm in arm with a man. They were both smiling warmly and her head was nestled into his manly chest as they walked the other side of the road. At that moment a piece inside of him suddenly went missing. 

He woke up the next day with a vague feeling that there was something that he had to do, but he just couldn’t call into action that part of him that cared. He didn’t care about his crap job, he didn’t care enough about penning a page or two on his novel and he didn’t care enough about HeadCleaner to get up in the morning and scram for the train.

The phone rang. It was Simon.

“Where are you?”

“Watching the World Cup Final.”

“Why aren’t you here as you said you would be.”

“What do you mean? Where? I didn’t know anything about Sunday.”

“Whaddaya mean-I didn’t know anything. Tamlyn said he told you.”

“Well maybe he mentioned something about shooting in the week. That’s as far as I know.”

Simon apologised and said he would get Tamlyn to call him when he arrived. “He’s bleeding well late as well,” he added before clicking off.

Tamlyn called him half an hour later.

“I told you, Nasir. You knew. Don’t say you didn’t know. 

“No, you didn’t!”

“Yes, I did!”

“No, I didn’t know anything.”

“Look,” Tamlyn said, suddenly becoming patient. “ The meaning of ‘I didn’t know anything’ means that you had no information.” There wasn’t much for Nasir to say after that. Simon had his friend on standby anyway and was able to get the job done and pack his camera away in under an hour.

“It went really well, really well actually,” Tamlyn reported to Nasir the next day. “Clinton was quite professional. He did actually everything that Simon had expected of you.”

“I’m not interested anymore.”

Simon and Tamlyn had only one more exchange after. It was in the pub and the beer had Simon holding fragmented exchanges with almost anyone who came near. His words were starting in one place and finishing up somewhere that was not on the map.

“I don’t understand you and you don’t understand me, but you know, the really good thing is we don’t care,” he giggled drunkenly to Tamlyn.

Nasir showed his face at his old workplace a week later. He wore a T-shirt designed like it was advertising a popular rock band. The words on it read: ‘Hitler’s European tour coming soon!’ and list of dates and countries. Simon looked happy to see him. “Oh, alright there Nas, nice T-shirt, wanna go for something to eat?”

Nasir grinned and nodded.

“Wait a minute then will ya while I get my bike,” Simon said. Simon chained his bike to a lamp post outside Bar Bruno. “You hungry, Nas?”

“Yeah, I could eat something.”

“Well, I’m starving. I’m going to get me a plate of chips, beans and mushrooms.”

Simon looked at the blue HMV carrier bags at Nasir’s side. “What did you get?”

Nasir passed over the bag.

“It’s the five CD Free boxset.”

“Don’t know much about Free apart from Alright Now.”

“Great band, just as good as Led Zeppelin if you ask me. And Paul Rodgers is easily the best singer to come out of this, or any country for that matter.”

The conversation went back to films and cinema and all of a sudden the person that Simon had wanted to work alongside him on HeadCleaner was suddenly sitting opposite him.

Nasir was simmering with inspiration, energy and observation.

“Cinema itself is not a simple subject. Every country has its own unconscious attitude to filmmaking. I mean for Instance let’s take the examples of the British, American and French attitudes to film. The British excel at suspense, suggestion and the unspoken. The French excel at dealing with the psychology of the characters, they tend to focus on that and the Americans excel at action. They deal with action first and psychology and suspense later. I would call HeadCleaner a French film.”

“Yeah, I didn’t see it like that at the time,” Simon answered. “But now that you say that.”

They sat in silence chewing over the atmosphere for a little while and soberly regretting what they had missed and knowing that something good between them had short circuited along the way and they were witnessing now was the ghost of that good thing coming back to haunt them.

Nasir wasn’t done yet. “Yeah, but it’s more than that. In our day and age, cinema is more about contagion than it is about anything else. Look around you. They way most of us speak, walk, the clothes we wear, the things we hold as right and wrong, so much if not all of it is handed to us by the media and films are a major part of that. As a Muslim or non-white person I look at films like My Son The Fanatic or East Is East and I know that what these films are really saying is- you’re culture is a joke and you better integrate sharpish.They don’t do this with the Indians you’ll notice. With them its affectionate and idealised stuff like Bride and Prejudice, Mistress of Spices and Bend it like Beckham. They show India as an enlightened place, home of spirituality, vegetarianism, karma chakras and all that. They tend to show the other darker peoples of the earth in a patronizingly enlightened way too. But with Muslims, and in this case Pakis, because we represent the majority of Muslims in this country, we are always shown as unreasonable and feckless.The representations of us are relentless and inauthentic. That’s why I know that this is about contagion. They want to change us and call it integration. Every time I see Art Malik on T.V or something by Hanif Kureshi I know that we’re going to get insulted by being depictedas grotesques.”

“Yeah, I never thought of that.”

“Well, I have.”  

They finished their teas and slowly made their way towards Oxford Street.

“I thought you were going to take the train from Piccadilly Circus?” Said Simon.

“No, let’s walk together for a while.”

As they walked Nasir thought about how during this whole process of HeadCleaner, from the time Simon saw Tamlyn sat in a corner with a raised finger and crazy look on his face, to the last scene shot with Clinton running away from the bridge with his taped up hand; not one of them had seen the other properly. Simon had his notion on who he thought Nasir and Tamlyn were. Nasir had a notion of the person he thought Simon was and Tamlyn had his ideas of who his two collaborators were. He wondered to himself- had any of them really seen and understood the other?

A gospel troupe stood on the street corner lustily belting out a Baptist’s variation of Nasir’s favourite Aerosmith song.

“Walk his way! Aww talk his way! Ooh He wants you to talk His way, walk His way Yeeeah!”

They had drawn a sizable crowd. Nasir and Simon stood listening; momentarily stepping outside of the bubble of events that had drawn them together and then sent them off into different angles.The song ended in an exultant kind of triumph.  The people applauded and called out for more. But the singers just smiled, bowed and packed their things.

“Simon?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Forget about it. I’m working with someone else now on a new project. We’re sending each other stuff over the net and I’m quite excited about it.”

They looked at each other.

“What about your novel, Nas?”

“Oh, it’s coming along, coming along.”

“Are you even writing one?”

Nasir gulped and looked down at his feet.

“Okay man I got to go now. But I still want to be your friend you know. I still want that,” Simon said getting onto his bicycle.

“Yeah, me too.”

“Alright then see you later, Nas, bye now.”

And with that, he was gone. Nasir stood with his hands loose at his sides watching his tall frame being cycled away into the traffic. He thought of the only girlfriend he had ever loved: Scarlett was her name, and one of the last things she had said to him, back in 1989 was, “Have you noticed how so many of the most precious things in life are also the most fragile?”

“So this is where friendships end?” Nasir mused as the people and traffic passed. “With one person in transit and the other motionless. The same mistake, always the same mistake.”

He tried to laugh, but managed instead to do something of the opposite. He stubbornly rubbed the salt away from his eyes, turned round and marched straight back into the filth and losing shuffle of Berwick Street.

The End     

Copyright 2021 Nasir Hussain

Published by simonmandrake

A weekly dose of short stories, short films, web series, blogs and articles.

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