Identical twins Jack and Dave Bennett enjoy nothing better than a rowdy night out in London—listening to hot jazz, hoisting a few pints, flirting with girls . . . and then finishing off the evening by roughing up a stranger. But one night they ambush the wrong victim, a young black man who fights back. Suddenly bottles break and a knife is drawn, and when it’s over, Jack stumbles home alone—only to awaken the next morning to discover his brother’s bed empty and policemen at the door.
The police are investigating a fatal car accident that left two people dead, their bodies burned beyond recognition. One of the dead was apparently the car’s owner, a young black doctor, but the only clue to the second corpse’s identity is a knife engraved with Dave Bennett’s name and address. And no words are spoken of a man found slain in an alley on the other side of town. With his life brutally upended, Jack finds that his search for answers is drawing him closer to the dead doctor’s beautiful sister, Michelle, and causing him to question everything he’s ever believed about race, justice, family, and the violent urban world around him.
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Choice of Straws
By E. R. Braithwaite
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1966 E. R. Braithwaite
All rights reserved.
WE'D BEEN LIKE THAT for nearly an hour. Just waiting. The cold, damp, bitter-sweet stink of the place was beginning to get on my nerves, but I said nothing, waiting for Dave to make the first move about leaving. Outside, the shadows of evening had thickened with the persistent drizzle which occasionally slanted in through the paneless window of our hiding-place, to add to my discomfort. My legs were beginning to feel numb. I wanted a smoke, badly. This waiting had taken the edge off the thing as far as I was concerned, and if Dave had said let's call it off, he'd have had no argument from me. But I didn't think he would. Not Dave. Once he got on to something he'd never back out.
I thought of the people who might have lived in the very room where we were waiting. It looked out on to the street through two huge windows from which the glass had long ago been shattered by bomb blast or the marksmanship of small boys, and may have been the best room where friends were received for Sunday tea. Dead and gone, perhaps. Mother and children with father off to the wars to make Britain safe for heroes. Heroes hell! So many black buggers about the place, the ruddy heroes couldn't get a fair crack at the jobs or their own ruddy women. Bloody Spades.
Near me I could hear Dave with that faint, tuneless, whistling sound he always made when excited, more like a long breath indrawn through his teeth. I couldn't see anything of his face the way he was leaning against the wall to have a clear view of the street as far as the pub at the corner.
'Seen anything?' I asked him.
'Think he'll come?'
'Then he'd better ruddy well hurry.'
'Why, what's up.'
'Cramp in my legs.'
'Quit nagging. You'll survive.'
I was squatted on my heels beside him, to be out of the way of anyone glancing in from the street. It was Dave's idea, though I couldn't imagine who'd want to waste time looking into any of those dead houses. We'd come in here to wait because the place was open, the main door not boarded up or anything, just a huge, gaping hole in the front of the house. Even the woodwork had been ripped off. The floor was thick with dust and garbage.
'I still don't get it, how you're so sure about him.' I said it, not to start an argument, but just to show him my attitude to the whole thing, this waiting for something that might not happen.
'Look, Jack.' There was in his voice that schoolmasterish tone which always got under my skin, that way he had of making the thing seem simple and me as stupid as hell. 'Look, when we were coming to that pub at the corner, didn't you see the fellow come out, heading this way? Right. Then someone stuck his head out of the door and called him back, Doc or Jock or something like that? Okay, so it stands to reason that when he's ready he'll come out again and head this way.'
I looked up at him while he talked. Never once did he take his eyes off the road outside.
'It had better be soon.' I couldn't give him a broader hint than that.
'Oh, wrap up.'
'But how do you know he's a Spade? I didn't even get a look at his face.'
'I know. He's a Spade all right.'
'I feel funny about this one.'
I didn't answer. The truth is I wasn't really scared. At least that's not the word for what I felt. After all, it wasn't the first time we'd done something like this, but always it had been done on the spur of the moment. No waiting around. We'd go up where we knew some of them lived, Brixton, Goldhawk Road, places like that, and wander around, keeping an eye out till we saw one by himself. Then we'd have a little fun with him if we thought we could risk it. Knock him about a bit, then push off. Always at night, when there wouldn't be any nosey people trying to interfere. But this was different, hiding here for more than half an hour, the place stinking as if the whole neighbourhood had been relieving themselves in it. Dave nudged me and I stood up alongside him. Over his shoulder the houses opposite were glued together in a faceless dark mass all the way down to the corner.
The door of the pub was open and someone was framed in the broad patch of light, moving, as if talking with another inside. Then the light was cut off.
'That's him. He's heading this way,' Dave whispered, the excitement tight in his voice. It was too dark to see his face clearly, but I could well imagine the grey-green eyes shining with anticipation, the thin mouth half open for breathing, pulling away from the teeth. I often wondered if, all the time, I looked exactly like him. Often wished there was some way of seeing myself when watching him, to find out if the resemblance between him and me extended to every look, every smile, everything. True, nobody but our Mum could tell us apart, but that was on the outside, and I know I didn't always feel the same way as he did about things. At least, I didn't always want to; especially with everybody expecting us to even think alike, just because we were identical twins. Sometimes I only went along with doing something with him just because, well, just because we were always together. Since we were little it was always the Twins or Dave and Jack. Always Dave and Jack, even at school. Never Jack and Dave. Kids would call to us, hey Dave and Jack, never knowing which was which.
The man from the pub came along the far pavement. From where we hid we could hear the tap, tap of his shoes, as if he had metal tips on his heels.
'We'll wait till he's a little ahead, then we'll cross over and come up behind him,' Dave whispered, pushing me towards the doorway, where we stood, one on each side. As the man came nearer there was a clinking from something he was carrying, loud in the silent night as he came abreast and went past. We left the house and crossed the street, our jeans, black sweaters and suede jackets mixing into the dingy wetness, silent as ghosts in our rubber-soled chukka boots. He was laughing and singing to himself, the words trailing behind him ... She's a whole lot of woman and she sure needs a whole lot of man ... fading away into laughter. Probably half stewed. He stopped to shift the parcel and was moving on when we reached him, one on each side.
'Hey, Spade,' Dave whispered.
The man stopped and turned.
'What the ...' The words were cut off as Dave hit him. Dave was right. A bloody Spade. In the gloom all you could see was the dark head shape. I hit at it and heard him grunt, then we were hitting him and suddenly the crash as his parcel fell and broke and the strong smell of rum or whisky or something. I kicked him and he doubled forward, grabbing Dave and falling on top of him. I kicked him, the excitement so strong in me I wanted to shout, this was so different from the other times. The Spade was fighting, silently, like a madman. Suddenly he sprang away from Dave and came at me, hitting me in the stomach. I could hardly breathe, but Dave pulled him and they were on the ground again, the Spade hitting Dave and muttering, 'I'll kill you, you lousy fuckers, I'll kill you.'
Then Dave screamed. 'Get him off me, Jack. Get him off.' I grabbed the Spade's coat, pulling him backwards, but he flung me off and I fell. He was strong as a horse, and I was suddenly frightened. We couldn't cope with him. I got up, and the Spade was banging Dave's hand on the ground. I saw the glint of the knife just as Dave let it go, snatched it and stuck it into the Spade's back. He twisted around and came at me, and I dropped the knife, frightened, turning to run. Then I heard him cry 'Aaaah,' and when I looked around there was Dave with the knife in his hand, the Spade bent over, walking out into the middle of the street. Slowly, carefully, he knelt down, his arms folded low in front of him.
'Come on, let's get out of here,' Dave said, pulling my arm. I was watching the Spade. He made an attempt to get up, gave it up, and reached forward, braced on his hands and knees like a sprinter. Then slowly he fell over sideways, coughing.
'Come on.' Dave was pulling my arm.
We ran up the street leaving the Spade.
'Come on,' Dave urged. We ran headlong away.
Keeping as much as possible to the shadows we cut through Cable Street and a maze of alleyways towards Commercial Road, and beyond it, till we came to a narrow lane behind the big mass that is London Hospital. We took a breather against some iron railings, Dave hanging on and gasping as if he'd run out of his last breath. My face was running with the drizzle and perspiration, and inside my clothes the heat was like a steam bath. Not another soul in sight, and home seemed a thousand miles away. Dave was groaning beside me.
'Take a look at my back,' he said. 'It's hurting like hell.'
'Turn around.' I couldn't see much, with the poor light from the street lamps across the road, except the shiny wetness on his jacket. I slipped my hand underneath, felt the stickiness on his sweater and withdrew my hand, covered with blood, smelling raw and awful.
'You're bleeding, Dave.'
'Fucker had me down on those ruddy bottles. Is it bad?'
'Can't tell, but your sweater's soaked. Look at my hand.'
'Suffering Christ.' We looked at each other, the fear coming over me like a thick black fog. My brother's face was like a mirror of the things inside me. I felt weak and lost. Dave rallied quickly.
'Oh, bugger it. Come on, let's get off home.'
The lane led into Whitechapel Road, diagonally across from the Underground station. We made it through a break in the traffic just as two policemen came out of the Underground, and in our rush we nearly banged into them. We waited in the dark entrance of a tobacconist's and watched them wait at the zebra crossing while the traffic rushed by. One of them looked back towards us and said something to his mate. My heart nearly stopped beating. But then the traffic halted and they crossed over and went into the hospital gate with the neon sign 'Ambulance'. Dave was leaning weakly against the shop window. Two women came along, slowed to look in our direction, then walked on.
'Want a fag?' I asked him.
'Yes. Christ, I feel sick as a dog.'
Over the flame of my lighter I watched his face, chalk-white and running with perspiration, the fine rain like tiny diamonds in his short, curly blond hair. His blue eyes looked black in the bloodless background. The feeling of sickness came up in me.
'We'd better get you home quick, Dave. Come on, let's go down the Tube.'
He straightened up suddenly. 'You raving bonkers or something? What do you think would happen if I went down there like this? Some nosey parker'd be sure to ... Tell you what, we'd better split up. The way those coppers looked at us, let's not take any chances.'
'What are you on about, splitting up? I can't leave you to make it home by yourself. Not like this.'
'Oh, wrap up. What do you think I'll do, pass ruddy out or something?'
'But your back.'
'Bugger my back. I'm not going to bleed to ruddy death. Look, I'll catch a bus to Leytonstone and take the Central line from there, okay? One of us by himself is fine, but together we're sure to have them staring as always.'
'Okay, Dave, okay.' From the set of his mouth I knew he'd made up his mind. No shifting him.
'But I'll wait and see you on the bus.'
'What for? Go on, scarpa before those coppers come back.'
'Mum will want to know what's up if I go in alone.'
'Tell her I'm seeing a bird home and I'll be in shortly.' He grimaced with the pain, but made an attempt to smile. 'Better keep an eye out for me, though. Go on, hop it.'
He walked across to the bus shelter, stiffly, like those toy soldiers in the comics, and stood holding on to one of the shiny metal posts. I went and stood just inside the station entrance to watch until his bus arrived and he climbed on, going upstairs. Even after it rolled away I stayed there, stiff with fear and confused, the whole rotten evening a heavy lump in my stomach. Please God, just let him get home safe. Please. He looked so white and scary, like that time long ago when as kids we'd been messing about on the diving-board at the swimming baths and he'd slipped off and belly-landed on the water. The attendant had fished him out white and limp like a broken doll.
'If you're going some place you'd better hurry, mate,' someone said behind. 'There's one just in.' It was the ticket collector. I showed my ticket and rushed down the stairs to the train. Jumping on the train I nearly lost the ticket. It fell out of my hand and landed on the edge of the platform. I picked it up and put it away in my pocket. The return half Upminster to Piccadilly Circus. That's where we'd planned to go tonight and listen to some jazz, where we should have gone if we hadn't changed our minds.
I sat down between a bearded student and a fat, elderly woman with a fat little boy on her lap, and closed my eyes, wishing desperately that I could open them again to find that the night hadn't really happened and I'd only dreamed all those terrible things. But the fear and worry followed me deep inside my mind wherever I tried to hide, real as the cold sweat I could feel running down my face and neck and alongside my ribs.
'Look, mummy, the man's crying.'
I opened my eyes to see the little boy twisted around in his mother's tight grip, pointing a pudgy finger close to my face, his eyes wide with surprise. With a quick, accurate movement his mother smacked his hand down, but he continued staring, his eyes swivelled around until I thought they'd pop out. He had a tiny mole near the right side of his mouth, just like Dave's. Oh God, let him be okay. Just this once. He was always the tough one. I might even reach home to find him there ahead of me.
'Young man, are you all right?' The woman was speaking, pulling me back to the time and place beside her.
'Yes, thanks, I'm fine,' I told her, trying to avoid looking at the four eyes from the two fat heads which seemed perched recklessly one on top of the other. All along the opposite seat eyes seemed to be watching me, so I closed mine. Perspiration was running down my face and into my mouth. I wiped it with my handkerchief, smelt the rank smell and right away remembered I'd wiped my hands on it after feeling Dave's back. I opened my eyes to see if anyone had noticed. Seeing the wide streaks nearly made me sick. I pushed it into my pocket, thinking about Dave, wanting him to be okay, to reach home safe, even ahead of me. Oh God, oh Jesus God, please, please. Oh Dave.
'Something the matter, young man?'
I kept my eyes shut tight, not answering her. Why the hell didn't she mind her own ruddy fat-arsed business and leave me alone? God, it was only supposed to be a bit of a giggle, just knock him about a bit and push off. If the bloody fool hadn't got hold of Dave we'd have just given him a few and been out of it, but the bastard just wouldn't let go. Bloody Spades. They had it coming to them. After all, our Dad hadn't done anything to them, yet they'd jumped him and beat him up. And him always on about how they were human beings like anyone else and why shouldn't they come here, the only reason was they wanted work and why not. And if things had been different and there was plenty of work in their countries with good pay lots of English would be rushing over there. Well, what the hell good had all that talk done him? He'd had nothing to do with the riots in Notting Hill. He was coming home from the building site in Ladbroke Grove when they jumped out of a car and beat him up. Put him in hospital for nearly three weeks, and not a ruddy policeman in sight to lend a hand.
When he came home he wouldn't talk about it. Not to us, not to Mum. Funny thing, though, we were watching television one night and there was this Spade come on and right away our Dad got up and switched the set off. Didn't say anything, just switched off as if he couldn't bear the sight of that black face.
Excerpted from Choice of Straws by E. R. Braithwaite. Copyright © 1966 E. R. Braithwaite. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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