The Recreational Park was a sports field that backed onto our school. Affectionately dubbed ‘the wreck’ it was well used by the students who would venture there during school breaks, sometimes with a small bottle of Bacardi. Young teenage lovers’ would find a quiet spot on a park bench to kiss and cavort.
Often when the school day would end, there would be an exodus of students who would filter into the park for an hour of shenanigans before heading home. A number of roads and alleyways intersected the park which therefore acted as a central thoroughfare for pedestrians.
About ten years after leaving High School, I had walked through the park to reminisce. It had become a shell of the park that I fondly remembered playing in as a child now having become haven for drug addicts. Their discarded needles recklessly thrown onto the grass field.
But this isn’t about declining standards.
This is about something that happened when I was 15 years old, walking home from school. I was dressed in my uniform comprising a white shirt, school tie and grey sweater. School had finished at 3.30pm and I was meandering carefree, dragging my shoes as I walked. As I crossed a road which intersected the park, my bag strap slung loosely over my chest, I heard my name being called. It was a class mate nicknamed ‘Mint’.
He came running up. He was out of breath and wide-eyed. There was blood, splattered across his shirt.
Gasping, his first words were, “Suki, I need to come to your house… I can’t go home looking like this.” His nose looked broken, but it was hard to tell with blood smeared across his face.
"What happened?" were the words stumbling from my mouth.
Mint replied, his voice quivering “Jalloogan.”
He only had to say the name. Stories about the infamous Jalloogan careened through my mindscape.
My eyes scanned over Mint’s clothing. Part of his shirt was torn under the armpit. Blood which continued to drip from Mint’s nose had soaked into his shirt. The stain over the front of his chest looked like he had feasted on raw meat, allowing the blood from the carcass to flow down his face.
And now with the mention of Jalloogan’s name, I already felt myself shrinking into my skinny frame.
"I need to clean up at your house," he said with conviction, his face replete with the look of desperation.
I tried to find a solution.
Was there anywhere else I could take him? What would my parents think if they saw him? How would I explain walking down the street with a bloody friend to neighbours? Could I just walk away and pretend I hadn’t seen him?
I felt nauseous.
My school wasn’t peaceful by any means. There was an abundant supply of bullies. The hierarchical scheme had been accepted for generations. Some children were victimized. It was academic natural selection. Every couple of weeks we’d congregate at the wreck to watch students fight out their issues, fist against fist. Usually it was boys, however it wasn’t uncommon for girls to get violent. I remember those fights. Claws and torn hair.
Jalloogan’s name was enough to send shivers down the spine of any of the children who attended Featherstone High School. He was a new entrant, having been expelled from Dormers Wells School for punching a teacher. He had a violent disposition, which in and of itself wasn’t unusual for boys who had grown up in West London.
The difference however, was that he’d been learning Karate for a long time. His elder brother had been fighting for some years on the national circuit, and it was only a matter of time before junior started competing. He’d shown an aptitude for the formal training patterns and uncharacteristically, conformed well to the rigid rules. But I was during sparring sessions when he first began to show his more savage nature.
After practising for some years, Jalloogan had built a reputation around using his skill against pretty much anyone who annoyed him. He fought and fought on the streets,seldom walking away with anything other than a smile and spring to his step. Meanwhile his unfortunate victims would be left licking their own bloody wounds.
I feared him on a personal level. He had achieved something that I was incapable of, mastery of Karate. It was only 3 years earlier that I had abandoned my attempt to learn the art. I’d given up easily. It was too hard, too tough and I simply couldn’t overcome how inferior I felt compared to the other students.
For all his faults and juvenile traits, Jalloogan had proved his self worth by toughing it out. He’d succeeded at martial arts where I’d proved to be a miserable failure.
I had no excuse.
Friends have to prove their worth and just as I was about to welcome Mint to my house, a figure came jogging up. He had the typical trait of a shorter male trying to affirm his own alpha status. His arms held wider than the average male, to provide a sense of dominion as his body cut through aether.
Jalloogan had a strange cockney lilt to his voice. Strange because he’d grown up, like us, on the west side of London.
“Oi.” he grumbled. “Safe Mint, come back. It’s all safe bruv,” he said, placing a comforting arm on Mints shoulder.
Jalloogan was ignoring me.
There was something suspicious in his manner, seedy perhaps.
I could sense Mint’s reluctance, he tried to ease away saying “it’s cool Jall, I need to go.”
Jalloogan’s demeanour changed and his hand gently restrained Mints’ arm. He tried to pull him, wanting to coax him back in the direction of the park.
"It’s cool? I wanna talk to you bruv. Come," he commanded.
I stepped forwards.
"Jalloogan, leave it bruv," I said.
Jalloogan’s eyes finally shifted to me.
He stared into me. I became his sole focus. The universe ceased to exist at that second. From Ancient Mesopatamiam cultures to Spectrum Computers, all history was suddenly erased. All that existed were eyes that glanced past the bony frame of my body, looking deep into my soul. The air simmered under the heat of his gaze.
"Who the fuck are you!?"
I stood dumbstruck.
Agitated by the lack of my immediate response, Jalloogan lurched forwards. He was shorter than me. The tension increasing under the weight of silence hanging over us.
“Who the fuck are you???!” his voice booming.
His chest jutting forwards, chin lowered.
He was primed for action.
"Leave it Jall…" Mint interjected. He was a real friend, someone who was willing to take the fall for me. Perhaps he pitied me. I was after all, a coward.
I had proved that time and time again. I proved it when I stopped going to Karate classes. I had proved it by using my Asthma as an excuse to being physical. I had proved it when I stopped playing Chess because I’d been beaten once. My entire life, up until the age of 15 was about excuses and avoidance.
I hadn’t faced my fears. No even once.
My breathing became shallow.
Jalloogan had one final instruction for me.
"Fuck off, before I do the same thing to you." His head pointing to what he had done to Mint only moments earlier. Time moved slowly. I couldn’t think, my mind cascading with information overload. Stunned into complete inaction I stood motionless. My arms felt heavy at my sides.
My legs, cast in concrete.
"Leave Suki," Mint beckoned.
Without a second thought, I turned and walked away.
I was destined to remain a coward.