Alok switched off his laptop and prepared to leave for the day. It was half past seven, another two hours to go before the summer sun set. Actually he could have stayed on at his desk for another hour, but the bells of St. Clements, which was just across the road, had been ringing away to glory for the last fifteen minutes, giving him a massive headache. In any event the leftover work was not due in for another couple of days. There was no point in prolonging his stay in the office when the blasted church bells were making such a din.
Richard was the only other person left in the office. When Alok tucked his laptop into the high security cabinet in the corner, Richard looked up from his desk and asked, ‘leaving for the day?’
‘Well, that’s a change. For once you’re leaving before I do.’
‘I still have some stuff to finish. But these bloody bells are giving me a headache.’
‘Ummm. You’re damn right. You’d think someone would ban this sort of racket in the city.’
Alok continued with his preparations for departure. He put on his jacket and patted the pockets to check that his wallet, keys and oyster card* were in place.
As he walked out, he stopped for a second and asked Richard, ‘I’m going to stop for a drink on the way. Do you want to come along?’
‘Hmmm. Tempting. But not today. I was out late last night and tomorrow’s going to another late night. I’m taking the Winchester gang out tomorrow. And it’s only Tuesday yet.’
‘Never mind. I’ll just have a quick one and push off.’
As Alok closed the door behind him, Richard said, ‘Listen,……’
Alok came back. ‘Hmmm?’
‘Never mind. I’m sorry. I was just wondering if I should just dump this report and come along. But no. I can’t. Sorry.’
‘You could ask Jamie. He’s always up for a drink.’
‘No. Never mind.’
‘Have you asked him already?’
‘No I didn’t. But I heard him say he’s going somewhere.’
‘You should ask out that pretty one on the tenth floor. Isn’t she from your part of the world?’
‘Sort of. Not really. She’s Sri Lankan. I think so anyway.’
‘Is that a big difference? You could still ask her out. I think she fancies you.’
Alok grunted and walked out. He better restart going to the gym and burn off that excess energy which had a tendency to turn into fat on his five feet eight inches frame. It was a criminal waste to pay eighty pounds a month for membership in a gym in the heart of the city and not use it. He would have a quick drink and then go home. He wouldn’t be able to sleep without a glass of wine inside him. It was dangerous he knew, to be in a state where he needed a drink to fall asleep.
He reached the Counting House and looked inside. It was full of people, city types like him, dressed in suits, pinstripes and ties, talking, smiling and laughing, all at once. It took him a full two minutes to make his way to the bar.
‘A glass of wine please. The house white.’
‘Large or small.’
‘Large. No. Make it small.’
He would have a small glass of wine and go home. Richard was right. It was only Tuesday yet. He still had to get through three more days. And then it would be the weekend. The weekend was a pain, but he could always go away somewhere. Take the Eurostar to Paris or catch a flight to Geneva and come back on Sunday. There was something about a different city which made him feel less lonely.
Alok picked up his glass of wine and walked to a corner. He wondered if he ought to pretend he was waiting for someone, but then, he didn’t really care. He sipped his wine and looked around. There was a bloke in his early twenties who looked as if he was genuinely waiting for someone. He would take out his mobile and hold it in front of him to check for messages. Or dial a number, hold the mobile to his ear and then hang up with a shake of his head. Around five minutes later, a young girl came in, looked around and rushed into his arms. Now he was only the only person in the room who was alone.
No, he didn’t mind. Not everyone who was with someone else was happy. There was that blond girl who kept looking at her watch every twenty seconds, waiting for an excuse to leave. The two men and woman she was with were all having a good time, laughing a lot and looking very relaxed. There was a Chinese guy with two tall white men, most probably a visitor from the Beijing or Shanghai branch office being taken out for a drink by his head office colleagues. All three men were smiling all the time, the white men with permanent plastic grins and the Chinese man with a painfully polite smile. I’m sure all three of them would rather be elsewhere, Alok chuckled to himself.
Alok downed the last drops from his glass and walked out. He could do it! Stopping after his first glass was not so difficult. No, he was in no danger of turning into a drunk. He was not one of those men who couldn’t sleep without a few large glasses of liquor in their stomachs. Not someone who binge-drank even without any company.
He reached Bank station and took the Northern Line to Kings Cross St. Pancras from where he switched to the Piccadilly Line. Barely ten minutes later, he got off at Holloway Road. As he left the station and started the ten-minute walk to his flat, a man walked past him and spoilt it all. He was a man in his late thirties, with his mobile phone to his ear.
‘Honey, I’ll home in five minutes,’ the man said. And then he added, ‘Has he slept yet?’ The pain hit Alok with the force of a gale. He had done that so many times before. Honey I’ll be home in an hour’s time. Darling, I’ve just got off the tube. I’ll be home in ten minutes. Has Sagan slept yet? He would ask. And Chaaya would say, No, he’s still waiting up for you. Come home soon.
Alok clutched his stomach and bent down in the middle of the footpath. If only that man hadn’t asked about his child! Just to think that he had almost made it home after a single small glass of wine! He straightened up and, despite the pain, started to walk forward once more. The pain eased in a few minutes and he took a few deep breaths. But he now desperately needed another drink.
He shifted his body slightly so that some additional weight was transferred to his right leg. As he walked forward, he stomped his right leg down with each alternate step he took. If only he had the courage to chop off his right leg! He hated his right leg intensely. If only it had been quicker on the brakes that night when they were all driving back, he would be going back home to Sagan and Chaaya. He definitely ought to chop off his leg. No, not by himself! No! He was a coward, incapable of something like that. But he could go to a doctor and get it amputated. He would then get himself one of those artificial contraptions and get by. It was a really good idea. He had absolutely no use for his right leg. He had sold the BMW after the accident, or what was left of it and not bought another car. God, he would never buy a car or even drive again. The pain returned to his guts and leg with full vigour.
Before long, he found a pub. It was one to which he had never been to. It looked a little rowdy even from outside and when he went inside, he found it to be fully packed. God! He ought to have stayed on at the Counting House with all those safe and boring bankers inside and had a few more drinks before he left. If only he had stayed on for a second drink, he wouldn’t have had to listen to that idiot’s conversation which had now ruined his evening.
He made his way to the bar, a task which took him almost five minutes, even though he only had to cover a few metres. ‘A bottle of white wine,’ he ordered.
‘What’s your house white?’
‘Yes, I’ll go for a bottle of Chardonnay.’
‘One glass? Two glasses?’
‘Just one glass please.’ The bartendress gave him a strange look. She had half a dozen piercings in each ear and her eyes had red highlighting.
Alok looked around him. The men were all focussed on a football game shown on two large TV screens kept in the room. No wonder the pub was packed. Arsenal was playing one of those Spanish clubs, it seemed. Alok was not a football fan, despite having lived in the UK for almost ten years. At one point he had tried to work up some enthusiasm for soccer, even deciding on ManU as his favourite team, but he hadn’t had much success. And after the accident, he had given up his budding passion for soccer all together. And it was not just football, he was not even interested in cricket these days.
Alok took his wine bottle and glass to an empty table which did not have a view of the TV screens. It was clear that he was the only one in the pub who was not an Arsenal fan. He poured himself a drink and took a big gulp. God! He needed the drink. He would have to get drunk tonight before he went home. There was no way on earth he could go home in a sober state. He ought to give up that flat and move elsewhere. It was more than a year now, but he could still smell the smells and hear the sounds as he walked in.
When Alok was half-way through his bottle, he realised that the men were not staring at the screens anymore. Instead, they were talking loudly among themselves. The game must be at half-time, he realised.
‘You, over there, you ain’t one of us, right?’
Alok knew the drill. ‘No,’ he said with a small shake of his head, giving the hooligan the most polite smile possible. He then looked down and sat very still. It was so, so very stupid of him to have walked into a pub of this sort on the day of a big football match.
‘That fancy stuff. It ain’t do you much good,’ a man standing three feet away from said. Someone threw an empty beer can at him, missing him by a few feet. There was some derisory laughter. Alok was not too frightened. There was a security camera pointing vaguely in his direction and in any event, the chances of anyone assaulting him within the pub was not very high. The football fans just wanted to have some fun. However, he ought to leave now, if he had any sense. He could take the bottle of wine with him and go home and drink it there. The men were unlikely to follow him out of the pub till the game got over. No, he would wait till the interval got over and then leave once the men started looking at the TV screens again.
A man walked past him and trod lightly on his right foot, as he walked past. ‘I’m sorry mate,’ he apologised with mock solemnity.
‘Fuck you,’ Alok shouted back as his right leg throbbed with intense pain.
‘We got a brave un ere,’ the man shouted to his friends. ‘Why don’t you come outside and we could settle matters to our satisfaction?’ he asked Alok.
A small crowd gathered around Alok. He quickly finished off his glass and said, ‘I never fight until I finish my second bottle.’
Someone spat on his face from a distance of three feet. There were giggles. ‘Why don’t you bastards go watch your miserable game? When it’s over, we’ll all go outside.’ Alok told the crowd in general.
‘Deal. It’s a deal. Oh! You be one big, brawny brave un, I swear.’ Someone came over and patted him on his back with genuine affection.
Alok was scared, but the pain in his right leg gave him courage. But he might as well get properly drunk before he went out. He poured the last bit of wine into his glass and started drinking.
‘Ten quid says he will not stay on his feet for more than a minute.’ The men started placing bets on him. By now Alok was really scared, but it was too late to do anything much. He could try and call the police, but if the crowd saw him take out his mobile, they’d tear him to pieces. He wondered if any of the bartenders would do anything. Very unlikely! He ought to have stayed at the Counting House!
Thankfully the match started and the men stopped paying him much attention. Alok finished his glass and went up to the bar for another bottle of Chardonnay.
‘The bastard’ll get too drunk,’ some one yelled, but no one did anything to him. In fact, they actually made way for him to get to the bar and go back to his seat. What was that story he had read many years ago when he was in college from Steinbeck’s Long Valley collection? The Raid? Two labour organisers were about to be lynched by a mob. It won’t hurt. Not one bit, the senior one amongst the two men had told the other. It must be true. He desperately hoped that it wouldn’t hurt.
A collective aaaagghh went up. The other side must have scored against Arsenal, Alok thought. He realised that he wanted to, or rather ought to, take a leak. Maybe he could call the police emergency number from the loo. As he got up someone noticed and said, ‘the wog’s a-leavin.’
‘Just to the gents,’ Alok pointed to the sign saying Toilets and gave the mob a big smile. A tall and clean shaven man walked up to him and roughly shoved him back to his seat. Alok stood up once more, but now he was feeling very light-headed. He was pushed back into his seat once more.
‘Fuck you bastard,’ he screamed at the man.
‘Just wait you monkey, I’m gonna tear you up inna tiny lil pieces.’
There was nothing much to do other than to sit back and drink. After a few minutes, Alok felt warm piss dribbling out of him to the seat. Soon it became a torrent. It didn’t matter, did it? Soon, nothing would matter.
There was one more collective exclamation and a few seconds of stunned silence. ‘Two down and just ten more minutes to go,’ he heard a commentator say on TV. Alok considered dashing to the door and making good his escape. He stood up and realised that he was reasonably drunk, but the place was still jam packed and unless they made way for him, he was going nowhere.
‘Why don’t we go out now?’ a man turned around and suggested to him.
‘That’ll be more fun than watching this shit,’ his neighbour agreed.
Alok quickly drank the last of his wine and picked up his bag. He was quite drunk, but he was very scared too. Should he put up the pretence of a fight? No, it would be best to go down quickly. No, he would stay on his feet, for if he went down, they might kick him to death.
‘Ready mate?’ a man asked him with the sort of kindness and affection one would show to a prize bull being sent into a bull fighting ring .
‘Giv’im an ‘ed start,’ someone suggested and they quickly made way for him to leave. There was not much to do, but to start running. Alok wanted to laugh. Sagan and Chaaya must have suffered a lot more when they crashed. If only Sagan hadn’t made a big fuss and insisted on sitting in front, he might have been saved. No, if Sagan had not insisted on sitting in front, Chaaya would have sat where Sagan sat. If only his right leg had pressed the brakes two seconds earlier, if only…
As the cold air hit him, Alok realised that he was now out of the pub. He started to run along the pavement, back to the tube station rather than towards his home, his heart thudding with fear and his head throbbing. If only he could get to the station, there would be people and security cameras around! The summer sun had disappeared and the footpath was deserted and dark. If only he had waited till the game was over, there would have been a lot of people on the streets and somebody might have saved him from the mob. He was such a fool. He should have had two or three more drinks at the Counting House, got slightly drunk and then gone home. He might not even have paid much attention to the man with the mobile phone.
There was no other sound for a few moments after which he heard a howl as ten or eleven men rushed after him.
The glancing blow to his head was not meant to drop him to the ground, but Alok did go down. He lay on the ground and waited for them to kick him, hoping they would kick his right leg. Instead, they solicitously helped him to his feet and then someone punched on his nose. He went down again, only to be propped up once more. This time it was a fist in his stomach. The dull pain he felt was more because he was scared and breathless, rather than from the blows.
‘You dirty Paki,’ someone said and laughed aloud. He was cuffed on the head by someone. Alok staggered around like a headless chicken. They were having fun with him. Why didn’t they get over with it?
‘Kick his sweet brown arse!’ And someone obligingly kicked him from behind.
‘You bloody bastards,’ Alok shouted through his bleeding mouth and rushed at the man closest to him, swinging his bag which he still held in his hand. The man he rushed at, a short squat man with a crew cut, neatly sidestepped him and punched him on his jaw. This time Alok went down with a heavy thud.
Someone kicked him in his stomach. There was some laughter. An African man came up to him and asked, ‘where next?’ There were more hoots of laughter. He felt a kick to his ribs, there were more kicks on his back and shoulders and then he lost consciousness.
When he came to, he was in the hospital. A nurse was standing next to him. He lips were swollen and he could barely speak.
‘How do you feel, m’dear?’ she asked him.
Alok regarded the nurse for a moment. There was something very important that he wanted to know. What was it? He wracked his brains for the answer.
‘Are you in pain?’ the nurse asked him.
‘What are the damages?’ Alok replied.
The nurse was a young woman with a very kind face. She took a deep breath and said, ‘two broken ribs, a broken nose, two front teeth broken, your collar bone is cracked and …. and … your knee cap is busted. It’ll be a while before you can walk again.’
‘Which knee cap?’ Alok earnestly asked.
The nurse did not understand him.
‘Which knee cap?’ he asked again. ‘Right or left?’ There was no sensation in either of his legs.
‘Why do you ask? Oh! It’s the right one,’ the nurse informed Alok.
It took Alok a few second to digest the information after which, to the nurse’s shock and astonishment, a slow smile spread across his bruised, swollen lips.
*A prepaid electronic card used to travel on the London underground.