Sometimes you overhear a bit of a conversation that leaves you wishing you could start from the beginning and listen through to the end. Like one time I was in a mate’s flat – poor bastard was living on Hartington Street at the time – and there was a lull, four of us sitting there stoned off our arses, saying fuck all. No music, no conversation, no bubbling bong, just silence. Then, in through the window, comes a female screech of diabolical proportions aimed at someone at least halfway down the road, as raw and Irish as poteen: “So what if I’m a fock’n prostitute? At least I’m not a smack-ead what robs elpless little old ladies!”
Other times you get to hear the lot. Just after I came back from my year in Europe, I was living in a little bedsit down the back end of Normanton that looked out over this mini kids’ play park thing – before they did it up, when no kid dared go near it. It was quiet, the park always empty and hardly even any houses, with a big tree next to my back window and a sill big enough to cover in cushions and use like a sofa. I used to sit in my back window a lot, reading the JKD manual. Or skinning up on the JKD manual, listening to Parliament on vinyl. Or just sitting there getting high and generally liking life, not feeling the immediate need for kung fu or P-funk.
I remember this one night, sitting there letting my mind drift, about two in the morning, cool and clear and quiet, with the lights off and the TV on but muted, waiting for a late-night showing of Prodigal Son. I even remember what I was thinking about. Nothing profound. I was thinking about Monique, and comparing her to Laura, mixing the nostalgia and anticipation. I’d just met Laura, so I didn’t know she was completely insane, but I had noticed she was gorgeous, and I was thinking about them both, the last one and the next one as it were.
One French and one English, one dark and one fair, one born in the hardest estates of Marseilles and the other raised in leafy, twee Cheltenham – and, as it turned out, one descended from heaven and one straight from hell.
But I was soon brought back to dear old Earth by a conversation drifting up from the jitty at the side of the house. Another prostitue’s conversation, a weary voice with a touch of Scally accent, sounding poor and skinny and in need of smack saying “Lookin for business?”
A bloke’s voice answered. “Uh, well I, uh, ent got nuff money…”
I almost laughed. What an idiot. The hooker murmured something low and suggestive I couldn’t hear, then laughed like a drain.
“Really?” said the bloke.
“If you giz the rest o them fags, darlin.”
There was a pause, some footsteps, I could hear them coming closer, crunching on the gravel path in the park, then shuffling into the grass. So this guy was apparently even dumber than he sounded – and believe me, that was a challenge. His accent was pure Derby, but with a distinctive intonation found all over Britain – the voice of the village idiot. He sounded just like the Moog from Willo the Wisp.
There was a pause, some muttering. It sounded like they were right under my window, but I couldn’t see them. I bit back a laugh when the hooker said, “Just a wank, though.”
Then they came out into the open, heading toward a few dying trees at the other side of the park. It was a nice night, a big full moon breaking through the clouds, so I could make them out pretty well. A lumbering, swaying, bulging bloke in a Rams shirt and a tottering smack-skeleton with a severe topknot of bottle-blond hair – I could just decipher the Kappa logo on the back of the shiny white tracksuit top she wore with her miniskirt and boots.
Halfway to the trees the hooker stopped. The bloke took another step – half turned – then she grabbed his arms and yelled “I’ve got one!”
I couldn’t help it, I laughed, but nobody heard me – the bloke belatedly started struggling, the hooker started calling him a cunt – and there was someone running out from the jitty on the other side of the trees, thudding along on the grass, a low, wide, mean-looking man’s shape in a black hoodie and white trainers.
The idiot john stopped struggling and gawped, and the hooker skittered out the way. The bruiser in the hoodie top ran right up and smacked johnny-boy in the mouth. He went down like wet cement, with a pathetic little yelp of pain, and stayed there, covering his face in half-arsed kind of way, while hoodie put a foot on his shoulder and they both went through his pockets. Then they ran off past the trees, disappearing down the other jitty. All this lasted maybe twenty-five seconds.
When I looked back to the unwitting – or witless – victim, he was sitting up. I could just about make out the shape of his face, but no features. He was snorting and snivelling, wiping his nose and mouth with his hands, then he groaned like a heiffer when he pushed himself to his feet. Still snivelling, the baby rhythm of it broken now and then by a half-stifled sob, he shuffled his way across the grass, back towards my window and the jitty.
As he was about to pass out of view behind the garden fence he stopped – I could just about see his face, now, a lumpy moon-face a little bloody round the mouth – and for a second I thought he’d seen me. But no, he was, digging in his trouser pocket, snuffling to the end of his tears. Then, clear as a bell in the quiet moonlight, he said “Fuckin slapper even took me fags!”
I laughed, and this time he heard me, but by the time he looked up and saw my silhouette in the window I was shutting it, cutting off whatever he was about to call me, and pulling the curtains. The movie was just starting.
Stephen Hyde was born in London, raised in Hampshire, lived in France awhile. Currently residing in Derby, where he lives on Normanton Road (the Front Line), having moved from Hartington Street, variously called Smack Alley, “Street of 1,000 Needles” (by the local paper) and “the worst street in England” (by the Guardian).”