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He felt he deserved it.  It was hard work selling bargain basement from the boot of a car.  It didn’t sound like much, but the hours, and the constant vigilance took their toll.

Daybreak to something darker each day, every day, keeping time with the bakers in the morning and the kids in the afternoon.  Some days truncated by rain, but others stretched to absurdity by the sun or the demand, neither of which ceased to amaze him.  And always with one eye on the road for the only kind of uniform a clothes horse like himself was never happy to find.

      Lately he’d noticed that a lot of his punters were Asians.  Not like the ones he was at school with though.  Then it was all High Street polo shirts tricked out as Lacoste within a stone’s throw of the City; somebody would always know somebody who knew someone’s uncle or cousin and then mysteriously a batch of polos with slightly-too-porky crocs would be doing the rounds at lunchtime or in the back of the car park.  There were times he’d even see some of the moody amphibians in the ‘chicken run’ for a home game at the Boleyn.  ‘Bubbles’ blaring out of the tannoy, and the first stylings of east end flash, Puma, Ellesse, Kappa, but with the crocs in their midst like the last gasp of local humour.

This lot were different, though.  For starters, a lot bigger, also much lighter-skinned.  These must be the ones his mate, R. was always banging on about, ‘passing’ as Italians up west.  In fact, R. didn’t  have a good word to say about them, said he was forever having run-ins with them when he was out with his girl.  Something to do with her being much fairer skinned than him and a proprietorial edge to the comments directed his way by her would-be ‘brethren’.  Tone obviously still mattered to plenty of people.

Still, it didn’t bother Mark too much.  In the end the joke was on them, really, never much more than one rinse cycle away.  Nothing personal, just business.  Besides, he didn’t go for all that schtick around ‘community’ whoever was spouting it.  In his world people were either ok or they weren’t, and that was about as complicated as it needed to get.

Even so, it made him smile, the thought of these self-same punters who’d been giving his mate a hard time, pulling their shrink fit forgeries out of the wash after just one night’s clubbing.  He wouldn’t be wasting too much sympathy on them either.  As far as he could tell, you see what you choose to and you believe what you want and if that means you’re taken in by a toothy grin and a clutch of mockney anecdotes then maybe you’ve only got yourself to blame.

Then again, when it came to his own life, Mark would have been the first to admit that things had got a little out of hand recently.  In fairness he’d been questioning his own judgement more and more these past few months.  And though it wasn’t so much anything he’d done as the one thing he seemed loath to do which was causing problems, it still preyed on his mind.  Hardly surprising, really, when every road always seemed to lead to the same place.

It was Darren, and Mark kept making excuses for him even when everyone around him, starting with his brother, Roy, and spanning virtually all of the old crowd, kept telling him the same thing: move away from his foolishness before it drags you down.

      Still, Darren had seen him right all those years back, when Mum suddenly went, and that wasn’t something Mark felt he could ignore.  And he’d wheel that line out for anyone who’d care to listen, though these days those numbers were ever dwindling.  The drinking and the increasingly frequent drama had seen to that.  Even so, Mark felt loyalty to his old friend; still saw occasional glimpses of the person he used to know, who’d once stopped him from going completely off the rails at a tough moment in his own life.  It was just that with each new incident involving his old mate it made it that bit harder to explain away; made Mark himself sound just that bit more deluded.  And as Roy never missed the opportunity to point out, how much longer was Darren going to dine out on an old grievance?  He’d even had a healthy payout from the Criminal Injuries people.  His face had largely healed and that man had gone away for a five stretch, which meant, in the local scheme of things, that this was almost a ‘good news’ story’.

The party in New Cross was the tipping point though.  Perhaps he should have known.  It was down a side street near that college.  Students, basically.

      Leaving Darren in the main room, Mark made some excuses about the music and went upstairs.  Only so much corporate virtuosity, R’n’B-lite a man raised on Curtis’ falsetto and the Heptones’ ‘Book of Rules’ could take.

He was happily building a spliff in a quiet corner of someone’s bedroom when the door swung open.  Darren lurched over towards him, but the eyes were good and red and drunk.

‘The place is full of slags.’

He’d obviously been turfed.

‘Man can’t even have a dance these days without a load of carry on.’

The same old story.  Little snippets of black for the more obvious tastes of students.  For when the suburbs just couldn’t deliver that primal charge; the wrong kind of fake for these kids.

      Mark looked back down with some longing at the spliff.  It was always an attractive proposition but never more so than now, its fat cone promising the kind of vibe his ‘mate’ could never deliver.  At that moment in time it was his best friend and Darren just another drunkard with an angle.  Then he remembered that weed wasn’t Darren’s thing.  And safe in that knowledge, he was able to relax once more.  He fired the tip and took a long draw.

‘It’s taking serious liberties, Mark. I mean, it weren’t even like she had any tits.’

‘Hmm.’

‘Gis some draw, Mark.  Don’t be greedy, star.’

‘Eh?’

‘That’s more like it,’ said Darren, admiring the cone he’d just whipped out of Mark’s fingers.  He sucked on it greedily until it was just a roach.  Then handed it back, a useless little stump.  Mark was still looking at him stunned when Darren calmly got up and went back downstairs to pick up where he had left off as the life and soul.

      It was a long time before Mark could bring himself to go downstairs.  He was still reeling from Darren’s opportunism.  For all his faults, he reckoned he had the measure of his old friend…until now.  He’d always thought of him as a classic sticks man.  Not Gregory in gabicci, but the other kind.  North Kent suburbanite who fancied himself in the inner city.  So long as it was around students or shopkeepers.  But he was still surprised about the U-turn on weed, and it made him think.  If he’d failed to spot that, what else about Darren had passed him by?

So it was a troubled Mark who rejoined the party.  He stayed just long enough to witness the commotion in the kitchen.  A light-skinned Asian woman wearing something familiar was screaming, ‘That’s him!’ to her blond boyfriend and pointing to someone in the corner.

Mark craned his neck, straining to see over the crowd which had gathered in the corridor.  It was Darren, swigging merrily from a can of Strongbow.  And there was someone else with him, all neck and sweat, who didn’t look much like a student.  When this second figure turned to face the crowd, Mark waited just long enough to make out the Lonsdale shirt and the borstal tears.  He knew instantly that for him at least, the party was over.

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