Curtis slouched on the brown couch in front of the TV news: more on the dustmen’s strike. He ignored the doorbell. A group of people wrapped in bin liners holding signs up in protest filled the screen. It was 1979 and the whole of England seemed to be on strike. The bell rang again. Shorter. Curtis rose, lumbered to the window, jerked open the dirty curtain then walked towards the front door, smoothing down his army pants, fingers running through his dyed orange high-top as he passed the cracked mirror on the wall.
He returned to the living room with Becket’s friend: Juliette.
‘Where’s Becket?’ Juliette perused the room. Her fingers tugged at her bleached blond spike. She seemed unnerved by Becket’s absence.
‘Band rehearsal.’ Curtis squinted at Juliette in her black shiny P.V.C. mini skirt, her skin so pale it glowed through the spaces in her fishnet tights.
Curtis and Becket were neighbours. They lived next door to each other in ground floor flats in this tower block in Ladbroke Grove since the age of five. They grew up together kicking cans down the street, bunking on the tube, lifting music equipment from gigs while the roadies had their backs turned, all the time trying to keep their black arses from being hounded by the pigs. Twelve years later they remained best mates.
Juliette met Becket when his ska band played at a pub in Chelsea at the end of the road that Juliette lived on. They got drunk afterwards on the bottles of cheap wine Juliette smuggled into the pub underneath her coat.
Juliette dug her fingers into the pocket of her leather jacket. ‘Maybe I’ll…’
‘He’ll be back soon. He asked me to wait for you here at his place.’
Juliette and Curtis had seen each other at Becket’s gigs but they’d never really spoken.
Juliette glanced out of the window. A dead rat lay beside piles of garbage on the pavement. ‘How soon?’
Outside the sound of a siren got louder as a police van hurtled by.
‘Soon, soon.’ A child ran past squirting water from a red water pistol at the van.
‘Soon, soon. Like any minute?’
‘Soon soon. Like I don’t really know.’
Juliette hovered by the window like an inconvenient object. ‘I should come back later.’
‘Fine. Come back later.’ Curtis switched off the TV.
‘I would hate to be this pain in the arse friend of Becket you feel forced to entertain.’
‘I don’t feel forced to entertain you.’
Curtis poured two glasses of water. He handed one to Juliette then leaned across to reattach the corner of a Jah Wobble poster to the circle of Blu Tack stuck against the magenta painted wall.
Juliette sipped her water then put the glass down on the nearby table. She fingered the cover of The Lonely Londoners resting on a stack of books shoved into a wooden beer crate. ‘I’m going to the Rock Against Racism event at Acklam Hall tonight.’
‘Becket told me.’ Curtis peered at Juliette. ‘Do you like Becket?’
‘Yeah.’ She looked down at the mud-coloured carpet. ‘Oh wait. Do you mean like, like?’
‘Oh. I don’t think so.’ She pulled a pack of Rothmans out of her jacket, offered one to Curtis then took one herself. ‘Why? Does Becket like me?’
‘Dunno.’ Curtis grabbed a matchbox from the table, lit his fag then tossed the matchbox to Juliette.
‘Has he said anything?’ Juliette struck a match and sucked on her cigarette.
Curtis leaned against the counter. ‘Becket and I got a pact. The ladies. What we say about them. It stays between us.’ Curtis blew three smoke rings into the air. ‘Not saying he has told me that he likes you.’
‘I get it.’
‘But if he had I couldn’t…’ Curtis rested his fag in an aluminum ashtray on the counter.
Juliette perched on the arm of the floral-patterned armchair. ‘My dad’s in this asinine programme to help him quit drugs. It’s anonymous. When people ask if he’s in the programme he says “If I am, I can’t tell you.”’ She flicked ash into her empty cigarette packet.
‘When did he quit drugs?’
‘He’s trying to quit.’ She ran her finger along the edges of the Malcolm X poster hanging over the couch.
‘What kind of drugs?’
‘No. I don’t.’
‘He’s just a social heroin user.’
‘A social heroin user?’ Curtis let out a staccato sound, crinkling his nose in disbelief.
‘He’s not a junkie.’ Juliette’s skirt squeaked as she shifted her butt on the couch. ‘He’s actually a highly respected poet. His poetry books are the must-have books among the uber-hip.’
‘The uber-hip?’ Curtis blew a large smoke ring into the air then a smaller one inside it.
Juliette tapped her boot against the chair leg. ‘Are you coming with us to the Rock Against Racism gig?’
Curtis scowled at Juliette. ‘You’re asking me if I’m going to the Rock Against Racism gig?’
Curtis slammed his empty glass on the table, his eyes roving the room. ‘Can you believe the cheek of this blue-eyed…!’ His hand slapped his forehead. ‘Course I am.’
Juliette sank further into the chair arm. She took several quick drags tapping ash into the cigarette box between each one.
Curtis removed his black and white mohair sweater revealing Bob Marley’s face sucking on a joint on the front of his T-shirt.
‘The bands tonight,’ she said. ‘Great line up.’
‘You shouldn’t be going just to hear the bands.’
‘You should be going because you’re amped up about the issue.’
‘Of course I’m amped up about the issue. I mean I’m only seventeen.’
‘So am I. So what?’
‘I fully support the anti-racist theme.’
‘The anti-racist theme?’ Curtis gobbed into the ashtray.
‘What’s going on is revolting.’ Juliette jumped off the chair arm. ‘The rise of The National Front. Racist graffiti splattered everywhere.’ She waved her arms excitedly, her tone earnest, so thrilled for an opportunity to lecture someone about her latest cause, she didn’t seem to notice who she was lecturing to. ‘Eric Clapton spouting anti-immigration bollocks at gigs like “Keep Britain White.” Black people randomly getting stopped and searched.’ She kept her eye on Curtis the whole time she spoke as if testing how each of her words were landing.
‘You ever been stopped and searched?’
Juliette rubbed at a dark stain in the carpet. ‘Are you asking why I’m going to the Rock Against Racism event?’ Challenge crept into her tone. ‘Because if you are, I think you’re missing the point.’
‘I’m asking if you’ve ever been stopped and searched?’ He gazed at her, his eyes alert with anger.
‘I hate racism, okay?’ She tugged at the studded leather choker round her neck.
‘Guess how many times I got stopped walking home from the bus stop this week?’
‘I mean what if The National Front win the election?’
‘Guess.’ He leaned into her.
Juliette chipped at the black polish on her fingernails. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead.
Curtis rested his cigarette in the ashtray. ‘See Juliette, right now you’re this rich white rebel, with crimped peroxide hair and black lined panda eyes mixing at parties with people like Becket and me. Checking out the vibe outside your social circle. Getting all touchy about injustice. Sticking up for the coloured boy and all that crap. But next year you’re going to knuckle under, study hard, get As in your exams, and use your dad’s “uber-hip” fans to help you rock off to a first class uni.’
‘You’ll get good qualifications too.’
‘And it won’t mean shit.’
‘I’m sure it will.’
‘I could get straight As and I’ll still be told…’ His speech transformed into the clipped tones of a BBC presenter. ‘To stop questioning my future and just accept that I don’t fucking have one.’
Because Curtis was in the top stream at school, at first he got a lot of attention from his teachers. But then he started raising too many objections. Like asking why he couldn’t go to a school with a curriculum which included classes in poverty, apartheid, the history of racism. A school where black culture wasn’t ignored in the academic curriculum. After a while his teachers lost interest.
‘I know your world is…’ Juliette failed to finish the sentence. She fiddled with the black dagger earing hanging from her left ear lobe.
‘You don’t know shit about my world.’
‘Maybe I want to find out.’
‘Am I not cool enough?’
‘You can never see the world the way we see it.’ Curtis glared at her. ‘And it’s a huge problem that you think you can.’
‘I know there’s a lot of stuff out there that makes you livid. Lots of things make me livid too.’
Curtis edged closer. ‘How many of your cousins have the police shot dead?’
Outside a car door banged shut.
‘My dad. Sometimes he comes home so wasted he doesn’t know who I am.’
‘A celebrity dad tanked up on gear ain’t the same thing.’
‘Are you saying I don’t have a right to be angry too?’
Curtis lurched forward. ‘I’m saying don’t you dare compare your life to mine just because your fairy tale ain’t perfect.’
‘I’m calm.’ He towered over her, his hot breath warming her skin.
‘You’re yelling in my face?’
‘Am I scaring you?’
‘Get scared do you? Walking down the street at night. And you see a nigga?’ The word nigga thrown in her face like a custard pie.
‘You don’t know everything about me either.’
‘Why does being white and middle class automatically brand me an elitist hypocrite?’
‘You’re walking down the street. At night. Alone. Two niggas walk past. You ain’t bricking it?”
‘I get a little nervous whoever walks past.’
‘You don’t clutch your bag tighter if they look like me?’
Juliette’s gaze drifted away.
Curtis planted his feet wide, his army pants ballooning. “Empty your pockets.”
‘What?’ Her eyes darted from side to side like a pendulum. The right side of her lip twitched.
‘Empty your pockets.’
‘What for?’ Juliette’s shoulders collapsed forward. She let out a short, nervous giggle.
Juliette’s hands dove into the pockets of her leather jacket. She pulled out a Miss Selfridge lipstick, a set of keys, a fiver and a crumpled tissue. She tried to steady the slight trembling in her hand.
‘That all you got in there?’
‘Put everything back.’
She shoved the objects back in her pocket.
‘Empty your pockets.’
‘What?’ Her jaw dropped so low you could shove a banana down her mouth.
‘You heard me.’
‘But I just…’ Her tone hovered between outrage and bemused.
Juliette pulled out the lipstick, the keys, the fiver and the crumpled tissue.
‘Is that all you’ve got in there?’
‘You know it is.’
‘Yes or no?’
Curtis stepped in closer.
The fake fruity smell of their hairsprays mingled.
‘What’s your name?’ Curtis stepped in even closer.
‘You know my name.’
She raised her chin and jutted out her hip. ‘Can’t remember.’
Curtis patted up and down Juliette’s slender frame, his strokes almost robotic.
‘Get your hands off me.’
‘Don’t be shy.’
‘Get off.’ Aggression shot out of her eye.
Curtis continued to pat up and down her body.
Juliette’s hand curled into a fist then she jerked forward, a fierce expression overtaking her face as she smashed her fist against his right lower cheek, a grim smack filling the air.
Curtis hobbled back a few steps his hand covering his cheek.
‘Shit!’ Juliet rushed towards Curtis a horrified expression on her face. ‘Are you okay?’ She waved her hand in the air then blew on her stinging knuckles.
‘Sorry.’ She looked like she was about to cry.
‘Great punch. Don’t apologize.’ Admiration laced his tone.
‘Your lip. It’s bleeding.’
Juliette grabbed the tissue from her pocket. She attempted to mop his lip. He pulled back. She leaned in again. He allowed her to press the tissue to his wound.
‘Wouldn’t have figured you for a puncher.’
‘Told you that you didn’t know everything about me.’ She smiled. ‘Although that was my first punch to be fair.’
‘Guess what would have happened if I had punched a pig?’
She continued mopping his lip.
‘Guess,’ he said.
She fiddled with the tissue in her hand. ‘You’re right Curtis. I’ll never see things the way you see them. Not truly. But I don’t like how hellish things are for most people. I can’t change it. But how does it help if I ignore it? And how does it help if you shoot down all my efforts to try to understand?’ She mopped at Curtis’s lip a final time her strokes tender. ‘And shit happens to all of us you know?’ She turned away. ‘If Becket comes home’
‘Don’t go.’ His tone swelled with need. His hand reached for the table as if he were scared his knees might go out from under him.
‘Tell him I dropped by.’
‘Please don’t go.’ All his bluster had dissolved.
Juliette walked past a crate filled with records. She picked up the fluorescent pink and yellow record sleeve of Never Mind the Bollocks which rested on the crate’s surface. ‘I didn’t know Becket liked the Sex Pistols?’
‘Those records are mine. I’ve got the records. Becket’s got the turntable.’
Curtis took the cover from her, slid the record out of its sleeve placed it on the blue plastic turntable and cued the needle to the second song. The intro to ‘Anarchy In The UK’ filled the room.
Juliette scanned the records stuffed inside another wooden beer crate. ‘Your vinyl collection?’
‘Dead Kennedy’s, Pil, The Slits.’
Curtis turned up the volume. They bobbed their heads to the beat. They shrugged their shoulders up and down. Their arms swung. A leg kicked into the air. Pretty soon they were full out pogoing.
‘You pogo really well Juliette.’
‘How does someone pogo really well? All I’m doing is jumping up and down.’
‘When you jump up and down, you look great.’
‘This song is so fucking fantastic.’
They jumped higher, throwing their bodies into the beat, fists slamming the air.
‘Sorry I pretended to stop and search you just now. Please don’t think I’m just this angry, black cunt.’
‘I don’t think you’re just this angry black… Sorry I punched you. Please don’t think I’m a major bitch.’
‘I don’t even think you’re a minor bitch.’
They bumped shoulders.
‘I love this song so much Curtis!’
‘I love this song more than you do.’
‘You can’t love this song more than I do. It’s just not possible.’ Juliette bumped Curtis’ shoulder again. ‘Some people just don’t get it you know? They think this music is just loud and angry. But it helps. It really fucking helps.’
‘You’re right. It really fucking helps.’
Juliette jostled Curtis. Curtis jostled Juliette. Juliette was about to jostle Curtis again but instead she took his face in her hands and brushed her mouth to his. She pulled back. They stood staring at each other, breathing in each other’s breath.
Juliette’s lips creased upwards in a smile.
Curtis’s grin broadened to his ears.
The floorboards creaked underneath the carpet. Juliette giggled. Curtis shook his head vigorously to the music.
Juliette raised her arms wide above her head, fingers spread. Curtis kicked his leg high into the air.
‘I love bands where the singer can’t sing.’ Juliette threw her jacket to the ground.
‘I love bands where the musicians can’t play their fucking instruments.’ Curtis zig zagged his hips.
‘Becket.’ Juliette jumped into the air again.
‘What about him?’ Curtis jumped so high his head almost hit the ceiling.
‘Won’t he be coming back soon?’
They twisted their torsos.
‘That’s what he said.’
‘Soon, soon like any minute?’
‘Soon soon. Like I don’t really know.’
Patches of sweat darkened Juliette’s ripped T-shirt, beads of water dripping down her face smearing her make up. Curtis bounced over to the window and pushed it open. A sour stink filled the air, putrid odours of a decaying city. He slammed the window shut.
Outside a man in a trench coat sat alongside the garbage and the dead rat drinking from a bottle hidden in a plastic bag.
Inside Juliette and Curtis continued dancing, laughing, singing, screaming, spitting, thrashing out chords on imaginary instruments, occasionally stopping to breathe. They looked like they were having the best time they’d ever had in their life.
Yasmine Lever gained an MA from City, University of London and an MFA from New York University. Her plays have been produced in London and New York and she is a current playwriting fellow at Athena Theater. She has also written the book and lyrics to two full length musicals.