Peter Williams


Pete Williams lives in SE14 and works in the City. He is working on his first novel, which is about London and is aimed at young adults.


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Asylum Road 

Chapter 1 

Dad and me were in the pub back yard. It was filled with two skips, our car and some wheelie bins. He was lighting charcoal on a rusty barbecue and clouds of smoke were drifting across the space between us.

”Going for a walk,” I said.

He squinted at me. “It’s still raining.”

”I know. I need some fresh air. Gonna go up the park and look at the view.”

“Ok, don’t go off too far Alex. And don’t get killed or anything. We’ll eat half-six yeah?”

I opened the iron gate and stepped onto Queens Road. Heavy clouds had just swept over, swollen and purple, the sun a white disc at their edge. They had, as dad put it, “shat their load” while passing, and now the heavy summer rain was busybodying along the gutters and into the drains, and scenting the air with the smell of warm, wet tarmac. Traffic lumbered by towards Deptford, unleashing spray from the puddles. I walked quickly, crossed over and started up the hill, my hair hanging down over my face.

I got caught by the tail end of a shower and wished it was raining properly. I wanted to be cleansed of all the dust and muck that had accumulated from ripping stuff out and hoisting it into the skips – old tiles, insulation, upholstery so spent and rotten that I had torn it off the benches with my hands.

The pub had come to my family via a great aunt and uncle on my mum’s side. They had run it together for 40 years. I hadn’t known them – mum had never brought me along when she visited, but I knew what they looked like from pictures of my parents’ wedding and a few family gatherings.

They had died within four days of one another. The place had been shut up now for eight months. A number of property developers had already been in to make an offer but dad was stalling them. Since being made redundant by the bank, handling the estate had given him something business-like to do. Dad said he wanted to have a look at the place – tidy it up, consider our options.

It had, in its best days, been a destination of sorts. My parents had told me about what it was like on Sundays. Coachloads of Dutch and Scandinavian tourists would stop off on the way back to the ferries for their authentic English pub experience: a blind pianist leading singalongs, bowls of roast potatoes at the bar, slabs of grey-brown beef, walls festooned with fairy lights and nautical bric-a-brac, stags’ heads and other taxidermy, the old diving suit, insipid beer the colour of boot polish. It had a fame. People were sad to see it gone.

And so Dad and me had come into London after my exams to stay there for the start of the summer. Our plan was to strip the place out and rescue anything that was worth salvaging for ourselves or for auction. It was a job for the boys, and I hoped to earn some pocket money from it too instead of getting the summer job I had been sort of looking for.

The living quarters were in much better shape than the downstairs. The ground floor, especially the large open kitchen, was littered with mice droppings – the few nights we’d been there I’d heard them scuttling around – and we’d put in traps and ultrasonic repellers to keep them out of our rooms.

In the kitchen the grouting was black in patches and the tiles and the paint were nicotine beige from years of being smoked on, while in the bar there was heavy damp in the walls and the upholstery. The ceiling and walls were decked out in thick waves of artexed plaster that could strip your arm bare. The plumbing needed fixing too. It was noisy and leaky.

But it had only taken a couple of days for my dad to acquire some Grand Designs, aligned with the everyman fantasy of running his own pub. He had already outlined his visions of getting the coach parties back, of gaining a reputation for down-to-earth gastronomic excellence, of playing in a house band, putting on gigs, of having a tandoor and/or a pizza oven and/or dustbin grills for jerk chicken out the back.

He could already see the customers – the art students and faux-bohemian soap dodgers with stupid hats – and little Oscars and Amelias and Orlandos running round while their parents drank wine and read the Sunday papers. But there’d be a core of ‘proper’ locals too. We’d be saving the pub for the community.

Redundancy had loosed dad from the structure that had been keeping him fixed. He was into everything now – Xbox, skateboarding, cooking. He had learnt guitar and played in a covers band called Continental Breakfast with some ex-colleagues. He was like a kid, swayed and stricken by all the possibilities of the things he could do now he wasn’t working.

And there was little pressure. With his redundancy package and mum still working, we could live ok. There was a trust to put me through uni.

When I got to the lower park on Telegraph Hill the sun was back out. I walked past the playground and dad’s potential clientele – hippyish-looking women and stubbly, bespectacled men in vintage-style t-shirts. They variously directed, provoked and consoled their flaxen-haired children, who cried and gurgled and stomped inexpertly around. I cut up a steep bank and past the skate ramps and the basketball court, where some miniature rude boys were wisecracking at girls who were laughing too loud to be all that amused.

At the upper gate I stopped. Some names had been carved into the strip of cement on the threshold – the names Sophie, Roper-Taylor and Erin in tiny letters, and something attempting to be scurrilous: “smoke weed and…” but the rest was indistinct.

I looked down the hill and over London and the cluster of tall buildings in the City, which punctured the horizon. The rain clouds were there now. They made the Shard look like a funnel with the fat side down, sucking in the rain and draining the squall.

I wanted to push on to the cemetery. It was one of the big Victorian ones, albeit the “least celebrated” among them, according to its Wiki entry. It had been locked up for 30 years and was reopened at the start of the millennium, partly to resume its old function and partly as a nature reserve.

It was further than I thought, and I had to check my phone to find the way.

When I got to the gates I followed a path beside a grass bank filled with glossy black gravestones and bunches of flowers. I continued into the wooded older part, on a broad track flanked by large family memorials, their plinths topped by obelisks or shrouded urns, or Celtic crosses or angels. The woodland was littered with more modest stones, many of which were toppling into one another and onto the ground. Here, I only encountered the odd dog-walker. It seemed wrong to me that in this part the dogs were allowed to run free.

The leaves on the trees were bobbing from the showers and the bushes twitched and rustled with the movements of unseen animals. Cabbage-white butterflies fluttered from plant to plant like loose petals and little flies traced out doodles in the air. I could hear a woodpecker and the harsh calls of parakeets above.

When I felt sure I was completely alone I went off the path and into the undergrowth, tiptoeing between the sweet memory of Evelyn Dorothy Leggett and the fond remembrance of Elizabeth Mildred Blake (beloved sister), which was on its back and covered in bird crap. I caught the top of a stone urn on the floor, and almost fell on my way into a small clearing.

I pulled a dog-eared 10 pack of B&H silver and a box of matches out of my back pocket.

I stood there, both amused and appalled at how far I had gone to avoid being seen by anyone in an area where I wasn’t known anyway. I didn’t really enjoy the cigarette either. I still felt mucky and dusty and it added to that feeling, while the lack of an orange tip flaring in the dark made it less satisfying. The smoke curled around me and I worried about how I would smell.

Then I noticed that a boy in a dirty long coat was on the other side of the clearing, no more than four feet away. He stood still, looking at me.

He was about my age, 16 or 17. His skin was pale and blotchy. He had long, intermittent stubble, while pustules and sores were dotted around his mouth. In his right hand he was holding a bulbous glass bottle with a stopper, which was full of sheer black liquid. He also seemed to have something fastened round his waist, but under his shirt and trousers.

My first thought was that he might be a metalhead or an emo or a goth, and then that, no, he was something quite singular.

The boy gave a horrid, leery little grin and then, sniggering all the while, started to imitate me, pulling a miserable clown face and smoking an invisible cigarette self-consciously and exhaling too much too soon. He almost jigged on the spot in an excess of joy at how funny he was.

His smile was a disaster. The inside of his mouth looked like a set of broken dice, with tea-coloured odds and ends for teeth.

I waited for him to speak, but all he did at the conclusion of his performance was offer a gurgling, slobbery laugh, a hur hur hur.

“What?” I said, trying to make out that I was combustible rather than scared.

He took out the stopper so he could sip from his bottle, and made a show of taking his time. “Boy,” he said eventually, in a voice that was not quite broken, “you need to leave”. He then took a step towards me, put his finger to his lips and made a spittley shushing sound. He held my gaze, daring me to keep looking. When I turned my head he walked off, away from the path and into the undergrowth.

I kept still for what seemed a long time after, expecting him to jump back out from somewhere. When I was sure he was gone, my breathing slowed and I imagined the confrontation we didn’t have, and how I would have left him bloodied on the floor.

I went back to the main path, resolved never to smoke again. I fished out a packet of mints.

When I got back dad was sat beside the barbecue with his tongs.

“Five minutes,” he said.

I rushed upstairs for a quick wash in the sink and to scrub my hands. We brought the food in and sat at the best table in the least disordered part of the bar. Dad opened a couple of beers and switched on the old TV we’d brought with us.

My dad was medium height. I was already taller than him. He had thick fuzzy hair cut shortish and sculpted with wax, and a beard. He had a gut these days too. He liked to eat well, not especially the bad stuff, just everything. Our barbecues weren’t burgers and sausages; more likely some trendy, obscure cut of pork, or he’d wrap a large fish in foil and throw it on with broad beans and aubergines and fresh peas. He was excited by some of the food shops and Asian supermarkets he’d found in the area, and by the Caribbean place just around the corner.

On the local news there was a story about two kids who had been attacked. They showed CCTV film of them on the bus and then near the Aylesham Centre in Peckham, where they were rushed by a mob of other boys. The footage moved from a sequence of blurry, jerky images from the top deck of a bus to the slightly clearer pictures outside. One was in hospital after being beaten unconscious. The other had run off, pursued by the group, and had not been seen since.

In the last frame they showed I saw a figure in a long coat with his back to the CCTV camera. He was standing at the fringe of things; not involved in the fight directly but seemingly playing some part.

The kid in hospital, Lewis, was, “liked by his fellow pupils”, which I thought probably meant that he wasn’t liked by his unfellow teachers. Condition stable. The other boy, Hector was a “model student”, also popular, bright future, a gifted footballer. He looked it too, from the picture, like the kind whose initials were scrawled on pencil cases and ring binders and bathroom walls. I supposed you’d have to be confident to pull off a name like that.

The final part of the item was the families at a press conference. They chose Hector’s sister, Sophie, for the stifled sobs and the sniffling, and for saying that they just wanted him to come home.

I wondered if she was the same Sophie whose name was carved into cement at the entrance to the park. The inscription might have been an ode rather than an autograph. Perhaps that’s what you have to settle for if your beauty and fame is merely local. Having your initials on a pencil case or your name carved with a stick into wet cement.

I considered whether I should report what I had seen, about the unwelcome, potentially troublesome moral obligation that had fallen upon me. A while later, however, I reasoned to myself that the police would already know who the boy was and would have recognised him, looking as he did.

I decided to do nothing instead.