A Town called Survival
Modern humans, though far removed from their simian ancestors in the jungle, are still expert at spotting both predator and prey.
—The Eleventh Korus of the White Tree
A typical drizzle glazed the forlorn streets outside Max’s Brixton flat. Headlights from the morning traffic added sheen to the glaze and sparkle to the rain, but like anything in this part of London, nothing could wash away the weariness.
Brixton had long been known as the city’s working-class quarter, its “shoulders and backs,” a place where an honest Englishman could break a sweat and get shilling for it. Or at least it used to be. Now it housed the newly migrated, those who wished to rinse away their previous lives, their foreign stain, and start over, assumedly with Britain’s blessings.
They came to this part of the city from all over the globe: the Caribbean (Jamaica mostly), Africa (Senegal, Kenya, and Zimbabwe in particular) and Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia). There were gypsies from Eastern Europe, refugees from Myanmar, and lower-caste immigrants from India. Brixton promised not so much a new life for those so far from home, but new dreams, dreams that a start in Jolly Olde England might someday reward. The catch was, you had to survive Brixton first.
Max closed the wrought iron fence that surrounded his three-story, falling-down walk-up, and headed for school. It was a short jaunt compared to his mum’s commute—to distant central London via train—and most mornings he didn’t mind the walk. It was the weather that soured his days.
Conveniently, the South London line of the National Rail went right by their second story window, so “training it” to work was easy for her, as was getting home (usually late). Inconveniently, it also went by their second floor window on his mum’s days off, too, though they were few. During those precious hours his mother would often wake with a start as the rail hurtled toward Loughborough Junction, worried she was late. Max wished they could move to the other side of their building, to the side facing the noisy traffic of Milkwood Road. Maybe then his mum would wake with a start and go out and buy a car. Then he wouldn’t have to walk to school. In the rain.
The other catch about Brixton? If you were going to dream, make sure you tossed in some practicality.
Hoodie pulled low and feet dragging, Max forced himself into the morning gray. Getting a start on this day had been harder than most. His dreams had swarmed with lost insects, mostly flying stinkbugs. The insects had zigged and zagged until, exhausted and inert, they plummeted to the ground. Max spent the night reaching out for them, trying to rescue them before they augured in. By the time he awoke, he was drenched in sweat and more tired than when he’d gone to bed.
His talk with Caulfield about finding the errant shield bug was obviously taking its toll but what could he do? Hand out ice cubes in hopes of halting global warming? Still, he was amused his nightmares had let him off so easy. The real thing was worse. A lot worse.
Like the bugs in his dreams, Max zigged and zagged a carefully chosen path through South London’s graffiti-tagged streets. After humiliating Nigel and his mates the day before, caution was the day’s watchword. And, like any good Brixtonite, he hoped his instincts were working overtime. Sure enough, rounding the last set of shops before facing his school proper, he discovered they were.
Max ducked into a biscuit shop. Through its front window he spied Nigel, Rodney, and Sal, each taking a corner to the entrance of their school. Had he taken his usual route, that of walking the other side of the street, he surely would have been spotted. Smiling, he slipped out the shop’s rear door and into the safety of an empty alleyway.
Yes, like every good Brixtonite, Maxwell Darius Webster had his dreams and, like every one of his south o’ London brothers and sisters, all of them were about survival.