Camera, lights. Rolling.
Nouche watches from the middle. The Day Center Auditorium is a madhouse. Billie Jean is shooting. Omar is on stage. Terri has gone awol. Boy George hovers in the wings.
It is December, at last, Christmas lights flickering all over Whitechapel. Outside, the shop fronts present a unified, if epileptic, take on this Christian affair. Tinsel trees bloom in their halal doorways, rainbow fairy lights flash in mad, syncopated unison.
It’s the birthday bash. Not just Our Lord Christ’s--but this lot’s. Marquis, Anwar, Omar, the Whitechapel Day Centre peer group. They’re one year clean.
In the Auditorium, steam rises from the crowd. Drums roll from the decks. The strobe fires, phased to the grimy beat. Marquis, lithe, grimly handsome, clutches a headphone to his shoulder, as he drops in a deep, rolling bass. The floor groans. Dancers, hoods pulled over their faces, bob to the bass and light, as if caught in their slipstream.
These boys have sold crack to school kids. They mugged moms on welfare, robbed corner stores, have stolen everything from Mercedes to strollers. Marquis himself got fucked up the ass just up the road in Dalston more times than even Boy George. He throws another plate on, spins it back, one ear on the vinyl, one ear on the floor, holds the record in place, then, as he counts, over the bobbing hoods, lets it rip.
Deeper, the crowd is sinking, deeper in sync, deeper in all of this, the sweat, the music, the strobe. Lights.
Omar waits on stage. Terri, their rapper, was meant to go on first, before Omar. Terri needed these firecracker beats, whereas Omar, for his own Spoken Word thing, could do with something a bit less hectic. He’s about to recite poetry, he thinks, not to incite the crowd to burn down every Christmas tree on Whitechapel High Street.
From below, Nouche watches the confusion. Her painting, a red tunnel with a blue square at the heart, hangs centre-stage. It’s beautifully lit. She follows as Billie Jean’s camera pans the stage set, passing over Omar’s tall black silhouette, and zooming on the painting, which flares up and disappears back into the night in the strobe light, like a secret doorway in the Auditorium, a passage, a blood red gateway, into another world.
Nouche grew up clicking her heels around the famous Alain Mouille, whom she’d married at twenty-three. She’d been raised on claret and steak, under studio lights, her paintings sparkling under the cameras. She’d been La Petite Mouille. Her husband, a psychoanalyst TV host, undressed the Paris boheme, magnates and politicians, in front of all of France, in a talk show called Salon. Politics, art, literature, were all boiled down to their core. Authors, actors, artists, gathered around Alain Mouille’s table, each to be returned, under the crystal chandeliers, to their individual motive; their deepest fear, innermost desire.
In the Auditorium, Billie Jean pans out over the crowd, which is kicking up a sweat. She rolls along the floor, where black hoods ride Marquis’ wave under the strobes, like a ballet of mobster monks, a Trappist gangster troupe.
Where is Terri, their rapper? God only knows. Nouche, meanwhile, watching the cola-fueled mob, could use a drink. This whole clean and sober dancing business is deep and dark. Freaky.
It’s been a year today for Omar. A year since he woke, on a concrete parking lot somewhere, the Whitechapel Sainsbury’s, possibly, he’d been thinking--only to find it was dark, dusk. His eyelids, as he glanced about him, crackled with the frost. He’d sat up, and the notion had occurred that it was Christmas Eve. That he was freezing up from the inside, his teeth clattering all the way from his marrow, which was cringing, crimping. Then, that this stop-freeze feeling, did not stop with him, Omar, but that he seemed to spread it out, that the whole world was contaminated, implicated, shutting down in turn. Low-level frenzy, desperation, was in the air. The world of traffic, of exchange, was grinding to a halt. He jumped to his feet, his bones crunching under him, and bolted for the bright doors in the distance, Sainsbury’s entrance, where, just as he arrived, the fat guard was turning his back. Omar tried the glass doors, which would open. Bismillah. He leaned against the glass, pushing in his full weight. Just then, the guard turned around. He lifted one palm, buttressing the door. Closing, the guard mouthed. No one in.
From the awning, the parking lot, as it started to snow, Omar watched with agony the customers still idling down the aisles, piling up turkey at the check out. Not that he cared about food, but shoplifting happened to be his single marketable skill, and he was clucking, after being awake barely three minutes. He was feeling sick, already, convulsions jolting his joints, with not seconds, not minutes, not even hours to get through, but three fucking infidel days.
That’s when he sank back down to the concrete ground. Allah. Never again.
Sat there with nothing, no hope, just carols and tinsel and lights in the dark, all around, stars in the street.
It was later, that same Christmas week, that Nouche had been locking her bike in the snow, to the fence in front of the mosque in Brick Lane. She’d been divorced a year then. A year since she’d left Maison Mouille, the Quartier, street lanterns glittering off her antique windows on Boulevard Saint-Michel. She’d fumbled in the dark, in the grimy East End snow, over the lock, her fingers rigid with cold. The lock was frozen shut. In the light from the doorway, she’d pried at it with an ancient pocket knife, a knife which had belonged to her father, back in Marly-Gomont where she was born. An old Bangladeshi in a robe had gently taken it from her aching hands, and she’d watched, in the falling snow, how at last the bike had been locked to the fence. Going up her stairs in the dark, she’d prayed the slippered men, creeping in and out of the mosque, a converted church, all through the night, would somehow watch over it, keep save her bike from the thugs, the thieves; the freezing, starving, clucking Brick Lane night.
She’d ended up watching over the street herself, that night, watching from her own dark window, the men, in the soft light from the mosque. Knife in hand. It sat in her palm, as snow covered over the tracks on the road, the footsteps coming and going from the chipped, cream wooden doors. She’d thought of her Saint Michel view, the 5th arrondisement at her doorstep. Mouille, who’d taken her from the one-street hamlet of Marly-Gomont, to the chandeliers, the spotlights, of the Salon studio.
She remembered the Christmas fetes they’d thrown, the food, the guests, the stars. Lagerfeld, Deneuve, Huppert, she remembers being cornered by Kristen Scott Thomas and her impeccable French. The unimaginable Sophia Loren, who’d made Nouche, whose posture is straight from Degas, feel like a piglet. Laughing in the wings with Charlotte Gainsbourg, just a few years younger than Nouche, in stitches, like a little sister.
Nouche had found herself, finally, that Brick Lane night, last Christmas, in the bath. Her legs silvery in the pink water, the whole tub cupped inside the black walls of her bathroom. She’d lain in the middle, swaddled in steam and oil of Tuberose. The battered wood of the knife slowly flicking in one pale wrist; the blade scraping away at the other.
Tonight, Nouche watches from below, as Billie Jean records. Marquis phases the entire scene from the decks, thunder and strobe, like a mad God conductor. Omar has climbed from the stage, and is now in the crowd, his long limbs both solid and loose, like lava, bubbling, evenly, in sync with the floor, with the night. The stage is bare, apart from the strobes, the painting: the unearthly passage, the flickering gateway.
Anwar, a tall, baby-faced man with a pouch, is gesturing over the din, to Chris, the Day Centre counsellor who has helped them get the birthday bash off the ground. Their rapper, Terri, is still missing. Billie Jean, from behind the camera, seems to be putting in a word with Chris and Anwar, while talking, simultaneously, in her phone. Boy George. He is on the other side of the stage, also on the phone. Nouche has met him, too, on set, at Salon, she suddenly realises, although she doubts he might remember.
It’s Billie Jean, it appears, who brought him in here. She nods into the phone, without taking the camera off the crowd, registering the mayhem around her with a slow, steady pan.
Apart from Billie Jean’s lens, the only thing on the itinerary running smoothly, on track, just as planned, is the crowd. Omar’s lot sure have pulled in the punters tonight. The Day Centre Auditorium is packed. God knows where these kids have come from, but the austerity-plagued council of Tower Hamlets, who bankrolled the evening in hopes of promoting drugs-free street culture, must be pleased; they’re getting value for money.
Marquis, of course, was once a dub-step DJ packing punches from Berlin to Goa, before ending up in a crack house, renting out his arse in Dalston. It’s Anwar though, soft, pudgy Anwar, who’s about to shift the whole thing, the whole night, into a different gear.
Anwar had come in a year ago, violent, obese, mute. He’d opened his mouth to speak only months later, after weeks in detox, after months of counselling sessions and, upstairs in the conference room, Whitechapel Day Centre meetings. It’s Omar, who remembers. I am more, Anwar had whispered in the silent meeting room at last ..Than the child of warring parents.
Now Anwar’s gesturing over the din, still, to Chris. Billie Jean cuts to Marquis, the God conductor. The Auditorium shakes. She rotates around the room, over the dancers, who flash in the light, past Omar, the volcano, whose solid shoulders seem to smoulder in the dark. Billie Jean skims over Omar as she pans across the floor, halting on Nouche. In the shade, in floaty silk, Nouche’s small, straight body is sharp as a cut out. Then, with each flare of the strobe, she catches fire, the fine, pleated dress glowering like skin.
On her end of the lens, Nouche holds her breath. To her right, Omar’s height, his bubbling, lava shape, projects from the crowd. Left, Billie Jean, bare-armed behind the camera, is a cannon, terse as string in black jeans and sneakers. She zooms in on Nouche, who is burning a tiny, syncopated, hourglass figure in the viewer.
Billie Jean. Is she her lover?
Nouche doesn’t know.
Billie Jean wields the lens, like a gun, a ray gun, fixing Nouche in her gaze. Nouche dances, her pearly dress clinging to her body. It’s a pale dance, a moon dance, she thinks, like that windy night, months ago now, in August.
But here’s another day, a different day, for you. This is the morning after Nouche locks the bike, that Christmas week a year ago, to the fence of the Brick Lane mosque. She descends her stairs the next day, steps out into her street, where a drizzly rain has washed away the snow. Omar, by this time, has spent the past three days on the Whitechapel Detox ward. He feels shattered, insane, but somehow, madly, alive. Reborn. Allah.
Omar has come out to pray. That is not how Nouche finds him, though, that morning. Omar has entered the mosque in a clean white shirt, only to be thrown out by the same short, dark man who has routinely chased him off the premises for the past seventeen years. As Omar has been chased from every other Tower Hamlets charitable institution, not to mention supermarket, doctor’s surgery and homeless shelter. He’s been banned from pretty much every doorstep he has managed to cross in his near two decades on the streets.
Omar sits on the steps of the mosque, in the rain, and the clean shirt, as Nouche steps from her doorway to unlock her bike. There is something, she remembers thinking, crossing the road. Something about him.
Her bike’d been gone.
Back to the booming Auditorium. She remembers the thought. Something, she thinks, now, a year later, dancing across from her boyfriend. Still. There is something, still, about him.
She remembers thinking it the first time, remembers the rain, the shirt.
Most, she remembers her buzzer, at dusk that same December day. She remembers parting the curtain, and lifting the heavy pane, to find Omar, standing, in the street below. With a bike. Nouche’s bike. Omar beaming up at her.
What she forgets, is pain shooting up her arm as she opened up that window.
Omar does not. He remembers. Even here, perhaps, tonight, on the dance floor. Even as he watches her flare up in Billie Jean’s lens. Watches her burn in the light. Buried deep somewhere in his lava body, there bubbles that memory; the bandaged wrist.
Chris, meanwhile, gestures to Anwar. He’s pointing up. The ceiling? Nouche wonders, in the thunder from the decks. She sees Anwar agree, and too, lift a finger to the ceiling, trying to get Omar’s attention. Meeting, he mouths. Ad hoc. Omar nods back. Chris sticks up both hands in reply, miming, In ten.
Never again, Nouche, the butcher, had thought, the year before, that night, in the bath. She’d watched her body change colour in the tub, her silver limbs turning rosy with the water. Never ever again.
If she crossed her road the next morning, to cross paths, with a complete stranger, someone who had not a claim on her in the world, perhaps it was this thought, never again, which had connected some wire, burned some pathway, and prompted that other thought. Something. Something about him.
Under the neon fixtures of the Whitechapel Day Center meeting room, the floor softly booms as below, in the Auditorium, Marquis still rules. Here Anwar, Chris, Billie Jean have taken seats around the conference table. Omar has led Nouche, too, up the concrete stairs. It is Nouche’s first time up here.
..A moment of silence.. Chris is saying, ..For the still suffering addict.
There is not a sound in the room, apart from the buzz of neon, the thud from below. Anwar, Billie Jean, sit with eyes closed. Nouche blinks in the strip lights. Omar’s dark face, to her right, glows. Traces, of thoughts, dreams--something, she thinks--ripple gently, as always, along his brow. Always something, Nouche is thinking, About him.
Across from her, Billie Jean is chiseled. Her delicate face is unperturbed under her short, dark hair. A slight knit in her brow seems to convey something of Billie Jean’s essence, even as she sits here wordless, eyes closed: seems to proclaim her presence in the room, like a rogue, brooding star of Bethlehem.
It will be Omar’s turn, later tonight, to go on. He will read a poem called In. The one he wrote about the painting, her painting, the doorway marked WAY OUT. It looms behind him on the podium, her passage, the colour of blood.
Way Out.. he’ll say, the syllables rolling from his tongue, molten, again, like lava.
A low riding dub rhythm will back up the flow.
..Is Spelled Backwards, Omar continues.
Way Out.. he says, Is Spelled Way In.
In. Nouche is in the crowd. In the auditorium, in a sweat, in a silk dress, in a dance, in a band of merry fools, of hoodlum Trappists, of reformed addicts and thieves, all stone cold sober, all deeply, darkly, in to it; into all this.
Next is Anwar. They’ve lost their rapper, by then, poor Terri. The cunt. Thank God they’ve got Boy George, sipping a seven-up, to replace him. It’s Anwar though, mute, obese Anwar, who clambers onto the stage now, beside Marquis, who has just stepped up the pitch a notch or so, whipping the diet-coke infused pit back to a frenzy.
Nouche watches from the fringe, with Boy George. He doesn’t stand a chance. Anwar is a menace, spray gunning the crowd with verbal rhythm. Spewing it out, insurgency-style, turning Whitechapel into an East End West Bank, a dance hall Jerusalem.
Can’t believe.., a girl in a silver mini groans, I’m dancing..
She pants. ..To Anwar.
But all that is later. First, Nouche sits in the impromptu meeting. She looks around the table, the closed, silent faces. She wonders what they’re doing. What is it this lot does in a meeting? Pray?
She thinks of Christmas with Mouille, of La Loren, La petite Gainsbourg. The holly, the game, the wine, the candelabras. The river glittering in the studio windows, the City of Lights.
Perhaps this is where she remembers the wrists. Perhaps not. The moment has passed, anyway, as a great crashing noise shakes the room and Terri tumbles from the door, stumbling over a chair and sitting down in a corner.
No one moves. Silence returns under the neon lights. Nouche continues to watch the faces around the table, their eyes closed, lost in something she cannot fathom. Another crash from the corner, then a carrier bag loudly crackling. More hiss, crack-snap, fizz: plastic foil being torn from something inside Terri’s bag, as the concrete floor softly stomps under the table, the lights buzz overhead, deep breathing emanates from the small circle gathered at the centre of the room.
Now a big clatter, as Terri stumbles, again, and dunks onto the table, thud, a man-sized carton box. There it sits, like a bomb, ticking away, while Chris scrapes his throat, and Omar, Billie Jean, Anwar, open, finally, their eyes and seem to return to the room.
The box is black, gold ribbon hastily ripped to shreds. Terri sits slumped in the corner. Billie Jean glowers. Even Omar, pudgy Anwar, radiate gloom.
Chris sits staring ahead, tight-lipped. The floor thumps like a hollow, concrete heart.
It is Nouche, the carnivore, at last, who cuts through the air of woe. Who flicks a pale wrist.
Is this where she remembers? The bath, the blade? Who knows.
Maybe, sitting here, between two lovers, she remembers that other night, in August. Moon dancing for Billie Jean.
Are they lovers? Not since.
Billie Jean had been waiting for her, by her door, that August night, waiting to lead her upstairs. All she herself had done, Nouche thinks, was dance.
As she’s done this evening, the lens zooming in on her, as she will do later tonight, at midnight, when Anwar, who sits here in the meeting still a war child, a boy, will open his mouth, and become the man of the hour. When Nouche’s tight little shape will again burn a figure eight before the camera, Music and Lights, on the dance floor.
Does Omar know?
Nouche doesn’t know. Can he tell?
Terri’s black box still ticks on the table. What Nouche doesn’t know, is that whatever Omar knows, or doesn’t know, he will not forget the bandage. Omar remembers.
Behind the box, Anwar sits picking mutely at a scab. Billie Jean seems frozen in a glare. Below, a lone raver blows a whistle, a shrill, piercing call, caged in concrete.
It’s Nouche’s pale wrist, up here, that catches the light, and dances, over the glum table.
It hovers over the box. Her Chanel nails pick an outsized, pearly chocolate. For an instance, it floats there in the air, the white glaze flickering in the neon light. With no stretch of the imagination would Nouche, the butcher, in fact eat this.
She looks around the table. Again, she thinks of Mouille, of the spreads of game, the candles, the wine. Nouche holds up the chocolate, lifting a lazy lash, to Billie Jean, left, then Omar, right.
She would have chosen, she thinks suddenly, neither. It was Omar, a year ago this week, who chose her. Who had chased his own thieving lot all across the East End that morning, to appear at her door at noon, bearing the rusty bike.
Next, it had been Billie Jean, who’d been waiting by that same door, that windy night in August. Who had somehow managed, step by lionhearted step, to lead Nouche up her own Brick Lane staircase.
The chocolate still hovers, white between scarlet nails. Nouche again feels her spine tingle, as she remembers the moon dance, undressing between her own black walls. Before Billie Jean.
Slowly, the wrist descends, as Nouche realises it is not the woman, bare armed, across the table, she is in thrall of. It’s not the smouldering man either, beside her.
It’s the soft spot, Nouche thinks, inside herself--a blood red passage--she can’t help but stare at. A gateway. It’s not for weak hearted.
Nouche had, she sees now, not even chosen Mouille. It was he, who’d appeared on a Paris platform one day and, in a fit of mad brille, slung off his Pierre Cardin jacket. Hurled it to the tiles, right where she stood waiting for the metro, in her heels. Flung it before her toes.
All she does, Nouche realises now, is wait.
The bonbon still hovers, mid-air, over the stomping floor, the gaping box.
The weak heart, Nouche knows, is hers. The choice is not.
Meanwhile, she’s in.
She’s in the meeting. In with this band of fools. In, even, with poor Terri, who’s passed out in the corner. The cunt.
She places the bonbon before her, on the table. Then she lifts the box, and hands it to Omar.
Below, an entire troupe of ravers--reformed, Nouche supposes--now seems to have landed at the party. At least a dozen whistles shriek with that particular pitch of madness that will cut straight through absolutely anything, even the reinforced ceiling of the Auditorium, the concrete floors of the Whitechapel Detox Center.
Later that night, Nouche’ll be in with Anwar, as he climbs his way up the podium, and moans, shouts, bites his way through the most demented bits of Marquis’ set. Nouche will be in then, even, with the ravers, in their tunics and Dr. Seuss hats, in silver minis and bras, hounding on, toasting, Anwar with their whistles.
She’ll be in, finally, that night, with Boy George--who, as she feared, has not the faintest memory of either Salon, her, or entire chunks, for that matter, of the City of Lights, but will dance with her nonetheless. Fat and bald, she’ll think, like Father Christmas. Gorgeous. Radiant.
That evening though, up in the conference room, she places the bonbon before her, and waits, the pale glaze sitting under the neon buzz, like a melting dance card.
From Nouche, Omar receives the box. He scans it for fudge, his favourite.
In the corner, with a bolt, Terri wakes. Omar hands the spread to Anwar. Behind Billie Jean’s stony frame, Terri tumbles from his chair. Chomping, Omar glances around the table, where Nouche’s confection still sits and waits. Even Billie Jean, at last, surrenders, and passes on the box, to Chris. Omar snatches up the bonbon.
The Whitechapel Day Center meeting can begin.