It was the evening of a day that just refused to end. About half eleven, a few hundred yards from my bed, I was kneeling on the pavement on Brixton Hill, scanning the pavement, trying to find my own teeth. I didn’t really know how many to look for.
The day had started at about 6AM. I woke on my childhood friend JJ’s sofa in Paris. JJ had moved to Paris some years before and was kindly putting me up for the night. I’d asked the kind of favour it was difficult to refuse, for the desperate want of avoiding being alone.
I got ready in the same way I would for a job interview. Nervous gut and sick feelings suppressed by function and purpose. I made sure my shoes were shined, my tie was straight and my black suit was rid of lint and dandruff. I pretended the person in the mirror was a better version of me.
JJ had only met Sophie once, briefly a couple of months before so it was hard to talk about the situation beyond the standard sympathies. When I got to town, we went out for a Chinese meal in Belleville with a friend of his I’d not met before, and it had been a fun evening until the inevitable question about the reason for my visit. I was too tired, too bewildered to lie. I told them I was there for a funeral. One of my closest friends. The conversation drew tight like a tensing muscle.
The following morning I managed to float out to the right church in the correct Parisian suburb somehow. After a day of the kind of functional numbness that gets you through the sudden deaths of young people, a day of smiling and nodding and attempting to offer my sympathies in a woeful franglais, I was on the Eurostar, heading back to London. I hadn’t changed from the suit, as my pal Ben had advised. I suppose I wasn’t ready to try and be the person I was before.
I’ve been a South Londoner all my life, and have never taken the realities and dangers of urban residence for granted. But everyone slips up. Like falling on wet pavement, sometimes the best you can hope is the landing isn’t too bad.
I was still wearing my suit as I got the double-decker bus from Brixton tube station up Brixton Hill, towards my flat. I was so tired. It was beyond physical. The kind of tired where you feel like you’ve both gained and lost weight at the same time. My head light and my feet heavy, loud punk rock (Leatherface, I think) was the only thing keeping me putting one foot in front of the other, getting me closer to my bed. At New Park Rd, I got up to exit the bus. The bus drew to a halt and I stepped off, but when my foot went down, it felt like the pavement had been replaced by liquid concrete. I was sinking, and the only thing stopping me from drowning was my bag.
My bag was a nice leather satchel. My dad had bought me for a birthday. A step up from the rucksacks of youth, it was a good bag for a commuter. Enough space for books, notebooks and lunches, and just about big enough for overnight crap if needed. He’d picked it up for cheap at a market somewhere. It was not new, and not expensive. Neither was the suit, for that matter. But that didn’t matter.
I’ve attempted to reconstruct what happened as best I can, without the aid of witnesses, but between tiredness and heavy concussion, most of this is blank gaps and assumptions.
I was sucker-punched as I was getting off the bus, that’s for certain. I don’t think there had been any of the usual pre-robbery preamble, but between the tiredness and the music, who’s to know. I doubt I would have registered without the headphones, to be honest. When I was on the ground, all I really remember is feet. Lots of feet, kicking me in the face. Two or three people. And blows on the back of my head. The rest of my body was uninjured.
They were trying to get my bag, and in my bewildered state, I was holding on to it. They kept hitting me, but I wouldn’t let go. If I was presented with the choice today between my old underpants, a beat up pair of chucks and whatever book I hadn’t been reading that day; or all the teeth I was meant to have- well, I’d make the same choice as everyone else. But for some reason, I held on like my life depended on it.
When recounting the incident, some people have praised me for a display of toughness, for not giving in. Some have responded incredulously, wondering why I didn’t let go. The truth is, there was no grit, no determination, no belligerently placing pride and personal possession over wellbeing. I was just desperately holding on to the only thing I still understood in this brief and dramatic interruption to reality.
The kicks and punches seemed to go on forever. It was probably only a few seconds, a minute, maybe, but the elasticity of time becomes very apparent when you’re getting your head beaten. At some point, I felt one of my teeth go. It’s a strange thing to describe, but it feels like a deep, sickening sound inside you and you know something has happened. Something it feels like all the world should stop and notice. Existential punctuation delivered with heavy typewriter keys.
The would-be robbers ran away. Older teenagers, I think. It’s the sort of act someone only commits through desperation or the piss-and-vinegar of youth. There was a bunch of them, I looked like an easy mark, I suppose, and things got out of hand really quickly. I guess if I grew up poor, I might want to take a guy in a suit for all I could, especially in an area losing an extended ground war against gentrification and neoliberalism. But we’re deep into the assumption part of the story here. I don’t know anything about any one of them. They could all walk past me today and I’d have no idea.
At this point, the concussion had started to set in. The two police who came quickly were part of a rapid response unit. I am still convinced to this day that they had both been featured on a late night ‘Cops’ style reality TV programme, but endless googling has proven fruitless.
They asked me to unlock my phone and get one of my parent’s phone numbers up and got me into the back of an ambulance. My dad was outside Kings A & E before the ambulance arrived. I’ll never forget that. It was the greatest sight I could imagine, given the situation.
He sat with me for hours, through checks and Xrays and CT scans and emergency dental work (unsuccessfully trying to save another tooth). He was with me while drunk men in wheelchairs and crutches tried to fight, carrying on old grudges regardless of the venue, and a wired young man in handcuffs shouted exuberant questions at his arresting officers.
Every few minutes I would forget where I was and why I was wearing a suit and I would have to remind myself that Sophie was dead. Over and over again. Suddenly waking up inside my own body, trying to work out where I was and why I was there. My dad sat by me and answered whenever I asked. Sometimes patiently, sometimes impatiently, but he answered each time.
Early in the morning, when I was finally given the all clear to leave, my dad took me back to my parent’s home, where I fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
A day or two after, the glue on a tooth they attempted to save (lower right canine) had failed. It hung, flapping in my mouth on a strand of dead gum. I pulled it out myself and shortly after I finally broke down. Laughing at first, before the tears that needed to get out.
I lost two weeks to diclofenac as the cuts in my mouth scarred over and the fracture in my cheekbone closed up. I managed to write this poem, but other than that, it was a fortnight of soup and cigarettes and video games- the only thing that could hold my drugged concentration. I’m still jittery in certain situations, especially if approached from outside my peripheral vision. If my fake front tooth pops out- it’s made from white filling, and has done a couple of times in the last 8 years- my self-confidence instantly evaporates. I can’t go outside or look people in the eye.
The upshot is I’m generally a lot less afraid of things now, though. I was a timid child. Confrontations and the like. More wary, but less afraid. Years of analysis is the main reason, but it’s a useful benchmark to have when reality testing. Because very little is worse than getting your teeth kicked out the day you had to see one of your closest friends buried.
But whenever I pass by that bus stop, I catch myself idly looking for my front tooth, even now. I think I still have the bag somewhere, in the back of a cupboard. I never use it.