The Strip

Maria was late and still had to cross the city. She had crawled into her pit four hours before still drunk from a house party but luckily the clunk of the letter box had awoken her shallow slumber. She rose, washed and changed into her blue uniform in barely a minute, stopping only to quickly gander into the mirror and fix her hair. She then stepped into the brightness of a Saturday morning and scoured the streets for a taxi but typically there were none around. She paused, momentarily confused and felt some dredges of booze soothe her skull. No taxis, no car, and no options she thought. The hospital was fifteen minutes by taxi but that was through a convoluted maze of side streets and traffic laden roads. She regularly went jogging around the park which lay beside her flat so she figured that she could maybe cut across it and reach her work in under ten minutes. She jumped back inside the house and climbed the stairs to her bedroom where Mark was still snoring below the duvet. Her dainty work shoes were hopeless for running so she slipped her trainers on and put the shoes into her handbag. Back down on the street she set off at her jogging pace taking her usual route down Turnoak Avenue then onto Claremont Avenue where football fans were already massing for the early afternoon match. There were two sets of fans: the red and white of Woking FC, which she saw fortnightly, but she didn’t recognise the red and blue stripes of the others. She smiled and thought of her father who could name any football shirt in Europe at a glance, he would know.

‘Where you going in such a hurry luv, you’re going to miss the match,’ said one of the visiting fans smoking a cigarette outside the pub.

She ignored the man but noted the local accent then carried on down the road feeling a cold stream of sweat run down the middle of her back. The previous night’s booze was beginning to ooze out of her pours and she hoped her patients wouldn’t notice. The streets were far busier on a Saturday morning, teeming with people criss-crossing over roads and racing down the pavements. She often marvelled at this hotchpotch mix of people and felt comforted being a foreigner herself. In London there was everyone, from every continent and all crammed into this rabbit hutch metropolis, climbing over each other and jostling for an edge. Maria kept to the edge of the pavement but continually had to stop, parry and avoid the other pedestrians. She nearly collided with an old Asian man unloading stock into his shop but swivelled around him like a downhill skier at the last second.

‘Perdon,’ she cried before jogging on.

She passed the Argentinian restaurant where she had once had a stand up row with the owner, crossed over the roundabout, got into the park then bounded through the fields of cut grass like a panicked hare. Once she was into the hospital car park she slowed her pace so not to appear too hurried.

‘Did you run all the way from town Maria?’ asked old Strachan who was lurking by the entrance.

‘Morning Sir. Well, you know it’s healthier than a taxi,’ replied Maria puffed out from the run.

‘And cheaper, but I’m not sure your patients will appreciate the footwear,’ said Strachan with a nod to her feet.

‘I have my shoes in my bag Sir.’

‘Well, you better get in. Don’t want you resorting back to Colombian time,’ said Strachan.

‘Sorry Sir, It won’t happen again.’

‘I know Maria, I know, I was only joshing, you’re the best we have,’ said Strachan before heading for his car.

She looked at her watch as she passed through the automatic doors pleased that it was still before ten. As always she deducted six hours and wondered what her family were doing back home in Florencia.

Claude pushed his head through the hole at the top of the shirt and let it fall around his body. The shirt was brilliant blue with the club crest covering his heart. He puffed out his chest and smiled, taking a second to compare himself with Didier Drogba on his bedroom wall, another African that had become a hero for Chelsea. The same football club had sent the shirt along with polo shirts and tracksuits together with money for his family. At first he had been hesitant at their invitation for a trial in England, not eager to travel so far from this new home, not wanting to start again after just becoming settled but he knew it was an opportunity that could not be missed. He looked around at his box room which he shared with his brothers then joined his family downstairs. His mother was packing some fruit and sandwiches into his rucksack.

‘Mama, I told you I cannot take that onto the airplane,’ whined Claude.

‘Then you can eat it before you leave, those airlines never give you enough food,’ replied his mother.

His younger brothers were sitting on the floor playing the PlayStation. They looked up at him in his tracksuit and playfully mocked him as a big football superstar. His Father sat up from the sofa and pulled Claude into a crushing bear hug.

‘Show those English coaches how good a player you are son, after you get settled I will come and visit, it’s not even 2 hours on a plane,’ said his father.

‘Ok papa, I’ll skype you when I arrive,’ croaked Claude.

He turned to his mother who was holding out his rucksack. She was struggling to contain herself so he put down the rucksack and hugged her.

‘It is okay mama, London is not far away,’ said Claude.

‘I’m so proud of you my baby, you are going on a huge adventure, listen to your coaches and don’t forget your studies, be careful on those streets and don’t trust anyone,’ said his mother.

‘Anything else, should I write this all down,’ joked Claude.

‘Yes, never forget that you can come home if you don’t like it,’ said his mother.

‘Hey you two, the next time you see me I’ll be on TV scoring against Liverpool,’ said Claude to his younger brothers.

‘Yes, but Chelsea will still lose 5-1, ha ha,’ said Fabrice before jumping onto David.

His family gathered at the front door and waved goodbye as he got into the car. His uncle drove him to the airport, reminding the boy of his footballing weaknesses and strengths after each separate manoeuvre of his car. When they stopped at the airport his uncle reached into the back seat of his car and gave Claude a brand new football, the type they used in the World Cup.

Ivan sweltered in the relentless heat of the jungle. The deep foliage that canopied the camp acted like a greenhouse, trapping the heat and circulating the sour air. He had been summoned once again to lend his expertise and oversee this laborious process. An old soldier wise to the ways of the Government troops and skilled in the production of coco paste. He watched the labourers tip plastic sacks of dried coco leaves into the tarpaulin lined pit till they heaped into a large, green mound. The leaves were then scrunched and mulched by a garden strimmer before various chemicals were bucketed in to create a thick, dirty, green soup. Ivan then walked through the mess, wading like a fisherman retrieving a stricken fish from the sea. He was unusually meticulous for a coca producer and performed the process with the diligence of a bomb maker. He did not always like this job but he was determined to be the best, a trait that was recognised by his employers and amply rewarded for. His earnings had funded his eldest daughter’s time at University and now she was a Doctor in London. He hoped for the same for his younger daughter who was about to leave school and move to Medellin to study. Through all this process Ivan was being studied intently by Diego, a sneering young Narco who was leaning against a tree with a machine gun hung around his neck. Ivan stared in disgust at the young man, another street kid that had evolved into a thug with just enough intelligence to pull a trigger and little else. The thug wore a vivid blue football shirt, dirty shorts and some expensive trainers which seemed laughably impractical for the jungle and indiscreet for the job at hand.

The unnatural waft of the hospital braced her as Maria passed through the sliding doors. A clean but cutting reek like smell of weed killer. She weaved passed the visitors that were always blocking the hall and took the lift to the third floor. The common room was empty so she reached inside her handbag, grabbed her deodorant and skooshed the sweaty parts under her uniform. She stuffed her bag into her metal locker and returned to the lift. Maria always used the eight seconds the elevator took to set her badge, tidy her clothing and steady herself for the bedlam below. She counted herself lucky to have landed such a sedate post at Woking Community Clinic. Previously she had had to work in Medellin’s main hospital where gunshot wounds and major trauma were a nightly norm. Since leaving Colombia she had worked her way through London’s hospitals gathering experience till she was a finely tuned practitioner in the ease of human suffering.  After a couple of years she was rewarded for her toil with this cushy little post on the outskirts of London. The automatic doors eased open revealing the busy hive of the minor injuries unit. She approached the reception desk where the shift nurse was trying record the details of mumbling, confused old man.

‘Anything for me today,’ asked Maria to Helen the shift nurse, a chunky, black woman who Maria counted as a friend.

‘Buenas dias, Doctor,’ said the nurse before handing her a clipboard with clamped sheets listing her morning’s work.

‘Muchas gracias amiga, all good this morning?’ asked Maria.

‘Ah, you know. The usual, drunks, punks and skunks to deal with, oh and an actor from EastEnders with a very suspicious injury,’ whispered the nurse with a nod down.

‘Very interesting, which actor? Is he still here?’

‘Nope, he left after we tidied him up, I’ll tell all later,’ replied the nurse with a wink.

Saturday mornings were always strange shifts. There was a weird lull following the madness of Friday nights. A brief respite for the doctors and nurses to catch a coffee, grab a fag or zone out in the lunch room. At ten in the morning, the drunks had been arrested, the maniacs sedated, the critical moved on and hypochondriacs subdued. Still there was a steady flow of accidents, frantic parents and hyperventilating grannies all demanding attention. Maria scanned the waiting room for any pressing states and tried to match the sheets to any worried relatives. There was a middle aged couple sitting by the coffee machine staring into the adjacent ward. Maria noticed their hands clasped together, their knuckles stretched and bare like tree roots and took this as a plea for help.

‘Hi, my name is Doctor Suarez, is there anything I can do?’ asked Maria.

‘It’s our little girl Doctor, she’s through there in a right state after a rave,’ said the man pointing to the ward. ‘We don’t know much, only she’s been taken here in the ambulance. Her sister called us see.’

‘Okay, what’s her name?’ asked Maria.

‘Becky, I mean Rebecca, Rebecca Townsend,’ said the father.

Maria thumbed through the papers until she found Rebecca’s sheet.

‘Okay, Rebecca Townsend, twenty-two, came in at eight thirty with a sprained ankle,’ said Maria.

The mother squinted her eyes then ripped her hand from her husband’s palm.

‘Sprained ankle?’ squealed the mother ‘I’ll bluddy kill her, I thought she’d overdosed on ecstasy or something.’

‘Can we go through and see her Doctor?’ asked the father.

‘I don’t see why not although I’d imagine she’ll be ready to go soon,’ replied Maria.

Three days after his arrival and Claude had still not been given the opportunity to impress his hosts. He had still not seen the stadium and still not seen any star players or even a first team coach. He had been housed in Chelsea’s training complex in a town called Cobham, which lay an hour outside London city centre. His room was impressive and more swish than any hotel he had ever been in, even having its own bathroom and shower. On the first night he carried his laptop around the room and building to show his family the extravagance. There were about a dozen other boys from around world sharing the building. At night he chatted with the Africans and played table tennis with a boy from Toulouse but the Latin American kids seemed shy and their English was poor. His days consisted of: early breakfast, training sessions, lunch, study then further training in the afternoon but his evenings were free.  At night he read his English workbooks and watched films on his laptop but he soon became bored and grew eager to see a bit more of London. He had watched a movie about some young men that had travelled to South America by performing football skills and marvelled at the amounts of money they had earned. He thought this might be a good idea to earn a little cash so on Friday night he decided that he would to venture out with his ball the next morning. His new English teacher advised him not to go into the city but to the nearest town called Woking that was only ten miles down the road. On Saturday there was to be a big derby match between Woking FC, a lower league club and a top league giant called Crystal Palace. After breakfast the next morning he caught the bus to Esher and sat up the front near the driver.

‘Going to the match son? You’re in the wrong colours,’ said the bus driver.

‘Oh, I’m a Chelsea trainee at Cobham,’ replied Claude catching the driver’s face in a big mirror above the driver.

‘Oh yeah, the next big star eh? Where you from son?’

‘I’m from Cote D’Voire, I mean the Ivory Coast but I live in Paris.’

‘Oh yeah, just like Drogba eh? What position you play?’

‘Midfield’

‘What you got your ball for Drogba? Gonna try and get a game?’ asked the driver with a smile.

‘I thought I could do keepy up on the streets near the stadium and get a little money,’ replied Claude.

The bus pulled into a stop on a busy street.

‘This is your stop here son, you need to take the next train down to Woking, take about twenty minutes,’ said the driver. ‘Hey Drogba, watch yourself son. There’s a lot of boozed up nutters at our matches and not all will appreciate your shirt, na what a mean’.

‘I’ll be careful, thanks for your help,’ replied Claude

He took the train down to Woking and found a spot nearby Woking’s stadium, shaped his tracksuit into a nest then started to perform tricks with his ball.

Diego prowled like a lizard around the pit studying Ivan’s every move. His teeth were black and ruined like rotting daffodils and face rutted from abuse. He toyed with his machine gun, clicking the safety clip back and forward then holding it with one hand in the air. Ivan almost pitied the young idiot but also feared his wildness having seen this cause many needless deaths. The chemicals from the green slurry were choking so Ivan pulled his scarf over his nose.

‘I don’t have a scarf man,’ said Diego.

‘Then break a cigarette and put it up your nose,’ replied Ivan.

The thug pulled two cigarettes from his pack, broke one of them inserted each half into his nostrils. He lit the other and leaned back against a large tree.

‘How old are your daughters old man?’ asked Diego.

‘Maria is 28 now and Tatiana is 17’ answered Ivan.

‘17 eh, almost a woman,’ sneered the Narco with a chuckle. ‘Maybe, I’ll be luckier with Tati than Maria eh?’ The thug glowered at Ivan eager to incite a response.

‘Why are you trying to provoke me? Why are you here Diego?’ spat Ivan.

The thug jumped down from his position and approached Ivan who was mixing the soup with a long handled shovel.

‘To learn from the master, to study and learn so all your expertise is not lost,’ said Diego.

“Be careful of your cigarette. Lost?  Am I going somewhere?’ asked Ivan.

‘Well, you won’t be around forever old man and someone must replace you.’

Ivan was first to hear the strange sound from the valley; a distant, constant pulse that spat through the air.

‘What is that? Is it an animal?’ asked Diego.

‘Worse. Far worse,’ replied Ivan.

Suddenly the leaves were blasted apart with wild squalls of air and the sky roared with the thunderous chop of rotor blades. The Army had pounced upon them like jaguars. A man bellowed down upon them with a megaphone ordering them not to resist and put down their weapons. The workers dived to the floor cowering under the din of the helicopter, petrified but wise enough not to flee. Diego aimed at the chopper and sprayed it with a wild, torrent of bullets which clunked of the armoured windows of the pilot. The metal wasp banked then then repositioned above them.

‘What are you doing you fool,’ scolded Ivan.

The Narco laughed, turned to Ivan and pointed the gun at him.

‘You were never going to leave the jungle alive today old man,’ said Diego.

Before he could fire a rinse of ammunition ripped through Diego shredding his football shirt before tipping him into the green soup. Ivan turned and ran, ran like a rabbit, ran past the pit and down the hidden warren paths and into the cover of the jungle. He bounded down the paths fuelled by the fear of capture. At the bottom of the cocoa field he climbed into a hide and covered himself with branches. He sat and waited, waited for long hours until the boots of the soldiers stopped battering along the paths. He cowered and listened to their conversations not daring to look. When night fell and the soldiers finally returned to their trucks Ivan dozed off until morning when beams of early sunlight peaked through the leaves. He then quietly uncovered himself and made his way down the path until he came to the back garden of his house. His wife, Isabella was waiting in the kitchen.

‘I saw the helicopters and thought you had been arrested,’ said Isabella.

‘I nearly was and worse,’ replied Ivan.

‘So what will we do?’

‘We have to leave Isa, and we have to leave today. I was lucky, the Narcos had plans for me tonight.’

‘Are the Army looking for you?’ asked Isabella.

‘No but the Narcos will be.’

‘Where shall we go?’

‘To my sisters in Quito, we can take the truck to the border then crossover at night.’

‘What shall we pack, what can we take?’

‘Everything you need, everything you love,’ said Ivan.

 

The ball made a delightful ping as Claude chipped it spinning into the air. He trapped the ball against his ankle then rolled it up the inside of his leg before flicking it over his head and onto the back of his neck. He had a full array of tricks and skills to impress. A mother with two children stopped and applauded his tricks then chucked a pound coin into his tracksuit before walking on. A couple of young men with blue and red shirts then approached him from the side.

‘Paaaalace, Paaaalace,’ bellowed one of the men in his face.

He was stout, mid-twenties with an old style comb over and mouth like a frog. He snatched the ball from Claude’s arms then started mock dribbling with his friends. It pained Claude to see his beloved ball being scuffed and scratched on the tarmac. Frogface passed the ball to his fat friend then turned to Claude.

‘You Chelsea scum, wot you doing on these streets with that shirt?’ asked the man.

‘This is my uniform, I’m a Chelsea trainee,’ replied Claude.

‘Anutha fucking foreigner, no wonder our nashnal team is so shit when you lot keep coming over,’ snarled the man.

‘Can I have my ball back please,’ asked Claude.

‘It’s our ball now,’ replied the man.

He reached for his ball but the man twisted around and knocked Claude down with a clout to his mouth. Claude reeled back and landed flat on his backside. He tried to rise but his legs buckled like melted ice poles. Dazed, he lay down on the gritty pavement and felt a groggy wave wash over him. The woman with the children screamed at the louts so they bolted leaving Claude’s ball in the gutter. Claude woozily came around with a ring of strangers looking down upon him.

‘You alright dahling, you ok? It’s alright we saw everything, don’t worry luv we’ll get em,’ said the woman with the children.

His lip stung as the woman dabbed it with a handkerchief. He felt himself being lifted in the air then down into the seat of a taxi then motored along a busy road. The taxi pulled into a car park then the driver lifted Claude through some automatic doors and into the reception of a hospital. A nurse directed the driver into a ward where Claude was placed onto a bed where he instantly began to cry.

Maria flipped through the pages on the clipboard as she walked into the ward. A young man in a Chelsea tracksuit was lying on the bed nearest the door his face stained with tears.

‘You look like you have been in a war?’ asked Maria.

‘I was attacked by some men just because my shirt, I don’t understand,’ replied the patient.

‘Let me see chico,’ asked Maria.

Maria inspected the young man’s mouth noting a butterfly stitch that a nurse had applied. His lip was bruised but the injury was superficial and his teeth were not damaged.

‘Where are you from?’ asked Maria.

‘I am from Cote D’Ivoire, I mean the Ivory Coast. I am a trainee with Chelsea, at Cobham,’ replied the young man.

‘The next big star, like Falcoa or James Rodriguez?’ asked Maria.

Maria noticed the young man’s eyes registering her football knowledge and smiled.

‘You are from Colombia?’ asked the young man.

‘Yes, my name is Doctor Maria Suarez, and yours?’

‘Claude, Claude Adebayo’.

‘Well Claude have you talked to the Police yet?’

‘It is better that the Police are not involved Doctor as my coaches will not be pleased and they will tell my family, who will worry,’ said Claude.

‘Well, I think you’re ready to leave Claude if you don’t want to hang about for the Police.’

Maria looked at Claude and noticed the collar of his tracksuit was stained red. He was still a little shaky but had recovered after a shock.

‘I’ll tell you what, stay here for five minutes and I’ll be back, ok?’ said Maria.

She took the elevator back up to the common room and reached inside her bag for her purse, taking the £30 in notes from it. She noticed that her phone was illuminated and she had missed seven phone calls, all unknown which meant home. She dialled her home number and waited for an answer.

“Hello, Maria?” answered her mother.

‘Mama, what is wrong?’

‘Maria, where have you been? I’ve been trying to call for hours. It’s your father, he has gotten himself into trouble and now we have to leave Florencia and Colombia for good.’

‘Are you ok?’ asked Maria.

‘We are all ok, but we have to leave,’ replied her mother.

‘Where will you go mama?’

‘We will go and stay with your Aunt Lucia in Quito until we figure out what to do. Maria, speak to your father.’

‘Hello, Maria,’ said Ivan.

‘Are you Okay Papa?’

‘Yes, I am okay. It was a matter of time Maria. It could not last, this time I was lucky’

‘Papa, are the policia looking for you?’

‘No, but the narcos will be so we must leave tonight and get to Ecuador.’

Maria stared at the notice board in the common room frantically trying to dredge some inspiration from smiley faces in the National Health leaflets.

‘No Papa, you must go to Bogota for a few days then come to London. You can come here, at least till everything has calmed down,’ said Maria.

‘But Maria, your job,’ said Ivan.

‘That doesn’t matter, there is no other option. You must come here. Everything will be okay once you get here.’

‘But what about our things?’

‘You can leave them with the neighbours, no one will steal them. Trust me Papa, everything will be okay if you come here, then we can work everything out. Get to the city first then call me at night. I have to go Papa I’m at work, speak soon,’ said Maria.

Maria dumped her phone back into her handbag then took the elevator back down to the ward. Her mind was whirling. Claude was sitting on the edge of the bed waiting. She took his hand and walked him to the hospital entrance where there was a taxi waiting for outpatients.

‘Here chico, take this money and go directly back to your lodgings, tell your coaches you walked into a window or something. And next time remember the colour of the strip is sometimes more important than the colour of your skin in London, okay?’ said Maria.

“Okay”, replied Claude before he climbed into the taxi.

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