The Year Of The Volunteer
“2005 will be The Year Of The Volunteer. In the face of drugs, crime, vandalism and terror, volunteers – there on the ground, one to one – really do matter. And so to does the second great strength of those who volunteer – their ability to identify unmet needs and to meet them.”
Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP
Chancellor Of The Exchequer
31st January, 2005
Martyrdom videos are surprisingly easy to copy, or so it turns out. All you have to do is brandish a weapon like you mean business, adopt a boss-eyed and vaguely gormless facial expression and appear to be seriously pissed off. Anger is the easiest emotion to muster: you only have to spend a moment imagining the toilet facilities those guys must have to endure in the caves of Tora Bora. No wonder they’re all suicidal. I’ve never squatted over a hole in Afghanistan but I have been caught short at Derby train station and I imagine the lavatorial experience to be no less barbaric.
As a result, my own martyrdom video is painstakingly authentic (aside from the fact that I did not actually perish). There I am, balaclava over my face, pistol pointing at the ceiling, speaking slowly and surely to camera. “I and other people like me are forsaking everything for what we believe,” I say. “We are at war and I am a soldier. Now, you will taste the reality of this situation…” At the moments when I get carried away and start dry firing the pistol against my forehead it’s easy to forget just how scared I was: I had no way of knowing that I would live to tell this tale. Or that the ending would be such a happy one! I only knew that it was 2005 and that in July of that year I was given the opportunity to single-handedly save London from a terrorist attack.
Before you read further, I must begin with an apology: I have been forced to hide behind a rather middle-of-the-road pseudonym. Gareth Goodall is not my real name. Upon reading my manuscript and consulting their enormous legal team, my publishers decided that the actions reported in the following pages left me, and them, open to criminal prosecution and retribution attacks from religious extremists. They suggested I borrow the name of a ghost writer they often use for celebrity autobiographies, insisting that he would be delighted to finally get his name on the front cover of a book even if it did mean he would be forced to live in hiding for the rest of his natural life with no one for company but an unenthusiastic contingent from Special Branch. Naturally I resisted this suggestion fiercely: if anyone was going to benefit from the critical acclaim of a Fatwah, it was going to be me! At which point my publishers withdrew their offer. After careful consideration I decided that my insistence on creative integrity would only deprive the very people I am determined to help. And so, reluctantly, I have consented to their demands and my real identity will remain hidden. I can only assure you that this will be the last time I let you down.
Friday 24th June
I am sat on the top deck of a London night bus waiting for it to explode in violence. The other passengers sit and watch the floor, exchanging half sentences, pretending not to have noticed the disturbance we’re all being forced to tolerate. Even though I’m wearing my high-visibility Metropolitan Police Volunteer Constable uniform I try and ignore the commotion by staring out of the window and humming to myself as the bus works its way past the sudden illumination of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. These night buses take their toll on your patience: the look-at-me drunks, the tottering starlets, the constant threat of domino effect vomiting. You can’t always get involved. Sometimes you have to let it fizzle out. That’s what usually happens.
At the front of the bus a heavy-set man is raving and ranting in a thick Essex accent at a young woman sat next to him. The girl is cowering against the bus window making slight whimpering sounds and speaking only when the man pauses for breath. It goes without saying, of course, that the girl is younger and much prettier than her tree trunk-faced partner. They always are. If I wasn’t so busy helping the poor and the weak in London’s most deprived neighbourhoods I too would be happily escorting a double-jointed Eastern European girlfriend around town. I imagine how grateful she’d be to finally quit her highly lucrative yet demeaning lap dancing career in order to stay at home eagerly waiting for me to return from work. I try to close my eyes and imagine a life of bliss with my acrobatic future wife but my dreams are disturbed by another burst of fury from the front of the bus. The girl has used a momentary lull in the onslaught of spittle and fury to utter an outburst of her own. The sort of outburst that announces a previously unspoken truth: a sexual failing, a physical shortcoming, a harsh secret. And so this is when the man slaps her in the face.
Even a London commuter, word down by the frequent outrage of forty-five minute delays, finds domestic violence difficult to ignore. And yet mostly people won’t do anything about it. No, they think, I’ll let this one lie. And who can blame them? It’s like queue jumpers in the supermarket: nobody says anything, not these days, because you have to assume that if they’re mental enough to break a social taboo that strong then they’re also mental enough to pull out a knife and wash it liberally in your face. Lying there on the floor of Sainsbury’s, gargling your own blood through a hole in your neck while some demented old bird dabs at your throat with a crusty tissue you’d think to yourself: I didn’t need these Chicken Kievs anyway!
There is a trick to these situations though: you just have to out-Nutjob the Nutjob. That’s right: when you get up there, in their face, waving your Chicken Kievs around and demanding they get to the back of the queue, you’ve got to make them believe that you’ll go to the very end – the whole hog – up to, and including, Mutually Assured Destruction. Or, at the very least, a Magistrate’s Court.
So when I see the slap I start rehearsing my full range of Nutjob facial expressions. I’ve got them all down to a tee: the Mel Gibson, the Saddam Hussein, the post-surgery Donatella Versace. Most involve rolling your eyes wildly around in their sockets whilst lurching your head left-to-right and beating yourself in the chest with clenched fists. As I’m rehearsing this I notice an attractive girl to my right giving me a slightly alarmed look, no doubt aware of what I’m about to do and concerned for my personal safety. I get to my feet and walk down the aisle.
When I reach the man he turns to look up at me, seemingly unperturbed by the series of teeth gnashes and epileptic jerks I’m freestyling my way through.
“What do you want?” he grunts.
“Leave the girl alone,” I somehow manage to say through a jaw clenched so tight I worry about breaking a molar.
He regards me for a moment and then his eyes lock onto the badge on my police uniform that says “Volunteer Constable”. “Fuck off mate,” he says, with a laugh.
Surprised somewhat by his lack of respect for my high visibility attire I go to the next level and thrust my warrant card in his face. “I have the power to arrest you for common assault,” I say.
There is a long pause.
So long, in fact, that I begin to wonder if he understands what I’ve said.
And then he stands up from his seat, all six foot five of him.
“Right,” I say, as formally as possible, “I’m arresting you on…”
I’m halfway through my sentence when I see him pull back a bearded fist and contort his face into an expression that suggests seriously violent intent. So I do the only thing left open to me: I pull my can of mace from my pocket and empty it into his face. Just to be sure, I even continue to spray when he’s slumped back down and has slapped two hands across his weeping eyes.
“It didn’t have to be like this,” I shout at him as he writhes back in his seat.
What’s most disappointing is the look his girlfriend gives me at this point, staring up at me as if it’s me who is the monster in this situation.
I turn to the rest of the bus and begin to make my way back up the aisle, expecting to be deafened by an enthusiastic round of applause. With a fair wind you could imagine being the overwhelmed recipient of the full force of the pretty girl’s unbridled gratitude. But it doesn’t pan out that way, mainly because they’re all too busy opening windows and coughing and spluttering and dabbing at their red eyes. I need to escalate if I want any praise, I think. That’s right: I need to do something bigger! Despite the residue mace spray swirling around me, I start daydreaming about far grander crime-fighting achievements. Dreams so grand and newsworthy that I’m caught completely off guard when the man’s girlfriend leaps onto my back like a demented Velociraptor and begins to search out my eyes with her razor sharp fingernails.
“I was trying to help you!” I scream as I spin wildly in the aisle while she wraps her legs around my waist and gains extra purchase by digging her nails into the fleshy handles of my cheeks. As I crash her once more into the emergency ‘stop’ handle she grabs a huge tuft of my hair and yanks it fully out of my scalp whilst clamping her teeth down on the tender under-hang of my left ear. Meanwhile, in a complex flanking tactic, her right hand inches its way across my face to scratch her ornamental fingernails into my eyeball. With a heavy dismay I realise I have only one means of escape left to me: I stagger down the aisle buckling under the full weight of her ferocity and then, taking a deep breath, I throw myself backwards down the perilous rake of the bus steps, the two of us sliding down each razored edge on her back and collapsing on top of one another in a heap on the bottom deck.
During all of this I must hit my head on something because I pass out for a short time and only come to when I feel the woman trying to push me off her. I clamber to my feet and look down at her hoping that the fight is all over but even though she’s clearly groggy and perhaps even concussed, something in her eyes tells me she’s got another round or two left in the tank. I quickly pull my high-visibility jacket straight and touch the various bleeding cuts and bloodied patches of my head with my hands. I’m in agony but I give the passengers on the bottom deck an official police salute to show them I’m okay.
“Fuck off the bus, pal,” shouts the bus driver from behind his protective screen.
I look round to see him gesturing at me furiously. I am inclined to object but the girl is starting to climb up onto her knees and so I take the opportunity to hop off the bus onto the streets.
From the pavement, I turn and look up to the windows of the top deck and see the pretty girl looking down at me. She shakes her head and looks away, presumably appalled by my terrible injuries. And then the bus jerks off down the road, the driver desperate to put some distance between me and the demented girl who has by now recovered sufficiently to throw herself at the windows and scream death threats. Finally alone I indulge myself and double over for a prolonged sequence of whimpers and cries, at one point even managing to shed a few tears. Finally I limp off the main street and onto the darkened back roads.
The city wants to sleep. It closes it eyes and hopes to pass out. It reaches out its arms with their great swinging wings of fat and tries to embrace unconsciousness. But first it has to burn off its highs. The city has tinnitus, the air buzzes. Its streetlights cast a medicinal glow. Its fried chicken joints leak grease into the oily breeze. Light, such as there is, fizzes. Even the rubbish stirs. Scratching sounds scrape from the insides of disused garages. Youths on bikes circle the gallows shadows of darkened basketball courts. A discarded shopping trolley freewheels down a street pushed by a delinquent wind. A ditched sofa festers. The whirr of a siren, the car-alarm harmonies, the rattle and throb of a late train, the tin-pan shouts of domestic arguments, the percussion clunk of car doors thoughtlessly slammed.
I go home, my duty done.
Saturday 25th June
The bruises and cuts have not healed by the morning. I study my battered face in the bathroom’s scuffed mirror and examine the scabbed patch of my scalp that is now hairless and weeping. Not bad, I think. Manly. Heroic, even. It’s a shame I’ve nobody to show it to. I used to spend my weekends volunteering as a referee at the local children’s football league and I can imagine a few of the parents nodding in admiration as I jog along the pitch in my pristine black uniform. But the parents have started refereeing the games themselves now, effectively ending my hopes of finally being cheered off the pitch after fearlessly blowing for a tight offside decision. They told me they wanted the emphasis to be more on fun and participation, which is apparently at odds with my average rate of five red cards per game. I wouldn’t mind but every sending off was entirely justified: I had to Google some of the words those seven year olds used to scream at me. So now I have every single minute of these long weekends all to myself.
I make a cup of tea and monitor the street through the net curtains. It takes a few hours for something to happen: the Burton family that live in the converted flat above mine finally manage to leave the house after what feels like an hour of stamping, door slams and temper tantrums from their five year old girl. I watch as Mr Burton bossily marshals his wife and child into their shiny new family car. I say family car, but it isn’t really: it’s more like one of those tanks you see crushing Palestinian homesteads. Except with more child seats. They pull out into the road and drive off up the street, pausing only to let Mrs Burton jump out of the car to diligently wheel their rubbish bin into the now vacant car parking space.
In fact, it turns out to be a bumper morning for street activity: the Muslims arrive just before lunchtime.
Two cars pull up into the road, both with two young Pakistani men in the front seats and a collection of furniture and boxes in the back: I can see a lamp poking out from one of the containers and another looks like it’s filled with kitchen utensils. A miniature Pakistan flag hangs from the rear view mirror. As I watch, one of the cars pulls into a vacant parking space while the other comes to a halt awkwardly in the middle of the road, scanning for room at the kerb. The man sat in the passenger seat starts gesturing towards the parking space reserved by my neighbour’s wheelie bin.
Seeing my opportunity to help I race to the front door, only slowing to a regular saunter as I leave the building so that they don’t think I’ve spent all morning looking out of the window. I manage to feign surprise when I see them, as though I had just popped out to get some fresh air, a pretence that I think is helped by the fact I’m still wearing my Home Sweet Home slippers. I grab the bin by the handle and tug it back into the narrow strip of front yard that I share with the flat above.
“Thanks boss,” the driver says to me, winding down his window as he parallel parks into the gap. His accent is Northern. Yorkshire, maybe.
“Please,” I say, sweeping one arm before me, “be my guest.”
“Thanks a lot, yeah,” says the lad, giving me a thumbs up.
“You moving in?” I ask.
“That’s right,” he says. “Moving in today.”
“I can help you move in if you want,” I say, gesturing to the car filled with boxes. In my head I’m imagining us all becoming friends. Me and my Muslim brothers. I could invite them round for marathon games of Pictionary and they in turn could introduce me to their sisters, one of whom might be prepared to overlook our gaping religious divide and my phobia of spicy foods to set up a home and live happily ever after as my devoted wife.
“No, we’ll be okay,” the lad says. “But thanks anyway.”
“I’m Gareth,” I say, reaching a hand through his open car window.
He has to pause his reversing in order to shake my hand. “Tariq,” he says.
“Nice to meet you,” I say. Then, bending down so that I can see the man in the passenger seat, I say, “Hi, I’m Gareth.”
This guy isn’t as friendly as Tariq. In fact, he does little more than raise one hand.
“You sure you don’t want any help?”
“No,” Tariq says.
“We’re fine,” the passenger says, sternly.
I bend down to look at him, two serious eyes under bushy eyebrows, and then glance back at Tariq who smiles. “I’m sure you’re busy,” he says.
“Yes, of course,” I say. “Just off to do some jobs. So, I’ll leave you to it.”
I nod once and then turn to head up the road.
The Alamo is my local. Mostly I’m the only customer. Occasionally I’ll be joined by some sad-sack or lip-jawed old bird, sipping a pint of mild and counting out their pennies on the bar but mostly it’s just me and Martin, the reluctant and regretful bar owner. Martin grunts as I enter as a way of greeting and wipes his hands across his black waistcoat.
“Pint of shandy, Martin,” I say. “Go very easy on the lager.”
He pours it with a sigh, as though undertaking a huge personal favour.
“Anything happening?” he asks with a tone that suggests low expectations.
“I’ve got some new neighbours,” I say.
“Anything is better than Russians.”
“What’s wrong with them?”
“You ever heard Russian rap music? At 3am in the morning? It’s the stuff of nightmares. I hear they play it in Guantanamo.”
“They’re nice lads,” I say. “Or at least one of them is.”
“I’d like to smash their balls off with my snooker cue,” he says.
“Who? The Muslims?”
He looks at me seriously as if seeing me in a new light. “No,” he says, somewhat shocked. “Why would I want to do that? They’ve only just moved in. I meant the Russians.”
“Well, that’d do it I suppose.”
“Then again,” he says, looking around his empty establishment, “your new neighbours are not exactly going to change my fortunes.”
“I hardly ever drink,” I say, “and I come here all the time.”
He sniffs and thumbs at his nose. “Yeah, well. What happened to your face?”
“Oh this? Nothing really. A girl did it.”
He nods. “Women,” he says, dismissively. “They’re worse than men. Did I ever tell you about the time I shagged Mick Jagger’s cousin’s ex wife?”
“You did,” I say. “Several times.”
“Best sex I ever had. But she would do me some terrible damage. Scratches. Biting. I thought I’d lost an ear once.”
“You doing food?” I ask in order to change the subject.
“Same as always,” he says. “One for £2.50. Two for a fiver.”
“I’ll have the burger.”
Martin shrugs, his eyes sallow and shifty. “The gourmet choice. I’ll bring it over.”
“You got a paper I can read while I wait?”
He rummages beneath the bar and brings up a tatty copy of The Sun. “Don’t go taking it away with yer cos I’ve not had a shit yet.”
I take my shandy over to the nook of the bar, where a cosy table and chair has been set up with an eye-watering view of the monstrously large TV screen Martin has had installed to try and poach customers from The Jesus Wept up the road. Martin was once a low-ranking snooker player, plying his trade with cue and chalk until the numbers didn’t stack up. The renovations Martin has done on the pub consist almost entirely of hanging black and white photos of his playing days around the walls. Above the altar-like shine and gloss of the bar itself Martin can be seen, chin resting on queue, eyes intent on a ball he’ll never truly get the better of. Next to the toilets a teenage Stephen Hendry is routinely humiliating him. Above the pool table he is posing with his cue and his mum, a wiry-haired and ferocious lady who smokes incessantly whilst operating the microwave in the pub’s kitchen. Above the fire escape customers are treated to a framed copy of the front page of the Newham Post & Times showing Martin proudly holding aloft an almost unfeasibly small trophy.
Nothing wrong with a bit of pride, I think. At my parents’ house, nearly every flat, excessively polished surface has been adorned with my trophies and medals. Synchronised swimming gongs. Referees’ qualifications. Under 12s Staffordshire Roller Skating shield (Runner Up). Debating Society jug. Framed photographs of me diving into the pool at swimming galas, standing muddied and tired on sports pitches about to blow my whistle for a foul. Exam certificates pressed and entombed within glass frames for all to see. Cub and Scout badges sewn onto material and stretched taut on ceremonial frames. Someone should prepare you, I think, for the way certificates and trophies dry up once you’ve left school.
When I get home I go onto Amazon and order a new self-help book: Understanding Arabs, Fifth Edition: A Contemporary Guide To Arab Society. Maybe I’ll better learn how to get on with my neighbours once I’ve read it and completed the twelve written exercises. Though, in truth, when the people in the flat upstairs moved in I tried something similar and the book I bought was no help whatsoever. Car Keys In The Fruit Bowl: Your Indispensible Guide To House Parties was certainly instructional but when I sent them an invitation to a “happening” in my flat I had absolutely zero response. Not even a no thanks.
Self-help books are my only vice. It’s amazing just what you can teach yourself from reading a few chapters. Tonight I climb into bed with my latest volume: Knees Aquiver: The Art Of Seduction In Three Easy Steps by Gloria Pullman. I’m only halfway through but so far it’s taught me two absolutely reliable steps to success in any dating scenario. First of all, when faced with that awful moment when you’re stuck for something to say, simply take the last word a girl says and use it as the first word in your sentence. And secondly, really over emphasise the most powerful word in the English language: “YOU”. So for example, if a girl says to you: “I have just come back from Italy,” you say, with a cheeky raise of one eyebrow: “Italy? Why did YOU go there?”
I work my way through a couple of role-play exercises and then close my eyes, absolutely exhausted.
Gareth Goodall is thirty-four years old, an Englishman and lives in New York.
He works as the Head Of Strategy for Saatchi & Saatchi. He was selected by The Independent newspaper as one of the 100 Most Influential People in British Creative Industries. His short story Salvage won the Canongate Prize, at the time the UK’s largest prize for new writing. It was made into a short film starring Academy Award Winner Peter Capaldi, the star of The Thick Of It and In The Loop.