The Market

16 09 2012

A story of  love and rotting fruit 

The Market is based on real events in Europe in the early 1980s when idealism ran riot. Squatting was commonplace in England, Germany and the Netherlands, but the laws in each country interpreted the act of opening and occupying a condemned building differently.

In England it became a war, usually between idealistic young anarchists and uniforms and workers representing the authorities. London was a battleground. At the time thousands of people were homeless despite the existence of thousands of abandoned and condemned houses.

One such area contained a square of five-storey houses in south-central London, near the Thames river. The 18th century square had been bought by the Inner London Education Authority but they never had the funds to develop it. Between the 1950s and the 1980s it was managed by the local housing authority who decided to move tenants out, a decision that allowed squatters to move in.

Author Robert Allen was one of the squatters, specialising in opening houses and establishing with several others a cafe in a corner house. At the time New Covent Garden Market at Nine Elms, a short walk from the square, allowed people to take away damaged fruit and vegetables. The cafe specialised in hearty soup and artisan bread.


by Robert Allen

Kevin O’Hara suppressed a yawn, threw back the duvet and rolled off the worn mattress. He had gone to bed with most of his clothes on – thermal long pants and vest, and thin jumper – and had only to pull on a pair of clean jeans. From beside the mattress, under a pile of dirty clothes, he fumbled for his running shoes. They were scuffed, dirty. The soles had been worn smooth by habitual use. He stretched his limbs and felt a few bones crack, stepping lightly over the bare floorboards. The aging wood creaked, all the way down the bare stairs. A sudden gust whistled through the gap between the heavy wooden door and the loose door frame, rattling it loudly. He sighed.


He walked into the kitchen. On the washboard beside a dilapidated fridge he picked up an old kettle, placed the spout under the cold tap, and turned the tap on full. Fast hard water sprayed him, but enough gushed into the kettle to quarter fill it. When he placed the kettle on the stove, he thought he heard a thud. In a moment of indecision he swayed towards the door to his right, a box of matches to his left. He lit the gas under the kettle. A burst of angry thuds shook the front door.

“Hold your crazy horses,” he shouted.

He opened the door and the gale disappeared. Outside it was still dark. A street lamp cast its glare. Large damp spots decorated the cracked pavements. “Thunder, thunder, thunder,” he chanted.

“Kevin?” a young woman on the doorstep said, uncertainty rising in her soft voice.

Thunder in the air,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re early. What’s the rush, hey?”

“Are you ready?” It was Linda Smallwood’s way of intimidating her friends. She was wrapped in a thick army overcoat several sizes too big for her.

“Yeah, after some coffee,” Kevin said, ignoring her impetuosity . “C’mon in.”

He turned into the hallway.

Kevin picked up the box of matches, pulled a matchstick out, struck it and held it like an Olympic torch. Its flame dimmed. Then he saw that the ring was lit.

“Suckee, fuckee?”

She suggested it so casually he thought he hadn’t heard her properly. She opened the overcoat and shrugged it off her brittle shoulders to reveal a garish display of burnt-red mini skirt, crumpled forest-green half-jacket over a jet-black body suit that clung to her diminutive but shapely frame. She wore child’s size heavy boots laced tightly on elfin feet. Her auburn hair was tied closely to her head in an untidy bun. Tiny gold dragons hung from her ear lobes. A golden ring pierced her lower lip.

Not thinking about it, he let his hand with the matchstick fall by his side. “Ouch,” he cried as its flame burned his fingers.

She ignored his plaintive moan. “After we get back then,” she said, wriggling her shoulders, letting the motion sink down through her lithe body to her toes. “Don’t you want to then?” she teased.

“Don’t you want coffee, hey?” he asked angrily as he spooned a mound of instant coffee into a cup emblazoned with the colors of a west African state and followed it with boiling water from the simmering kettle.

“It’ll wake me I suppose,” she said reluctantly.

“I’m sure it will,” he said.

He saw that she hadn’t notice his sarcasm. He took a sip of his coffee, grimaced. It was bitter. In his haste he had added the water too quickly and now it was spoiled. He wondered if he should put some sugar into it.

He set the cup down, reached up to a shelf above the fridge, and selected a dull white cup. He noticed it was stained on the inside. He took it over to the sink, picked up a sodden cloth, which he discarded. “How much?” he asked, turning on the tap to rinse the cup.

“Just a little. Half a spoon,” she said.

“We’ll go when we drink this, alright?” He delicately transferred half a spoonful of coffee to the cup. “You take sugar don’t you?”

“Yeah,” she said. “If you don’t mind I’ll do it myself.”
“You’re not angry with me, are you?” He knew she wasn’t.
She smiled.

That’s okay, then.” He reached his hand over to a small portable radio on the windowsill that faced onto the narrow backyard.
“Want to hear the news?”

“We must go Kev. I want to get back. I’ve a lot to do today. And …”

He interrupted her. “Fuck Linda, where’s the fire? Go. Stay. Go. Well?”

The radio played pop songs back to back and Kevin got angrier. “Fuck, what is this bland shite?” He looked at her as she sipped her coffee. She looked baffled.

“The music these days is bland, industry-led pop.”

“Let’s go,” said Linda with feigned impatience, putting on her overcoat.

Discarding his running shoes, Kevin began to lace up long black boots. He glanced up for a moment and saw Linda fidgeting with her dragons. She had a frown on her face and was muttering incoherently. Kevin pulled the laces of his right boot tight and quickly tied a bow. Still on his hunkers he reached down behind the battered kitchen door and lifted a dirty red backpack out of a pile of assorted baggage. The yellow strings on the backpack were frayed. He pulled the two main stays together and grasped the shoulder straps in a tight hold.

Drinking the dregs of his coffee, Kevin said, “Right,” walked to the window to switch the radio off. She had strolled into the hallway and Kevin came up behind her, pulling on a jacket he lifted from the banister. He pulled a scarf out of one of the jacket pockets.

They went into the street. He slammed the door behind him and jumped two steps into the street. The door frame shook. Flakes of paint and tiny splinters of wood fell to the ground.

Despite the illumination from the street lamps it was unnaturally dark. They walked towards the corner of the square and continued to the end of the street where a five-lane arterial road began. When they reached the junction Kevin stooped to re-tie his laces, Linda continued round the corner.

He looked back and tried to imagine what this area had been like in its heyday. He was fascinated by the towering, now decrepit five storey terraced houses. He remembered a story Mac, one of the longest surviving squatters, had told him one night while they were sitting on the roof of his squat, looking across at the sports ground.

It was built, Mac had explained, in the nineteenth century to accommodate middle-class families pouring into the city from the low lands. Now it accommodated middle-class squatters.

It wasn’t always like that, Mac told him. In the sixties it had attracted all sorts of crazy people, preaching sexual and social freedom. The authorities hadn’t agreed with their idealism and had thrown them out. But the word went out. Merchant Square was ripe for squatting. When a new generation of students, drop-outs, free-loaders and immigrants arrived in the late seventies ‘The Square’ became a kind of Holy Grail.

It didn’t seem like a grail to Kevin. He had been told it was an easy place to squat. Like everything they told you in the sticks about the smoke it was a fantasy. The grass wasn’t greener. Someone employed someone else to rip out the electrics, smash the water pipes, pour concrete down the toilet bowls, board up the doors. Kevin sighed, horse-like, shaking his head. It had cost him a fortune to fix his squat.

He looked around, hearing Linda muttering under her breath. “What’d you say?”

“Nothing,” she said.

“You in a mood now?”

“No. C’mon. Let’s get out of this gloom.”

The dark was pervasive. The lamps on the side street seemed to dim as they passed each one. On the main road the taller lamps also seemed to shrink and fade and glow and flutter, like gas lamps.

“The lights are strange,” he said nervously, looking at her.

“You’ve never done this before have you?” She laughed, tugged at his arm. “Well don’t worry. It’s a piece of cake.”

Yeah, he said to himself.

“The lights are strange,” she repeated. “They turn them down. What do they care if some poor creature gets hit by a car. Happens to cats and hedgehogs all the time. What’s a few tramps to add to the slaughter. It should be outlawed.”

“What’s the matter with you?”

She continued, oblivious to him. “A ton of metal makes no allowances for age or fortune. Bastards. We pay our taxes, and they can’t even switch the street lights on properly. Well, they’ll get nothing from me.”

“What on earth are you talking about, hey? You don’t work, you don’t pay taxes. What would you know, you’re fucking 17 living off mater and pater.”

“Well, they pay taxes.”

“Fuck, Linda,” he said and began to walk faster. He decided he didn’t care and moved to the edge of the sidewalk, then looked around.

Across the road, coming out of a housing block, a gangly emaciated figure marched towards them ranting like a demented general. Kevin’s heart sank.

Maybe this is the real world, Kevin thought – trivial, elusive, paradoxical. Not like home, he reasoned. Fresh air and freedom. It was different here. Concrete and despair. He glanced towards the sky in the instant the lights went out.

“It’s morning,” said Linda, her face lighting up in a broad grin. “Dawn’s light.”

You’d know, hey, wouldn’t you,” Kevin said in a voice that might have sounded sarcastic if he hadn’t laughed. “You in a better mood now?”

She began to smile, slowly, drawing her cheeks up.

Kevin knew she made this ritual journey three times a week. She only brought back damaged fruit and bruised vegetables. She’d say, I’m going to the market in the morning. Want to come along? And he’d say, some time, some time soon.

He flicked his wrist with the exaggerated gesture of a gunslinger to view his new black digital watch. It was a clockwork-like habit he had gotten into since he had bought the watch for a fiver in the street market a month earlier.

Delighted that his half-hourly glances confirmed his belief in the existence of an earthly body clock he mentally recorded the time his subconscious already knew.

The corner stores were still closed. Litter flapped gently in the warm May breeze. Cartons of vegetable soup wrapped in strong clear plastic lay askew a crate of bottled orange juice in the doorway of a delicatessen. A dozen or so bundles of morning papers, tied with synthetic string, lay stacked in the adjacent doorway where they had been tossed some hours before.

The desolation was discomforting. When he glanced at Linda he saw, in the mirror images of her eyes, meaning and happiness. In the depraved inner-city this was an achievement. She carried the vibrancy of youth. He detected a calm urgency, and wondered how anything so trivial as a trip to the market could be so important to anyone.

Maybe it was life in the squat. She said she had been living in squats since she had run away from home at 15 but he knew she got a regular monthly payment from her parents who were retired but “well-to-do”. He knew this because she always gave him money when he was broke, which was often, and he’d only known her since January and what was that? Sixteen weeks! That was all.

“Why’d you come here?” Kevin asked, drawing his scarf around his neck and pulling his jacket tighter around his waist.

To get vegetables for soup, fruit for cakes … and juice. Why should I pay the prices here, they’re stupid?”

“No,” he said, dragging the word slowly down into a low taper. “The city I mean?”

“Oh,” she said, implying that she hadn’t heard him properly. “Ah, dunno. Good idea at the time, I suppose.”

“C’mon Linda. I didn’t come up the river in a bubble, hey.”

She gave out a deep chuckle.

“You’re avoiding the question, hey.”

“Why are you so interested?”

“Fuck, Linda. Do you always have to answer a question with another question? I hate that.”

“If you must know,” she said, rolling and emphasizing her vowels, “it’s because I had a row with Daddy.”

“What about?”

“I don’t … I really don’t want …”

“Ah Linda c’mon. You can trust me. You know you can.”

“Can I?” The question hovered in the air, somewhere between them, as though Linda wanted Kevin to catch it and crush it and destroy its negative undertone.

“Suit yerself,” Kevin said and began to walk faster.

“Kevin,” she called at him in a pleading voice. “Don’t be like that. I love you.”

Kevin had his moment. “Well if you love someone you share your secrets.”

“Are you in a terror cell?”

“What?” It was an angry respond. “Are you mad?” He shouted at her.

“That’s what I said to Daddy.”

Slowly they began to separate. She crossed the road at the junction, against the lights, but there was no traffic. Kevin noticed the tall man marching, making no move to cross the road. Kevin quietly gave thanks.

“Linda,” he cried in a childlike voice. “Wait for me hey. C’mon. It doesn’t matter now, c’mon.”

Globes at each side of the crossing blinked in unison, appeared iridescent in the post-dawn. After the shallow dark, everything suddenly seemed bright and vital. He could hear birds. Something had turned on the world.

Suddenly he knew why Linda enjoyed this time of the day in the inner-city. It promised a future. And there were no people. He couldn’t believe it. A city with no people on the streets.

The brisk twenty-five minute walk had invigorated him, eased his tiredness, eliminated his negative thoughts. He watched Linda strolling ahead of him. Fuck, he sighed and looked to the heavens, either I’m a selfish bastard or she’s a selfish bitch. Or, and he began to think about it, she doesn’t trust me!

He decided he was paranoid. Ahead he could see the new market. It didn’t look anything like a market, like the markets he knew at home. It was a neatly designed metal complex with container ports, a place of commerce enclosed behind a security fence. As they approached a high blue steel construction, Kevin had a terrible thought.

“What’s the story hey?” he enquired, trying to sound confident, afraid of the answer.

“What do you mean?”

Kevin hesitated. “Fuck, how do we get in?”

“Through the gate,” Linda replied. “That’s how everyone gets in. See, the gate.” She pointed. “There.”

He felt foolish. “Right,” he said and looked beyond her outstretched arm and a finger pointed at two very wide open gates, where he had seen only blue steel before. He stalled, feeling foolish, and lost pace with his streetwise companion. Ahead of him she entered the foreground of the market.

Different colored lines – white, blue, green, red – thinner than road markings and not unlike markings on airport tarmac, determined haulage demarcation. Most trucks were parked precisely within these limits. They moved around the trucks. Kevin saw stacked boxes. He sensed a curious sort of order.

“You said we’d get food here. All this stuff is for the stores and it’s all so … so ordered. What do we do, just steal it, shove it into our packs and run like hell?”

A man in jeans and a stained white T-shirt had emerged from behind a truck. He walked towards them.

“Fuck,” Kevin said in a loud abrupt voice.

Kevin watched him, like a cat with a stolen fish watches a man. But the man wasn’t interested in them. He strolled over to the entrance of one of the units, stabbed a green button on a rusty metal panel about four feet from the ground. The whining, grinding sound of the unit’s shutter door, as it unwound, shattered the morning silence. The next shift had begun.
Suddenly Kevin realized why Linda had chosen this time of the morning to visit the market. He stared at her and she grinned back, their telepathic bond complete. It’s a game.

She began to laugh, knowingly.

He loosened the straps of his backpack, which he had flung to the ground. Another worker, in a dirty green boiler suit, walked casually towards them. Kevin’s hackles went up again. He’s going to tell us to leave, I know it. This fella won’t know the rules of this game. Eyeing them in an unconcerned but mildly curious manner, the man moved towards them and realizing their intentions, forced a smile, turned towards the wall where a tall stack of flimsy wooden boxes had been neatly stored, and removed the top half dozen or so. From the reduced stack he aggressively hauled down a box, let it slam on the ground, kicking it in virtually the same motion towards them, and then another and another.

“There you are,” he rhymed in the pure tones of inner-city folk. “Them’s good ones.”

Like scavenging wild cats with a purpose they picked quickly through the stacks of boxes, occasionally aided by a fellow worker who told them what to look for.
They left the market in quick time, thirty five minutes later, their packs bulging. They had firm kiwi fruit, persimmons (a real delicacy, the morning’s pick), squashed oranges, hard pears, soft red apples, pineapples (bruised in places but useable), white black spotted cabbage, limp green cabbage, shallots, wet root ginger and onions, lots of onions. “Shouldn’t be frozen,” a worker said about the ginger. “Always goes off.”

Linda had disregarded ripe bananas. “I like bananas,” he said.

“They’re cash crops.”

Kevin smiled. “What’s the difference?”

She stuck her tongue out at him.

His puckered face was coarse with the growth of three full days, his intense brown eyes were calm, long hair matted his scalp. He was dirty and he smelled. He realized he had been sweating.

He could see that the gloss had gone from Linda, who walked ahead of him. Her overcoat, hanging open, dwarfed her. The colorful clothes she had worn for the trip had lost their shine.

Kevin glanced at her as he came alongside and smiled. She looked tired, but she turned her head aware of his stare and smiled back.

He wondered if she knew what he was thinking.



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