Every week she tells me, you are not to look, you are not to draw attention and if I catch you looking then, so help me God, but you will feel the palm of my hand.
He’s sitting down in his usual spot between the pharmacy and the Indian Palace. I think, don’t look, don’t look, but someone has dropped pakora sauce and it has pooled near his feet. A polystyrene island slides along the top of the orange puddle as it creeps towards the drain.
The ridge of his spine rests against the brickwork but there’s a current that runs through his wracked body. His limbs fizzle and snap as he nods along to something uptempo inside his head, as he fixes his eyes on the face of each passer-by, follows them in an 180 degree arc. They angle their chins at the shop windows above him.
I see him see me and he stops pulsing. Toffee stretches the teeth from my gums and I shrivel, expecting the sting of her hand, but her head is turned towards the road. His face is all ripples and twitches. He rocks his heels forwards, flattening his burst trainers against the ground. The tang of pakora sauce and bitter-hop sweat is in my nose.
I think, stay still, please stay still and quiet. If he moves, she’ll know I looked. I meet his eyes, stare straight into them with my silent plea. He could choose to betray me at any moment; he could pitch himself forwards and lunge at me, take me hostage in a bony cage of limbs. I try not to blink.
When I’m right beside him, his bristly jowls sag and he brings his palms together into a slack bowl. I keep walking, but when I’m far enough beyond him and suspicion, I take a toffee from my pocket and drop it with a backswing of my arm. The wind scuttles it along the pavement behind me.
I wait ten seconds before I dare to look back. He’s wearing that big wicked grin again as he slips the toffee into his pocket.