> What have you got another new boyfriend? I asked
> Yeah, well I might 'ave! Why, what's it gotta do wiv you?
> Is he coming round? I asked.
> Don't start ya fuckin' moaning! You aint even seen 'im yet... Ya might like 'im. He's a taxi driver.
> That black man who dropped you off yesterday?
Mum looked at me like I was too clever to live. She drank a drink and got a little meaner.
> When he comes I want you to make yaself scarce! He'll run a fucking mile if he see's that miserable face a yours. He won't be here for long and I need the money so don't fuck this one up for me, please!
His name was Carlton and he arrived in the same battered blue Ford fiesta I'd seen drop mum off the night before. I always knew when mum had fucked the taxi driver or given promise of it as she'd get out the front passenger side with no tights on and sometimes carrying her shoes. And it was never drivers of Black taxis, always the penniless mini-cab drivers, those men with greasy hair and dry scalp, unshaven, bead seat cover, always fourteen hours into a never-ending shift, always one fare away from absolute ruin. I watched Carlton get out. He was a large, round shouldered black man, a little heavy by the chest and stomach and with an irregular, buttermelon shaped head. He wore a plain red t-shirt, beige cotton trousers, and leather sandals over bare feet. His skin was not the healthy, shiny reddish brown of West Africans, but a dusty, sepia tone which gave the impression he'd been out in London's smog for too long. He walked like a man low on confidence, or a man who had no place to go. His face was one you'd find on a heavyweight boxer come the end of his career. He had a damaged left eye – paralyzed and half closed over like he'd been hit with an iron. He was either a gentle giant or someone who'd sustained some kind of deep brain injury. As he loped up to the front gate he must have seen mum as suddenly he let out a huge smile and visibly, withdrew into himself.
From upstairs I listened to the talking in the hall. Carlton's voice was timid and kind, with a London accent. It seemed so out of keeping with his appearance that for a moment I wondered if it wasn't someone else who'd sneaked in on his back. Mum asked him how his day had been, which was another surprise. She didn't usually ask her lovers such stuff, just led them straight to her bedroom while they both cursed different things in their own individual hells. Carlton said he was exhausted and would like a tea or a soft drink.
> You don't drink at all? asked Mum.
> I do... sometimes. But not when I'm driving and not to get rat arsed.
> What, an ya don't get rat arsed on that fucking wacky backy ya smoke, Mum said, a slight whip on her tongue, on the defensive.
After learning that Carlton didn't drink I stopped listening. It was fine. He could fuck my mother all he liked.
The thing with Carlton was that he was extremely shy and nervous. Even I seemed to rattle him, and I was a creeping ghost myself. The only time he was confident or extrovert was when he was sitting in the front seat of his taxi. There he was in control, knowing what to say and who not to say it to. Not once did he ever seem out of sorts when he had his back to people and road signs in front of him. But outside his domain, without all he knew at flicking or braking distance, he appeared lost and didn't quite seem to know how the world worked or his place within it.
Carlton was never one of my mother's steady lovers. He was one of a number who came around on the weekly, like a debt collector, and was either let in and paid that weeks installment or was ignored until he gave up and mooched off cursing and thinking he should get a new job. Unlike some of the others Carlton never turned up unscheduled. He arrived only on his day, always on time, and even then somehow seemed surprised he was let in. Sometimes he even took Mum out. On these days he'd pull up out front, beep three times, then whisk mum off as she pulled the passenger door close behind her. I'm not sure where they used to go. Mum used to say 'Lover's Lane'. After an hour or so they'd return, the engine in the car then subdued, cruising down slowly, a purr in the darkening evening, Carlton dropping Mum off and then crawling away with two beeps and fading tail lights into his last shift of the night. Mum would enter the house and climb the stairs, a plastic bag full of booze bottles clinking away, her own melancholic jingle.
That went on for some weeks, then one day I opened the door to Carlton and he was stood out on the doorstep with an armful of books. I watched him curiously – the books. They were those huge, colourful, square things, ages 4 – 6: Mum was gonna teach him how to read and write. Carlton hurried up the stairs. Mum met him in her vomit scented dressing gown. Higher Education for Adults. She shot me a drunken glare and closed the bedroom door.
I'm not sure if Carlton ever really wanted to learn how to read and write or if it was just a rouse to grant him further access into my mother's bedroom. By the same token I'm not sure if Mum ever really wanted to teach him or if it was a rouse on her part to keep a good man who had probably realised he'd never get any more than what he was getting already. Whatever the truth, the books weren't just for show, and now, besides the grunts and moans of animal language there was a more uncouth, inadequate one: English. Carlton pronouncing over and over C – A – R : CAR. Carlton Has A Blue Car.
So Carlton was a gentle giant. He was shy and warm and not just there to nail my mother and leave. But for all that, and even with time passed, Carlton never lost his timidity. Apart from opening the door to him, or being given a quick once around the block in his car, he kept himself for my mother and I never really got to know him. Maybe in part he was embarrassed and uncomfortable in front of the kid whose mother he was fucking? If he was then it was a debt he didn't mind paying. Over the next year Carlton kept up his visits, kept up his English lessons, and kept himself to himself. All that really changed was his car gradually fell apart, less and less of it arriving with him each week. Then one day there was no car at all: Carlton arrived on foot.
By the time Carlton neared the end of his stay between my mother's legs we were living in temporary accommodation the other side of London. I returned home and found him sitting at the kitchen table with his nursery books and a travel bag full of belongings. Down and out.
> Shane, Mum said, I've got something to tell you: Carlton's staying the night!
She said it like it should annoy me, like it was my punishment for something in her life. I shrugged. It would be the first time Carlton had ever stayed over but many others had. It meant nothing. And anyway, Carlton was better than most. As I walked away I felt Mum planning and scheming, her contempt burning through me so as I could make it out the other side. A little later that evening mum came wandering into the living room,naked. I pretended I hadn't seen her and kept my head down and looked at the TV. She stood there staring at me, waiting for me to acknowledge her. I didn't. She cleared her throat theatrically.
> Er, Shane, she said, stopping, playing out the moment, I've spent the night with Carlton... We've talked a lot... and I'VE decided: HE'S moving in.... and YOU'RE MOVING OUT! I want you gone by the morning. Get packing!
I was only just fourteen. I ignored her and listened as she backed out, felt her way around the door frame, before staggering and falling back in her bedroom. The next morning I crossed her in the kitchen. She was naked and out of it again, trying to buttera slice of stale bread. When I passed her she sucked her teeth but was too drunk to make eye contact. She cursed, but it was neither a curse word or anything English, just a vicious sound put in my direction.
Carlton lasted four days. My mother drank a lot and would now come staggering out the bedroom not only leathered drunk but also with a huge fresh joint hanging out her gob. Her hair was matted and she'd walk off, not sure where, as if her programming was completely fucked. The bedroom became a cube of smoke, Carlton occasionally visible through it, laying on the bed in his shorts and staring over to where the television was. On the last evening there was a lot of drink and a lot of weed, and when that was half through there was a lot of crashing and screaming before Carlton came backing out the bedroom holding his trousers and shoes. My mother was screaming about him raping her and wanting to fuck her up the arse, calling him a cunt and an idiot and insulting him about not being able to read or write. Just as Carlton was bending down to pull his trousers up a huge, square, colourful book, ages 5 – 7, hit him in his bad eye. Mum screamed in delight and hurled the next one, books smashing into the door frame and hall wall. Carlton looked sad and shocked and for a moment, scared, human. He couldn't understand the ferocious change that had swept over Mum and the sudden hatred that she saw him with. For the first time he looked at me, really looked, but I had nothing to tell him. This was the English language, and he knew it better than me. And like that, bleeding and half naked, Carlton fled for his life, and we never saw nor heard of him again...