Short stories. The Tracksuit (Part 1) by Andrew McIntyre. Tomorrow, you can read Part 2. Have a nice Wednesday, Yareah friends!
THE TRACKSUIT (Part 1).
We trod our way up the steep cobbled hills, into a larger square. Beneath the faded dusty green palm trees, a hectic squabbling crowd. About two hundred youths of the night, hollow eyed, hungry, dirty and aggressive with their suffering, like hounded slaves in a market, frantically trying to sell clothing and sundry goods to each other. In the center, old men played chess, smoking cigarettes, observing the chaos. Mohammed stared, smiling, a bachelor of commerce. He analyzed the scene for a moment then, motioning me to follow, he wandered into the fray setting up his zone by the remains of a wall on the edge of the plaza. He draped the tracksuit, shirts, and shorts over the bricks.
“Watch your back here too, OK.” He muttered.
“Yes. Dangerous, huh?”
“Un peu. But not as much as before. Pas de problème. These kids are washed out. They can do you no harm.”
Lads milled around arguing, demonstrating their wares. Money slapped into palms with guttural oaths, wry grins, the shaking of hands. Others waited, resting, amused at the energy, the seriousness of it all. A sudden gust of dry wind from the plateau mixed with the grime and the refuse, casting dirt and grey into little dust devils. A crumpled paper bag rattled down the road. Nearby, watching the folly, an old man squatted hunched and hooded, inhaling the blue smoke of his sebsi pipe. Squinting in the sun, he stared towards a feud developing at the end of the alley. A brawl, two boys throwing wild punches at each other in front of a growing crowd, several of whom were trying to break it up. The old man pushed the bag as it became trapped around his feet. He looked away, spitting a thick clot of black phlegm into the sand. The fight ended when more lads arrived, the dispute degenerating into hoarse shouting and wild gestures. The same old story. Someone overcharged, something stolen. Insults exchanged about mothers and sisters, and goats and dogs.
“I’m going to take a walk around,” I said.
“Don’t go for a while, OK. It is dangerous. I might need you here.”
Mohammed started yelling, flapping his arms, advertising his presence. Youths ambled over ready to do business. A boy offered a chipped toy, and some cloudy fake jewelry set in gaudy painted metal. Another with a cuckoo clock, and some dulled kitchen ware. Mohammed waved them away. He studied a cracked watch, an imitation Rolex. A potential investment, easy to carry. But it wasn’t working.
“Garbage,” he complained. “Why do they bother?”
“To achieve something,” I suggested.
“It is true. It gives them hope, no matter how useless the effort.”
The old man sat staring, slowly smoking the pipe. Then he stood. Rising painfully, casting critical glances at the melee beyond, he limped away. He stopped to observe once more as two newcomers approached the square, their hair orange in the sunlight. He lurched off again, squirting a jet of brown tobacco juice that splashed to one side, wet and black onto the cobbles, staining the bottom of his grey white burnoose. He reached the end of the lane and wandered away.
Mohammed was arguing with several lads. They glared at me, gesturing at my jacket.
“I told them the jacket is not for sale,” he said. “You want to sell it?”
“No, I’ll keep it.”
“You are wearing one month’s food there. They thought you were a cop. Cops wear jackets like that. I told them you were Belgian. They might try to kill you if you were French.” He motioned them away, “These kids are worth nothing. Many of them are starving. They are wasting our time.”
An argument developed as they fingered and sniffed the clothes. Shaking heads. Pointing. Gestures. Mohammed cursed them as they slouched off glancing back, waving, half-aggressive, half-amused. I remained expressionless, staring. After some minutes of bartering with a heavy bearded man, Mohammed sold his jeans. The sale became an attraction. Raucous laughter and whistles as Mohammed removed the jeans, revealing that he had another pair of black and white check golf trousers underneath. He danced around, gyrating, weaving with his hands mimicking a striptease. The crowd clapped and hooted. The final slap of money into hands, pats on the back, the sale done, a wad of notes stuffed furtively into his pocket. He threw the shirts and the shorts into the bargain.
“One more sale and we go mon ami. Ah, c’est bon ça. I told you. And later we eat, eh. How about that? We eat. We will buy cake and tea.”
“Yes. It is good. We have some luck. Finally. Tout s’arrange.”
“Yes. Tout s’arrange.”
I shook his hand and ruffled his hair. He grinned and lit a cigarette, smoking fast, his face relaxed. The smoke blew raggedly on the breeze with tiny pieces of ash.
But we had to sell the green tracksuit. This item posed a bigger problem because no-one wanted it, the garment consistently unpopular, yet there was a big stake in it. A designer brand, genuine, it was supposed to be worth something. Mohammed failed to sell it on several occasions after potential buyers perused its value. He became increasingly enraged by the failure, stalking about hawking the tracksuit more and more aggressively. It made no sense. It was real quality, comfortable, in good condition. He collared younger Arabs venting his anger, trying to force the sale, spitting Arabic, menacing them with his fists, pushing them around leering into their faces with his broken hooked nose.
Problems arose when the older brother of one of these terrified boys appeared to find out what was going on, a crowd growing around us as Mohammed shouted back. The crowd cheered and whistled for action. He threw the tracksuit down when the brother shoved him back. They started wrestling each other, on the verge of blows, cursing, watching closely, waiting for the first move. I removed my belt and my watch, wrapping them around my fists. Angry supporters of the brother arrived, jostling, barging their way through the crowd, yelling insults. If we were suffering a beating, Mohammed would resort to the axe, hacking indiscriminately with the small blade, left and right, smashing skulls with long overhand blows. The only way out was to fight and, if we still could, run for our lives when he gave the signal. I stood near him waiting for the spark, blood pulsing through my head.
Others from behind barged violently through the maniac throng. They seized the brother, dragging him off as he yelled and struggled, clawing to get back to where he could have a shot at Mohammed. Someone calculated Mohammed’s potential, or recognized him from another occasion. They were imploring the man to lay off, pushing him away when he tried to return. Mohammed lounged, smiling, waiting silently to see what would happen. Then it was over. The brother calmed down, and he came over frowning. Mohammed started laughing, uttering a rapid spiel of Arabic, grinning as they shook hands. Disappointed, the subdued crowd began to disperse, everyone meandering back to the mundane business of buying and selling. Relieved, I replaced my belt and watch. We still had to sell the tracksuit. The forgotten relic lay in the dust, ugly and lifeless. I went over, brushed off the dirt, and handed it to him. He had lit a cigarette, watching the crowd depart as his assailant walked away.
“Absurd, completely absurd, I don’t know why we can’t sell this,” he said. “It is good quality.”
“That was a close one.”
“That was a close one.”
“Oh, it was nothing. The other week I had a bad fight.”
“I thought something was going to happen. I was behind you.”
“Yes. But not this time. They talked him out of it.”
“A wise decision. The tracksuit takes time, uh?”
“Yes. A problem. But we’ll sell, you see.”
We labored on, our energies focused. With renewed vigor, Mohammed paced up and down the dirty narrow lanes, accosting youths, leaning into their faces, haranguing them, shaking them by the shoulders, swearing and cursing, joking, remonstrating. It was no good. No-one would take the wretched thing. It was too luxurious. It raised smiles when Mohammed suggested someone buy it. Wasn’t it the type of product worn by merchants with their mistresses, leisure wear for the weekend, an item worn after the fatigues of a large meal, a pipe of hashish, and lovemaking? The tracksuit was impractical for the Oran-Algiers train.
Mohammed had seen something, “Do me a favor and look out for the police. They might come. They haven’t been today yet. They usually come around this time.”
“From over there. From that wall. If they appear yell as loud as you can. Then we run like hell. If we get caught we lose everything.”
I wandered towards the wall. It overlooked an alley, just wide enough for a car. The cops. They crawled around the main streets in the depths of ancient Citroën sedans shaped like penises, reject French patrol cars from the 1960s, big low vehicles with battered black roofs and POLICE painted in fading white letters on the doors. I sat on the low bricks staring at the narrow street.
I waited for half an hour, while Mohammed continued the relentless search for a buyer at the other end of the square. The chaos diminished because many lads had sold their goods. They were slouching off to eat, or rest in the dry gusty midday. We had arrived late which was to our disadvantage. The sight of people leaving enraged Mohammed. But he would continue to sell the garment even if we were the last ones remaining. Eventually, he would try to sell it to me, and I would buy it so we could leave. Then I would have to sell it the next day. Maybe he would buy it back as an investment. I was sitting aimlessly, puffing on a cigarette, when suddenly the predicted car emerged, sluggish, fat and overheating, struggling in the filthy confines of the road like a beetle through dung. Two heavy sloppy cops with big mustaches sat in the front in black leather jackets.
I stood up, “Les flics. Allons! Les salopards.”
Incredulous faces turned towards me thinking I had hallucinated. Then they saw the clumsy car turn the corner. My heroic deed was done. I jumped off the wall throwing away the cigarette, running as fast as I could. About forty or fifty of us fled zigzag, hurling clothes and goods into bags and bundles, belting down the alley, laughing, insulting the cops with raised fists, whooping and hooting back at them. The pigs sat in the limousine like cockroaches, surprised by the sudden light, dazzled in the middle of their night. A ritual. It was late in the day. They were sleepy. They drove on, ignoring the rabble yelling at them gesticulating like excited apes at the end of the square.
The pigs hardly ever used their guns. The only risks for the street kids were a beating, sodomy, the cop’s prick greased with goat fat, confiscation of their clothes, which meant a few days of starvation, and eventual expulsion onto the streets in a generally worse condition. The black car moved slowly down the lane, turning the corner.
“You think they come back?”
Mohammed smiled, “Non. Not usually more than twice a day. Their day is done. But you never know. They only make an effort when they are short of money.”
We ambled back laughing, full of bravado, everyone grinning and talking. Some of the boys acknowledged me.
Mohammed shook my hand, “Well done there. We could lose everything, and go to jail for a night.”
“They are a nuisance.”
“If they get you they take the clothes. Nothing else. Maybe lock you up for a few days. A beating. They fuck you. Take your money. It’s not so bad. In jail there is food. You sleep in a bed. You can do business. You meet people.”
“Then they sell the clothes, huh?”
“Of course. They’re corrupt. They are state gangsters.”
“Like anywhere, eh.”
“Oui. Les flics, salles types eh? They have their arrangements.”
“Yes. C’est ça. Like everywhere. The bigger fish.”
**Remember: Tomorrow, The Tracksuit (Part 2). These stories form part of a longer section from Andrew unpublished novella, The Night Train to Blida, part one leading into part two.