The following is an extract from 'Control' by Courttia Newland, taken from his most recent collection Cosmogramma (Canongate).
He woke up to hear some weird noise, a scratching in his ear that made him jerk like a sleeping dog, eyes open, seeing nothing. He stared into darkness. He rolled over and so did Michael, curling into a ball, and that’s when Danny guessed what happened; his brother had pushed a finger into his ear, probably in his sleep. Michael always did stuff like that. Lashing out and hitting Danny in the face, giggling at something funny in his dreams, even talking out loud. That morning he didn’t wake up, just lay on his side soft-snoring, the soles of his tiny feet pressed against Danny’s thighs, water bottle warm. That was nice. Danny kept still and straight, breathing shallow air through his nose, blinking at fading night. The birds were tweeting quiet half songs, sleepy beginnings. The piercing smell of Michael’s nappy was regular as the kitchen clock. A siren called blocks away before it shut up, said nothing more, leaving a faint hum of dawn.
He tried to pull at the covers when his arms erupted in Braille goose bumps, but Michael wouldn’t let go. His eyes stinging, heavy, Danny heard something else outside his bedroom window, a louder version of the sound that forced him awake. Rustles like the sliding, gentle shush of pulling his pyjama top over his head, or Mum’s hand stroking his hair. Soothing. He closed his eyes, thought it would stop, but when it grew louder he opened them. Michael was mumbling, telling some dream person to stop. He waited for his brother to quiet. When he’d been silent for a count of ten, Danny got out of bed, careful so he wouldn’t wake him. He rolled sideways, knees bent, sat up and gently pushed himself onto his feet. He crept towards the bedroom window.
Their curtains were thin, bleeding daylight. He peeled one as far as his nose, left eye squinting. The window looked onto their back garden and the neighbours’, rectangle slices of green, brown and grey. Fallen toys, extra-terrestrial barbeque racks, lonely swings, flashes of pink and red bushes, rickety, leaning sheds. And them. Scattered over grass and concrete. Black dots moving sure as lice. For a moment he thought the gardens had become infested with those creatures of his terrified dreams, produced by a searing itch that made his mother bring the shrunken comb and A4 paper, dark forms falling from his hair, pattering the white sheet like rain, dying legs writhing. He gasped at the sight of the black dots outside his window, believing his nightmares real, and saw they weren’t lice, but ICO. Loads. Crawling through gardens. Leant against warped, wind-blown fences. Lining the alleyway that ran like a spine between garden rows. Gathered in a bunched fist by the gate that led to Mr Sharmake’s garden. Mo’s.
He knew then, remembering the billboard. Dad’s red, bloated face, Uncle Rick’s clenched jaw. The spinning glass on the tiled floor like the stunted red hand of the kitchen clock, only faster. He felt his heart solid against his ribs and he couldn’t breathe quietly without holding his mouth wide open.
The ICO pressed hands against their ears. They did things with their fingers like sign language. One kicked down the gate and they all poured forwards like blackcurrant juice from a tipped cup, down the garden, over the neighbouring fences, meeting and pushing against the back door until it gave with a loud crack, rushing into the house. And it was silent. So silent, Danny almost believed nothing had happened. They flooded inside until there was no trace but the movement of the upstairs white nets, the crash of a plate, a bark of pain, that fast language he couldn’t describe and the cries of a child, probably Ayesha. Danny waited. Shot a look at his brother, flat on his back, gaping. Listened for his parents. Nothing. Everything calm, outside and in. His fingers grew white, the curtain bunched between them.
Mo’s nets danced, stiff and random as silent wind chimes, and he was there, framed against the dark background of the bedroom. Danny saw the brightness of his eyes. The boy’s head turned left, right, and he threw himself down, landing on the old coal shed with a cry that made Danny draw in a sharp breath. He bounced like a tennis ball, hit the garden path and ran towards the loose, broken gate. He was limping. He must have hurt himself from the jump. A man in black appeared at the window but there were none in any of neighbouring gardens, or by the gate, or even the bone-white central path. Mo didn’t slow despite his limp, he just ran, leaning on his right leg, one hand flat on that thigh. Danny felt his nails sharp in his own palms, heard himself whisper; ‘Go Mo. Go.’ By the time the other officers burst from the back door and ran down the alley it was as though he had willed it. Mo disappeared.
He let the curtain fall, ran to the pile of clothes at the end of their bed, squirming inside each one. He checked on his brother, who had rolled onto his chest, nappy raised high, face buried in pillow. He grabbed his orange paper round bag. His parents’ door was shut but Danny still tiptoed. He trotted downstairs as quickly as he could in the darkness, keeping to the edge of each step, wincing at every creak. On the ground floor he moved faster, along the passage into the kitchen, grabbing whatever he saw; apples, crisps, fruit bars, a pack of chocolate biscuits, a box of grapes, the last of the samosas, pushing them inside his paper round bag. In the passage he stifled the tinkling chatter of keys as best as he could, unlocking the front door with one hand on the bunch, the other doing the important work, entering and twisting, before he slid them down in his pocket and sneaked into dawn.
Baking bread from the factory made him hungry for huge bites of air. His stomach rolled like a grumbling complaint. The cars glittered with frost, as did the paper white sky. Danny laid his hand against smooth plastic and walked, head raised, trying not to look either way. He ignored his parents’ bedroom window, thinking of Lot’s wife. On the pavement, he turned a robotic left.
The first transport was parked at the end of his road. Headstone grey, ICT stencils. Empty driver and passenger seats, St George’s flag hung across the back wall of the cab, statue of the blonde saint killing a black dragon on the dashboard. He turned his eyes to the road, slowing, but a scream made him jump, and they were there, five in black, close enough to see ICO stencilled on their chests, the letters as smooth as a scar. They were struggling, swamping a hunched figure, and it was only when they reached the transport and one opened the back door that he could see who it was. An old woman, it had to be Mrs Sharmake, although she never left the house without her burka so he wasn’t sure. She was wailing, attempting to get away but the men wouldn’t let her. Her face was raised, mouth open, morning breeze making her gown swell like a kite. Her cheeks a glistening sheen, throaty cries making Danny shiver. Her feet bare, the toenails white seashells. She was leaning back, pulling against the men, tendons rigid with effort, feet planted on the dark road and as big as they were she still managed to free one arm to beat her palm against her head, the sound flat, mute, echoing across the empty street. They wrestled, grunting and puffing tiny clouds into morning air, grabbed her beating arm, wrenching it behind her back.
Mrs Sharmake yelped once. She whimpered in pain but did no more. They pushed her into the transport and the door clanged like an oven. A man wearing a gas mask made of gleaming black metal looked at Danny and said, ‘Fuck off.’
He walked until the end of the road, turning left. On the corner there it was. The billboard: GO OR BE SENT. A pair of cuffs, two masked ICOs, blank eyes threatening their street. The dark, smoky background, a red flowing river. Danny spat on the ground. He would have spat on the poster but Dad said they’d swab his DNA and he’d be arrested, so he couldn’t. He hated that billboard. It was the billboard that made Uncle Rick mouth off in front of Dad about dodgy neighbours, the billboard that made Dad’s fist connect with Rick’s jaw and caused him to fall, knocking over his glass of lager and Michael’s cup of blackcurrant juice. If the billboard hadn’t gone up Rick wouldn’t have screamed like he was crying, or swore he’d make ICO get the lot, pakis, blackies, all of them. If it hadn’t been for that billboard Dad wouldn’t have gone over to the Sharmake’s and said whatever he’d told them, or start crying late at night, Danny’s mum trying to shush him while they thought the boys were asleep. If it weren’t for the billboard his family would still be a family...
Note: 'Control' was originally published in Planned Violence: Post/Colonial Urban Infrastructure, Literature and Culture, edited by Elleke Boehmer and Dominic Davies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)