I’m Ritchie Morlan, ex-chief creative at Dance and Fitzhugh, the top-flight advertising agency. I joined twelve years ago and left yesterday. I took the job because it was something I could do. Myles Fitzhugh mentored me. He seemed to like me, and people listened when I made suggestions. The agency looked after me, and at that time I needed looking after. In any case, the children were still in school and I had to earn some money.
Elsa, Elsa Dance, was never my friend, I knew that. Then we went public and Elsa was CEO and Myles was on garden leave. We moved very fast in a political direction. Soon we were the number one agency in the field. Well-groomed young people, sleek as seals in Dolce suits, crowded into the top-floor lift every morning. I took to going in late.
Things came to a head yesterday. I found myself standing at my desk, my hands trembling with anger.
I wrote out a letter longhand, and twenty minutes later I was in Elsa’s office. Floor to ceiling windows and London laid out like a garden with the river snaking through it. The air tasted of nothing.
She looked up at me. Her eyes are the grey-blue of deep water on a dull day and she looks directly at you. It’s not a challenge, it’s not empathy. She just looks directly at you.
She smoothed out my letter on the oak desk.
‘Ritchie, you’re our leading creative. We need you.’
‘I can’t be part of this.’
‘But you are. You’re an adman. You’ll always be an adman. It’s what you do.’
I shake my head and she drops the letter into the attaché case by her chair.
‘Let’s talk this through.’
‘There’s nothing to say. I’m finished.’
‘Think about it. Without you, Dance and Fitzhugh would still be middle rank. I can offer you a salary review. Maybe your own division.’
‘Ritchie, if you leave here, where are you going to go?’
The door closes behind me, cutting her off. I’ve chucked in my job and I feel as if spring’s come early in Canada Square.
I walk past the lift and take the stairs three steps at a time. Peters is in his usual place at the lobby door.
‘Good evening Mr Morlan.’
I shake his hand and leave him staring at the five twenties in his palm.
That was yesterday. Now the air chills my face and the streetlights are still on. So many people on the street this early, all huddled in overcoats or fleece jackets. They’re mostly headed west between the glass and concrete blocks, more glass and less concrete as you get nearer the tube station. I check my mobile. There’s an energy in me that makes my fingers itch.
It’s not spying. They’re my children and I’m on their side. I can help them, I’m going to help them. Nothing can go wrong.
I spot Jack ahead of me He’s wearing a charcoal woollen overcoat and a scarf, and has a leather satchel slung over his shoulder. I wish I’d brought a hat. I can’t see Nic anywhere. It’s good he’s come along for her.
I hear a shout from behind and my chest tightens.
‘Dad! You shouldn’t be here.’
She’s striding towards me with her knock-kneed walk. She wears her red hoodie and she’s got her hands pushed down in her pockets as if she’s trying to get her whole body in. I’d buy her an overcoat like a shot if she’d let me. I stand waiting for her.
‘I’ve got to talk to you.’
She has to understand. I’m no longer that other Ritchie, the one who thought the money made up for everything.
She’s looking further down the street, at Jack, but she doesn’t push past me.
‘I’ve quit the agency. I should never have worked there. I told myself we needed the money. You get drawn in.’
She pulls the hood back and stares directly at me.
‘Twelve years with the agency and you’ve quit? You’re not just saying it?’
‘Burned my boats. I told Elsa what I thought of it.’
She’s considering, moving from one foot to the other.
‘It’s not just the job. It’s Mum.’
‘I think about her every day. The coroner…’
She fixes her eyes on me and shudders. She speaks as if she can hardly force the words out.
‘Fuck the coroner. I think about her every day too, and I can’t even remember what she looked like. You … What’s the use?’
She shoves past, shoulders hunched and head down.
‘Wait. I did my best. We needed money. I had to get a job.’
I’m walking as fast as I can. My right knee aches and she’s already way ahead of me. Nic, who never needed anyone, restless in day-nursery, sailing through school, flying through Oxford, out into the world, out of control, hurtling onwards, anywhere, away from me, and I was so proud of her. Nic, giving her money to the homeless guy by the station and hitch-hiking home. Nic with her law degree, and her training contract at Clifford Chance, then she walks out and sets up Refugee+. Nic with her shared room in a shared squat somewhere (she’s never told me where) on the Leyton Grange estate. Nic, with her black hair, same colour as Jack’s but close-cropped, and her sudden gestures. Nic, always too jerky, uneven and reckless where Jack is neat, symmetrical and ordered. Nic with her bi-polar disorder, no problem as long as she remembers the pills.
Nic and Jack, my main reasons for living.
I blink and rub my cheek.
Twelve years in advertising and what have I got to show for it? A dicky heart and my children despise what I do. So I quit. I can help them now, they must see that. I’m still Ritchie Morlan, ex chief creative at Dance and Fitzhugh. I know how to promote things, how to make people listen. Nic and Jack are campaigners. I’m good at campaigns. It’s going to be OK.
The Refugee+ website mentioned a leafleting campaign out here first thing, and here I am. Doesn’t look like anyone else turned up. Nic says you find a lot of casual labour on building sites, they’re a good place to contact immigrants who don’t know their rights.
Nic touches Jack on the shoulder and walks on past him, from lamp-post to lamp-post into pools of light, then darkness, then light. He calls out and hurries after her but she doesn’t answer.
They go down a side road onto the Olympic site past one of the new blocks, lights in the windows, to the area where work’s still going on, turning the athletes’ accommodation into flats. Vans with tradesmen’s logos and a few cars are parked along the kerb.
The clouds to the east are pink and golden. It’s going to be a fine day. I’m shivering and my knee hurts every time I put my foot down.
A van roars past, too fast, I swear the wing mirror brushes my shoulder. I step back onto the pavement.
Three metre high hoardings surround the block, with the logo ‘Coral Reef Homes’ and a red lattice-work of girders and scaffolding reaching up behind them, some of the wall sections in place with black holes where the windows will go. A fire glimmers inside on the ground floor. The only person in sight is a bearded figure in a denim jacket and a yellow helmet, standing in the site entrance, like a guard. He glances at us, steps back and pulls the gate shut behind him.
Nic shoves a wad of leaflets through the letter-box slit in the fence. I read “Shit Government! Shit Jobs!” across the top and under it bullet points in English and another language I can’t understand.
I touch her arm.
‘Let me give out some leaflets. I can talk to people.’ She ignores me.
Jack catches sight of me and sighs.
‘Dad, please go home. This isn’t an ad campaign. You’ll catch cold.’
They set off past the row of vans. I don’t really feel anything, just a bleakness as if none of it is worth doing. This can still turn out OK. They stop and Nic points to a van parked some way up the street with the engine still running. It’s slightly larger than the others and reminds me of a Tesco delivery van, except it’s a dirty white and the sides are blank. There’s a banging noise from inside it. The rear doors are padlocked shut.
‘Something’s not right.’
She starts towards it. Jack moves fast to catch up with her.
‘Take it easy.’
The passenger door is thrust open and a sandy-haired man wearing a black T-shirt and denim shorts gets out. His work-boots reach halfway up his calves and are laced tight and polished. Muscular shoulders, buzz-cut hair and a drinker’s face. He looks like a boxer, out of condition.
He brushes something off his shorts and smashes his hand against the side of the van. The noise stops.
Nic walks forward holding out one of the leaflets.
He spits and glares at her.
‘Who are you looking at?’
‘Wondered what you’ve got locked up in there?’
‘Fuck off, sweetheart.’
He snatches the leaflet out of her hand, screws it up and chucks it at her. She catches it one-handed. Jack’s next to her and I’m half running, half stumbling towards them, as if I could help. My head feels thick with blood. The big guy smacks his fist into his palm and takes a step towards Nic. The van driver shouts at him and he hesitates, then laughs.
He stoops and gets back in. The van drives off. Jack holds his phone up, filming it. He wraps his other arm round Nic.
Neither of them looks at me.
It’s half an hour later, my knee’s throbbing and I’m trying to keep my weight on my other leg. We approach another site, a derelict warehouse in the development zone south of the Olympic Park. Corrugated iron creaks in the wind and the windows are smashed in. One end has already been demolished and the roof is sagging, a broke-back whale. A long strip of fencing has rusted through and been forced back. A wooden gate with barbed wire on top stands half open, the paint peeling off it. I’m still tagging along somewhere behind them. I want to be part of it, to be of some use to them.
We pass no-one, except a man in a stained mackintosh with a shuffling walk and a mongrel on a length of string.
He keeps his eyes down and crosses the road to avoid us, muttering to himself. I look round. No-one else in sight anywhere. I’m chilled to the bone.
As we get nearer a white van drives up and parks ahead of us. The driver, a small man with dark hair, gets out. Jack would look a bit like him if he went to the gym more. He bangs on the side of the van, ignoring us, fiddles with the padlock and yanks open the rear doors. It’s the van we saw earlier. My mouth is dry. I want to shout at Nic and Jack. Why don’t we go somewhere where there are people on the street?
A brown-skinned figure in a dirty boiler-suit swivels his legs round and stumbles out, supporting himself on the door. He flexes his knees to get the blood flowing again. The driver goes over to the wooden gate, heaves it open with his shoulder, and goes through.
A group of Asian men, six or seven, step down from the van. They’re dressed in worn-out jeans, T-shirts, one in a denim jacket, one in a grey jumper with a hole in the sleeve. They stay close together, looking round as if they don’t feel safe here.
Nic and Jack walk over to them. Jack says: ‘Hi. How are you doing today?’
They stare at him. No-one responds.
Nic holds out a leaflet with both hands, as if it were an offering. The man in the boiler suit takes it and starts reading, tracing the words with his forefinger. The others keep their eyes on the passenger door, none of them talking. We should go.
The big guy we met before gets out. My skin prickles and I start towards him. He ignores Jack and scowls at Nic.
He hesitates for a moment, as if he’s trying to work out what to do. He walks round the van, slightly bow-legged, grabs the leaflet out of the man’s hand and smacks his cheek, as if punishing a schoolboy. The man staggers back towards the gate. The big guy turns to face Nic and thrusts his head forward. He’s a good six inches taller than she is. ‘I told you to fuck off.’
She offers him a leaflet.
‘Better rights for workers. You should read it.’ Jack taps at his phone and holds it up.
‘Leave her alone. It’s a public street.’
The thug doesn’t even look at him, just flips up one of his bricklayer’s hands and shoves him backwards. He trips and falls to the ground.
I’ve nearly caught up with them. ‘Please.’
I’m panting. I lean forward.
‘It’s OK. We’ll get going.’
Jack gets to his knees, blood smeared across his hand. He shakes his head and glances at Nic. She stands very straight, takes a bag from her pocket and offers it to the thug.
He knocks the packet out of her hand. Multi-coloured sweets scatter across the pavement.
‘You can fuck off, both of you.’
He stamps hard. His boot misses Nic’s trainer by the width of a raindrop.
‘Now. Get lost.’
Nic winces and her face is pale as paper. She stays where she is. He seizes her arm.
‘Behave yourself. The police are on their way’
I stumble and clutch the thug’s shoulder. He whirls round and grabs at my face. My gut clenches and I retch, lurch backwards and vomit. The acid burns my throat and over it I taste the sweet tang of the Paradise Bars I ate earlier.
The driver rushes up. He slams the van door and grabs the thug by the arm.
‘Cool it, Syker. No trouble.’
The big guy shakes him off. The padlock is in his other hand. He holds it like a weapon. He slams his fist into the side of the van so hard that it rocks and the men shrink back. He swears and cradles the fist in his other hand.
The worker who took the leaflet shouts something. The thug bellows and punches him in the stomach. As the man folds forward, like a discarded puppet, the thug jerks his knee up into his face. The man falls to his knees and gasps for breath. Blood spills from the corner of his mouth. He claps his hand across his face. The thug roars and the men flinch back, silent. He drags the man to his feet and herds all of them through the gate. It crashes shut behind him.
‘God, Dad. Are you alright?’ Nic’s holding my head. I spit to clear my mouth and try to sit up.
‘I’ll be OK. Water. Get my breath back.’
Jack squats and wraps his overcoat round me. Nic slips an arm round my shoulders. She opens a water bottle and holds it to my mouth.
‘Take it easy, Dad. Just rest a minute. We’re calling an ambulance.’
I lean back and close my eyes and drink.
The Emergency Response Unit arrives in four minutes. I sit in the back seat of their car and feel better than I have for a long time. An efficient young woman with green hair and a pale freckled face sticks tabs to my chest, wires me to a black box like a Bakelite radio and checks my pulse.
‘Not too good, not too bad.’ She takes a white gadget like a mobile phone out of her bag. ‘Now this is the Dracula bit. You OK with needles?’
I feel a prick on my middle finger. She stares at the screen.
‘Your blood sugar is in the top half per cent. What did you have for breakfast?’
‘A couple of Paradise Bars. Keeps me going.’
‘Explains a lot.’
She fiddles with the black box and glances at her colleague. He points at the messages scrolling up on a screen in the centre of the dashboard.
‘We have to crack on. We’ll drop you off at A and E. Bit of a queue I’m afraid. It may be six hours before the
Registrar gets round to you.’
‘I’m OK. I just need a rest.’
‘You really should have a check-up.’
I glance at Nic and Jack. The police have arrived and Jack’s showing them the video of the attack on his phone. ‘My kids will look after me.’
The other medic says something to the one who’s dealing with me. She doesn’t look at him.
‘You will see the GP won’t you? Today?’
She looks me full in the face. It’s as if we’re making a pact, just between the two of us.
The kids are still busy. I nod.
‘Shouldn’t really do this, but we must get on. Make sure you get round to the GP – and listen to what she tells you.’
The other medic’s already putting his seat belt on. I climb out of the car and they drive off.
The policewoman hands Jack his phone. She’s older than I first thought, slightly-built, neat and formal.
‘Was a knife involved?’
‘I didn’t see one. That man, the one who was beaten up, needs hospital treatment.’
‘I’m very sorry to hear that.’
I want to join in and back him up, but this is their business.
‘Did you see any indication of hate crime?’
Nic joins in. She’s talking too fast, it’s hard to make out the words.
‘It’s not only that, it’s forced labour. They’re terrified. They were locked up in that van I don’t know how long.’ She jabs her forefinger at the policewoman. ‘You’ve got to do something.’
Jack moves in front of her. I take hold of her hand, but she shakes me off.
The policewoman steps backward.
‘We will investigate and make a report. We are strongly concerned about such crimes.’ She sounds as if she’s reading a statement to a group of reporters.
‘I’m very glad you came so quickly,’ Jack says. ‘I hope the film of the attack will be useful.’
‘Of course. Please email the video to this address.’
She gives him a card and settles her bowler on her head.
‘Thank you for all your help. We take these accusations very seriously. I see your father is much better.’
She nods to the other cop and they walk across the road and bang on the gate. She shouts: ‘Police.’
Someone inside drags the gate open and they enter. Nic tries to follow, but the cop says something and the gate slams to in front of her.
She turns and holds her arms out wide, and includes me in the gesture. I’m filled with love for her.
‘Same as last time – press don’t turn up. If we could get a journalist here maybe we’d get somewhere. I hate all this.’
We sit in the kitchen back in Jack’s flat – living room, kitchen, one bedroom and a view of Stratford shopping centre. It always feels warm, the walls are buttermilk and saffron and the doors stripped pine. I helped him buy it. I’d help Nic if she’d let me.
The photo of the three of us, Jack and Nic as teenagers, and me on that holiday in Arcachon, suntans, seafood and Bordeaux white, hangs above the sink. Always makes me think of the photo I don’t have any more because I tore it up: Margate sands, the children much younger and everything easy. Seven year old Nic races away down the beach, Jack staggers after her on his chubby legs, clutching at his sun-hat, the sun streaming golden under ice-cream clouds. I remember taking it, kneeling on the beach, stunned that such glorious people are my children.
Jack glances at me and stirs two spoonfuls of sugar into my coffee.
‘Shock,’ he says and grins.
Nic’s on her mobile, gesturing with her free hand as if the other person could see her.
She puts the phone down and Jack hands her a mug of coffee. He puts the packet of pills next to it.
She frowns and her nostrils flare but she speaks calmly.
‘At least that guy, the one who was beaten up, is in hospital. The thug calls himself a gang-master. He says it was a fight between workers and he broke it up. No-one else will talk. Waste of time. Cops say the film’s not admissible unless it’s corroborated. They’re grateful for our help and they’re sorry. They’ll keep an eye, whatever that means.’
Cat flashes into my mind. Cat in the hospital, white as the bedsheet, with Jack on her breast, one arm cuddling Nic. Cat on the steps of the High Court with the reporters buffeting round her, the day she won the Stevenage Seventeen deportation case. Cat on the platform at the Human Rights Watch annual dinner, laughing.
‘That thug’s taken their passports. It’s slavery.’
‘Yup, but the police won’t start anything unless they know they’ll get a conviction. Everyone’s too scared to talk.’
‘Slavery in plain sight. No-one knows. No-one cares. No-one bothers.’
They sit on opposite sides of the table, just looking at each other. Jack touches her arm.
She gives her lop-sided smile.
‘No-one turned up. Not the press, not the council, no-one off the supporters’ list.’
She slips two of the pills into her mouth and swallows.
I’m not part of this. I want to be, but I’m not. I’m angry too, I’m shocked, of course I am, but what use is that? I’ve been in advertising all my life, I know about publicity, I know about changing people’s minds.
‘I’ve got contacts. Next time, I’ll chat them up for you.
They’d come.’ Jack shakes his head.
‘Don’t do that.’
‘But I want to help.’ Nick frowns.
‘It’s not some advertising stunt to con people, this is real.’
Neither of them looks at me. I finish my coffee. ‘I guess I should be going.’ Jack gets to his feet.
‘Dad? You’ll be OK, won’t you? Keep in touch – and don’t do anything stupid.’ He hugs me.
Nic’s still sitting at the table. She raises her hand to wave and I grip it and there’s something twisted in my smile. That makes two of us.