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There were thousands of us at Trafalgar Square, chanting in rhythmic parts, “Don’t bomb Syria”, then “Not in my name”.
A tall grey-haired black man wearing a navy jacket and cap limped along beside me with the help of a walking stick. He managed a placard in his free hand that shouted: “Who are you kidding, Mr. Cameron?” He had trouble manoeuvring against the late November wind and rain. I tried conversing with him as we marched with the mob of boisterous peace soldiers to Downing Street.
“I’m against the bombing, even if it is that damned Islamic State,” the old man yelled over the whipping wind, his goatee bobbing up and down as he spoke. I caught a hint of Caribbean melodies in his voice: “Bombing Iraq didn’t work. Bombing Afghanistan didn’t work. Bombing Libya didn’t work. There’s no way it’s going to sort out Syria.”
“You’re right,” I shouted back, though I wasn’t sure he could hear me with the protesters around us yelling, blowing referees’ whistles and honking hand-held horns to get our fresh-faced Prime Minister to drop his plans to bomb Syria. I didn’t really share my marching mate’s absolute certainty on Middle East interventions. I just thought bombing Syria was useless, and I was looking to meet up with Serena, the too-young barmaid at my local who said she would see me at Trafalgar Square. She must have been having me on.
“We’re just stoking it up. All we’ll get out of this is more extremists. Bombing won’t make us a bit safer. Probably make things a damn sight worse. Cameron’s just jerking his knee. And Hilary Benn…” His voice trailed off as he tried to wipe the rain from his glasses.
Then we got separated in a melee with the Met trying to kettle a roaring crowd of Socialists from getting nearer Number Ten.
When I got on the train to Blackheath an hour later the old man plunked himself down across from me, stuck out his long bony right hand and said, “Fulton – nice to meet you.”
I took his hand, “Benjamin.”
“Ah, like my bro, Zeph, the poet.”
“I guess,” I laughed.
We talked about poets. He liked the youngsters and their slamming and performance art. I said I admired Wendy Cope and Simon Armitage. He laughed. I told him that I had just bought the bookstore in Blackheath and his eyes lit up like firecrackers.
“Young fellow like you?”
He lived in Blackheath’s once stately Selwyn Court apartments near the station, but leapt up at Lewisham, moving well despite the limp in his left leg.
“See you about, then. Got to go see a girl,” Fulton said, breaking into an expansive smile.
A few days later he walked into my store carrying a bundle of books and reached his long arm towards me: “Fulton, don’t suppose you remember.”
The books were bound together in several of those rubber bands that the Royal Mail letter carriers scatter all over our tidy little village in southeast London. Fulton stood so close I could taste the fried onions from his lunch. His face beamed with his wiry eyebrows reaching towards his blue cap.
“My book. You’re going to sell it.”
I looked it over, trying to show due respect. It was ninety pages. The figure on the cover of Peace Poet reminded me of a Degas sculpture I had seen at Tate Modern, a man waving a walking stick in silhouette. You couldn’t see his face, but the slightly crooked left leg left no doubt it was Fulton. I turned it over to read the biographical notes.
Fulton left me to it, tapping his way to the new Local Authors shelves I had set up, found a prominent spot for his book of poems, mounted three copies there, and pointed his walking stick at me.
“You’ve got a bestseller on your hands.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
He laughed. “No doubt, man.”
When he left, I took the books down and put them onto my backroom desk before rearranging my local authors. They were giving me enough grief about selling their tales of woe since I had bought the store with the help of sizeable loan from my parents, who were spending half the year in the Caymans these days after selling their greeting-card business to one of the conglomerates. The little shop was more like the cramped back office of an eccentric old scholar when I bought it, complete with cobwebs that had likely been there since the blitz. I was sprucing it up with new volumes, pine bookshelves and fresh paint. Since my divorce from Loretta, an aspiring model with deep affection for the high life my books couldn’t offer, I was living in the tiny flat above the store, basically one rectangular room and a toilet, with wrinkled paperbacks discarded by the former owner scattered throughout.
It took me a week before I got back to Fulton’s book, having moved aside the flyers and spreadsheets that had gathered on my desk. I picked up Peace Poet and started reading. An hour later I closed the book and sat a long time. I had studied poetry at university a decade or so ago, but I wasn’t sure how good Fulton’s poems were. They were brave, maybe even foolhardy, mixing politics, religion and sex. However, it was the rhythm that held me. I could hear Fulton’s hypnotic voice. One line struck me:
“When the river of peace rests in the sea / It’s you, my brother, must take up the plea.”
I locked up the store and crossed the road for a pint at the Crown. It was all polish and gloss inside, but I preferred the old picnic-style benches outdoors. There was no sign of Serena, and I wasn’t sure if she had quit or run off with the waiter with the slicked-back hair. I took a long pull of my pint then got out my phone and searched for everything I could find about Fulton. There was more than I had reckoned: poet, pacifist, church elder, arrested for protesting, Stephen Lawrence activist, dishwasher and political candidate. The next day I put him back up with the local authors.
Fulton was a Windrush baby. Born in Jamaica in the early 1950s, he came to Britain when he was ten with his parents. His daddy drove a bus for fifteen years but got tired of what he called harassment and returned to the Jamaica sunshine. His mum stayed. She’d got a job as a cleaner at Lewisham hospital, worked there for thirty years, washing floors and swabbing down operating theatres, before her body gave out. She collapsed at work, and they shifted her to the A&E, then to a ward, but she only lasted a day. She had a weak heart. Fulton was washing dishes in Brixton at that time, dodging the stop-and-searches when he left the restaurant early mornings six days a week. He told me this when he came by the bookstore a while after we first met, poking his walking stick toward the Local Authors, goading me to move his book up to eye level.
“How’s it going to be a bestseller when you’re hiding it on the bottom shelf?” He was laughing but his blazing eyes meant business.
I closed the bookstore for lunch and split my egg salad sandwich with Fulton and made us a pot of tea. He took his black. “I’m pure,” he said straight-faced.
“Seriously, it’s Martin who made me pure in politics,” he said.
“Martin Luther King, my one and only hero in this world and the next.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant and started rooting around in my rucksack to get my pound cake to split with Fulton, who had devoured his half sandwich but hadn’t paused to sip his tea.
Suddenly he stood up, took off his cap and held it to his chest and began preaching to his congregation of one, his eyes flashing like a television evangelist.
“I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.”
He sat down and swallowed his tea in one gulp.
I was too taken aback to speak. I used to have great admiration for Martin Luther King. However, I wasn’t sure how the American civil rights preacher’s approach would work in twenty-first century Britain, though I was mindful of the gap between Fulton’s life experience and mine, so said nothing.
Fulton, sensing my discomfort with his speech-making, caught my eye and held it, whispering:
“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
Martin Luther King. I just knew.
As he got up to leave, Fulton said, “When you have some time, I want to show you something.”
“Okay,” I said, feeling like I owed him.
A week later, we met at the Crown. We drank a pint outside and talked a bit about his poetry, his odd spellings and use of words like “machination”, which he called “machine nations” and his affection for alliteration. He talked too about how distressed he was during the Brixton riots in the eighties, how he almost went and got himself a brick or a can of petrol to join in the struggle.
“But it just wasn’t me. Mum was starting to get sick, though she never told anyone. I knew. I had to stay close to her and I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I had left her to go into battle with a brick.”
“Have you faced racism?” I heard my voice breaking.
“Benjamin,” he scolded. “This is a racist country. See that crooked leg. They kicked me every day at school for years from the moment I arrived on that boat. I tried to fit in. We all tried. But once they got us here, got us to drive their buses, scrub their floors and wash their dishes, they never wanted anything to do with us. I love this place. I’ve never left. I’m not going back to Jamaica, though my Daddy’s there – eighty years old! But this country can be Hell for a man with my skin. You can let it infect you. Some people do. I choose love and poetry over sticks and stones.”
I was trying to figure if Fulton thought I was part of the they. I wondered too how Fulton would see my mum and dad, soaking up the Cayman sun behind locked gates in a pristine neighbourhood in his part of the world.
He stood up.
“One more pint, then I’m taking you somewhere.”
I didn’t resist.
Five minutes’ walk from the Crown to the heath and another five minutes’ hike and we arrived at a scruffy bit of elevated brush and bushes that looked like it needed tidying up. Fulton stopped, lifted his stick towards the sky, closed his eyes and shushed me: “Listen.”
There was a swirl of wind, a jet headed to Heathrow, a helicopter twirling towards the Thames, then nothing. Not a bird. Not a dog. No kids. Like he had willed it. Then Fulton whispered, “Can you hear them?”
“Uh, no. Fulton, are you taking the piss here…”
I didn’t hear anything. But at least I knew then not to laugh.
Suddenly Fulton started preaching towards the heavens. It was like Martin Luther King’s sermon, back in my little office, but eerie, his voice wobbling like he had lost control of it.
“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And, therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”
He stopped. There were tears in his eyes. He was in a kind of trance. We stood there for a long time before he spoke.
“Do you know who that was?”
“Not Martin Luther King.”
“Who was it?”
I was wary of where we were heading, worried about the look of Fulton, the tears, the sweat rolling down his face, his shaking.
“I hear those words when I come here,” Fulton said, reading my mind. “That’s John Ball. They’ve got a school in Blackheath named after him, though I’m bloody certain they don’t know what he was about. He was preaching to the rebels in the Peasants’ Revolt on this very spot in 1381.
“This is Wat Tyler’s Mound. You know him? It’s Whitefield’s Mound, one of the first Methodists. My mum and daddy’s families were all Methodists. Whitefield preached to 20,000 people here, in 1739!
“They were for justice, these people. The Chartists came here too. You know who they were? And then came the Suffragists – nonviolent women changing the world for the better. Some men yelled at them, saying, ‘You’re just telling the same old story’. Smart women, they agreed: ‘And we’re going to keep on telling the story’.
“Benjamin,” Fulton said, looking down at his crooked leg. “This old body is getting weary. Guys like you have got to take up the story just like my mob – bring justice, jobs, equality to this country – and without violence.”
“That’s why I brought you to the mound – it’s holy ground.”
In the weeks that followed I thought a lot about what happened at the mound, all the things Fulton had been trying to teach me. Still, I wondered how many of us had time to wage his kind of peaceful war, with working and just living. I wasn’t sure how he paid his bills though I know his mum left him something – and he sold his books in stores across southeast London. I was drawn to Fulton as a man of character and as a storyteller but I wondered if he really knew me and my lack of principle. I was too busy trying to get my bookstore to turn a profit while Mum and Dad in the Caymans were pressuring me to shut it.
Good Friday was coming at the elegant church on the heath where I attended sporadically – too much “bells and smells” and not enough meat in the preaching. It was Mum and Dad’s church, really. The vicar, who was nearing retirement, had announced he was going to hold a service on something called “just wars”. The bishop wanted congregations to think about gas attacks in Syria and new calls for British airstrikes. Good thing Mum and Day weren’t here for this, but I was at least curious.
I mentioned the service to Fulton when I saw him heading to the mound the Sunday before with a group of youngsters he was helping find work. One of them, a plump young fellow with a retro afro, was squatting on Fulton’s sofa after the old poet got him to turn his knife in. The youngsters were making a racket, so I wasn’t sure Fulton heard me.
There were no more than twenty of us seated down the left side of the sanctuary because the rest of it was shrouded in tarpaulins thanks to the never-ending renovations in the imposing old edifice. I sat close to the front of the sanctuary. The frail vicar was known to mumble. After a few short prayers the vicar put up a list of the “Seven Principles of a Just War” on a flipchart. He started talking about number one, “Last Resort”.
Suddenly Fulton tapped his way to the front of the sanctuary. I hadn’t known he was there, but when I saw him I thought he was trying to get a closer look. Fulton turned around and started chanting. The vicar sat down.
I didn’t take in everything he had to say in the few minutes he had our attention before two elders escorted him from the church. I was too worried about the way he looked, cap askew, jacket covered in leaves, muddy shoes. Had he been sleeping rough? He ran through the vicar’s litany in one mocking breath – last resort, legitimate authority, just cause, probability of success, right intention, proportionality, civilian casualties – shook his head and sang:
“It’s love, not hate. Appreciate.
Some wars okay? What more, I say?
Adultery? Good God, you say.
Bible tells us to love and pray.
Jesus said love your enemy.”
As the elders near carried him out of the stunned sanctuary, Fulton hollered: “I’ve been thrown out of better places in Alabama with Martin Luther King. We carry on the struggle.”
The vicar got up to continue his talk, but I left my pew in search of Fulton. I wanted to see if he was all right. He was setting out across the heath with a few of his youngsters when I caught up to him.
“Fulton, you don’t look so good.”
“Book man, Benjamin. Truth is, things are happening. I’ve got to sort it. I might need your help. I’ll let you know. Your vicar, man…”
He gave up.
There was something bugging me.
“You told me you’ve never left Britain since you arrived from Jamaica?”
He gave me a long stare, like he was trying to remember what he had told me.
“Marching with Martin. You’re talking about Alabama.”
“I was with him in my dreaming and scheming – and he’s marching with me today. That’s my ‘Just Marching’ theory.” He laughed, turning to walk away, his oak stick pointing towards the mound. I didn’t know what to think of Fulton’s explanation. I walked home half chuckling at his cheek, half worried Fulton was headed off into some kind of personal and political madness.
I only saw Fulton once or twice over the next year. I was fighting to save my business. Mum and Dad had sent their consultant – the one who sold their greeting-card business – to sort things out. I agreed. It was either that or I would lose the line of credit they had set up for my bookstore. Things were getting tense and I didn’t want to lose the store after working at it for a year. I guessed Fulton was busy too. He came by the bookstore collecting for the Grenfell fire families. He and his band were making up packets of clothes, books and toiletries with 1960s peace signs stamped on them. I gave him a few quid and a couple of paperbacks. His books were selling, and I was sending the money on. I asked him about the problem he mentioned after the Good Friday service and he said he’d be in touch. He seemed slower, quieter.
“Keep the faith,” Fulton called back over his shoulder.
A month later I happened to meet Fulton having a pint outside at the Crown with his woman friend, Maxine. I’d given up looking for Serena and she no longer answered my texts, though I still saw her Greek idol and he smiled at me knowingly when I ran into him at the pub. I had seen Fulton and Maxine together a few times over the years, crossing the heath, his arms gesticulating wildly, her laughing alongside him. She was probably in her forties, not that much older than me, smartly dressed that day, wearing a rainbow scarf and dangling ear rings. Sipping my pint and listening to Fulton talk about helping some peace church send people to Israel and Palestine to stand between the two sides to prevent another intifada, I couldn’t keep my eyes off Maxine. I was watching her watching him. Her dark eyes seemed to change colour slightly moment by moment, probably reflecting the sun’s peeking in and out of the clouds, but somehow illustrating her complicated attachment to the old poet – moving from awe to amusement to worry. I was seeing the different faces of the poet – through her eyes.
I looked directly at Fulton. He always seemed to be able to suss out different approaches to things. I was happy to hear that some churches weren’t just sending pilgrims on Holy Land tours or praying for the end times. They were close enough. Fulton was obsessed with never using a gun or a bomb to help settle things. But I never really had the gall or the energy to take him on, though he knew I was somewhat cynical.
Then Maxine asked, “Fulton, love, what happened to your peacemakers when Hitler was murdering and massacring across Europe? It was men with big guns and bigger bombs that ended that. Your Martin Luther King ways might not work always, you know.”
Fulton furrowed his brow as I picked a few last grains of salt from the bottom of my peanuts packet, looking like he was accusing me of putting Maxine up to it, or suggesting she at least had the nerve to ask that question. He grabbed his stick from where it was leaning against the picnic bench where we were seated like he was going to leave, but just gripped it and responded in a slow, clear tone.
“Give peacemakers the human resources, the big budgets, the broad political will, business’s push, organized labour’s blessing, the spiritual guidance of the holy church, the great nationalistic fervour of every living man, woman and child to the very end – like you had in that bloody war – and then we’ll see how things compare.”
He stood up and grabbed his walking stick and went off to the loo.
Maxine turned her dark eyes toward me and shook her head, and again said what I was thinking: “He’s thought it through, but I don’t know…”
A few days later I got this text from Fulton: “Meet me at the mound.”
I wish I had understood how desperate he was.
I was trying to keep the bookstore alive so shutting early wasn’t possible and a few last-minute customers were rummaging through the sales bins for weather-weary Richard Ford or Katherine Mansfield paperbacks. I couldn’t just kick them out.
I will always regret not getting there sooner.
When I arrived at the mound, Fulton’s body lay among the thick greenery, arms and legs spread out like a mangled human clock, a ring of yellow high-vis-clad police officers surrounding him. His blue navy cap rested on the ground beside him, his oak walking stick lying further off.
Beyond the circle stood a rag-tag cluster of a dozen head-hung-low youngsters carrying home-made placards declaring, “Free Fulton”.
I thought I had walked on to a low-budget Ken Loach film set, though the wailing of the ambulance and police cars as they mounted the kerb and drove across the heath told me otherwise.
Fulton was dead, and though it took me some time to admit it to myself, maybe a part of me had died too, though I would hesitate to say exactly what part that was, confusing as that sounds.
A few weeks after the inquiry I closed the bookstore for lunch – there wasn’t much lunchtime trade and it looked like I might have to shut the place down permanently. Mum and Dad were coming home for a spell and wanted a meeting with me and their consultant. It didn’t look good and I didn’t know what I would do with myself if I lost the bookstore. I strolled across the heath the few hundred yards to the mound. It was a sunny afternoon, but there were dark clouds in the distance. I stood on the edge of the heath’s curious few square meters of odd tufts of grasses and weedy bushes that is a blight to most heath walkers but for me had become a kind of monument to that mad poet.
When Fulton first brought me here to listen for the voices of the revolutionary John Ball, the holy Wesleyans, the peaceful suffragists, I could only hear the wind. That lunch time I stood a long time and again heard nothing but that wind and one annoying crow trying to tell me to buzz off back to my store. But I couldn’t get Fulton out of my mind – his poetry, his politics, his twisted body lying on the mound. Tears started rolling down my cheeks and I began to shiver violently. The episode lasted less than a minute. But it shook me to the core.
The inquiry lasted just a day. It was his heart that killed him. That’s what they said. Fulton had a condition that meant any excitement might have set it off. His doctor admitted it under some intense questioning from the Met’s lawyers. The judge said the taser was probably misused and admonished the officer wielding it. Still, the judge emphasized that Fulton had escalated the situation by “waving his walking stick about and theatrically reaching towards his jacket pocket”, though he acknowledged Fulton carried no weapon and had been trying to show the police the latest document he had received from the Home Office, telling him he was in the country illegally – after living here for fifty years. And the judge maintained that the fact that some of Fulton’s ragtag followers had put out messages on social media that Fulton would be defending his right to remain in Britain “to the very end” had created a kind of “inhospitable environment” and that the police were right to be there in numbers – and to have the taser at hand.
When I read all this in the newspaper, in black and white, it was hard to argue with. Bad heart? Inhospitable environment? It made sense. Still, I thought, the police didn’t know Fulton, the judge didn’t know Fulton and the reporter covering the inquiry didn’t know Fulton. I did. I have to admit that he was bloody annoying at times, preaching like Martin Luther King, disrupting our Good Friday church service, pushing me to sell his thin volume of poetry, dropping hints about his troubles but never letting me know how I could help.
Occasionally, he even stretched the truth a bit to make a point. But he wouldn’t have swatted away a mosquito – even with his gnarly old walking stick – let alone attack a police officer. Weak heart? Maybe. But Fulton, though he limped through his life in this part of the city, rarely strayed from the path he thought was right. I wasn’t sure we could have said that about all those officials at the inquiry. Or whether I could have said that about myself. I was too busy trying make a living to see the crooked old man dying right in front of me. That’s what really hurt, to be honest.
Half-way back to my bookstore I stopped in my tracks because I heard those wailing police sirens again at the mound. I looked over my shoulder and sure enough there was a police van arriving at the kerb near the mound, and six or seven officers were climbing out of it, strapping on helmets and grabbing shields – like ancient warriors preparing to do battle. A ragged group of Fulton’s peace army was arriving from Greenwich Park, waving their walking sticks and placards. I think they were yelling, “Stay out of Iran” and I could hear his name being shouted too, “Fulton lives. Fulton lives”.
Though, of course, he was dead.
Fulton always said there were those who benefited from continuous war and people ought to be persistent in seeking peaceful ways out of our messes. I had my doubts, though I probably should have argued that point with him. The youngsters, however, must have thought another war was coming and they were resisting in their own noisy and undisciplined way. I looked at them on the heath and didn’t know what to think.
“Peace is the only answer, and it starts right here,” Fulton told me many times over the past few years, pounding his chest.
“That’s just sloganeering,” I always said.
“No,” he’d say. “That’s the truth. Peace starts in your own heart – but it needs to burst out into the real world, otherwise it shrinks you, suffocates you.”
Maybe I should have joined Fulton’s band on the mound; maybe those kids shouldn’t have been left on their own to make change. I was worried they would end up like Fulton, lifeless among the weeds. Maybe. But there was going to be trouble and I had enough of that on my plate. It was going to be a battle to keep my store running and I needed all my business armour to win that fight. One of the big chains had opened a bookstore in the village and shoppers liked the look of the place – like a local bookstore, funny enough – and the price of the books. I figured that was the only fight I truly had energy for, but I wasn’t optimistic about winning. The odds were against me.
I turned away from Fulton’s followers and walked towards my store. A man carrying a black leather case stood outside the display window where I had recently placed Fulton’s Peace Poet. My Mum and Dad, looking richly tanned and in their best business outfits, but grim and determined, greeted him with cordial handshakes and chat as they peered inside the store where Fulton’s shadowy figure dominated my latest window display.
So it begins, I thought as I walked towards them, feeling ripped in two, one part of me preparing my best arguments for keeping the bookstore alive, the other part haunted by Fulton’s verse:
“When the river of peace rests in the sea/It’s you, my brother, must take up the plea.”
John P. Asling is a writer and editor living in Blackheath Village in London, UK. Born in Toronto, he has published short fiction in Canada, the UK and the US. His short story collection, A Crack in Everything, was published by the Choir Press in 2017. His stories have appeared in Litro UK, Litro NY, Sentinel Literary Quarterly and the Toronto Star.