Bame Prize 2017: Auld Lang Syne by Lisa Smith

In all his fifty-two years in England, Rufus Samuels had never once been in trouble with the law. Now here he was, under arrest. The handcuffs pinched at his wrists, but he sat upright in the back seat of the squad car. It was important to maintain dignity and composure. They couldn’t keep him here. He’d demand a phone call – although he didn’t know any lawyers. For a brief moment Rufus considered contacting Pearl, but quickly dismissed the idea. He didn’t need her. He could sort it out. At the first opportunity, he would explain in a polite but firm manner that he hadn’t done anything wrong. That this was all a misunderstanding, and he was another black man who was the victim of wrongful arrest.

Not many men his age could carry off a Prince of Wales Check. Together with his favourite cardinal-red shirt and matching handkerchief, Rufus knew that he looked crisp. It was the outfit he’d worn at his wedding last May, and although his fourth wedding had been a low-key event, he’d seen no reason not to treat himself to some new threads. He’d felt as special in this three-piece suit as he had done in the charcoal-grey one he’d worn back in August 1963, when he married Daphne Thompson at Effra Road Baptist Chapel. That day he’d received almost as many compliments as his bride, so after that he got all his good suits tailored by Monty, the Bajan on Walworth Road. He didn’t have a single one of those suits any more. His second wife Esme took her shears to them when she found out he’d slept with Brenda from the laundrette.  He’d always thought that if she had shown as much passion in bed as she’d taken out on his wardrobe, then he never would have been tempted to stray in the first place.

Rufus inspected the other people the police had lined up in the custody suite’s foyer. Surely everyone could see that a man like him shouldn’t be in such a place. Connie was probably waiting for him at the New Year’s Eve party. Ready to welcome him with a can of Red Stripe and a plate of curry goat and rice. He’d never believe that his good friend Rufus ‘Big Man’ Samuels was standing in a queue between a middle-aged man whose tummy bulged over his tracksuit bottoms and some yout’ whose jeans crotch hung down to his knees.

They kept him waiting while a ‘bail dodger’, a ‘drug dealer’, and a ‘drunk and disorderly’ were processed and then taken down to the cells. Each time they’d been led over to a set of doubledoors which folded backwards at the press of a button. In the cells, a baritone was slurring his way through Auld Lang Syne. His voice drifted into the foyer before the double-doors sidled shut. The young police constable who’d brought Rufus to the station guided him into the yellow square, painted on the lino in front of the custody sergeant’s desk. The handcuffs were removed and Rufus straightened his back, pulling himself up to his full height, five-foot ten. He estimated the police lady behind the desk was in her early-to-mid forties. Her dark hair was scraped into a tight knot on the top of her head, making her face look pinched, severe. Rufus thought that with a little rouge on her cheeks she might be pretty, he’d dated a couple of white women back in the seventies. He smiled at the brunette. She didn’t smile back.

‘Name and time of arrest,’ she asked the policeman at his side. ‘This is Rufus Harold Samuels, time of arrest was 21.00 hours.’ ‘Circumstances,,please’

‘My dear lady, me no want to waste any more of your time. There are no ‘circumstances’. Everything has been blown up out of proportion. You see–’

The custody sergeant cut Rufus dead with a look. This was the sort of woman who didn’t like being interrupted. Best to keep quiet, and bide his time. The young officer relayed the events in police language: formal, stilted. Rufus listened; he would have given a better account of what had occurred. It was clear this copper didn’t grasp the complexity of his domestic situation. After all, he was just a boy.

‘Mr Samuels, I’m going to authorise your detention so that we can act on the information my colleague has reported, and give you the opportunity to provide an explanation. Now, I’d like you to empty your pockets.’

‘Me beg you no take me hat.’ ‘Sorry?’

‘Madam, me would like to keep me hat if it’s all right with you. It’s me lucky hat, and me nah want to catch a draught, and be sick come New Year’s Day.’

They confiscated Rufus’s mobile phone, his wallet, his watch, his tie and cuff links. They even took his shoelaces. He was allowed to keep his Homburg, after they’d checked the lining and the brim.

‘Are you on any medication?’ the custody sergeant asked in her monotone.

Rufus was seventy-two, but believed he could still pass for sixty. He had always taken pride in his physical appearance, and had been able to maintain his athletic build –  his slender waist and barrel chest – until well into middle age. Then came a diagnosis of high blood pressure, then diabetes, and after that he started having the sort of trouble associated with an enlarged prostate. But all the men he played dominoes with at the Duke of Sussex had the same problems.

‘You’re as old as the woman you feel,’ was Connie’s philosophy. Cheryl was thirty-six. Healthy and strong.

The bolt on the cell door echoed as it shot home.   Rufus overheard the policemen conversing as they retreated along the corridor.

‘What’s Granddad in for?’ asked the Asian custody officer. ‘Wearing a loud suit in a built-up area?’

‘Domestic,’ his arresting officer replied. ‘Blimey! Has he asked for a lawyer?’ ‘No. He does want a phone call though.’

Rufus padded carefully across the cell floor. Without the laces, his brogues were large and awkward. The blue plastic mattress, spread across a narrow cot, was thin and cold against his backside as he sat down. He inhaled, catching a whiff of sweat and booze. In a neighbouring cell, the baritone began slurring his way through Auld Lang Syne again. A younger, gruffer male voice shouted: ‘Shut the fuck up.’ The singing continued. ‘I said shut the fuck up,’ Gruff-Voice repeated. The baritone stopped. ‘You shut the fuck up,’ he shouted.

‘No, you shut the fuck up.’

‘Go fuck yourself!’

‘No, you go fuck yourself!

Their expletives echoed up and down the corridor for around five minutes. Then there was silence. Rufus took off his hat and allowed his head to rest against the concrete wall. His mind drifted back to this time last year, and the moment Cheryl arrived at the community centre dressed in that white strapless gown. It clung to her bosom, slipped over her hips, and hugged her broad backside, before cascading in folds with silver sequins down to the tiled floor. Cheryl and her girlfriend stood at the edge of the dance floor, with their Beyoncé-style weaves, clutching Bacardi Breezers. Being red-skinned, Rufus wasn’t usually attracted to women of a darker complexion. Cheryl’s smooth, blue-black skin had the lustre of a Nubian woodcarving. Expertly applied makeup accentuated her chiselled jawline and hollowed cheeks, features that he would normally call handsome, rather than beautiful. It was the assurance in her step and the swing of her waist that had truly mesmerized him. His eyes were drawn to her all night as she glided around the hall, the sequins on her frock leaving a trail from the buffet to the bar and all around the dance floor.  At first he watched from a safe vantage point, but as if wound in by some invisible wire, Rufus found himself at her elbow when the clock struck midnight. She’d turned and raised an eyebrow.

‘So mi watchdog dare fi approach at last!’

‘Mi nah watchdog. Mi just like to look ‘pon a beautiful woman.’

‘And mi like man with moustache,’ she said, a gold canine glinting as she smiled. She bowed her head to plant a waxy kiss on his mouth, ‘Happy New Year,’ she said.

‘Fooor Auuld Laang Syyyne my dear, Fooor Auuld Laang Syyyne ….’

The baritone along the corridor had resumed his carolling. Rufus shook his head. With it being New Year’s Eve, the cells would soon begin to fill up. Might he end up having to share with some drunken ruffian? Did Cheryl realize what she was putting him through? Rufus heard the keys twist in the lock. The cell door opened, and a white policeman in his fifties was standing beside the custody officer.

‘Mr Rufus Samuels? Come with me, please.’

There was a long, dull tone. Rufus shifted in the hard plastic seat, and waited for the note to end. At last, he could get this whole thing sorted out. The room he now sat in was almost as bare as the cell, except it had carpet, and a table where he sat across from the policeman. There was also a clock on the wall. It was 22.10. Connie’s party would be well underway by now. He indulged himself in imagining that Connie was ringing his mobile at that very moment, or hurrying to his flat. Concerned, anxious to find out why Rufus hadn’t made it to the party yet. They’d met in 1961 while on a double date with twins, Letitia and Denise Macintosh. The men hit it off with each other, more than they did with the sisters; their mutual love of rum, dominoes, gambling and women had made them firm friends. Over the years, they had loaned each other money and slept on each other’s couches, and Connie had been Rufus’s best man for three of his four weddings. Surely Connie would have noticed his absence by now.

The note ceased. Rufus sat up straight, and looked the policeman in the eye. ‘For the benefit of the tape please state your full name.’

‘Rufus Harold Samuels.’

‘I am Sergeant Daniel Parsons of the prisoner handling unit. Mr Samuels, you’ve waived your right to have legal representation present during this interview, but should you change your mind you can request a lawyer at any time. Do you understand?’


‘Mr Samuels, you’ve been brought here under caution, following an incident at 12b Hercules Tower. Mrs Cheryl Marcia Samuels alleges that you assaulted her. Is that correct?’

‘Well, Sergeant Parsons, Daniel, this whole situation just blow up from nothing. We were getting ready to go to my best friend’s New Year’s Eve party, it’s a family-and-friends type of thing him been having for the past thirty years. Anyway, Cheryl come out of the bedroom in a short, tight-up frock – more of a night-club type of outfit than a nice party dress.  Now, I did tell her that she look nice, but I said that I thought it was a little revealing for Connie’s party. After all, it’s the community centre we ah go to, not a dance hall.’

‘You took offence to what your wife was wearing.’

‘Yes man! Me like her to dress nice, but at thirty-six she neither chick nor child, and no have no business going to a family party dressed like that. Are you married, Daniel?’

‘It’s Sergeant Parsons. Yes, I am happily married, and I don’t tell my wife what to wear.’

‘Good for you. I’m glad your wife’s clothes no give you any cause for concern. But you understand that a husband should be able to offer him wife his opinion nuh?’

‘Had you been drinking?’

‘No. Me was saving meself for the party.’

‘Would you say that you have a problem with your wife making up her own mind? Making her own decisions?’

‘No-suh! I thought we would just have a discussion about her apparel.’ ‘Did you become angry, Mr Samuels?’

‘Listen Daniel, Sergeant Parsons, I am a reasonable man. When we first met, she did seem like a reasonable woman. Quick tempered, but me like women with a bit of spirit, you know? Lately, me can’t put a foot right with her, and tonight, she just went crazy ‘pon me.’

‘Your wife alleges that you assaulted her. That you held her by the wrists.’ ‘Well ah lie she ah tell. Ah no so it go.’ Rufus paused, picturing the smirk on

Cheryl’s face as she prodded his chest with her index finger.  He recalled the raspy tone of her voice.

‘She say to me: ‘what make you think mi ‘ah go to Connie’s party?’ She said: ‘Yuh nah see you is an old man? You want to spend New Year with all you ol’ friend and dem pickny, and dem grandpickny and call it a party. Cha! Ah true mi nuh young like spring chicken, but mi still have more life than you.’ All me did was kiss me teeth, but then she raise her fists to thump me. Me say ‘Woman calm yourself nuh!’ Which was when me did grab her wrists.’

‘So, Mr Samuels, you’re saying that your wife was about to strike you?’

The officer leaned forward. He looked Rufus straight in the eye. His expression had been serious throughout the interview so far, but now Rufus thought he detected something else.

‘Has your wife ever displayed violence towards you before, Mr Samuels?’ ‘What do you mean?’

‘Has your wife ever struck you before?’

Rufus wondered if this was some sort of ploy. Get him to say he was riled, so lashed out against her. It was embarrassing enough to have to admit out loud – and to another man, that his wife had tried to hit him in the first place. He could imagine the mockery if it ever got out: ‘Just look how Rufus let him young gyal rule him!’

He’d never be able to show his face in The Duke again. None of the domino crowd would understand that he and Cheryl were still adjusting to married life.

Although Rufus kept his eyes pinned to the plastic spool turning in the tape machine, he could feel the sergeant’s gaze.

‘Mr Samuels, I appreciate this might be difficult to talk about, but I can assure you we take spousal abuse very seriously.’

Spousal abuse. The words churned over in Rufus’s mind. ‘All spousal abuse,’ the detective added.

‘No comment,’ Rufus replied.

‘All right, Mr Samuels,’ said the policeman closing his folder. ‘I’m going to need a full statement from your wife in order to decide how to proceed.’

Rufus clutched the telephone receiver, pressing it against to his ear. He could picture the cream-coloured phone on Pearl’s hallway table, its ring echoing around her maisonette. It was ten to eleven. Pearl would already be at a Church of God of Prophecy’s  New Year’s Eve service, sitting in a pew close to the choir. When he’d announced that he and Cheryl were getting married, several people raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Only Pearl had been straight with him.

‘Lord God Rufus, you come here ah brag about how you gwaan go get married in three week, when you only know this woman three months!’

Pearl had reached for the kettle,then, changing her mind, had gone to the larder and taken a bottle of Wray & Nephew from the top shelf.   She moved about the kitchen in a languid manner, dressed in the kaftan she thought 2concealed her big batty. Her face was moisturized, but otherwise notmade-up. Rufus’s marriage to Pearl had lasted six years, and although they divorced in 1987, he’d gravitate towards her whenever he needed to think aloud. He still thought his third wife was captivating. She had poured two large measures of white rum and nudged one of the glasses towards him.

‘Well, if it wasn’t for this thing with her papers, then me would have probably wait,’ said Rufus. ‘Have a proper church do, rather than a register office affair.’

‘You know that’s not what I mean. The woman live here six years already and nuh properly land yet? All she ah look for is a man with citizenship, a flat and a pension. You no remember that you already have daughters the same age as she? Time you ah spend running after women, you could ah spend with the children –and the grandchildren you barely know.’

‘Dem nah want to know me. When last any of them come look for me? Dem out there, living dem life. Me maybe in me seventies but me have life to live too. Me no need to be alone.’ He took a sip of the rum. ‘Is it because you jealous that you say Cheryl just ah use me?’

Pearl had coughed down her rum before bursting into laughter. Rufus had always liked her deep, hearty laugh. It was the only time that creases ever appeared on her smooth, red-brown skin.

‘If me did think there was a chance of we getting back together, then maybe me would think again about Cheryl.’

‘Rufus, me always did love you sense of humour, but me too old for you and your foolishness.’

Rufus had kissed his teeth. ‘You gwaan take me back one of these days you know, and I’ll be waiting. Time longa than rope’

‘Nuh let your fiancé hear you say that. Me hear she have quite a temper.’

Now there was a click and the ringing tone was replaced with a long dull note. Rufus replaced the receiver; he rubbed the sweat from his hands on to his trouser leg.

‘No answer?’ said the custody officer. Rufus shook his head.

‘It’s that time of the evening. Everyone is out and about by now. I can’t understand it myself, I’d rather stay indoors.’

‘Can me make another call? Please?’ The officer gave him a sympathetic smile. ‘Go on then.’

Rufus dialled the only other number that he knew by heart. He held his breath during half a dozen rings, and then exhaled a deep sigh.

‘You’re through to the voicemail of Cornelius Benson. Me can’t take your call now, but please leave me a message, after the tone. Thanks.’

‘Connie, its Rufus. Me deh ah’ Asylum Road Police Station. Cheryl have me arrest. Man, me no know where fi turn.’

Rufus was being taken back to the cells when his guard was informed that the duty medic had arrived. He was led down a new corridor, and stopped outside a room where the sign on the door said Forensic Physician. The custody officer tapped twice.

‘Yes, come in,’ said a woman’s voice from inside.

Despite the ominous sign, the room looked just like a normal doctor’s surgery, with a trolley bed covered in thin blue paper, metal thermometers, probes and a blood pressure machine. The room smelled reassuringly of disinfectant. The doctor rose from her desk, and shook his hand.

‘Good evening, I’m Dr Kwarshie, and you are … Mr Rufus Samuels?’ Rufus nodded, ‘Ok. Thank you officer.’

‘I’ll just be outside.’ The policeman retreated from the room.

‘Take a seat please, Mr Samuels.’ Dr Kwarshie gestured to a grey plastic chair with thin green padding on the seat and back, placed to the side of the desk. While the lady doctor scanned some papers, Rufus mused on how much she resembled his daughter Sharon. Pearl had shown him photos of Sharon’s wedding day that had been posted on an Internet site: Facelink, MyPage, or something-or-other. She looked just like her mother, Pearl, on their wedding day. The same round face with dimpled cheeks, the same skin-tone, and almond-shaped eyes.

‘Says here you’re seventy-two, I’d have had you down for at least ten years younger.’

‘Well, you know that black don’t crack,’ he said.

Dr Kwarshie laughed, revealing a slight gap between her two front teeth. Rufus felt a little more relaxed in this room.

‘You remind me of one of my daughters.’

‘So you’re a family man, Mr Samuels, that’s nice.  How many daughters do you have?’

‘Eight. Me have four sons too, and six grandchildren already. ‘A big family. It must keep you busy.’

Rufus smiled faintly, but didn’t reply.

‘I see that you’ve been in here for almost three hours.  Can I ask when you last took your blood-pressure medication?’

‘This morning.’

‘No headache or dizziness since you’ve been taken into custody?’.

‘No, young lady. The only reason me head ah spin is on account of the nonsense me wife say about me.’

‘Well, I’m here to assess you’re medically fit for detention, Mr Samuels.’ She was still smiling, but her voice was firm. ‘The investigating officers will deal with the charges. Can you raise you sleeve for me, I’d like to take a blood pressure reading.’

Rufus folded up the shirtsleeve on his right arm, in order to avoid creasing it too much. Dr Kwarshie leaned forward with the glove.

‘Mr Samuels, may I ask – how long have you had these bruises on your arm?’ ‘Oh. It nah nothing doctor.   Me bump meself the other day, when me was

getting out of the bath.’

‘Well, I can see that might explain the bruise on your upper arm, but these marks here,’ she said, her finger hovering above the dark patches from his wrist up to his elbow. ‘These look like finger marks.’

Rufus looked at the woman. Despite the crease that had appeared in her forehead, she seemed even younger to him now.

‘You know you’re safe here, don’t you? Is there anything you’d like to tell me?’

‘It nuh nuttin’, doctor. It nuh nuttin’.’

Rufus had lost track of time. He guessed it must be getting close to midnight, he could hear the place filling up. There were more drunks, but the baritone had finally stopped singing Auld Lang Syne. The prospect of seeing in the New Year under lock and key was looming ever closer.

The cell door opened, and Sergeant Parsons entered. ‘Mr Samuels, you’re free to go.’

‘What? You talk to Cheryl?’

‘Yes, we have. Your wife has withdrawn her allegation against you. When our WPC arrived at your address your wife declined to make a full statement. She claimed that she still loves you, and she’s prepared to forgive you, if you promise to behave. Then she left, as a minicab had arrived to take her to a party in Hackney. As it stands there’s insufficient evidence to support that you attacked her, so we can’t proceed. My colleague will escort you to the front desk, where you can collect your things. ‘

The custody officer accompanied Rufus up from the cells. He was business- like and methodical in returning the confiscated possessions, and made polite chitchat. Rufus fastened the wristband of his watch and looked at the time. It was five to  twelve.

‘Time flies,’ said the policeman.

Rufus’s smile was thin. He felt weary. ‘Me was supposed to be at a party. Me nah go make it now. Not for midnight, anyhow.’

‘Well, you could hang around here until the chimes if you like. One of my colleagues could make you a cup of tea. You could have a chat…’

Rufus looked at the officer. He realised that the look he had been getting from Sergeant Parsons, from Dr Kwarshie, and from his jailor was pity. He started for the door.

‘Here, take this,’ the sergeant handed him a leaflet. A helpline number ran across the bottom.

‘Wha’ gwaan Big Man!’ came a booming voice came from behind. Rufus shoved the leaflet into a trouser pocket.

‘Connie! What time you call this?’

‘Me just get you message, it’s me grandson Devlin drive me here, everyone else drunk already. Of all the caper you involve yuself in over the years, this one must beat all! What kind of foolishness is this Cheryl ah gwaan with?’

‘It nuh nuttin’. It will all blow over. But, beg you let me come cotch on your sofa for a night or two. Give her time to cool off.’

Rufus turned to the policeman. ‘Happy New Year, Officer,’ he mumbled.

‘Happy New Year, Sir. Good luck.’

The chorus of Auld Lang Syne seeped from some of the houses as Rufus and Connie walked towards Devlin’s car, parked up the road from the police station. It had begun to drizzle, so Rufus turned up the collar on his suit jacket, and pushed his hands deep into his trouser pockets. There was the leaflet. He grasped it, then slowly began to crumple it into a ball.

Auld Lang Syne by Lisa Smith

Download the New Voices audiobook read by all the shortlisted writers from this year’s Guardian 4th Estate BAME Prize.

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