Bootblack

by Tade Thompson

Editor’s note: This story is set during the 1919 Race Riots of Cardiff. The place names in this piece are historical. See also here. More information can also be found in Fryer, P. (2010): Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. Pluto Press, London pp. 303-309.

Statement of LINUS CARTER
July the 27th 189_ 1919
Rewritten by Cpr Samuel Llewellyn due to [unclear]
God save King George.

My name is Linus Carter and I live in Cardiff. Our house is in Niggertown. The police say I have to write my name on every page in case the page goes missing.

I have been asked to say what I know about the fighting and the shining man. This is not much, but my father and mother want me to help the police. I like the police. They always have shining shoes and many come to me to help them keep up the shine and I get coins for this. I am a shoeshine, but the shining man called me a bootblack and he thought this was funny, but I don’t know why. My father was a cobbler before he went to war and he said he was going to teach me but I am not smart enough and my father came back blind and he taught me to shine shoes.

The shining man came a week before the fighting. I remember because I woke up with blood in my mouth and a sore tongue. I was on the floor. My mother came in and saw the blood on the bedding and said I should clean myself up outside. I cleaned myself up. Before, when I was not this old, mother would have taken me to see the doctor, but not anymore. Mother said we could not pay for it anymore. And she said the treatment made no difference. My father calls this falling sickness the Morbus and he gave me a chain made of the backbone of snakes. I still get the Morbus, but when mother can afford Bromo-seltzer I don’t get it so much.

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I met the shining man while crossing the bridge. The Taff rushed very fast that morning because it had rained for many days before. I left home early even though my tongue was still sore from biting. When it rains there is mud, and when there is mud shoeshines make a lot of money because people step in the mud, making their shoes dirty. A horse carriage passed me, but there was nobody else on foot that morning.

I saw a light from the reeds. It was only for a short time and very bright. I was alone on the bridge. I took my box to the side of the bridge and sat down because sometimes I see lights before the Morbus. If I sit down when I see the lights I do not injure myself so much.

It was not the Morbus. When the light stopped I saw a man standing there. He did not shine, but he wore strange clothes that did shine. It shone like he wore clothes made of soft mirrors. He had engines and machines that shone too. He hid these in the bushes and took off the shiny clothes. I saw that he had regular clothes underneath, and he wore a flatcap after he hid his shiny clothes. Then he saw me.

He climbed up the bank and walked to me. His boots were muddy. He was smiling. He asked if I was a bootblack and I asked what a bootblack was and he told me and I said I was. He was light, with curly hair, but not white. He looked like the light-skinned Somali men who came and went on Millicent Street, which wasn’t in Niggertown but was owned by Negroes. He talked funny, and I thought he was an American because I have never seen an American except for the cowboy shows during the fair last summer and my father said they were Yorkshiremen pretending to be Americans. I think that pretending to be something can be being something if you pretend hard enough for long enough.

When the shining man asked me to shine his boots I said no because it is bad luck to shine shoes on a bridge. None of the boys will do this. He asked me why, but I said it was back luck. I said if we go to one end of the bridge towards the railway station I would shine his shoes and he smiled wider.

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I cleaned the boots first, because it is a mistake to shine dirty shoes, and the shining man’s shoes were muddy from the marsh. I did not talk because customers do not like shoeshines to talk first. Some of them start to talk, others keep quiet. The shining man started to talk as soon as my rag touched his left boot. He asked me my name and I told him. He asked where I live, and I told him. He did not know where that was and so I asked him where he was from, and he said, ‘Not from around here.’

I thought about it and later I realised that he did not want to say where he was from. People say I’m slow. It takes me a long time to learn something, but once I know it I never forget. Most people do not wait long enough for me to learn. I am not slow when I am doing what I already know, like shining shoes. I shine faster than any of the boys.

The shining man called me Master Carter, which made me laugh. Later, after the fighting, the police called me Master Carter, but that did not make me laugh because the police are not funny.

The boot leather did not take up the polish like normal shoes, so I stopped and touched the boots and stroked the toe. I asked the shining man what kind of boots these were and he said I should not worry about it. I explained that I was not worried, but I had to use the right polish. The shining man took his boot off the footrest and said that he was here looking for somebody and that he had to go. He paid me in coin and walked away.

That day was very busy and I stopped thinking about the shining man. It was also very hot. My mother said it was the hottest summer she could remember and my father agreed. In the town I heard some miners say it was the end of the world. I don’t know how the world can end, but I did not ask because sometimes, when I ask questions, people laugh at me.

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The next day I saw the shining man again. This time I did not think of the Morbus. I waited at one side of the bridge and he came to me. He put one boot on my box so I began to shine. He did not smile as much as before so I did not look at him. When I was almost finished he asked, ‘Do you know a man called Abdi Langara?’

I said I knew a lot of men called Abdi and that they could be found in the Millicent Street Boarding House. I told him how to get there. I asked if Abdi was a soldier because many people were missing since the war ended, and often strangers would come into town looking for people nobody had heard of. Mother said some people were hiding and had run away from their old life. I did not know what she meant by that. How could a person leave their life behind?

The shining man said Abdi was not a soldier, but they were supposed to meet. He could not find the right street. He asked me how much I earned a day and I told him. I did not think that he wanted to rob me. I have been robbed before by a gang of boys. I did fight them even though they were older than me. I do know how to fight, but not when there are more boys than me.

The shining man said he would pay me twice as much if I would take him around the town to find Abdi. I said I had to ask my mother.

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My mother said it wasn’t Christian to be paid for showing a stranger around. I went back out and told this to the shining man. I took him to the house on Millicent Street and this was lucky because I shined many shoes of the Somali men there. I made a lot of money, more than usual. This was my first time of being in that house, and it was not like any other. There were more books than I had ever seen in a Negro house. They had paintings which showed Africa. People played musical instruments, but I do not know the names of the instruments. People gathered together and one man talked to them. I think he was teaching them. I wanted to stay and listen, but there were many boots to shine, many coins to earn. I do not know if the shining man found Abdi, but he was very happy. Before I took him back to the bridge, I showed him around Tiger Bay.

He said he owed me a favour. He asked if there was anything we needed in the house. I said I did not know, but food was sometimes a problem. He said he could not help with that. He asked if we had any machines.

That evening my parents were talking about fighting between blacks and whites in other parts of Wales. I do not know why the fights started. I testify that I was not in any fight with whites. Not really. My mother said it had something to do with white women married to black men, but my father said it was about jobs and the war and the docks. I could not understand. When they had gone to bed the shining man came into the house. He said he had repaired what he could. He said he liked my father’s service pistol and he had fixed it. I did not know it was broken.

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I wanted to know about the shining man’s machine so I went to the riverbank and beat around the bush looking for his machine that he used. I did not find it. But it was early and I waited as the day got brighter. The morning breeze changed into a wind that whipped my clothes and pulled me and the sticks and leaves in one direction and then there was a bright light like the kind I saw when the shining man first appeared. There he was, shining clothes, shining. It was the first and only time I saw him surprised. The wind blew me past him, and I fell into the light. I was afraid. The light went out and it was dark, then bright, then dark. I just kept falling. The wind stopped, and I spun round and round. Sometimes there would be a burst of light like a rainbow, sometimes I would hear screaming, like seagulls fighting over food. I thought I was dying. I prayed to God and promised never to disobey my mother if only I could get home safe or be alive again and God heard me, but not too soon. Sometimes it was hot, then cold, and when I was numb and could not breathe right, it became so bright that I closed my eyes.

I heard voices. Languages I could not understand, and English and other sounds, noises, whistles. Then I heard my name. Not my name, but the one the shining man called me.

‘Master Carter, you are truly insane.’

I opened my eyes and there he was.

‘Give me your hand, you nutter.’

He pulled me back to Cardiff, back to the Taff, but just before we came back to the world I felt something else. I looked back into the swirling colours and the cold and the heat. There were eyes. It felt like we had been seen. I felt like a chicken when there was a hawk overhead.

Then we were back and the shining man laughed. We landed in the mud and had to clean ourselves and then I cleaned and shined his shoes, but only after he took them off. He lay on the grass drying himself. I was still wet, but I wanted his boots clean. While I cleaned he talked, sometimes to me, but sometimes to himself. I am not sure.

He said there was a lot to learn from wars. He said war was strange. He said there was no such thing as giving a war where nobody came. He said people come back to wars again and again and again. He said that was his job, but that he was no longer interested in doing it.

I asked him what he meant by going to war. I asked if he was a soldier and he said he was not, but that he looked at wars, trying to learn from them. He said years from now leaders would want to know what happened from 1914 to 1918. He said there would be wars where more people would die than did in the Great War.

I said my father told me that more people died in the war than I could ever count. I said King George said it would never happen again because everybody will remember the dead because there would be a remembrance in November.

The shining man laughed at that, and kept laughing for a long time.

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I thought nobody noticed the shining man, but the next day my father asked me about my new friend.

‘Something odd about that one,’ he said. ‘Where is he from?’

‘Not here,’ I said.

My mother did not let me go to work that day. She said people had been attacked by white mobs and she was worried. Both of my parents and the whole of Niggertown was worried. From inside the house we heard the noise of people screaming and gunshots and the crackle of fires. I later found out that the trouble was caused by a large group of black men and white women who went out of Cardiff together and were attacked by a mob of white people when they came back. My mother asked my father if we should run.

‘Where to?’ he asked.

He did tell me to get his gun, but my mother yelled at him because he was blind. I do not think that was very nice of my mother, but it was true that my father couldn’t use a gun if he could not see. I did get the gun, just in case. That was lucky because they did come knocking on our door. They were loud and frightening and they shouted. They shook the handle. Some were at the windows and we could smell smoke from outside. The door shook and I thought it would come off. Four men and two women crowded to get in. My mother took my father into the coal cellar, but I had my father’s gun and when the door fell off I pointed and fired without thinking.

It did not go bang. Instead, it made a whining sound like a cat. Instead of the flash, it glowed, and in its light I saw the mob clearly. After I fired the gun they had the Morbus. All of them. They had bubbles in their mouths and pissed themselves while banging their heads on the wooden floor. This is true. I swear it.

The rest of the mob did not come into the house after those who did got the Morbus. They ran away. Mother cleaned their clothes and cleaned the floor and we both looked after them, but they woke up and ran away. I do not know where the gun is. I dropped it after firing because I was frightened.

These were not the last visitors we had that night.

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There were two men who came to the house. I had never seen them before. Their shoes were clean and polished, but instead of stockings or socks they had a shiny film on the skin of their legs, soft mirrored fabric that I had seen before. They wore gloves and hoods. Their clothes were not only clean, they were new. Even the white people who come into Niggertown don’t have new clothes. They did not come inside.

I had the same feeling that came when I was in the shining man’s machine and I knew that these were the eyes that watched me. I do not know how long they stood there for, but after a while they walked away. I spent the night in the coal cellar with my family. There were rats.

I saw the shining man the next day on the bridge, but this time he came from the direction of the town, and he said the boarding house on Millicent Street had been burnt down and I could tell that he was sad. His shoes were dirty but he did not let me clean them. He started to speak to me, but I do not remember what he said. His words came fast, as if he thought he had to use them all up. His words made my head hurt. He finished by saying ‘thank you’ and walked to the bank of the Taff. I watched him from the bridge and two hooded figures joined him and put manacles on him. He did not struggle or fight. This time I expected the bright light, and when it came they were all gone.

I do not know where they went or where they came from.

I saw Abdi Langara once, in town, but not at Millicent Street. He stopped me and asked if I was Linus Carter the bootblack and I said yes and he said did I know if Our Friend was coming back and I said I do not know and he smiled as if we both had a secret. Abdi Langara had clean shoes, but whoever had polished them was not very careful because I could see a streak of polish on his brogues.

‘He was a thief, you know. He stole…items of interest and gave them away, gave them to me for our people to use. That house they burnt was…He brought us books and devices, things we are not allowed to buy. We could teach, we could learn, we had a future. Millicent Street wasn’t a boarding house. It was a bank, a post office, a university, a theatre, all in one. Just a few more years, who knows what it could have become? They came for us at night. Seven Warsangeli surrounded the house and tried to fight off the mob. They held it for hours, taking injuries and injuring the mob as well. Finally, a few slipped through and set fire to the house. The police arrived and it was all over. They arrested us. By the time we got out, the place had been looted. At least nobody died there. On Bute Street they killed Mahommed Abdullah. Six white men were charged with murder, and six white men were acquitted for lack of evidence.’

I did not understand everything he said, but he spoke slowly, and I felt happy listening to his deep voice. He gave me some money, then left me alone. I wanted to wipe away the polish from his shoes.

I still get the Morbus and I still shine shoes. I still wake up with blood in my mouth and a cut on my tongue every few days. When customers call me a shoeshine I tell them I am a bootblack.

I swear this is a true account of what happened.

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