The rattle of the ice cubes inside the cool box and the gentle plod as when they fall into the plastic cup. The neatly organised bar is where I find the waiting bottle of Jack Daniels, the word ‘Tennessee’ on its label the first thing I see. I pick up the silver drinks measurer, with a single measurement on top and a double measurement on the bottom. I spin it round and make it a double, filling it up with the dark brown liquid and pouring it onto the three stacked ice cubes like an alcoholic, room temperature blanket. I turn around and go to place it onto the bar. I pause for a moment. Chills run through that plastic cup and they run through me. My heart has made a snap decision of what I’ve just seen but my mind can’t keep up with it.
I see a face smeared with patchy brown paint. Above the face is a head full of small black loose braids, falling onto the patchy brown forehead. From the plaits, like a mocking grin, are some badly gelled baby hair curls, overlapping cheeks laden with stubble. This person standing in front of me is in a black tank top, smiling and wanting my attention. I have shallow breath and walk towards them.
“I thought blackface was socially unacceptable these days.”
This person giggles, takes a sip of their tap water.
“Oh, it’s not blackface. It’s a performance! Hehehe.”
Their giggle chills me, and I feel my jaw open involuntarily. I serve this person their drink, and look around to see if I can find Lucy, my colleague turned friend who does the 11-6am bar shifts with me in Tottenham. A girl I’d never met until half an hour before is sat on a stool. She smiled when we met and shook my hand, but she seemed either timid or withdrawn, so I choose not to tell her. Lucy and this girl are both white, but the conversations I’d had with Lucy concerning matters of prejudice had led me to think she’s someone who will listen and discuss without interference from that voice that exists in some that tells them to silence a person of colour’s disenchantment. She opens the side door and walks back into the bar.
“I just saw someone doing black face.”
“What? Are you joking?”
“I just served them at the bar. I said to them “I thought blackface was socially unacceptable these days.” They just giggled and told me ‘it’s a performance!'” I tell her, mimicking this person’s effeminate mannerisms.
I look across the bar over to the DJ stand; a red light illuminates the slowly gyrating, grinding silhouettes in the bar’s gloom. A deafening, reverberating sound is squeezed out of the 5 foot tall speakers stacked on one another. I didn’t realise there was a performance going on, I thought, the whole thing covered by the wall of moving figures.
The adrenaline and throbbing anxiety jitters inside me, feelings that colour my next half an hour of doing my job.
In the corner is a jug filled with tap water, with a stack of small plastic cups next to it for people to walk over to and serve themselves with. I see a pair of white hands pouring themselves a glass. I look up to the body and head they’re attached to, and the first thing I see is the white blond hair, its brightness becoming an arctic snow under the overhead lights.
And then I see the face.
Smeared irregularly over it is brown paint. Witnessing a terrorist wielding a knife with your death in his sights is what I see.
Death. Demonic. Destruction. Doom.
I walk straight into the face of Death.
“What the hell is going on? Why are you both wearing black face?”
With a giggle, he looks up from his glass.
“Hahaha! It’s not blackface, it’s a performance!” he replies, pouting his lips and ‘sassing’ away behind the corner.
He had the same southern European accent as the one from before. I turn to Lucy.
“What the fuck is going on. I’m deeply distressed. I’m feeling something in my body I’ve never felt before.”
“I don’t actually know what to do. I’m still processing it.”
“He had baby hair and plaits. He was dressing up like some black ghetto girl from Tottenham, wasn’t he. They giggled and told me it was a performance.”
“Well they obviously don’t care, do they? For them to actually go out looking like that.”
I look to the man I was halfway through serving, waiting patiently for his order of a double rum and Coke, two double Jack Daniel’s and Coke and a pint of Asahi. I project my voice across the bar to him.
“I’m sorry your drinks are taking so long. I just saw two people wearing blackface and giggle about it and tell me it’s a performance. I’m freaking out,” I tell him, a smile on my face to try and add some kind of lightness, some kind of humour to this situation. White people wearing blackface is something I’d seen written about online, images of people from the present day to the distant past in the 19th and 20th centuries. But I had never seen it as I did here, face to face and with a grinning smile.
I take a breath, and then get to work at serving this man his order. I take his payment and then tell him and the two girls behind the bar I’m speaking to the organisers.
“I know the organisers, but I don’t know the people doing the performance. Well, I don’t know them personally.”
I serve two more people before stepping out of the bar. He’s stood there speaking to a woman. She’s speaking loudly and talking nonsense and I sense that she’s not going to help me with what’s happening.
“Hi again. I’m going to speak to them. I’m going to ask them if they know what’s happening in there.”
“Okay, okay, like I said, I don’t know the two people doing blackface very well. So… This is Carlotta, by the way.”
I shake Carlotta’s hand and immediately try to turn my attention back to him, a person I feel is more good than bad.
“I’m going to call upon Allah, God, Buddha, Jesus, Mother Mary… all of them! Let them be good people.”
“Yeah, listen man. Maybe just understand that they’re from Italy and just… don’t understand?”
I ignore what he has to say to me so I don’t fall off the orbit of what I have to do. I don’t, we don’t apologise to these people. This is wrong, and it’s demonic.
“They don’t represent Italy, I do!!!” Carlotta tells me, smiling maniacally. She grabs my arm and tries to get my attention.
“Carlotta, e stato un piacere, ma non ho il tempo per parlare con te,” I tell her.
“Ma dai! Devi parlare con me! Dai!”
“Un bacio, buona serata.
“Baciate, baciate!” she says, her words falling on my heels as I walk towards the front doors.
I see two people by the front door. One is sat and the other standing. They see I am walking straight towards them with a facial expression they probably hadn’t come across on that night.
“Hello, I’m working behind the bar. Do you have an idea of what’s going on tonight?” I say, pouring a mist of calm into my question to calm the fizzing distress.
The person sat down frowns at me immediately. English isn’t his first language and he repeats several times what I said. I deduce that what he was trying to do was repeat my question so many times that it would stop making sense, just like what we do with ordinary words as children. I feel my soul flaring, screaming as I look at him, his pale face speckled with red screwed up with cruelty, eyebrows shaved into thin points above the corner of his inner eye, hair shaved and dyed red with a single spike with red makeup and skirt falling over his seated legs.
The other person, smooth-faced and handsome with a short beard, dressed in black and wearing a beanie hat looks to me.
“What do you mean? What’s going on inside?”
“I just saw two people wearing blackface. I’m horrified.”
“Why are you horrified? It’s art,” says he from his seat, his Italian vowels rattling over his venom and ignorance, like a car assaulted by a rocky road and becoming dirtier and more brutalised with every stone.
“Okay, that, unfortunately, is what I expected you to say.”
“It’s not art,” leaving with that statement and understanding I had done all I could. To be good.
I see the person standing and gesture his hands downwards in a way that says “it’s okay, I’ll deal with this”. The same gesture managers use with their staff when dealing with unreasonable customers in a restaurant or clothes shop.
“Show me what you mean, I don’t understand what you mean,” he says, following me. I sense the futility in him coming and of the interaction that’s about to follow. I go back behind the bar.
He turns round the corner.
“What is going on?” he asks me.
“I was serving people drinks and saw two people wearing blackface. They giggled and said it was a performance.”
“But what do you mean? I don’t understand.”
“They were doing blackface.” A breath. “They were laughing at black people. This is London. You can not do this is LONDON,” I say, switching my wording from ‘making fun of’; that makes this seem like a primary school dispute.
“What?” he lets out a laugh before gesturing for me to lean back into him. “No one is laughing at black people. The theme of the night is Dante Alighieri. You know Dante Alighieri? The theme of the night is Dante’s Inferno.”
“Ma certo conosco Dante Alighieri. Mai l’ho letto, e non so quello che sta succendo nel libro, ma…”
“Ah,” he says, opening his hands upon realising I know Italian. “Allora, se non hai letto il libro, non puoi capire la festa. Leggilo – ti lo ricommando.”
A stain appears on my heart. I let him turn this into a matter of intellect. I watch him walk away and I turn to Lucy.
“How do you feel?”
“He told me the theme of the night is Dante’s Inferno. I told him I’d never read it and he said I should read it and then I’d understand.”
She scoffs and looks angry.
“Well, what do you want to do?”
“I’m going home.”
“Are you sure?” she asks.
I silence the voice that tells me to stay.
“Yes. I’m leaving.”
“Okay,” she says, lifting £15 from the till and handing it over to me.”
I put on my coat, give her a hug and wave goodbye to the other girl. I walk swiftly past the smooth-faced organiser.
“Grazie mille,” I tell him with a smile, leaving the industrial park where the bar is located and heading towards the bus station.