Read: Kevin Baker
Byron was an artist. Not a scammer. Not a monster. An artist.
I met him in Camden Market, the mecca of London’s youth culture. I’ve run a stall there for years, selling hand-crafted crap from India, which I buy for pennies and sell to New Age kids for a healthy profit (I’m not proud of it, but old hippies need to eat too).
One summer, Byron took the pitch opposite mine, offering T-shirts with political cartoons printed on them. He struggled at first. People don’t want the truth on their T-shirts; they want irony, a whiff of rebellion, a logo jam, a cult movie reference.
“Why not try newspapers?” I suggested one evening, as we shared a joint back at my flat. “Surely that’s a better market for your stuff? You’ll get regular money too if you manage to break into it.”
Byron exhaled a thick cloud of smoke and drew enough breath to sigh. His expression, as always, was serious. It was one of the things I liked best about him. He reminded me what it was to be young, and to still have convictions.
“Newspapers only reach one type of person,” he said. “People enjoy their paper’s slant on the news, and disapprove of the others. A T-shirt worn by a kid on the tube reaches everyone. A message is carried around the city and forced in the face of people who would never think to seek it out.”
He took another toke while I digested what he’d said. He had a point. The spectrum of people he could expose to his messages was vast - the liberals on their way to Modern Art galleries – the financial fascists on their way home to their gated communities - the millions of people who get their news in text feeds, for whom papers are about as relevant as bed warmers. The possibilities were endless. But for the plan to work he needed a design that kids actually wanted to wear. That design eluded him for several months, until one day Lil Soldier was born.
He showed me the original sketch, a series of frantic biro scratches on the back of a gas bill. Even in that rough state it was an incredible image. A cartoonified African child, beaming and holding an AKA 47, Lil Soldier wears a camouflage jacket and shorts, shiny boots, and a sweet little beret on top of an Afro. He was as cute as Hello Kitty, and from the moment I saw his gap-toothed smile, I knew he was going to be gold.
Sure enough, the design was an instant hit. Bryon sold out of T-shirts in a single afternoon, starting a cult in the course of a weekend. Who knows what attracted the kids to it. Was it a sincere political stand-point? Was it because it carried an aura of what they call “thug life”? No-one was able to find out, but the cult kept growing. Lil Soldier merchandise followed in the wake of the T-shirts, and his smiling face was soon on everything from pencil cases to headphones. While Parliament fumed, and parents wrung their hands in distress, Byron started planning a music project using a hologram of Lil Soldier. “The Archies with attitude” was how he described it to one enthusiastic blogger.
But he wouldn’t live to see it through. One night, while walking back to Camden from a meeting, Bryon was stabbed five times and left for dead in piss soaked alley. No motive was ever established (he still had his wallet), and nobody was ever caught. The story of the murder hogged the headlines for a few weeks and then faded away. Lil Soldier was eventually banned, and the world soon forgot about Byron.
But I remember him. And I remember too that Lil soldiers are still fighting.
The Time House Window
My apartment in Korea was provided by the school, rent free. It wasn't a particularly spacious place, but a large window between the bedroom and the kitchen allowed the limited natural light to circulate freely. The window had two horizontal lines etched into it, along with the legend, Time House. I had no idea what this meant; to me it sounded like something from a science fiction movie; a way-station on a trip down a worm hole.
One night, while cooking and straining to keep an eye on the TV, I noticed two greasy imprints on the window, just below the horizontal lines. The imprints were of the same male face - a nose, a chin, and lips pursed in a kiss. The fact that there were two imprints next to each other struck me straight away. I sensed this repetition was a sign of passion or humor, but it was impossible to tell which. The lips remained dumb.
I thought a lot about those imprints over the next few weeks, spending my lunch breaks puzzling over the questions they raised. For instance, had been someone the other side of the window when it was kissed? I decided there must have been, for who would kiss a window once for their own amusement, let alone twice? But who then had the audience been? His friends? Were the imprints nothing more than a hangover from a night of drunken exhibitionism?
Even while I admitted that possibility, another image kept coming to me. I saw a girl lying on the bed under the window. She appeared so clearly in my mind’s eye, languidly looking up post-coitus to see her lover naked in the kitchen. He glances through the window and notices that she's awake, then kisses her mock passionately through the glass. The vision seemed so right; it's exactly the kind of look-at-me stunt a guy pulls in the early stages of a relationship.
If that was the case, and my theoretical couple were in their honeymoon period, how much longer had they stayed together afterwards? Was it a matter of days, weeks, months, years? For all I know, they may even still been together now. Somehow I doubt it though, knowing the success rate of relationships started abroad.
I eventually accepted that I would never be able to solve the enigma of the kisses. Whatever emotions lay behind the smudges, the stirrings of love, a rush of alcohol to the head, I was sure they were spent, and would never be resurrected. But even now, their traces remain on the Time House window.