Christmas at the hostel and the tree in the lounge is lopsided but bright. Christopher is sitting on a sofa, holding a bloody wad of tissues to his mouth, which he takes away only to smoke, and to tell something else about the assault. The thrill of it has galvanised the place. Various characters appear and disappear, scuttling back to the squat round the corner where the whole thing blew up, either to report on who’s there now, or to carry out the vengeance they’ve sworn on Christopher’s behalf, or just hurrying to and fro in a pin-eyed, point-less kind of excitement.
Christopher is an impressive figure. I’ve seen him around, his shaven head nicked and scarred from other fights, his tall frame intensified by his years on the street. He carries himself with economy, a Kwai Chang Caine of Skag, loping from place to place, with his bag of cans and wraps.
‘He hit me with a block of wood. Shoom! And there must’ ve been a nail in it or summit ‘cos it ripped my face, man. Look at me! I can poke my tongue through. D’you think I need stitches? It’ll never heal, will it?’
Christopher’s friend Dave stands just behind his right shoulder. He’s the complete opposite to him – short, hunched, a sagged and pitted face. He fits his words into the spaces that Christopher leaves, skipping in and out like a Court Jester around a King.
‘You should definitely get him for this,’ he says. ‘I tell you what. You get him, I’ll finish him off.’
Christopher takes the wad from his face and looks at Dave.
‘Seriously, mate. Don’t. Look at me! He could’ve blinded me with that nail. I’m not like him. I’m not stooping to his level. I want the police here so I can point him out, then you can take me down the hospital and get me stitched up.’
‘Yeah, mate. That’s the best thing to do,’ says Dave. ‘Then we’ll do him when he comes out.’
* * *
We wait in the triage zone to handover. Christopher holds some fresh gauze to his face, and leans forward in the wheelchair. We’ve heard the whole fight scenario a few times now – how the squat had been building up to this, that nasty geezer from Tottenham who’d taken over; how there’d been trouble brewing with dogs there, a bite or two, a police raid; how it’s a shame that particular party had changed the mood of the place; how he’d tooled himself up for a confrontation with Christopher, who’d only wanted to talk to him about stuff.
‘I don’t know,’ he says, shaking his head, then displaying the gaping hole in his upper lip again. ‘If I hadn’t turned my head when he did, he’d have taken my eye out.’
Dave moves forward and clears his throat.
‘Did I tell you about Father Christmas this year?’ he says.
He has our attention.
‘It’s like – I told him in July all I wanted for Christmas was my two front teeth. Yeah? He’s had six months to get them made in his poxy little workshop in the North Pole. So what do I find in my stocking? Two cans of Stella and a tangerine.’
He pauses, staring down at the floor as if in his head he’s overwhelmed by a great volume of laughter. Then he snaps a look up again and carries on.
‘And what about those elves, hey? Santa’s Little Helpers? I hear they’re really into genetic engineering this year. Yeah. They’ve crossed a mouse and a donkey, so now you can tie up your own shoelaces, wear a moustache and still get home at night.’
‘I’ve got a million of ‘em. Welcome to the Rainbow World of Dave,’ he says. ‘So now you know what I think.’
He steps back again, bashfully toes the floor, shakes his head, blushes with pleasure.
Christopher glances at him coolly, then lifts off the gauze to show us his wound again.‘Will it scar, d’you think?’ he says.