My Friend Daniel
My friend Daniel’s face is black. If you ever meet Daniel you might not know that his heart was operated on before he was eight. It was sliced and chopped, turned inside out so he could see himself strangled and stripped. No warmth came with the sun on any day for Daniel. He had no corner or place of his own away from unwanted hands. No one respected or cared for Daniel when he was a child. He tried to hide his young body from the rough hands of his stepfather and the others , tried until there was no trying left and he ran away. He ran and ran before he realised he had nowhere to go.
He ran past people in the street carrying the fear in his head until he reached the train station. where the trains went either north or south.
At the station he expected to be caught any minute. He thought his foster father or step brothers would arrive, even the police to take him home – a runaway boy with dirty knees and a runny nose. The first train to stop was heading south. He was caught before he realised. The conductor put him off two stations further south. They kept him in the ticket office until the police came but Daniel wouldn’t say his name, or where he came from. He couldn’t tell them any kind of truth because he was ashamed. He didn’t even know the words, the proper way to say it.
They didn’t talk to the police in his adopted home. He was living by their rules, the stealing and pinching and never saying anything. After another 3 days in a boy’s home they dropped him back at in the afternoon. Henri was drinking in the garage.
“You back boy,” he said.
The mother bashed his head against the door frame; she got angry with him for bleeding. That’s a life, getting strangled and stripped, having your head sticking to the mattress with blood. Daniel had heavy hands. He could knock a boy down 1 or 2 years older but he couldn’t fight a man. Daniel has tattoos; one a poorly shaped heart. When I met Daniel his feet easily walked where there was danger. We were in prison.
He was a tattooist. He had a machine made from an electric razor; you could get a tattoo done for chocolates, tobacco or drugs. Somewhere along the way he learnt to play guitar, drums – he learnt music by ear. I guess when I think back Daniel could hear music when others couldn’t. By then he was a fighter with a hard punch in his left hand.
Around the prison Daniel traded for yeast, potatoes or sugar to make a brew. He was a good brewer even though he was the youngest prisoner in maximum security. He’d grown sleek like a panther. I don’t know why Daniel sought me out as a friend. Just sometimes when he was relaxed he had a smile that seemed to recapture the lost years, like he had a way of going back and watching out for another kind of life. He had different smile when he was angry. No one really trusts one another in maximum security but Daniel seemed to trust me.
If you ever talk to Daniel he might tell you that I taught him to read and write. I’m not sure if I would have had the patience to teach someone but I don’t correct him. After a long time in maximum security Daniel was released. He got married. In the way these things work he ended up living next door to my grandmother. She would call Daniel and his wife over to chase strangers out of her house or to look for keys or money she’d lost.
Something went wrong with a woman at a bus stop and Daniel got sent back. They say that everyone comes back. Daniel didn’t have much of a chance. He’d never worked except in the prison where he cooked or cut other prisoner’s hair. I met his wife in the visiting room, she was a publican. We talked about where she lived and this old lady that lived next door who turned out to be my grandmother who was 99. The old lady was visited by those she known throughout her 100 years, they hid in cupboards or whispered from behind curtains in the crisis of her old age.
One day Daniel spoke from between the bars that separated our cell blocks. He was due for parole and wanted help with his letter. It was one of those languid days, when people are shooting the breeze and even in prison tensions might be down. “I can help you write it but there’s not much point unless it’s truthful. There’s something inside you Daniel that isn’t right, like a fire and you got to put it out,” I said.
Daniel was smiling. Daniel by instinct wanted to smile. That was the first time he spoke to me about the agony of his childhood. I had to look him in the eyes even when I felt the need to look away. He was making his way out of prison he’d built around himself when he was just a boy. We wrote the letter on prison issue paper with uneven lines and used a dictionary for the words we didn’t know.
Daniel got parole. Soon he had children of his own. He gave up making brews or drinking beer. He still lifted weights as though physicality is the last thing a fighter surrenders. He had trouble finding work because he didn’t like being told what to do by people he couldn’t respect. He had this idea that he needed to help others get out of the rut he had been in himself. Even before he left prison I told him not to worry about helping others.
But Daniel is his own man. He put his splintered family connections together. Found his birth father and mother, brothers and sisters he didn’t know, found that he had Polynesian blood. If you saw Daniel with his own children you’d see how far he’d come from never having a childhood of his own. He loves them with a passion.
I still see Daniel now and then. His children are almost grown. He’s taken an interest in the younger ones in his wider family. I can tell they admire Daniel because he looks them straight in the eye when he talks to them, jams with them on the guitar or drums. He talks straight and they like that. I suppose they can see that you don’t have to drink to be cool, that a swagger doesn’t make you strong. They could even see that strength is doing the right thing by others, an old lady living alone with taunting ghosts or a child with terror in its eyes.
He still worries that he isn’t doing enough, worries about the children that need help, those fleeing by train or just running without knowing where they are going. He wants to write a book, or maybe be interviewed on TV so that he can give his message of hope. I tell him he doesn’t need that. It’s too much. Daniel just smiles. Daniel has his own mind.
One time when I saw him he told me about taking the car keys off his youngest sister when she was out of it and going to drive with her baby in the car. She abused him; others in the family were upset with his interfering. He just laughed holding the keys and they didn’t seem to know what to do after that. He told me that the next time he saw his sister she had changed, as though she had worked out that he was only helping her and the baby. She’d realised that her brother loved her where once love had been bare on the ground.
But that didn’t stop Daniel from telling her that he was making a stand. He said he would ring the authorities if anyone hurt any of the children or put them at risk. I imagined the flash of determination in his eyes and that smile that could be unnerving in its meaning. Prisoners are the last ones to ring the authorities, it’s frowned upon. We shot the breeze. The mood was languid just like that day we spoke through the bars. My friend Daniel’s face is black. When he smiles it sets me free.