Nando’s was neutral territory and had been ever since it opened. People needed a place to chill, talk or take their kids for birthdays without having to worry about somebody stepping up and trying to start something. So, it was understood – no matter how bad the situation, no matter how bloody the feud, you didn’t start anything in Nando’s.
The problem with drawing a line in the sand is that there’s always someone who wants to make a name for themselves by crossing it. If you didn’t have money, muscle or numbers the only way to make an impression was to show that you were willing to do what the other man wouldn’t. Typically, such upstarts were young, impetuous and more than a little crazy. Such was the case with Marlon, a street level dealer who wanted to get ahead in the world. He was entering a crowded marketplace and had already attracted the attention of competing entrepreneurs, none of whom were that happy to see another vendor in the marketplace. The most notable opponent was Big John, who had made a forceful impression on Marlon that he should stop selling. His message was conveyed through the medium of baseball bat and now, some weeks after the event, Marlon still walked funny and had a strange clicking in his jaw. The remedy, as he saw it, was to kill Big John.
Marlon acquired a gun from guy he knew in Peckham. It was a reactivated deactivated army pistol and even though it didn’t look as good as he would have liked, Marlon felt pretty fucking bad with it in his hands. He admired himself in the mirror and while he didn’t quite go as far as the full ‘Taxi Driver’, he did play out scenarios of how he thought the encounter with Big John would go down. He practiced a number of cool, deadly things to say as he pulled the trigger, ranging from the poignant (“We both knew it would come to this”) to the profane (“DIE MOTHERFUCKER!”), hitting various points in between.
Sometimes, preparation is an anathema to action. When the time came to kill big John, Marlon had run through the scenario so many times that he knew it off by heart. So complete was his vision that when he found reality differing from his well-worked scenario, he felt at a loss what to do. In his mind’s eye, Nando’s was always half-empty and dark, with patrons scattered here and there on equally distant tables, eating their food and minding their own business in the shadows. As it turned out, however, the restaurant was bright and busy and there were at least two birthday parties taking place. Marlon didn’t like it at all and rather than stride confidently into the restaurant, he shuffled awkwardly, his bad leg trailing behind him. For some reason, Marlon had assumed that Big John would be sitting near the door, making it easy for him to pop a cap in him and make a quick getaway. After a minute or two of searching, it turned out that Big John was sitting in a booth at the back and Marlon had to walk past thirty other tables to get there. Marlon tried to tell himself that this was a good thing, that maybe the crowds would give him cover. He didn’t feel that convinced, though. Crowds meant witnesses and while he was trying to make a name for himself, he didn’t want to be so famous that the cops would be waiting for him when he got home.
The gun was starting to feel heavier and heavier in his jacket pocket. He felt his breathing become laboured and his vision was starting to swim. This wasn’t how he thought it would be. Marlon felt a cold trail of fear drip it’s way down his spine as he realised he was having serious doubts about going through with it. He felt his guts gurgle and his sphincter tighten and for one awful moment, Marlon felt certain that he was about to shit his pants.
It was only when he started chewing his lip that the odd clicking sensation in his jaw reminded him of why he was doing this. Big John had messed with him, so Big John had to pay. The memory of the humiliating beat-down didn’t entirely remove Marlon’s fear, but it was enough to push it down for the moment. His vision cleared and any thoughts of self-soiling left his mind.
Big John was sitting on a corner table, steadily working his way through several portions of Peri-Peri chicken, numerous side dishes and a diet Coke. He was so caught up in his meal that he barely noticed Marlon walking towards him.
“Um…” Marlon said.
Big John looked up from his plate for the first time.
“Wha the fk yu wnn?” he said, through a mouthful of food.
All Marlon’s well-practiced catchphrases left him. Without anything to say, he pulled the gun out of his pocket (hoping beyond all hope that it wouldn’t slip out of his sweat-soaked hands) and aimed it at Big John.
Big John’s eyes widened and there was an involuntary inhalation of shock as he realised that the young man had the drop on him.
Marlon willed himself to pull the trigger. This needed to happen. The gun was out and there was no going back. There was no way Big John would ever forgive someone pulling a gun on him. From this point on, Marlon would be a dead man walking unless he killed Big John first. All he had to do was pull the trigger. Just tighten the muscles in his fingers and fire the shot. Just like that.
The moment stretched, agonisingly and it was finally broken by Big John.
Marlon was puzzled. His expression must have betrayed his confusion, because Big John repeated his earlier statement.
“Ack,” he said again and pointed to his throat to clarify matters.
Marlon didn’t move. Big John was usually the model of calm and Marlon hadn’t expected him to become quite so unhinged at the sight of the gun. If anything, he had though Big John would call him a pussy and say that he didn’t have the balls to shoot him. That would have been OK with Marlon, because it would have made his retort easier – just pull the trigger and walk away. As it was, he just stood there and watched, the gun wavering slightly in his hand.
Big John’s eyes widened and he continued clawing at his throat. Marlon watched in horror as Big John’s face started to turn blue. Slowly it dawned on Marlon that Big John wasn’t terrified or mental, but choking on a piece of half-chewed chicken.
He didn’t know what to do as the huge man at the table fought for breath. Marlon glanced around. Nobody in the restaurant appeared to have noticed that Big John was choking, or that Marlon had a gun in his hand.
He put the pistol back in his pocket and wondered what to do. Big John was a bastard of the highest order, but it didn’t feel right to just watch him choke to death like that. Alright, so Marlon had come here to kill him, but there was a difference…
The difference, as Marlon saw it, was that he couldn’t be blamed for this. Or charged. While the appearance of the gun had caused Big John to choke, he didn’t think he could be convicted. That worked for Marlon, so he watched for another thirty seconds as the life drained from Big John’s body. It wasn’t what he thought it would be like. Marlon didn’t like it at all. When Big John stopped gagging and shaking, Marlon leaned over to look at the body. He felt like he should say something, but none of his catchphrases seemed to apply here, to he just took a chip from Big John’s plate and ate it as he walked out.
It wasn’t exactly what Marlon had planned, but the same could be said about almost everything that afternoon. He left Nando’s and decided that maybe he wasn’t cut out to be a badman after all.