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1. Better Get Used To It
I am trundling back home from my first day at ‘big school’. An unspoilt red reading packet flails by my shins. Mum opens the door. She’s flipping chippattis with one hand whilst hoovering incense ash with the other.
“How was school, Rana?”
She fixes me with that look. The one that wants a premature update on her 5 year-old boy’s medicine doctorate. But she knows something’s up. Mum’s always do.
“They keep calling me a Paki,” I half explain.
Her posture slumps. One wafer of slapped dough melts from her palm unto the pristine floor which opens up around me. She falls to her knees, cupping my little face. The stove hisses away unattended. I can’t tell if she’s angry or sad.
“You are not a bloody Paki … YOU ARE INDIAN!”
Mum puts it down to geographical incompetence. But I know it’s more than that. And I’m outnumbered. So I better get used to it.
2. Extracurricular Toil
Woodsy and Fish. They’re my friends. They’re excitedly unearthing shiny conkers from their prickly cocoons. Those that make the cut are stuffed straight into their pockets, ready for the playground battles tomorrow.
“Oi, boffin!” Woodsy shouts. “Come here with your bag!”
I don’t like being called boffin, but it beat all the other names I’m teased with. It started last summer when I devised a master plan to win the duck race. So they call me boffin because I’m the smart one. Smart enough to bring a bag for harvesting conkers, anyway.
I dive into the enclave of a horse chesnut tree to find them foraging through autumnal debris. Redders buries handful after handful into my Woolies bag before dragging his grubby palms up his school trousers and sweatshirt. I copy him. I copy everything they do. They’re my friends.
Woodsy marvels at this one bulky specimen. We crowd around and ‘woah’ it to death. Woodsy places it in my hands. It’s that big.
“You can beat Thicky Nicky with this one,” he says. Fish gently concurs. Because they’re my best friends. And I love them.
Dad opens the front door to see the sun set behind his mud-smeared, grass-stained eldest. It’s not his idea of extra-curricular toil. He sinks me with that look. The one that transcends trouble from father to son as soon as I walk in.
He has his way with me and then the studying begins. Maths followed by English and then Verbal Reasoning. I have to pass come January. So I’ll almost certainly lose to Nicky Bedford at lunch tomorrow.
3. In Ypres
Stanstead Airport, 2003.
I hate school but love history. A ‘history school trip’ is as good and bad as it sounds.
Mum’s ripe red Corsa is nicely nestled along a line of other proud parents’ cars awaiting their clever kids’ return. She doesn’t get out like the others from their Range Rovers and Jaguars. She simply leans over the gear-stick to signal me that look. The one that urges to hurry the fuck up. So I hop in, throwing a tatty Umbro duffle bag into the back seat and we set off. The window wipers pace the rhythm of silence until we exit the Short Stay car park for two quid.
“Where’d you go again?” asks mum.
“We were in Ypres.”
“You learn anything?”
“I hope so. £230 for two nights you ought to have learnt something.”
I’m usually quiet these days. Don’t say much. The other kids aren’t my friends – they’re the competition. Explaining anything to an expectant mum as such an adolescent is tough enough. But I decide to give it a go. I do love history:
“There’s this big memorial with thousands names carved into the arch.”
She seems more interested in navigating the treacherous A12 home. But I continue. It’s more for me than her:
“Mr Whitaker was babbling on about something when I wandered off…”
Mum braves an-overtake.
“It’s not far away from Menin Gate, but I found an old memorial for Indians who fought and died there.”
I start to feel the heat. Mum’s always got the car singeing at 28 degrees.
“There were these two old Sikh fellas who were picking weeds from around the statue. Really nice guys, mum. Said that they were part of a Belgian Sikh community who have been campaigning for a new memorial to commemorate all their forefathers who died in Ypres, The Somme, Passchendaele…”
—“So you wandered off then?”
She always hears what she wants to hear. She doesn’t want to hear anything that puts my education in jeopardy. Why wouldn’t she? A woman who’s worked too hard for me to fuck this up.
So I stick with silence. Let history bury itself, unknown
4. The Assamese Tea Plantations
Ms Wilshere prefers me not calling her Ms Wilshere. ‘Yvonne’ apparently makes her sound younger. Poppy warned me back at The Brewery amongst other things. The three of us filter through the hallway into the kitchen. I immediately notice the resemblance. Mother, like daughter, flaunts long buttery locks and a pinch of freckles from cheek to cheek.
Poppy skips upstairs to wherever the loo is, leaving me alone and accountable. I tell Ms Wilshere it’s a pleasure to meet her too. I lie about the journey here, though. About the beady stares from her neighbours who stopped snipping their hedges just to double-check I was indeed holding her daughter’s hand through their hard-earned slice of suburbia.
She loads the kettle, assuring me there’s tea somewhere like a typical coffee addict. Poppy rejoins just before my history lesson on the Assamese tea plantations buries my first impressions under a tonne of dusty Darjeeling and colonial antipathy. We all sit. They gossip about things and people I feign interest in. Ms Wilshere belatedly kickstarts the kettle and Poppy asks aloud about my mum. I hesitate. Amidst the aura of equilateral awkwardness, the water trickles like seeping thunder.
I let them natter, playing with my nails and knuckles under the dining table. But then Ms Wilshere cuts me with that look. The one that wants something dearly and needs me for her to have it.
“Just look at him, Poppy…” she gestures. The kettle picks up the pace.
“…lovely eyes. Nice teeth and gaw’jus hair.” Steam erupts and hangs in the air for a minute yet. I can almost smell the forbidden leaves in my forsaken Little Miss Magic mug.
“Oh, imagine how beautiful the grandchildren will be with his and your complexion, Popps.”
Somehow the topic reverts back to my mum. I think Ms Wilshere can tell something’s up. Mums always can. But it doesn’t matter because she’s made up her mind. And she won’t stop, until she’s made up mine too.
“I can’t wait to meet her, young man,” she taunts. For a second, I sympathise. I can’t wait to have my fucking cup of tea.
5. Against The Grain
“You should’ve worn red, mate.” Fish shakes his head.
England have just lost to Portugal on penalties, obviously. We breeze out of Wetherspoons before it gets ugly. Alcohol and testosterone is a lethal mix.
Still, Fish moans at me for wearing white, as if it’s all my fault. The boys don’t care much for horoscopes or black cats. But football is different.
“We won the World Cup in red, mate,” Fish says. “You’re the only mug wearing white in Braintree. You should’ve worn red!”
But ever since school, I’ve always found comfort in being different; going against the grain. I am different; against the grain, always was, even when I couldn’t help it.
So I grow my hair. I listen to good music. And I wear white.
The pitter-patter of the fountain by Market Square prompts my bladder into motion. Woodsy’s tipsy post-mortem fades under the splashes as I make for the alley adjoining Hakan’s Barbershop with the Tesco trolley park. It already stinks of a frustrated fans insides. Soon the whole town will be reduced to a cesspit of wild emotions. I’ve seen it all before.
Another man-in-white leaks on my blind-side. He’s big. Broad shouldered with pointed elbows completing a perfect symmetry.
“At least Hargreaves did well,” I pry. “Can’t be any doubt about him now, even if he was born in Canada.”
I hear his flies fasten. I say something mundane about us both sporting the home colours as I tuck and turn. It’s Nicky Bedford. He frowns at the Three Lions stitched over my breast.
The first punch sobers me: I’m in an alleyway. I’ve been drinking. England are out. The second punch fires flashbacks through my mind: I was a kid. Just a kid. In trouble. The final punch floors me. And I feel at ease. I’m relieved to be lying here on the soothing cobblestones of a murky side-street in my home town.
With one arm curled around Woodsy’s neck, the other over Fish’s, I’m dragged to the fountain where we’ll clean up this misfortune. Fish scans the splatter of blood rooting from the nostrils down my England jersey. He peels me with that look. The one that’s too polite to tell me he told me so.
So I say it instead; fresh claret pouring from my mouth:
“I should’ve worn red.”
6. Real Hardship
I’m already 17 minutes late for work. I ask the old man if he can cover the bus fare to town as I’m skint. He laughs, reminding me of what real hardship is. I’d heard it all before. How he came to this country from Uganda with whatever was in his pockets. Everything they did own was looted at Kampala airport by Idi Amin’s goons.
It’s poignant, but unhelpful.
I explain all this to a lovely old lady at the bus stop. She looks like a Ladykiller and sounds like a Carry On nurse.
“If it’s Jermaine at the wheel then I’ll get a free ride. The bus to Babylon he calls it.”
She examines her tiny, neat purse and insists I take the £1.70 needed for single to Braintree. I put on an adequate show of resistance. It’s a polite formality I’m happy to go through the motions with. After everything is agreed she asks me where I’m from. I tell her the name of the street. She scuppers me with that look. The one that wants a different answer to the same question. So I add the bit about my Indian heritage. She acts pleasantly surprised.
She’s being awfully nice to me. A sweet old lady. A dying breed.
Aboard the 133 Stanstead Transit we share a pair of seats and a jovial chigwag. She wants me to know that she likes my dark skin and darker hair. ‘Very exotic’ she calls it. I promise to repay her the fare but she won’t have it. Instead she turns, caressing my hand like a comforting fortune-teller and tells me to save every penny I can for university. For when I eventually leave this town. Her eyes verge on tearful sincerity when she says:
“Leave as soon as you can, dear. You’ll never be good enough for the people around here. You just get out now and be happy.”
The empty bus pulls up at Braintree bus station. I’m thirty-something minutes late for work but there’s always time for a quick chat with Jermaine. We share an understanding no one else does in this town. Only we find it funny. So he asks me: ‘what the deal wit the lickle ol’ lady’?
“The usual, brother” I tell him. “Just another white person telling me to leave this shithole.”
7. The way I go about my business
The very first time Ed spoke to me I thought he was taking the piss; how he rolled his R’s and tutted his T’s. I’ve since gotten used the Welsh accent and almost gotten used to Welsh people – in the name of banter and all.
Ed’s the only Welshman to have come to London for further education. So he always says, anyway. He serves another round of vodka-cokes using his fellow flatmates mugs in his sweaty 3rd floor kitchen.
“FUCK! You English drink so much!” slurs Ilaria, his Italian neighbour. She very pretty, and very Italian.
“Don’t ever call me fucking English!” Ed shouts back. He has an inner hatred of the English which seems more serious after a few stiff ones. He, nor anyone else seems to wonder if I’m ever offended.
All night we drink heavily. Ilaria keeps bugging me to “do it…do it” with the comical Indian accent. I always oblige. I love feeling responsible for her laughter. With cheap tinsel flaking all around us, Ilaria gets all nostalgic about home. She’s looking forward to Christmas in Sardinia next week. Ed turns to me and ask if I celebrate Christmas. I reply by asking ‘what does that even mean?’, and he forgets the whole thing before it even starts.
The Essex charms seems to have served me well, again. Ilaria is giggling off my shoulder as we approach my room on the 5th floor.
“What’s that?” she points at a blue and white oblong hurriedly sellotaped to my door.
I lose the funny accent.
“It’s a Bounty chocolate bar.”
I knew who did it. The gang of five over-dressed, under-sexed brown brigade from Birmingham, Bradford and Leicester. They tried to hustle me into their insular circle during Freshers. But they don’t like the way I am; the way I talk; the way I go about my business. They all lived in close-knit Asian communities. I’m from Essex. So they don’t understand me when I don’t care for clubbing in designer perfume scouting for potential brides. I’m a sort of heretic to them. An outcast. An outcast with a drunk Italian girl nibbling a Bounty bar on his bed.
8. To Be A Token.
Woodsy is the first of the gang with a ring on his hand. The reception kicks off tomorrow morning so we’re having a final few as a send off. It’s not the stag-do. The stag-do already happened in Munich where untold shenanigans sprouted between us. I got the most ‘man-points’ for getting arrested on the first night. I often have to go the extra mile to be considered of ‘lad’ status. But I don’t mind.
After a tandoori on the seafront we carry our bellies to the nearest pub for a drink – Woodsy’s last as a free man. He doesn’t want to get too drunk, getting married in the morning and all.
A group of twenty something year old girls are singing cheesy ballads on the table opposite. A decorated brunette crowned with an L-plate across her breasts seems to be the focus of their merriment.
There’s 7 of them and 7 of us.
“Mate! Check that Indian bird they’re with,” gestures Fish, to me. “She’s a stunner mate, Go chat her up! She’d like you…”
“Why, because we’re both Paki’s?”
Fish awkwardly laughs. He doesn’t like me using that word. It doesn’t ring as well it probably did from his lips in the playground days.
“Just go talk to her you spanner! If you don’t I will.”
The thought of him or her hitting on my people’s was enough to follow the Indian lass to the bar when she got up. We say hi. I ask what the celebration is for, even though it’s obvious. She’s petite, with strategically marked feline eyes. A think veil of black hair dangles over her smooth shoulders. When I joke, she rolls her eyes and tries not to laugh. Her name is Preeti and she’s beautiful.
Sat on the edge of Southend Pier with a bottle of Blossom Hill between us, Preeti & I can’t stop talking. We’ve left our friends on their respective benders in favour of each other’s company. She ask what I do and I tell her I’m a writer. She asks if it pays well and I realise what she meant to ask was ‘how do I earn a living?’ She feels bad but it’s okay. When she asks about my family and background I respond with my best Freshie voice. I ask what her caste is and she mimics the caricature. We both laugh with the purest feeling of joy.
The tide below us swirls away in peaceful motions. Seagulls distantly bleat into the breeze of night; lit up solely by the neon lustre of sea-side attractions.
Preeti reaches to kiss me. But I hesitate and pull away.
“What’s wrong?” she says stroking my arm.
“This is what they want.” The back of my throat begins to swell. “Do you know what it’s like to live your whole life in this fucking county… not knowing who you are? Where you belong? Do you have any idea how much it costs to fit in? Desperate for friendship? For love? For purpose? For meaning? Because this is what they want Preeti! Your mates and mine! For you and me to hook up so they can say ‘Aww look at the cute Indian couple!’”
Preeti tried to talk but I won’t let her. She needs to know.
“Do you have any fucking clue what it’s like to be a token? To be accepted only on how you look to them? Who they think you are?”
Her hand gently squeezes my neck. The fingers glide towards my dripping chin as she turns my sorry face to hers. She passes me this look. A look I’ve never seen before. A look I didn’t feel the need to judge or make sense of.
Presently, I want that look forever. Because I know she knew what I meant. And as we stroll back along the pier; swigging cheap wine with her heels safely hanging from my grasp, I wonder how I got here. How lucky I probably am. How fortunate we both are.
A long, loving kiss and we part ways; her number securely etched in my missed calls. She wishes me good luck with the best man speech tomorrow before receding into the distance.
The sun starts to rise above the sea-side town. I’m alone with the seagulls, but I don’t mind. I guess it’s not bad being me, after all.