/ Language: English / Genre:prose_contemporary

White Teeth

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith's White Teeth is a delightfully cacophonous tale that spans 25 years of two families' assimilation in North London. The Joneses and the Iqbals are an unlikely a pairing of families, but their intertwined destinies distill the British Empire 's history and hopes into a dazzling multiethnic melange that is a pure joy to read. Smith proves herself to be a master at drawing fully-realized, vibrant characters, and she demonstrates an extraordinary ear for dialogue. It is a novel full of humor and empathy that is as inspiring as it is enjoyable. White Teeth is ambitious in scope and artfully rendered with a confidence that is extremely rare in a writer so young. It boggles the mind that Zadie Smith is only 24 years old, and this novel is a clarion call announcing the arrival of a major new talent in contemporary fiction. It is a raucous yet poignant look at modern life in London and is clearly the book to read this summer.

Zadie Smith

White Teeth

To my mother and my father

And for Jimmi Rahman

‘What’s past is prologue’

– The Tempest, Act II, scene i

Archie 1974, 1945

‘Every little trifle, for some reason, does seem incalculably important today, and when you say of a thing that “nothing hangs on it” it sounds like blasphemy. There’s never any knowing – how am I to put it? – which of our actions, which of our idlenesses won’t have things hanging on it for ever.’

Where Angels Fear to Tread, E. M. Forster

1 The Peculiar Second Marriage of Archie Jones

Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgement would not be too heavy upon him. He lay forward in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage licence (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signalling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by its conclusions. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact it was a New Year’s resolution.

But even as his breathing became spasmodic and his lights dimmed, Archie was aware that Cricklewood Broadway would seem a strange choice. Strange to the first person to notice his slumped figure through the windscreen, strange to the policemen who would file the report, to the local journalist called upon to write fifty words, to the next of kin who would read them. Squeezed between an almighty concrete cinema complex at one end and a giant intersection at the other, Cricklewood was no kind of place. It was not a place a man came to die. It was a place a man came in order to go other places via the A41. But Archie Jones didn’t want to die in some pleasant, distant woodland, or on a cliff edge fringed with delicate heather. The way Archie saw it, country people should die in the country and city people should die in the city. Only proper. In death as he was in life and all that. It made sense that Archibald should die on this nasty urban street where he had ended up, living alone at the age of forty-seven, in a one-bedroom flat above a deserted chip shop. He wasn’t the type to make elaborate plans – suicide notes and funeral instructions – he wasn’t the type for anything fancy. All he asked for was a bit of silence, a bit of shush so he could concentrate. He wanted it to be perfectly quiet and still, like the inside of an empty confessional box or the moment in the brain between thought and speech. He wanted to do it before the shops opened.

Overhead, a gang of the local flying vermin took off from some unseen perch, swooped, and seemed to be zeroing in on Archie’s car roof – only to perform, at the last moment, an impressive U-turn, moving as one with the elegance of a curve ball and landing on the Hussein-Ishmael, a celebrated halal butchers. Archie was too far gone to make a big noise about it, but he watched them with a warm internal smile as they deposited their load, streaking white walls purple. He watched them stretch their peering bird heads over the Hussein-Ishmael gutter; he watched them watch the slow and steady draining of blood from the dead things – chickens, cows, sheep – hanging on their hooks like coats around the shop. The Unlucky. These pigeons had an instinct for the Unlucky, and so they passed Archie by. For, though he did not know it, and despite the Hoover tube that lay on the passenger seat pumping from the exhaust pipe into his lungs, luck was with him that morning. The thinnest covering of luck was on him like fresh dew. Whilst he slipped in and out of consciousness, the position of the planets, the music of the spheres, the flap of a tiger-moth’s diaphanous wings in Central Africa, and a whole bunch of other stuff that Makes Shit Happen had decided it was second-chance time for Archie. Somewhere, somehow, by somebody, it had been decided that he would live.

The Hussein-Ishmael was owned by Mo Hussein-Ishmael, a great bull of a man with hair that rose and fell in a quiff, then a ducktail. Mo believed that with pigeons you have to get to the root of the problem: not the excretions but the pigeon itself. The shit is not the shit (this was Mo’s mantra), the pigeon is the shit. So the morning of Archie’s almost-death began as every morning in the Hussein-Ishmael, with Mo resting his huge belly on the windowsill, leaning out and swinging a meat cleaver in an attempt to halt the flow of dribbling purple.

‘Get out of it! Get away, you shit-making bastards! Yes! SIX!’

It was cricket, basically – the Englishman’s game adapted by the immigrant, and six was the most pigeons you could get at one swipe.

‘Varin!’ said Mo, calling down to the street, holding the bloodied cleaver up in triumph. ‘You’re in to bat, my boy. Ready?’

Below him on the pavement stood Varin – a massively overweight Hindu boy on misjudged work experience from the school round the corner, looking up like a big dejected blob underneath Mo’s question mark. It was Varin’s job to struggle up a ladder and gather spliced bits of pigeon into a small Kwik Save carrier bag, tie the bag up, and dispose of it in the bins at the other end of the street.

‘Come on, Mr Fatty-man,’ yelled one of Mo’s kitchen staff, poking Varin up the arse with a broom as punctuation for each word. ‘Get-your-fat-Ganesh-Hindu-backside-up-there-Elephant-Boy-and-bring-some-of-that-mashed-pigeon-stuff-with-you.’

Mo wiped the sweat off his forehead, snorted, and looked out over Cricklewood, surveying the discarded armchairs and strips of carpet, outdoor lounges for local drunks; the slot-machine emporiums, the greasy spoons and the minicabs – all covered in shit. One day, so Mo believed, Cricklewood and its residents would have cause to thank him for his daily massacre; one day no man, woman or child in the broadway would ever again have to mix one part detergent to four parts vinegar to clean up the crap that falls on the world. The shit is not the shit, he repeated solemnly, the pigeon is the shit. Mo was the only man in the community who truly understood. He was feeling really very Zen about this – very goodwill-to-all-men – until he spotted Archie’s car.

‘Arshad!’

A shifty-looking skinny guy with a handlebar moustache, dressed in four different shades of brown, came out of the shop, with blood on his palms.

‘Arshad!’ Mo barely restrained himself, stabbed his finger in the direction of the car. ‘My boy, I’m going to ask you just once.’

‘Yes, Abba?’ said Arshad, shifting from foot to foot.

‘What the hell is this? What is this doing here? I got delivery at 6.30. I got fifteen dead bovines turning up here at 6.30. I got to get it in the back. That’s my job. You see? There’s meat coming. So, I am perplexed…’ Mo affected a look of innocent confusion. ‘Because I thought this was clearly marked “Delivery Area”.’ He pointed to an ageing wooden crate which bore the legend NO PARKINGS OF ANY VEHICLE ON ANY DAYS. ‘Well?’

‘I don’t know, Abba.’

‘You’re my son, Arshad. I don’t employ you not to know. I employ him not to know’ – he reached out of the window and slapped Varin, who was negotiating the perilous gutter like a tightrope-walker, giving him a thorough cosh to the back of his head and almost knocking the boy off his perch – ‘I employ you to know things. To compute information. To bring into the light the great darkness of the creator’s unexplainable universe.’

‘Abba?’

‘Find out what it’s doing there and get rid of it.’

Mo disappeared from the window. A minute later Arshad returned with the explanation. ‘Abba.’

Mo’s head sprang back through the window like a malicious cuckoo from a Swiss clock.

‘He’s gassing himself, Abba.’

‘What?’

Arshad shrugged. ‘I shouted through the car window and told the guy to move on and he says, “I am gassing myself, leave me alone.” Like that.’

‘No one gasses himself on my property,’ Mo snapped as he marched downstairs. ‘We are not licensed.’

Once in the street, Mo advanced upon Archie’s car, pulled out the towels that were sealing the gap in the driver’s window, and pushed it down five inches with brute, bullish force.

‘Do you hear that, mister? We’re not licensed for suicides around here. This place halal. Kosher, understand? If you’re going to die round here, my friend, I’m afraid you’ve got to be thoroughly bled first.’

Archie dragged his head off the steering wheel. And in the moment between focusing on the sweaty bulk of a brown-skinned Elvis and realizing that life was still his, he had a kind of epiphany. It occurred to him that, for the first time since his birth, Life had said Yes to Archie Jones. Not simply an ‘OK’ or ‘You-might-as-well-carry-on-since-you’ve-started’, but a resounding affirmative. Life wanted Archie. She had jealously grabbed him from the jaws of death, back to her bosom. Although he was not one of her better specimens, Life wanted Archie and Archie, much to his own surprise, wanted Life.

Frantically, he wound down both his windows and gasped for oxygen from the very depths of his lungs. In between gulps he thanked Mo profusely, tears streaming down his cheeks, his hands clinging on to Mo’s apron.

‘All right, all right,’ said the butcher, freeing himself from Archie’s fingers and brushing himself clean, ‘move along now. I’ve got meat coming. I’m in the business of bleeding. Not counselling. You want Lonely Street. This Cricklewood Lane.’

Archie, still choking on thankyous, reversed, pulled out from the curb, and turned right.

Archie Jones attempted suicide because his wife Ophelia, a violet-eyed Italian with a faint moustache, had recently divorced him. But he had not spent New Year’s morning gagging on the tube of a vacuum cleaner because he loved her. It was rather because he had lived with her for so long and had not loved her. Archie’s marriage felt like buying a pair of shoes, taking them home and finding they don’t fit. For the sake of appearances, he put up with them. And then, all of a sudden and after thirty years, the shoes picked themselves up and walked out of the house. She left. Thirty years.

As far as he remembered, just like everybody else they began well. The first spring of 1946, he had stumbled out of the darkness of war and into a Florentine coffee house, where he was served by a waitress truly like the sun: Ophelia Diagilo, dressed all in yellow, spreading warmth and the promise of sex as she passed him a frothy cappuccino. They walked into it blinkered as horses. She was not to know that women never stayed as daylight in Archie’s life; that somewhere in him he didn’t like them, he didn’t trust them, and he was able to love them only if they wore haloes. No one told Archie that lurking in the Diagilo family tree were two hysteric aunts, an uncle who talked to aubergines and a cousin who wore his clothes back to front. So they got married and returned to England, where she realized very quickly her mistake, he drove her very quickly mad, and the halo was packed off to the attic to collect dust with the rest of the bric-a-brac and broken kitchen appliances that Archie promised one day to repair. Amongst that bric-a-brac was a Hoover.

On Boxing Day morning, six days before he parked outside Mo’s halal butchers, Archie had returned to their semi-detached in Hendon in search of that Hoover. It was his fourth trip to the attic in so many days, ferrying out the odds and ends of a marriage to his new flat, and the Hoover was amongst the very last items he reclaimed – one of the most broken things, most ugly things, the things you demand out of sheer bloody-mindedness because you have lost the house. This is what divorce is: taking things you no longer want from people you no longer love.

‘So you again,’ said the Spanish home-help at the door, SantaMaria or Maria-Santa or something. ‘Meester Jones, what now? Kitchen sink, sí?’

‘Hoover,’ said Archie, grimly. ‘Vacuum.’

She cut her eyes at him and spat on the doormat inches from his shoes. ‘Welcome, señor.’

The place had become a haven for people who hated him. Apart from the home-help, he had to contend with Ophelia’s extended Italian family, her mental-health nurse, the woman from the council, and of course Ophelia herself, who was to be found in the kernel of this nuthouse, curled up in a foetal ball on the sofa, making lowing sounds into a bottle of Bailey’s. It took him an hour and a quarter just to get through enemy lines – and for what? A perverse Hoover, discarded months earlier because it was determined to perform the opposite of every vacuum’s objective: spewing out dust instead of sucking it in.

‘Meester Jones, why do you come here when it make you so unhappy? Be reasonable. What can you want with it?’ The home-help was following him up the attic stairs, armed with some kind of cleaning fluid: ‘It’s broken. You don’t need this. See? See?’ She plugged it into a socket and demonstrated the dead switch. Archie took the plug out and silently wound the cord round the Hoover. If it was broken, it was coming with him. All broken things were coming with him. He was going to fix every damn broken thing in this house, if only to show that he was good for something.

‘You good for nothing!’ Santa whoever chased him back down the stairs. ‘Your wife is ill in her head, and this is all you can do!’

Archie hugged the Hoover to his chest and took it into the crowded living room, where, under several pairs of reproachful eyes, he got out his toolbox and started work on it.

‘Look at him,’ said one of the Italian grandmothers, the more glamorous one with the big scarves and fewer moles, ‘he take everything, capisce? He take-a her mind, he take-a the blender, he take-a the old stereo – he take-a everything except the floorboards. It make-a you sick…’

The woman from the council, who even on dry days resembled a long-haired cat soaked to the skin, shook her skinny head in agreement. ‘It’s disgusting, you don’t have to tell me, it’s disgusting… and naturally, we’re the ones left to sort out the mess; it’s muggins here who has to-’

Which was overlapped by the nurse: ‘She can’t stay here alone, can she… now he’s buggered off, poor woman… she needs a proper home, she needs…’

I’m here, Archie felt like saying, I’m right here you know, I’m bloody right here. And it was my blender.

But he wasn’t one for confrontation, Archie. He listened to them all for another fifteen minutes, mute as he tested the Hoover’s suction against pieces of newspaper, until he was overcome by the sensation that Life was an enormous rucksack so impossibly heavy that, even though it meant losing everything, it was infinitely easier to leave all baggage here on the roadside and walk on into the blackness. You don’t need the blender, Archie-boy, you don’t need the Hoover. This stuff’s all dead weight. Just lay down the rucksack, Arch, and join the happy campers in the sky. Was that wrong? To Archie – ex-wife and ex-wife’s relatives in one ear, spluttering vacuum in the other – it just seemed that The End was unavoidably nigh. Nothing personal to God or whatever. It just felt like the end of the world. And he was going to need more than poor whisky, novelty crackers and a paltry box of Quality Street – all the strawberry ones already scoffed – to justify entering another annum.

Patiently he fixed the Hoover, and vacuumed the living room with a strange methodical finality, shoving the nozzle into the most difficult corners. Solemnly he flipped a coin (heads, life, tails, death) and felt nothing in particular when he found himself staring at the dancing lion. Quietly he detached the Hoover tube, put it in a suitcase, and left the house for the last time.

But dying’s no easy trick. And suicide can’t be put on a list of Things to Do in between cleaning the grill pan and levelling the sofa leg with a brick. It is the decision not to do, to un-do; a kiss blown at oblivion. No matter what anyone says, suicide takes guts. It’s for heroes and martyrs, truly vainglorious men. Archie was none of these. He was a man whose significance in the Greater Scheme of Things could be figured along familiar ratios:

Pebble: Beach.

Raindrop: Ocean.

Needle: Haystack.

So for a few days he ignored the decision of the coin and just drove around with the Hoover tube. At nights he looked out through the windscreen into the monstropolous sky and had the old realization of his universal proportions, feeling what it was to be tiny and rootless. He thought about the dent he might make on the world if he disappeared, and it seemed negligible, too small to calculate. He squandered spare minutes wondering whether ‘Hoover’ had become a generic term for vacuum cleaners or whether it was, as others have argued, just a brand name. And all the time the Hoover tube lay like a great flaccid cock on his back seat, mocking his quiet fear, laughing at his pigeon-steps as he approached the executioner, sneering at his impotent indecision.

Then, on the 29th of December, he went to see his old friend Samad Miah Iqbal. An unlikely compadre possibly, but still the oldest friend he had – a Bengali Muslim he had fought alongside back when the fighting had to be done, who reminded him of that war; that war that reminded some people of fatty bacon and painted-on-stockings but recalled in Archie gunshots and card games and the taste of a sharp, foreign alcohol.

‘Archie, my dear friend,’ Samad had said, in his warm, hearty tones. ‘You must forget all this wife-trouble. Try a new life. That is what you need. Now, enough of all this: I will match your five bob and raise you five.’

They were sitting in their new haunt, O’Connell’s Pool House, playing poker with only three hands, two of Archie’s and one of Samad’s – Samad’s right hand being a broken thing, grey-skinned and unmoving, dead in every way bar the blood that ran through it. The place they sat in, where they met each evening for dinner, was half café, half gambling den, owned by an Iraqi family, the many members of which shared a bad skin condition.

‘Look at me. Marrying Alsana has given me this new lease on living, you understand? She opens up for me the new possibilities. She’s so young, so vital – like a breath of fresh air. You come to me for advice? Here it is. Don’t live this old life – it’s a sick life, Archibald. It does you no good. No good whatsoever.’

Samad had looked at him with a great sympathy, for he felt very tenderly for Archie. Their wartime friendship had been severed by thirty years of separation across continents, but in the spring of 1973 Samad had come to England, a middle-aged man seeking a new life with his twenty-year-old new bride, the diminutive, moon-faced Alsana Begum with her shrewd eyes. In a fit of nostalgia, and because he was the only man Samad knew on this little island, Samad had sought Archie out, moved into the same London borough. And slowly but surely a kind of friendship was being rekindled between the two men.

‘You play like a faggot,’ said Samad, laying down the winning queens back to back. He flicked them with the thumb of his left hand in one elegant move, making them fall to the table in a fan shape.

‘I’m old,’ said Archie, throwing his cards in, ‘I’m old. Who’d have me now? It was hard enough convincing anybody the first time.’

‘That is nonsense, Archibald. You have not even met the right one yet. This Ophelia, Archie, she is not the right one. From what you leave me to understand she is not even for this time-’

He referred to Ophelia’s madness, which led her to believe, half of the time, that she was the maid of the celebrated fifteenth-century art lover Cosimo de’ Medici.

‘She is born, she lives, simply in the wrong time! This is just not her day! Maybe not her millennium. Modern life has caught that woman completely unawares and up the arse. Her mind is gone. Buggered. And you? You have picked up the wrong life in the cloakroom and you must return it. Besides, she has not blessed you with children… and life without children, Archie, what is it for? But there are second chances; oh yes, there are second chances in life. Believe me, I know. You,’ he continued, raking in the 10p’s with the side of his bad hand, ‘should never have married her.’

Bloody hindsight, thought Archie. It’s always 20/20.

Finally, two days after this discussion, early on New Year’s morning, the pain had reached such a piercing level that Archie was no longer able to cling to Samad’s advice. He had decided instead to mortify his own flesh, to take his own life, to free himself from a life path that had taken him down numerous wrong turnings, led him deep into the wilderness and finally petered out completely, its breadcrumb course gobbled up by the birds.

Once the car started to fill with gas, he had experienced the obligatory flashback of his life to date. It turned out to be a short, unedifying viewing experience, low on entertainment value, the metaphysical equivalent of the Queen’s Speech. A dull childhood, a bad marriage, a dead-end job – that classic triumvirate – they all flicked by quickly, silently, with little dialogue, feeling pretty much the same as they did the first time round. He was no great believer in destiny, Archie, but on reflection it did seem that a special effort of predestination had ensured his life had been picked out for him like a company Christmas present – early, and the same as everyone else’s.

There was the war, of course; he had been in the war, only for the last year of it, aged just seventeen, but it hardly counted. Not frontline, nothing like that. He and Samad, old Sam, Sammy-boy, they had a few tales to tell, mind, Archie even had a bit of shrapnel in the leg for anyone who cared to see it – but nobody did. No one wanted to talk about that any more. It was like a club-foot, or a disfiguring mole. It was like nose hair. People looked away. If someone said to Archie, What have you done in life, then, or What’s your biggest memory, well, God help him if he mentioned the war; eyes glazed over, fingers tapped, everybody offered to buy the next round. No one really wanted to know.

Summer of 1955 Archie went to Fleet Street with his best winkle-pickers on, looking for work as a war correspondent. Poncey-looking bloke with a thin moustache and a thin voice had said, Any experience, Mr Jones? And Archie had explained. All about Samad. All about their Churchill tank. Then this poncey one had leant over the desk, all smug, all suited, and said, We would require something other than merely having fought in a war, Mr Jones. War experience isn’t really relevant.

And that was it, wasn’t it. There was no relevance in the war – not in ’55, even less now in ’74. Nothing he did then mattered now. The skills you learnt were, in the modern parlance, not relevant, not transferable.

Was there anything else, Mr Jones?

But of course there bloody wasn’t anything else, the British education system having tripped him up with a snigger many years previously. Still, he had a good eye for the look of a thing, for the shape of a thing, and that’s how he had ended up in the job at MorganHero, twenty years and counting in a printing firm in the Euston Road, designing the way all kinds of things should be folded – envelopes, direct mail, brochures, leaflets – not much of an achievement, maybe, but you’ll find things need folds, they need to overlap, otherwise life would be like a broadsheet: flapping in the wind and down the street so you lose the important sections. Not that Archie had much time for the broadsheets. If they couldn’t be bothered to fold them properly, why should he bother to read them (that’s what he wanted to know)?

What else? Well, Archie hadn’t always folded paper. Once upon a time he had been a track cyclist. What Archie liked about track cycling was the way you went round and round. Round and round. Giving you chance after chance to get a bit better at it, to make a faster lap, to do it right. Except the thing about Archie was he never did get any better. 62.8 seconds. Which is a pretty good time, world-class standard, even. But for three years he got precisely 62.8 seconds on every single lap. The other cyclists used to take breaks to watch him do it. Lean their bikes against the incline and time him with the second hand of their wrist watches. 62.8 every time. That kind of inability to improve is really very rare. That kind of consistency is miraculous, in a way.

Archie liked track cycling, he was consistently good at it and it provided him with the only truly great memory he had. In 1948, Archie Jones had participated in the Olympics in London, sharing thirteenth place (62.8 seconds) with a Swedish gynaecologist called Horst Ibelgaufts. Unfortunately this fact had been omitted from the Olympic records by a sloppy secretary who returned one morning after a coffee break with something else on her mind and missed his name as she transcribed one list to another piece of paper. Madam Posterity stuck Archie down the arm of the sofa and forgot about him. His only proof that the event had taken place at all were the periodic letters and notes he had received over the years from Ibelgaufts himself. Notes like:

17 May 1957

Dear Archibald,

I enclose a picture of my good wife and I in our garden in front of a rather unpleasant construction site. Though it may not look like Arcadia, it is here that I am building a crude velodrome – nothing like the one you and I raced in, but sufficient for my needs. It will be on a far smaller scale, but you see, it is for the children we are yet to have. I see them pedalling around it in my dreams and wake up with a glorious smile upon my face! Once it is completed, we insist that you visit us. Who more worthy to christen the track of your earnest competitor,

Horst Ibelgaufts

And the postcard that lay on the dashboard this very day, the day of his Almost Death:

28 December 1974

Dear Archibald,

I am taking up the harp. A New Year’s resolution, if you like. Late in the day, I realize, but you’re never too old to teach the old dog in you new tricks, don’t you feel? I tell you, it’s a heavy instrument to lay against your shoulder, but the sound of it is quite angelic and my wife thinks me quite sensitive because of it. Which is more than she could say for my old cycling obsession! But then, cycling was only ever understood by old boys like you, Archie, and of course the author of this little note, your old contender,

Horst Ibelgaufts

He had not met Horst since the race, but he remembered him affectionately as an enormous man with strawberry-blond hair, orange freckles and misaligned nostrils, who dressed like an international playboy and seemed too large for his bike. After the race Horst had got Archie horribly drunk and procured two Soho whores who seemed to know Horst well (‘I make many business trips to your fair capital, Archibald,’ Horst had explained). The last Archie had ever seen of Horst was an unwanted glimpse of his humongous pink arse bobbing up and down in the adjoining room of an Olympic chalet. The next morning, waiting at the front desk, was the first letter of his large correspondence:

Dear Archibald,

In an oasis of work and competition, women are truly sweet and easy refreshment, don’t you agree? I’m afraid I had to leave early to catch the necessary plane, but I compel you, Archie: Don’t be a stranger! I think of us now as two men as close as our finish! I tell you, whoever said thirteenth was unlucky was a bigger fool than your friend,

Horst Ibelgaufts

P.S. Please make sure that Daria and Melanie get home fine and well.

Daria was his one. Terribly skinny, ribs like lobster cages and no chest to speak of, but she was a lovely sort: kind; soft with her kisses and with double-jointed wrists she liked to show off in a pair of long silk gloves – set you back four clothing coupons at least. ‘I like you,’ Archie remembered saying helplessly, as she replaced the gloves and put on her stockings. She turned, smiled. And though she was a professional, he got the feeling she liked him too. Maybe he should have left with her right then, run to the hills. But at the time it seemed impossible, too involved, what with a young wife with one in the oven (an hysterical, fictional pregnancy, as it turned out, a big bump full of hot air), what with his dodgy leg, what with the lack of hills.

Strangely, Daria was the final pulse of thought that passed through Archie just before he blacked out. It was the thought of a whore he met once twenty years ago, it was Daria and her smile which made him cover Mo’s apron with tears of joy as the butcher saved his life. He had seen her in his mind: a beautiful woman in a doorway with a come hither look; and realized he regretted not coming hither. If there was any chance of ever seeing a look like that again, then he wanted the second chance, he wanted the extra time. Not just this second, but the next and the next – all the time in the world.

Later that morning, Archie did an ecstatic eight circuits of Swiss Cottage roundabout in his car, his head stuck out the window while a stream of air hit the teeth at the back of his mouth like a wind sock. He thought: Blimey. So this is what it feels like when some bugger saves your life. Like you’ve just been handed a great big wad of Time. He drove straight past his flat, straight past the street signs (Hendon 3¾), laughing like a loon. At the traffic lights he flipped ten pence and smiled when the result seemed to agree that Fate was pulling him towards another life. Like a dog on a lead round a corner. Generally, women can’t do this, but men retain the ancient ability to leave a family and a past. They just unhook themselves, like removing a fake beard, and skulk discreetly back into society, changed men. Unrecognizable. In this manner, a new Archie is about to emerge. We have caught him on the hop. For he is in a past-tense, future-perfect kind of mood. He is in a maybe this, maybe that kind of mood. Approaching a forked road, he slows down, checks his undistinguished face in the wing-mirror, and quite indiscriminately chooses a route he’s never taken before, a residential street leading to a place called Queens Park. Go straight pastGo!, Archie-boy, he tells himself; collect two hundred and don’t for gawd’s sake look back.

Tim Westleigh (more commonly known as Merlin) finally registered the persistent ringing of a doorbell. He picked himself off the kitchen floor, waded through an ocean of supine bodies, and opened the door to arrive face-to-face with a middle-aged man dressed head-to-toe in grey corduroy, holding a ten pence coin in his open palm. As Merlin was later to reflect when describing the incident, at any time of the day corduroy is a highly stressful fabric. Rent men wear it. Tax men too. History teachers add leather elbow patches. To be confronted with a mass of it, at nine in the a.m., on the first day of a New Year, is an apparition lethal in its sheer quantity of negative vibes.

‘What’s the deal, man?’ Merlin blinked in the doorway at the man in corduroy who stood on his doorstep illuminated by winter sunshine. ‘Encyclopedias or God?’

Archie noted the kid had an unnerving way of emphasizing certain words by moving his head in a wide circular movement from the right shoulder to the left. Then, when the circle was completed, he would nod several times.

‘ ’Cos if it’s encyclopedias we’ve got enough, like, information… and if it’s God, you’ve got the wrong house. We’re in a mellow place, here. Know what I mean?’ Merlin concluded, doing the nodding thing and moving to shut the door.

Archie shook his head, smiled and remained where he was.

‘Erm… are you all right?’ asked Merlin, hand on the doorknob. ‘Is there something I can do for you? Are you high on something?’

‘I saw your sign,’ said Archie.

Merlin pulled on a joint and looked amused. ‘That sign?’ He bent his head to follow Archie’s gaze. The white bedsheet hanging down from an upper window. Across it, in large rainbow-coloured lettering, was painted: WELCOME TO THE ‘END OF THE WORLD’ PARTY, 1975.

Merlin shrugged. ‘Yeah, sorry, man, looks like it wasn’t. Bit of a disappointment, that. Or a blessing,’ he added amiably, ‘depending on your point of view.’

‘Blessing,’ said Archie, with passion. ‘Hundred per cent, bona fide blessing.’

‘Did you, er, dig the sign, then?’ asked Merlin, taking a step back behind the doorstep in case the man was violent as well as schiz. ‘You into that kind of scene? It was kind of a joke, you see, more than anything.’

‘Caught my eye, you might say,’ said Archie, still beaming like a mad man. ‘I was just driving along looking for somewhere, you know, somewhere to have another drink, New Year’s Day, hair of the dog and all that – and I’ve had a bit of a rough morning all in all – and it just sort of struck me. I flipped a coin and thought: why not?’

Merlin looked perplexed at the turn the conversation was taking. ‘Er… party’s pretty much over, man. Besides, I think you’re a little advanced in years… if you know what I mean…’ Here Merlin turned gauche; underneath the dakshiki he was at heart a good middle-class boy, instilled with respect for his elders. ‘I mean,’ he said after a difficult pause, ‘it’s a bit of a younger crowd than you might be used to. Kind of a commune scene.’

But I was so much older then,’ sang Archie mischievously, quoting a ten-year-old Dylan track, arching his head round the door, ‘I’m younger than that now.’

Merlin took a cigarette from behind his ear, lit it, and frowned. ‘Look, man… I can’t just let anyone in off the street, you know? I mean, you could be the police, you could be a freak, you could-’

But something about Archie’s face – huge, innocent, sweetly expectant – reminded Tim what his estranged father, the Vicar of Snarebrook, had to say about Christian charity every Sunday from his pulpit. ‘Oh, what the hell. It’s New Year’s Day, for fuckssake. You best come in.’

Archie sidestepped Merlin, and moved into a long hallway with four open-doored rooms branching off from it, a staircase leading to another storey, and a garden at the end of it all. Detritus of every variety – animal, mineral, vegetable – lined the floor; a great mass of bedding, under which people lay sleeping, stretched from one end of the hallway to the other, a red sea which grudgingly separated each time Archie took a step forward. Inside the rooms, in certain corners, could be witnessed the passing of bodily fluids: kissing, breast-feeding, fucking, throwing up – all the things Archie’s Sunday Supplement had informed him could be found in a commune. He toyed for a moment with the idea of entering the fray, losing himself between the bodies (he had all this new time on his hands, masses and masses of it, dribbling through his fingers), but decided a stiff drink was preferable. He tackled the hallway until he reached the other end of the house and stepped out into the chilly garden, where some, having given up on finding a space in the warm house, had opted for the cold lawn. With a whisky tonic in mind, he headed for the picnic table, where something the shape and colour of Jack Daniels had sprung up like a mirage in a desert of empty wine bottles.

‘Mind if I…?’

Two black guys, a topless Chinese girl, and a white woman wearing a toga were sitting around on wooden kitchen chairs, playing rummy. Just as Archie reached for the Jack Daniels, the white woman shook her head and made the signal of a stubbed-out cigarette.

‘Tobacco sea, I’m afraid, darling. Some evil bastard put his fag out in some perfectly acceptable whisky. There’s Babycham and some other inexorable shit over here.’

Archie smiled in gratitude for the warning and the kind offer. He took a seat and poured himself a big glass of Liebfraumilch instead.

Many drinks later, and Archie could not remember a time in his life when he had not known Clive and Leo, Wan-Si and Petronia, intimately. With his back turned and a piece of charcoal, he could have rendered every puckered goosepimple around Wan-Si’s nipples, every stray hair that fell in Petronia’s face as she spoke. By 11 a.m., he loved them all dearly, they were the children he had never had. In return, they told him he was in possession of a unique soul for a man of his age. Everybody agreed some intensely positive karmic energy was circulating in and around Archie, the kind of thing strong enough to prompt a butcher to pull down a car window at the critical moment. And it turned out Archie was the first man over forty ever invited to join the commune; it turned out there had been talk for some time of the need for an older sexual presence to satisfy some of the more adventurous women. ‘Great,’ said Archie. ‘Fantastic. That’ll be me, then.’ He felt so close to them that he was confused when around midday their relationship suddenly soured, and he found himself stabbed by a hangover and knee deep in an argument about the Second World War, of all things.

‘I don’t even know how we got into this,’ groaned Wan-Si, who had covered up finally just when they decided to move indoors, Archie’s corduroy slung round her petite shoulders. ‘Let’s not get into this. I’d rather go to bed than get into this.’

‘We are into it, we are into it,’ Clive was ranting. ‘This is the whole problem with his generation, they think they can hold up the war as some kind of-’

Archie was grateful when Leo interrupted Clive and dragged the argument into some further subset of the original one, which Archie had started (some unwise remark three quarters of an hour ago about military service building up a young man’s character) and then immediately regretted when it required him to defend himself at regular interludes. Freed finally of this obligation, he sat on the stairs, letting the row continue above while he placed his head in his hands.

Shame. He would have liked to have been part of a commune. If he’d played his cards right instead of starting a ding-dong, he might have had free love and bare breasts all over the gaff; maybe even a portion of allotment for growing fresh food. For a while (around 2 a.m., when he was telling Wan-Si about his childhood) it had looked like his new life was going to be fabulous, and from now on he was always going to say the right thing at the right time, and everywhere he went people would love him. Nobody’s fault, thought Archie, mulling over the balls-up, nobody’s fault but my own, but he wondered whether there wasn’t some higher pattern to it. Maybe there will always be men who say the right thing at the right time, who step forward like Thespis at just the right moment of history, and then there will be men like Archie Jones who are just there to make up the numbers. Or, worse still, who are given their big break only to come in on cue and die a death right there, centre stage, for all to see.

A dark line would now be drawn underneath the whole incident, underneath the whole sorry day, had not something happened that led to the transformation of Archie Jones in every particular that a man can be transformed; and not due to any particular effort on his part, but by means of the entirely random, adventitious collision of one person with another. Something happened by accident. That accident was Clara Bowden.

But first a description: Clara Bowden was beautiful in all senses except maybe, by virtue of being black, the classical. Clara Bowden was magnificently tall, black as ebony and crushed sable, with hair plaited in a horseshoe which pointed up when she felt lucky, down when she didn’t. At this moment it was up. It is hard to know whether that was significant.

She needed no bra – she was independent, even of gravity – she wore a red halterneck which stopped below her bust, underneath which she wore her belly button (beautifully) and underneath that some very tight yellow jeans. At the end of it all were some strappy heels of a light brown suede, and she came striding down the stairs on them like some kind of vision or, as it seemed to Archie as he turned to observe her, like a reared-up thoroughbred.

Now, as Archie understood it, in movies and the like it is common for someone to be so striking that when they walk down the stairs the crowd goes silent. In life he had never seen it. But it happened with Clara Bowden. She walked down the stairs in slow motion, surrounded by afterglow and fuzzy lighting. And not only was she the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, she was also the most comforting woman he had ever met. Her beauty was not a sharp, cold commodity. She smelt musty, womanly, like a bundle of your favourite clothes. Though she was disorganized physically – legs and arms speaking a slightly different dialect from her central nervous system – even her gangly demeanour seemed to Archie exceptionally elegant. She wore her sexuality with an older woman’s ease, and not (as with most of the girls Archie had run with in the past) like an awkward purse, never knowing how to hold it, where to hang it or when to just put it down.

‘Cheer up, bwoy,’ she said in a lilting Caribbean accent that reminded Archie of That Jamaican Cricketer, ‘it might never happen.’

‘I think it already has.’

Archie, who had just dropped a fag from his mouth which had been burning itself to death anyway, saw Clara quickly tread it underfoot. She gave him a wide grin that revealed possibly her one imperfection. A complete lack of teeth in the top of her mouth.

‘Man… dey get knock out,’ she lisped, seeing his surprise. ‘But I tink to myself: come de end of de world, d’Lord won’t mind if I have no toofs.’ She laughed softly.

‘Archie Jones,’ said Archie, offering her a Marlboro.

‘Clara.’ She whistled inadvertently as she smiled and breathed in the smoke. ‘Archie Jones, you look justabout exackly how I feel. Have Clive and dem people been talking foolishness at you? Clive, you bin playing wid dis poor man?’

Clive grunted – the memory of Archie had all but disappeared with the effects of the wine – and continued where he left off, accusing Leo of misunderstanding the difference between political and physical sacrifice.

‘Oh, no… nothing serious,’ Archie burbled, useless in the face of her exquisite face. ‘Bit of a disagreement, that’s all. Clive and I have different views about a few things. Generation gap, I suppose.’

Clara slapped him on the hand. ‘Hush yo mout! You’re nat dat ol’. I seen older.’

‘I’m old enough,’ said Archie, and then, just because he felt like telling her, ‘You won’t believe me, but I almost died today.’

Clara raised an eyebrow. ‘You don’t say. Well, come and join de club. Dere are a lot of us about dis marnin’. What a strange party dis is. You know,’ she said brushing a long hand across his bald spot, ‘you look pretty djam good for someone come so close to St Peter’s Gate. You wan’ some advice?’

Archie nodded vigorously. He always wanted advice, he was a huge fan of second opinions. That’s why he never went anywhere without a ten pence coin.

‘Go home, get some rest. Marnin’ de the world new, every time. Man… dis life no easy!’

What home? thought Archie. He had unhooked the old life, he was walking into unknown territory.

‘Man…’ Clara repeated, patting him on the back, ‘dis life no easy!’

She let off another long whistle and a rueful laugh, and, unless he was really going nuts, Archie saw that come hither look; identical to Daria’s; tinged with a kind of sadness, disappointment; like she didn’t have a great deal of other options. Clara was nineteen. Archibald was forty-seven.

Six weeks later they were married.

2 Teething Trouble

But Archie did not pluck Clara Bowden from a vacuum. And it’s about time people told the truth about beautiful women. They do not shimmer down staircases. They do not descend, as was once supposed, from on high, attached to nothing other than wings. Clara was from somewhere. She had roots. More specifically, she was from Lambeth (via Jamaica) and she was connected, through tacit adolescent agreement, to one Ryan Topps. Because before Clara was beautiful she was ugly. And before there was Clara and Archie there was Clara and Ryan. And there is no getting away from Ryan Topps. Just as a good historian need recognize Hitler’s Napoleonic ambitions in the east in order to comprehend his reluctance to invade the British in the west, so Ryan Topps is essential to any understanding of why Clara did what she did. Ryan is indispensable. There was Clara and Ryan for eight months before Clara and Archie were drawn together from opposite ends of a staircase. And Clara might never have run into the arms of Archie Jones if she hadn’t been running, quite as fast as she could, away from Ryan Topps.

Poor Ryan Topps. He was a mass of unfortunate physical characteristics. He was very thin and very tall, red-headed, flat-footed and freckled to such an extent that his skin was rarer than his freckles. Ryan fancied himself as a bit of a Mod. He wore ill-fitting grey suits with black polo-necks. He wore Chelsea boots after everyone else had stopped wearing them. While the rest of the world discovered the joys of the electronic synthesizer, Ryan swore allegiance to the little men with big guitars: to the Kinks, the Small Faces, the Who. Ryan Topps rode a green Vespa GS scooter which he polished twice a day with a baby’s nappy and kept encased in a custom-built corrugated-iron shield. To Ryan’s way of thinking, a Vespa was not merely a mode of transport but an ideology, family, friend and lover all rolled into one paragon of late forties engineering.

Ryan Topps, as one might expect, had few friends.

Clara Bowden was gangly, buck-toothed, a Jehovah’s Witness, and saw in Ryan a kindred spirit. A typical teenage female panopticon, she knew everything there was to know about Ryan Topps long before they ever spoke. She knew the basics: same school (St Jude’s Community School, Lambeth), same height (six foot one); she knew he was, like her, neither Irish nor Roman Catholic, which made them two islands floating surrounded by the popish ocean of St Jude’s, enrolled in the school by the accident of their postcodes, reviled by teachers and pupils alike. She knew the name of his bike, she read the tops of his records as they popped up over the brim of his bag. She even knew things about him he didn’t know: for example, she knew he was the Last Man on Earth. Every school has one, and in St Jude’s, as in other seats of learning, it was the girls who chose this moniker and dished it out. There were, of course, variations:

Mr Not for a Million Pounds.

Mr Not to Save My Mother’s Life.

Mr Not for World Peace.

But, generally, the schoolgirls of St Jude’s kept to the tried and tested formula. Though Ryan would never be privy to the conversations of the school’s female changing rooms, Clara knew. She knew how the object of her affections was discussed, she kept an ear out, she knew what he amounted to when you got down to it, down amongst the sweat and the training bras and the sharp flick of a wet towel.

‘Ah, Jaysus, you’re not listening. I’m saying, if he was the last man on earth!’

‘I still wouldn’t.’

‘Ah, bollocks you would!’

‘But listen: the whole bleedin’ world has been hit by the bomb, like in Japan, roight? An’ all the good-lookin’ men, all the rides like your man Nicky Laird, they’re all dead. They’ve all been burnt to a crisp. An’ all that’s left is Ryan Topps and a bunch of cockroaches.’

‘On me life, I’d rather sleep with the cockroaches.’

Ryan’s unpopularity at St Jude’s was equalled only by Clara’s. On her first day at the school her mother had explained to her she was about to enter the devil’s lair, filled her satchel with two hundred copies of the Watchtower and instructed her to go and do the Lord’s work. Week after week she shuffled through the school, head hung to the ground, handing out magazines, murmuring, ‘Only Jehovah saves’; in a school where an overexcitable pustule could send you to Coventry, a six-foot black missionary in knee socks attempting to convert six hundred Catholics to the church of the Jehovah’s Witnesses equalled social leprosy.

So Ryan was red as a beetroot. And Clara was black as yer boot. Ryan’s freckles were a join-the-dots enthusiast’s wet dream. Clara could circumnavigate an apple with her front teeth before her tongue got anywhere near it. Not even the Catholics would forgive them for it (and Catholics give out forgiveness at about the same rate politicians give out promises and whores give out); not even St Jude, who got saddled way back in the 1st century with the patronage of hopeless causes (due to the tonal similarity between Jude and Judas), was prepared to get involved.

At five o’clock each day, as Clara sat in her house attending to the message of the gospels or composing a leaflet condemning the heathen practice of blood transfusion, Ryan Topps would scoot by her open window on his way home. The Bowden living room sat just below street level, and had bars on its window, so all views were partial. Generally, she would see feet, wheels, car exhausts, swinging umbrellas. Such slight glimpses were often telling; a lively imagination could squeeze much pathos out of a frayed lace, a darned sock, a low swinging bag that had seen better days. But nothing affected her more deeply than gazing after the disappearing tailpipe of Ryan’s scooter. Lacking any name for the furtive rumblings that appeared in her lower abdomen on these occasions, Clara called it the spirit of the Lord. She felt that somehow she was going to save the heathen Ryan Topps. Clara meant to gather this boy close to her breast, keep him safe from the temptation that besets us all around, prepare him for the day of his redemption. (And wasn’t there somewhere, lower than her abdomen – somewhere down in the nether region of the unmentionables – was there not the half-conceived hope that Ryan Topps might save her?)

If Hortense Bowden caught her daughter sitting wistfully by the barred window, listening to the retreating splutter of an engine while the pages of the New Bible flicked over in the breeze, she koofed her up-side her head and thanked her to remember that only 144,000 of the Witnesses of Jehovah would sit in the court of the Lord on Judgement Day. Amongst which number of the Anointed there was no space for nasty-looking so-and-sos on motorcycles.

‘But what if we saved-’

‘Some people,’ Hortense asserted with a snort, ‘have done such a hol’ heap of sinning, it late for dem to be making eyes at Jehovah. It take effort to be close to Jehovah. It take devotion and dedication. Blessed are the pure in heart for they alone shall see God. Matthew 5:8. Isn’t dat right, Darcus?’

Darcus Bowden, Clara’s father, was an odoriferous, moribund, salivating old man entombed in a bug-infested armchair from which he had never been seen to remove himself, not even, thanks to a catheter, to visit the outdoor toilet. Darcus had come over to England fourteen years earlier and spent the whole of that period in the far corner of the living room, watching television. The original intention had been that he should come to England and earn enough money to enable Clara and Hortense to come over, join him and settle down. However, on arrival, a mysterious illness had debilitated Darcus Bowden. An illness that no doctor could find any physical symptoms of, but which manifested itself in the most incredible lethargy, creating in Darcus – admittedly, never the most vibrant of men – a lifelong affection for the dole, the armchair and British television. In 1972, enraged by a fourteen-year wait, Hortense decided finally to make the journey on her own steam. Steam was something Hortense had in abundance. She arrived on the doorstep with the seventeen-year-old Clara, broke down the door in a fury and – so the legend went back in St Elizabeth – gave Darcus Bowden the tongue-whipping of his life. Some say this onslaught lasted four hours, some say she quoted every book of the bible by memory and it took a whole day and a whole night. What is certain is, at the end of it all, Darcus slumped deeper into the recesses of his chair, looked mournfully at the television with whom he had had such an understanding, compassionate relationship – so uncomplicated, so much innocent affection – and a tear squeezed its way out of its duct and settled in a crag underneath his eye. Then he said just one word: Hmph.

Hmph was all Darcus said or ever was to say after. Ask Darcus anything; query him on any subject at any hour of the day and night; interrogate him; chat with him; implore him; declare your love for him; accuse him or vindicate him and he will give you only one answer.

‘I say, isn’t dat right, Darcus?’

Hmph.’

‘An’ it not,’ exclaimed Hortense, returning to Clara, having received Darcus’s grunt of approval, ‘dat young man’s soul you boddrin’ yourself wid! How many times must I tell you – you got no time for bwoys!’

For Time was running out in the Bowden household. This was 1974, and Hortense was preparing for the End of the World, which, in the house diary, she had marked carefully in blue biro: 1 January 1975. This was not a solitary psychosis of the Bowdens. There were eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses waiting with her. Hortense was in large, albeit eccentric, company. A personal letter had come to Hortense (as secretary of the Lambeth branch of the Kingdom Halls), with a photocopied signature from William J. Rangeforth of the largest Kingdom Hall in the USA, Brooklyn, confirming the date. The end of the world had been officially confirmed with a gold-plated letterhead, and Hortense had risen to the occasion by setting it in an attractive mahogany frame. She had given it pride of place on a doily on top of the television between a glass figurine of Cinderella on her way to the Ball and a tea-cosy embroidered with the Ten Commandments. She had asked Darcus whether he thought it looked nice. He had hmphed his assent.

The end of the world was nigh. And this was not – the Lambeth branch of the church of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was to be assured – like the mistakes of 1914 and 1925. They had been promised the entrails of sinners wrapped around the trunks of trees, and this time the entrails of sinners wrapped around the trunks of trees would appear. They had waited so long for the rivers of blood to overflow the gutters in the high street, and now their thirst would be satiated. The time had come. This was the right date, this was the only date, all other dates that might have been proffered in the past were the result of some bad calculations: someone forgot to add, someone forgot to minus, someone forgot to carry the one. But now was the time. The real thing. 1 January 1975.

Hortense, for one, was glad to hear it. The first morning of 1925 she had wept like a baby when she awoke to find – instead of hail and brimstone and universal destruction – the continuance of daily life, the regular running of the buses and trains. It had been for nothing, then, all that tossing and turning the previous night; waiting for

those neighbours, those who failed to listen to your warnings, to sink under a hot and terrible fire that shall separate their skin from their bones, shall melt the eyes in their sockets, and burn the babies that suckle at their mothers’ breasts… so many of your neighbours shall die that day that their bodies, if lined up side by side, will stretch three hundred times round the earth and on their charred remains shall the true Witnesses of the Lord walk to his side.

– The Clarion Bell, issue 245

How bitterly she had been disappointed! But the wounds of 1925 had healed, and Hortense was once again ready to be convinced that apocalypse, just as the right holy Mr Rangeforth had explained, was round the corner. The promise of the 1914 generation still stood: This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled (Matthew 24:34). Those who were alive in 1914 would live to see the Armageddon. It had been promised. Born in 1907, Hortense was getting old now, she was getting tired and her peers were dying off like flies. 1975 looked like the last chance.

Had not two hundred of the church’s best intellectuals spent twenty years examining the bible, and hadn’t this date been their unanimous conclusion? Had they not read between the lines in Daniel, scanned for the hidden meaning in Revelation, correctly identified the Asian wars (Korea and Vietnam) as the period spoken of by the angel, ‘a time, and times, and half a time’? Hortense was convinced these were the sign of signs. These were the final days. There were eight months to the end of the world. Hardly enough time! There were banners to be made, articles to be written (‘Will the Lord Forgive the Onanist?’), doorsteps to be trod, bells to be rung. There was Darcus to think about – who could not walk to the fridge without assistance – how was he to make it to the kingdom of the Lord? And in all Clara must lend a hand; there was no time for boys, for Ryan Topps, for skulking around, for adolescent angst. For Clara was not like other teenagers. She was the Lord’s child, Hortense’s miracle baby. Hortense was all of forty-eight when she heard the Lord’s voice while gutting a fish one morning, Montego Bay, 1955. Straight away she threw down the marlin, caught the trolley car home and submitted to her least favourite activity in order to conceive the child He had asked for. Why had the Lord waited so long? Because the Lord wanted to show Hortense a miracle. For Hortense had been a miracle child herself, born in the middle of the legendary Kingston earthquake, 1907, when everybody else was busy dying – miracles ran in the family. Hortense saw it this way: if she could come into this world in the middle of a ground shaker, as parts of Montego Bay slipped into the sea, and fires came down from the mountains, then nobody had no excuses about nothing no how. She liked to say: ‘Bein’ barn is de hardest part! Once ya done dat – no problems.’ So now that Clara was here, old enough to help her with doorstepping, administration, writing speeches and all the varied business of the church of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, she’d better get on with it. No time for boys. This child’s work was just beginning. Hortense – born while Jamaica crumbled – did not accept apocalypse before one’s nineteenth birthday as any excuse for tardiness.

Yet strangely, and possibly because of Jehovah’s well-documented penchant for moving in a mysterious manner, it was in performing the business of the Lord that Clara eventually met Ryan Topps face to face. The youth group of the Lambeth Kingdom Hall had been sent doorstepping on a Sunday morning, Separating the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31- 46), and Clara, detesting the young Witness men with their bad ties and softly spoken voices, had set off alone with her own suitcase to ring bells along Creighton Road. The first few doors she received the usual pained faces: nice women shooing her away as politely as possible, making sure they didn’t get too close, scared they might catch religion like an infection. As she got into the poorer end of the street, the reaction became more aggressive; shouts came from windows or behind closed doors.

‘If that’s the bloody Jehovah’s Witnesses, tell ’em to piss off!’

Or, more imaginatively, ‘Sorry, love, don’t you know what day it is? It’s Sunday, innit? I’m knackered. I’ve spent all week creating the land and oceans. It’s me day of rest.’

At No. 75 she spent an hour with a fourteen-year-old physics whizz called Colin who wanted to intellectually disprove the existence of God while looking up her skirt. Then she rang No. 87. And Ryan Topps answered.

‘Yeah?’

He stood there in all his red-headed, black polo-necked glory, his lip curled in a snarl.

‘I… I…’

She tried desperately to forget what she was wearing: a white shirt complete with throat-ruffle, plaid knee-length skirt and sash that proudly stated NEARER MY GOD TO THEE.

‘You want sommink?’ said Ryan, taking a fierce drag of a dying cigarette. ‘Or sommink?’

Clara tried her widest, buck-toothed smile and went on to auto-pilot. ‘Marnin’ to you, sir. I am from de Lambet Kingdom Hall, where we, de Witnesses of Jehovah, are waitin’ for de Lord to come and grace us wid his holy presence once more; as he did briefly – bot sadly, invisibly – in de year of our farder, 1914. We believe dat when he makes himself known he will be bringing wid ’im de tree-fold fires of hell in Armageddon, dat day when precious few will be saved. Are you int’rested in-’

‘Wot?’

Clara, close to tears at the shame of it, tried again. ‘Are you int’rested in de teachins of Jehovah?’

You wot?’

‘In Jehovah – in de teachins of d’Lord. You see, it like a staircase.’ Clara’s last resort was always her mother’s metaphor of the holy steps. ‘I see dat you walkin’ down and der’s a missin’ step comin’. I’m just tellin’ you: watch your step! Me jus wan’ share heaven wid you. Me nah wan’ fe see you bruk-up your legs.’

Ryan Topps leant against the door frame and looked at her for a long time through his red fringe. Clara felt she was closing in on herself, like a telescope. It was only moments, surely, before she disappeared entirely.

‘I ’ave some materials of readin’ for your perusal – ’ She fumbled with the lock of the suitcase, flipped the catch with her thumb but neglected to hold the other side of the case. Fifty copies of the Watchtower spilled over the doorstep.

‘Bwoy, me kyant do nuttin’ right today-’

She fell to the ground in a rush to pick them up and scraped the skin off her left knee. ‘Ow!’

‘Your name’s Clara,’ said Ryan slowly. ‘You’re from my school, ain’t ya?’

‘Yes, man,’ said Clara, so jubilant he remembered her name that she forgot the pain. ‘St Jude’s.’

‘I know wot it’s called.’

Clara went as red as black people get and looked at the floor.

‘Hopeless causes. Saint of,’ said Ryan, picking something surreptitiously from his nose and flicking it into a flowerpot. ‘IRA. The lot of ’em.’

Ryan surveyed the long figure of Clara once more, spending an inordinate amount of time on two sizeable breasts, the outline of their raised nipples just discernible through white polyester.

‘You best come in,’ he said finally, lowering his gaze to inspect the bleeding knee. ‘Put somefin’ on that.’

That very afternoon there were furtive fumblings on Ryan’s couch (which went a good deal further than one might expect of a Christian girl) and the devil won another easy hand in God’s poker game. Things were tweaked, and pushed and pulled; and by the time the bell rang for end of school Monday Ryan Topps and Clara Bowden (much to their school’s collective disgust) were more or less an item; as the St Jude’s phraseology went, they were ‘dealing’ with each other. Was it everything that Clara, in all her sweaty adolescent invention, had imagined?

Well, ‘dealing’ with Ryan turned out to consist of three major pastimes (in order of importance): admiring Ryan’s scooter, admiring Ryan’s records, admiring Ryan. But though other girls might have balked at dates that took place in Ryan’s garage and consisted entirely of watching him pore over the engine of a scooter, eulogizing its intricacies and complexities, to Clara there was nothing more thrilling. She learnt quickly that Ryan was a man of painfully few words and that the rare conversations they had would only ever concern Ryan: his hopes, his fears (all scooter-related) and his peculiar belief that he and his scooter would not live long. For some reason, Ryan was convinced of the ageing fifties motto ‘Live fast, die young’, and, though his scooter didn’t do more than 22 m.p.h. downhill, he liked to warn Clara in grim tones not to get ‘too involved’, for he wouldn’t be here long; he was ‘going out’ early and with a ‘bang’. She imagined herself holding the bleeding Ryan in her arms, hearing him finally declare his undying love; she saw herself as Mod Widow, wearing black polo-necks for a year and demanding ‘Waterloo Sunset’ be played at his funeral. Clara’s inexplicable dedication to Ryan Topps knew no bounds. It transcended his bad looks, tedious personality and unsightly personal habits. Essentially, it transcended Ryan, for whatever Hortense claimed, Clara was a teenage girl like any other; the object of her passion was only an accessory to the passion itself, a passion that through its long suppression was now asserting itself with volcanic necessity. Over the ensuing months Clara’s mind changed, Clara’s clothes changed, Clara’s walk changed, Clara’s soul changed. All over the world girls were calling this change Donny Osmond or Michael Jackson or the Bay City Rollers. Clara chose to call it Ryan Topps.

There were no dates, in the normal sense. No flowers or restaurants, movies or parties. Occasionally, when more weed was required, Ryan would take her to visit a large squat in North London where an eighth came cheap and people too stoned to make out the features on your face acted like your best friends. Here, Ryan would ensconce himself in a hammock, and, after a few joints, progress from his usual monosyllabic to the entirely catatonic. Clara, who didn’t smoke, sat at his feet, admired him, and tried to keep up with the general conversation around her. She had no tales to tell like the others, not like Merlin, like Clive, like Leo, Petronia, Wan-Si and the others. No anecdotes of LSD trips, of police brutality or marching on Trafalgar Square. But Clara made friends. A resourceful girl, she used what she had to amuse and terrify an assorted company of Hippies, Flakes, Freaks and Funky Folk: a different kind of extremity; tales of hellfire and damnation, of the devil’s love of faeces, his passion for stripping skin, for red-hot-pokering eyeballs and the flaying of genitals – all the elaborate plans of Lucifer, that most exquisite of fallen angels, that were set for 1 January 1975.

Naturally, the thing called Ryan Topps began to push the End of the World further and further into the back-rooms of Clara’s consciousness. So many other things were presenting themselves to her, so much new in life! If it were possible, she felt like one of the Anointed right now, right here in Lambeth. The more blessed she felt on earth, the more rarely she turned her thoughts towards heaven. In the end, it was the epic feat of long division that Clara simply couldn’t figure. So many unsaved. Out of eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses, only 144,000 men could join Christ in heaven. The good women and good-enough men would gain paradise on earth – not a bad booby prize all things considered – but that still left a few million who failed to make the grade. Add that to the heathens; to the Jews, Catholics, Muslims; to the poor jungle men in the Amazon whom Clara had wept for as a child; so many unsaved. The Witnesses prided themselves on the absence of hell in their theology – the punishment was torture, unimaginable torture on the final day, and then the grave was the grave. But to Clara, this seemed worse – the thought of the Great Crowd, enjoying themselves in earthly paradise, while the tortured, mutilated skeletons of the lost lay just under the topsoil.

On the one side stood all the mammoth quantities of people on the globe, unacquainted with the teachings of the Watchtower (some with no access to a postbox), unable to contact the Lambeth Kingdom Hall and receive helpful reading material about the road to redemption. On the other side, Hortense, her hair all wrapped up in iron rollers, tossing and turning in her sheets, gleefully awaiting the rains of sulphur to pour down upon the sinners, particularly the woman at No. 53. Hortense tried to explain: ‘Dem dat died widout de knowing de Lord, will be resurrected and dem will have anudder chance.’ But to Clara, it was still an inequitable equation. Unbalanceable books. Faith is hard to achieve, easy to lose. She became more and more reluctant to leave the impress of her knees in the red cushions in the Kingdom Hall. She would not wear sashes, carry banners or give out leaflets. She would not tell anyone about missing steps. She discovered dope, forgot the staircase and began taking the lift.

1 October 1974. A detention. Held back forty-five minutes after school (for claiming, in a music lesson, that Roger Daltrey was a greater musician than Johann Sebastian Bach) and as a result, Clara missed her four o’clock meeting with Ryan on the corner of Leenan Street. It was freezing cold and getting dark by the time she got out; she ran through piles of putrefying autumn leaves, searched the length and breadth of Leenan, but there was no sign. It was with dread that she approached her own front door, offering up to God a multitude of silent contracts (I’ll never have sex, I’ll never smoke another joint, I’ll never wear another skirt above the knee) if only he could assure her that Ryan Topps had not rung her mother’s doorbell looking for shelter from the wind.

‘Clara! Come out of de cold.’

It was the voice Hortense put on when she had company – an over-compensation of all the consonants – the voice she used for pastors and white women.

Clara closed the front door behind her, and walked in a kind of terror through the living room, past the framed hologram of Jesus who wept (and then didn’t), and into the kitchen.

‘Dear Lord, she look like someting de cat dragged in, hmm?’

‘Mmm,’ said Ryan, who was happily shovelling a plate of ackee and saltfish into his mouth on the other side of the tiny kitchen table.

Clara stuttered, her buck teeth cutting shapes into her bottom lip. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Ha!’ cried Hortense, almost triumphant. ‘You tink you can hide your friends from me for ever? De bwoy was cold, I let ’im in, we been havin’ a nice chat, haven’t we young man?’

‘Mmm, yes, Mrs Bowden.’

‘Well, don’ look so shock. You’d tink I was gwan eat ’im up or someting, eh Ryan?’ said Hortense, glowing in a manner Clara had never seen before.

‘Yeah, right,’ smirked Ryan. And together, Ryan Topps and Clara’s mother began to laugh.

Is there anything more likely to take the shine off an affair than when the lover strikes up a convivial relationship with the lovee’s mother? As the nights got darker and shorter and it became harder to pick Ryan out of the crowd who milled outside the school gates each day at three thirty, a dejected Clara would make the long walk home only to find her lover once more in the kitchen, chatting happily with Hortense, devouring the Bowden household’s cornucopia of goodies: ackee and saltfish, beef jerky, chicken-rice-and-peas, ginger cake and coconut ices.

These conversations, lively as they sounded when Clara turned the key in the door, always fell silent as she approached the kitchen. Like children caught out, they would become sullen, then awkward, then Ryan would make his excuses and leave. There was also a look, she noticed, that they had begun to give her, a look of sympathy, of condescension; and not only that – they began to comment on her clothing, which had become steadily more youthful, more colourful; and Ryan – what was happening to Ryan? – shed his polo-neck, avoided her in school, bought a tie.

Of course, like the mother of a drug addict or the neighbour of a serial killer, Clara was the last to know. She had once known everything about Ryan – before Ryan himself knew it – she had been a Ryan expert. Now she was reduced to overhearing the Irish girls assert that Clara Bowden and Ryan Topps were not dealing with each other – definitively, definitely not dealing with each other – oh no, not any more.

If Clara realized what was happening, she wouldn’t allow herself to believe it. On the occasion she spotted Ryan at the kitchen table, surrounded by leaflets – and Hortense hurriedly gathering them up and shoving them into her apron pocket – Clara willed herself to forget it. Later that month, when Clara persuaded a doleful Ryan to go through the motions with her in the disabled toilet, she squinted so she couldn’t see what she didn’t want to see. But it was there, underneath his jumper, there as he leant back on the sink was the glint of silver, its gleam hardly visible in the dismal light – it couldn’t be, but it was – the silver glint of a tiny silver cross.

It couldn’t be, but it was. That is how people describe a miracle. Somehow the opposites of Hortense and Ryan had met at their logical extremes, their mutual predilection for the pain and death of others meeting like perspective points on some morbid horizon. Suddenly the saved and the unsaved had come a miraculous full circle. Hortense and Ryan were now trying to save her.

‘Get on the bike.’

Clara had just stepped out of school into the dusk and it was Ryan, his scooter coming to a sharp halt at her feet.

‘Claz, get on the bike.’

‘Go ask my mudder if she wan’ get on de bike!’

‘Please,’ said Ryan, proffering the spare scooter helmet. ‘ ’Simportant. Need to talk to you. Ain’t much time left.’

‘Why?’ snapped Clara, rocking petulantly on her platform heels. ‘You goin’ someplace?’

‘You and me both,’ murmured Ryan. ‘The right place, ’opefully.’

‘No.’

‘Please, Claz.’

No.’

Please. ’Simportant. Life or death.’

‘Man… all right. But me nah wearin’ dat ting’ – she passed back the helmet and got astride the scooter – ‘not mussin’ up me hair.’

Ryan drove her across London and up to Hampstead Heath, the very top of Parliament Hill, where, looking down from that peak on to the sickly orange fluorescence of the city, carefully, tortuously, and in language that was not his own, he put forward his case. The bottom line of which was this: there was only a month until the end of the world.

‘And the fing is, herself and myself, we’re just-’

‘We!’

‘Your mum – your mum and myself,’ mumbled Ryan, ‘we’re worried. ’Bout you. There ain’t that many wot will survive the last days. You been wiv a bad crowd, Claz-’

Man,’ said Clara, shaking her head and sucking her teeth, ‘I don’ believe dis biznezz. Dem were your friends.’

‘No, no, they ain’t. Not no more. The weed – the weed is evil. And all that lot – Wan-Si, Petronia.’

‘Dey my friends!’

‘They ain’t nice girls, Clara. They should be with their families, not dressing like they do and doing things with them men in that house. You yourself shouldn’t be doin’ that, neither. And dressing like, like, like-’

‘Like what?’

‘Like a whore!’ said Ryan, the word exploding from him like it was a relief to be rid of it. ‘Like a loose woman!’

‘Oh bwoy, I heard everyting now… take me home, man.’

‘They’re going to get theirs,’ said Ryan, nodding to himself, his arm stretched and gesturing over London from Chiswick to Archway. ‘There’s still time for you. Who do you want to be with, Claz? Who d’ya want to be with? With the 144,000, in heaven, ruling with Christ? Or do you want to be one of the Great Crowd, living in earthly paradise, which is all right but… Or are you going to be one of them who get it in the neck, torture and death. Eh? I’m just separating the sheep from the goats, Claz, the sheep from the goats. That’s Matthew. And I think you yourself are a sheep, innit?’

‘Lemme tell you someting,’ said Clara, walking back over to the scooter and taking the back seat, ‘I’m a goat. I like bein’ a goat. I wanna be a goat. An’ I’d rather be sizzling in de rains of sulphur wid my friends than sittin’ in heaven, bored to tears, wid Darcus, my mudder and you!’

‘Shouldn’ta said that, Claz,’ said Ryan solemnly, putting his helmet on. ‘I really wish you ’adn’t said that. For your sake. He can hear us.’

‘An’ I’m tired of hearin’ you. Take me home.’

‘It’s the truth! He can hear us!’ he shouted, turning backwards, yelling above the exhaust-pipe noise as they revved up and scooted downhill. ‘He can see it all! He watches over us!’

‘Watch over where you goin’,’ Clara yelled back, as they sent a cluster of Hasidic Jews running in all directions. ‘Watch de path!’

‘Only the few – that’s wot it says – only the few. They’ll all get it – that’s what it says in Dyoot-er-ronomee – they’ll all get what’s comin’ and only the few-’

Somewhere in the middle of Ryan Topps’s enlightening biblical exegesis, his former false idol, the Vespa GS, cracked right into a 400-year-old oak tree. Nature triumphed over the presumptions of engineering. The tree survived; the bike died; Ryan was hurled one way; Clara the other.

The principles of Christianity and Sod’s Law (also known as Murphy’s Law) are the same: Everything happens to me, for me. So if a man drops a piece of toast and it lands butter-side down, this unlucky event is interpreted as being proof of an essential truth about bad luck: that the toast fell as it did just to prove to you, Mr Unlucky, that there is a defining force in the universe and it is bad luck. It’s not random. It could never have fallen on the right side, so the argument goes, because that’s Sod’s Law. In short, Sod’s Law happens to you to prove to you that there is Sod’s Law. Yet, unlike gravity, it is a law that does not exist whatever happens: when the toast lands on the right side, Sod’s Law mysteriously disappears. Likewise, when Clara fell, knocking the teeth out of the top of her mouth, while Ryan stood up without a scratch, Ryan knew it was because God had chosen Ryan as one of the saved and Clara as one of the unsaved. Not because one was wearing a helmet and the other wasn’t. And had it happened the other way round, had gravity reclaimed Ryan’s teeth and sent them rolling down Primrose Hill like tiny enamel snowballs, well… you can bet your life that God, in Ryan’s mind, would have done a vanishing act.

As it was, this was the final sign Ryan needed. When New Year’s Eve rolled around, he was there in the living room, sitting in the middle of a circle of candles with Hortense, ardently praying for Clara’s soul while Darcus pissed into his tube and watched the Generation Game on BBC One. Clara, meanwhile, had put on a pair of yellow flares and a red halterneck top and gone to a party. She suggested its theme, helped to paint the banner and hang it from the window; she danced and smoked with the rest of them and felt herself, without undue modesty, to be quite the belle of the squat. But as midnight inevitably came and went without the horsemen of the apocalypse making an appearance, Clara surprised herself by falling into a melancholy. For ridding oneself of faith is like boiling sea-water to retrieve the salt – something is gained but something is lost. Though her friends – Merlin, Wan-Si, et al. – clapped her on the back and congratulated her for exorcizing those fervid dreams of perdition and redemption, Clara quietly mourned the warmer touch she had waited for these nineteen years, the all-enveloping bear hug of the Saviour, the One who was Alpha and Omega, both the beginning and the end; the man who was meant to take her away from all this, from the listless reality of life in a ground-floor flat in Lambeth. What now for Clara? Ryan would find another fad; Darcus need only turn to the other channel; for Hortense another date would of course materialize, along with more leaflets, ever more faith. But Clara was not like Hortense.

Yet a residue, left over from the evaporation of Clara’s faith, remained. She still wished for a saviour. She still wished for a man to whisk her away, to choose her above others so that she might Walk in white with Him: for [she] was worthy. Revelation 3:4.

Perhaps it is not so inexplicable then, that when Clara Bowden met Archie Jones at the bottom of some stairs the next morning she saw more in him than simply a rather short, rather chubby middle-aged white man in a badly tailored suit. Clara saw Archie through the grey-green eyes of loss; her world had just disappeared, the faith she lived by had receded like a low tide, and Archie, quite by accident, had become the bloke in the joke: the last man on earth.

3 Two Families

It is better to marry than to burn, says Corinthians I, chapter seven, verse nine.

Good advice. Of course, Corinthians also informs us that we should not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain – so, go figure.

By February 1975, Clara had deserted the church and all its biblical literalism for Archibald Jones, but she was not yet the kind of carefree atheist who could laugh near altars or entirely dismiss the teachings of St Paul. The second dictum wasn’t a problem – having no ox, she was excluded by proxy. But the first was giving her sleepless nights. Was it better to marry? Even if the man was a heathen? There was no way of knowing: she was living without props now, sans safety net. More worrying than God was her mother. Hortense was fiercely opposed to the affair, on grounds of colour rather than of age, and on hearing of it had promptly ostracized her daughter one morning on the doorstep.

Clara still felt that deep down her mother would prefer her to marry an unsuitable man rather than live with him in sin, so she did it on impulse and begged Archie to take her as far away from Lambeth as a man of his means could manage – Morocco, Belgium, Italy. Archie had clasped her hand and nodded and whispered sweet nothings in the full knowledge that the furthest a man of his means was going was a newly acquired, heavily mortgaged, two-storey house in Willesden Green. But no need to mention that now, he felt, not right now in the heat of the moment. Let her down gently, like.

Three months later Clara had been gently let down and here they were, moving in. Archie scrabbling up the stairs, as usual cursing and blinding, wilting under the weight of boxes which Clara could carry two, three at a time without effort; Clara taking a break, squinting in the warm May sunshine, trying to get her bearings. She peeled down to a little purple vest and leant against her front gate. What kind of a place was this? That was the thing, you see, you couldn’t be sure. Travelling in the front passenger seat of the removal van, she’d seen the high road and it had been ugly and poor and familiar (though there were no Kingdom Halls or Episcopalian churches), but then at the turn of a corner suddenly roads had exploded in greenery, beautiful oaks, the houses got taller, wider and more detached, she could see parks, she could see libraries. And then abruptly the trees would be gone, reverting back into bus-stops as if by the strike of some midnight bell; a signal which the houses too obeyed, transforming themselves into smaller, stairless dwellings that sat splay opposite derelict shopping arcades, those peculiar lines of establishments that include, without exception, one defunct sandwich bar still advertising breakfast one locksmith uninterested in marketing frills (KEYS CUT HERE)

and one permanently shut unisex hair salon, the proud bearer of some unspeakable pun (Upper Cuts or Fringe Benefits or Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow).

It was a lottery driving along like that, looking out, not knowing whether one was about to settle down for life amongst the trees or amidst the shit. Then finally the van had slowed down in front of a house, a nice house somewhere midway between the trees and the shit, and Clara had felt a tide of gratitude roll over her. It was nice, not as nice as she had hoped but not as bad as she had feared; it had two small gardens front and back, a doormat, a doorbell, a toilet inside… And she had not paid a high price. Only love. Just love. And whatever Corinthians might say, love is not such a hard thing to forfeit, not if you’ve never really felt it. She did not love Archie, but had made up her mind, from that first moment on the steps, to devote herself to him if he would take her away. And now he had; and, though it wasn’t Morocco or Belgium or Italy, it was nice – not the promised land – but nice, nicer than anywhere she had ever been.

Clara understood that Archibald Jones was no romantic hero. Three months spent in one stinking room in Cricklewood had been sufficient revelation. Oh, he could be affectionate and sometimes even charming, he could whistle a clear, crystal note first thing in the morning, he drove calmly and responsibly and he was a surprisingly competent cook, but romance was beyond him, passion, unthinkable. And if you are saddled with a man as average as this, Clara felt, he should at least be utterly devoted to you – to your beauty, to your youth – that’s the least he could do to make up for things. But not Archie. One month into their marriage and he already had that funny glazed look men have when they are looking through you. He had already reverted back into his bachelorhood: pints with Samad Iqbal, dinner with Samad Iqbal, Sunday breakfasts with Samad Iqbal, every spare moment with the man in that bloody place, O’Connell’s, in that bloody dive. She tried to be reasonable. She asked him: Why are you never here? Why do you spend so much time with the Indian? But a pat on the back, a kiss on the cheek, he’s grabbing his coat, his foot’s out the door and always the same old answer: Me and Sam? We go way back. She couldn’t argue with that. They went back to before she was born.

No white knight, then, this Archibald Jones. No aims, no hopes, no ambitions. A man whose greatest pleasures were English breakfasts and DIY. A dull man. An old man. And yet… good. He was a good man. And good might not amount to much, good might not light up a life, but it is something. She spotted it in him that first time on the stairs, simply, directly, the same way she could point out a good mango on a Brixton stall without so much as touching the skin.

These were the thoughts Clara clung to as she leant on her garden gate, three months after her wedding, silently watching the way her husband’s brow furrowed and shortened like an accordion, the way his stomach hung pregnant over his belt, the whiteness of his skin, the blueness of his veins, the way his ‘elevens’ were up – those two ropes of flesh that appear on a man’s gullet (so they said in Jamaica) when his time was drawing to a close.

Clara frowned. She hadn’t noticed these afflictions at the wedding. Why not? He had been smiling and he wore a white polo-neck, but no, that wasn’t it – she hadn’t been looking for them then, that was it. Clara had spent most of her wedding day looking at her feet. It had been a hot day, 14 February, but unusually warm, and there had been a wait because the world had wanted to marry that day in a little registry office on Ludgate Hill. Clara remembered slipping off the petite brown heels she was wearing and placing her bare feet on the chilly floor, making sure to keep them firmly planted either side of a dark crack in the tile, a balancing act upon which she had randomly staked her future happiness.

Archie meanwhile had wiped some moisture from his upper lip and cursed a persistent sunbeam that was sending a trickle of salty water down his inside leg. For his second marriage he had chosen a mohair suit with a white polo-neck and both were proving problematic. The heat prompted rivulets of sweat to spring out all over his body, seeping through the polo-neck to the mohair and giving off an unmistakable odour of damp dog. Clara, of course, was all cat. She wore a long brown woollen Jeff Banks dress and a perfect set of false teeth; the dress was backless, the teeth were white, and the overall effect was feline; a panther in evening dress; where the wool stopped and Clara’s skin started was not clear to the naked eye. And like a cat she responded to the dusty sunbeam that was coursing through a high window on to the waiting couples. She warmed her bare back in it, she almost seemed to unfurl. Even the registrar, who had seen it all – horsy women marrying weaselly men, elephantine men marrying owlish women – raised an eyebrow at this most unnatural of unions as they approached his desk. Cat and dog.

‘Hullo, Father,’ said Archie.

‘He’s a registrar, Archibald, you old flake,’ said his friend Samad Miah Iqbal, who, along with his wife Alsana, had been called in from the exile of the Wedding Guest Room to witness the contract. ‘Not a Catholic priest.’

‘Right. Of course. Sorry. Nervous.’

The stuffy registrar said, ‘Shall we get on? We’ve got a lot of you to get through today.’

This and little more had constituted the ceremony. Archie was passed a pen and put down his name (Alfred Archibald Jones), nationality (English) and age (47). Hovering for a moment over the box entitled ‘Occupation’, he decided upon ‘Advertising: (Printed Leaflets)’, then signed himself away. Clara wrote down her name (Clara Iphegenia Bowden), nationality (Jamaican) and age (19). Finding no box interested in her occupation, she went straight for the decisive dotted line, swept her pen across it, and straightened up again, a Jones. A Jones like no other that had come before her.

Then they had gone outside, on to the steps, where a breeze lifted second-hand confetti and swept it over new couples, where Clara met her only wedding guests formally for the first time: two Indians, both dressed in purple silk. Samad Iqbal, a tall, handsome man with the whitest teeth and a dead hand, who kept patting her on the back with the one that worked.

‘My idea this, you know,’ he repeated again and again. ‘My idea, all this marriage business. I have known the old boy since – when?’

‘1945, Sam.’

‘That’s what I am trying to tell your lovely wife, 1945 – when you know a man that long, and you’ve fought alongside him, then it’s your mission to make him happy if he is not. And he wasn’t! Quite the opposite until you made an appearance! Wallowing in the shit-heap, if you will pardon the French. Thankfully, she’s all packed off now. There’s only one place for the mad, and that’s with others like them,’ said Samad, losing steam halfway through the sentence, for Clara clearly had no idea what he was talking about. ‘Anyway, no need to dwell on… My idea, though, you know, all this.’

And then there was his wife, Alsana, who was tiny and tight-lipped and seemed to disapprove of Clara somehow (though she could only be a few years older); said only ‘Oh yes, Mrs Jones’ or ‘Oh no, Mrs Jones’, making Clara so nervous, so sheepish, she felt compelled to put her shoes back on.

Archie felt bad for Clara that it wasn’t a bigger reception. But there was no one else to invite. All other relatives and friends had declined the wedding invitation; some tersely, some horrified; others, thinking silence the best option, had spent the past week studiously stepping over the mail and avoiding the phone. The only well-wisher was Ibelgaufts, who had neither been invited nor informed of the event, but from whom, curiously, a note arrived in the morning mail:

14 February 1975

Dear Archibald,

Usually, there is something about weddings that brings out the misanthrope in me, but today, as I attempted to save a bed of petunias from extinction, I felt a not inconsiderable warmth at the thought of the union of one man and one woman in lifelong cohabitation. It is truly remarkable that we humans undertake such an impossible feat, don’t you think? But to be serious for a moment: as you know, I am a man whose profession it is to look deep inside of ‘Woman’, and, like a psychiatrist, mark her with a full bill of health or otherwise. And I feel sure, my friend (to extend a metaphor), that you have explored your lady-wife-to-be in such a manner, both spiritually and mentally, and found her not lacking in any particular, and so what else can I offer but the hearty congratulations of your earnest competitor,

Horst Ibelgaufts

What other memories of that day could make it unique and lift it out of the other 364 that made up 1975? Clara remembered a young black man stood atop an apple crate, sweating in a black suit, who began pleading to his brothers and sisters; an old bag-lady retrieving a carnation from the bin to put in her hair. But then it was all over: the cling-filmed sandwiches Clara had made had been forgotten and sat suffering at the bottom of a bag, the sky had clouded over, and when they walked up the hill to the King Ludd Pub, past the jeering Fleet Street lads with their Saturday pints, it was discovered that Archie had been given a parking ticket.

So it was that Clara spent the first three hours of married life in Cheapside Police Station, her shoes in her hands, watching her saviour argue relentlessly with a traffic inspector who failed to understand Archie’s subtle interpretation of the Sunday parking laws.

‘Clara, Clara, love-’

It was Archie, struggling past her to the front door, partly obscured by a coffee table.

‘We’ve got the Ick-Balls coming round tonight, and I want to get this house in some kind of order – so mind out the way.’

‘You wan’ help?’ asked Clara patiently, though still half in daydream. ‘I can lift someting if-’

‘No, no, no, no – I’ll manage.’

Clara reached out to take one side of the table. ‘Let me jus’-’

Archie battled to push through the narrow frame, trying to hold both the legs and the table’s large removable glass top.

‘It’s man’s work, love.’

‘But – ’ Clara lifted a large armchair with enviable ease and brought it over to where Archie had collapsed, gasping for breath on the hall steps. ‘ ’Sno prob-lem. If you wan’ help: jus’ arks farrit.’ She brushed her hand softly across his forehead.

‘Yes, yes, yes.’ He shook her off in irritation, as if batting a fly. ‘I’m quite capable, you know-’

‘I know dat-’

‘It’s man’s work.’

‘Yes, yes, I see – I didn’t mean-’

‘Look, Clara, love, just get out of my way and I’ll get on with it, OK?’

Clara watched him roll up his sleeves with some determination, and tackle the coffee table once more.

‘If you really want to be of some help, love, you can start bringing in some of your clothes. God knows there’s enough of ’em to sink a bloody battleship. How we’re going to fit them in what little space we have I’m sure I don’t know.’

‘I say before – we can trow some dem out, if you tink it best.’

‘Not up to me now, not up to me, is it? I mean, is it? And what about the coat-stand?’

This was the man: never able to make a decision, never able to state a position.

‘I alreddy say: if ya nah like it, den send da damn ting back. I bought it ’cos I taut you like it.’

‘Well, love,’ said Archie, cautious now that she had raised her voice, ‘it was my money – it would have been nice at least to ask my opinion.’

‘Man! It a coat-stand. It jus’ red. An’ red is red is red. What’s wrong wid red all of a sudden?’

‘I’m just trying,’ said Archie, lowering his voice to a hoarse, forced whisper (a favourite voice-weapon in the marital arsenal: Not in front of the neighbours/children), ‘to lift the tone in the house a bit. This is a nice neighbourhood, new life, you know. Look, let’s not argue. Let’s flip a coin; heads it stays, tails…’

True lovers row, then fall the next second back into each other’s arms; more seasoned lovers will walk up the stairs or into the next room before they relent and retrace their steps. A relationship on the brink of collapse will find one partner two blocks down the road or two countries to the east before something tugs, some responsibility, some memory, a pull of a child’s hand or a heart string, which induces them to make the long journey back to their other half. On this Richter scale, then, Clara made only the tiniest of rumbles. She turned towards the gate, walked two steps only and stopped.

‘Heads!’ said Archie, seemingly without resentment. ‘It stays. See? That wasn’t too hard.’

‘I don’ wanna argue.’ She turned round to face him, having made a silent renewed resolution to remember her debt to him. ‘You said the Iqbals are comin’ to dinner. I was just thinkin’… if they’re going to want me to cook dem some curry – I mean, I can cook curry – but it’s my type of curry.’

‘For God’s sake, they’re not those kind of Indians,’ said Archie irritably, offended at the suggestion. ‘Sam’ll have a Sunday roast like the next man. He serves Indian food all the time, he doesn’t want to eat it too.’

‘I was just wondering-’

‘Well, don’t, Clara. Please.’

He gave her an affectionate kiss on the forehead, for which she bent downwards a little.

‘I’ve known Sam for years, and his wife seems a quiet sort. They’re not the royal family, you know. They’re not those kind of Indians,’ he repeated, and shook his head, troubled by some problem, some knotty feeling he could not entirely unravel.

Samad and Alsana Iqbal, who were not those kind of Indians (as, in Archie’s mind, Clara was not that kind of black), who were, in fact, not Indian at all but Bangladeshi, lived four blocks down on the wrong side of Willesden High Road. It had taken them a year to get there, a year of mercilessly hard graft to make the momentous move from the wrong side of Whitechapel to the wrong side of Willesden. A year’s worth of Alsana banging away at the old Singer that sat in the kitchen, sewing together pieces of black plastic for a shop called Domination in Soho (many were the nights Alsana would hold up a piece of clothing she had just made, following the pattern she was given, and wonder what on earth it was). A year’s worth of Samad softly inclining his head at exactly the correct deferential angle, pencil in his left hand, listening to the appalling pronunciation of the British, Spanish, American, French, Australian:

Go Bye Ello Sag, please.

Chicken Jail Fret See wiv Chips, fanks.

From six in the evening until three in the morning; and then every day was spent asleep, until daylight was as rare as a decent tip. For what is the point, Samad would think, pushing aside two mints and a receipt to find fifteen pence, what is the point of tipping a man the same amount you would throw in a fountain to chase a wish? But before the illegal thought of folding the fifteen pence discreetly in his napkin hand even had a chance to give itself form, Mukhul – Ardashir Mukhul, who ran the Palace and whose wiry frame paced the restaurant, one benevolent eye on the customers, one ever watchful eye on the staff – Mukhul was upon him.

‘Saaamaad’ – he had a cloying, oleaginous way of speaking – ‘did you kiss the necessary backside this evening, cousin?’

Samad and Ardashir were distant cousins, Samad the elder by six years. With what joy (pure bliss!) had Ardashir opened the letter last January, to find his older, cleverer, handsomer cousin was finding it hard to get work in England and could he possibly…

‘Fifteen pence, cousin,’ said Samad, lifting his palm.

‘Well, every little helps, every little helps,’ said Ardashir, his dead-fish lips stretching into a stringy smile. ‘Into the Piss-Pot with it.’

The Piss-Pot was a black Balti pot that sat on a plinth outside the staff toilets and into which all tips were pooled and then split at the end of the night. For the younger, flashy, good-looking waiters like Shiva, this was a great injustice. Shiva was the only Hindu on the staff – this stood as tribute to his waitering skills, which had triumphed over religious differences. Shiva could make a four quid tip in an evening if the blubberous white divorcee in the corner was lonely enough and he batted his long lashes at her effectively. He could also make his money out of the polo-necked directors and producers (the Palace sat in the centre of London’s theatreland, and these were still the days of the Royal Court, of pretty boys and kitchen-sink drama) who flattered the boy, watched his ass wiggle provocatively to the bar and back, and swore that if anyone ever adapted A Passage to India for the stage he could have whichever role tickled his fancy. For Shiva, then, the Piss-Pot system was simply daylight robbery and an insult to his unchallenged waitering abilities. But for men like Samad, in his late forties, and for the even older, like the white-haired Muhammed (Ardashir’s great-uncle), who was eighty if he was a day, who had deep pathways dug into the sides of his mouth where he had smiled when he was young, for men like this the Piss-Pot could not be complained about. It made more sense to join the collective than pocket fifteen pence and risk being caught (and docked a week’s tips).

‘You’re all on my back!’ Shiva would snarl, when he had to relinquish five pounds at the end of the night and drop it into the pot. ‘You all live off my back! Somebody get these losers off my back! That was my fiver and now it’s going to be split sixty-five-fucking-million ways as a hand-out to these losers! What is this: communism?’

And the rest would avoid his glare and busy themselves quietly with other things, until one evening, one fifteen pence evening, Samad said, ‘Shut up, boy,’ quietly, almost under his breath.

‘You!’ Shiva swung round to where Samad stood, crushing a great tub of lentils for tomorrow’s dal. ‘You’re the worst of them! You’re the worst fucking waiter I’ve ever seen! You couldn’t get a tip if you mugged the bastards! I hear you trying to talk to the customer about biology this, politics that – just serve the food, you idiot – you’re a waiter, for fuck’s sake, you’re not Michael Parkinson. “Did I hear you say Delhi” ’ – Shiva put his apron over his arm and began posturing around the kitchen (he was a pitiful mimic) – ‘ “I was there myself, you know, Delhi University, it was most fascinating, yes – and I fought in the war, for England, yes – yes, yes, charming, charming.” ’ Round and round the kitchen he went, bending his head and rubbing his hands over and over like Uriah Heep, bowing and genuflecting to the head cook, to the old man arranging great hunks of meat in the walk-in freezer, to the young boy scrubbing the underside of the oven. ‘Samad, Samad…’ he said with what seemed infinite pity, then stopped abruptly, pulled the apron off and wrapped it round his waist. ‘You are such a sad little man.’

Muhammed looked up from his pot-scrubbing and shook his head again and again. To no one in particular he said, ‘These young people – what kind of talk? What kind of talk? What happened to respect? What kind of talk is this?’

‘And you can fuck off too,’ said Shiva, brandishing a ladle in his direction, ‘you old fool. You’re not my father.’

‘Second cousin of your mother’s uncle,’ a voice muttered from the back.

‘Bollocks,’ said Shiva. ‘Bollocks to that.’

He grabbed the mop and was heading off for the toilets, when he stopped by Samad and placed the handle inches from Samad’s mouth.

‘Kiss it,’ he sneered; and then, impersonating Ardashir’s sluggish drawl, ‘Who knows, cousin, you might get a rise!’

And that’s what it was like most nights: abuse from Shiva and others; condescension from Ardashir; never seeing Alsana; never seeing the sun; clutching fifteen pence and then releasing it; wanting desperately to be wearing a sign, a large white placard that said:

I AM NOT A WAITER. I HAVE BEEN A STUDENT, A SCIENTIST, A SOLDIER, MY WIFE IS CALLED ALSANA, WE LIVE IN EAST LONDON BUT WE WOULD LIKE TO MOVE NORTH. I AM A MUSLIM BUT ALLAH HAS FORSAKEN ME OR I HAVE FORSAKEN ALLAH, I’M NOT SURE. I HAVE A FRIEND – ARCHIE – AND OTHERS. I AM FORTY-NINE BUT WOMEN STILL TURN IN THE STREET. SOMETIMES.

But, no such placard existing, he had instead the urge, the need, to speak to every man, and, like the Ancient Mariner, explain constantly, constantly wanting to reassert something, anything. Wasn’t that important? But then the heart-breaking disappointment – to find out that the inclining of one’s head, poising of one’s pen, these were important, so important – it was important to be a good waiter, to listen when someone said-

Lamb Dawn Sock and rice. With chips. Thank you.

And fifteen pence clinked on china. Thank you, sir. Thank you so very much.

On the Tuesday after Archie’s wedding, Samad had waited till everyone left, folded his white, flared trousers (made from the same fabric as the tablecloths) into a perfect square, and then climbed the stairs to Ardashir’s office, for he had something to ask him.

‘Cousin!’ said Ardashir, with a friendly grimace at the sight of Samad’s body curling cautiously round the door. He knew that Samad had come to inquire about a pay increase, and he wanted his cousin to feel that he had at least considered the case in all his friendly judiciousness before he declined.

‘Cousin, come in!’

‘Good evening, Ardashir Mukhul,’ said Samad, stepping fully into the room.

‘Sit down, sit down,’ said Ardashir warmly. ‘No point standing on ceremony now, is there?’

Samad was glad this was so. He said as much. He took a moment to look with the necessary admiration around the room, with its relentless gold, with its triple-piled carpet, with its furnishings in various shades of yellow and green. One had to admire Ardashir’s business sense. He had taken the simple idea of an Indian restaurant (small room, pink tablecloth, loud music, atrocious wallpaper, meals that do not exist in India, sauce carousel) and just made it bigger. He hadn’t improved anything; everything was the same old crap, but it was all bigger in a bigger building in the biggest tourist trap in London, Leicester Square. You had to admire it and admire the man, who sat now like a benign locust, his slender insectile body swamped in a black leather chair, leaning over the desk, all smiles, a parasite disguised as a philanthropist.

‘Cousin, what can I do for you?’

Samad took a breath. The matter was this…

Ardashir’s eyes glazed over a little as Samad explained his situation. His skinny legs twitched underneath the desk, and in his fingers he manipulated a paperclip until it looked reasonably like an A. A for Ardashir. The matter was… what was the matter? The house was the matter. Samad was moving out of East London (where one couldn’t bring up children, indeed, one couldn’t, not if one didn’t wish them to come to bodily harm, he agreed), from East London with its NF gangs, to North London, north-west, where things were more… more… liberal.

Was it his turn to speak?

‘Cousin…’ said Ardashir, arranging his face, ‘you must understand… I cannot make it my business to buy houses for all my employees, cousin or not cousin… I pay a wage, cousin… That is business in this country.’

Ardashir shrugged as he spoke as if to suggest he deeply disapproved of ‘Business in this country’, but there it was. He was forced, his look said, forced by the English to make an awful lot of money.

‘You misunderstand me, Ardashir. I have the deposit for the house, it is our house now, we have moved in-’

How on earth has he afforded it, he must work his wife like a bloody slave, thought Ardashir, pulling out another paperclip from the bottom drawer.

‘I need only a small wage increase to help me finance the move. To make things a little easier as we settle in. And Alsana, well, she is pregnant.’

Pregnant. Difficult. The case called for extreme diplomacy.

‘Don’t mistake me, Samad, we are both intelligent, frank men and I think I can speak frankly… I know you’re not a fucking waiter’ – he whispered the expletive and smiled indulgently after it, as if it were a naughty, private thing that brought them closer together – ‘I see your position… of course I do… but you must understand mine… If I made allowances for every relative I employ I’d be walking around like bloody Mr Gandhi. Without a pot to piss in. Spinning my thread by the light of the moon. An example: at this very moment that wastrel Fat Elvis brother-in-law of mine, Hussein-Ishmael-’

‘The butcher?’

‘The butcher, demands that I should raise the price I pay for his stinking meat! “But Ardashir, we are brothers-in-law!” he is saying to me. And I am saying to him, but Mohammed, this is retail…’

It was Samad’s turn to glaze over. He thought of his wife, Alsana, who was not as meek as he had assumed when they married, to whom he must deliver the bad news; Alsana, who was prone to moments, even fits – yes, fits was not too strong a word – of rage. Cousins, aunts, brothers, thought it a bad sign, they worried if there wasn’t some ‘funny mental history’ in Alsana’s family, they sympathized with him the way you sympathize with a man who has bought a stolen car with more mileage on it than first thought. In his naivety Samad had simply assumed a woman so young would be… easy. But Alsana was not… no, she was not easy. It was, he supposed, the way with these young women these days. Archie’s bride… last Tuesday he had seen something in her eyes that wasn’t easy either. It was the new way with these women.

Ardashir came to the end of what he felt was his perfectly worded speech, sat back satisfied, and laid the M for Mukhul he had moulded next to the A for Ardashir that sat on his lap.

‘Thank you, sir,’ said Samad. ‘Thank you so very much.’

That evening there was an awful row. Alsana slung the sewing machine, with the black studded hotpants she was working on, to the floor.

‘Useless! Tell me, Samad Miah, what is the point of moving here – nice house, yes, very nice, very nice – but where is the food?’

‘It is a nice area, we have friends here.’

‘Who are they?’ She slammed her little fist on to the kitchen table, sending the salt and pepper flying, to collide spectacularly with each other in the air. ‘I don’t know them! You fight in an old, forgotten war with some Englishman… married to a black! Whose friends are they? These are the people my child will grow up around? Their children – half blacky-white? But tell me,’ she shouted, returning to her favoured topic, ‘where is our food?’ Theatrically, she threw open every cupboard in the kitchen. ‘Where is it? Can we eat china?’ Two plates smashed to the floor. She patted her stomach to indicate her unborn child and pointed to the pieces. ‘Hungry?’

Samad, who had an equally melodramatic nature when prompted, yanked upon the freezer and pulled out a mountain of meat which he piled in the middle of the room. His mother worked through the night preparing meat for her family, he said. His mother did not, he said, spend the household money, as Alsana did, on prepared meals, yoghurts and tinned spaghetti.

Alsana punched him full square in the stomach.

‘Samad Iqbal the traditionalist! Why don’t I just squat in the street over a bucket and wash clothes? Eh? In fact, what about my clothes? Edible?’

As Samad clutched his winded belly, there in the kitchen she ripped to shreds every stitch she had on and added them to the pile of frozen lamb, spare cuts from the restaurant. She stood naked before him for a moment, the yet small mound of her pregnancy in full view, then put on a long, brown coat and left the house.

But all the same, she reflected, slamming the door behind her, it was true: it was a nice area; she couldn’t deny it as she stormed towards the high road, avoiding trees where previously, in Whitechapel, she avoided flung-out mattresses and the homeless. It would be good for the child, she couldn’t deny it. Alsana had a deep-seated belief that living near green spaces was morally beneficial to the young, and there to her right was Gladstone Park, a sweeping horizon of green named after the Liberal Prime Minister (Alsana was from a respected old Bengal family and had read her English History; but look at her now; if they could see what depths…!), and in the Liberal tradition it was a park without fences, unlike the more affluent Queens Park (Victoria’s), with its pointed metal railings. Willesden was not as pretty as Queens Park, but it was a nice area. No denying it. Not like Whitechapel, where that madman E-knock someoneoranother gave a speech that forced them into the basement while kids broke the windows with their steel-capped boots. Rivers of blood silly-billy nonsense. Now she was pregnant she needed a little bit of peace and quiet. Though it was the same here in a way: they all looked at her strangely, this tiny Indian woman stalking the high road in a mackintosh, her plentiful hair flying every which way. Mali’s Kebabs, Mr Cheungs, Raj’s, Malkovich Bakeries – she read the new, unfamiliar signs as she passed. She was shrewd. She saw what this was. ‘Liberal? Hosh-kosh nonsense!’ No one was more liberal than anyone else anywhere anyway. It was only that here, in Willesden, there was just not enough of any one thing to gang up against any other thing and send it running to the cellars while windows were smashed.

‘Survival is what it is about!’ she concluded out loud (she spoke to her baby; she liked to give it one sensible thought a day), making the bell above Crazy Shoes tinkle as she opened the door. Her niece Neena worked there. It was an old-fashioned cobblers. Neena fixed heels back on to stilettos.

‘Alsana, you look like dog shit,’ Neena called over in Bengali. ‘What is that horrible coat?’

‘It’s none of your business, is what it is,’ replied Alsana in English. ‘I came to collect my husband’s shoes, not to chit-chat with Niece-of-Shame.’

Neena was used to this, and now that Alsana had moved to Willesden there would only be more of it. It used to come in longer sentences, i.e., You have brought nothing but shame… or My niece, the shameful… but now because Alsana no longer had the time or energy to summon up the necessary shock each time, it had become abridged to Niece-of-Shame, an all-purpose tag that summed up the general feeling.

‘See these soles?’ said Neena, moving one of her dyed blonde bangs from her eye, taking Samad’s shoes off a shelf and handing Alsana the little blue ticket. ‘They were so worn through, Auntie Alsi, I had to reconstruct them from the very base. From the base! What does he do in them? Run marathons?’

‘He works,’ replied Alsana tersely. ‘And prays,’ she added, for she liked to show people her respectability, and besides she was really very traditional, very religious, lacking nothing except the faith. ‘And don’t call me Auntie. I am two years older than you.’ Alsana swept the shoes into a plastic carrier bag and turned to leave.

‘I thought that praying was done on people’s knees,’ said Neena, laughing lightly.

‘Both, both, asleep, waking, walking,’ snapped Alsana, as she passed under the tinkly bell once more. ‘We are never out of sight of the Creator.’

‘How’s the new house, then?’ Neena called after her.

But she had gone; Neena shook her head and sighed as she watched her young aunt disappear down the road like a little brown bullet. Alsana. She was young and old at the same time, Neena reflected. She acted so sensible, so straight-down-the-line in her long sensible coat, but you got the feeling…

‘Oi! Miss! There’s shoes back here that need your attention,’ came a voice from the store room.

‘Keep your tits on,’ said Neena.

At the corner of the road Alsana popped behind the post office and removed her pinchy sandals in favour of Samad’s shoes. (It was an oddity about Alsana. She was small but her feet were enormous. You felt instinctively when looking at her that she had yet more growing to do.) In seconds she whipped her hair into an efficient bun, and wrapped her coat tighter around her to keep out the wind. Then she set off up past the library and up a long green road she had never walked along before. ‘Survival is all, little Iqbal,’ she said to her bump once more. ‘Survival.’

Halfway up the road, she crossed the street, intending to turn left and circle round back to the high road. But then, as she approached a large white van open at the back and looked enviously at the furniture that was piled up in it, she recognized the black lady who was leaning over a garden fence, looking dreamily into the air towards the library (half dressed, though! A lurid purple vest, underwear almost), as if her future lay in that direction. Before she could cross over once more to avoid her, Alsana found herself spotted.

‘Mrs Iqbal!’ said Clara, waving her over.

‘Mrs Jones.’

Both women were momentarily embarrassed at what they were wearing, but, looking at the other, gained confidence.

‘Now, isn’t that strange, Archie?’ said Clara, filling in all her consonants. She was already some way to losing her accent and she liked to work on it at every opportunity.

‘What? What?’ said Archie, who was in the hallway, becoming exasperated with a bookcase.

‘It’s just that we were just talking about you – you’re coming to dinner tonight, yes?’

Black people are often friendly, thought Alsana, smiling at Clara, and adding this fact subconsciously to the short ‘pro’ side of the pro and con list she had on the black girl. From every minority she disliked, Alsana liked to single out one specimen for spiritual forgiveness. From Whitechapel, there had been many such redeemed characters. Mr Van, the Chinese chiropodist, Mr Segal, a Jewish carpenter, Rosie, a Dominican woman who continuously popped round, much to Alsana’s grievance and delight, in an attempt to convert her into a Seventh-Day Adventist – all these lucky individuals were given Alsana’s golden reprieve and magically extrapolated from their skins like Indian tigers.

‘Yes, Samad mentioned it,’ said Alsana, though Samad had not.

Clara beamed. ‘Good… good!’

There was a pause. Neither could think of what to say. They both looked downwards.

‘Those shoes look truly comfortable,’ said Clara.

‘Yes. Yes. I do a lot of walking, you see. And with this – ’ She patted her stomach.

‘You’re pregnant?’ said Clara surprised. ‘Pickney, you so small me kyant even see it.’

Clara blushed the moment after she had spoken; she always dropped into the vernacular when she was excited or pleased about something. Alsana just smiled pleasantly, unsure what she had said.

‘I wouldn’t have known,’ said Clara, more subdued.

‘Dear me,’ said Alsana with a forced hilarity. ‘Don’t our husbands tell each other anything?’

But as soon as she had said it, the weight of the other possibility rested on the brains of the two girl-wives. That their husbands told each other everything. That it was they themselves who were kept in the dark.

4 Three Coming

Archie was at work when he heard the news. Clara was two and a half months up the spout.

‘You’re not, love!’

‘I am!’

‘You’re not!’

‘I am! And I arks de doctor what it will look like, half black an’ half white an’ all dat bizness. And ’im say anyting could happen. Dere’s even a chance it may be blue-eyed! Kyan you imagine dat?’

Archie couldn’t imagine that. He couldn’t imagine any piece of him slugging it out in the gene pool with a piece of Clara and winning. But what a possibility! What a thing that would be! He dashed out of the office on to the Euston Road for a box of cigars. Twenty minutes later he swaggered back into MorganHero with a huge box of Indian sweets and started making his way round the room.

‘Noel, have a sticky thing. That one’s good.’

Noel, the office junior, looked inside the oily box with suspicion. ‘What’s all this in aid…?’

Archie pounded him on the back. ‘Going to have a kid, ain’t I? Blue eyes, would you credit it? I’m celebrating! Thing is, you can get fourteen types of dal, but you can’t get a bloody cigar in the Euston Road for love nor money. Go on, Noel. How about this one?’

Archie held up a half-white, half-pink one with an unwelcoming odour.

‘Erm, Mr Jones, that’s very… But it’s not really my cup of…’ Noel made as if to return to his filing. ‘I’d better get on with…’

‘Oh, go on, Noel. I’m going to have a kid. Forty-seven and I’m going to have a little baby. That calls for a bit of a party, don’t it? Go on… you won’t know till you try. Just give it a nibble.’

‘Just them Pakistani foods aren’t always… I’ve got a bit of a funny…’

Noel patted his stomach and looked desperate. Despite being in the direct mail business, Noel hated to be spoken to directly. He liked being the intermediary at MorganHero. He liked putting calls through, telling one person what another person said, forwarding letters.

‘Bloody hell, Noel… it’s just a sweet. I’m just trying to celebrate, mate. Don’t you hippies eat sweets or something?’

Noel’s hair was ever so slightly longer than everyone else’s, and he had once bought an incense stick to burn in the coffee room. It was a small office, there was little to talk about, so these two things made Noel second only to Janis Joplin, just as Archie was the white Jesse Owens because he came thirteenth in the Olympics twenty-seven years ago, Gary from Accounts had a French grandmother and blew cigarette smoke out of his nose so he was Maurice Chevalier, and Elmott, Archie’s fellow paper-folder, was Einstein because he could manage two thirds of The Times crossword.

Noel looked pained. ‘Archie… Did you get my note from Mr Hero about the folds on the…?’

Archie sighed. ‘On the Mothercare account. Yes, Noel, I’ve told Elmott to move the perforation.’

Noel looked thankful. ‘Well, congratulations about the… I’ll be getting on with…’ Noel returned to his desk.

Archie left to try Maureen the receptionist. Maureen had good legs for a woman her age – legs like sausages tightly packed in their skins – and she’d always fancied him a bit.

‘Maureen, love. I’m going to be a father!’

‘Are you, love? Oh, I am pleased. Girl or-’

‘Too early to tell as yet. Blue eyes, though!’ said Archie, for whom these eyes had passed from rare genetic possibility to solid fact. ‘Would you credit it!’

‘Did you say blue eyes, Archie, love?’ said Maureen, speaking slowly so she might find a way to phrase it. ‘I’m not bein’ funny… but in’t your wife, well, coloured?’

Archie shook his head wonderingly. ‘I know! Her and me have a child, the genes mix up, and blue eyes! Miracle of nature!’

‘Oh yes, miracle,’ said Maureen tersely, thinking that was a polite word for what it was.

‘Have a sweet?’

Maureen looked dubious. She patted her pitted pink thighs encased in their white tights. ‘Oh, Archie, love, I shouldn’t. Goes straight on the legs and hips, don’t it? An’ neither of us is getting any younger, are we, eh? Are we, eh? None of us can turn back the clock, can we, eh? That Joan Rivers, I wish I knew how she does it!’

Maureen laughed for a long time, her trademark laugh at MorganHero: shrill and loud, but with her mouth only slightly open, for Maureen had a morbid dread of laughter lines.

She poked one of the sweets with a sceptical, blood-red fingernail. ‘Indian, are they?’

‘Yes, Maureen,’ said Archie with a blokeish grin, ‘spicy and sweet at the same time. Bit like you.’

‘Oh, Archie, you are funny,’ said Maureen sadly, for she had always fancied Archie a bit but never more than a bit because of this strange way he had about him, always talking to Pakistanis and Caribbeans like he didn’t even notice and now he’d gone and married one and hadn’t even thought it worth mentioning what colour she was until the office dinner when she turned up black as anything and Maureen almost choked on her prawn cocktail.

Maureen stretched over her desk to attend to a ringing telephone. ‘I don’t think I will, Archie, love…’

‘Please yourself. Don’t know what you’re missing, though.’

Maureen smiled weakly and picked up the receiver. ‘Yes, Mr Hero, he’s right here, he’s just found out he’s going to be a daddy… yes, it’ll have blue eyes, apparently… yes, that’s what I said, something to do with genes, I suppose… oh yes, all right… I’ll tell him, I’ll send him in… Oh, thank you, Mr Hero, you’re very kind.’ Maureen stretched her talons across the receiver and spoke in a stage-whisper to Archie, ‘Archibald, love, Mr Hero wants to see you. Urgent, he says. You been a naughty boy or sommink?’

‘I should cocoa!’ said Archie, heading for the lift.

The door said:

Kelvin Hero

Company Director

MorganHero

Direct Mail Specialists

It was meant to intimidate and Archie responded in kind, rapping the door too lightly and then too hard and then kind of falling through it when Kelvin Hero, dressed in moleskin, turned the handle to let him in.

‘Archie,’ said Kelvin Hero, revealing a double row of pearly whites that owed more to expensive dentistry than to regular brushing. ‘Archie, Archie, Archie, Archie.’

‘Mr Hero,’ said Archie.

‘You puzzle me, Archie,’ said Mr Hero.

‘Mr Hero,’ said Archie.

‘Sit down there, Archie,’ said Mr Hero.

‘Right you are, Mr Hero,’ said Archie.

Kelvin wiped a streak of grimy sweat from around his shirt collar, turned his silver Parker pen over a few times in his hand and took a series of deep breaths. ‘Now, this is quite delicate… and I have never considered myself a racialist, Archie…’

‘Mr Hero?’

Blimey, thought Kelvin, what an eye-to-face ratio. When you want to say something delicate, you don’t want that eye-to-face ratio staring up at you. Big eyes, like a child’s or a baby seal’s; the physiognomy of innocence – looking at Archie Jones is like looking at something that expects to be clubbed round the head any second.

Kelvin tried a softer tack. ‘Let me put it another way. Usually, when confronted with this type of delicate situation, I would, as you know, confer with you. Because I’ve always had a lot of time for you, Arch. I respect you. You’re not flashy, Archie, you’ve never been flashy, but you’re-’

‘Sturdy,’ finished Archie, because he knew this speech.

Kelvin smiled: a big gash across his face that came and went with the sudden violence of a fat man marching through swing doors. ‘Right, yeah, sturdy. People trust you, Archie. I know you’re getting on a bit, and the old leg gives you a bit of trouble – but when this business changed hands, I kept you on, Arch, because I could see straight off: people trust you. That’s why you’ve stayed in the direct mail business so long. And I’m trusting you, Arch, to take what I’ve got to say in the right way.’

‘Mr Hero?’

Kelvin shrugged. ‘I could have lied to you, Archie, I could have told you that we’d made a mistake with the bookings, and there just wasn’t room for you; I could have fished around in my arse and pulled out a juicy one – but you’re a big boy, Archie. You’d phone the restaurant, you’re not a baboon, Archie, you’ve got something upstairs, you’d have put two and two together-’

‘And made four.’

‘And made four, exactly, Archie. You would have made four. Do you understand what I’m saying to you, Archie?’ said Mr Hero.

‘No, Mr Hero,’ said Archie.

Kelvin prepared to cut to the chase. ‘That company dinner last month – it was awkward, Archie, it was unpleasant. And now there’s this annual do coming up with our sister company from Sunderland, about thirty of us, nothing fancy, you know, a curry, a lager and a bit of a boogie… as I say, it’s not that I’m a racialist, Archie…’

‘A racialist…’

‘I’d spit on that Enoch Powell… but then again he does have a point, doesn’t he? There comes a point, a saturation point, and people begin to feel a bit uncomfortable… You see, all he was saying-’

‘Who?’

‘Powell, Archie, Powell – try and keep up – all he was saying is enough is enough after a certain point, isn’t it? I mean, it’s like Delhi in Euston every Monday morning. And there’s some people around here, Arch – and I don’t include myself here – who just feel your attitude is a little strange.’

‘Strange?’

‘You see the wives don’t like it because, let’s face it, she’s a sort, a real beauty – incredible legs, Archie, I’d like to congratulate you on them legs – and the men, well, the men don’t like it ’cos they don’t like to think they’re wanting a bit of the other when they’re sitting down to a company dinner with their lady wives, especially when she’s… you know… they don’t know what to make of that at all.’

‘Who?’

‘What?’

‘Who are we talking about, Mr Hero?’

‘Look, Archie,’ said Kelvin, the sweat now flowing freely, distasteful for a man with his amount of chest hair, ‘take these.’ Kelvin pushed a large wad of Luncheon Vouchers across the table. ‘They’re left over from that raffle – you remember, for the Biafrans.’

‘Oh no – I already won an oven mitt in that, Mr Hero, there’s no need-’

‘Take them, Archie. There’s fifty pounds’ worth of vouchers in there, redeemable in over five thousand food outlets nationwide. Take them. Have a few meals on me.’

Archie fingered the vouchers like they were so many fifty pound notes. Kelvin thought for a moment he saw tears of happiness in his eyes.

‘Well, I don’t know what to say. There’s a place I go to, pretty regular like. If they take these I’m made for life. Ta very much.’

Kelvin took a handkerchief to his forehead. ‘Think nothing of it, Arch. Please.’

‘Mr Hero, could I…’ Archie gestured towards the door. ‘It’s just that I’d like to phone some people, you know, give them the news about the baby… if we’ve finished here.’

Kelvin nodded, relieved. Archie lifted himself out of his seat. He had just reached for the handle of the door when Kelvin snatched up his Parker pen once more and said, ‘Oh, Archie, one more thing… that dinner with the Sunderland team… I talked to Maureen and I think we need to cut down on the numbers… we put the names in a hat and yours came out. Still, I don’t suppose you’ll be missing much, eh? These things are always a bit of a bore.’

‘Right you are, Mr Hero,’ said Archie, mind elsewhere; praying to God that O’Connell’s was a ‘food outlet’; smiling to himself, imagining Samad’s reaction when he copped fifty quids’ worth of bloody Luncheon Vouchers.

Partly because Mrs Jones becomes pregnant so soon after Mrs Iqbal and partly because of a daily proximity (by this point Clara is working part time as a supervisor for a Kilburn youth group which looks like the fifteen-man line-up of a ska and roots band – six-inch Afros, Adidas tracksuits, brown ties, Velcro, sun-tinted shades – and Alsana attends an Asian Women’s Pre-natal Class in Kilburn High Road round the corner), the two women begin to see more of each other. Hesitant in the beginning – a few lunch dates here and there, the occasional coffee – what begins as a rearguard action against their husbands’ friendship soon develops. They have resigned themselves to their husbands’ mutual appreciation society and the free time this leaves is not altogether unpleasant; there is time for picnics and outings, for discussion and personal study; for old French movies where Alsana screams and covers her eyes at the suggestion of nudity (‘Put it away! We are not wanting to see the dangly bits!’) and Clara gets a glimpse of how the other half live: the half who live on romance, passion and joie de vivre. The other half who have sex. The life that might have been hers had she not been at the top of some stairs one fine day as Archibald Jones waited at the bottom.

Then, when their bumps become too large and cinema seats no longer accommodate them, the women begin to meet up for lunch in Kilburn Park, often with the Niece-of-Shame, the three of them squeezed on to a generous bench where Alsana presses a thermos of P. G. Tips into Clara’s hand, without milk, with lemon. Unwraps several layers of cling-film to reveal today’s peculiar delight: savoury dough-like balls, crumbly Indian sweets shot through with the colours of the kaleidoscope, thin pastry with spiced beef inside, salad with onion; saying to Clara, ‘Eat up! Stuff yourself silly! It’s in there, wallowing around in your belly, waiting for the menu. Woman, don’t torture it! You want to starve the bump?’ For, despite appearances, there are six people on that bench (three living, three coming); one girl for Clara, two boys for Alsana.

Alsana says, ‘Nobody’s complaining, let’s get that straight. Children are a blessing, the more the merrier. But I tell you, when I turned my head and saw that fancy ultra-business thingummybob…’

‘Ultrasound,’ corrects Clara, through a mouthful of rice.

‘Yes, I almost had the heart attack to finish me off! Two! Feeding one is enough!’

Clara laughs and says she can imagine Samad’s face when he saw it.

‘No, dearie.’ Alsana is reproving, tucking her large feet underneath the folds of her sari. ‘He didn’t see anything. He wasn’t there. I am not letting him see things like that. A woman has to have the private things – a husband needn’t be involved in body-business, in a lady’s… parts.’

Niece-of-Shame, who is sitting between them, sucks her teeth.

‘Bloody hell, Alsi, he must’ve been involved in your parts sometime, or is this the immaculate bloody conception?’

‘So rude,’ says Alsana to Clara in a snooty, English way. ‘Too old to be so rude and too young to know any better.’

And then Clara and Alsana, with the accidental mirroring that happens when two people are sharing the same experience, both lay their hands on their bulges.

Neena, to redeem herself: ‘Yeah… well… How are you doing on names? Any ideas?’

Alsana is decisive. ‘Meena and Malānā, if they are girls. If boys: Magid and Millat. Ems are good. Ems are strong. Mahatma, Muhammad, that funny Mr Morecambe, from Morecambe and Wise – letter you can trust.’

But Clara is more cautious, because naming seems to her a fearful responsibility, a god-like task for a mere mortal. ‘If it’s a girl, I tink I like Irie. It patois. Means everyting OK, cool, peaceful, you know?’

Alsana is horrified before the sentence is finished: ‘ “OK”? This is a name for a child? You might as well call her “Wouldsirlikeanypoppadomswiththat?” or “Niceweatherweare having”.’

‘-And Archie likes Sarah. Well, dere not much you can argue wid in Sarah, but dere’s not much to get happy ’bout either. I suppose if it was good enough for the wife of Abraham-’

‘Ibrāhim,’ Alsana corrects, out of instinct more than Qur’ānic pedantry, ‘popping out babies when she was a hundred years old, by the grace of Allah.’

And then Neena, groaning at the turn the conversation is taking: ‘Well, I like Irie. It’s funky. It’s different.’

Alsana loves this. ‘For pity’s sake, what does Archibald know about funky. Or different. If I were you, dearie,’ she says, patting Clara’s knee, ‘I’d choose Sarah and let that be an end to it. Sometimes you have to let these men have it their way. Anything for a little – how do you say it in the English? For a little’ – she puts her finger over tightly pursed lips, like a guard at the gate – ‘shush.’

But in response Niece-of-Shame puts on the thick accent, bats her voluminous eyelashes, wraps her college scarf round her head like purdah. ‘Oh yes, Auntie, yes, the little submissive Indian woman. You don’t talk to him, he talks at you. You scream and shout at each other, but there’s no communication. And in the end he wins anyway because he does whatever he likes, when he likes. You don’t even know where he is, what he does, what he feels, half the time. It’s 1975, Alsi. You can’t conduct relationships like that any more. It’s not like back home. There’s got to be communication between men and women in the West, they’ve got to listen to each other, otherwise…’ Neena mimes a small mushroom cloud going off in her hand.

‘What a load of the cod’s wallop,’ says Alsana sonorously, closing her eyes, shaking her head, ‘it is you who do not listen. By Allah, I will always give as good as I get. But you presume I care what he does. You presume I want to know. The truth is, for a marriage to survive you don’t need all this talk, talk, talk; all this “I am this” and “I am really like this” like in the papers, all this revelation – especially when your husband is old, when he is wrinkly and falling apart – you do not want to know what is slimy underneath the bed and rattling in the wardrobe.’

Neena frowns, Clara cannot raise serious objection, and the rice is handed around once more.

‘Moreover,’ says Alsana after a pause, folding her dimpled arms underneath her breasts, pleased to be holding forth on a subject close to this formidable bosom, ‘when you are from families such as ours you should have learnt that silence, what is not said, is the very best recipe for family life.’

For all three have been brought up in strict, religious families, houses where God appeared at every meal, infiltrated every childhood game, and sat in the lotus position under the bedclothes with a torch to check nothing untoward was occurring.

‘So let me get this straight,’ says Neena derisively. ‘You’re saying that a good dose of repression keeps a marriage healthy.’

And as if someone had pressed a button, Alsana is outraged. ‘Repression! Nonsense silly-billy word! I’m just talking about common sense. What is my husband? What is yours?’ she says, pointing to Clara. ‘Twenty-five years they live before we are even born. What are they? What are they capable of? What blood do they have on their hands? What is sticky and smelly in their private areas? Who knows?’ She throws her hands up, releasing the questions into the unhealthy Kilburn air, sending a troupe of sparrows up with them.

‘What you don’t understand, my Niece-of-Shame, what none of your generation understands…’

At which point Neena cannot stop a piece of onion escaping from her mouth due to the sheer strength of her objection. ‘My generation? For fuckssake, you’re two years older than me, Alsi.’

But Alsana continues regardless, miming a knife slicing through the niece-of-shame tongue-of-obscenity, ‘… is that not everybody wants to see into everybody else’s sweaty, secret parts.’

‘But Auntie,’ begs Neena, raising her voice, because this is what she really wants to argue about, the largest sticking point between the two of them, Alsana’s arranged marriage. ‘How can you bear to live with somebody you don’t know from Adam?’

In response, an infuriating wink: Alsana always likes to appear jovial at the very moment that her interlocutor becomes hot under the collar. ‘Because, Miss Smarty-pants, it is by far the easier option. It was exactly because Eve did not know Adam from Adam that they got on so A-OK. Let me explain. Yes, I was married to Samad Iqbal the same evening of the very day I met him. Yes, I didn’t know him from Adam. But I liked him well enough. We met in the breakfast room on a steaming Delhi day and he fanned me with The Times. I thought he had a good face, a sweet voice, and his backside was high and well formed for a man of his age. Very good. Now, every time I learn something more about him, I like him less. So you see, we were better off the way we were.’

Neena stamps her foot in exasperation at the skewed logic.

‘Besides, I will never know him well. Getting anything out of my husband is like trying to squeeze water out when you’re stoned.’

Neena laughs despite herself. ‘Water out of a stone.’

‘Yes, yes. You think I’m so stupid. But I am wise about things like men. I tell you’ – Alsana prepares to deliver her summation as she has seen it done many years previously by the young Delhi lawyers with their slick side partings – ‘men are the last mystery. God is easy compared with men. Now, enough of the philosophy: samosa?’ She peels the lid off the plastic tub and sits fat, pretty and satisfied on her conclusion.

‘Shame that you’re having them,’ says Neena to her aunt, lighting a fag. ‘Boys, I mean. Shame that you’re going to have boys.’

‘What do you mean?’

This is Clara, who is the recipient of a secret (kept secret from Alsana and Archie) lending library of Neena’s through which she reads, in a few short months, Greer’s Female Eunuch, Jong’s Fear of Flying and The Second Sex, all in a clandestine attempt, on Neena’s part, to rid Clara of her ‘false consciousness’.

‘I mean, I just think men have caused enough chaos this century. There’s enough fucking men in the world. If I knew I was going to have a boy’ – she pauses to prepare her two falsely conscious friends for this new concept – ‘I’d have to seriously consider abortion.’

Alsana screams, claps her hands over one of her own ears and one of Clara’s, and then almost chokes on a piece of aubergine. For some reason the remark simultaneously strikes Clara as funny; hysterically, desperately funny; miserably funny; and the Niece-of-Shame sits between the two, nonplussed, while the two egg-shaped women bend over themselves, one in laughter, the other in horror and asphyxiation.

‘Are you all right, ladies?’

It is Sol Jozefowicz, the old guy who back then took it upon himself to police the park (though his job as park keeper had long since been swept away in council cuts), Sol Jozefowicz stands in front of them, ready as always to be of aid.

‘We are all going to burn in hell, Mr Jozefowicz, if you call that being all right,’ explains Alsana, pulling herself together.

Niece-of-Shame rolls her eyes. ‘Speak for yourself.’

But Alsana is faster than any sniper when it comes to firing back. ‘I do, I do – thankfully Allah has arranged it that way.’

‘Good afternoon, Neena, good afternoon, Mrs Jones,’ says Sol, offering a neat bow to each. ‘Are you sure you are all right? Mrs Jones?’

Clara cannot stop the tears from squeezing out of the corners of her eyes. She cannot work out, at this moment, whether it is crying or laughing.

‘I’m fine… fine, sorry to have worried you, Mr Jozefowicz… really, I’m fine.’

‘I do not see what’s so very funny-funny,’ mutters Alsana. ‘The murder of innocents – is this funny?’

‘Not in my experience, Mrs Iqbal, no,’ says Sol Jozefowicz, in the collected manner in which he said everything, passing his handkerchief to Clara. It strikes all three women – the way history will, embarrassingly, without warning, like a blush – what the ex-park keeper’s experience might have been. They fall silent.

‘Well, as long as you ladies are fine, I’ll be getting on,’ says Sol, motioning that Clara can keep the handkerchief and replacing the hat he had removed in the old fashion. He bows his neat little bow once more, and sets off slowly, anti-clockwise round the park.

Once Sol is out of earshot: ‘OK, Auntie Alsi, I apologize, I apologize… For fuck’s sake, what more do you want?’

‘Oh, every-bloody-thing,’ says Alsana, her voice losing the fight, becoming vulnerable. ‘The whole bloody universe made clear – in a little nutshell. I cannot understand a thing any more, and I am just beginning. You understand?’

She sighs, not waiting for an answer, not looking at Neena, but across the way at the hunched, disappearing figure of Sol winding in and out of the yew trees. ‘You may be right about Samad… about many things. Maybe there are no good men, not even the two I might have in this belly… and maybe I do not talk enough with mine, maybe I have married a stranger. You might see the truth better than I. What do I know… barefoot country girl… never went to the universities.’

‘Oh, Alsi,’ Neena is saying, weaving in and out of Alsana’s words like tapestry; feeling bad. ‘You know I didn’t mean it like that.’

‘But I cannot be worrying-worrying all the time about the truth. I have to worry about the truth that can be lived with. And that is the difference between losing your marbles drinking the salty sea, or swallowing the stuff from the streams. My Niece-of-Shame believes in the talking cure, eh?’ says Alsana, with something of a grin. ‘Talk, talk, talk and it will be better. Be honest, slice open your heart and spread the red stuff around. But the past is made of more than words, dearie. We married old men, you see? These bumps’ – Alsana pats them both – ‘they will always have daddy-long-legs for fathers. One leg in the present, one in the past. No talking will change this. Their roots will always be tangled. And roots get dug up. Just look in my garden – birds at the coriander every bloody day…’

Just as he reaches the far gate, Sol Jozefowicz turns round to wave, and three women wave back. Clara feels a little theatrical, flying his cream handkerchief above her head. Like she is seeing someone off for a train journey crossing the border of two countries.

‘How did they meet?’ asks Neena, trying to lift the cloud that has somehow descended on their picnic. ‘I mean Mr Jones and Samad Miah.’

Alsana throws her head back, a dismissive gesture. ‘Oh, in the war. Off killing some poor bastards who didn’t deserve it, no doubt. And what did they get for their trouble? A broken hand for Samad Miah and for the other one a funny leg. Some use, some use, all this.’

‘Archie’s right leg,’ says Clara quietly, pointing to a place in her own thigh. ‘A piece of metal, I tink. But he don’ really tell me nuttin’.’

‘Oh, who cares!’ Alsana bursts out. ‘I’d trust Vishnu the many-handed pick-pocket before I believed a word those men say.’

But Clara holds dear the image of the young soldier Archie, particularly when the old, flabby Direct Mail Archie is on top of her. ‘Oh, come now… we don’ know what-’

Alsana spits quite frankly on the grass. ‘Shitty lies! If they are heroes, where are their hero things? Where are the hero bits and bobs? Heroes – they have things. They have hero stuff. You can spot them ten miles away. I’ve never seen a medal… and not so much as a photograph.’ Alsana makes an unpleasant noise at the back of her throat, her signal for disbelief. ‘So look at it – no, dearie, it must be done – look at it close up. Look at what is left. Samad has one hand; says he wants to find God but the fact is God’s given him the slip; and he has been in that curry house for two years already, serving up stringy goat to the whiteys who don’t know any better, and Archibald – well, look at the thing close up…’

Alsana stops to check with Clara if she could speak her mind further without causing offence or unnecessary pain, but Clara’s eyes are closed and she is already looking at the thing close up; a young girl looking at an old man close up; finishing Alsana’s sentence with the beginning of a smile spreading across her face,

‘… folds paper for a living, dear Jesus.’

5 The Root Canals of Alfred Archibald Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal

A propos: it’s all very well, this instruction of Alsana’s to look at the thing close up; to look at it dead-straight between the eyes; an unflinching and honest stare, a meticulous inspection that would go beyond the heart of the matter to its marrow, beyond the marrow to the root – but the question is how far back do you want? How far will do? The old American question: what do you want – blood? Most probably more than blood is required: whispered asides; lost conversations; medals and photographs; lists and certificates, yellowing paper bearing the faint imprint of brown dates. Back, back, back. Well, all right, then. Back to Archie spit-clean, pink-faced and polished, looking just old enough at seventeen to fool the men from the medical board with their pencils and their measuring tape. Back to Samad, two years older and the warm colour of baked bread. Back to the day when they were first assigned to each other, Samad Miah Iqbal (row 2, Over here now, soldier!) and Alfred Archibald Jones (Move it, move it, move it), the day Archie involuntarily forgot that most fundamental principle of English manners. He stared. They were standing side by side on a stretch of black dirt-track Russian ground, dressed identically in little triangular caps perched on their heads like paper sailing-boats, wearing the same itchy standard uniform, their ice-pinched toes resting in the same black boots scattered with the same dust. But Archie couldn’t help but stare. And Samad put up with it, waited and waited for it to pass, until after a week of being cramped in their tank, hot and suffocated by the airless machine and subjected to Archie’s relentless gaze, he had putted-up-with as much as his hot-head ever could put up with anything.

‘My friend, what is it you find so darned mysterious about me that it has you in such constant revelries?’

‘You what?’ said Archie, flustered, for he was not one to have private conversations on army time. ‘Nobody, I mean, nothing – I mean, well, what do you mean?’

They both spoke under their breath, for the conversation was not private in the other sense, there being two other privates and a captain in their five-man Churchill rolling through Athens on its way to Thessaloníki. It was 1 April 1945. Archie Jones was the driver of the tank, Samad was the wireless operator, Roy Mackintosh was the co-driver, Will Johnson was crunched on a bin as the gunner, and Thomas Dickinson-Smith was sitting on the slightly elevated chair, which, even though it squashed his head against the ceiling, his newly granted captaincy would not permit his pride to relinquish. None of them had seen anyone else but each other for three weeks.

‘I mean merely that it is likely we have another two years stuck in this thing.’

A voice crackled through the wireless, and Samad, not wishing to be seen neglecting his duties, answered it speedily and efficiently.

‘And?’ asked Archie, after Samad had given their coordinates.

‘And there is only so much of that eyeballing that a man can countenance. Is it that you are doing some research into wireless operators or are you just in a passion over my arse?’

Their captain, Dickinson-Smith, who was in a passion over Samad’s arse (but not only that; also his mind; also two slender muscular arms that could only make sense wrapped around a lover; also those luscious light green/brown eyes) silenced the conversation immediately.

‘Ick-Ball! Jones! Get on with it. Do you see anyone else here chewing the fat?’

‘I was just making an objection, sir. It is hard, sir, for a man to concentrate on his Foxtrot F’s and his Zebra Z’s and then his dots and his dashes when he has a pug-dog fellow who follows his every move with his pug-dog eyes, sir. In Bengal one would assume such eyes belonged to a man filled with-’

‘Shut it, Sultan, you poof,’ said Roy, who hated Samad and his poncey-radio-operator-ways.

Mackintosh,’ said Dickinson-Smith, ‘come now, let’s not stop the Sultan. Continue, Sultan.’

To avoid the possible suggestion that he was partial to Samad, Captain Dickinson-Smith made a practice of picking on him and encouraging his hateful Sultan nickname, but he never did it in the right way; it was always too soft, too similar to Samad’s own luxurious language and only resulted in Roy and the other eighty Roys under his direct command hating Dickinson-Smith, ridiculing him, openly displaying their disrespect; by April 1945 they were utterly filled with contempt for him and sickened by his poncey-commander-queer-boy-ways. Archie, new to the First Assault Regiment R. E., was just learning this.

‘I just told him to shut it, and he’ll shut it if he knows what’s good for him, the Indian Sultan bastard. No disrespect to you, sir, ’course,’ added Roy, as a polite gesture.

Dickinson-Smith knew in other regiments, in other tanks, it simply was not the case that people spoke back to their superiors or even spoke at all. Even Roy’s Polite Gesture was a sign of Dickinson-Smith’s failure. In those other tanks, in the Shermans, Churchills and Matildas dotted over the waste of Europe like resilient cockroaches, there was no question of respect or disrespect. Only Obey, Disobey, Punish.

‘Sultan… Sultan…’ Samad mused. ‘Do you know, I wouldn’t mind the epithet, Mr Mackintosh, if it were at least accurate. It’s not historically accurate, you know. It is not, even geographically speaking, accurate. I am sure I have explained to you that I am from Bengal. The word “Sultan” refers to certain men of the Arab lands – many hundreds of miles west of Bengal. To call me Sultan is about as accurate, in terms of the mileage, you understand, as if I referred to you as a Jerry-Hun fat bastard.’

‘I called you Sultan and I’m calling you it again, all right?’

‘Oh, Mr Mackintosh. Is it so complex, is it so impossible, that you and I, stuck in this British machine, could find it in ourselves to fight together as British subjects?’

Will Johnson, who was a bit simple, took off his cap as he always did when someone said ‘British’.

‘What’s the poof on about?’ asked Mackintosh, adjusting his beer-gut.

‘Nothing,’ said Samad. ‘I’m afraid I was not “on” about anything; I was just talking, talking, just trying the shooting of the breeze as they say, and trying to get Sapper Jones here to stop his staring business, his goggly eyes, just this and only this… and I have failed on both counts, it seems.’

He seemed genuinely wounded, and Archie felt the sudden unsoldier-like desire to remove pain. But it was not the place and not the time.

‘All right. Enough, all of you. Jones, check the map,’ said Dickinson-Smith.

Archie checked the map.

Their journey was a long tiresome one, rarely punctuated by any action. Archie’s tank was a bridge-builder, one of the specialist divisions not tied to English county allegiances or to a type of weaponry, but providing service across the army and from country to country, recovering damaged equipment, laying bridges, creating passages for battle, creating routes where routes had been destroyed. Their job was not so much to fight the war as to make sure it ran smoothly. By the time Archie joined the conflict, it was clear that the cruel, bloody decisions would be made by air, not in the 30-centimetre difference between the width of a German armour piercing shell and an English one. The real war, the one where cities were brought to their knees, the war with the deathly calculations of size, detonation, population, went on many miles above Archie’s head. Meanwhile, on the ground, their heavy, armour-plated scout-tank had a simpler task: to avoid the civil war in the mountains – a war within a war – between the EAM and the ELAS; to pick their way through the glazed eyes of dead statistics and the ‘wasted youth’; to make sure the roads of communication stretching from one end of hell to the other were fully communicable.

‘The bombed ammunition factory is twenty miles south-west, sir. We are to collect what we can, sir. Private Ick-Ball has passed to me at 16.47 hours a radio message that informs me that the area, as far as can be seen from the air, sir, is unoccupied, sir,’ said Archie.

‘This is not war,’ Samad had said quietly.

Two weeks later, as Archie checked their route to Sofia, to no one in particular Samad said, ‘I should not be here.’

As usual he was ignored; most fiercely and resolutely by Archie, who wanted somehow to listen.

‘I mean, I am educated. I am trained. I should be soaring with the Royal Airborne Force, shelling from on high! I am an officer! Not some mullah, some sepoy, wearing out my chappals in hard service. My great-grandfather Mangal Pande’ – he looked around for the recognition the name deserved but, being met only with blank pancake English faces, he continued – ‘was the great hero of the Indian Mutiny!’

Silence.

‘Of 1857! It was he who shot the first hateful pigfat-smeared bullet and sent it spinning off into oblivion!’

A longer, denser silence.

‘If it wasn’t for this buggery hand’ – Samad, inwardly cursing the English goldfish-memory for history, lifted five dead, tightly curled fingers from their usual resting place on his chest – ‘this shitty hand that the useless Indian army gave me for my troubles, I would have matched his achievements. And why am I crippled? Because the Indian army knows more about the kissing of arses than it does about the heat and sweat of battle! Never go to India, Sapper Jones, my dear friend, it is a place for fools and worse than fools. Fools, Hindus, Sikhs and Punjabis. And now there is all this murmuring about independence – give Bengal independence, Archie, is what I say – leave India in bed with the British, if that’s what she likes.’

His arm crashed to his side with the dead weight and rested itself like an old man after an angry fit. Samad always addressed Archie as if they were in league together against the rest of the tank. No matter how much Archie shunned him, those four days of eyeballing had created a kind of silk-thread bond between the two men that Samad tugged whenever he got the opportunity.

‘You see, Jones,’ said Samad, ‘the real mistake the viceroy made was to give the Sikhs any position of power, you see? Just because they have some limited success with the kaffir in Africa, he says Yes, Mr Man, with your sweaty fat face and your silly fake English moustache and your pagri balanced like a large shit on the top of your head, you can be an officer, we will Indianize the army; go, go and fight in Italy, Rissaldar Major Pugri, Daffadar Pugri, with my grand old English troops! Mistake! And then they take me, hero of the 9th North Bengal Mounted Rifles, hero of the Bengal flying corps, and say, “Samad Miah Iqbal, Samad, we are going to confer on you a great honour. You will fight in mainland Europe – not starve and drink your own piss in Egypt or Malaya, no – you will fight the Hun where you find him.” On his very doorstep, Sapper Jones, on his very doorstep. So! I went. Italy, I thought, well, this is where I will show the English army that the Muslim men of Bengal can fight like any Sikh. Better! Stronger! And are the best educated and are those with the good blood, we who are truly of Officer Material.’

‘Indian officers? That’ll be the bloody day,’ said Roy.

‘On my first day there,’ continued Samad, ‘I destroyed a Nazi hide-out from the air. Like a swooping eagle.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Roy.

‘On my second day, I shot from the air the enemy as he approached the Gothic Line, breaking the Argenta Gap and pushing the Allies through to the Po Valley. Lord Mountbatten himself was to have congratulated me himself in his own person. He would have shaken this hand. But this was all prevented. Do you know what occurred on my third day, Sapper Jones? Do you know how I was crippled? A young man in his prime?’

‘No,’ said Archie quietly.

‘A bastard Sikh, Sapper Jones, a bastard fool. As we stood in a trench, his gun went off and shot me through the wrist. But I wouldn’t have it amputated. Every bit of my body comes from Allah. Every bit will return to him.’

So Samad had ended up in the unfêted bridge-laying division of His Majesty’s Army with the rest of the losers; with men like Archie, with men like Dickinson-Smith (whose government file included the phrase ‘Risk: Homosexual’), with frontal lobotomy cases like Mackintosh and Johnson. The rejects of war. As Roy affectionately called it: the Buggered Battalion. Much of the problem with the outfit lay with the captain of the First Assault Regiment: Dickinson-Smith was no soldier. And certainly no commander, though commanding was in his genes. Against his will he had been dragged out of his father’s college, shaken free of his father’s gown, and made to Fight A War, as his father had. And his father before him, and his father before him, ad infinitum. Young Thomas had resigned himself to his fate and was engaged in a concerted and prolonged effort (four years now) to get his name on the ever extending list of Dickinson-Smiths carved on a long slab of death-stone in the village of Little Marlow, to be buried on top of them all in the family’s sardine-can tomb that proudly dominated the historic churchyard.

Killed by the Hun, the Wogs, the Chinks, the Kaffirs, the Frogs, the Scots, the Spics, the Zulus, the Indians (South, East and Red), and accidentally mistaken for a darting okapi by a Swede on a big-game hunt in Nairobi, traditionally the Dickinson-Smiths were insatiable in their desire to see Dickinson-Smith blood spilled on foreign soil. And on the occasions when there wasn’t a war the Dickinson-Smiths busied themselves with the Irish Situation, a kind of Dickinson-Smith holiday resort of death, which had been going since 1600 and showed no sign of letting up. But dying’s no easy trick. And though the chance to hurl themselves in front of any sort of lethal weaponry had held a magnetic attraction for the family throughout the ages, this Dickinson-Smith couldn’t seem to manage it. Poor Thomas had a different kind of lust for exotic ground. He wanted to know it, to nurture it, to learn from it, to love it. He was a simple non-starter at the war game.

The long story of how Samad went from the pinnacle of military achievement in the Bengal corps to the Buggered Battalion was told and retold to Archie, in different versions and with elaborations upon it, once a day for another two weeks, whether he listened or not. Tedious as it was, it was a highlight next to the other tales of failure that filled those long nights, and kept the men of the Buggered Battalion in their preferred state of demotivation and despair. Amongst the well-worn canon was the Tragic Death of Roy’s Fiancée, a hairdresser who slipped on a set of rollers and broke her neck on the sink; Archie’s Failure to Go to Grammar School because his mother couldn’t afford to buy the uniform; Dickinson-Smith’s many murdered relatives; as for Will Johnson, he did not speak in the day but whimpered as he slept, and his face spoke eloquently of more miserable miseries than anyone dare inquire into. The Buggered Battalion continued like this for some time, a travelling circus of discontents roaming aimlessly through Eastern Europe; freaks and fools with no audience but each other. Who performed and stared in turns. Until finally the tank rolled into a day that History has not remembered. That Memory has made no effort to retain. A sudden stone submerged. False teeth floating silently to the bottom of a glass. 6 May 1945.

At about 18.00 hours on the 6th of May 1945 something in the tank blew up. It wasn’t a bomb noise but an engineering disaster noise, and the tank slowly ground to a halt. They were in a tiny Bulgarian village bordering Greece and Turkey, which the war had got bored with and left, returning the people to almost normal routine.

‘Right,’ said Roy, having had a look at the problem. ‘The engine’s buggered and one of the tracks has broken. We’re gonna have to radio for help, and then sit tight till it arrives. Nothing we can do.’

‘We’re going to make no effort at all to repair it?’ asked Samad.

‘No,’ said Dickinson-Smith. ‘Private Mackintosh is right. There’s no way we could deal with this kind of damage with the equipment we have at hand. We’ll just have to wait here until help arrives.’

‘How long will this be?’

‘A day,’ piped up Johnson. ‘We’re way off from the rest.’

‘Are we required, Captain Smith, to remain in the vehicle for these twenty-four hours?’ asked Samad, who despaired of Roy’s personal hygiene and was loath to spend a stationary, sultry evening with him.

‘Bloody right we are – what d’ya think this is, a day off?’ growled Roy.

‘No, no… I don’t see why you shouldn’t wander a bit – there’s no point in us all being holed up here. You and Jones go, report back, and then Privates Mackintosh, Johnson and I will go when you come back.’

So Samad and Archie went into the village and spent three hours drinking Sambucca and listening to the café owner tell of the miniature invasion of two Nazis who turned up in the town, ate all his supplies, had sex with two loose village girls and shot a man in the head for failing to give them directions to the next town swiftly enough.

‘In everything they were impatient,’ said the old man, shaking his head. Samad settled the bill.

Walking back, Archie said, ‘Cor, they don’t need many of ’em to conquer and pillage,’ in an attempt to make conversation.

‘One strong man and one weak is a colony, Sapper Jones,’ said Samad.

When Archie and Samad reached the tank, they found Privates Mackintosh and Johnson and Captain Thomas Dickinson-Smith dead. Johnson strangled with cheese wire, Roy shot in the back. Roy’s jaw had been forced open, his silver fillings removed; a pair of pliers now sat in his mouth like an iron tongue. It appeared that Thomas Dickinson-Smith had, as his attacker moved towards him, turned from his allotted fate and shot himself in the face. The only Dickinson-Smith to die by English hands.

While Archie and Samad assessed this situation as best they could, Colonel-General Jodl sat in a small red schoolhouse in Reims and shook his fountain pen. Once. Twice. Then led the ink a solemn dance along the dotted line and wrote history in his name. The end of war in Europe. As the paper was whisked away by a man at his shoulder, Jodl hung his head, struck by the full realization of the deed. But it would be a full two weeks before either Archie or Samad were to hear about it.

These were strange times, strange enough for an Iqbal and a Jones to strike up a friendship. That day, while the rest of Europe celebrated, Samad and Archie stood on a Bulgarian roadside, Samad clutching a handful of wires, chipboard and metal casing in his good fist.

‘This radio is stripped to buggery,’ said Samad. ‘We’ll need to begin from the beginning. This is a very bad business, Jones. Very bad. We have lost our means of communication, transport and defence. Worst: we have lost our command. A man of war without a commander is a very bad business indeed.’

Archie turned from Samad and threw up violently in a bush. Private Mackintosh, for all his big talk, had shat himself at St Peter’s Gate, and the smell had forced itself into Archie’s lungs and dragged up his nerves, his fear and his breakfast.

As far as fixing the radio went, Samad knew how, he knew the theory, but Archie had the hands, and a certain knack when it came to wires and nails and glue. And it was a funny kind of struggle between knowledge and practical ability which went on between them as they pieced together the tiny metal strips that might save them both.

‘Pass me the three-ohm resistor, will you?’

Archie went very red, unsure which item Samad was referring to. His hand wavered across the box of wires and bits and bobs. Samad discreetly coughed as Archie’s little finger strayed towards the correct item. It was awkward, an Indian telling an Englishman what to do – but somehow the quietness of it, the manliness of it, got them over it. It was during this time that Archie learnt the true power of do-it-yourself, how it uses a hammer and nails to replace nouns and adjectives, how it allows men to communicate. A lesson he kept with him all his life.

‘Good man,’ said Samad, as Archie passed him the electrode, but then, finding one hand not enough to manipulate the wires or to pin them to the radio board, he passed the item back to Archie and signalled where it was to be put.

‘We’ll get this done in no time,’ said Archie cheerfully.

‘Bubblegum! Please, mister!’

By the fourth day, a gang of village children had begun to gather round the tank, attracted by the grisly murders, Samad’s green-eyed glamour, and Archie’s American bubblegum.

‘Mr Soldier,’ said one chestnut-hued sparrow-weight boy in careful English, ‘bubblegum please thankyou.’

Archie reached into his pocket and pulled out five thin pink strips. The boy distributed them snootily amongst his friends. They began chewing wildly, eyes bursting from their heads with the effort. Then, as the flavour subsided, they stood in silent, awed contemplation of their benefactor. After a few minutes the same scrawny boy was sent up as the People’s Representative once more.

‘Mr Soldier.’ He held out his hand. ‘Bubblegum please thankyou.’

‘No more,’ said Archie, going through an elaborate sign language. ‘I’ve got no more.’

‘Please, thankyou. Please?’ repeated the boy urgently.

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ snapped Samad. ‘We have to fix the radio and get this thing moving. Let’s get on with it, OK?’

‘Bubblegum, mister, Mr Soldier, bubblegum.’ It became a chant, almost; the children mixing up the few words they had learnt, placing them in any order.

Please?’ The boy stretched out his arm in such a strenuous manner that it pushed him on to the very tips of his toes.

Suddenly he opened his palm, and then smiled coquettishly, preparing to bargain. There in his open fist four green notes were screwed into a bundle like a handful of grass.

‘Dollars, mister!’

‘Where did you get this?’ asked Samad, making a snatch for it. The boy seized back his hand. He moved constantly from one foot to another – the impish dance that children learn from war. The simplest version of being on your guard.

‘First bubblegum, mister.’

‘Tell me where you got this. I warn you not to play the fool with me.’

Samad made a grab for the boy and caught him by the arm of his shirt. He tried desperately to wriggle free. The boy’s friends began to slink off, deserting their quickly sinking champion.

‘Did you kill a man for this?’

A vein in Samad’s forehead was fighting passionately to escape his skin. He wished to defend a country that wasn’t his and revenge the killing of men who would not have acknowledged him in a civilian street. Archie was amazed. It was his country; in his small, cold-blooded, average way he was one of the many essential vertebrae in its backbone, yet he could feel nothing comparable for it.

‘No, mister, no, no. From him. Him.’

He stretched his free arm and pointed to a large derelict house that sat like a fat brooding hen on the horizon.

‘Did someone in that house kill our men?’ barked Samad.

‘What you say, mister?’ squeaked the boy.

‘Who is there?’

‘He is doctor. He is there. But sick. Can’t move. Dr Sick.’

A few remaining children excitedly confirmed the name. Dr Sick, mister, Dr Sick.

‘What’s wrong with him?’

The boy, now enjoying the attention, theatrically mimed a man crying.

‘English? Like us? German? French? Bulgarian? Greek?’ Samad released the boy, tired from the misplaced energy.

‘He no one. He Dr Sick, only,’ said the boy dismissively. ‘Bubblegum?’

A few days later and still no help had arrived. The strain of having to be continually at war in such a pleasant village began to pull at Archie and Samad, and bit by bit they relaxed more and more into a kind of civilian life. Every evening they ate dinner in the old man Gozan’s kitchen-café. Watery soup cost five cigarettes each. Any kind of fish cost a low-ranking bronze medal. As Archie was now wearing one of Dickinson-Smith’s uniforms, his own having fallen apart, he had a few of the dead man’s medals to spare and with them purchased other niceties and necessities: coffee, soap, chocolate. For some pork Archie handed over a fag-card of Dorothy Lamour that had been pressed against his arse in his back pocket ever since he joined up.

‘Go on, Sam – we’ll use them as tokens, like food stamps; we can buy them back when we have the means, if you like.’

‘I’m a Muslim,’ said Samad, pushing a plate of pork away. ‘And my Rita Hayworth leaves me only with my own soul.’

‘Why don’t you eat it?’ said Archie, guzzling his two chops down like a madman. ‘Strange business, if you ask me.’

‘I don’t eat it for the same reason you as an Englishman will never truly satisfy a woman.’

‘Why’s that?’ said Archie, pausing from his feast.

‘It’s in our cultures, my friend.’ He thought for a minute. ‘Maybe deeper. Maybe in our bones.’

After dinner, they would make a pretence of scouring the village for the killers, rushing through the town, searching the same three disreputable bars and looking in the back bedrooms of pretty women’s houses, but after a time this too was abandoned and they sat instead smoking cheap cigars outside the tank, enjoying the lingering crimson sunsets and chatting about their previous incarnations as newspaper boy (Archie) and biology student (Samad). They knocked around ideas that Archie did not entirely understand, and Samad offered secrets into the cool night that he had never spoken out loud. Long, comfortable silences passed between them like those between women who have known each other for years. They looked out on to stars that lit up unknown country, but neither man clung particularly to home. In short, it was precisely the kind of friendship an Englishman makes on holiday, that he can make only on holiday. A friendship that crosses class and colour, a friendship that takes as its basis physical proximity and survives because the Englishman assumes the physical proximity will not continue.

A week and a half since the radio had been repaired and there was still no reply to the aid signals they sent bouncing along the airwaves in search of ears to hear them. (By now, the village knew the war was over, but they felt disinclined to reveal the fact to their two visitors, whose daily bartering had proved such a boost to the local economy.) In the stretches of empty time Archie would lever up sections of the wheel track with an iron pole, while Samad investigated the problem. Across continents, both men’s families presumed them dead.

‘Is there a woman that you have back in Brighton City?’ asked Samad, anchoring his head between the lion jaws of track and tank.

Archie was not a good-looking boy. He was dashing if you took a photo and put your thumb over his nose and mouth, but otherwise he was quite unremarkable. Girls would be attracted to his large, sad Sinatra blue eyes, but then be put off by the Bing Crosby ears and the nose that ended in a natural onion-bulb swelling like W. C. Fields’s.

‘A few,’ he said nonchalantly. ‘You know, here and there. You?’

‘A young lady has already been picked out for me. A Miss Begum – daughter of Mr and Mrs Begum. The “in-laws”, as you say. Dear God, those two are so far up the rectums of the establishment in Bengal that even the Lord Governor sits snivelling waiting for his mullah to come in carrying a dinner invitation from them!’

Samad laughed loudly and waited for company, but Archie, not understanding a word, stayed poker-faced as usual.

‘Oh, they are the best people,’ continued Samad, only slightly dispirited. ‘The very best people. Extremely good blood… and as an added bonus, there is a propensity amongst their women – traditionally, throughout the ages, you understand – for really enormous melons.’

Samad performed the necessary mime, and then returned his attention to realigning each tooth of track with its appropriate groove.

‘And?’ asked Archie.

‘And what?’

‘Are they…?’ Archie repeated the mime, but this time with the kind of anatomical exaggeration that leaves air-traced women unable to stand upright.

‘Oh, but I have still some time to wait,’ he said, smiling wistfully. ‘Unfortunately, the Begum family do not yet have a female child of my generation.’

‘You mean your wife’s not bloody born yet?’

‘What of it?’ asked Samad, pulling a cigarette from Archie’s top pocket. He scratched a match along the side of the tank and lit it. Archie wiped the sweat off his face with a greasy hand.

‘Where I come from,’ said Archie, ‘a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.’

‘Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,’ said Samad tersely, ‘that it is a good idea.’

Their final evening in the village was absolutely dark, silent. The muggy air made it unpleasant to smoke, so Archie and Samad tapped their fingers on the cold stone steps of a church, for lack of other hand-employment. For a moment, in the twilight, Archie forgot the war that had actually ceased to exist anyway. A past tense, future perfect kind of night.

It was while they were still innocent of peace, during this last night of ignorance, that Samad decided to cement his friendship with Archie. Often this is done by passing on a singular piece of information: some sexual peccadillo, some emotional secret or obscure hidden passion that the reticence of new acquaintance has prevented being spoken. But for Samad, nothing was closer or meant more to him than his blood. It was natural, then, as they sat on holy ground, that he should speak of what was holy to him. And there was no stronger evocation of the blood that ran through him, and the ground which that blood had stained over the centuries, than the story of his great-grandfather. So Samad told Archie the much neglected, 100-year-old, mildewed yarn of Mangal Pande.

‘So, he was your grandfather?’ said Archie, after the tale had been told, the moon had passed behind clouds, and he had been suitably impressed. ‘Your real, blood grandfather?’

Great-grandfather.’

‘Well, that is something. Do you know: I remember it from school – I do – History of the Colonies, Mr Juggs. Bald, bug-eyed, nasty old duffer – Mr Juggs, I mean, not your grandfather. Got the message through, though, even if it took a ruler to the back of your hand… You know, you still hear people in the regiments calling each other Pandies, you know, if the bloke’s a bit of a rebel… I never thought where it came from… Pande was the rebel, didn’t like the English, shot the first bullet of the Mutiny. I remember it now, clear as a bell. And that was your grandfather!’

Great-grandfather.’

‘Well, well. That’s something, isn’t it?’ said Archie, placing his hands behind his head and lying back to look at the stars. ‘To have a bit of history in your blood like that. Motivates you, I’d imagine. I’m a Jones, you see. ’Slike a “Smith”. We’re nobody… My father used to say: “We’re the chaff, boy, we’re the chaff.” Not that I’ve ever been much bothered, mind. Proud all the same, you know. Good honest English stock. But in your family you had a hero!’

Samad puffed up with pride. ‘Yes, Archibald, that is exactly the word. Naturally, you will get these petty English academics trying to discredit him, because they cannot bear to give an Indian his due. But he was a hero and every act I have undertaken in this war has been in the shadow of his example.’

‘That’s true, you know,’ said Archie thoughtfully. ‘They don’t speak well about Indians back home; they certainly wouldn’t like it if you said an Indian was a hero… everybody would look at you a bit funny.’

Suddenly Samad grabbed his hand. It was hot, almost fevered, Archie thought. He’d never had another man grab his hand; his first instinct was to move or punch him or something, but then he reconsidered because Indians were emotional, weren’t they? All that spicy food and that.

Please. Do me this one, great favour, Jones. If ever you hear anyone, when you are back home – if you, if we, get back to our respective homes – if ever you hear anyone speak of the East,’ and here his voice plummeted a register, and the tone was full and sad, ‘hold your judgement. If you are told “they are all this” or “they do this” or “their opinions are these”, withhold your judgement until all the facts are upon you. Because that land they call “India” goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions, and if you think you have found two men the same amongst that multitude, then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight.’

Samad released his hand and rummaged in his pocket, dabbing his finger into a repository of white dust he kept in there, slipping it discreetly into his mouth. He leant against the wall and drew his fingertips along the stone. It was a tiny missionary church, converted into a hospital and then abandoned after two months when the sound of shells began to shake the windowsills. Samad and Archie had taken to sleeping there because of the thin mattresses and the large airy windows. Samad had taken an interest too (due to loneliness, he told himself; due to melancholy) in the powdered morphine to be found in stray storage cabinets throughout the building; hidden eggs on an addictive Easter trail. Whenever Archie went to piss or to try the radio once more, Samad roved up and down his little church, looting cabinet after cabinet, like a sinner moving from confessional to confessional. Then, having found his little bottle of sin, he would take the opportunity to rub a little into his gums or smoke a little in his pipe, and then lay back on the cool terracotta floor, looking up into the exquisite curve of the church dome. It was covered in words, this church. Words left three hundred years earlier by dissenters, unwilling to pay a burial tax during a cholera epidemic, locked in the church by a corrupt landlord and left to die in there – but not before they covered every wall with letters to family, poems, statements of eternal disobedience. Samad liked the story well enough when he first heard it, but it only truly struck him when the morphine hit. Then every nerve in his body would be alive, and the information, all the information contained in the universe, all the information on walls, would pop its cork and flow through him like electricity through a ground wire. Then his head would open out like a deckchair. And he would sit in it a while and watch his world go by. Tonight, after just more than enough, Samad felt particularly lucid. Like his tongue was buttered and like the world was a polished marble egg. And he felt a kinship with the dead dissenters, they were Pande’s brothers – every rebel, it seemed to Samad tonight, was his brother – he wished he could speak with them about the mark they made on the world. Had it been enough? When death came, was it really enough? Were they satisfied with the thousand words they left behind?

‘I’ll tell you something for nothing,’ said Archie, following Samad’s eyes and catching the church dome’s reflection in them. ‘If I’d only had a few hours left, I wouldn’t have spent it painting pictures on the ceiling.’

‘Tell me,’ inquired Samad, irritated to have been dragged from his pleasant contemplation, ‘what great challenge would you undertake in the hours before your death? Unravel Fermat’s Theorem, perhaps? Master Aristotelian philosophy?’

‘What? Who? No… I’d – you know… make love – to a lady,’ said Archie, whose inexperience made him prudish. ‘You know… for the last time.’

Samad broke into a laugh. ‘For the first time, is more likely.’

‘Oh, go on, I’m serious.’

‘All right. And if there were no “ladies” in the vicinity?’

‘Well, you can always,’ and here Archie went a pillar-box red, this being his own version of cementing a friendship, ‘slap the salami, as the GIs say!’

Slap,’ repeated Samad contemptuously, ‘the salami… and that is it, is it? The last thing you would wish to do before you shuffled off this mortal coil is “slap your salami”. Achieve orgasm.’

Archie, who came from Brighton, where nobody ever, ever said words like orgasm, began to convulse with hysterical embarrassment.

‘Who is funny? Something is funny?’ asked Samad, lighting a fag distractedly despite the heat, his mind carried elsewhere by the morphine.

‘Nobody,’ began Archie haltingly, ‘nothing.’

‘Can’t you see it, Jones? Can’t you see…’ Samad lay half in, half out of the doorway, his arms stretched up to the ceiling, ‘… the intention? They weren’t slapping their salamis – spreading the white stuff – they were looking for something a little more permanent.’

‘I can’t see the difference, frankly,’ said Archie. ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead.’

‘Oh no, Archibald, no,’ whispered Samad, melancholic. ‘You don’t believe that. You must live life with the full knowledge that your actions will remain. We are creatures of consequence, Archibald,’ he said, gesturing to the church walls. ‘They knew it. My great-grandfather knew it. Some day our children will know it.’

‘Our children!’ sniggered Archie, simply amused. The possibility of offspring seemed so distant.

‘Our children will be born of our actions. Our accidents will become their destinies. Oh, the actions will remain. It is a simple matter of what you will do when the chips are down, my friend. When the fat lady is singing. When the walls are falling in, and the sky is dark, and the ground is rumbling. In that moment our actions will define us. And it makes no difference whether you are being watched by Allah, Jesus, Buddha, or whether you are not. On cold days a man can see his breath, on a hot day he can’t. On both occasions, the man breathes.’

‘Do you know,’ said Archie, after a pause, ‘just before I left from Felixstowe I saw this new drill they have now which breaks in two and you can put different things on the end – spanner, hammer, even a bottle-opener. Very useful in a tight spot, I’d imagine. I tell you, I’d bloody love one of those.’

Samad looked at Archie for a moment and then shook his head. ‘Come on, let’s get inside. This Bulgarian food. Turns my stomach over. I need a bit of sleep.’

‘You look pale,’ said Archie, helping him up.

‘It’s for my sins, Jones, for my sins and yet I am more sinned against than sinning.’ Samad giggled to himself.

‘You what?’

Archie bore the weight of Samad on one side as they walked inside.

‘I have eaten something,’ said Samad, putting on a cut-glass English accent, ‘that is about to disagree with me.’

Archie knew very well that Samad sneaked morphine from the cabinets, but he could see Samad wanted him not to know, so ‘Let’s get you into bed,’ was all he said, bringing Samad over to a mattress.

‘When this is over, we will meet again in England, OK?’ said Samad, lunging towards his mattress.

‘Yes,’ said Archie, trying to imagine walking along Brighton pier with Samad.

‘Because you are a rare Englishman, Sapper Jones. I consider you my friend.’

Archie was not sure what he considered Samad, but he smiled gently in recognition of the sentiment.

‘You will have dinner with my wife and I in the year 1975. When we are big-bellied men sitting on our money-mountains. Somehow we will meet.’

Archie, dubious of foreign food, smiled weakly.

‘We will know each other throughout our lives!’

Archie laid Samad down, got himself a mattress and manoeuvred himself into a position for sleep.

‘Goodnight, friend,’ said Samad, pure contentment in his voice.

In the morning, the circus came to town. Woken by shouts and whooping laughter, Samad struggled into uniform and wrapped one hand around his gun. He stepped into the sun-drenched courtyard to find Russian soldiers in their dun-coloured uniforms leapfrogging over each other, shooting tin cans off each other’s heads and throwing knives at potatoes stuck on sticks, each potato sporting a short black twig moustache. With all the exhaustion of revelation, Samad collapsed on to the front steps, sighed, and sat with his hands on his knees, his face turned up towards the heat. A moment later Archie tripped out, trousers half-mast, waving his gun, looking for the enemy, and shot a frightened bullet in the air. The circus continued, without noticing. Samad pulled Archie wearily by the trouser leg and gestured for him to sit down.

‘What’s going on?’ demanded Archie, watery-eyed.

‘Nothing. Nothing absolutely is going on. In fact, it’s gone off.’

‘But these might be the men who-’

‘Look at the potatoes, Jones.’

Archie looked wildly about him. ‘What have potatoes got to do with it?’

‘They’re Hitler potatoes, my friend. They are vegetable dictators. Ex-dictators.’ He pulled one off its stick. ‘See the little moustaches? It’s over, Jones. Someone has finished it for us.’

Archie took the potato in his hand.

‘Like a bus, Jones. We have missed the bloody war.’

Archie shouted over to a lanky Russian in mid-spear of a Hitler potato. ‘Speak English? How long has it been over?’

‘The fighting?’ he laughed incredulously. ‘Two weeks, comrade! You will have to go to Japan if you want any more!’

‘Like a bus,’ repeated Samad, shaking his head. A great fury was rising in him, bile blocking his throat. This war was to have been his opportunity. He was expected to come home covered in glory, and then to return to Delhi triumphant. When would he ever have another chance? There were going to be no more wars like this one, everybody knew that. The soldier who had spoken to Archie wandered over. He was dressed in the summer uniform of the Russians: the thin material, high-necked collar and oversized, floppy cap; he wore a belt around a substantial waist, the buckle of which caught the sun and shot a beam into Archie’s eye. When the glare passed, Archie focused on a big, open face, a squint in the left eye, and a head of sandy hair that struck off in several directions. He was altogether a rather jolly apparition on a bright morning, and when he spoke it was in a fluent, American-accented English that lapped at your ears like surf.

‘The war has been over for two weeks and you were not aware?’

‘Our radio… it wasn’t…’ Archie’s sentence gave up on itself.

The soldier grinned widely and shook each man’s hand vigorously. ‘Welcome to peace-time, gentlemen! And we thought the Russians were an ill-informed nation!’ He laughed his big laugh again. Directing his question to Samad, he asked, ‘Now, where are the rest of you?’

‘There is no rest of us, comrade. The rest of the men in our tank are dead, and there is no sign of our battalion.’

‘You’re not here for any purpose?’

‘Er… no,’ said Archie, suddenly abashed.

‘Purpose, comrade,’ said Samad, feeling quite sick to his stomach. ‘The war is over and so we find ourselves here quite without purpose.’ He smiled grimly and shook the Russian’s hand with his good hand. ‘I’m going in. Sun,’ he said, squinting. ‘Hurts my little peepers. It was nice to have met you.’

‘Yes, indeed,’ said the Russian, following Samad with his eyes until he had disappeared into the recesses of the church. Then he turned his attention to Archie.

‘Strange guy.’

‘Hmm,’ said Archie. ‘Why are you here?’ he asked, taking a hand-rolled cigarette the Russian offered him. It turned out the Russian and the seven men with him were on their way to Poland, to liberate the work-camps one heard about sometimes in hushed tones. They had stopped here, west of Tokat, to catch themselves a Nazi.

‘But there’s no one here, mate,’ said Archie affably. ‘No one but me and the Indian and some old folk and children from the village. Everyone else is dead or fled.’

‘Dead or fled… dead or fled,’ said the Russian, highly amused, turning a matchstick over and over between his finger and thumb. ‘Good phrase this… funny phrase. No, well, you see, I would have thought the same, but we have reliable information – from your own secret service, in fact – that there is a senior officer, at this very moment, hiding in that house. There.’ He pointed to the house on the horizon.

‘The Doctor? Some little lads told us about him. I mean, he must be shitting himself with fear if you lot are after him,’ said Archie, by way of a compliment, ‘but I’m sure they said he’s just some sick bloke; they called him Dr Sick. Oi: he ain’t English, is he? Traitor or something?’

‘Hmm? Oh no. No, no, no, no. Dr Marc-Pierre Perret. A young Frenchman. A prodigy. Very brilliant. He has worked in a scientific capacity for the Nazis since before the war. On the sterilization programme, and later the euthanasia policy. Internal German matters. He was one of the very loyal.’

‘Blimey,’ said Archie, wishing he knew what it all meant. ‘Wotchyagunnadoo?’

‘Catch him and take him to Poland, where he will be dealt with by the authorities.’

‘Authorities,’ said Archie, still impressed but not really paying attention. ‘Blimey.’

Archie’s attention span was always short, and he had become distracted by the big, amiable Russian’s strange habit of looking in two directions at once.

‘As the information we received was from your secret service and as you are the highest-ranking officer here Captain… Captain…’

A glass eye. It was a glass eye with a muscle behind it that would not behave.

‘I’m afraid I don’t know your name or rank,’ said the Russian, looking at Archie with one eye and at some ivy creeping round the church door with the other.

‘Who? Me? Jones,’ said Archie, following the eye’s revolving path: tree, potato, Archie, potato.

‘Well, Captain Jones, it would be an honour if you would lead the expedition up the hill.’

‘Captain – what? Blimey, no, you’ve got it arse-ways-up,’ said Archie, escaping the magnetic force of the eye, and refocusing on himself, dressed in Dickinson-Smith’s shiny buttoned uniform.

‘I’m not a bloody-’

‘The Lieutenant and I would be pleased to take charge,’ broke in a voice behind him. ‘We’ve been out of the action for quite a while. It is about time we got back in the thick of it, as they say.’

Samad had stepped out on to the front steps silently as a shadow, in another of Dickinson-Smith’s uniforms and with a cigarette hanging casually off his lower lip like a sophisticated sentence. He was always a good-looking boy, and dressed in the shiny buttons of authority this was only accentuated; in the sharp daylight, framed by the church door, he cut quite an awesome figure.

‘What my friend meant,’ said Samad in his most charming Anglo-Indian lilt, ‘is that he is not the bloody captain. I am the bloody captain. Captain Samad Iqbal.’

‘Comrade Nikolai – Nick – Pesotsky.’

Samad and the Russian laughed together heartily, shook hands again. Samad lit a cigarette.

‘He is my lieutenant. Archibald Jones. I must apologize if I behaved strangely earlier; the food’s been disagreeing with me. Now: we’ll set off tonight, after dark shall we? Lieutenant?’ said Samad, looking at Archie with a private encoded intensity.

‘Yes,’ blurted Archie.

‘By the way, comrade,’ said Samad, striking a match off the wall and lighting up, ‘I hope you do not mind if I ask – is that a glass eye? It is most realistic.’

‘Yes! I purchased it in St Petersburg. I was separated from my own in Berlin. It’s a quite incredible likeness, don’t you think?’

The friendly Russian popped the eye out of its socket, and laid the slimy pearl in his palm for Samad and Archie to see. When the war started, thought Archie, all us boys were crowded around a fag-card of Grable’s legs. Now the war’s ended we’re huddled round some poor bastard’s eye. Blimey.

For a moment the eye slid up and down each side of the Russian’s hand, then came to a restful halt in the centre of his longish, creased life-line. It looked up at Lieutenant Archie and Captain Samad with an unblinking stare.

That evening Lieutenant Jones got his first taste of real war. In two army jeeps, Archie, the eight Russians, Gozan the café owner and Gozan’s nephew were led by Samad on a mission up the hill to catch a Nazi. While the Russians swigged away at bottles of Sambucca until not a man among them could remember the first lines of their own national anthem, while Gozan sold roasted chicken pieces to the highest bidders, Samad stood atop the first jeep, high as a kite on his white dust, his arms flailing around, cutting the night into bits and pieces, screaming instructions that his battalion were too drunk to listen to and he himself was too far gone to understand.

Archie sat at the back of the second jeep, quiet, sober, frightened and in awe of his friend. Archie had never had a hero: he was five when his father went out for a proverbial pack of fags and neglected to return, and, never being much of a reader, the many awful books written to provide young men with fatuous heroes had never crossed his path – no swashbucklers, no one-eyed pirates, no fearless rapscallions for Archie. But Samad, as he stood up there with his shiny officer buttons glistening in the moonlight like coins in a wishing-well, had struck the seventeen-year-old Archie full square, an uppercut to the jaw that said: here is a man for whom no life-path is too steep. Here was a raving lunatic standing on a tank, here was a friend, here was a hero, in a form Archie had never expected. Three quarters of the way up, however, the ad hoc road the tanks had been following thinned unexpectedly, forcing the tank to brake suddenly and throwing the heroic Captain in a backward somersault over the tank, arse in the air.

‘No one comes here for long, long time,’ said Gozan’s nephew, munching on a chicken bone, philosophically. ‘This?’ He looked at Samad (who had landed next to him) and pointed to the jeep they sat in. ‘No way.’

So Samad gathered his now paralytic battalion around him and began the march up the mountain in search of a war he could one day tell his grandchildren about, as his great-grandfather’s exploits had been told to him. Their progress was hampered by large clods of earth, torn from parts of the hill by the reverberation of past bombs and left at intervals along the pathway. From many, the roots of trees shot up impotently and languished in the air; to get by, it was necessary for them to be hacked away with the bayonets of the Russian guns.

‘Look like hell!’ snorted Gozan’s nephew, drunkenly scrambling through one such set of roots. ‘Everything look like hell!’

‘Pardon him. He feel strongly because he is young. But it is the truth. It was not – how do you say – not argument of ours, Lieutenant Jones,’ said Gozan, who had been bribed two pairs of boots to keep quiet about his friends’ sudden rise in rank. ‘What do we have to do with all this?’ He wiped a tear, half inebriated, half overcome with emotion. ‘What we have to do with? We peaceful people. We don’t want be in war! This hill – once beautiful! Flowers, birds, they were singing, you understand? We are from the East. What have the battles of the West to do with us?’

Instinctively, Archie turned to Samad, expecting one of his speeches; but before Gozan had even finished, Samad had suddenly picked up his pace, and within a minute was running, pushing ahead of the intoxicated Russians, who were flailing about with their bayonets. Such was his speed that he was soon out of sight, turning a blind corner and disappearing into the swallowing night. Archie dithered for a few minutes, but then loosened himself from Gozan’s nephew’s merciless grip (he was just embarking upon the tale of a Cuban prostitute he had met in Amsterdam) and began to run to where he had last seen the flicker of a silver button, another one of the sharp turnings that the mountain path took whenever it liked.

‘Captain Ick-Ball! Wait, Captain Ick-Ball!’

He ran on, repeating the phrase, waving his torch, which did nothing but light up the undergrowth in increasingly bizarre anthropomorphisms; here a man, here a woman on her knees, here three dogs howling at the moon. He spent some time like this, stumbling about in the darkness.

‘Put your light on! Captain Ick-Ball! Captain Ick-Ball!’

No answer.

‘Captain Ick-Ball!’

‘Why do you call me that,’ said a voice, close, on his right, ‘when you know I am no such thing?’

‘Ick-Ball?’ and as he asked the question, Archie’s flash stumbled upon him, sitting on a boulder, head in hands.

‘Why – I mean, you are not really so much of an idiot, are you – you do know, I presume you know that I am in fact a private of His Majesty’s Army?’

‘ ’Course. We have to keep it up, though, don’t we? Our cover, and that.’

‘Our cover? Boy.’ Samad chuckled to himself in a way that struck Archie as sinister, and when he lifted his head his eyes were both bloodshot and on the brink of tears. ‘What do you think this is? Are we playing silly-buggers?’

‘No, I… are you all right, Sam? You look out of sorts.’

Samad was dimly aware that he looked out of sorts. Earlier that evening he had put a tiny line of the white stuff in the cup of each eyelid. The morphine had sharpened his mind to a knife edge and cut it open. It had been a luscious, eloquent high while it lasted, but then the thoughts thus released had been left to wallow in a pool of alcohol and had landed Samad in a malevolent trough. He saw his reflection this evening, and it was ugly. He saw where he was – at the farewell party for the end of Europe – and he longed for the East. He looked down at his useless hand with its five useless appendages; at his skin, burnt to a chocolate-brown by the sun; he saw into his brain, made stupid by stupid conversation and the dull stimuli of death, and longed for the man he once was: erudite, handsome, light-skinned Samad Miah; so precious his mother kept him in from the sun’s rays, sent him to the best tutors and covered him in linseed oil twice a day.

‘Sam? Sam? You don’t look right, Sam. Please, they’ll be here in a minute… Sam?’

Self-hatred makes a man turn on the first person he sees. But it was particularly aggravating to Samad that this should be Archie, who looked down at him with a gentle concern, with a mix of fear and anger all mingled up in that shapeless face so ill-equipped to express emotion.

‘Don’t call me Sam,’ he growled, in a voice Archie did not recognize, ‘I’m not one of your English matey-boys. My name is Samad Miah Iqbal. Not Sam. Not Sammy. And not – God forbid – Samuel. It is Samad.’

Archie looked crestfallen.

‘Well, anyway,’ said Samad, suddenly officious and wishing to avoid an emotional scene, ‘I am glad you are here because I wanted to tell you that I am the worse for wear, Lieutenant Jones. I am, as you say, out of sorts. I am very much the worse for wear.’

He stood, but then stumbled on to his boulder once more.

‘Get up,’ hissed Archie between his teeth. ‘Get up. What’s the matter with you?’

‘It’s true, I am very much the worse for the wearing. But I have been thinking,’ said Samad, taking his gun in his good hand.

‘Put that away.’

‘I have been thinking that I am buggered, Lieutenant Jones. I see no future. I realize this may come as a surprise to you – my upper lip, I’m afraid is not of the required stiffness – but the fact remains. I see only-’

‘Put that away.’

‘Blackness. I’m a cripple, Jones.’ The gun did a merry dance in his good hand as he swung himself from side to side. ‘And my faith is crippled, do you understand? I’m fit for nothing now, not even Allah, who is all powerful in his mercy. What am I going to do, after this war is over, this war that is already over – what am I going to do? Go back to Bengal? Or to Delhi? Who would have such an Englishman there? To England? Who would have such an Indian? They promise us independence in exchange for the men we were. But it is a devilish deal. What should I do? Stay here? Go elsewhere? What laboratory needs one-handed men? What am I suited for?’

‘Look, Sam… you’re making a fool of yourself.’

Really? And is that how it is to be, friend?’ asked Samad, standing, tripping over a stone and colliding back into Archie. ‘In one afternoon I promote you from Private Shitbag to lieutenant of the British army and this is my thanks? Where are you in my hour of need? Gozan!’ he shouted to the fat café owner, who was struggling round the bend, at the very back, sweating profusely. ‘Gozan – my fellow Muslim – in Allah’s name, is this right?’

‘Shut up,’ snapped Archie. ‘Do you want everyone to hear you? Put it down.’

Samad’s gun arm shot out of the darkness and wrapped itself around Archie’s neck, so the gun and both their heads were pressed together in an odious group hug.

‘What am I good for, Jones? If I were to pull this trigger, what will I leave behind? An Indian, a turncoat English Indian with a limp wrist like a faggot and no medals that they can ship home with me.’ He let go of Archie and grabbed his own collar instead.

‘Have some of these, for God’s sake,’ said Archie, taking three from his lapel and throwing them at him. ‘I’ve got loads.’

‘And what about that little matter? Do you realize we’re deserters? Effectively deserters? Step back a minute, my friend, and look at us. Our captain is dead. We are dressed in his uniforms, taking control of officers, men of higher rank than ourselves, and how? By deceit. Doesn’t that make us deserters?’

‘The war was over! I mean, we made an effort to contact the rest.’

‘Did we? Archie, my friend, did we? Really? Or did we sit around on our arses like deserters, hiding in a church while the world was falling apart around our ears, while men were dying in the fields?’

They tussled a little as Archie tried to get the gun from him, Samad lashing out at him with not inconsiderable strength. In the distance, Archie could see the rest of their motley crew turning the corner, a great grey mass in the twilight, pitching from side to side, singing ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’.

‘Look, keep your voice down. And calm down,’ said Archie, releasing him.

‘We’re impostors; turncoats in other people’s coats. Did we do our duty, Archibald? Did we? In all honesty? I have dragged you down with me, Archie, and for that I am sorry. The truth is, this was my fate. This was all written for me long ago.’

O Lydia O Lydia O have you met Lydia O Lydia the Taaaatooooed Lady!

Samad put the pistol absent-mindedly in his mouth and cocked the trigger.

‘Ick-Ball, listen to me,’ said Archie. ‘When we were in that tank with the Captain, with Roy and the rest.’

O Lydia the Queen of tattoos! On her back is the battle of Waterloo…

‘You were always going on about being a hero and all that – like your great-uncle whatsis name.’

Beside it the wreck of the Hesperus too…

Samad took the gun out of his mouth.

Pande,’ he said. ‘Great-grandfather,’ and put the gun back in.

‘And here it is – a chance – it’s staring you in the face. You didn’t want to miss the bus and we’re not going to, not if we do this properly. So don’t be such a silly fucker about it.’

And proudly above waves the red, white and bloooo,

You can learn a lot from Lydia!

‘Comrade! What in God’s name.’

Without them noticing, the friendly Russian had ambled up behind them and was looking in horror at Samad, sucking his gun like a lollipop.

‘Cleaning it,’ stuttered Samad, clearly shaken, removing the gun from his mouth.

‘That’s how they do it,’ Archie explained, ‘in Bengal.’

The war that twelve men expected to find in the grand old house on the hill, the war that Samad wanted pickled in a jar to hand to his grandchildren as a souvenir of his youth, was not there. Dr Sick was as good as his name, sitting in an armchair in front of a wood-burning fire. Sick. Huddled in a rug. Pale. Very thin. In no uniform, just an open-neck white shirt and some dark coloured trousers. He was a young man too, not over twenty-five, and he did not flinch or make any protest when they all burst in, guns at the ready. It was as if they had just dropped in on a pleasant French farmhouse, making the faux pas of coming without invitation and bringing guns to the dinner table. The room was lit entirely by gas lamps in their tiny lady-shaped casings, and the light danced up the wall, illuminating a set of eight paintings that showed a continuous scene of Bulgarian countryside. In the fifth one Samad recognized his church, a blip of sandy paint on the horizon. The paintings were placed at intervals and wrapped round the room in a panoramic. Unframed and in a mawkish attempt at the modern style, a ninth sat a little too close to the fireplace on an easel, the paint still wet. Twelve guns were pointed at the artist. And when the Artist-Doctor turned to face them, he had what looked like blood-tinged tears rolling down his face.

Samad stepped forward. He had had a gun in his mouth and was emboldened by it. He had eaten an absurd amount of morphine, fallen through the hole morphine creates, and survived. You are never stronger, thought Samad as he approached the Doctor, than when you land on the other side of despair.

‘Are you Dr Perret?’ he demanded, making the Frenchman wince at the anglicized pronunciation, sending more bloody tears down his cheeks. Samad kept his gun pointed at him.

‘Yes, I am he.’

‘What is that? That in your eyes?’ asked Samad.

‘I have diabetic retinopathy, monsieur.’

‘What?’ asked Samad, still pointing the gun, determined not to undermine his moment of glory with an unheroic medical debate.

‘It means that when I do not receive insulin, I excrete blood, my friend. Through my eyes. It makes my hobby,’ he gestured at the paintings that surrounded him, ‘not a little difficult. There were to be ten. A 180-degree view. But it seems you have come to disturb me.’ He sighed and stood up. ‘So. Are you going to kill me, my friend?’

‘I’m not your friend.’

‘No, I do not suppose that you are. But is it your intention to kill me? Pardon me if I say you do not look old enough to squash flies.’ He looked at Samad’s uniform. ‘Mon Dieu, you are very young to have got so far in life, Captain.’ Samad shifted uncomfortably, catching Archie’s look of panic in the corner of his vision. Samad placed his feet a little further apart and stood firm.

‘I’m sorry if I seem tiresome on this point but… is it your intention, then, to kill me?’

Samad’s arm stayed perfectly still, the gun unmoving. He could kill him, he could kill him in cold blood. Samad did not need the cover of darkness or the excuse of war. He could kill him and they both knew it. The Russian, seeing the look in the Indian’s eye, stepped forward. ‘Pardon me, Captain.’

Samad remained silent, facing the Doctor, so the Russian stepped forward. ‘We do not have intentions in this matter,’ said the Russian, addressing Dr Sick. ‘We have orders to bring you to Poland.’

‘And there, will I be killed?’

‘That will be for the proper authorities to decide.’

The Doctor cocked his head at an angle and narrowed his eyes. ‘It is just… it is just a thing a man likes to be told. It is curiously significant to a man to be told. It is only polite, at the very least. To be told whether he shall die or whether he shall be spared.’

‘That will be for the proper authorities to decide,’ repeated the Russian.

Samad walked behind the Doctor and stuck the gun into the back of his head. ‘Walk,’ he said.

‘For the proper authorities to decide… Isn’t peace-time civilized?’ remarked Dr Sick, as a group of twelve men, all pointing guns at his head, led him out of the house.

Later that night, at the bottom of the hill, the battalion left Dr Sick handcuffed to the jeep and adjourned to the café.

‘You play poker?’ asked a very merry Nikolai, addressing Samad and Archie as they entered the room.

‘I play anything, me,’ said Archie.

‘The more pertinent question,’ said Samad, taking his seat with a wry smile, ‘is: do I play it well?’

‘And do you, Captain Iqbal?’

‘Like a master,’ said Samad, picking up the cards dealt to him and fanning them out in his one hand.

‘Well,’ said Nikolai, pouring more Sambucca for everyone, ‘since our friend Iqbal is so confident, it may be best to start relatively small. We’ll start with cigarettes and let’s see where that takes us.’

Cigarettes took them to medals, which took them to guns, which took them to radios, which took them to jeeps. By midnight, Samad had won three jeeps, seven guns, fourteen medals, the land attached to Gozan’s sister’s house, and an IOU for four horses, three chickens and a duck.

‘My friend,’ said Nikolai Pesotsky, his warm, open manner replaced by an anxious gravity. ‘You must give us a chance to win back our possessions. We cannot possibly leave things as they are.’

‘I want the Doctor,’ said Samad, refusing to catch the eye of Archibald Jones, who sat open-mouthed and drunk in his chair. ‘In exchange for the things I have won.’

‘What on earth for?’ said Nikolai, astonished, leaning back in his chair. ‘What possible use-’

‘My own reasons. I wish to take him tonight and not to be followed, and for the incident to go unreported.’

Nikolai Pesotsky looked at his hands, looked round the table, and then at his hands once more. Then he reached into his pocket and threw Samad the keys.

Once outside, Samad and Archie got into the jeep containing Dr Sick, who was asleep on the dashboard, started the engine and drove into the blackness.

Thirty miles from the village, Dr Sick woke up to a hushed argument concerning his imminent future.

‘But why?’ hissed Archie.

‘Because, from my point of view, the very problem is that we need blood on our hands, you see? As an atonement. Do you not see, Jones? We have been playing silly buggers in this war, you and I. There is a great evil that we have failed to fight and now it is too late. Except we have him, this opportunity. Let me ask you: why was this war fought?’

‘Don’t talk nonsense,’ blustered Archie, in lieu of an answer.

‘So that in the future we may be free. The question was always: What kind of a world do you want your children to grow up in? And we have done nothing. We are at a moral crossroads.’

‘Look, I don’t know what you’re on about and I don’t want to know,’ snapped Archie. ‘We’re going to dump this one’ – he motioned to the semi-conscious Sick – ‘at the first barracks we come across, then you and me are going our separate ways and that’s the only crossroads I care about.’

‘What I have realized, is that the generations,’ Samad continued as they sped through miles and miles of unchanging flatlands, ‘they speak to each other, Jones. It’s not a line, life is not a line – this is not palm-reading – it’s a circle, and they speak to us. That is why you cannot read fate; you must experience it.’ Samad could feel the morphine bringing the information to him again – all the information in the universe and all the information on walls – in one fantastic revelation.

‘Do you know who this man is, Jones?’ Samad grabbed the Doctor by the back of his hair and bent his neck over the back seat. ‘The Russians told me. He’s a scientist, like me – but what is his science? Choosing who shall be born and who shall not – breeding people as if they were so many chickens, destroying them if the specifications are not correct. He wants to control, to dictate the future. He wants a race of men, a race of indestructible men, that will survive the last days of this earth. But it cannot be done in a laboratory. It must be done, it can only be done, with faith! Only Allah saves! I am no religious man – I have never possessed the strength – but I am not fool enough to deny the truth!’

‘Ah, now, but you said, didn’t you, you said it wasn’t your argument. On the hill – that’s what you said,’ gabbled Archie, excited to have caught Samad out on something. ‘So, so, so – so what if this bloke does… whatever he does – you said that was our problem, us in the West, that’s what you said.’

Dr Sick, watery eye-blood now streaming like rivers, was still being held by the hair by Samad and was gagging, now, on his own tongue.

‘Watch out, you’re choking him,’ said Archie.

‘What of it!’ yelled Samad into the echoless landscape. ‘Men like him believe that living organs should answer to design. They worship the science of the body, but not who has given it to us! He’s a Nazi. The worst kind.’

‘But you said – ’ Archie pressed on, determined to make his point. ‘You said that was nothing to do with you. Not your argument. If anyone in this jeep should have a score to settle with mad Jerry here-’

‘French. He’s French.’

‘All right, French – well if anyone’s got a score to settle it’d probably have to be me. It’s England’s future we’ve been fighting for. For England. You know,’ said Archie, searching his brain, ‘democracy and Sunday dinners, and… and… promenades and piers, and bangers and mash – and the things that are ours. Not yours.’

Precisely,’ said Samad.

‘You what?’

You must do it, Archie.’

‘I should cocoa!’

‘Jones, your destiny is staring you in the face and here you are slapping the salami,’ said Samad with a nasty laugh in his voice, and still holding the Doctor by the hair across the front seat.

‘Steady on,’ said Archie, trying to keep an eye on the road, as Samad bent the Doctor’s neck almost to breaking point. ‘Look, I’m not saying that he doesn’t deserve to die.’

‘Then do it. Do it.’

‘But why’s it so bloody important to you that I do it? You know, I’ve never killed a man – not like that, not face to face. A man shouldn’t die in a car… I can’t do that.’

‘Jones, it is simply a question of what you will do when the chips are down. This is a question that interests me a great deal. Call tonight the practical application of a long-held belief. An experiment, if you like.’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘I want to know what kind of a man you are, Jones. I want to know what you are capable of. Are you a coward, Jones?’

Archie brought the jeep to a shattering halt.

‘You’re bloody asking for it, you are.’

‘You don’t stand for anything, Jones,’ continued Samad. ‘Not for a faith, not for a politics. Not even for your country. How your lot ever conquered my lot is a bloody mystery. You’re a cipher, no?’

‘A what?’

‘And an idiot. What are you going to tell your children when they ask who you are, what you are? Will you know? Will you ever know?’

‘What are you that’s so bloody fantastic?’

‘I’m a Muslim and a Man and a Son and a Believer. I will survive the last days.’

‘You’re a bloody drunkard, and you’re – you’re drugged, you’re drugged tonight, aren’t you?’

‘I am a Muslim and a Man and a Son and a Believer. I will survive the last days,’ Samad repeated, as if it were a chant.

‘And what the bloody hell does that mean?’ As he shouted, Archie made a grab for Dr Sick. Pulled his now blood-covered face near his own until their noses touched.

‘You,’ Archie barked. ‘You’re coming with me.’

‘I would but, monsieur…’ The Doctor held up his handcuffed wrists.

Archie wrestled them open with the rusty key, pulled the Doctor out of the jeep and started walking away from the road into the darkness, a gun pointed at the base point of Dr Marc-Pierre Perret’s cranium.

‘Are you going to kill me, boy?’ asked Dr Sick as they walked.

‘Looks like it, dunnit?’ said Archie.

‘May I plead for my life?’

‘If you like,’ said Archie, pushing him on.

Sitting in the jeep, some five minutes later, Samad heard a shot ring out. It made him jump. He slapped dead an insect that had been winding its way round his wrist, looking for enough flesh to bite. Lifting his head, he saw in front of him that Archie was returning: bleeding and limping badly, made visible, then invisible, illuminated, obscured, as he wound in and out of the headlights. He looked his tender age, the lamps making his blond hair translucent, his moon-shaped face lit up like a big baby, head first, entering life.

Samad 1984, 1857

‘The cricket test – which side do they cheer for?… Are you still looking back to where you came from or where you are?’

Norman Tebbit

6 The Temptation of Samad Iqbal

Children. Samad had caught children like a disease. Yes, he had sired two of them willingly – as willingly as a man can – but he had not bargained for this other thing. This thing that no one tells you about. This thing of knowing children. For forty-odd years, travelling happily along life’s highway, Samad had been unaware that dotted along that road, in the crèche facilities of each service station, there lived a subclass of society, a mewling, puking underclass; he knew nothing of them and it did not concern him. Then suddenly, in the early eighties, he became infected with children; other people’s children, children who were friends of his children, and then their friends; then children in children’s programmes on children’s TV. By 1984 at least 30 per cent of his social and cultural circle was under the age of nine – and this all led, inevitably, to the position he now found himself in. He was a parent-governor.

By a strange process of symmetry, being a parent-governor perfectly mirrors the process of becoming a parent. It starts innocently. Casually. You turn up at the annual Spring Fair full of beans, help with the raffle tickets (because the pretty red-haired music teacher asks you to) and win a bottle of whisky (all school raffles are fixed), and, before you know where you are, you’re turning up at the weekly school council meetings, organizing concerts, discussing plans for a new music department, donating funds for the rejuvenation of the water-fountains – you’re implicated in the school, you’re involved in it. Sooner or later you stop dropping your child at the school gates. You start following them in.

‘Put your hand down.’

‘I will not put it down.’

‘Put it down, please.’

‘Let go of me.’

‘Samad, why are you so eager to mortify me? Put it down.’

‘I have an opinion. I have a right to an opinion. And I have a right to express that opinion.’

‘Yes, but do you have to express it so often?’

This was the hissed exchange between Samad and Alsana Iqbal, as they sat at the back of a Wednesday school governors meeting in early July ’84, Alsana trying her best to force Samad’s determined left arm back to his side.

‘Get off, woman!’

Alsana put her two tiny hands to his wrist and tried applying a Chinese burn. ‘Samad Miah, can’t you understand that I am only trying to save you from yourself?’

As the covert wrestling continued, the chairwoman Katie Miniver, a lanky white divorcee with tight jeans, extremely curly hair and buck teeth, tried desperately to avoid Samad’s eye. She silently cursed Mrs Hanson, the fat lady just behind him, who was speaking about the woodworm in the school orchard, inadvertently making it impossible to pretend that Samad’s persistent raised hand had gone unseen. Sooner or later she was going to have to let him speak. In between nodding at Mrs Hanson, she snatched a surreptitious glance at the minutes which the secretary, Mrs Khilnani, was scribbling away on her left. She wanted to check that it was not her imagination, that she was not being unfair or undemocratic, or worse still racist (but she had read Colour Blind, a seminal leaflet from the Rainbow Coalition, she had scored well on the self-test), racist in ways that were so deeply ingrained and socially determining that they escaped her attention. But no, no. She wasn’t crazy. Any random extract highlighted the problem:

13.0 Mrs Janet Trott wishes to propose a second climbing frame be built in the playground to accommodate the large number of children who enjoy the present climbing frame but unfortunately have made it a safety risk through dangerous overcrowding. Mrs Trott’s husband, the architect Hanover Trott, is willing to design and oversee the building of such a frame at no cost to the school.

13.1 Chairwoman can see no objection. Moves to put the proposition to a vote.

13.2 Mr Iqbal wishes to know why the Western education system privileges activity of the body over activity of the mind and soul.

13.3 The Chairwoman wonders if this is quite relevant.

13.4 Mr Iqbal demands the vote be delayed until he can present a paper detailing the main arguments and emphasizes that his sons, Magid and Millat, get all the exercise they need via headstands that strengthen the muscles and send blood to stimulate the somatosensory cortex in the brain.

13.5 Mrs Wolfe asks whether Mr Iqbal expects her Susan to undertake compulsory headstands.

13.6 Mr Iqbal infers that, considering Susan’s academic performance and weight problems, a headstand regime might be desirable.

Yes, Mr Iqbal?’

Samad forcefully removed Alsana’s fingers from the clamp grip they had assumed on his lapel, stood up quite unnecessarily and sorted through a number of papers he had on a clipboard, removing the one he wanted and holding it out before him.

‘Yes, yes. I have a motion. I have a motion.’

The subtlest manifestation of a groan went round the group of governors, followed by a short period of shifting, scratching, leg-crossing, bag-rifling and the repositioning of coats-on-chairs.

Another one, Mr Iqbal?’

‘Oh yes, Mrs Miniver.’

‘Only you’ve tabled twelve motions already this evening; I think possibly somebody else-’

‘Oh, it is much too important to be delayed, Mrs Miniver. Now, if I can just-’

Ms Miniver.’

‘Pardon me?’

‘It’s just… it’s Ms Miniver. All evening you’ve been… and it’s, umm… actually not Mrs. It’s Ms. Ms.’

Samad looked quizzically at Katie Miniver, then at his papers as if to find the answer there, then at the beleaguered chairwoman again.

‘I’m sorry? You are not married?’

‘Divorced, actually, yes, divorced. I’m keeping the name.’

‘I see. You have my condolences, Miss Miniver. Now, the matter I-’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Katie, pulling her fingers through her intractable hair. ‘Umm, it’s not Miss, either. I’m sorry. I have been married you see, so-’

Ellen Corcoran and Janine Lanzerano, two friends from the Women’s Action Group, gave Katie a supportive smile. Ellen shook her head to indicate that Katie mustn’t cry (because you’re doing well, really well); Janine mouthed Go On and gave her a furtive thumbs-up.

‘I really wouldn’t feel comforta – I just feel marital status shouldn’t be an issue – it’s not that I want to embarrass you, Mr Iqbal. I just would feel more – if you – it’s Ms.’

‘Mzzz?’

‘Ms.’

‘And this is some kind of linguistic conflation between the words Mrs and Miss?’ asked Samad, genuinely curious and oblivious to the nether wobblings of Katie Miniver’s bottom lip. ‘Something to describe the woman who has either lost her husband or has no prospect of finding another?’

Alsana groaned and put her head in her hands.

Samad looked at his clipboard, underlined something in pen three times and turned to the parent-governors once more.

‘The Harvest Festival.’

Shifting, scratching, leg-crossing, coat-repositioning.

‘Yes, Mr Iqbal,’ said Katie Miniver. ‘What about the Harvest Festival?’

‘That is precisely what I want to know. What is all this about the Harvest Festival? What is it? Why is it? And why must my children celebrate it?’

The headmistress, Mrs Owens, a genteel woman with a soft face half hidden behind a fiercely cut blonde bob, motioned to Katie Miniver that she would handle this.

‘Mr Iqbal, we have been through the matter of religious festivals quite thoroughly in the autumn review. As I am sure you are aware, the school already recognizes a great variety of religious and secular events: amongst them, Christmas, Ramadan, Chinese New Year, Diwali, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, the birthday of Haile Selassie, and the death of Martin Luther King. The Harvest Festival is part of the school’s ongoing commitment to religious diversity, Mr Iqbal.’

‘I see. And are there many pagans, Mrs Owens, at Manor School?’

‘Pagan – I’m afraid I don’t under-’

‘It is very simple. The Christian calendar has thirty-seven religious events. Thirty-seven. The Muslim calendar has nine. Only nine. And they are squeezed out by this incredible rash of Christian festivals. Now my motion is simple. If we removed all the pagan festivals from the Christian calendar, there would be an average of’ – Samad paused to look at his clipboard – ‘of twenty days freed up in which the children could celebrate Lailat-ul-Qadr in December, Eid-ul-Fitr in January and Eid-ul-Adha in April, for example. And the first festival that must go, in my opinion, is this Harvest Festival business.’

‘I’m afraid,’ said Mrs Owens, doing her pleasant-but-firm smile and playing her punchline to the crowd, ‘removing Christian festivals from the face of the earth is a little beyond my jurisdiction. Otherwise I would remove Christmas Eve and save myself a lot of work in stocking-stuffing.’

Samad ignored the general giggle this prompted and pressed on. ‘But this is my whole point. This Harvest Festival is not a Christian festival. Where in the bible does it say, For thou must steal foodstuffs from thy parents’ cupboards and bring them into school assembly, and thou shalt force thy mother to bake a loaf of bread in the shape of a fish? These are pagan ideals! Tell me where does it say, Thou shalt take a box of frozen fishfingers to an aged crone who lives in Wembley?’

Mrs Owens frowned, unaccustomed to sarcasm unless it was of the teacher variety, i.e., Do we live in a barn? And I suppose you treat your own house like that!

‘Surely, Mr Iqbal, it is precisely the charity aspect of the Harvest Festival that makes it worth retaining? Taking food to the elderly seems to me a laudable idea, whether it has scriptural support or not. Certainly, nothing in the bible suggests we should sit down to a turkey meal on Christmas Day, but few people would condemn it on those grounds. To be honest, Mr Iqbal, we like to think of these things as more about community than religion as such.’

‘A man’s god is his community!’ said Samad, raising his voice.

‘Yes, umm… well, shall we vote on the motion?’

Mrs Owens looked nervously around the room for hands. ‘Will anyone second it?’

Samad pressed Alsana’s hand. She kicked him in the ankle. He stamped on her toe. She pinched his flank. He bent back her little finger and she grudgingly raised her right arm while deftly elbowing him in the crotch with her left.

‘Thank you, Mrs Iqbal,’ said Mrs Owens, as Janice and Ellen looked over to her with the piteous, saddened smiles they reserved for subjugated Muslim women.

‘All those in favour of the motion to remove the Harvest Festival from the school calendar-’

‘On the grounds of its pagan roots.’

‘On the grounds of certain pagan… connotations. Raise your hands.’

Mrs Owens scanned the room. One hand, that of the pretty red-headed music teacher Poppy Burt-Jones, shot up, sending her many bracelets jangling down her wrist. Then the Chalfens, Marcus and Joyce, an ageing hippy couple both dressed in pseudo-Indian garb, raised their hands defiantly. Then Samad looked pointedly at Clara and Archie, sitting sheepishly on the other side of the hall, and two more hands moved slowly above the crowd.

‘All those against?’

The remaining thirty-six hands lifted into the air.

‘Motion not passed.’

‘I am certain the Solar Covenant of Manor School Witches and Goblins will be delighted with that decision,’ said Samad, retaking his seat.

After the meeting, as Samad emerged from the toilets, having relieved himself with some difficulty in a miniature urinal, the pretty red-headed music teacher Poppy Burt-Jones accosted him in the corridor.

‘Mr Iqbal.’

‘Hmm?’

She extended a long, pale, lightly freckled arm. ‘Poppy Burt-Jones. I take Magid and Millat for orchestra and singing.’

Samad replaced the dead right hand she meant to shake with his working left.

‘Oh! I’m sorry.’

‘No, no. It’s not painful. It just does not work.’

‘Oh, good! I mean, I’m glad there’s no, you know, pain.’

She was what you would call effortlessly pretty. About twenty-eight, maybe thirty-two at most. Slim, but not at all hard-bodied, and with a curved ribcage like a child; long, flat breasts that lifted at their tips; an open-neck white shirt, some well-worn Levis and grey trainers, a lot of dark red hair swished up in a sloppy ponytail. Wispy bits falling at the neck. Freckled. A very pleasant, slightly goofy smile which she was showing Samad right now.

‘Was there something you wanted to discuss about the twins? A problem?’

‘Oh no, no… well, you know, they’re fine. Magid has a little difficulty, but with his good marks I’m sure playing the recorder isn’t high on his list, and Millat has a real flair for the sax. No, I just wanted to say that I thought you made a good point, you know,’ she said, chucking her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the hall. ‘In the meeting. The Harvest Festival always seemed so ridiculous to me. I mean, if you want to help old people, you know, well, vote for a different government, don’t send them cans of Heinz spaghetti.’ She smiled at him again and tucked a piece of hair behind her ear.

‘It is a great shame more people do not agree,’ said Samad, flattered somehow by the second smile and sucking in his well-toned 57-year-old stomach. ‘We seemed very much in the minority this evening.’

‘Well, the Chalfens were behind you – they’re such nice people – intellectuals,’ she whispered, as if it were some exotic disease of the tropics. ‘He’s a scientist and she’s something in gardening – but both very down to earth with it. I talked to them and they thought you should pursue it. You know, actually, I was thinking that maybe we could get together at some point in the next few months and work on a second motion for the September meeting – you know, nearer the actual time, make it a little more coherent, maybe, print out leaflets, that sort of thing. Because you know, I’m really interested in Indian culture. I just think those festivals you mentioned would be so much more… colourful, and we could tie it in with art work, music. It could be really exciting,’ said Poppy Burt-Jones, getting really excited. ‘And I think it would be really good, you know, for the kids.’

It was not possible, Samad knew, for this woman to have any erotic interest in him whatsoever. But still he glanced around for Alsana, still he jangled his car keys nervously in his pockets, still he felt a cold thing land on his heart and knew it was fear of his God.

‘I’m not actually from India, you know,’ said Samad, with infinitely more patience than he had ever previously employed the many times he had been required to repeat this sentence since moving to England.

Poppy Burt-Jones looked surprised and disappointed. ‘You’re not?’

‘No. I’m from Bangladesh.’

‘Bangladesh…’

‘Previously Pakistan. Previous to that, Bengal.’

‘Oh, right. Same sort of ball-park, then.’

‘Just about the same stadium, yes.’

There was a bit of a difficult pause, in which Samad saw clearly that he wanted her more than any woman he had met in the past ten years. Just like that. Desire didn’t even bother casing the joint, checking whether the neighbours were in – desire just kicked down the door and made himself at home. He felt queasy. Then he became aware that his face was moving from arousal to horror in a grotesque parody of the movements of his mind, as he weighed up Poppy Burt-Jones and all the physical and metaphysical consequences she suggested. He must speak before it got any worse.

‘Well… hmm, it is a good idea, retabling the motion,’ he said against his will, for something more bestial than his will was now doing the talking. ‘If you could spare the time.’

‘Well, we can talk about it. I’ll give you a call about it in a few weeks. We could meet after orchestra, maybe?’

‘That would be… fine.’

‘Great! That’s agreed, then. You know, your boys are really adorable – they’re very unusual. I was saying it to the Chalfens, and Marcus put his finger on it: he said that Indian children, if you don’t mind me saying, are usually a lot more-’

‘More?’

Quiet. Beautifully behaved but very, I don’t know, subdued.’

Samad winced inside, imagining Alsana listening to this.

‘And Magid and Millat are just so… loud.’

Samad tried to smile.

‘Magid is so impressive intellectually for a nine-year-old – everybody says so. I mean, he’s really remarkable. You must be so proud. He’s like a little adult. Even his clothes… I don’t think I’ve ever known a nine-year-old to dress so – so severely.’

Both twins had always been determined to choose their own clothes, but where Millat bullied Alsana into purchases of red-stripe Nike, Osh-Kosh Begosh and strange jumpers that had patterns on the inside and the out, Magid could be found, whatever the weather, in grey pullover, grey shirt and black tie with his shiny black shoes and NHS specs perched upon his nose, like some dwarf librarian. Alsana would say, ‘Little man, how about the blue one for Amma, hmm?’, pushing him into the primary colours section of Mothercare. ‘Just one blue one. Go so nice with your eyes. For Amma, Magid. How can you not care for blue? It’s the colour of the sky!’

‘No, Amma. The sky isn’t blue. There’s just white light. White light has all of the colours of the rainbow in it, and when it is scattered through the squillions of molecules in the sky, the short-wave colours – blue, violet – they are the ones you see. The sky isn’t really blue. It just looks that way. It’s called Rayleigh scattering.’

A strange child with a cold intellect.

‘You must be so proud,’ Poppy repeated with a huge smile. ‘I would be.’

‘Sadly,’ said Samad sighing, distracted from his erection by the dismal thought of his second son (by two minutes), ‘Millat is a good-for-nothing.’

Poppy looked mortified at this. ‘Oh no! No, I didn’t mean that at all… I mean, I think he’s probably a little intimidated by Magid in that way, but he’s such a personality! He’s just not so… academic. But everybody just loves him – such a beautiful boy, as well. Of course,’ she said, giving him a wink and a knock on the shoulder, ‘good genes.’

Good genes? What did she mean, good genes?

‘Hullo!’ said Archie, who had walked up behind them, giving Samad a strong thud on the back. ‘Hullo!’ he said again, shaking Poppy’s hand, with the almost mock-aristocratic manner he used when confronted with educated people. ‘Archie Jones. Father of Irie, for my sins.’

‘Poppy Burt-Jones. I take Irie for-’

‘Music, yes, I know. Talks about you constantly. Bit disappointed you passed her over for first violin, though… maybe next year, eh? So!’ said Archie, looking from Poppy to Samad, who was standing slightly apart from the other two and had a queer look, Archie thought, a bloody queer look on his face. ‘You’ve met the notorious Ick-Ball! You were a bit much in that meeting, Samad, eh? Wasn’t he, eh?’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Poppy sweetly. ‘I thought Mr Iqbal made some good points, actually. I was really impressed by a lot of what he said. I’d like to be that knowledgeable on so many subjects. Sadly, I’m a bit of a one-trick pony. Are you, I don’t know, a professor of some kind, Mr Iqbal?’

‘No, no,’ said Samad, furious that he was unable to lie because of Archie, and finding the word ‘waiter’ stopping in his throat. ‘No, the fact is I work in a restaurant. I did some study in younger days, but the war came and…’ Samad shrugged as an end to the sentence, and watched with sinking heart as Poppy Burt-Jones’s freckled face contorted into one large, red, perplexed question mark.

‘War?’ she said, as if he had said wireless or pianola or water-closet. ‘The Falklands?’

‘No,’ said Samad flatly. ‘The Second World.’

‘Oh, Mr Iqbal, you’d never guess. You must have been ever so young.’

‘There were tanks there older than us, love,’ said Archie with a grin.

‘Well, Mr Iqbal, that is a surprise! But they say dark skin wrinkles less, don’t they?’

‘Do they?’ said Samad, forcing himself to imagine her taut, pink skin, folded over in layer after layer of dead epidermis. ‘I thought it was children that kept a man young.’

Poppy laughed. ‘That too, I’d imagine. Well!’ she said, looking flushed, coy and sure of herself, all at the same time. ‘You look very good on it. I’m sure the Omar Sharif comparison’s been made before, Mr Iqbal.’

‘No, no, no, no,’ said Samad, glowing with pleasure. ‘The only comparison lies in our mutual love of bridge. No, no, no… And it’s Samad,’ he added. ‘Call me Samad, please.’

‘You’ll have to call him Samad some other time, Miss,’ said Archie, who always persisted in calling teachers Miss. ‘Because we’ve got to go. Wives waiting in the driveway. Dinner, apparently.’

‘Well, it was nice talking to you,’ said Poppy, reaching for the wrong hand again, and blushing as he met her with the left.

‘Yes. Goodbye.’

‘Come on, come on,’ said Archie, fielding Samad out of the door and down the sloping driveway to the front gates. ‘Dear God, fit as a butcher’s dog, that one! Phee-yooo. Nice, very nice. Dear me, you were trying it on… And what were you on about – mutual love of bridge. I’ve known you decades and I’ve never seen you play bridge. Five-card poker’s more your game.’

‘Shut up, Archibald.’

‘No, no, fair dues, you did very well. It’s not like you, though, Samad – having found God and all that – not like you to be distracted by the attractions of the flesh.’

Samad shook Archie’s hand from where it was resting on his shoulder. ‘Why are you so irredeemably vulgar?’

I wasn’t the one…’

But Samad wasn’t listening, he was already reciting in his head, repeating two English phrases that he tried hard to believe in, words he had learnt these past ten years in England, words he hoped could protect him from the abominable heat in his trousers:

To the pure all things are pure. To the pure all things are pure. To the pure all things are pure.

Can’t say fairer than that. Can’t say fairer than that. Can’t say fairer than that.

But let’s rewind a little.

1. To the pure all things are pure

Sex, at least the temptation of sex, had long been a problem. When the fear of God first began to creep into Samad’s bones, circa 1976, just after his marriage to the small-palmed, weak-wristed and disinterested Alsana, he had inquired of an elderly alim in the mosque in Croydon whether it was permitted that a man might… with his hand on his…

Before he had got halfway through this tentative mime, the old scholar had silently passed him a leaflet from a pile on a table and drawn his wrinkled digit firmly underneath point number three.

There are nine acts which invalidate fast:

(i) Eating and drinking

(ii) Sexual intercourse

(iii) Masturbation (istimna), which means self-abuse, resulting in ejaculation

(iv) Ascribing false things to Almighty Allah, or his Prophet, or to the successors of the Holy Prophet

(v) Swallowing thick dust

(vi) Immersing one’s complete head in water

(vii) Remaining in Janabat or Haidh or Nifas till the Adhan for Fajr prayers

(viii) Enema with liquids

(ix) Vomiting

‘And what, Alim,’ Samad had inquired, dismayed, ‘if he is not fasting?’

The old scholar looked grave. ‘Ibn ’Umar was asked about it and is reported to have answered: It is nothing except the rubbing of the male member until its water comes out. It is only a nerve that one kneads.’

Samad had taken heart at this, but the Alim continued. ‘However, he answered in another report: It has been forbidden that one should have intercourse with oneself.’

‘But which is the correct belief? Is it halal or haraam? There are some who say…’ Samad had begun sheepishly, ‘To the pure all things are pure. If one is truthful and firm in oneself, it can harm nobody else, nor offend…’

But the Alim laughed at this. ‘And we know who they are. Allah have pity on the Anglicans! Samad, when the male organ of a man stands erect, two thirds of his intellect go away,’ said the Alim, shaking his head. ‘And one third of his religion. There is an hadith of the Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon Him! – it is as follows: O Allah, I seek refuge in you from the evil of my hearing, of my sight, of my tongue, of my heart, and of my private parts.’

‘But surely… surely if the man himself is pure, then-’

‘Show me the pure man, Samad! Show me the pure act! Oh, Samad Miah… my advice to you is stay away from your right hand.’

Of course. Samad, being Samad, had employed the best of his Western pragmatism, gone home and vigorously tackled the job with his functional left hand, repeating To the pure all things are pure. To the pure all things are pure, until orgasm finally arrived: sticky, sad, depressing. And that ritual continued for some five years, in the little bedroom at the top of the house where he slept alone (so as not to wake Alsana) after crawling back from the restaurant at three in the morning each and every morning; secretly, silently; for he was, believe it or not, tortured by it, by this furtive yanking and squeezing and spilling, by the fear that he was not pure, that his acts were not pure, that he would never be pure, and always his God seemed to be sending him small signs, small warnings, small curses (a urethra infection, 1976, castration dream, 1978, dirty, encrusted sheet discovered but misunderstood by Alsana’s great-aunt, 1979) until 1980 brought crisis point and Samad heard Allah roaring in his ear like the waves in a conch-shell and it seemed time to make a deal.

2. Can’t say fairer than that

The deal was this: on 1 January 1980, like a New Year dieter who gives up cheese on the condition that they can have chocolate, Samad gave up masturbation so that he might drink. It was a deal, a business proposition, that he had made with God: Samad being the party of the first part, God being the sleeping partner. And since that day Samad had enjoyed relative spiritual peace and many a frothy Guinness with Archibald Jones; he had even developed the habit of taking his last gulp looking up at the sky like a Christian, thinking: I’m basically a good man. I don’t slap the salami. Give me a break. I have the odd drink. Can’t say fairer than that

But of course he was in the wrong religion for compromises, deals, pacts, weaknesses and can’t say fairer than thats. He was supporting the wrong team if it was empathy and concessions he wanted, if he wanted liberal exegesis, if he wanted to be given a break. His God was not like that charming white-bearded bungler of the Anglican, Methodist or Catholic churches. His God was not in the business of giving people breaks. The moment Samad set eyes on the pretty red-haired music teacher Poppy Burt-Jones that July of 1984, he knew finally the truth of this. He knew his God was having his revenge, he knew the game was up, he saw that the contract had been broken, and the sanity clause did not, after all, exist, that temptation had been deliberately and maliciously thrown in his path. In short, all deals were off.

Masturbation recommenced in earnest. Those two months, between seeing the pretty red-haired music teacher once and seeing her again, were the longest, stickiest, smelliest, guiltiest fifty-six days of Samad’s life. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he found himself suddenly accosted by some kind of synaesthetic fixation with the woman: hearing the colour of her hair in the mosque, smelling the touch of her hand on the tube, tasting her smile while innocently walking the streets on his way to work; and this in turn led to a knowledge of every public convenience in London, led to the kind of masturbation that even a fifteen-year-old boy living in the Shetlands might find excessive. His only comfort was that he, like Roosevelt, had made a New Deal: he was going to beat but he wasn’t going to eat. He meant somehow to purge himself of the sights and smells of Poppy Burt-Jones, of the sin of istimna, and, though it wasn’t fasting season and these were the longest days of the year, still no substance passed Samad’s lips between sunrise and sunset, not even, thanks to a little china spitoon, his own saliva. And because there was no food going in the one end, what came out of the other end was so thin and so negligible, so meagre and translucent, that Samad could almost convince himself that the sin was lessened, that one wonderful day he would be able to massage one-eyed-Jack as vigorously as he liked and nothing would come out but air.

But despite the intensity of the hunger – spiritual, physical, sexual – Samad still did his twelve hours daily in the restaurant. Frankly, he found the restaurant about the only place he could bear to be. He couldn’t bear to see his family, he couldn’t bear to go to O’Connell’s, he couldn’t bear to give Archie the satisfaction of seeing him in such a state. By mid August he had upped his working hours to fourteen a day; something in the ritual of it – picking up his basket of pink swan-shaped napkins and following the trail of Shiva’s plastic carnations, correcting the order of a knife or fork, polishing a glass, removing the smear of a finger from the china plates – soothed him. No matter how bad a Muslim he might be, no one could say Samad wasn’t a consummate waiter. He had taken one tedious skill and honed it to perfection. Here at least he could show others the right path: how to disguise a stale onion bhaji, how to make fewer prawns look like more, how to explain to an Australian that he doesn’t want the amount of chilli he thinks he wants. Outside the doors of the Palace he was a masturbator, a bad husband, an indifferent father, with all the morals of an Anglican. But inside here, within these four green and yellow paisley walls, he was a one-handed genius.

‘Shiva! Flower missing. Here.’

It was two weeks into Samad’s New Deal and an average Friday afternoon at the Palace, setting up.

‘You’ve missed this vase, Shiva!’

Shiva wandered over to examine the empty, pencil-thin, aquamarine vase on table nineteen.

‘And there is some lime pickle afloat in the mango chutney in the sauce carousel on table fifteen.’

‘Really?’ said Shiva drily. Poor Shiva; nearly thirty now; not so pretty; still here. It had never happened for him, whatever he thought was going to happen for him. He did leave the restaurant, Samad remembered vaguely, for a short time in 1979 to start up a security firm, but ‘nobody wanted to hire Paki bouncers’ and he had come back, a little less aggressive, a little more despairing, like a broken horse.

‘Yes, Shiva. Really and truly.’

‘And that’s what’s driving you crazy, is it?’

‘I wouldn’t go as far as to say crazy, no… it is troubling me.’

‘Because something,’ interrupted Shiva, ‘has got right up your arse recently. We’ve all noticed it.’

‘We?’

‘Us. The boys. Yesterday it was a grain of salt in a napkin. The day before Gandhi wasn’t hung straight on the wall. The past week you’ve been acting like Führer-gee,’ said Shiva nodding in Ardashir’s direction. ‘Like a crazy man. You don’t smile. You don’t eat. You’re constantly on everybody’s case. And when the head waiter’s not all there it puts everybody off. Like a football captain.’

‘I am certain I do not know to what you are referring,’ said Samad, tight-lipped, passing him the vase.

‘And I’m certain you do,’ said Shiva provocatively, placing the empty vase back on the table.

‘If I am concerned about something, there is no reason why it should disrupt my work here,’ said Samad, becoming panicked, passing him back the vase. ‘I do not wish to inconvenience others.’

Shiva returned the vase to the table once more. ‘So there is something. Come on, man… I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye, but we’ve got to stick together in this place. How long have we worked together? Samad Miah?’

Samad looked up suddenly at Shiva, and Shiva saw he was sweating, that he seemed almost dazed. ‘Yes, yes… there is… something.’

Shiva put his hand on Samad’s shoulder. ‘So why don’t we sod the fucking carnation and go and cook you a curry – sun’ll be down in twenty minutes. Come on, you can tell Shiva all about it. Not because I give a fuck, you understand, but I have to work here too and you’re driving me mad, mate.’

Samad, oddly touched by this inelegant offer of a listening ear, laid down his pink swans and followed Shiva into the kitchens.

‘Animal, vegetable, mineral?’

Shiva stood at a work surface and began chopping a breast of chicken into perfect cubes and dousing them in corn flour.

‘Pardon me?’

‘Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?’ repeated Shiva impatiently. ‘The thing that’s bothering you.’

‘Animal, mainly.’

‘Female?’

Samad dropped on to a nearby stool and hung his head.

‘Female,’ Shiva concluded. ‘Wife?’

‘The shame of it, the pain of it will come to my wife, but no… she is not the cause.’

‘Another bird. My specialist subject.’ Shiva performed the action of rolling a camera, sang the theme to Mastermind and jumped into shot. ‘Shiva Bhagwati, you have thirty seconds on shagging women other than your wife. First question: is it right? Answer: depends. Second question: shall I go to hell?-’

Samad cut in, disgusted. ‘I am not… making love to her.’

‘I’ve started so I’ll finish: shall I go to hell? Answer-’

‘Enough. Forget it. Please, forget that I mentioned anything of this.’

‘Do you want aubergine in this?’

‘No… green peppers are sufficient.’

‘Alrighty,’ said Shiva, throwing a green pepper up in the air and catching it on the tip of his knife. ‘One Chicken Bhuna coming up. How long’s it been going on, then?’

‘Nothing is going on. I met her only once. I barely know her.’

‘So: what’s the damage? A grope? A snog?’

‘A handshake, only. She is my sons’ teacher.’

Shiva tossed the onions and peppers into hot oil. ‘You’ve had the odd stray thought. So what?’

Samad stood up. ‘It is more than stray thoughts, Shiva. My whole body is mutinous, nothing will do what I tell it. Never before have I been subjected to such physical indignities. For example: I am constantly-’

‘Yeah,’ said Shiva, indicating Samad’s crotch. ‘We noticed that too. Why don’t you do the five-knuckle-shuffle before you get to work?’

‘I do… I am… but it makes no difference. Besides, Allah forbids it.’

‘Oh, you should never have got religious, Samad. It don’t suit you.’ Shiva wiped an onion-tear away. ‘All that guilt’s not healthy.’

‘It is not guilt. It is fear. I am fifty-seven, Shiva. When you get to my age, you become… concerned about your faith, you don’t want to leave things too late. I have been corrupted by England, I see that now – my children, my wife, they too have been corrupted. I think maybe I have made the wrong friends. Maybe I have been frivolous. Maybe I have thought intellect more important than faith. And now it seems this final temptation has been put in front of me. To punish me, you understand. Shiva, you know about women. Help me. How can this feeling be possible? I have known of the woman’s existence for no more than a few months, I have spoken to her only once.’

‘As you said: you’re fifty-seven. Mid-life crisis.’

‘Mid-life? What does this mean?’ snapped Samad irritably. ‘Dammit, Shiva, I don’t plan to live for one hundred and fourteen years.’

‘It’s a manner of speaking. You read about it in the magazines these days. It’s when a man gets to a certain point in life, he starts feeling he’s over the hill… and you’re as young as the girl you feel, if you get my meaning.’

‘I am at a moral crossroads in my life and you are talking nonsense to me.’

‘You’ve got to learn this stuff, mate,’ said Shiva, speaking slowly, patiently. ‘Female organism, gee-spot, testicle cancer, the menstropause – mid-life crisis is one of them. Information the modern man needs at his fingertips.’

‘But I don’t wish for such information!’ cried Samad, standing up and pacing the kitchen. ‘That is precisely the point! I don’t wish to be a modern man! I wish to live as I was always meant to! I wish to return to the East!’

‘Ah, well… we all do, don’t we?’ murmured Shiva, pushing the peppers and onion around the pan. ‘I left when I was three. Fuck knows I haven’t made anything of this country. But who’s got the money for the air fare? And who wants to live in a shack with fourteen servants on the payroll? Who knows what Shiva Bagwhati would have turned out like back in Calcutta? Prince or pauper? And who,’ said Shiva, some of his old beauty returning to his face, ‘can pull the West out of ’em once it’s in?’

Samad continued to pace. ‘I should never have come here – that’s where every problem has come from. Never should have brought my sons here, so far from God. Willesden Green! Callingcards in sweetshop windows, Judy Blume in the school, condom on the pavement, Harvest Festival, teacher-temptresses!’ roared Samad, picking items at random. ‘Shiva – I tell you, in confidence: my dearest friend, Archibald Jones, is an unbeliever! Now: what kind of a model am I for my children?’

‘Iqbal, sit down. Be calm. Listen: you just want somebody. People want people. It happens from Delhi to Deptford. And it’s not the end of the world.’

‘Of this, I wish I could be certain.’

‘When are you next seeing her?’

‘We are meeting for school-related business… the first Wednesday of September.’

‘I see. Is she Hindu? Muslim? She ain’t Sikh, is she?’

‘That is the worst of it,’ said Samad, his voice breaking. ‘English. White. English.’

Shiva shook his head. ‘I been out with a lot of white birds, Samad. A lot. Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it ain’t. Two lovely American girls. Fell head-over-heels for a Parisian stunner. Even spent a year with a Romanian. But never an English girl. Never works. Never.’

‘Why?’ asked Samad, attacking his thumbnail with his teeth and awaiting some fearful answer, some edict from on high. ‘Why not, Shiva Bhagwati?’

‘Too much history,’ was Shiva’s enigmatic answer, as he dished up the Chicken Bhuna. ‘Too much bloody history.’

8.30 a.m., the first Wednesday of September, 1984. Samad, lost in thought somewhat, heard the passenger door of his Austin Mini Metro open and close – far away in the real world – and turned to his left to find Millat climbing in next to him. Or at least a Millat-shaped thing from the neck down: the head replaced by a Tomytronic – a basic computer game that looked like a large pair of binoculars. Within it, Samad knew from experience, a little red car that represented his son was racing a green car and a yellow car along a three-dimensional road of l.e.d.’s.

Millat parked his tiny backside on the brown plastic seat. ‘Ooh! Cold seat! Cold seat! Frozen bum!’

‘Millat, where are Magid and Irie?’

‘Coming.’

‘Coming with the speed of a train or coming with the speed of a snail?’

‘Eeek!’ squealed Millat, in response to a virtual blockade that threatened to send his red car spinning off into oblivion.

‘Please, Millat. Take this off.’

‘Can’t. Need one, oh, two, seven, three points.’

‘Millat, you need to begin to understand numbers. Repeat: ten thousand, two hundred and seventy-three.’

‘Men blousand, poo bumdred and weventy-wee.’

‘Take it off, Millat.’

‘Can’t. I’ll die. Do you want me to die, Abba?’

Samad wasn’t listening. It was imperative that he be at school before nine if this trip were going to have any purpose whatsoever. By nine, she’d be in class. By nine-oh-two, she’d be opening the register with those long fingers, by nine-oh-three she’d be tapping her high-mooned nails on a wooden desk somewhere out of sight.

‘Where are they? Do they want to be late for school?’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Are they always this late?’ asked Samad, for this was not his regular routine – the school run was usually Alsana’s or Clara’s assignment. It was for a glimpse of Burt-Jones (though their meeting was only seven hours and fifty-seven minutes away, seven hours and fifty-six minutes away, seven hours…) that he had undertaken the most odious parental responsibility in the book. And he’d had a hard time convincing Alsana there was nothing peculiar in this sudden desire to participate fully in the educational transportation of his and Archie’s offspring:

‘But Samad, you don’t get in the house ’til three in the morning. Are you going peculiar?’

‘I want to see my boys! I want to see Irie! Every morning they are growing up – I never see it! Two inches Millat has grown.’

‘But not at eight thirty in the morning. It is very funnily enough that he grows all the time – praise Allah! It must be some kind of a miracle. What is this about, hmm?’ She dug her fingernail into the overhang of his belly. ‘Some hokery-pokery. I can smell it – like goat’s tongue gone off.’

Ah, Alsana’s culinary nose for guilt, deceit and fear was without equal in the borough of Brent, and Samad was useless in the face of it. Did she know? Had she guessed? These anxieties Samad had slept on all night (when he wasn’t slapping the salami) and then brought to his car first thing so that he might take them out on his children.

‘Where in hell’s name are they?’

‘Hell’s bells!’

‘Millat!’

You swore,’ said Millat, taking lap fourteen and getting a five-oh-oh bonus for causing the combustion of Yellow Car. ‘You always do. So does M’ster Jones.’

‘Well, we have special swearing licences.’

Headless Millat needed no face to express his outrage. ‘NO SUCH THING AS-’

‘OK, OK, OK,’ back-pedalled Samad, knowing there is no joy to be had in arguing ontology with a nine-year-old, ‘I have been caught out. No such thing as a licence to swear. Millat, where’s your saxophone? You have orchestra today.’

‘In the boot,’ said Millat, his voice at once incredulous and disgusted: a man who didn’t know the saxophone went in the boot on Sunday night was some kind of a social retard. ‘Why’re you picking us up? M’ster Jones picks us up on Mondays. You don’t know anything about picking us up. Or taking us in.’

‘I’m sure somehow I will muddle through, thank you, Millat. It is hardly rocket science, after all. Where are those two!’ he shouted, beeping the horn, unhinged by his nine-year-old son’s ability to recognize the irregularity in his behaviour. ‘And will you please be taking that damn thing off!’ Samad made a grab for the Tomytronic and pulled it down around Millat’s neck.

‘YOU KILLED ME!’ Millat looked back in the Tomytronic, horrified, and just in time to witness his tiny red alter-ego swerving into the barriers and disappearing in a catastrophic light show of showering yellow sparks. ‘YOU KILLED ME WHEN I WAS WINNING!’

Samad closed his eyes and forced his eyeballs to roll up as far as possible in his head, in the hope that his brain might impact upon them, a self-blinding, if he could achieve it, on a par with that other victim of Western corruption, Oedipus. Think: I want another woman. Think: I’ve killed my son. I swear. I eat bacon. I regularly slap the salami. I drink Guinness. My best friend is a kaffir non-believer. I tell myself if I rub up and down without using hands it does not count. But oh it does count. It all counts on the great counting board of He who counts. What will happen come Mahshar? How will I absolve myself when the Last Judgement comes?

… Click-slam. Click-slam. One Magid, one Irie. Samad opened his eyes and looked in the rear-view mirror. In the back seat were the two children he had been waiting for: both with their little glasses, Irie with her wilful Afro (not a pretty child: she had got her genes mixed up, Archie’s nose with Clara’s awfully buck teeth), Magid with his thick black hair slicked into an unappealing middle-parting. Magid carrying a recorder, Irie with violin. But beyond these basic details, everything was not as it should be. Unless he was very much mistaken, something was rotten in this Mini Metro – something was afoot. Both children were dressed in black from head to toe. Both wore white armbands on their left arms upon which were painted crude renditions of baskets of vegetables. Both had pads of writing paper and a pen tied around their necks with string.

‘Who did this to you?’

Silence.

‘Was it Amma? And Mrs Jones?’

Silence.

‘Magid! Irie! Cat got your tongues?’

More silence; children’s silence, so desperately desired by adults yet eerie when it finally occurs.

‘Millat, do you know what this is about?’

‘ ’Sboring,’ whined Millat. ‘They’re just being clever, clever, snotty, dumb-bum, Lord Magoo and Mrs Ugly Poo.’

Samad twisted in his car seat to face the two dissenters. ‘Am I meant to ask you what this is about?’

Magid grasped his pen and, in his neat, clinical hand, printed: IF YOU WANT TO, then ripped off the piece of paper and handed it to Samad.

‘A Vow of Silence. I see. You too, Irie? I would have thought you were too sensible for such nonsense.’

Irie scribbled for a moment on her pad and passed the missive forward. WE ARE PROSTESTING.

‘Pros-testing? What are Pros and why are you testing them? Did your mother teach you this word?’

Irie looked like she was going to burst with the sheer force of her explanation, but Magid mimed the zipping up of her mouth, snatched back the piece of paper and crossed out the first s.

‘Oh, I see. Protesting.’

Magid and Irie nodded maniacally.

‘Well, that is indeed fascinating. And I suppose your mothers engineered this whole scenario? The costumes? The notepads?’

Silence.

‘You are quite the political prisoners… not giving a thing away. All right: may one ask what it is that you are protesting about?’

Both children pointed urgently to their armbands.

‘Vegetables? You are protesting for the rights of vegetables?’

Irie held one hand over her mouth to stop herself screaming the answer, while Magid set about his writing pad in a flurry. WE ARE PROTESTING ABOUT THE HARVEST FESTIVAL.

Samad growled, ‘I told you already. I don’t want you participating in that nonsense. It has nothing to do with us, Magid. Why are you always trying to be somebody you are not?’

There was a mutual, silent anger as each acknowledged the painful incident that was being referred to. A few months earlier, on Magid’s ninth birthday, a group of very nice-looking white boys with meticulous manners had turned up on the doorstep and asked for Mark Smith.

‘Mark? No Mark here,’ Alsana had said, bending down to their level with a genial smile. ‘Only the family Iqbal in here. You have the wrong house.’

But before she had finished the sentence, Magid had dashed to the door, ushering his mother out of view.

‘Hi, guys.’

‘Hi, Mark.’

‘Off to the chess club, Mum.’

‘Yes, M – M – Mark,’ said Alsana, close to tears at this final snub, the replacement of ‘Mum’ for ‘Amma’. ‘Do not be late, now.’

‘I GIVE YOU A GLORIOUS NAME LIKE MAGID MAHFOOZ MURSHED MUBTASIM IQBAL!’Samadhad yelled after Magid when he returned home that evening and whipped up the stairs like a bullet to hide in his room. ‘AND YOU WANT TO BE CALLED MARK SMITH!’

But this was just a symptom of a far deeper malaise. Magid really wanted to be in some other family. He wanted to own cats and not cockroaches, he wanted his mother to make the music of the cello, not the sound of the sewing machine; he wanted to have a trellis of flowers growing up one side of the house instead of the ever growing pile of other people’s rubbish; he wanted a piano in the hallway in place of the broken door off cousin Kurshed’s car; he wanted to go on biking holidays to France, not day-trips to Blackpool to visit aunties; he wanted the floor of his room to be shiny wood, not the orange and green swirled carpet left over from the restaurant; he wanted his father to be a doctor, not a one-handed waiter; and this month Magid had converted all these desires into a wish to join in with the Harvest Festival like Mark Smith would. Like everybody else would.

BUT WE WANT TO DO IT. OR WE’LL GET A DETENTION. MRS OWENS SAID IT IS TRADITION.

Samad blew his top. ‘Whose tradition?’ he bellowed, as a tearful Magid began to scribble frantically once more. ‘Dammit, you are a Muslim, not a wood sprite! I told you, Magid, I told you the condition upon which you would be allowed. You come with me on haj. If I am to touch that black stone before I die I will do it with my eldest son by my side.’

Magid broke the pencil halfway through his reply, scrawling the second half with blunt lead. IT’S NOT FAIR! I CAN’T GO ON HAJ. I’VE GOT TO GO TO SCHOOL. I DON’T HAVE TIME TO GO TO MECCA. IT’S NOT FAIR!

‘Welcome to the twentieth century. It’s not fair. It’s never fair.’

Magid ripped the next piece of paper from the pad and held it up in front of his father’s face. YOU TOLD HER DAD NOT TO LET HER GO.

Samad couldn’t deny it. Last Tuesday he had asked Archie to show solidarity by keeping Irie at home the week of the festival. Archie had hedged and haggled, fearing Clara’s wrath, but Samad had reassured him: Take a leaf from my book, Archibald. Who wears the trousers in my house? Archie had thought about Alsana, so often found in those lovely silken trousers with the tapered ankle, and of Samad, who regularly wore a long piece of embroidered grey cotton, a lungi, wrapped round his waist, to all intents and purposes, a skirt. But he kept the thought to himself.

WE WON’T SPEAK IF YOU DON’T LET US GO. WE WON’T SPEAK EVER, EVER, EVER, EVER AGAIN. WHEN WE DIE EVERYONE WILL SAY IT WAS YOU. YOU YOU YOU.

Great, thought Samad, more blood and sticky guilt on my one good hand.

Samad didn’t know anything about conducting, but he knew what he liked. True, it probably wasn’t very complex, the way she did it, just a simple three/four, just a one-dimensional metronome drawn in the air with her index finger – but aaah, what a joy it was to watch her do it! Her back to him; her bare feet lifting – on every third beat – out of her slip-on shoes; her backside protruding ever so slightly, pressing up against the jeans each time she lunged forward for one of the orchestra’s ham-fisted crescendos – what a joy it was! What a vision! It was all he could do to stop himself rushing at her and carrying her off; it frightened him, the extent to which he could not take his eyes off her. But he had to rationalize: the orchestra needed her – God knows they were never going to get through this adaptation of Swan Lake (more reminiscent of ducks waddling through an oil slick) without her. Yet what a terrific waste it seemed – akin to watching a toddler on a bus mindlessly grabbing the breast of the stranger sitting next to him – what a waste, that something of such beauty should be at the disposal of those too young to know what to do with it. The second he tasted this thought he brought it back up: Samad Miah… surely a man has reached his lowest when he is jealous of the child at a woman’s breast, when he is jealous of the young, of the future… And then, not for the first time that afternoon, as Poppy Burt-Jones lifted out of her shoes once more and the ducks finally succumbed to the environmental disaster, he asked himself: Why, in the name of Allah, am I here? And the answer returned once more with the persistence of vomit: Because I simply cannot be anywhere else.

Tic, tic, tic. Samad was thankful for the sound of baton hitting on music-stand, which interrupted him from these thoughts, these thoughts that were something close to delirium.

‘Now, kids, kids. Stop. Shhh, quieten down. Mouths away from instruments, bows down. Down, Anita. That’s it, yes, right on the floor. Thank you. Now: you’ve probably noticed we have a visitor today.’ She turned to him and he tried hard to find some part of her on which to focus, some inch that did not heat his troubled blood. ‘This is Mr Iqbal, Magid’s and Millat’s father.’

Samad stood up as if he’d been called to attention, draped his wide-lapelled overcoat carefully over his volatile crotch, waved rather lamely, sat back down.

‘Say “Hello, Mr Iqbal.” ’

‘HELLO, MR ICK-BALL,’ came the resounding chorus from all but two of the musicians.

‘Now: don’t we want to play thrice as well because we have an audience?’

‘YES, MISS BURT-JONES.’

‘And not only is Mr Iqbal our audience for today, but he’s a very special audience. It’s because of Mr Iqbal that next week we won’t be playing Swan Lake any more.’

A great roar met this announcement, accompanied by a stray chorus of trumpet hoots, drum rolls, a cymbal.

‘All right, all right, enough. I didn’t expect quite so much joyous approval.’

Samad smiled. She had humour, then. There was wit there, a bit of sharpness – but why think the more reasons there were to sin, the smaller the sin was? He was thinking like a Christian again; he was saying Can’t say fairer than that to the Creator.

‘Instruments down. Yes, you, Marvin. Thank you very much.’

‘What’ll we be doin’ instead, then, Miss?’

‘Well…’ began Poppy Burt-Jones, the same half-coy, half-daring smile he had noticed before. ‘Something very exciting. Next week I want to try to experiment with some Indian music.’

The cymbal player, dubious of what place he would occupy in such a radical change of genre, took it upon himself to be the first to ridicule the scheme. ‘What, you mean that Eeeee E E E A A aaaa E E E eeee A A O oooo music?’ he said, doing a creditable impression of the strains to be found at the beginning of a Hindi musical, or in the back-room of an ‘Indian’ restaurant, along with attendant head movements. The class let out a blast of laughter as loud as the brass section and echoed the gag en masse: Eeee Eaaaoo O O O Aaaah Eeee O O O iiiiiiii… This, along with screeching parodic violins, penetrated Samad’s deep, erotic half-slumber and sent his imagination into a garden, a garden encased in marble where he found himself dressed in white and hiding behind a large tree, spying on a be-saried, bindi-wearing Poppy Burt-Jones, as she wound flirtatiously in and out of some fountains; sometimes visible, sometimes not.

‘I don’t think – ’ began Poppy Burt-Jones, trying to force her voice above the hoo-hah, then, raising it several decibels, ‘I DON’T THINK IT IS VERY NICE TO – ’ and here her voice slipped back to normal as the class registered the angry tone and quietened down. ‘I don’t think it is very nice to make fun of somebody else’s culture.’

The orchestra, unaware that this is what they had been doing, but aware that this was the most heinous crime in the Manor School rule book, looked to their collective feet.

‘Do you? Do you? How would you like it, Sophie, if someone made fun of Queen?’

Sophie, a vaguely retarded twelve-year-old covered from head to toe in that particular rock band’s paraphernalia, glared over a pair of bottle-top spectacles.

‘Wouldn’t like it, Miss.’

‘No, you wouldn’t, would you?’

‘No, Miss.’

‘Because Freddie Mercury is from your culture.’

Samad had heard the rumours that ran through the rank and file of the Palace waiters to the effect that this Mercury character was in actual fact a very light-skin Persian called Farookh, whom the head chef remembered from school in Panchgani, near Bombay. But who wished to split hairs? Not wanting to stop the lovely Burt-Jones while she was in something of a flow, Samad kept the information to himself.

‘Sometimes we find other people’s music strange because their culture is different from ours,’ said Miss Burt-Jones solemnly. ‘But that doesn’t mean it isn’t equally good, now does it?’

‘NO, MISS.’

‘And we can learn about each other through each other’s culture, can’t we?’

‘YES, MISS.’

For example, what music do you like, Millat?’

Millat thought for a moment, swung his saxophone to his side and began fingering it like a guitar. ‘Bo-orn to ruuun! Da da da da daaa! Bruce Springsteen, Miss! Da da da da daaa! Baby, we were bo-orn-’

‘Umm, nothing – nothing else? Something you listen to at home, maybe?’

Millat’s face fell, troubled that his answer did not seem to be the right one. He looked over at his father, who was gesticulating wildly behind the teacher, trying to convey the jerky head and hand movements of bharata natyam, the form of dance Alsana had once enjoyed before sadness weighted her heart, and babies tied down her hands and feet.

‘Thriiiii-ller!’ sang Millat, full throated, believing he had caught his father’s gist. ‘Thriii-ller night! Michael Jackson, Miss! Michael Jackson!’

Samad put his head in his hands. Miss Burt-Jones looked queerly at the small child standing on a chair, gyrating and grabbing his crotch before her. ‘OK, thank you, Millat. Thank you for sharing… that.’

Millat grinned. ‘No problem, Miss.’

While the children queued up to exchange twenty pence for two dry digestives and a cup of tasteless squash, Samad followed the light foot of Poppy Burt-Jones like a predator – into the music cupboard, a tiny room, windowless, with no means of escape, and full of instruments, filing cabinets overbrimming with sheetmusic, and a scent Samad had thought hers but now identified as the maturing leather of violin cases mixed with the mellowing odour of cat-gut.

‘This,’ said Samad, spotting a desk beneath a mountain of paper, ‘is where you work?’

Poppy blushed. ‘Tiny, isn’t it? Music budgets get cut every year until this year there was nothing left to cut from. It’s got to the point where they’re putting desks in cupboards and calling them offices. If it wasn’t for the GLC, there wouldn’t even be a desk.’

‘It is certainly small,’ said Samad, scanning the room desperately for some spot where he might stand that would put her out of arm’s reach. ‘One might almost say, claustrophobic.’

‘I know, it’s awful – but won’t you sit down?’

Samad looked for the chair she might be referring to.

‘Oh God! I’m sorry! It’s here.’ She swept paper, books and rubbish on to the floor with one hand, revealing a perilous-looking stool. ‘I made it – but it’s pretty safe.’

‘You excel in carpentry?’ inquired Samad, searching once again for more good reasons to commit a bad sin. ‘An artisan as well as a musician?’

‘No, no, no – I went to a few night classes – nothing special. I made that and a foot stool, and the foot stool broke. I’m no – do you know I can’t think of a single carpenter!’

‘There is always Jesus.’

‘But I can’t very well say “I’m no Jesus”… I mean, obviously I’m not, but for other reasons.’

Samad took his wobbly seat as Poppy Burt-Jones went to sit behind her desk. ‘Meaning you are not a good person?’

Samad saw that he had flustered her with the accidental solemnity of the question; she drew her fingers through her fringe, fiddled with a small tortoiseshell button on her blouse, laughed shakily. ‘I like to think I’m not all bad.’

‘And that is enough?’

‘Well… I…’

‘Oh my dear, I apologize…’ began Samad. ‘I was not being serious, Miss Burt-Jones.’

‘Well… Let’s say I’m no Mr Chippendale – that’ll do.’

‘Yes,’ said Samad kindly, thinking to himself that she had far better legs than a Queen Anne chair, ‘that will do.’

‘Now: where were we?’

Samad leant a little over the desk, to face her. ‘Were we somewhere, Miss Burt-Jones?’

(He used his eyes; he remembered people used to say that it was his eyes – that new boy in Delhi, Samad Miah, they said, he has eyes to die for.)

‘I was looking – looking – I was looking for my notes – where are my notes?’

She began rifling through the catastrophe of her desk, and Samad leant back once more on his stool, taking what little satisfaction he could from the fact that her fingers, if he was not mistaken, appeared to be trembling. Had there been a moment, just then? He was fifty-seven – it was a good ten years since he’d had a moment – he was not at all sure he would recognize a moment if one came along. You old man, he told himself as he dabbed at his face with a handkerchief, you old fool. Leave now – leave before you drown in your own guilty excrescence (for he was sweating like a pig), leave before you make it worse. But was it possible? Was it possible that this past month – the month that he had been squeezing and spilling, praying and begging, making deals and thinking, thinking always about her – that she had been thinking of him?

‘Oh! While I’m looking… I remember there was something I wanted to ask you.’

Yes! said the anthropomorphized voice that had taken up residence in Samad’s right testicle. Whatever the question the answer is yes yes yes. Yes, we will make love upon this very table, yes, we will burn for it, and yes, Miss Burt-Jones, yes, the answer is inevitably, inescapably, YES. Yet somehow, out there where conversation continued, in the rational world four feet above his ball-bag, the answer turned out to be – ‘Wednesday.’

Poppy laughed. ‘No, I don’t mean what day it is – I don’t look that ditsy do I? No, I meant what day is it; I mean, for Muslims. Only I saw Magid was in some kind of costume, and when I asked him what it was for he wouldn’t speak. I was terribly worried that I’d offended him somehow.’

Samad frowned. It is odious to be reminded of one’s children when one is calculating the exact shade and rigidity of a nipple that could so assert itself through bra and shirt.

‘Magid? Please do not worry yourself about Magid. I am sure he was not offended.’

‘So I was right,’ said Poppy gleefully. ‘Is it like a type of, I don’t know, vocal fasting?’

‘Er… yes, yes,’ stumbled Samad, not wishing to divulge his family dilemma, ‘it is a symbol of the Qur’ān’s… assertion that the day of reckoning would first strike us all unconscious. Silent, you see. So, so, so the eldest son of the family dresses in black and, umm, disdains speech for a… a period of… of time as a process of – of purification.’

Dear God.

‘I see. That’s just fascinating. And Magid is the elder?’

‘By two minutes.’

Poppy smiled. ‘Only just, then.’

‘Two minutes,’ said Samad patiently, because he was speaking to one with no knowledge of the impact such small periods of time had amounted to throughout the history of the Iqbal family, ‘made all the difference.’

‘And does the process have a name?’

Amar durbol lagche.’

‘What does it mean?’

Literal translation: I feel weak. It means, Miss Burt-Jones, that every strand of me feels weakened by the desire to kiss you.

‘It means,’ said Samad aloud, without missing a beat, ‘closed-mouth worship of the Creator.’

Amar durbol lagche. Wow,’ said Poppy Burt-Jones.

‘Indeed,’ said Samad Miah.

Poppy Burt-Jones leant forward in her chair. ‘I don’t know… To me, it’s just like this incredible act of self-control. We just don’t have that in the West – that sense of sacrifice – I just have so much admiration for the sense your people have of abstinence, of self-restraint.’

At which point Samad kicked the stool from under him like a man hanging himself, and met the loquacious lips of Poppy Burt-Jones with his own feverish pair.

7 Molars

And the sins of the Eastern father shall be visited upon the Western sons. Often taking their time, stored up in the genes like baldness or testicular carcinoma, but sometimes on the very same day. Sometimes at the very same moment. At least, that would explain how two weeks later, during the old Druid festival of harvest, Samad can be found quietly packing the one shirt he’s never worn to mosque (To the pure all things are pure) into a plastic bag, so that he might change later and meet Miss Burt-Jones (4.30, Harlesden Clock) without arousing suspicion… while Magid and a change-of-heart Millat slip only four cans of past-their-sell-by-date chickpeas, a bag of variety crisps and some apples into two rucksacks (Can’t say fairer than that), in preparation for a meeting with Irie (4.30, ice-cream van) and a visit to their assigned old man, the one to whom they will offer pagan charity, one Mr J. P. Hamilton of Kensal Rise.

Unbeknownst to all involved, ancient ley-lines run underneath these two journeys – or, to put it in the modern parlance, this is a rerun. We have been here before. This is like watching TV in Bombay or Kingston or Dhaka, watching the same old British sitcoms spewed out to the old colonies in one tedious, eternal loop. Because immigrants have always been particularly prone to repetition – it’s something to do with that experience of moving from West to East or East to West or from island to island. Even when you arrive, you’re still going back and forth; your children are going round and round. There’s no proper term for it – original sin seems too harsh; maybe original trauma would be better. A trauma is something one repeats and repeats, after all, and this is the tragedy of the Iqbals – that they can’t help but re-enact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign. It will take a few replays before they move on to the next tune. And this is what is happening as Alsana sews loudly on her monstrous Singer machine, double-stitching around the vacancy of a crotchless knicker, oblivious to the father and the sons who are creeping around the house, packing clothes, packing provisions. It is a visitation of repetition. It is a dash across continents. It is a rerun. But one at a time, now, one at a time…

Now, how do the young prepare to meet the old? The same way the old prepare to meet the young: with a little condescension; with low expectation of the other’s rationality; with the knowledge that the other will find what they say hard to understand, that it will go beyond them (not so much over the head as between the legs); and with the feeling that they must arrive with something the other will like, something suitable. Like Garibaldi biscuits.

‘They like them,’ explained Irie when the twins queried her choice, as the three of them rumbled to their destination on the top of the 52 bus, ‘they like the raisins in them. Old people like raisins.’

Millat, from under the cocoon of his Tomytronic, sniffed, ‘Nobody likes raisins. Dead grapes – bleurgh. Who wants to eat them?’

Old people do,’ Irie insisted, stuffing the biscuits back into her bag. ‘And they’re not dead, akchully, they’re dried.’

‘Yeah, after they’ve died.’

‘Shut up, Millat. Magid, tell him to shut up!’

Magid pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose and diplomatically changed the subject. ‘What else have you got?’

Irie reached into her bag. ‘A coconut.’

‘A coconut!’

‘For your information,’ snapped Irie, moving the nut out of Millat’s reach, ‘old people like coconuts. They can use the milk for their tea.’

Irie pressed on in the face of Millat retching. ‘And I got some crusty French bread and some cheese-singlets and some apples-’

‘We got apples, you chief,’ cut in Millat, ‘chief’, for some inexplicable reason hidden in the etymology of North London slang, meaning fool, arse, wanker, a loser of the most colossal proportions.

‘Well, I got some more and better apples, akchully, and some Kendal mint cake and some ackee and saltfish.’

‘I hate ackee and saltfish.’

‘Who said you were eating it?’

‘I don’t want to.’

‘Well, you’re not going to.’

‘Well, good, ’cos I don’t want to.’

‘Well, good, ’cos I wouldn’t let you even if you wanted to.’

‘Well, that’s lucky ’cos I don’t. So shame,’ said Millat; and, without removing his Tomytronic, he delivered shame, as was traditionally the way, by dragging his palm along Irie’s forehead. ‘Shame in the brain.’

‘Well, akchully, don’t worry ’cos you’re not going to get it-’

‘Oooh, feel the heat, feel the heat!’ squealed Magid, rubbing his little palm in. ‘You been shamed, man!’

Akchully, I’m not shamed, you’re shamed ’cos it’s for Mr J. P. Hamilton-’

‘Our stop!’ cried Magid, shooting to his feet and pulling the bell cord too many times.

If you ask me,’ said one disgruntled OAP to another, ‘they should all go back to their own…’

But this, the oldest sentence in the world, found itself stifled by the ringing of bells and the stamping of feet, until it retreated under the seats with the chewing gum.

‘Shame, shame, know your name,’ trilled Magid. The three of them hurtled down the stairs and off the bus.

And the 52 bus goes two ways. From the Willesden kaleidoscope, one can catch it west like the children; through Kensal Rise, to Portobello, to Knightsbridge, and watch the many colours shade off into the bright white lights of town; or you can get it east, as Samad did; Willesden, Dollis Hill, Harlesden, and watch with dread (if you are fearful like Samad, if all you have learnt from the city is to cross the road at the sight of dark-skinned men) as white fades to yellow fades to brown, and then Harlesden Clock comes into view, standing like Queen Victoria’s statue in Kingston – a tall stone surrounded by black.

Samad had been surprised, yes surprised, that it was Harlesden she had whispered to him when he pressed her hand after the kiss – that kiss he could still taste – and demanded where it was he might find her, away from here, far from here (‘My children, my wife,’ he had mumbled, incoherent); expecting ‘Islington’ or maybe ‘West Hampstead’ or at least ‘Swiss Cottage’ and getting instead, ‘Harlesden. I live in Harlesden.’

‘Stonebridge Estate?’ Samad had asked, alarmed; wide-eyed at the creative ways Allah found to punish him, envisioning himself atop his new lover with a gangster’s four-inch knife in his back.

‘No – but not far from there. Do you want to meet up?’

Samad’s mouth had been the lone gunman on the grassy knoll that day, killing off his brain and swearing itself into power all at the same time.

‘Yes. Oh, dammit! Yes.’

And then he had kissed her again, turning something relatively chaste into something else, cupping her breast in his left hand and enjoying her sharp intake of breath as he did so.

Then they had the short, obligatory exchange that those who cheat have to make them feel less like those who cheat.

‘I really shouldn’t-’

‘I’m not at all sure how this-’

‘Well, we need to meet at least to discuss what has-’

‘Indeed, what has happened, it must be discu-’

‘Because something has happened here, but-’

‘My wife… my children…’

‘Let’s give it some time… two weeks Wednesday? 4.30? Harlesden Clock?’

He could at least, in this sordid mess, congratulate himself on his timing: 4.15 by the time he got off the bus, which left five minutes to nip into the McDonald’s toilets (that had black guards on the door, black guards to keep out the blacks) and squeeze out of the restaurant flares into a dark blue suit, with a wool V-neck and a grey shirt, the pocket of which contained a comb to work his thick hair into some obedient form. By which time it was 4.20, five minutes in which to visit cousin Hakim and his wife Zinat who ran the local £1 + 50p shop (a type of shop that trades under the false premise that it sells no items above this price but on closer inspection proves to be the minimum price of the stock) and whom he meant inadvertently to provide him with an alibi.

‘Samad Miah, oh! So smart-looking today – it cannot be without a reason.’

Zinat Mahal: a mouth as large as the Blackwall Tunnel and Samad was relying upon it.

‘Thank you, Zinat,’ said Samad, looking deliberately disingenuous. ‘As for a reason… I am not sure that I should say.’

‘Samad! My mouth is like the grave! Whatever is told to me dies with me.’

Whatever was told to Zinat invariably lit up the telephone network, rebounded off aerials, radiowaves and satellites along the way, picked up finally by advanced alien civilizations as it bounced through the atmosphere of planets far removed from this one.

‘Well, the truth is…’

‘By Allah, get on with it!’ cried Zinat, who was now almost on the other side of the counter, such was her delight in gossip. ‘Where are you off to?’

‘Well… I am off to see a man in Park Royal about life insurance. I want my Alsana well provided for after my death – but!’ he said, waggling a finger at his sparkling, jewel-covered interrogator who wore too much eyeshadow, ‘I don’t want her to know! Thoughts of death are abhorrent to her, Zinat.’

‘Do you hear that, Hakim? Some men worry about the future of their wives! Go on – get out of here, don’t let me keep you, cousin. And don’t worry,’ she called after him, simultaneously reaching for the phone with her long curling fingernails, ‘I won’t say one word to Alsi.’

Alibi done, three minutes were left for Samad to consider what an old man brings a young girl; something an old brown man brings a young white girl at the crossroads of four black streets; something suitable…

‘A coconut?’

Poppy Burt-Jones took the hairy object into her hands and looked up at Samad with a perplexed smile.

‘It is a mixed-up thing,’ began Samad nervously. ‘With juice like a fruit but hard like a nut. Brown and old on the outside, white and fresh on the inside. But the mix is not, I think, bad. We use it sometimes,’ he added, not knowing what else to say, ‘in curry.’

Poppy smiled; a terrific smile which accentuated every natural beauty of that face and had in it, Samad thought, something better than this, something with no shame in it, something better and purer than what they were doing.

‘It’s lovely,’ she said.

Out in the street and five minutes from the address on their school sheets, Irie still felt the irritable hot sting of shame and wanted a rematch.

‘Tax that,’ she said, pointing to a rather beat-up motorbike leaning by Kensal Rise tube. ‘Tax that, and that,’ indicating two BMXs beside it.

Millat and Magid jumped into action. The practice of ‘taxing’ something, whereby one lays claims, like a newly arrived colonizer, to items in a street that do not belong to you, was well known and beloved to both of them.

Cha, man! Believe, I don’t want to tax dat crap,’ said Millat with the Jamaican accent that all kids, whatever their nationality, used to express scorn. ‘I tax dat,’ he said, pointing out an admittedly impressive small, shiny, red MG about to turn the corner. ‘And dat!’ he cried, getting there just before Magid as a BMW whizzed past. ‘Man, you know I tax that,’ he said to Magid, who offered no dispute. ‘Blatantly.’

Irie, a little dejected by this turn of events, turned her eyes from the road to the floor, where she was suddenly struck by a flash of inspiration.

‘I tax those!’

Magid and Millat stopped and looked in awe at the perfectly white Nikes that were now in Irie’s possession (with one red tick, one blue; so beautiful, as Millat later remarked, it made you want to kill yourself), though to the naked eye they appeared to be walking towards Queens Park attached to a tall natty-dread black kid.

Millat nodded grudgingly. ‘Respect to that. I wish I’d seed dem.’

‘Tax!’ said Magid suddenly, pushing his grubby finger up against some shop glass in the direction of a four-foot-long chemistry set with an ageing TV personality’s face on the front.

He thumped the window. ‘Wow! I tax that!’

A brief silence ensued.

‘You tax that?’ asked Millat, incredulous. ‘That? You tax a chemistry set?’

Before poor Magid knew where he was, two palms had made a ferocious slap on his forehead, and were doing much rubbing for good measure. Magid gave Irie an et tu Brute type of pleading look, in the full knowledge that it was useless. There is no honesty amongst almost-ten-year-olds.

Shame! Shame! Know your name!’

‘But Mr J. P. Hamilton,’ moaned Magid from under the heat of shame. ‘We’re here now. His house is just there. It’s a quiet street, you can’t make all this noise. He’s old.’

‘But if he’s old, he’ll be deaf,’ reasoned Millat. ‘And if you’re deaf you can’t hear.’

‘It doesn’t work like that. It’s hard for old people. You don’t understand.’

‘He’s probably too old to take the stuff out of the bags,’ said Irie. ‘We should take them out and carry them in our hands.’

This was agreed upon, and some time was taken arranging all the foodstuffs in the hands and crevices of the body, so that they might ‘surprise’ Mr J. P. Hamilton with the extent of their charity when he answered the door. Mr J. P. Hamilton, confronted on his doorstep by three dark-skinned children clutching a myriad of projectiles, was duly surprised. As old as they had imagined but far taller and cleaner, he opened the door only slightly, keeping his hand, with its mountain range of blue veins, upon the knob, while his head curled around the frame. To Irie he was reminiscent of some genteel elderly eagle: tufts of feather-like hair protruded from ear drums, shirt cuffs and the neck, with one white spray falling over his forehead, his fingers lay in a permanent tight spasm like talons, and he was well dressed, as one might expect of an elderly English bird in Wonderland – a suede waistcoat and a tweed jacket, and a watch on a gold chain.

And twinkling like a magpie, from the blue scattering in his eyes undimmed by the white and red surround, to the gleam of a signet ring, four argent medals perched just above his heart, and the silver rim of a Senior Service packet peeping over the breast pocket.

‘Please,’ came the voice from the bird-man, a voice that even the children sensed was from a different class, a different era. ‘I must ask that you remove yourselves from my doorstep. I have no money whatsoever; so be your intention robbing or selling I’m afraid you will be disappointed.’

Magid stepped forward, trying to place himself in the old man’s eyeline, for the left eye, blue as Rayleigh scattering, had looked beyond them, while the right was so compacted beneath wrinkles it hardly opened. ‘Mr Hamilton, don’t you remember, the school sent us, these are-’

He said, ‘Goodbye, now,’ as if he were bidding farewell to an elderly aunt embarking on a train journey, then once more ‘Goodbye’, and through two panels of cheap stained-glass on the closed door the children watched the lengthy figure of Mr Hamilton, blurred as if by heat, walking slowly away from them down a corridor until the brown flecks of him merged with the brown flecks of the household furnishings and the former all but disappeared.

Millat pulled his Tomytronic down around his neck, frowned, and purposefully slammed his little fist into the doorbell, holding it down.

‘Maybe,’ suggested Irie, ‘he doesn’t want the stuff.’

Millat released the doorbell briefly. ‘He’s got to want it. He asked for it,’ he growled, pushing the bell back down with his full force. ‘ ’SGod’s harvest, innit? Mr Hamilton! Mr J. P. Hamilton!’

And then that slow process of disappearance began to rewind as he reconstituted himself via the atoms of a staircase and a dresser until he was large as life once more, curled around the door.

Millat, lacking patience, thrust his school information sheet into his hand. ‘ ’SGod’s harvest.’

But the old man shook his head like a bird in a bird-bath. ‘No, no, I really won’t be intimidated into purchases on my own doorstep. I don’t know what you are selling – please God let it not be encyclopedias – at my age it is not more information one requires but less.’

‘But it’s free!’

‘Oh… yes, I see… why?’

‘ ’SGod’s harvest,’ repeated Magid.

‘Helping the local community. Mr Hamilton, you must have spoken to our teacher, because she sent us here. Maybe it slipped your mind,’ added Irie in her grown-up voice.

Mr Hamilton touched his temple sadly as if to retrieve the memory and then ever so slowly opened his front door to full tilt and made a pigeon-step forward into the autumn sunlight. ‘Well… you’d better come in.’

They followed Mr Hamilton into the town house gloom of his hall. Filled to the brim with battered and chipped Victoriana punctuated by signs of more recent life – children’s broken bikes, a discarded Speak-and-Spell, four pairs of muddy wellies in a family’s variant sizes.

‘Now,’ he said cheerily, as they reached the living room with its beautiful bay windows through which a sweeping garden could be seen, ‘what have we got here?’

The children released their load on to a moth-eaten chaise longue, Magid reeling off the contents like items from a shopping list, while Mr Hamilton lit a cigarette and inspected the urban picnic with doddering fingers.

‘Apples… oh, dear me, no… chickpeas… no, no, no, potato-chips…’

It went on like this, each article being picked up in its turn and chastised, until the old man looked up at them with faint tears in his eyes. ‘I can’t eat any of this, you see… too hard, too bloody hard. The most I could manage is probably the milk in that coconut. Still… we will have tea, won’t we? You’ll stay for tea?’

The children looked at him blankly.

‘Go on, my dears, do sit down.’

Irie, Magid and Millat shuffled up nervously on the chaise longue. Then there was a click-clack sound and when they looked up Mr Hamilton’s teeth were on his tongue, as if a second mouth had come out of the first. And then in a flash they were back in.

‘I simply cannot eat anything unless it has been pulverized beforehand, you see. My own fault. Years and years of neglect. Clean teeth – never a priority in the army.’ He signalled himself clumsily, an awkward jab at his own chest with a shaking hand. ‘I was an army man, you see. Now: how many times do you young people brush your teeth?’

‘Three times a day,’ said Irie, lying.

‘LIAR!’ chorused Millat and Magid. ‘PANTS ON FIRE!’

‘Two and a half times.’

‘Well, dear me, which is it?’ said Mr Hamilton, smoothing down his trousers with one hand and lifting his tea with the other.

‘Once a day,’ said Irie sheepishly, the concern in his voice compelling her to tell the truth. ‘Most days.’

‘I fear you will come to regret that. And you two?’

Magid was midway through formulating some elaborate fantasy of a toothbrush machine that did it while you slept, but Millat came clean. ‘Same. Once a day. More or less.’

Mr Hamilton leant back contemplatively in his chair. ‘One sometimes forgets the significance of one’s teeth. We’re not like the lower animals – teeth replaced regularly and all that – we’re of the mammals, you see. And mammals only get two chances, with teeth. More sugar?’

The children, mindful of their two chances, declined.

‘But like all things, the business has two sides. Clean white teeth are not always wise, now are they? Par exemplum: when I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth, if you see what I mean. Horrid business. Dark as buggery, it was. And they died because of it, you see? Poor bastards. Or rather I survived, to look at it in another way, do you see?’

The children sat silently. And then Irie began to cry, ever so quietly.

Mr Hamilton continued, ‘Those are the split decisions you make in war. See a flash of white and bang! as it were… Dark as buggery. Terrible times. All these beautiful boys lying dead there, right in front of me, right at my feet. Stomachs open, you know, with their guts on my shoes. Like the end of the bloody world. Beautiful men, enlisted by the Krauts, black as the ace of spades; poor fools didn’t even know why they were there, what people they were fighting for, who they were shooting at. The decision of the gun. So quick, children. So brutal. Biscuit?’

‘I want to go home,’ whispered Irie.

‘My dad was in the war. He played for England,’ piped up Millat, red-faced and furious.

‘Well, boy, do you mean the football team or the army?’

‘The British army. He drove a tank. A Mr Churchill. With her dad,’ explained Magid.

‘I’m afraid you must be mistaken,’ said Mr Hamilton, genteel as ever. ‘There were certainly no wogs as I remember – though you’re probably not allowed to say that these days are you? But no… no Pakistanis… what would we have fed them? No, no,’ he grumbled, assessing the question as if he were being given the opportunity to rewrite history here and now. ‘Quite out of the question. I could not possibly have stomached that rich food. No Pakistanis. The Pakistanis would have been in the Pakistani army, you see, whatever that was. As for the poor Brits, they had enough on their hands with us old Queens…’

Mr Hamilton laughed softly to himself, turned his head and silently admired the roaming branches of a cherry tree that dominated one whole corner of his garden. After a long pause he turned back and tears were visible in his eyes again – fast, sharp tears as if he had been slapped in the face. ‘Now, you young men shouldn’t tell fibs should you? Fibs will rot your teeth.’

‘It’s not a lie, Mr J. P. Hamilton, he really was,’ said Magid, always the peace-maker, always the negotiator. ‘He was shot in the hand. He has medals. He was a hero.’

‘And when your teeth rot-’

‘It’s the truth!’ shouted Millat, kicking over the tea-tray that sat on the floor between them. ‘You stupid fucking old man.’

‘And when your teeth rot,’ continued Mr Hamilton, smiling at the ceiling, ‘aaah, there’s no return. They won’t look at you like they used to. The pretty ones won’t give you a second glance, not for love or money. But while you’re still young, the important matter is the third molars. They are more commonly referred to as the wisdom teeth, I believe. You simply must deal with the third molars before anything else. That was my downfall. You won’t have them yet, but my great-grandchildren are just feeling them now. The problem with third molars is one is never sure whether one’s mouth will be quite large enough to accommodate them. They are the only part of the body that a man must grow into. He must be a big enough man for these teeth, do you see? Because if not – oh dear me, they grow crooked or any which way, or refuse to grow at all. They stay locked up there with the bone – an impaction, I believe, is the term – and terrible, terrible infection ensues. Have them out early, that’s what I tell my granddaughter Jocelyn in regard to her sons. You simply must. You can’t fight against it. I wish I had. I wish I’d given up early and hedged my bets, as it were. Because they’re your father’s teeth, you see, wisdom teeth are passed down by the father, I’m certain of it. So you must be big enough for them. God knows, I wasn’t big enough for mine… Have them out and brush three times a day, if my advice means anything.’

By the time Mr J. P. Hamilton looked down to see whether his advice meant anything, his three dun-coloured visitors had already disappeared, taking with them the bag of apples (apples he had been contemplating asking Jocelyn to put through the food processor); tripping over themselves, running to get to a green space, to get to one of the lungs of the city, some place where free breathing was possible.

Now, the children knew the city. And they knew the city breeds the Mad. They knew Mr White-Face, an Indian who walks the streets of Willesden with his face painted white, his lips painted blue, wearing a pair of tights and some hiking boots; they knew Mr Newspaper, a tall skinny man in an ankle-length raincoat who sits in Brent libraries removing the day’s newspapers from his briefcase and methodically tearing them into strips; they knew Mad Mary, a black voodoo woman with a red face whose territory stretches from Kilburn to Oxford Street but who performs her spells from a bin in West Hampstead; they knew Mr Toupee, who has no eyebrows and wears a toupee not on his head but on a string around his neck. But these people announced their madness – they were better, less scary than Mr J. P. Hamilton – they flaunted their insanity, they weren’t half mad and half not, curled around a door frame. They were properly mad in the Shakespearean sense, talking sense when you least expected it. In North London, where councillors once voted to change the name of the area to Nirvana, it is not unusual to walk the streets and be suddenly confronted by sage words from the chalk-faced, blue-lipped or eyebrowless. From across the street or from the other end of a tube carriage they will use their schizophrenic talent for seeing connections in the random (for discerning the whole world in a grain of sand, for deriving narrative from nothing) to riddle you, to rhyme you, to strip you down, to tell you who you are and where you’re going (usually Baker Street – the great majority of modern-day seers travel the Metropolitan Line) and why. But as a city we are not appreciative of these people. Our gut instinct is that they intend to embarrass us, that they’re out to shame us somehow as they lurch down the train aisle, bulbous-eyed and with carbuncled nose, preparing to ask us, inevitably, what we are looking at. What the fuck are we looking at. As a kind of pre-emptive defence mechanism, Londoners have learnt not to look, never to look, to avoid eyes at all times so that the dreaded question ‘What you looking at?’ and its pitiful, gutless, useless answer – ‘Nothing’ – might be avoided. But as the prey evolves (and we are prey to the Mad who are pursuing us, desperate to impart their own brand of truth to the hapless commuter) so does the hunter, and the true professionals begin to tire of that old catchphrase ‘What you looking at?’ and move into more exotic territory. Take Mad Mary. Oh, the principle’s still the same, it’s still all about eye contact and the danger of making it, but now she’s making eye contact from a hundred, two hundred, even three hundred yards away, and if she catches you doing the same she roars down the street, dreads and feathers and cape afloat, Hoodoo stick in hand, until she gets to where you are, spits on you, and begins. Samad knew all of this – they’d had dealings before, he and red-faced Mad Mary; he’d even suffered the misfortune of having her sit next to him on a bus. Any other day and Samad would have given her as good as he got. But today he was feeling guilty and vulnerable, today he was holding Poppy’s hand as the sun crept away; he could not face Mad Mary and her vicious truth-telling, her ugly madness – which of course was precisely why she was stalking him, quite deliberately stalking him down Church Road.

‘For your own safety, don’t look,’ said Samad. ‘Just keep on walking in a straight line. I had no idea she travelled this far into Harlesden.’

Poppy snatched the quickest glance at the multicoloured streaming flash galloping down the high street on an imaginary horse.

She laughed. ‘Who is that?’

Samad quickened the pace. ‘She is Mad Mary. And she is not remotely funny. She is dangerous.’

‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous. Just because she’s homeless and has mental health… difficulties, doesn’t mean she wants to hurt anyone. Poor woman, can you imagine what must have happened in her life to make her like that?’

Samad sighed. ‘First of all, she is not homeless. She has stolen every wheelie bin in West Hampstead and has built quite a significant structure out of them in Fortune Green. And secondly she is not a “poor woman”. Everyone is terrified of her, from the council downwards, she receives free food from every cornershop in North London ever since she cursed the Ramchandra place and business collapsed within the month.’ Samad’s portly figure was working up quite a sweat now, as he shifted another gear in response to Mad Mary doing the same on the other side of the street.

Breathless, he whispered, ‘And she doesn’t like white people.’

Poppy’s eyes widened. ‘Really?’ she said, as if such an idea had never occurred to her, and turned round to make the fatal mistake of looking. In a second, Mad Mary was upon them.

A thick globule of spit hit Samad directly between his eyes, on the bridge of his nose. He wiped it away, pulled Poppy to him and tried to sidestep Mad Mary by ducking into the courtyard of St Andrew’s Church, but the Hoodoo stick slammed down in front of them both, marking a line in the pebbles and dust that could not be crossed over.

She spoke slowly, and with such a menacing scowl that the left side of her face seemed paralysed. ‘You… lookin’… at… some… ting?’

Poppy managed a squeak, ‘No!’

Mad Mary whacked Poppy’s calf with the Hoodoo stick and turned to Samad. ‘You, sir! You… lookin’… at… some… ting?’

Samad shook his head.

Suddenly she was screaming. ‘BLACK MAN! DEM BLOCK YOU EVERYWHERE YOU TURN!’

‘Please,’ stuttered Poppy, clearly terrified. ‘We don’t want any trouble.’

‘BLACK MAN!’ (She liked to speak in rhyming couplets.) ‘DE BITCH SHE WISH TO SEE YOU BURN!’

‘We are minding our own business – ’ began Samad, but he was stopped by a second projectile of phlegm, this time hitting him on the cheek.

Tru hill and gully, dem follow you dem follow you, Tru hill and gully, de devil swallow you ’im swallow you.’ This was delivered in a kind of singing stage-whisper, accompanied by a dance from side to side, arms outstretched and Hoodoo stick resting firmly underneath Poppy Burt-Jones’s chin.

What ’as dem ever done for us body bot kill us and enslave us? What ’as dem done for our minds bot hurt us an’ enrage us? What’s de pollution?’

Mad Mary lifted Poppy’s chin with her stick and asked again, ‘WHAT’S DE POLLUTION?’

Poppy was weeping. ‘Please… I don’t know what you want me to-’

Mad Mary sucked her teeth and turned her attention once more to Samad. ‘WHAT’S DE SOLUTION?’

‘I don’t know.’

Mad Mary slapped him around the ankles with her stick. ‘WHAT’S DE SOLUTION, BLACK MAN?’

Mad Mary was a beautiful, a striking woman: a noble forehead, a prominent nose, ageless midnight skin and a long neck that Queens can only dream about. But it was her alarming eyes, which shot out an anger on the brink of total collapse, that Samad was concentrated on, because he saw that they were speaking to him and him alone. Poppy had nothing to do with this. Mad Mary was looking at him with recognition. Mad Mary had spotted a fellow traveller. She had spotted the madman in him (which is to say, the prophet); he felt sure she had spotted the angry man, the masturbating man, the man stranded in the desert far from his sons, the foreign man in a foreign land caught between borders… the man who, if you push him far enough, will suddenly see sense. Why else had she picked him from a street full of people? Simply because she recognized him. Simply because they were from the same place, he and Mad Mary, which is to say: far away.

‘Satyagraha,’ said Samad, surprising himself with his own calmness.

Mad Mary, unused to having her interrogations answered, looked at him in astonishment. ‘WHAT’S DE SOLUTION?’

‘Satyagraha. It is Sanskrit for “truth and firmness”. Gandhi-gee’s word. You see, he did not like “passive resistance” or “civil disobedience”.’

Mad Mary was beginning to twitch and swear compulsively under her breath, but Samad sensed that in some way this was Mad Mary listening, this was Mad Mary’s mind trying to process words other than her own.

‘Those words weren’t big enough for him. He wanted to show what we call weakness to be a strength. He understood that sometimes not to act is a man’s greatest triumph. He was a Hindu. I am a Muslim. My friend here is-’

‘A Roman Catholic,’ said Poppy shakily. ‘Lapsed.’

‘And you are?’ began Samad.

Mad Mary said cunt, bitch, rhasclaat several times and spat on the floor, which Samad took as a sign of cooling hostilities.

‘What I am trying to say…’

Samad looked at the small group of Methodists who, hearing the noise, had begun to gather nervously at the door of St Andrew’s. He grew confident. There had always been a manqué preacher in Samad. A know-it-all, a walker-and-a-talker. With a small audience and a lot of fresh air he had always been able to convince himself that all the knowledge in the universe, all the knowledge on walls, was his.

‘I am trying to say that life is a broad church, is it not?’ He pointed to the ugly red-brick building full of its quivering believers. ‘With wide aisles.’ He pointed to the smelly bustle of black, white, brown and yellow shuffling up and down the high street. To the albino woman who stood outside the Cash and Carry, selling daisies picked from the churchyard. ‘Which my friend and I would like to continue walking along if it is all right with you. Believe me, I understand your concerns,’ said Samad, taking his inspiration now from that other great North London street-preacher, Ken Livingstone, ‘I am having difficulties myself – we are all having difficulties in this country, this country which is new to us and old to us all at the same time. We are divided people, aren’t we.’

And here Samad did what no one had done to Mad Mary for well over fifteen years: he touched her. Very lightly, on the shoulder.

‘We are split people. For myself, half of me wishes to sit quietly with my legs crossed, letting the things that are beyond my control wash over me. But the other half wants to fight the holy war. Jihad! And certainly we could argue this out in the street, but I think, in the end, your past is not my past and your truth is not my truth and your solution – it is not my solution. So I do not know what it is you would like me to say. Truth and firmness is one suggestion, though there are many other people you can ask if that answer does not satisfy. Personally, my hope lies in the last days. The prophet Muhammad – peace be upon Him! – tells us that on the Day of Resurrection everyone will be struck unconscious. Deaf and dumb. No chit-chat. Tongueless. And what a bloody relief that will be. Now, if you will excuse me.’

Samad took Poppy firmly by the hand and walked on, while Mad Mary stood dumbstruck only briefly before rushing to the church door and spraying saliva upon the congregation.

Poppy wiped away a frightened tear and sighed.

She said, ‘Calm in a crisis. Impressive.’

Samad, increasingly given to visions, saw that great-grandfather of his, Mangal Pande, flailing with a musket; fighting against the new, holding on to tradition.

‘It runs in the family,’ he said.

Later, Samad and Poppy walked up through Harlesden, around Dollis Hill, and then, when it seemed they were hovering too near to Willesden, Samad waited till the sun went down, bought a box of sticky Indian sweets and turned into Roundwood Park; admired the last of the flowers. He talked and talked, the kind of talking you do to stave off the inevitable physical desire, the kind of talking that only increases it. He told her about Delhi circa 1942, she told him about St Albans circa 1972. She complained about a long list of entirely unsuitable boyfriends, and Samad, not able to criticize Alsana or even mention her name, spoke of his children: fear of Millat’s passion for obscenities and a noisy TV show about an A-team; worries about whether Magid got enough direct sunlight. What was the country doing to his sons, he wanted to know, what was it doing?

‘I like you,’ she said finally. ‘A lot. You’re very funny. Do you know that you’re funny?’

Samad smiled and shook his head. ‘I have never thought of myself as a great comic wit.’

‘No – you are funny. That thing you said about camels…’ She began to laugh, and her laugh was infectious.

‘What thing?’

‘About camels – when we were walking.’

‘Oh, you mean, “Men are like camels: there is barely one in a hundred that you would trust with your life.” ’

‘Yes!’

‘That’s not comedy, that is the Bukhārī, part eight, page one hundred and thirty,’ said Samad. ‘And it is good advice. I have certainly found it to be true.’

‘Well, it’s still funny.’

She sat closer to him on the bench and kissed his ear. ‘Seriously, I like you.’

‘I’m old enough to be your father. I’m married. I am a Muslim.’

‘OK, so Dateline wouldn’t have matched our forms. So what?’

‘What kind of a phrase is this: “So what?” Is that English? That is not English. Only the immigrants can speak the Queen’s English these days.’

Poppy giggled. ‘I still say: So-’

But Samad covered her mouth with his hand, and looked for a moment almost as if he intended to hit her. ‘So everything. So everything. There is nothing funny about this situation. There is nothing good about it. I do not wish to discuss the rights or wrongs of this with you. Let us stick to what we are obviously here for,’ he spat out. ‘The physical, not the metaphysical.’

Poppy moved to the other end of the bench and leant forward, her elbows resting on her knees. ‘I know,’ she began slowly, ‘that this is no more than it is. But I won’t be spoken to like that.’

‘I am sorry. It was wrong of me-’

‘Just because you feel guilty, I’ve nothing to feel-’

‘Yes, I’m sorry. I have no-’

‘Because you can go if you-’

Half thoughts. Stick them all together and you have less than you began with.

‘I don’t want to go. I want you.’

Poppy brightened a bit and smiled her half-sad, half-goofy smile.

‘I want to spend the night… with you.’

‘Good,’ she replied. ‘Because I bought this for you while you were next door buying those sugary sweets.’

‘What is it?’

She dived into her handbag, and in the attenuated minute in which she scrabbled through lipsticks and car-keys and spare change, two things happened.

1.1 Samad closed his eyes and heard the words To the pure all things are pure and then, almost immediately afterwards, Can’t say fairer than that.

1.2 Samad opened his eyes and saw quite clearly by the bandstand his two sons, their white teeth biting into two waxy apples, waving, smiling.

And then Poppy resurfaced, triumphant, with a piece of red plastic in her hand.

‘A toothbrush,’ she said.

8 Mitosis

The stranger who wanders into O’Connell’s Pool House at random, hoping for the soft rise and fall of his grandfather’s brogue, perhaps, or seeking to rebound a red ball off the side cushion and into the corner pocket, is immediately disappointed to find the place is neither Irish nor a pool house. He will survey the carpeted walls, the reproductions of George Stubbs’s racehorse paintings, the framed fragments of some foreign, Eastern script, with not a little confusion. He will look for a snooker table and find instead a tall, brown man with terrible acne standing behind a counter, frying up eggs and mushrooms. His eye will land with suspicion upon an Irish flag and a map of the Arab Emirates knotted together and hung from wall to wall, partitioning him from the rest of the customers. Then he will become aware of several pairs of eyes upon him, some condescending, some incredulous; the hapless stranger will stumble out, warily, backwards, knocking over the life-size cut-out of Viv Richards as he goes. The customers will laugh. O’Connell’s is no place for strangers.

O’Connell’s is the kind of place family men come to for a different kind of family. Unlike blood relations, it is necessary here to earn one’s position in the community; it takes years of devoted fucking around, time-wasting, laying-about, shooting the breeze, watching paint dry – far more dedication than men invest in the careless moment of procreation. You need to know the place. For example, there are reasons why O’Connell’s is an Irish pool house run by Arabs with no pool tables. And there are reasons why the pustule-covered Mickey will cook you chips, egg and beans, or egg, chips and beans, or beans, chips, eggs and mushrooms but not, under any circumstances, chips, beans, eggs and bacon. But you need to hang around for that kind of information. We’ll get into that later. For now, suffice to say this is Archie’s and Samad’s home from home; for ten years they have come here between six (the time Archie finishes work) and eight (the time Samad starts) to discuss everything from the meaning of Revelation to the prices of plumbers. And women. Hypothetical women. If a woman walked past the yolk-stained window of O’Connell’s (a woman had never been known to venture inside) they would smile and speculate – depending on Samad’s religious sensibilities that evening – on matters as far reaching as whether one would kick her out of bed in a hurry, to the relative merits of stockings or tights, and then on, inevitably, to the great debate: small breasts (that stand up) vs big breasts (that flop to the sides). But there was never any question of real women, real flesh and blood and wet and sticky women. Not until now. And so the unprecedented events of the past few months called for an earlier O’Connell’s summit than usual. Samad had finally phoned Archie and confessed the whole terrible mess: he had cheated, he was cheating; he had been seen by the children and now he was seeing the children, like visions, day and night. Archie had been silent for a bit, and then said, ‘Bloody hell. Four o’clock it is, then. Bloody hell.’ He was like that, Archie. Calm in a crisis.

But come 4.15 and still no sign of him, a desperate Samad had chewed every fingernail he possessed to the cuticle and collapsed on the counter, nose squished up against the hot glass where the battered burgers were kept, eye to eye with a postcard showing the eight different local charms of County Antrim.

Mickey, chef, waiter and proprietor, who prided himself on knowing each customer’s name and knowing when each customer was out of sorts, prised Samad’s face off the hot glass with an egg slice.

‘Oi.’

‘Hello, Mickey, how are you?’

‘Same old, same old. But enough about me. What’s the fucking matter wiv you, mate. Eh? Eh? I’ve been watching you, Sammy, since the minute you stepped in here. Face as long as shit. Tell your uncle Mickey.’

Samad groaned.

‘Oi. No. None of that. You know me. I’m the sympathetic side of the service industry, I’m service with a fucking smile, I’d wear a little red tie and a little red hat like them fuckwits in Mr Burger if my fuckin’ head weren’t so big.’

This was not a metaphor. Mickey had a very large head, almost as if his acne had demanded more room and received planning permission.

‘What’s the problem?’

Samad looked up at Mickey’s big red head.

‘I am just waiting for Archibald, Mickey. Please, do not concern yourself. I will be fine.’

‘ ’Sbit early, innit?’

‘Pardon?’

Mickey checked the clock behind him, the one with the palaeolithic piece of encrusted egg on the dial. ‘I say ’Sbit early, innit? For you and the Archie-boy. Six is when I expect you. One chips, beans, egg and mushroom. And one omelette and mushrooms. With seasonal variations, naturally.’

Samad sighed. ‘We have much to discuss.’

Mickey rolled his eyes. ‘You ain’t starting on that Mangy Pandy whateverthefuckitis again, are you? Who shot who, and who hung who, my grandad ruled the Pakis or whateverthefuckitwas, as if any poor fucker gives a flying fuck. You’re driving the custom away. You’re creating – ’ Mickey flicked through his new bible, Food for Thought: A Guideline for Employers and Employees Working in the Food Service Industry – Customer Strategy and Consumer Relations. ‘You’re creating a repetitive syndrome that puts all these buggers off their culinary experience.’

‘No, no. My great-grandfather is not up for discussion today. We have other business.’

‘Well, thank fuck. Repetitive syndrome is what it is.’ Mickey patted his book, affectionately. ‘ ’Sall in ’ere, mate. Best four ninety-five I ever spent. Talking of moolah, you ’aving a flutter today?’ asked Mickey, signalling downstairs.

‘I am a Muslim, Mickey, I don’t indulge any more.’

‘Well, obviously, yeah, we’re all Brothers – but a man’s gotta live, now. Hasn’t he? I mean, hasn’t he?’

‘I don’t know, Mickey, does he?’

Mickey slapped Samad firmly on the back. ‘ ’Course he does! I was saying to my brother Abdul-’

‘Which Abdul?’

It was a tradition, both in Mickey’s wider and nuclear family, to name all sons Abdul to teach them the vanity of assuming higher status than any other man, which was all very well and good but tended to cause confusion in the formative years. However, children are creative, and all the many Abduls added an English name as a kind of buffer to the first.

‘Abdul-Colin.’

‘Right.’

‘So, you know Abdul-Colin went a bit fundamental – EGGS, BEANS, CHIPS, TOAST – big fucking beard, no pig, no drink, no pussy, the fuckin’ works, mate – there you are, guvnor.’

Abdul-Mickey pushed a plate of festering carbohydrate to a sunken old man whose trousers were so high up his body they were gradually swallowing him whole.

‘Well, where do you think I slap eyes on Abdul-Colin last week? Only in the Mickey Finn, down Harrow Road way, and I says, “Oi, Abdul-Colin, this is a fucking turn-up for the fucking books” and he says, all solemn, you know, all fully bearded, he says-’

‘Mickey, Mickey – do you mind very much if we leave the story for later… it is just that…’

‘No, fine, fine. Wish I knew why the fuck I bother.’

‘If you could possibly tell Archibald I am sitting in the booth behind the pinball when he comes in. Oh, and my usual.’

‘No problemo, mate.’

About ten minutes later the door went and Mickey looked up from Chapter 6, ‘There’s a Fly in My Soup: Dealing with Frameworks of Hostility Regarding Health Issues’, to see Archibald Jones, cheap suitcase in hand, approaching the counter.

‘All right, Arch. How’s the folding business?’

‘Oh, you know. Comme si, comme sar. Samad about?’

‘Is he about? Is he about? He’s been hanging round like a bad fucking smell for half a fucking hour. Face as long as shit. Someone wants to get a Poop-a-Scoop and clean him up.’

Archie put his suitcase on the counter and furrowed his brow. ‘In a bad way, is he? Between you and me, Mickey, I’m really worried about him.’

‘Go tell it to the fucking mountain,’ said Mickey, who had been aggravated by Chapter 6’s assertion that you should rinse plates in piping hot water. ‘Or, alternatively, go to the booth behind the pinball.’

‘Thanks, Mickey. Oh, omelette and-’

‘I know. Mushrooms.’

Archie walked down the lino aisles of O’Connell’s.

‘Hello, Denzel, evening, Clarence.’

Denzel and Clarence were two uniquely rude, foul-mouthed octogenarian Jamaicans. Denzel was impossibly fat, Clarence was horribly thin, their families had both died, they both wore trilbies, and they sat in the corner playing dominoes all the hours that were left to them.

‘What dat bambaclaat say?’

‘ ’Im say evenin’.’

‘Can’t ’im see me playin’ domino?’

‘No man! ’Im ’ave a pussy for a face. How you expec’ ’im to see any little ting?’

Archie took it on the chin as it was meant and slipped into the booth, opposite Samad. ‘I don’t understand,’ said Archie, picking up immediately where their phone conversation had terminated. ‘Are you saying you’re seeing them there in your imagination or you’re seeing them there in real life?’

‘It is really very simple. The first time, the very first time, they were there. But since then Archie, these past few weeks, I see the twins whenever I am with her – like apparitions! Even when we are… I see them there. Smiling at me.’

‘Are you sure you’re not just overworked.’

‘Listen to me, Archie: I see them. It is a sign.’

‘Sam, let’s try and deal with the facts. When they really saw you – what did you do?’

‘What could I do? I said, “Hello, sons. Say hello to Miss Burt-Jones.’

‘And what did they say?’

‘They said hello.’

‘And what did you say?’

‘Archibald, do you think I could simply tell you what occurred without this constant inane interjection?’

‘CHIPS, BEANS, EGG, TOMATO AND MUSHROOM!’

‘Sam, that’s yours.’

‘I resent that accusation. It is not mine. I never order tomato. I do not want some poor peeled tomato boiled to death, then fried to death.’

‘Well, it’s not mine. I asked for omelette.’

‘Well, it is not mine. Now: may I continue?’

‘With pleasure.’

‘I looked at my boys, Archie… I looked at my beautiful boys… and my heart cracked – no, more than this – it shattered. It shattered into so many pieces and each piece stabbed me like a mortal wound. I kept thinking: how can I teach my boys anything, how can I show them the straight road when I have lost my own bearings?’

‘I thought,’ began Archie haltingly, ‘that the problem was the woman. If you really don’t know what to do about her, well… we could flip this coin, heads you stay, tails you go – at least you’d have made a-’

Samad slammed his good fist on the table. ‘I don’t want to flip a bloody coin! Besides, it is too late for that. Can’t you see? What is done is done. I am hell-bound, I see that now. So I must concentrate on saving my sons. I have a choice to make, a choice of morality.’ Samad lowered his voice, and even before he spoke Archie knew to what he was about to refer. ‘You have made hard choices yourself, Archie, many years ago. You hide it well, but I know you have not forgotten what it is like. You have a bit of bullet in the leg to prove it. You struggled with him. You won out. I have not forgotten. I have always admired you because of it, Archibald.’

Archie looked at the floor. ‘I’d rather not-’

‘Believe me, I take no pleasure from dragging up that which is distasteful to you, my friend. But I am just trying to make you understand my situation. Then, as now, the question is always: What kind of a world do I want my children to grow up in? You took action on that matter once. And now it is my turn.’

Archie, making no more sense of Samad’s speeches than he had forty years ago, played with a toothpick for a moment.

‘Well… why don’t you just stop, well, seeing her.’

‘I try… I try.’

‘That good is it?’

‘No, well, that is not strictly… what I mean to say is, it is nice, yes… but it is not debauched… we kiss, we embrace.’

‘But no-’

‘Not strictly speaking, no.’

‘But some-’

‘Archibald, are you concerned about my sons or my sperm?’

‘Sons,’ said Archie. ‘Definitely sons.’

‘Because there is rebellion in them, Archie. I can see it – it is small now but it is growing. I tell you, I don’t know what is happening to our children in this country. Everywhere you look, it is the same. Last week, Zinat’s son was found smoking marijuana. Like a Jamaican!’

Archie raised his eyebrows.

‘Oh, I meant no offence, Archibald.’

‘None taken, mate. But you shouldn’t judge before you’ve tried it. Being married to a Jamaican has done wonders for my arthritis. But that’s by the by. Carry on.’

‘Well, take Alsana’s sisters – all their children are nothing but trouble. They won’t go to mosque, they don’t pray, they speak strangely, they dress strangely, they eat all kinds of rubbish, they have intercourse with God knows who. No respect for tradition. People call it assimilation when it is nothing but corruption. Corruption!’

Archie tried to look shocked and then tried disgusted, not knowing what to say. He liked people to get on with things, Archie. He kind of felt people should just live together, you know, in peace or harmony or something.

‘CHIPS, BEANS, EGG, MUSHROOM! OMELETTE AND MUSHROOMS!’

Samad raised his hand and turned to the counter. ‘Abdul-Mickey!’ he yelled, his voice assuming a slight, comic, cockney twinge. ‘Over here, my guvnor, please.’

Mickey looked at Samad, leant on the counter, and wiped his nose with his apron.

‘Now you know better than that. It’s self-service around here, gentlemen. This ain’t the fucking Waldorf.’

‘I’ll get it,’ said Archie, sliding out of his seat.

‘How is he?’ asked Mickey under his breath, as he pushed the plate towards Archie.

Archie frowned. ‘Dunno. He’s on about tradition again. He’s worried about his sons, you see. Easy for children to go off the rails in this day and age, you know. I don’t really know what to say to him.’

‘Don’t have to tell me, mate,’ said Mickey, shaking his head. ‘I wrote the fucking book, didn’t I? Look at my littlest, Abdul-Jimmy. Up in juvenile court next week for swiping fucking VW medallions. I says to ’im, you fucking stupid or sommink? What the fuck is the point of that? At least steal the fucking car, if that’s the way you feel about it. I mean, why? ’E says it’s sommink to do wiv some fucking Beetie Boys or some such bollocks. Well, I says to him, that lot are dead as shit if I get hold of ’em, and I can tell you that for fucking nothing. No sense of tradition, no fucking morality, is the problem.’

Archie nodded and picked up a wad of napkins with which to handle the hot dishes.

‘If you want my advice – and you do, ’cos that’s part of the special relationship between caff owner and caff customer – you tell Samad he has two options. He can either send them back to the old country, back to India-’

‘Bangladesh,’ corrected Archie, nicking a chip from Samad’s meal.

‘Whereverthefuckitis. He can send ’em back there and have ’em brought up proper, by their granddads and grandmums, have ’em learn about their fucking culture, have ’em grow up with some fucking principles. Or – one minute – CHIPS, BEANS, PATTIE AND MUSHROOMS! FOR TWO!’

Denzel and Clarence ever so slowly sidled up to the hot plates.

‘Dat pattie look strange,’ said Clarence.

‘ ’Im try to poison us,’ said Denzel.

‘Dem mushroom look peculiar,’ said Clarence.

‘ ’Im try to infiltrate a good man with de devil’s food,’ said Denzel.

Mickey slapped his egg slice down on Denzel’s fingers, ‘Oi. Morecambe and fucking Wise. Get a new fucking routine, all right?’

‘Or what?’ persisted Archie.

‘ ’Im tryin’ to kill an ’ol man. An ’ol, weak man,’ muttered Denzel, as the two of them shuffled back to their seats.

‘Fucking ’ell, those two. They’re only alive ’cos they’re too stingy to pay for the fucking cremation.’

‘Or what?’

‘What?’

‘What’s the second option?’

‘Oh, yeah. Well, second option’s obvious, innit?’

‘Is it?’

Accept it. He’ll have to accept it, won’t he. We’re all English now, mate. Like it or lump it, as the rhubarb said to the custard. And that’ll be two fifty, Archibald, my good man. The golden age of Luncheon Vouchers is over.’

The golden age of Luncheon Vouchers ended ten years ago. For ten years Mickey had been saying, ‘The golden age of Luncheon Vouchers is over.’And that’s what Archie loved about O’Connell’s. Everything was remembered, nothing was lost. History was never revised or reinterpreted, adapted or whitewashed. It was as solid and as simple as the encrusted egg on the clock.

When Archie returned to table eight, Samad was like Jeeves: if not exactly disgruntled, then some way from being gruntled.

‘Archibald, did you take a wrong turn at the Ganges? Weren’t you listening to my dilemma? I am corrupt, my sons are becoming corrupt, we are all soon to burn in the fires of hell. These are problems of some urgency, Archibald.’

Archie smiled serenely and stole another chip. ‘Problem solved, Samad, mate.’

‘Problem solved?’

‘Problem solved. Now, the way I see it, you have two options…’

Around the beginning of this century, the Queen of Thailand was aboard a boat, floating along with her many courtiers, manservants, maids, feet-bathers and food tasters, when suddenly the stern hit a wave and the Queen was thrown overboard into the turquoise waters of the Nippon-Kai where, despite her pleas for help, she drowned, for not one person on that boat went to her aid. Mysterious to the outside world, to the Thai the explanation was immediately clear: tradition demanded, as it does to this day, that no man or woman may touch the Queen.

If religion is the opium of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made. To Samad, as to the people of Thailand, tradition was culture, and culture led to roots, and these were good, these were untainted principles. That didn’t mean he could live by them, abide by them or grow in the manner they demanded, but roots were roots and roots were good. You would get nowhere telling him that weeds too have tubers, or that the first sign of loose teeth is something rotten, something degenerate, deep within the gums. Roots were what saved, the ropes one throws out to rescue drowning men, to Save Their Souls. And the further Samad himself floated out to sea, pulled down to the depths by a siren named Poppy Burt-Jones, the more determined he became to create for his boys roots on shore, deep roots that no storm or gale could displace. Easier said than done. He was in Poppy’s poky little flat, going through his own household accounts, when it became obvious to him that he had more sons than money. If he was to send them back, he would need two dowries for the grandparents, two amounts for the schooling, two amounts for the clothes. As it was he could barely cover both air fares. Poppy had said: ‘What about your wife? She’s from a rich family isn’t she?’ But Samad had not yet revealed his plan to Alsana. He had only tested the water, mentioning it in a passing, hypothetical way to Clara while she did her gardening. How would she react if someone, acting in Irie’s best interest, took the child away to a better life? Clara rose from her flower bed and stared at him in silent concern, and then laughed long and loud. The man who did that, she said finally, brandishing a large pair of garden shears inches from his crotch, chop, chop. Chop, chop, thought Samad; and it became clear to him what he was going to do.

One of them?’

O’Connell’s again. 6.25. One chips, beans, egg and mushroom. And one omelette and mushrooms with peas (seasonal variation).

‘Just one of them?’

‘Archibald, please keep your voice down.’

‘But – just one of them?’

‘That is what I said. Chop, chop.’ He divided the fried egg on his plate down the middle. ‘There is no other way.’

‘But-’

Archie was thinking again, as best he could. The same old stuff. You know, why couldn’t people just get on with things, just live together, you know, in peace or harmony or something. But he didn’t say any of that. He just said, ‘But – ’ And then, ‘But-’

And then finally, ‘But which one?’

And that (if you’re counting air fare, dowry, initial schooling fee) was the three thousand, two hundred and forty-five quid question. Once the money was sorted – yes, he remortgaged the house, he risked his land, the greatest mistake an immigrant can make – it was simply a matter of choosing the child. For the first week it was going to be Magid, definitely Magid. Magid had the brains, Magid would settle down quicker, learn the language quicker, and Archie had a vested interest in keeping Millat in the country because he was the best striker Willesden Athletic FC (under fifteens) had seen in decades. So Samad began stealing Magid’s clothes away for surreptitious packing, arranged a separate passport (he would be travelling with auntie Zinat on 4 November) and had a word in the ear of the school (long holiday, could he be given some homework to take with him, etc.).

But then the next week there was a change of heart and it was Millat, because Magid was really Samad’s favourite, and he wanted to watch him grow older, and Millat was the one more in need of moral direction anyway. So his clothes were pilfered, his passport arranged, his name whispered into the right ears.

The following week it was Magid until Wednesday and then Millat because Archie’s old penpal Horst Ibelgaufts wrote the following letter, which Archie, familiar now with the strangely prophetic nature of Horst’s correspondence, brought to Samad’s attention:

15 September 1984

Dearest Archibald,

It is some time since my last letter, but I felt compelled to write to you about a wonderful development in my garden which has brought me no little pleasure these past few months. To make a long story shorter and sweeter, I have finally gone for the chop and removed that old oak tree from the far corner and I cannot begin to describe to you the difference it has made! Now the weaker seeds are receiving so much more sun and are so healthy I am able even to make cuttings from them – for the first year in my memory each of my children has a vase of peonies on their windowsill. I had been suffering under the misapprehension all these years that I was simply an indifferent gardener – when all the time it was that grand old tree, taking up half the garden with its roots and not allowing anything else to grow.

The letter went on, but Samad stopped there. Irritably he said, ‘And I am meant to divine from this precisely… what?’

Archie tapped the side of his nose knowingly. ‘Chop, chop. It’s got to be Millat. An omen, mate. You can trust Ibelgaufts.’

And Samad, who usually had no time for omens or nose tapping, was nervous enough to take the advice. But then Poppy (who was acutely aware that she was fading from Samad’s mind in comparison with the question of the boys) suddenly took an interest, claiming to have just sensed in a dream that it should be Magid and so it was Magid once more. Samad, in his desperation, even allowed Archie to flip a coin, but the decision was hard to stick by – best out of three, best out of five – Samad couldn’t trust it. And this, if you can believe it, was the manner in which Archie and Samad went about playing lottery with two boys, bouncing the issue off the walls of O’Connell’s, flipping souls to see which side came up.

In their defence, one thing should be made clear. At no point was the word kidnap mentioned. In fact had this been offered as terminology for what he was about to do, Samad would have been appalled and astounded, would have dropped the whole thing like the somnambulist who wakes up to find himself in the master bedroom with a breadknife in his hand. He understood that he had not yet informed Alsana. He understood that he had booked a 3 a.m. flight. But it was in no way self-evident to him that these two facts were related or would combine to spell out kidnap. So it was with surprise that Samad greeted the vision of a violently weeping Alsana, at 2 a.m. on 31 October, hunched over the kitchen table. He did not think, Ah, she has discovered what I am to do with Magid (it was finally and for ever Magid), because he was not a moustachioed villain in a Victorian crime novel and besides which he was not conscious of plotting any crime. Rather his first thought was, So she knows about Poppy, and in response to this situation he did what every adulterous man does out of instinct: attack first.

‘So I must come home to this, must I?’ – slam down bag for effect – ‘I spend all night in that infernal restaurant and then I am having to come back to your melodramatics?’

Alsana convulsed with tears. Samad noticed too that a gurgle sound was emanating from her pleasant fat which vibrated in the gap between her sari; she waved her hands at him and then put them over her ears.

‘Is this really necessary?’ asked Samad, trying to disguise his fear (he had expected anger, he didn’t know how to deal with tears). ‘Please, Alsana: surely this is an overreaction.’

She waved her hand at him once more as if to dismiss him and then lifted her body a little and Samad saw that the gurgling had not been organic, that she had been hunched over something. A radio.

‘What on earth-’

Alsana pushed the radio from her body into the middle of the table and motioned for Samad to turn it up. Four familiar beeps, the beeps that follow the English into whatever land they conquer, rang round the kitchen, and then in Received Pronunciation Samad heard the following:

This is the BBC World Service at 03.00 hours. Mrs Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, was assassinated today, shot down by her Sikh bodyguards in an act of open mutiny as she walked in the garden of her New Delhi home. There is no doubt that her murder was an act of revenge for ‘Operation Blue Star’, the storming of the Sikhs’ holiest shrine at Amritsar last June. The Sikh community, who feel their culture is being attacked by -

‘Enough,’ said Samad, switching it off. ‘She was no bloody good anyway. None of them is any bloody good. And who cares what happens in that cesspit, India. Dear me…’ And even before he said it, he wondered why he had to, why he felt so malevolent this evening. ‘You really are genuinely pathetic. I wonder: where would those tears be if I died? Nowhere – you care more about some corrupt politician you never met. Do you know you are the perfect example of the ignorance of the masses, Alsi? Do you know that?’ he said, talking as if to a child and holding her chin up. ‘Crying for the rich and mighty who would disdain to piss upon you. Doubtless next week you will be bawling because Princess Diana broke a fingernail.’

Alsana gathered all the spit her mouth could accommodate and launched it at him.

Bhainchute! I am not crying for her, you idiot, I am crying for my friends. There will be blood on the streets back home because of this, India and Bangladesh. There will be riots – knives, guns. Public death, I have seen it. It will be like Mahshar, Judgement Day – people will die in the streets, Samad. You know and I know. And Delhi will be the worst of it, is always the worst of it. I have some family in Delhi, I have friends, old lovers-’

And here Samad slapped her, partly for the old lovers and partly because it was many years since he had been referred to as a bhainchute (translation: someone who, to put it simply, fucks their sisters).

Alsana held her face, and spoke quietly. ‘I am crying with misery for those poor families and out of relief for my own children! Their father ignores them and bullies them, yes, but at least they will not die on the streets like rats.’

So this was going to be one of those rows: the same positions, the same lines, same recriminations, same right hooks. Bare fists. The bell rings. Samad comes out of his corner.

‘No, they will suffer something worse, much worse: sitting in a morally bankrupt country with a mother who is going mad. Utterly cuckoo. Many raisins short of the fruitcake. Look at you, look at the state of you! Look how fat you are!’ He grabbed a piece of her, and then released it as if it would infect him. ‘Look how you dress. Running shoes and a sari? And what is that?’

It was one of Clara’s African headscarfs, a long, beautiful piece of orange Kenti cloth in which Alsana had taken to wrapping her substantial mane. Samad pulled it off and threw it across the room, leaving Alsana’s hair to crash down her back.

‘You do not even know what you are, where you come from. We never see family any more – I am ashamed to show you to them. Why did you go all the way to Bengal for a wife, that’s what they ask. Why didn’t you just go to Putney?’

Alsana smiled ruefully, shook her head, while Samad made a pretence of calm, filling their metal kettle with water and slamming it down on the stove.

‘And that is a beautiful lungi you have on, Samad Miah,’ she said bitterly, nodding in the direction of his blue-towelling jogging suit topped off with Poppy’s LA Raiders baseball cap.

Samad said, ‘The difference is what is in here,’ not looking at her, thumping just below his left breast bone. ‘You say you are thankful we are in England, that’s because you have swallowed it whole. I can tell you those boys would have a better life back home than they ever-’

‘Samad Miah! Don’t even begin! It will be over my dead body that this family moves back to a place where our lives are in danger! Clara tells me about you, she tells me. How you have asked her strange things. What are you plotting, Samad? I hear from Zinat all this about life insurance… who is dying? What can I smell? I tell you, it will be over my dead body-’

‘But if you are already dead, Alsi-’

‘Shut up! Shut up! I am not mad. You are trying to drive me mad! I phoned Ardashir, Samad. He is telling me you have been leaving work at eleven thirty. It is two in the morning. I am not mad!’

‘No, it is worse. Your mind is diseased. You call yourself a Muslim-’

Alsana whipped round to face Samad, who was trying to concentrate his attention on the whistling steam emerging from the kettle.

‘No, Samad. Oh no. Oh no. I don’t call myself anything. I don’t make claims. You call yourself a Muslim. You make the deals with Allah. You are the one he will be talking to, come Mahshar. You, Samad Miah. You, you, you.’

Second round. Samad slapped Alsana. Alsana right hooked him in the stomach and then followed up with a blow to the left cheekbone. She then made a dash to the back door, but Samad caught her by the waist, rugby-tackled her, dragged her down and elbowed her in the coccyx. Alsana, being heavier than Samad, knelt up, lifting him; flipped him over and dragged him out into the garden, where she kicked him twice as he lay on the floor – two short, fierce jabs to the forehead – but the rubber-cushioned sole did little damage and in a moment he was on his knees again. They made a grab for each other’s hair, Samad determined to pull until he saw blood. But this left Alsana’s knee free and it connected swiftly with Samad’s crotch, forcing him to release the hair and swing a blind flier meant for her mouth but catching her ear. Around this time, the twins emerged half awake from their beds and stood at the long glass kitchen window to watch the fight, while the neighbours’ security lights came on, illuminating the Iqbal garden like a stadium.

‘Abba,’ said Magid, after surveying the state of play for a moment. ‘Definitely Abba.’

Cha, man. No way,’ said Millat, blinking in the light. ‘I bet you two orange lollies Amma’s going to kick the shit out of him.’

‘Ooooooo!’ cried the twins in unison, as if it were a firework display, and then, ‘Aaaaaah!’

Alsana had just ended the fight with a little help from the garden rake.

‘Now maybe some of us, who have to work in the morning, can get a decent night’s kip! Bloody Pakis,’ shouted a neighbour.

A few minutes later (because they always held each other after these fights, a hug somewhere between affection and collapse) Samad came in from the garden, still mildly concussed and said, ‘Go to bed,’ before brushing a hand through each son’s thick black hair.

As he reached the door, he stopped. ‘You’ll thank me,’ he said, turning to Magid, who smiled faintly, thinking maybe Abba was going to get him that chemistry set after all. ‘You’ll thank me in the end. This country’s no good. We tear each other apart in this country.’

Then he walked up the stairs and phoned Poppy Burt-Jones, waking her up to tell her there would be no more kisses in the afternoon, no more guilty walks, no more furtive taxis. End of affair.

Maybe all the Iqbals were prophets because Alsana’s nose for trouble was more right than it had ever been. Public decapitations, families cremated in their sleep, hanging bodies outside the Kashmir gate, people stumbling around dazed missing pieces of themselves; body parts taken from Muslim by Sikh, from Sikh by Hindu; legs, fingers, noses, toes and teeth, teeth everywhere, scattered throughout the land, mingling with the dust. A thousand people had died by 4 November when Alsana emerged from under the bathwater to hear the crackling voice of Our Man in Delhi telling her about it from the top of the medicine cabinet.

Terrible business. But, as Samad saw it, some of us have the luxury of sitting in the bath and listening to the foreign news while some of us have a living to make, and an affair to forget, and a child to abduct. He squeezed into the white flares, checked the air ticket, phoned Archie to go over the plan, and left for work.

On the tube there was a youngish, prettyish girl, dark, Spanish-looking, mono-browed, crying. Just sitting opposite him, in a pair of big, pink leg-warmers, crying quite openly. Nobody said anything. Nobody did anything. Everybody hoped she was getting off at Kilburn. But she kept on like that, just sitting, crying; West Hampstead, Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, St John’s Wood. Then at Bond Street she pulled a photo of an unpromising-looking young man out of her rucksack, showed it to Samad and some of the other passengers.

‘Why he leave? He break my heart… Neil, he say his name, Neil. Neil, Neil.’

At Charing Cross, end of the line, Samad watched her cross the platform and get the train going straight back to Willesden Green. Romantic, in a way. The way she said ‘Neil’ as if it were a word bursting at the seams with past passion, with loss. That kind of flowing, feminine misery. He had expected something similar of Poppy, somehow; he had picked up the phone expecting gentle, rhythmic tears and later on letters, maybe, scented and stained. And in her grief he would have grown, as Neil was probably doing at this moment; her grief would have been an epiphany bringing him one step closer to his own redemption. But instead he had got only, ‘Fuck you, you fucking fuck.’

‘Told you,’ said Shiva, shaking his head and passing Samad a basket of yellow napkins to be shaped like castles. ‘I told you not to fuck with that business, didn’t I? Too much history there, man. You see: it ain’t just you she’s angry with, is it?’

Samad shrugged and began on the turrets.

‘No, man, history, history. It’s all brown man leaving English woman, it’s all Nehru saying See-Ya to Madam Britannia.’ Shiva, in an effort to improve himself, had joined the Open University. ‘It’s all complicated, complicated shit, it’s all about pride. Ten quid says she wanted you as a servant boy, as a wallah peeling the grapes.’

‘No,’ protested Samad. ‘It wasn’t that way. This is not the dark ages, Shiva, this is 1984.’

‘Show’s how much you know. From what you’ve told me, she’s a classic case, mate, classic.’

‘Well, I have other concerns now,’ muttered Samad (privately calculating that his children would by now be safely tucked in at the Joneses’ sleepover, that it was two more hours before Archie would need to wake Magid, leaving Millat to sleep on). ‘Family concerns.’

‘No time!’ cried Ardashir, who had crept up from behind, imperceptibly as ever, to examine the battlements of Samad’s castles. ‘No time for family concerns, cousin. Everyone’s concerned, everybody’s trying to get their family out of that mess back home – I myself am forking out one thousand big ones for a ticket for my big-mouth sister – but I still have to come to work, I still have to get on with things. Busy night tonight, cousin,’ called Ardashir, as he exited the kitchen to pace around the restaurant floor in a black tuxedo. ‘Don’t let me down.’

It was the busiest night in the week, Saturday, the night when the crowds come in waves: pre-theatre, post-theatre, post-pub, post-club; the first polite and conversational, the second humming show-tunes, the third rowdy, the fourth wide-eyed and abusive. The theatre crowds were naturally the favourite of the waiters; they were even tempered and tipped big and inquired after the geography of the food – its Eastern origin, its history – all of which would be happily fabricated by the younger waiters (whose furthest expedition East was the one they made daily, back home to Whitechapel, Smithfield’s, the Isle of Dogs) or rendered faithfully and proudly by the elders in black biro on the back of a pink napkin.

I’ll Bet She Is! was the show at the National these past few months, a rediscovered mid fifties musical set in the thirties. It was about a rich girl who runs away from her family and meets a poor boy on the road, who is himself off to fight the Civil War in Spain. They fall in love. Even Samad, who had no particular ear for a tune, picked up enough discarded programmes and heard enough tables burst into song to know most of the songs; he liked them, in fact they took his mind off the drudgery (even better – tonight they were sweet relief from worrying whether Archie would manage to get Magid outside the Palace at 1 a.m. on the dot); he murmured them along with the rest of the kitchen in a kind of working rhythm as they chopped and marinaded, sliced and crushed.

I’ve seen the Paris op’ra and the wonders of the East

‘Samad Miah, I’m looking for the Rajah mustard seeds.’

Spent my summers by the Nile and my winters on the piste

‘Mustard seeds… I think I saw Muhammed with them.’

I’ve had diamonds, rubies, furs and velvet capes

‘Accusations, accusations… I have seen no mustard seeds.’

I’ve had Howard Hughes peel me a grape

‘I’m sorry, Shiva, if the old man doesn’t have them, then I haven’t seen them.’

But what does it mean without love?

‘Then what are these?’ Shiva walked over from his place next to chef and picked up a packet of mustard seeds by Samad’s right elbow. ‘Come on, Sam – get it together. Head in the clouds this evening.’

‘I’m sorry… I have a lot on my mind…’

‘That lady friend of yours, eh?’

‘Keep your voice down, Shiva.’

They tell me I’m spoilt, a rich broad who means trouble,’ sang Shiva in the strangest of Hindified transatlantic accents. ‘Oi-oi, my chorus. But whatever love I’m given I pay it back double.’

Shiva grabbed a small aquamarine vase and sang his big finale into its upturned end. ‘But no amount of money, will make my honey mine… You should take that advice, Samad Miah,’ said Shiva, who was convinced Samad’s recent remortgage was funding his illicit affair, ‘it’s good advice.’

A few hours later Ardashir appeared once more through the swing doors, breaking up the singing to deliver his second-phase pep-talk. ‘Gentlemen, gentlemen! That is more than enough of that. Now, listen up: it’s ten-thirty. They’ve seen the show. They’re hungry. They got only one pitiful tub of ice-cream in the interval and plenty of Bombay gin, which, as we all know, brings on the need for curry and that, gentlemen, is where we come in. Two tables of fifteen just came in and sat at the back. Now: when they ask for water what do you do? What do you do, Ravind?’

Ravind was brand new, nephew of the chef, sixteen, nervy. ‘You tell them-’

‘No, Ravind, even before you speak, what do you do?’

Ravind bit his lip. ‘I don’t know, Ardashir.’

You shake your head,’ said Ardashir, shaking his head. ‘Simultaneous with a look of concern and fear for their well-being.’ Ardashir demonstrated the look. ‘And then you say?’

‘ “Water does not help the heat, sir.” ’

‘But what helps the heat, Ravind? What will aid the gentleman with the burning sensation he is presently feeling?’

‘More rice, Ardashir.’

‘And? And?’

Ravind looked stumped and began to sweat. Samad, who had been belittled by Ardashir too many times to enjoy watching someone else play the victim, leant over to whisper the answer in Ravind’s clammy ear.

Ravind’s face lit up in gratitude. ‘More naan bread, Ardashir!’

‘Yes; because it soaks up the chilli and more importantly water is free and naan bread is one pound twenty. Now cousin,’ said Ardashir, turning to Samad and waggling a bony finger, ‘how will the boy learn? Let the boy answer for himself next time. You have your own business: a couple of ladies on table twelve requested the head waiter specifically, to be served only by him, so-’

‘Requested me? But I thought I might stay in the kitchen this evening. Besides, I cannot be requested like some personal butler, there is too much to do – that is not policy, cousin.’

And at this moment Samad feels panicky. His thoughts are so taken up with the 1 a.m. abduction, with the prospect of splitting his twins, that he does not trust himself with hot plates and steaming bowls of dal, with the spitting fat of clay-oven chicken, with all the dangers that accost a one-handed waiter. His head is full of his sons. He is half in dream this evening. He has once again bitten every nail beyond the cuticle and is fast approaching the translucent high-moons, the bleeding hubs.

He is saying, he hears himself saying, ‘Ardashir, I have a million things to do here in the kitchens. And why should-’

And the answer comes, ‘Because the head waiter is the best waiter and naturally they tipped me – us – for the privilege. No quibbling, please, cousin. Table twelve, Samad Miah.’

And perspiring lightly, throwing a white towel over his left arm, Samad begins tunelessly to hum the show-stopper as he pushes through the doors.

What won’t a guy do for a girl? How sweet the scent, how huge the pearl?

It is a long walk to table twelve. Not in distance, it is only twenty metres in distance, but it is a long walk through the thick smells and the loud voices and the demands; through the cries of Englishmen; past table two, where the ashtray is full and must be cupped by another ashtray, lifted silently and switched for the new ashtray with perfect insouciance; stopping at table four, where there is an unidentifiable dish that was not ordered; debating with table five, who wish to be joined with table six, no matter the inconvenience; and table seven wants egg fried rice whether or not it is a Chinese dish; and table eight wobbles and more wine! More beer! It is a long walk if you are to negotiate the jungle; attending to the endless needs and needless ends, the desires, the demands of the pink faces that strike Samad now as pith-helmet-wearing gentlemen, feet up on the table with guns across their laps; as tea-slurping ladies on verandas cooling themselves under the breeze of the brown boys who beat the ostrich feathers-

What lengths won’t he travel, how many hits of the gavel

By Allah, how thankful he is (yes, madam, one moment, madam), how gladdened by the thought that Magid, Magid at least, will, in a matter of four hours, be flying east from this place and its demands, its constant cravings, this place where there exists neither patience nor pity, where the people want what they want now, right now (We’ve been waiting twenty minutes for the vegetables), expecting their lovers, their children, their friends and even their gods to arrive at little cost and in little time, just as table ten expect their tandoori prawns…

At the auction of her choosing, how many Rembrandts, Klimts, De Koonings?

These people who would exchange all faith for sex and all sex for power, who would exchange fear of God for self-pride, knowledge for irony, a covered, respectful head for a long, strident shock of orange hair-

It is Poppy at table twelve. It is Poppy Burt-Jones. And just the name would be enough right now (for he is at his most volatile, Samad; he is about to split his own sons in two like that first nervous surgeon wielding his clumsy spit-wet knife over the clodded skin of the twins of Siam), just the name would be enough to explode his mind. The name alone is a torpedo heading for a tiny fishing boat, blowing his thoughts out of the water. But it is more than the name, the echo of a name spoken by some thoughtless fool or found at the bottom of an old letter, it is Poppy Burt-Jones herself in the freckled flesh. Sitting cold and determined with her sister, who seems, like all siblings of those we have desired, an uglier, mis-featured version.

‘Say something, then,’ says Poppy abruptly, fiddling with a Marlboro packet. ‘No witty rejoinder? No crap about camels or coconuts? Nothing to say?’

Samad doesn’t have anything to say. He merely stops humming his tune, inclines his head at exactly the correct deferential angle, and puts the nib of his pen preparedly to paper. It is like a dream.

‘All right, then,’ Poppy is saying tartly, looking Samad up and down, lighting up a fag. ‘Have it your way. Right. To start with we’ll have lamb samosas and the yoghurt whatdyamacallit.’

‘And for the main,’ the shorter, plainer, oranger, snub-nosed sister is saying, ‘Two Lamb Dawn Sock and rice, with chips, please, waiter.’

At least Archie is right on time; right year, right date, right hour; 1984, 5 November, 1 a.m. Outside the restaurant, dressed in a long trench-coat, standing in front of his Vauxhall, one hand tickling some spanking new Pirelli tyres, the other pulling hard on a fag like Bogart or a chauffeur or Bogart’s chauffeur. Samad arrives, clasps Archie’s right hand in his own and feels the coldness of his friend’s fingers, feels the great debt he owes him. Involuntarily, he blows a cloud of frozen breath into his face. ‘I won’t forget this, Archibald,’ he is saying, ‘I won’t forget what you do for me tonight, my friend.’

Archie shuffles about awkwardly. ‘Sam, before you – there’s something I have to-’

But Samad is already reaching for the door, and Archie’s explanation must follow the sight of three shivering children in the back seat like a limp punchline.

‘They woke up, Sam. They were all sleeping in the same room – a sleepover, like. Nothing I could do. I just put coats over their pyjamas – I couldn’t risk Clara hearing – I had to bring them.’

Irie asleep; curled up with her head on the ashtray and her feet resting on the gearbox, but Millat and Magid reaching out for their father gleefully, pulling at his flares, chucking him on the chin.

‘Hey, Abba! Where we going, Abba? To a secret disco party? Are we really?’

Samad looks severely at Archie; Archie shrugs.

‘We’re going on a trip to an airport. To Heathrow.’

‘Wow!’

‘And then when we get there, Magid – Magid-’

It is like a dream. Samad feels the tears before he can stop them; he reaches out to his eldest-son-by-two-minutes and holds him so tight to his chest that he snaps the arm of his glasses. ‘And then Magid is going on a trip with auntie Zinat.’

‘Will he come back?’ It is Millat. ‘It would be cool if he didn’t come back!’

Magid prises himself from his father’s headlock. ‘Is it far? Will I be back in time for Monday – only I’ve got to see how my photosynthesis is for science – I took two plants: put one in the cupboard and one in the sunlight – and I’ve got to see, Abba, I’ve got to see which one-’

Years from now, even hours after that plane leaves, this will be history that Samad tries not to remember. That his memory makes no effort to retain. A sudden stone submerged. False teeth floating silently to the bottom of a glass.

‘Will I get back for school, Abba?’

‘Come on,’ says Archie, solemnly from the front seat. ‘We’ve got to get cracking if we’re going to make it.’

‘You’ll be in a school on Monday, Magid. I promise. Now sit back in your seats, go on. For Abba, please.’

Samad closes the car door and crouches to watch his twin sons blow their hot breath on to the window. He puts his one hand up, applying a false touch to their lips, raw pink against the glass, their saliva mingling in the grimy condensation.

9 Mutiny!

To Alsana’s mind the real difference between people was not colour. Nor did it lie in gender, faith, their relative ability to dance to a syncopated rhythm or open their fists to reveal a handful of gold coins. The real difference was far more fundamental. It was in the earth. It was in the sky. You could divide the whole of humanity into two distinct camps, as far as she was concerned, simply by asking them to complete a very simple questionnaire, of the kind you find in Woman’s Own on a Tuesday:

(a) Are the skies you sleep under likely to open up for weeks on end?

(b) Is the ground you walk on likely to tremble and split?

(c) Is there a chance (and please tick the box, no matter how small that chance seems) that the ominous mountain casting a midday shadow over your home might one day erupt with no rhyme or reason?

Because if the answer is yes to one or all of these questions, then the life you lead is a midnight thing, always a hair’s breadth from the witching hour; it is volatile, it is threadbare; it is carefree in the true sense of that term; it is light, losable like a keyring or a hairclip. And it is lethargy: why not sit all morning, all day, all year, under the same cypress tree drawing the figure of eight in the dust? More than that, it is disaster, it is chaos: why not overthrow a government on a whim, why not blind the man you hated, why not go mad, go gibbering through the town like a loon, waving your hands, tearing your hair? There’s nothing to stop you – or rather anything could stop you, any hour, any minute. That feeling. That’s the real difference in a life. People who live on solid ground, underneath safe skies, know nothing of this; they are like the English POWs in Dresden who continued to pour tea and dress for dinner, even as the alarms went off, even as the city became a towering ball of fire. Born of a green and pleasant land, a temperate land, the English have a basic inability to conceive of disaster, even when it is man-made.

It is different for the people of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, formerly India, formerly Bengal. They live under the invisible finger of random disaster, of flood and cyclone, hurricane and mud-slide. Half the time half their country lies under water; generations wiped out as regularly as clockwork; individual life expectancy an optimistic fifty-two, and they are coolly aware that when you talk about apocalypse, when you talk about random death en masse, well, they are leading the way in that particular field, they will be the first to go, the first to slip Atlantis-like down to the seabed when the pesky polar ice-caps begin to shift and melt. It is the most ridiculous country in the world, Bangladesh. It is God’s idea of a really good wheeze, his stab at black comedy. You don’t need to give out questionnaires to Bengalis. The facts of disaster are the facts of their lives. Between Alsana’s sweet sixteenth birthday (1971), for example, and the year she stopped speaking directly to her husband (1985), more people died in Bangladesh, more people perished in the winds and the rain, than in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden put together. A million people lost lives that they had learnt to hold lightly in the first place.

And this is what Alsana really held against Samad, if you want the truth, more than the betrayal, more than the lies, more than the basic facts of a kidnap: that Magid should learn to hold his life lightly. Even though he was relatively safe up there in the Chittagong Hills, the highest point of that low-lying, flatland country, still she hated the thought that Magid should be as she had once been: holding on to a life no heavier than a paisa coin, wading thoughtlessly through floods, shuddering underneath the weight of black skies…

Naturally, she became hysterical. Naturally, she tried to get him back. She spoke to the relevant authorities. The relevant authorities said things like, ‘To be honest, love, we’re more worried about them coming in’ or ‘To tell you the truth, if it was your husband who arranged the trip, there’s not a great deal that we – ’, so she put the phone down. After a few months she stopped ringing. She went to Wembley and Whitechapel in despair and sat in the houses of relatives for epic weekends of weeping and eating and commiserations, but her gut told her that though the curry was sound, the commiserations were not all they seemed. For there were those who were quietly pleased that Alsana Iqbal, with her big house and her blacky-white friends and her husband who looked like Omar Sharif and her son who spoke like the Prince of Wales, was now living in doubt and uncertainty like the rest of them, learning to wear misery like old familiar silk. There was a certain satisfaction in it, even as Zinat (who never revealed her role in the deed) reached over the chair arm to take Alsana’s hand in her sympathetic claws. ‘Oh, Alsi, I just keep thinking what a shame it is that he had to take the good one! He was so very clever and so beautifully behaved! You didn’t have to worry about drugs and dirty girls with that one. Only the price of spectacles with all that reading.’

Oh, there was a certain pleasure. And don’t ever underestimate people, don’t ever underestimate the pleasure they receive from viewing pain that is not their own, from delivering bad news, watching bombs fall on television, from listening to stifled sobs from the other end of a telephone line. Pain by itself is just Pain. But Pain + Distance can = entertainment, voyeurism, human interest, cinéma vérité, a good belly chuckle, a sympathetic smile, a raised eyebrow, disguised contempt. Alsana sensed all these and more at the other end of her telephone line as the calls flooded in – 28 May 1985 – to inform her of, to offer commiserations for, the latest cyclone.

‘Alsi, I simply had to call. They say there are so many bodies floating in the Bay of Bengal…’

‘I just heard the latest on the radio – ten thousand!’

‘And the survivors are floating on rooftops while the sharks and crocodiles snap at their heels.’

‘It must be terrible, Alsi, not knowing, not being sure…’

For six days and six nights, Alsana did not know, was not sure. During this period she read extensively from the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and tried hard to believe his assurances (Night’s darkness is a bag that bursts with the gold of the dawn), but she was, at heart, a practical woman and found poetry no comfort. For those six days her life was a midnight thing, a hair’s breadth from the witching hour. But on the seventh day came light: the news arrived that Magid was fine, suffering only a broken nose delivered by a vase which had fallen from its perilous station on a high shelf in a mosque, blown over in the first breath of the first winds (and keep one eye on that vase, please, it is the same vase that will lead Magid by the nose to his vocation). It was only the servants, having two days earlier taken a secret supply of gin and piled into the family’s dilapidated transit van on a pleasure trip to Dhaka, who were now floating belly-up in the Jamuna River as fish finned-silver stared up at them, pop-eyed and bemused.

Samad was triumphant. ‘You see? He’ll come to no harm in Chittagong! Even better news, he was in a mosque. Better he break his nose in a mosque than in a Kilburn fight! It is exactly as I had hoped. He is learning the old ways. Is he not learning the old ways?’

Alsana thought for a moment. Then she said: ‘Maybe, Samad Miah.’

‘What do you mean, “maybe”?’

‘Maybe, Samad Miah, maybe not.’

Alsana had decided to stop speaking directly to her husband. Through the next eight years she would determine never to say yes to him, never to say no to him, but rather to force him to live like she did – never knowing, never being sure, holding Samad’s sanity to ransom, until she was paid in full with the return of her number-one-son-eldest-by-two-minutes, until she could once more put a chubby hand through his thick hair. That was her promise, that was her curse upon Samad, and it was exquisite revenge. At times it very nearly drove him to the brink, to the kitchen-knife stage, to the medicine cabinet. But Samad was the kind of person too stubborn to kill himself if it meant giving someone else satisfaction. He hung on in there. Alsana turning over in her sleep, muttering, ‘Just bring him back, Mr Idiot… if it’s driving you nutso, just bring my baby back.’

But there was no money to bring Magid back even if Samad had been inclined to wave the white dhoti. He learnt to live with it. It got to the point where if somebody said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Samad in the street or in the restaurant, he hardly knew how to respond, he had come to forget what those two elegant little signifiers meant. He never heard them from Alsana’s lips. Whatever the question in the Iqbal house, there would never again be a straight answer:

‘Alsana, have you seen my slippers?’

‘Possibly, Samad Miah.’

‘What time is it?’

‘It could be three, Samad Miah, but Allah knows it could also be four.’

‘Alsana, where have you put the remote control?’

‘It is as likely to be in the drawer, Samad Miah, as it is behind the sofa.’

And so it went.

Sometime after the May cyclone, the Iqbals received a letter from their elder-son-by-two-minutes, written in a careful hand on exercise paper and folded around a recent photograph. It was not the first time he had written, but Samad saw something different in this letter, something that excited him and validated the unpopular decision he had made; some change of tone, some suggestion of maturity, of growing Eastern wisdom; and, having read it carefully in the garden first, he took great pleasure in bringing it back to the kitchen and reading it aloud to Clara and Alsana, who were drinking peppermint tea.

‘Listen: here he says, “Yesterday, grandfather hit Tamim (he is the houseboy) with a belt until his bottom was redder than a tomato. He said Tamim had stolen some candles (it’s true. I saw him do it!), and this was what he got for it. He says sometimes Allah punishes and sometimes men have to do it, and it is a wise man who knows if it is Allah’s turn or his own. I hope one day I will be a wise man.” Do you hear that? He wants to be a wise man. How many kids in that school do you know who want to be wise men?’

‘Maybe none, Samad Miah. Maybe all.’

Samad scowled at his wife and continued, ‘And here, here where he talks about his nose: “It seems to me that a vase should not be in such a silly place where it can fall and break a boy’s nose. It should be somebody’s fault and somebody should be punished (but not a bottom smack unless they were small and not a grown-up. If they were younger than twelve). When I grow up I think I should like to make sure vases are not put in such silly places where they can be dangerous and I would complain about other dangerous things too (by the way, my nose is fine now!).” See?’

Clara frowned. ‘See what?’

‘Clearly he disapproves of iconography in the mosque, he dislikes all heathen, unnecessary, dangerous decoration! A boy like that is destined for greatness, isn’t he?’

‘Maybe, Samad Miah, maybe not.’

‘Maybe he’ll go into government, maybe the law,’ suggested Clara.

‘Rubbish! My son is for God, not men. He is not fearful of his duty. He is not fearful to be a real Bengali, a proper Muslim. Here he tells me the goat in the photograph is dead. “I helped to kill the goat, Abba,” he says. “It kept on moving some time after we had split it in two.” Is that a boy who is fearful?’

It clearly being incumbent upon someone to say no, Clara said it with little enthusiasm and reached for the photograph Samad was passing her. There was Magid, dressed in his customary grey, standing next to the doomed goat with the old house behind him.

‘Oh! Look at his nose! Look at the break. He’s got a Roman nose, now. He looks like a little aristocrat, like a little Englishman. Look, Millat.’ Clara put the photo under Millat’s smaller, flatter nose. ‘You two don’t look so much like twins any more.’

‘He looks,’ said Millat after a cursory glance, ‘like a chief.’

Samad, never au fait with the language of the Willesden streets, nodded soberly and patted his son’s hair. ‘It is good that you see the difference between you two boys, Millat, now rather than later.’ Samad glared at Alsana as she spun an index finger in a circle by her temple, as she tapped the side of her head: crazee, nutso. ‘Others may scoff, but you and I know that your brother will lead others out of the wilderness. He will be a leader of tribes. He is a natural chief.’

Millat laughed so loud at this, so hard, so uncontrollably, that he lost his footing, slipped on a wash cloth and broke his nose against the sink.

Two sons. One invisible and perfect, frozen at the pleasant age of nine, static in a picture frame while the television underneath him spewed out all the shit of the eighties – Irish bombs, English riots, transatlantic stalemates – above which mess the child rose untouchable and unstained, elevated to the status of ever smiling Buddha, imbued with serene Eastern contemplation; capable of anything, a natural leader, a natural Muslim, a natural chief – in short, nothing but an apparition. A ghostly daguerreotype formed from the quicksilver of the father’s imagination, preserved by the salt solution of maternal tears. This son stood silent, distant and was ‘presumed well’, like one of Her Majesty’s colonial island outposts, stuck in an eternal state of original naivety, perpetual pre-pubescence. This son Samad could not see. And Samad had long learnt to worship what he could not see.

As for the son he could see, the one who was under his feet and in his hair, well, it is best not to get Samad started up on that subject, the subject of The Trouble with Millat, but here goes: he is the second son, late like a bus, late like cheap postage, the slowcoach, the catch-up-kid, losing that first race down the birth canal, and now simply a follower by genetic predisposition, by the intricate design of Allah, the loser of two vital minutes that he would never make up, not in those all-seeing parabolic mirrors, not in those glassy globes of the godhead, not in his father’s eyes.

Now, a more melancholy child than Millat, a more deep-thinking child, might have spent the rest of his life hunting these two minutes and making himself miserable, chasing the elusive quarry, laying it finally at his father’s feet. But what his father said about him did not concern Millat all that much: he knew himself to be no follower, no chief, no wanker, no sell-out, no fuckwit – no matter what his father said. In the language of the street Millat was a rudeboy, a badman, at the forefront, changing image as often as shoes; sweet-as, safe, wicked, leading kids up hills to play football, downhill to rifle fruit machines, out of schools, into video shops. In Rocky Video, Millat’s favourite haunt, run by an unscrupulous coke-dealer, you got porn when you were fifteen, 18s when you were eleven, and snuff movies under the counter for five quid. Here was where Millat really learnt about fathers. Godfathers, blood-brothers, pacinodeniros, men in black who looked good, who talked fast, who never waited a (mutherfuckin’) table, who had two, fully functioning, gun-toting hands. He learnt that you don’t need to live under flood, under cyclone, to get a little danger, to be a wise man. You go looking for it. Aged twelve, Millat went out looking for it, and though Willesden Green is no Bronx, no South Central, he found a little, he found enough. He was arsey and mouthy, he had his fierce good looks squashed tightly inside him like a jack-in-a-box set to spring aged thirteen, at which point he graduated from leader of zit-faced boys to leader of women. The Pied Piper of Willesden Green, smitten girls trailing behind him, tongues out, breasts pert, falling into pools of heartbreak… and all because he was the BIGGEST and the BADDEST, living his young life in CAPITALS: he smoked first, he drank first, he even lost it – IT! – aged thirteen and a half. OK, so he didn’t FEEL much or TOUCH much, it was MOIST and CONFUSING, he lost IT without even knowing where IT went, but he still lost IT because there was no doubt, NONE, that he was the best of the rest, on any scale of juvenile delinquency he was the shining light of the teenage community, the DON, the BUSINESS, the DOG’S GENITALIA, a street boy, a leader of tribes. In fact, the only trouble with Millat was that he loved trouble. And he was good at it. Wipe that. He was great.

Still, there was much discussion – at home, at school, in the various kitchens of the widespread Iqbal/Begum clan – about The Trouble with Millat, mutinous Millat aged thirteen, who farted in mosque, chased blondes and smelt of tobacco, and not just Millat but all the children: Mujib (fourteen, criminal record for joyriding), Khandakar (sixteen, white girlfriend, wore mascara in the evenings), Dipesh (fifteen, marijuana), Kurshed (eighteen, marijuana and very baggy trousers), Khaleda (seventeen, sex before marriage with Chinese boy), Bimal (nineteen, doing a diploma in Drama); what was wrong with all the children, what had gone wrong with these first descendants of the great ocean-crossing experiment? Didn’t they have everything they could want? Was there not a substantial garden area, regular meals, clean clothes from Marks ’n’ Sparks, A-class top-notch education? Hadn’t the elders done their best? Hadn’t they all come to this island for a reason? To be safe. Weren’t they safe?

Too safe,’ Samad explained, patiently consoling one or other weeping, angry ma or baba, perplexed and elderly dadu or dida, ‘they are too safe in this country, accha? They live in big plastic bubbles of our own creation, their lives all mapped out for them. Personally, you know I would spit on Saint Paul, but the wisdom is correct, the wisdom is really Allah’s: put away childish things. How can our boys become men when they are never challenged like men? Hmm? No doubt about it, on reflection, sending Magid back was the best thing. I would recommend it.’

At which point, the assembled weepers and moaners all look mournfully at the treasured picture of Magid and goat. They sit mesmerized, like Hindus waiting for a stone cow to cry, until a visible aura seems to emanate from the photo: goodness and bravery through adversity, through hell and high water; the true Muslim boy; the child they never had. Pathetic as it was, Alsana found it faintly amusing, the tables having turned, no one weeping for her, everyone weeping for themselves and their children, for what the terrible eighties were doing to them both. These gatherings were like last-ditch political summits, they were like desperate meetings of government and church behind closed doors while the mutinous mob roamed wild on the streets, smashed windows. A distance was establishing itself, not simply between fathersons, oldyoung, borntherebornhere, but between those who stayed indoors and those who ran riot outside.

‘Too safe, too easy,’ repeated Samad, as great-aunt Bibi wiped Magid lovingly with some Mr Sheen. ‘A month back home would sort each and every one of them out.’

But the fact was Millat didn’t need to go back home: he stood schizophrenic, one foot in Bengal and one in Willesden. In his mind he was as much there as he was here. He did not require a passport to live in two places at once, he needed no visa to live his brother’s life and his own (he was a twin after all). Alsana was the first to spot it. She confided to Clara: By God, they’re tied together like a cat’s cradle, connected like a see-saw, push one end, other goes up, whatever Millat sees, Magid saw and vice versa! And Alsana only knew the incidentals: similar illnesses, simultaneous accidents, pets dying continents apart. She did not know that while Magid watched the 1985 cyclone shake things from high places, Millat was pushing his luck along the towering wall of the cemetery in Fortune Green; that on 10 February 1988, as Magid worked his way through the violent crowds of Dhaka, ducking the random blows of those busy settling an election with knives and fists, Millat held his own against three sotted, furious, quick-footed Irishmen outside Biddy Mulligan’s notorious Kilburn public house. Ah, but you are not convinced by coincidence? You want fact fact fact? You want brushes with the Big Man with black hood and scythe? OK: on the 28th of April, 1989, a tornado whisked the Chittagong kitchen up into the sky, taking everything with it except Magid, left miraculously curled up in a ball on the floor. Now, segue to Millat, five thousand miles away, lowering himself down upon legendary sixth-former Natalia Cavendish (whose body is keeping a dark secret from her); the condoms are unopened in a box in his back pocket; but somehow he will not catch it; even though he is moving rhythmically now, up and in, deeper and sideways, dancing with death.

Three days:

15 October 1987

Even when the lights went out and the wind was beating the shit out of the double glazing, Alsana, a great believer in the oracle that is the BBC, sat in a nightie on the sofa, refusing to budge.

‘If that Mr Fish says it’s OK, it’s damn well OK. He’s BBC, for God’s sake!’

Samad gave up (it was almost impossible to change Alsana’s mind about the inherent reliability of her favoured English institutions, amongst them: Princess Anne, Blu-Tack, Children’s Royal Variety Performance, Eric Morecambe, Woman’s Hour). He got the torch from the kitchen drawer and went upstairs, looking for Millat.

‘Millat? Answer me, Millat! Are you there?’

‘Maybe, Abba, maybe not.’

Samad followed the voice to the bathroom and found Millat chin-high in dirty pink soap suds, reading Viz.

‘Ah, Dad, wicked. Torch. Shine it over here so I can read.’

‘Never mind that.’ Samad tore the comic from his son’s hands. ‘There’s a bloody hurricane blowing and your crazy mother intends to sit here until the roof falls in. Get out of the bath. I need you to go to the shed and find some wood and nails so that we can-’

‘But Abba, I’m butt-naked!’

‘Don’t split the hairs with me – this is an emergency. I want you to-’

An almighty ripping noise, like something being severed at the roots and flung against a wall, came from outside.

Two minutes later and the family Iqbal were standing regimental in varying states of undress, looking out through the long kitchen window on to a patch in the lawn where the shed used to be. Millat clicked his heels three times and hammed it up with cornershop accent, ‘O me O my. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.’

All right, woman. Are you coming now?’

‘Maybe, Samad Miah, maybe.’

Dammit! I’m not in the mood for a referendum. We’re going to Archibald’s. Maybe they still have light. And there is safety in numbers. Both of you – get dressed, grab the essentials, the life or death things, and get in the car!’

Holding the car boot open against a wind determined to bring it down, Samad was first amused and then depressed by the items his wife and son determined essential, life or death things:

Samad slammed the boot down.

‘No pen knife, no edibles, no light sources. Bloody great. No prizes for guessing which one of the Iqbals is the war veteran. Nobody even thinks to pick up the Qurān. Key item in emergency situation: spiritual support. I am going back in there. Sit in the car and don’t move a muscle.’

Once in the kitchen Samad flashed his torch around: kettle, oven hob, teacup, curtain and then a surreal glimpse of the shed sitting happy like a treehouse in next door’s horsechestnut. He picked up the Swiss army knife he remembered leaving under the sink, collected his gold-plated, velvet-fringed Qurān from the living room and was about to leave when the temptation to feel the gale, to see a little of the formidable destruction, came over him. He waited for a lull in the wind and opened the kitchen door, moving tentatively into the garden, where a sheet of lightning lit up a scene of suburban apocalypse: oaks, cedars, sycamores, elms felled in garden after garden, fences down, garden furniture demolished. It was only his own garden, often ridiculed for its corrugated-iron surround, treeless interior and bed after bed of sickly smelling herbs, that had remained relatively intact.

He was just in the process of happily formulating some allegory regarding the bending Eastern reed versus the stubborn Western oak, when the wind reasserted itself, knocking him sideways and continuing along its path to the double glazing, which it cracked and exploded effortlessly, blowing glass inside, regurgitating everything from the kitchen out into the open air. Samad, a recently airborne collander resting on his ear, held his book tight to his chest and hurried to the car.

‘What are you doing in the driving seat?’

Alsana held on to the wheel firmly and talked to Millat via the rear-view mirror. ‘Will someone please tell my husband that I am going to drive. I grew up by the Bay of Bengal. I watched my mother drive through winds like these while my husband was poncing about in Delhi with a load of fairy college boys. I suggest my husband gets in the passenger seat and doesn’t fart unless I tell him to.’

Alsana drove at three miles an hour through the deserted, blacked-out high road while winds of 110 m.p.h. relentlessly battered the tops of the highest buildings.

‘England, this is meant to be! I moved to England so I wouldn’t have to do this. Never again will I trust that Mr Crab.’

‘Amma, it’s Mr Fish.’

‘From now on, he’s Mr Crab to me,’ snapped Alsana with a dark look. ‘BBC or no BBC.’

The lights had gone out at Archie’s, but the Jones household was prepared for every disastrous eventuality from tidal wave to nuclear fallout; by the time the Iqbals got there the place was lit with dozens of gas lamps, garden candles and night lights, the front door and windows had been speedily reinforced with hardboard, and the garden trees had their branches roped together.

‘It’s all about preparation,’ announced Archie, opening the door to the desperate Iqbals and their armfuls of belongings, like a DIY king welcoming the dispossessed. ‘I mean, you’ve got to protect your family, haven’t you? Not that you’ve failed in that depar – you know what I mean – ’sjust the way I see it: it’s me against the wind. If I’ve told you once, Ick-Ball, I’ve told you a million times: check the supporting walls. If they’re not in tip-top condition, you’re buggered, mate. You really are. And you’ve got to keep a pneumatic spanner in the house. Essential.’

‘That’s fascinating, Archibald. May we come in?’

Archie stepped aside. ‘ ’Course. Tell the truth, I was expecting you. You never did know a drill bit from a screw handle, Ick-Ball. Good with the theory, but never got the hang of the practicalities. Go on, up the stairs, mind the night lights – good idea that, eh? Hello, Alsi, you look lovely as ever; hello, Millboid, yer scoundrel. So Sam, out with it: what have you lost?’

Samad sheepishly recounted the damage so far.

‘Ah, now you see, that’s not your glazing – that’s fine, I put that in – it’s the frames. Just ripped out of that crumbling wall, I’ll bet.’

Samad grudgingly acknowledged this to be the case.

‘There’ll be worst to come, mark mine. Well, what’s done is done. Clara and Irie are in the kitchen. We’ve got a Bunsen burner going, and grub’s up in a minute. But what a bloody storm, eh? Phone’s out. ’Lectricity’s out. Never seen the likes of it.’

In the kitchen, a kind of artificial calm reigned. Clara was stirring some beans, quietly humming the tune to Buffalo Soldier. Irie was hunched over a notepad, writing her diary obsessively in the manner of thirteen-year-olds:

8.30 p.m. Millat just walked in. He’s sooo gorgeous but ultimately irritating! Tight jeans as usual. Doesn’t look at me (as usual, except in a FRIENDLY way). I’m in love with a fool (stupid me)! If only he had his brother’s brains… oh well, blah blah. I’ve got puppy love and puppy fat – aaaagh! Storm still crazy. Got to go. Will write later.

‘All right,’ said Millat.

‘All right,’ said Irie.

‘Crazy this, eh?’

‘Yeah, mental.’

‘Dad’s having a fit. House is torn to shit.’

‘Ditto. It’s been madness around here too.’

‘I’d like to know where you’d be without me, young lady,’ said Archie, banging another nail into some hardboard. ‘Best-protected house in Willesden, this is. Can’t hardly tell there’s a storm going on from here.’

‘Yeah,’ said Millat, sneaking a final thrilling peek through the window at the apoplectic trees before Archie blocked out the sky entirely with wood and nails. ‘That’s the problem.’

Samad clipped Millat round the ear. ‘Don’t you start in on the cheekiness. We know what we’re doing. You forget, Archibald and I have coped with extreme situations. Once you have fixed a five-man tank in the middle of a battlefield, your life at risk at every turn, bullets whizzing inches from your arse, while simultaneously capturing the enemy in the harshest possible conditions, let me be telling you, hurricane is little tiny small fry. You could do a lot worse than – yes, yes, very amusing I’m sure,’ muttered Samad, as the two children and the two wives feigned narcolepsy. ‘Who wants some of these beans? I’m dishing out.’

‘Someone tell a story,’ said Alsana. ‘It’s going to get oh so boring if we have to listen to old warhorse big mouths all night.’

‘Go on, Sam,’ said Archie with a wink. ‘Give us the one about Mangal Pande. That’s always good for a laugh.’

A clamour of Nooo’s, mimed slitting of throats and self-asphyxiation went round the assembled company.

‘The story of Mangal Pande,’ Samad protested, ‘is no laughing matter. He is the tickle in the sneeze, he is why we are the way we are, the founder of modern India, the big historical cheese.’

Alsana snorted. ‘Big fat nonsense. Every fool knows Gandhi-gee is the big cheese. Or Nehru. Or maybe Akbar, but he was crook-backed, and huge-nosed, I never liked him.’

‘Dammit! Don’t talk nonsense, woman. What do you know about it? Fact is: it is simply a matter of market economy, publicity, movie rights. The question is: are the pretty men with the big white teeth willing to play you, et cetera. Gandhi had Mr Kingsley – bully for him – but who will do Pande, eh? Pande’s not pretty enough, is he? Too Indian-looking, big nose, big eyebrows. That’s why I am always having to tell you ingrates a thing or two about Mangal Pande. Bottom line: if I don’t, nobody will.’

‘Look,’ said Millat, ‘I’ll do the short version. Great-grandfather-’

Your great-great-grandfather, stupid,’ corrected Alsana.

‘Whatever. Decides to fuck the English-’

‘Millat!’

‘To rebel against the English, all on his Jack-Jones, spliffed up to the eyeballs, tries to shoot his captain, misses, tries to shoot himself, misses, gets hung-’

‘Hanged,’ said Clara absent-mindedly.

‘Hanged or hung? I’ll get the dictionary,’ said Archie, laying down his hammer and climbing off the kitchen counter.

‘Whatever. End of story. Bor-ing.’

And now a mammoth tree – the kind endemic to North London, the ones that sprout three smaller trees along the trunk before finally erupting into glorious greenery, city-living for whole diaspora of magpie – a tree of this kind tore itself from the dog shit and the concrete, took one tottering step forward, swooned and collapsed; through the guttering, through the double glazing, through the hardboard, knocked over a gas lamp, and then landed in an absence that was Archie-shaped, for he had just left it.

Archie was the first to leap into action, throwing a towel on the small fire progressing along the cork kitchen tiles, while everyone else trembled and wept and checked each other for injury. Then Archie, visibly shaken by this blow to his DIY supremacy, reclaimed control over the elements, tying some of the branches with kitchen rags and ordering Millat and Irie to go around the house, putting out the gas lamps.

‘We don’t want to burn ourselves to death, now do we? I better find some black plastic and gaffer tape. Do something about this.’

Samad was incredulous. ‘Do something about it, Archibald? I fail to see how some gaffer tape will change the fact there is a half a tree in the kitchen.’

‘Man, I’m terrified,’ stuttered Clara, after a few minutes’ silence, as the storm lulled. ‘The quiet is always a bad sign. My grandmother – God rest her – she always said that. The quiet is just God pausing to take a breath before he shouts all over again. I think we should go into the other room.’

‘That was the only tree on this side. Best stay in here. Worst’s done here. Besides,’ said Archie, touching his wife’s arm aff ectionately, ‘you Bowdens have seen worse than this! Your mother was born in a bloody earthquake, for Christ’s sake. 1907, Kingston’s falling apart and Hortense pops into the world. You wouldn’t see a little storm like this worrying her. Tough as nails, that one.’

‘Not toughness,’ said Clara quietly, standing up to look through the broken window at the chaos outside, ‘luck. Luck and faith.’

‘I suggest we pray,’ said Samad, picking up his novelty Qurān. ‘I suggest we acknowledge the might of the Creator as he does his worst this evening.’

Samad began flicking through and, finding what he wanted, brought it patrician-like under his wife’s nose, but she slammed it shut and glared at him. Ungodly Alsana, who was yet a nifty hand with the word of God (good schooling, proper parents, oh yes), lacking nothing but the faith, prepared to do what she did only in emergency: recite: ‘I do not serve what you worship, nor do you serve what I worship. I shall never serve what you worship, nor will you ever serve what I worship. You have your own religion, and I have mine. Sura 109, translation N. J. Dawood.’ Now, will someone,’ said Alsana, looking to Clara, ‘please remind my husband that he is not Mr Manilow and he does not have the songs that make the whole world sing. He will whistle his tune and I will whistle mine.’

Samad turned contemptuously from his wife and placed both hands rigidly on his book. ‘Who will pray with me?’

‘Sorry, Sam,’ came a muffled voice (Archie had his head in the cupboard and was searching for the bin bags). ‘Not really my cup of tea, either. Never been a church man. No offence.’

Five more minutes passed without the wind. Then the quiet burst and God shouted just as Ambrosia Bowden had told her granddaughter he would. Thunder went over the house like a dying man’s bile, lightning followed like his final malediction, and Samad closed his eyes.

‘Irie! Millat!’ called Clara, then Alsana. No answer. Standing bolt upright in the cupboard, smashing his head against the spice shelf, Archie said, ‘It’s been ten minutes. Oh blimey. Where are the kids?’

One kid was in Chittagong, being dared by a friend to take off his lungi and march through a renowned crocodile swamp; the other two had sneaked out of the house to feel the eye of the storm, and were walking against the wind as if thigh-high in water. They waded into Willesden recreation ground, where the following conversation took place.

‘This is incredible!’

‘Yeah, mental!’

You’re mental.’

‘What do you mean? I’m fine!’

‘No, you’re not. You’re always looking at me. And what were you writing? You’re such a nerd. You’re always writing.’

‘Nothing. Stuff. You know, diary stuff.’

‘You’ve got the blatant hots for me.’

‘I can’t hear you! Louder!’

‘THE HOTS! BLATANTLY! YOU CAN HEAR ME.’

‘I have not! You’re an egomaniac.’

‘You want my arse.’

‘Don’t be a wanker!’

‘Well, it’s no good, anyway. You’re getting a bit big. I don’t like big. You can’t have me.’

‘I wouldn’t want to, Mr Egomaniac.’

‘Plus: imagine what our kids would look like.’

‘I think they’d look nice.’

‘Browny-black. Blacky-brown. Afro, flat nose, rabbit teeth and freckles. They’d be freaks!’

‘You can talk. I’ve seen that picture of your grandad-’

‘GREAT-GREAT-GRANDAD.’

‘Massive nose, horrible eyebrows-’

‘That’s an artist’s impression, you chief.’

‘And they’d be crazy – he was crazy – your whole family’s crazy. It’s genetic.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever.’

‘And for your information, I don’t fancy you, anyway. You’ve got a bent nose. And you’re trouble. Who wants trouble?’

‘Well, watch out,’ said Millat, leaning forward, colliding with some buck teeth, slipping a tongue in momentarily, and then pulling back. ‘ ’Cos that’s all the trouble you’re getting.’

14 January 1989

Millat spread his legs like Elvis and slapped his wallet down on the counter. ‘One for Bradford, yeah?’

The ticket-man put his tired face close up to the glass. ‘Are you asking me, young man, or telling me?’

‘I just say, yeah? One for Bradford, yeah? You got some problem, yeah? Speaka da English? This is King’s Cross, yeah? One for Bradford, innit?’

Millat’s Crew (Rajik, Ranil, Dipesh and Hifan) sniggered and shuffled behind him, joining in on the yeahs like some kind of backing group.

Please?’

‘Please what, yeah? One for Bradford, yeah? You get me? One for Bradford. Chief.’

‘And would that be a return? For a child?’

‘Yeah, man. I’m fifteen, yeah? ’Course I want a return, I’ve got a bāÅ-ii to get back to like everybody else.’

‘That’ll be seventy-five pounds, then, please.’

This was met with displeasure by Millat and Millat’s Crew.

‘You what? Takin’ liberties! Seventy – chaaaa, man. That’s moody. I ain’t payin’ no seventy-five pounds!’

‘Well, I’m afraid that’s the price. Maybe next time you mug some poor old lady,’ said the ticket-man, looking pointedly at the chunky gold that fell from Millat’s ears, wrists, fingers and from around his neck, ‘you could stop in here first before you get to the jewellery store.’

‘Liberties!’ squealed Hifan.

‘He’s cussin’ you, yeah?’ confirmed Ranil.

‘You better tell ’im,’ warned Rajik.

Millat waited a minute. Timing was everything. Then he turned around, stuck his arse in the air, and farted long and loud in the ticket-man’s direction.

The Crew, on cue: ‘Somokāmi!’

‘What did you call me? You – what did you say? You little bastards. Can’t tell me in English? Have to talk your Paki language?’

Millat slammed his fist so hard on the glass that it reverberated down the booths to the ticket-man down the other end selling tickets to Milton Keynes.

‘First: I’m not a Paki, you ignorant fuck. And second: you don’t need translator, yeah? I’ll give it to you straight. You’re a fucking faggot, yeah? Queer boy, poofter, batty-rider, shit-dick.’

There was nothing Millat’s Crew prided themselves on more than the number of euphemisms they could offer for homosexuality.

‘Arse-bandit, fairy-fucker, toilet-trader.’

‘You want to thank God for the glass between us, boy.’

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I thank Allah, yeah? I hope he fucks you up wicked, yeah? We’re going to Bradford to sort out the likes of you, yeah? Chief!’

Halfway up platform 12, about to board a train they had no tickets for, a King’s Cross security guy stopped Millat’s Crew to ask them a question. ‘You boys not looking for any trouble, are you?’

The question was fair. Millat’s Crew looked like trouble. And, at the time, a crew that looked like trouble in this particular way had a name, they were of a breed: Raggastani.

It was a new breed, just recently joining the ranks of the other street crews: Becks, B-boys, Indie kids, wide-boys, ravers, rude-boys, Acidheads, Sharons, Tracies, Kevs, Nation Brothers, Raggas and Pakis; manifesting itself as a kind of cultural mongrel of the last three categories. Raggastanis spoke a strange mix of Jamaican patois, Bengali, Gujarati and English. Their ethos, their manifesto, if it could be called that, was equally a hybrid thing: Allah featured, but more as a collective big brother than a supreme being, a hard-as-fuck geezer who would fight in their corner if necessary; Kung Fu and the works of Bruce Lee were also central to the philosophy; added to this was a smattering of Black Power (as embodied by the album Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy); but mainly their mission was to put the Invincible back in Indian, the Bad-aaaass back in Bengali, the P-Funk back in Pakistani. People had fucked with Rajik back in the days when he was into chess and wore V-necks. People had fucked with Ranil, when he sat at the back of the class and carefully copied all teacher’s comments into his book. People had fucked with Dipesh and Hifan when they wore traditional dress in the playground. People had even fucked with Millat, with his tight jeans and his white rock. But no one fucked with any of them any more because they looked like trouble. They looked like trouble in stereo. Naturally, there was a uniform. They each dripped gold and wore bandanas, either wrapped around their foreheads or tied at the joint of an arm or leg. The trousers were enormous, swamping things, the left leg always inexplicably rolled up to the knee; the trainers were equally spectacular, with tongues so tall they obscured the entire ankle; baseball caps were compulsory, low slung and irremovable, and everything, everything, everything was NikeTM; wherever the five of them went the impression they left behind was of one gigantic swoosh, one huge mark of corporate approval. And they walked in a very particular way, the left side of their bodies assuming a kind of loose paralysis that needed carrying along by the right side; a kind of glorified, funky limp like the slow, padding movement that Yeats imagined for his rough millennial beast. Ten years early, while the happy acid heads danced through the Summer of Love, Millat’s Crew were slouching towards Bradford.

‘No trouble, yeah?’ said Millat to the security guy.

‘Just going – ’ began Hifan.

‘To Bradford,’ said Rajik.

‘For business, yeah?’ explained Dipesh.

‘See-ya! Bidāyo!’ called Hifan, as they slipped into the train, gave him the finger, and shoved their arses up against the closing doors.

‘Tax the window seat, yeah? Nice. I’ve blatantly got to have a fag in here, yeah? I’m fuckin’ wired, yeah? This whole business, man. This fuckin’ geezer, man. He’s a fuckin’ coconut – I’d like to fuck him up, yeah?’

‘Is he actually gonna be there?’

All serious questions were always addressed to Millat, and Millat always answered the group as a whole. ‘No way. He ain’t going to be there. Just brothers going to be there. It’s a fucking protest, you chief, why’s he going to go to a protest against himself?’

‘I’m just saying,’ said Ranil, wounded, ‘I’d fuck him up, yeah? If he was there, you know. Dirty fucking book.’

‘It’s a fucking insult!’ said Millat, spitting some gum against the window. ‘We’ve taken it too long in this country. And now we’re getting it from our own, man. Rhas clut! He’s a fucking bādor, white man’s puppet.’

‘My uncle says he can’t even spell,’ said a furious Hifan, the most honestly religious of the lot. ‘And he dares to talk about Allah!’

‘Allah’ll fuck him up, yeah?’ cried Rajik, the least intelligent, who thought of God as some kind of cross between Monkey-Magic and Bruce Willis. ‘He’ll kick him in the balls. Dirty book.’

‘You read it?’ asked Ranil, as they whizzed past Finsbury Park.

There was a general pause.

Millat said, ‘I haven’t exackly read it exackly – but I know all about that shit, yeah?’

To be more precise, Millat hadn’t read it. Millat knew nothing about the writer, nothing about the book; could not identify the book if it lay in a pile of other books; could not pick out the writer in a line-up of other writers (irresistible, this line-up of offending writers: Socrates, Protagoras, Ovid and Juvenal, Radclyffe Hall, Boris Pasternak, D. H. Lawrence, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, all holding up their numbers for the mug shot, squinting in the flashbulb). But he knew other things. He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelt of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people’s jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all the jobs to his relatives; that he could be a dentist or a shop-owner or a curry-shifter, but not a footballer or a film-maker; that he should go back to his own country; or stay here and earn his bloody keep; that he worshipped elephants and wore turbans; that no one who looked like Millat, or spoke like Millat, or felt like Millat, was ever on the news unless they had recently been murdered. In short, he knew he had no face in this country, no voice in the country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it recognized him, and grabbed it with both hands.

‘So… you ain’t read it?’ asked Ranil nervously.

‘Look: you best believe I ain’t buying that shit, man. No way, star.’

‘Me neither,’ said Hifan.

‘True star,’ said Rajik.

‘Fucking nastiness,’ said Ranil.

‘Twelve ninety-five, you know!’ said Dipesh.

‘Besides,’ said Millat, with a tone of finality despite his high-rising terminals, ‘you don’t have to read shit to know that it’s blasphemous, you get me?’

Back in Willesden, Samad Iqbal was expressing the very same sentiment loudly over the evening news.

‘I don’t need to read it. The relevant passages have been photocopied for me.’

‘Will someone remind my husband,’ said Alsana, speaking to the newsreader, ‘that he does not even know what the bloody book is about because the last thing he read was the bloody A- Z.’

‘I’m going to ask you one more time to shut up so I can watch the news.’

‘I can hear screaming but it does not appear to be my voice.’

‘Can’t you understand, woman? This is the most important thing to happen to us in this country, ever. It’s crisis point. It’s the tickle in the sneeze. It’s big time.’ Samad hit the volume button a few times with his thumb. ‘This woman – Moira whateverhernameis – she mumbles. Why is she reading news if she can’t speak properly?’

Moira, turned up suddenly in mid-sentence, said, ‘… the writer denies blasphemy, and argues that the book concerns the struggle between secular and religious views of life.’

Samad snorted. ‘What struggle! I don’t see any struggle. I get on perfectly OK. All grey cells in good condition. No emotional difficulties.’

Alsana laughed bitterly. ‘My husband fights the Third World War every single bloody day in his head, so does everybody-’

‘No, no, no. No struggle. What’s he on about, eh? He can’t wangle out of it by being rational. Rationality! Most overrated Western virtue! Oh no. Fact is, he is simply offensive – he has offended-’

‘Look,’ Alsana cut in. ‘When my little group get together, if we disagree about something, we can sort it out. Example: Mohona Hossain hates Divargiit Singh. Hates all his movies. Hates him with a passion. She likes that other fool with the eyelashes like a lady! But we compromise. Never once have I burned a single video of hers.’

‘Hardly the same thing, Mrs Iqbal, hardly the same kettle with fish in it.’

‘Oh, passions are running high at the Women’s Committee – shows how much Samad Iqbal knows. But I am not like Samad Iqbal. I restrain myself. I live. I let live.’

‘It is not a matter of letting others live. It is a matter of protecting one’s culture, shielding one’s religion from abuse. Not that you’d know anything about that, naturally. Always too busy with this Hindi brain popcorn to pay any attention to your own culture!’

‘My own culture? And what is that please?’

‘You’re a Bengali. Act like one.’

‘And what is a Bengali, husband, please?’

‘Get out of the way of the television and look it up.’

Alsana took out BALTIC- BRAIN, number three of their 24-set Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia, and read from the relevant section:

The vast majority of Bangladesh’s inhabitants are Bengalis, who are largely descended from Indo-Aryans who began to migrate into the country from the west thousands of years ago and who mixed within Bengal with indigenous groups of various racial stocks. Ethnic minorities include the Chakma and Mogh, Mongoloid peoples who live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts District; the Santal, mainly descended from migrants from present-day India; and the Biharis, non-Bengali Muslims who migrated from India after the partition.

‘Oi, mister! Indo-Aryans… it looks like I am Western after all! Maybe I should listen to Tina Turner, wear the itsy-bitsy leather skirts. Pah. It just goes to show,’ said Alsana, revealing her English tongue, ‘you go back and back and back and it’s still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe. Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It’s a fairy-tale!’

‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re out of your depth.’

Alsana held up the encyclopedia. ‘Oh, Samad Miah. You want to burn this too?’

‘Look: I’ve no time to play right now. I am trying to listen to a very important news story. Serious goings on in Bradford. So, if you don’t mind-’

‘Oh dear God!’ screamed Alsana, the smile leaving her face, falling to her knees in front of the television, tracing her finger past the burning book to the face she recognized, smiling up at her through light tubes, her pixilated second-son beneath her picture-framed first. ‘What is he doing? Is he crazy? Who does he think he is? What on earth is he doing there? He’s meant to be in school! Has the day come when the babies are burning the books, has it? I don’t believe it!’

‘Nothing to do with me. Tickle in the sneeze, Mrs Iqbal,’ said Samad coolly, sitting back in his armchair. ‘Tickle in the sneeze.’

When Millat came home that evening, a great bonfire was raging in the back garden. All his secular stuff – four years’ worth of cool, pre- and post-Raggastani, every album, every poster, special-edition t-shirts, club fliers collected and preserved over two years, beautiful Air Max trainers, copies 20- 75 of 2000 AD Magazine, signed photo of Chuck D., impossibly rare copy of Slick Rick’s Hey Young World, Catcher in the Rye, his guitar, Godfather I and II, Mean Streets, Rumblefish, Dog Day Afternoon and Shaft in Africa – all had been placed on the funeral pyre, now a smouldering mound of ashes that was giving off fumes of plastic and paper, stinging the boy’s eyes that were already filled with tears.

‘Everyone has to be taught a lesson,’ Alsana had said, lighting the match with heavy heart some hours earlier. ‘Either everything is sacred or nothing is. And if he starts burning other people’s things, then he loses something sacred also. Everyone gets what’s coming, sooner or later.’

10 November 1989

A wall was coming down. It was something to do with history. It was an historic occasion. No one really knew quite who had put it up or who was tearing it down or whether this was good, bad or something else; no one knew how tall it was, how long it was, or why people had died trying to cross it or whether they would stop dying in future, but it was educational all the same; as good an excuse for a get-together as any. It was a Thursday night, Alsana and Clara had cooked, and everybody was watching history on TV.

‘Who’s for more rice?’

Millat and Irie held out their plates, jostling for prime position.

‘What’s happening now?’ asked Clara, rushing back to her seat with a bowl of Jamaican fried dumplings, from which Irie snatched three.

‘Same, man,’ Millat grumbled. ‘Same. Same. Same. Dancing on the wall, smashing it with a hammer. Whatever. I wanna see what else is on, yeah?’

Alsana snatched the remote control and squeezed in between Clara and Archie. ‘Don’t you dare, mister.’

‘It’s educational,’ said Clara deliberately, her pad and paper on the arm rest, waiting to leap into action at the suggestion of anything edifying. ‘It’s the kind of thing we all should be watching.’

Alsana nodded and waited for two awkward-shaped bhajis to go down the gullet. ‘That’s what I try and tell the boy. Big business. Tip-top historic occasion. When your own little Iqbals tug at your trousers and ask you where you were when-’

‘I’ll say I was bored shitless watching it on TV.’

Millat got a thwack round the head for ‘shitless’ and another one for the impertinence of the sentiment. Irie, looking strangely like the crowd on top of the wall in her everyday garb of CND badges, graffiti-covered trousers and beaded hair, shook her head in saddened disbelief. She was that age. Whatever she said burst like genius into centuries of silence. Whatever she touched was the first stroke of its kind. Whatever she believed was not formed by faith but carved from certainty. Whatever she thought was the first time such a thought had ever been thunk.

‘That’s totally your problem, Mill. No interest in the outside world. I think this is amazing. They’re all free! After all this time, don’t you think that’s amazing? That after years under the dark cloud of Eastern communism they’re coming into the light of Western democracy, united,’ she said, quoting Newsnight faithfully. ‘I just think democracy is man’s greatest invention.’

Alsana, who felt personally that Clara’s child was becoming impossibly pompous these days, held up the head of a Jamaican fried fish in protest. ‘No, dearie. Don’t make that mistake. Potato peeler is man’s greatest invention. That or Poop-a-Scoop.’

‘What they want,’ said Millat, ‘is to stop pissing around wid dis hammer business and jus’ get some Semtex and blow de djam ting up, if they don’t like it, you get me? Be quicker, innit?’

‘Why do you talk like that?’ snapped Irie, devouring a dumpling. ‘That’s not your voice. You sound ridiculous!’

‘And you want to watch dem dumplings,’ said Millat, patting his belly. ‘Big ain’t beautiful.’

‘Oh, get lost.’

‘You know,’ murmured Archie, munching on a chicken wing, ‘I’m not so sure that it’s such a good thing. I mean, you’ve got to remember, me and Samad, we were there. And believe me, there’s a good reason to have it split in two. Divide and conquer, young lady.’

‘Jesus Christ, Dad. What are you on?’

‘He’s not on anything,’ said Samad severely. ‘You younger people forget why certain things were done, you forget their significance. We were there. Not all of us think fondly upon a united Germany. They were different times, young lady.’

‘What’s wrong with a load of people making some noise about their freedom? Look at them. Look at how happy they are.’

Samad looked at the happy people dancing on the wall and felt contempt and something more irritating underneath it that could have been jealousy.

‘It is not that I disagree with rebellious acts per se. It is simply that if you are to throw over an old order, you must be sure that you can offer something of substance to replace it; that is what Germany needs to understand. As an example, take my great-grandfather, Mangal Pande-’

Irie sighed the most eloquent sigh that had ever been sighed. ‘I’d rather not, if it’s all the same.’

‘Irie!’ said Clara, because she felt she should.

Irie huffed. And puffed.

‘Well! He goes on like he knows everything. Everything’s always about him – and I’m trying to talk about now, today, Germany. I bet you,’ she said, turning to Samad, ‘I know more about it than you do. Go on. Try me. I’ve been studying it all term. Oh, and by the way: you weren’t there. You and Dad left in 1945. They didn’t do the wall until 1961.’

‘Cold War,’ said Samad sourly, ignoring her. ‘They don’t talk about hot war any more. The kind where men get killed. That’s where I learnt about Europe. It cannot be found in books.’

‘Oi-oi,’ said Archie, trying to diffuse a row. ‘You do know Last of the Summer Wine’s on in ten minutes? BBC Two.’

‘Go on,’ persisted Irie, kneeling up and turning around to face Samad. ‘Try me.’

‘The gulf between books and experience,’ intoned Samad solemnly, ‘is a lonely ocean.’

‘Right. You two talk such a load of sh-’

But Clara was too quick with a slap round the ear. ‘Irie!’

Irie sat back down, not so much defeated as exasperated and turned up the TV volume.

The 28-mile-long scar – the ugliest symbol of a divided world, East and West – has no meaning any more. Few people, including this reporter, thought to see it happen in their lifetimes, but last night, at the stroke of midnight, thousands lingering both sides of the wall gave a great roar and began to pour through checkpoints and to climb up and over it.

‘Foolishness. Massive immigration problem to follow,’ said Samad to the television, dipping a dumpling into some ketchup. ‘You just can’t let a million people into a rich country. Recipe for disaster.’

‘And who does he think he is? Mr Churchill-gee?’ laughed Alsana scornfully. ‘Original whitecliffsdover piesnmash jellyeels royalvariety britishbulldog, heh?’

‘Scar,’ said Clara, noting it down. ‘That’s the right word, isn’t it?’

‘Jesus Christ. Can’t any of you understand the enormity of what’s going on here? These are the last days of a regime. Political apocalypse, meltdown. It’s an historic occasion.’

‘So everyone keeps saying,’ said Archie, scouring the TV Times. ‘But what about The Krypton Factor, ITV? That’s always good, eh? ’Son now.’

‘And stop sayin’ “an historic”,’ said Millat, irritated at all the poncey political talk. ‘Why can’t you just say “a”, like everybody else, man? Why d’you always have to be so la di da?’

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake!’ (She loved him, but he was impossible.) ‘What possible fucking difference can it make?’

Samad rose out of his seat. ‘Irie! This is my house and you are still a guest. I won’t have that language in it!’

‘Fine! I’ll take it to the streets with the rest of the proletariat.’

‘That girl,’ tutted Alsana as her front door slammed. ‘Swallowed an encyclopedia and a gutter at the same time.’

Millat sucked his teeth at his mother. ‘Don’t you start, man. What’s wrong with “a” encyclopedia? Why’s everyone in this house always puttin’ on fuckin’ airs?’

Samad pointed to the door. ‘OK, mister. You don’t speak to your mother like that. You out too.’

‘I don’t think,’ said Clara quietly, after Millat had stormed up to his room, ‘that we should discourage the kids from having an opinion. It’s good that they’re free-thinkers.’

Samad sneered, ‘And you would know… what? You do a great deal of free-thinking? In the house all day, watching the television?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘With respect: the world is complex, Clara. If there’s one thing these children need to understand it is that one needs rules to survive it, not fancy.’

‘He’s right, you know,’ said Archie earnestly, ashing a fag in an empty curry bowl. ‘Emotional matters – then yes, that’s your department-’

‘Oh – women’s work!’ squealed Alsana, through a mouth full of curry. ‘Thank you so much, Archibald.’

Archie struggled to continue. ‘But you can’t beat experience, can you? I mean, you two, you’re young women still, in a way. Whereas we, I mean, we are, like, wells of experience the children can use, you know, when they feel the need. We’re like encyclopedias. You just can’t offer them what we can. In all fairness.’

Alsana put her palm on Archie’s forehead and stroked it lightly. ‘You fool. Don’t you know you’re left behind like carriage and horses, like candlewax? Don’t you know to them you’re old and smelly like yesterday’s fishnchip paper? I’ll be agreeing with your daughter on one matter of importance.’ Alsana stood up, following Clara, who had left at this final insult and marched tearfully into the kitchen. ‘You two gentlemen talk a great deal of the youknowwhat.’

Left alone, Archie and Samad acknowledged the desertion of both families by a mutual rolling of eyes, wry smiles. They sat quietly for a moment while Archie’s thumb flicked adeptly through An Historic Occasion, A Costume Drama Set in Jersey, Two Men Trying to Build a Raft in Thirty Seconds, A Studio Debate on Abortion, and back once more to An Historic Occasion.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

‘Home? Pub? O’Connell’s?’

Archie was about to reach into his pocket for a shiny ten pence when he realized there was no need.

‘O’Connell’s?’ said Archie.

‘O’Connell’s’ said Samad.

10 The Root Canals of Mangal Pande

Finally, O’Connell’s. Inevitably, O’Connell’s. Simply because you could be without family in O’Connell’s, without possessions or status, without past glory or future hope – you could walk through that door with nothing and be exactly the same as everybody else in there. It could be 1989 outside, or 1999, or 2009, and you could still be sitting at the counter in the V-neck you wore to your wedding in 1975, 1945, 1935. Nothing changes here, things are only retold, remembered. That’s why old men love it.

It’s all about time. Not just its stillness but the pure, brazen amount of it. Quantity rather than Quality. This is hard to explain. If only there was some equation… something like:

Something to rationalize, to explain, why one would keep returning, like Freud’s grandson with his fort-da game, to the same miserable scenario. But time is what it comes down to. After you’ve spent a certain amount, invested so much of it in one place, your credit rating booms and you feel like breaking the chronological bank. You feel like staying in the place until it pays you back all the time you gave it – even if it never will.

And with the time spent, comes the knowledge, comes the history. It was at O’Connell’s that Samad had suggested Archie’s remarriage, 1974. Underneath table six in a pool of his own vomit, Archie celebrated the birth of Irie, 1975. There is a stain on the corner of the pinball machine where Samad first spilt civilian blood, with a hefty right hook to a racist drunk, 1980. Archie was downstairs the night he watched his fiftieth birthday float up through fathoms of whisky to meet him like an old shipwreck, 1977. And this is where they both came, New Year’s Eve, 1989 (neither the Iqbal nor Jones families having expressed a desire to enter the 90s in their company), happy to take advantage of Mickey’s special New Year fry-up: £2.85 for three eggs, beans, two rounds of toast, mushrooms and a generous slice of seasonal turkey.

The seasonal turkey was a bonus. For Archie and Samad, it was really all about being the witness, being the expert. They came here because they knew this place. They knew it inside and out. And if you can’t explain to your kid why glass will shatter at certain impacts but not others, if you can’t understand how a balance can be struck between democratic secularism and religious belief within the same state, or you can’t recall the circumstances in which Germany was divided, then it feels good – no, it feels great – to know at least one particular place, one particular period, from first-hand experience, eyewitness reports; to be the authority, to have time on your side, for once, for once. No better historians, no better experts in the world than Archie and Samad when it came to The Post-War Reconstruction and Growth of O’Connell’s Pool House.

1952 Ali (Mickey’s father), and his three brothers arrive at Dover with thirty old pounds and their father’s gold pocket-watch. All suffer from disfiguring skin condition.

1954- 1963 Marriages; odd-jobs of all varieties; births of Abdul-Mickey, the five other Abduls and their cousins.

1968 After working for three years as delivery boys in a Yugoslavian dry-cleaning outfit, Ali and his brothers have a small lump sum with which they set up a cab service called Ali’s Cab Service.

1971 Cab venture a great success. But Ali is dissatisfied. He decides what he really wants to do is ‘serve food, make people happy, have some face to face conversations once in a while’. He buys the disused Irish pool house next to the defunct railway station on the Finchley Road and sets about renovating it.

1972 In the Finchley Road only Irish establishments do any real business. So despite his Middle Eastern background and the fact that he is opening a café and not a pool house, Ali decides to keep the original Irish name. He paints all the fittings orange and green, hangs pictures of racehorses and registers his business name as ‘Andrew O’Connell Yusuf’. Out of respect, his brothers encourage him to hang fragments of the Qurān on the wall, so that the hybrid business will be ‘kindly looked upon’.

13 May 1973 O’Connell’s opens for business.

2 November 1974 Samad and Archie stumble upon O’Connell’s on their way home and pop in for a fry-up.

1975 Ali decides to carpet the walls to limit food stains.

May 1977 Samad wins fifteen bob on fruit machine.

1979 Ali has a fatal heart attack due to cholesterol build-up around the heart. Ali’s remaining family decide his death is a result of the unholy consumption of pork products. Pig is banned from the menu.

1980 Momentous year. Abdul-Mickey takes over O’Connell’s. Institutes underground gambling room to make up for the money lost on sausages. Two large pool tables are used: the ‘Death’ table and the ‘Life’ table. All those who want to play for money play on the ‘Death’ table. All those who object for religious reasons or because out of pocket play on the friendly ‘Life’ table. Scheme a great success. Samad and Archie play on the ‘Death’ table.

December 1980 Archie gets highest ever recorded score on pinball: 51,998 points.

1981 Archie finds unwanted cut-out of Viv Richards on Selfridges shop floor and brings it to O’Connell’s. Samad asks to have his great-grandfather Mangal Pande’s picture on the wall. Mickey refuses, claiming his ‘eyes are too close together’.

1982 Samad stops playing on the ‘Death’ table for religious reasons. Samad continues to petition for the picture’s installation.

31 October 1984 Archie wins £268.72 on the ‘Death’ table. Buys beautiful new set of Pirelli tyres for clapped-out car.

New Year’s Eve 1989, 10.30 p.m. Samad finally persuades Mickey to hang portrait. Mickey still thinks it ‘puts people off their food’.

‘I still think it puts people off their food. And on New Year’s Eve. I’m sorry, mate. No offence meant. ’Course my opinion’s not the fucking word of God, as it were, but it’s still my opinion.’

Mickey attached a wire round the back of the cheap frame, gave the dusty glass a quick wipe-down with his apron, and reluctantly placed the portrait on its hook above the oven.

‘I mean, he’s so bloody nasty-looking. That moustache. He looks like a right nasty piece of work. And what’s that earring about? He’s not a queer, is he?’

‘No, no, no. It wasn’t unusual, then, for men to wear jewellery.’

Mickey was dubious, giving Samad the look he gave to people who claimed to have got no game of pinball for their 50p and came seeking a refund. He got out from behind the counter and took a look at the picture from this new angle. ‘What d’you think, Arch?’

‘Good,’ said Archie solidly. ‘I think: good.’

‘Please. I would consider it a great personal favour if you would allow it to stay.’

Mickey tilted his head to one side and then the other. ‘As I said, I don’t mean no offence or nothing, I just think he looks a bit bloody shady. Haven’t you got another picture of him or sommink?’

‘That is the only one that survives. I would consider it a great personal favour, very great.’

‘Well…’ ruminated Mickey, flipping an egg over, ‘you being a regular, as it were, and you going on about it so bloody much, I suppose we’ll have to keep it. How about a public survey? What d’you think Denzel? Clarence?’

Denzel and Clarence were sitting in the corner as ever, their only concession to New Year’s Eve a few pieces of mangy tinsel hanging off Denzel’s trilby and a feathered kazoo sharing mouth space with Clarence’s cigar.

‘Was dat?’

‘I said, what d’you think of this bloke Samad wants up? It’s his grandfather.’

Great-grandfather,’ corrected Samad.

‘You kyan see me playing dominoes? You tryin’ to deprive an ol’man of his pleasure? What picture?’ Denzel grudgingly turned to look at it. ‘Dat? Hmph! I don’ like it. He look like one of Satan’s crew!’

‘He a relative of you?’ squeaked Clarence to Samad in his woman’s voice. ‘Dat explain much, my friend, much! He got some face like a donkey’s pum-pum.’

Denzel and Clarence exploded into their dirty laughter. ‘Nuff to put my belly off its digesting, true sur!’

‘There you are!’ exclaimed Mickey, victorious, turning back to Samad. ‘Puts the clientele off their food – that’s what I said right off.’

‘Assure me you are not going to listen to those two.’

‘I don’t know…’ Mickey twisted and turned in front of his cooking; hard thought always enlisted the involuntary help of his body. ‘I respect you and that, and you was mates with my dad, but – no disrespect or nuffin’ – you’re getting a bit fucking long-in-the-tooth, Samad mate, some of the younger customers might not-’

What younger customers?’ demanded Samad, gesturing to Clarence and Denzel.

‘Yeah, point taken… but the customer is always right, if you get my drift.’

Samad was genuinely hurt. ‘I am a customer. I am a customer. I have been coming to your establishment for fifteen years, Mickey. A very long time in any man’s estimation.’

‘Yeah, but it’s the majority wot counts, innit? On most other fings I defer, as it were, to your opinion. The lads call you “The Professor” and, fair dues, it’s not without cause. I am a respecter of your judgement, six days out of every seven. But bottom line is: if you’re one captain and the rest of the crew wants a bloody mutiny, well… you’re fucked, aren’t you?’

Mickey sympathetically demonstrated the wisdom of this in his frying pan, showing how twelve mushrooms could force one mushroom over the edge and on to the floor.

With the cackles of Denzel and Clarence still echoing in his ears, a current of anger worked its way through Samad and rose to his throat before he was able to stop it.

‘Give it to me!’ He reached over the counter to where Mangal Pande was hanging at a melancholy angle above the stove. ‘I should never have asked… it would be a dishonour, it would cast into ignominy the memory of Mangal Pande to have him placed here in this – this irreligious house of shame!’

‘You what?’

‘Give it to me!’

‘Now look… wait a minute-’

Mickey and Archie reached out to stop him, but Samad, distressed and full of the humiliations of the decade, kept struggling to overcome Mickey’s strong blocking presence. They tussled for a bit, but then Samad’s body went limp and, covered in a light film of sweat, he surrendered.

‘Look, Samad,’ and here Mickey touched Samad’s shoulders with such affection that Samad thought he might weep. ‘I didn’t realize it was such a bloody big deal for you. Let’s start again. We’ll leave the picture up for a week and see how it goes, right?’

‘Thank you, my friend.’ Samad pulled out a handkerchief and drew it over his forehead. ‘It is appreciated. It is appreciated.’

Mickey gave him a conciliatory pat between the shoulder blades. ‘Fuck knows, I’ve heard enough about him over the years. We might as well ’ave him up on the bloody wall. It’s all the same to me, I suppose. Comme-See-Comme-Sar, as the Frogs say. I mean, bloody hell. Blood-ee-hell. And that extra turkey requires hard cash, Archibald, my good man. The golden days of Luncheon Vouchers is over. Dear oh dear, what a palaver over nuffin’…’

Samad looked deep into his great-grandfather’s eyes. They had been through this battle many times, Samad and Pande, the battle for the latter’s reputation. Both knew all too well that modern opinion on Mangal Pande weighed in on either side of two camps:

Again and again he had argued the toss with Archie over this issue. Over the years they had sat in O’Connell’s and returned to the same debate, sometimes with new information gleaned from Samad’s continual research into the matter – but ever since Archie found out the ‘truth’ about Pande, circa 1953, there was no changing his mind. Pande’s only claim to fame, as Archie was at pains to point out, was his etymological gift to the English language by way of the word ‘Pandy’, under which title in the OED the curious reader will find the following definition:

Pandy /’pandi/n. 2 colloq. (now Hist.) Also -dee. M19 [Perh. f. the surname of the first mutineer amongst the high-caste sepoys in the Bengal army.] 1 Any sepoy who revolted in the Indian Mutiny of 1857- 9 2 Any mutineer or traitor 3 Any fool or coward in a military situation.

‘Plain as the pie on your face, my friend.’ And here Archie would close the book with an exultant slam. ‘And I don’t need a dictionary to tell me that – but then neither do you. It’s common parlance. When you and me were in the army: same. You tried to put one over on me once, but the truth will out, mate. “Pandy” only ever meant one thing. If I were you, I’d start playing down the family connection, rather than bending everybody’s ear twenty-four hours a bloody day.’

‘Archibald, just because the word exists, it does not follow that it is a correct representation of the character of Mangal Pande. The first definition we agree on: my great-grandfather was a mutineer and I am proud to say this. I concede matters did not go quite according to plan. But traitor? Coward? The dictionary you show me is old – these definitions are now out of currency. Pande was no traitor and no coward.’

‘Ahhh, now, you see, we’ve been through this, and my thought is this: there’s no smoke without fire,’ Archie would say, looking impressed by the wisdom of his own conclusion. ‘Know what I mean?’ This was one of Archie’s preferred analytic tools when confronted with news stories, historical events and the tricky day-to-day process of separating fact from fiction. There’s no smoke without fire. There was something so vulnerable in the way he relied on this conviction, that Samad had never had the heart to disabuse him of it. Why tell an old man that there can be smoke without fire as surely as there are deep wounds that draw no blood?

‘Of course, I see your point of view, Archie, I do. But my point is, and has always been, from the very first time we discussed the subject; my point is that this is not the full story. And, yes, I realize that we have several times thoroughly investigated the matter, but the fact remains: full stories are as rare as honesty, precious as diamonds. If you are lucky enough to uncover one, a full story will sit on your brain like lead. They are difficult. They are long-winded. They are epic. They are like the stories God tells: full of impossibly particular information. You don’t find them in the dictionary.’

‘All right, all right, Professor. Let’s hear your version.’

Often you see old men in the corner of dark pubs, discussing and gesticulating, using beer mugs and salt-cellars to represent long-dead people and far-off places. At that moment they display a vitality missing in every other area of their lives. They light up. Unpacking a full story on to the table – here is Churchill-fork, over there is Czechoslovakia-serviette, here we find the accumulation of German troops represented by a collection of cold peas – they are reborn. But when Archie and Samad had these table-top debates during the eighties, knives and forks were not enough. The whole of the steamy Indian summer of 1857, the whole of that year of mutiny and massacre would be hauled into O’Connell’s and brought to semi-consciousness by these two makeshift historians. The area stretching from the jukebox to the fruit machine became Delhi; Viv Richards silently complied as Pande’s English superior, Captain Hearsay; Clarence and Denzel continued to play dominoes while simultaneously being cast as the restless sepoy hordes of the British army. Each man brought the pieces of his argument, laid them out and assembled them for the other to see. Scenes were set. Paths of bullets traced. Disagreement reigned.

According to the legend, during the spring of 1857 in a factory in Dum-Dum, a new kind of British bullet went into production. Designed to be used in English guns by Indian soldiers, like most bullets at the time they had a casing that must be bitten in order to fit the barrel. There seemed nothing exceptional about them, until it was discovered by some canny factory worker that they were covered in a grease – a grease made from the fat of pigs, monstrous to Muslims, and the fat of cows, sacred to Hindus. It was an innocent mistake – as far as anything is innocent on stolen land – an infamous British blunder. But what a feverish turmoil must have engulfed the people on first hearing the news! Under the specious pretext of new weaponry, the English were intending to destroy their caste, their honour, their standing in the eyes of Gods and men – everything, in short, that made life worth living. A rumour like this could not be kept secret; it spread like wildfire through the dry lands of India that summer, down the production line, out on to the streets, through town houses and country shacks, through barrack after barrack, until the whole country was ablaze with the desire for a mutiny. The rumour reached the large unsightly ears of Mangal Pande, an unknown sepoy in the small town of Barrackpore, who swaggered into his parade ground – 29 March 1857 – stepping forward from the throng to make a certain kind of history. ‘Make a fool of himself, more like,’ Archie will say (for these days he does not swallow Pandy-ology as gullibly as he once did).

‘You totally misunderstand his sacrifice,’ Samad will reply.

‘What sacrifice? He couldn’t even kill himself properly! The problem with you, Sam, is you won’t listen to the evidence. I’ve read up on it all. The truth is the truth, no matter how nasty it may taste.’

Really. Well, please, my friend, since you are apparently an expert in the doings of my family, please, enlighten me. Let us hear your version.’

Now, the average school student nowadays is aware of the complex forces, movements and deep currents that motivate wars and spark revolutions. But when Archie was in school the world seemed far more open to its own fictionalization. History was a different business then: taught with one eye on narrative, the other on drama, no matter how unlikely or chronologically inaccurate. According to this schema, the Russian Revolution began because everyone hated Rasputin. The Roman Empire declined and fell because Antony was having it off with Cleopatra. Henry V triumphed at Agincourt because the French were too busy admiring their own outfits. And the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 began when a drunken fool called Mangal Pande shot a bullet. Despite Samad’s opposition, each time Archie read the following he found himself more convinced:

The scene is Barrackpore, the date 29 March 1857. It is Sunday afternoon; but on the dusty floor of the parade ground a drama is being enacted which is suggestive of anything but Sabbath peace. There chatters and sways and eddies a confused mass of Sepoys, in all stages of dress and undress; some armed, some unarmed; but all fermenting with excitement. Some thirty yards in front of the line of the 34th swaggers to and fro a Sepoy named Mangal Pande. He is half drunk with bhang, and wholly drunk with religious fanaticism. Chin in air, loaded musket in hand, he struts backwards and forwards, at a sort of half dance, shouting in shrill and nasal monotone, ‘Come out, you blackguards! Turn out, all of you! The English are upon us. Through biting these cartridges we shall all be made infidels!’

The man, in fact, is in that condition of mingled bhang and ‘nerves’ which makes a Malay run amok; and every shout from his lips runs like a sudden flame through the brains and along the nerves of the listening crowd of fellow Sepoys, as the crowd gets bigger, the excitement more intense. A human powder magazine, in a word, is about to explode.

And explode it did. Pande shot at his lieutenant and missed him. Then he took out a large sword, a tulwar, and cowardly lunged while his lieutenant’s back was turned, catching him on the shoulder. A sepoy tried to restrain him, but Pande battled on. Then came reinforcements: one Captain Hearsay rushed forward, his son at his side, both armed and honourable and prepared to die for their country. (‘Hear-say is precisely what it is! Rubbish. Fabrication!’) At which point Pande saw the game was up, pointed his enormous gun at his own head and dramatically pulled the trigger with his left foot. He missed. A few days later, Pande stood trial and was found guilty. From the other side of the country, on a chaise longue in Delhi, his execution was ordered by one General Henry Havelock (a man honoured, much to Samad’s fury, by a statue just outside the Palace Restaurant, Trafalgar Square, to the right of Nelson), who added – in a postscript to his written instruction – that he did hope that this would put an end to all the rash talk of mutiny one kept hearing recently. But it was too late. As Pande swung in the sultry breeze, hanging from a makeshift gallows, his disbanded comrades from the 34th were heading for Delhi, determined to join the rebel forces of what was to become one of the bloodiest failed mutinies of this or any century.

This version of events – by a contemporary historian named Fitchett – was enough to send Samad into spasms of fury. When a man has nothing but his blood to commend him, each drop of it matters, matters terribly; it must be jealously defended. It must be protected against assailants and detractors. It must be fought for. But like a Chinese whisper, Fitchett’s intoxicated, incompetent Pande had passed down a line of subsequent historians, the truth mutating, bending, receding as the whisper continued. It didn’t matter that bhang, a hemp drink taken in small doses for medicinal purposes, was extremely unlikely to cause intoxication of this kind or that Pande, a strict Hindu, was extremely unlikely to drink it. It didn’t matter that Samad could find not one piece of corroborating evidence that Pande had taken bhang that morning. The story still clung, like a gigantic misquote, to the Iqbal reputation, as solid and seemingly irremovable as the misconception that Hamlet ever said he knew Yorick ‘well’.

‘Enough! It makes no difference how many times you read these things to me, Archibald.’ (Archie usually came armed with a plastic bag full of Brent Library books, anti-Pande propaganda, misquotes galore.) ‘It is like a gang of children caught with their hands in an enormous honey jar: they are all going to tell me the same lie. I am not interested in this kind of slander. I am not interested in puppet theatre or tragic farce. Action interests me, friend.’ And here Samad would mime the final zipping up of his lips, the throwing away of a key. ‘True action. Not words. I tell you, Archibald, Mangal Pande sacrificed his life in the name of justice for India, not because he was intoxicated or insane. Pass me the ketchup.’

It was the 1989 New Year’s Eve shift in O’Connell’s, and the debate was in full swing.

‘True, he was not a hero in the way you in the West like your heroes – he did not succeed except in the manner of his honourable death. But imagine it: there he sat.’ Samad pointed to Denzel, about to play his winning domino. ‘At the trial, knowing death was upon him, refusing ever to reveal the names of his fellow conspirators-’

‘Now, that,’ said Archie, patting his pile of sceptics, Michael Edwardes, P. J. O. Taylor, Syed Moinul Haq and the rest, ‘depends what you read.’

‘No, Archie. That is a common mistake. The truth does not depend on what you read. Please let us not get into the nature of truth. Then you do not have to draw with my cheese and I can avoid eating your chalk.’

‘All right, then: Pande. What did he achieve? Nothing! All he did was start a mutiny – too early, mind, before the agreed date – and excuse my French, but that’s a fucking disaster in military terms. You plan, you don’t act on instinct. He caused unnecessary casualties. English and Indian.’

‘With respect, I don’t believe that to be the case.’

‘Well, you’re wrong.’

‘With respect, I believe I am right.’

‘It’s like this, Sam: imagine here’ – he gathered a pile of dirty plates that Mickey was about to put in the dishwasher – ‘are all the people who have written about your Pande in the last hundred-and-whatever years. Now: here’s the ones that agree with me.’ He placed ten plates on his side of the table and pushed one over to Samad. ‘And that’s the madman on your side.’

‘A. S. Misra. Respected Indian civil servant. Not a madman.’

‘Right. Well, it would take you at least another hundred-and-whatever years to get as many plates as I have, even if you were going to make them all yourself, and the likelihood is, once you had them, no bugger would want to eat off them anyway. Metaphorically speaking. Know what I mean?’

Which left only A. S. Misra. One of Samad’s nephews, Rajnu, had written to him in the spring of ’81 from his Cambridge college, mentioning casually that he had found a book which might be of some interest to his uncle. In it, he said, could be found an eloquent defence of their shared ancestor, one Mangal Pande. The only surviving copy was in his college library, it was by a man named Misra. Had he heard of it already? If not, might it not serve (Rajnu added in a cautious P. S.) as a pleasant excuse to see his uncle again?

Samad arrived on the train the very next day and stood on the platform, warmly greeting his soft-spoken nephew in the pouring rain, shaking his hand several times and talking as if it were going out of fashion.

‘A great day,’ he repeated over and over, until both men were soaked to the skin. ‘A great day for our family, Rajnu, a great day for the truth.’

Wet men not being allowed in college libraries, they spent the morning drying off in a stuffy upstairs café, full of the right type of ladies having the right type of tea. Rajnu, ever the good listener, sat patiently as his uncle babbled wildly – Oh, the importance of the discovery, Oh, how long he had waited for this moment – nodding in all the right places and smiling sweetly as Samad brushed tears from the corners of his eyes. ‘It is a great book, isn’t it, Rajnu?’ asked Samad pleadingly, as his nephew left a generous tip for the sour-faced waitresses who did not appreciate overexcited Indians spending three hours over one cream tea and leaving wet prints all over the furniture. ‘It is recognized, isn’t it?’

Rajnu knew in his heart that the book was an inferior, insignificant, forgotten piece of scholarship, but he loved his uncle, so he smiled, nodded and smiled firmly again.

Once in the library, Samad was asked to fill in the visitors’ book:

Name: Samad Miah Iqbal

College: Educated elsewhere (Delhi)

Research project: Truth

Rajnu, tickled by this last entry, picked up the pen, adding ‘and Tragedy’.

‘Truth and Tragedy,’ said a deadpan librarian, turning the book back round. ‘Any particular kind?’

‘Don’t worry,’ said Samad genially. ‘We’ll find it.’

It took a stepladder to reach it but it was well worth the stretch. When Rajnu passed the book to his uncle, Samad felt his fingers tingle and, looking at its cover, shape and colour, saw that it was all he had dreamt of. It was heavy, many paged, bound in a tan leather and covered in the light dust that denotes something incredibly precious, something rarely touched.

‘I left a marker in it. There is much to read but there is something I thought you’d like to see first,’ said Rajnu, laying it down on a desk. The heavy thud of one side of the book hit the table, and Samad looked at the appointed page. It was more than he could have hoped for.

‘It’s only an artist’s impression, but the similarity between-’

‘Don’t speak,’ said Samad, tracing his fingers across the picture. ‘This is our blood, Rajnu. I never thought I would see… What eyebrows! What a nose! I have his nose!’

‘You have his face, Uncle. More dashing, naturally.’

‘And what – what does it say underneath. Damn! Where are my reading glasses… read it for me, Rajnu, it is too small.’

‘The caption? Mangal Pande fired the first bullet of the 1857 movement. His self-sacrifice gave the siren to the nation to take up arms against an alien ruler, culminating in a mass-uprising with no parallel in world history. Though the effort failed in its immediate consequences, it succeeded in laying the foundations of the Independence to be won in 1947. For his patriotism he paid with his life. But until his last breath he refused to disclose the names of those who were preparing for, and instigating, the great uprising.’

Samad sat down on the bottom rung of the stepladder and wept.

‘So. Let me get this straight. Now you’re telling me that without Pande there’d be no Gandhi. That without your mad grandad there’d be no bloody Independence-’

‘Great-grandad.’

‘No, let me finish, Sam. Is that what you’re seriously asking us’ – Archie clapped an uninterested Clarence and Denzel on the back – ‘to believe? Do you believe it?’ he asked Clarence.

‘Me kyan believe dat!’ said Clarence, having no idea of the topic.

Denzel blew his nose into a napkin. ‘Troof be tol, me nah like to believe any ting. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Dat my motto.’

‘He was the tickle in the sneeze, Archibald. It is as simple as that. I do believe that.’

There was quiet for a minute. Archibald watched three sugar cubes dissolve in his teacup. Then, rather tentatively, he said, ‘I’ve got my own theory, you know. Separate from the books, I mean.’

Samad bowed. ‘Please enlighten us.’

‘Don’t get angry, now… But just think for a minute. Why is a strict religious man like Pande drinking bhang? Seriously, I know I tease you about it. But why is he?’

‘You know my opinion on that. He isn’t. He didn’t. It was English propaganda.’

‘And he was a good shot…’

‘No doubt about it. A. S. Misra produces a copy of a record stating that Pande trained in a special guard for one year, specially trained in the use of muskets.’

‘OK. So: why does he miss? Why?’

‘It is my belief that the only possible explanation is that the gun was faulty.’

‘Yes… there is that. But, maybe, maybe something else. Maybe he was being bullied into going out there and making a row, you know, goaded, by the other guys. And he didn’t want to kill anyone in the first place, you know. So he pretended to be drunk, so the boys in the barracks room would believe he missed the shot.’

‘That is quite the stupidest theory I have ever heard,’ sighed Samad, as the second hand of Mickey’s egg-stained clock started the thirty-second countdown to midnight. ‘The kind only you could come up with. It’s absurd.’

‘Why?’

‘Why? Archibald, these Englishmen, these Captain Hearsays, Havelocks and the rest, were every Indian’s mortal enemy. Why should he spare lives he despised?’

‘Maybe he just couldn’t do it. Maybe he wasn’t the type.’

‘Do you really believe there is a type of man who kills and a type of man who doesn’t?’

‘Maybe Sam, maybe not.’

‘You sound like my wife,’ groaned Samad, mopping up a final piece of egg, ‘let me tell you something, Archibald. A man is a man is a man. His family threatened, his beliefs attacked, his way of life destroyed, his whole world coming to an end – he will kill. Make no mistake. He won’t let the new order roll over him without a struggle. There will be people he will kill.’

‘And there will be people he will save,’ said Archie Jones, with a cryptic look his friend would have thought an impossible feat for those sagging, chubby features. ‘Trust me.’

‘Five! Four! Tree! Two! One! Jamaica Irie!’ said Denzel and Clarence, raising hot Irish coffees to each other in a toast, then immediately resuming round nine of the dominoes.

‘HAPPY FUCKING NEW YEAR!’ bellowed Mickey, from behind the counter.

Irie 1990, 1907

In this wrought-iron world of criss-cross cause and effect, could it be that the hidden throb I stole from them did not affect their future?

– Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

11 The Miseducation of Irie Jones

There was a lamp-post, equidistant from the Jones house and Glenard Oak Comprehensive, that had begun to appear in Irie’s dreams. Not the lamp-post exactly, but a small, handmade advert which was sellotaped round its girth at eye level. It said:

LOSE WEIGHT TO EARN MONEY

081 555 6752

Now, Irie Jones, aged fifteen, was big. The European proportions of Clara’s figure had skipped a generation, and she was landed instead with Hortense’s substantial Jamaican frame, loaded with pineapples, mangoes and guavas; the girl had weight; big tits, big butt, big hips, big thighs, big teeth. She was thirteen stone and had thirteen pounds in her savings account. She knew she was the target audience (if ever there was one), she knew full well, as she trudged schoolwards, mouth full of doughnut, hugging her spare tyres, that the advert was speaking to her. It was speaking to her. LOSE WEIGHT (it was saying) TO EARN MONEY. You, you, you, Miss Jones, with your strategically placed arms and cardigan, tied around the arse (the endless mystery: how to diminish that swollen enormity, the Jamaican posterior?), with your belly-reducing knickers and breast-reducing bra, with your meticulous lycra corseting – the much lauded nineties answer to whalebone – with your elasticated waists. She knew the advert was talking to her. But she didn’t know quite what it was saying. What were we talking about here? Sponsored slim? The earning capacity of thin people? Or something altogether more Jacobean, the brain-child of some sordid Willesden Shylock, a pound of flesh for a pound of gold: meat for money?

Rapid. Eye. Movement. Sometimes she’d be walking through school in a bikini with the lamp-post enigma written in chalk over her brown bulges, over her various ledges (shelf space for books, cups of tea, baskets or, more to the point, children, bags of fruit, buckets of water), ledges genetically designed with another country in mind, another climate. Other times, the sponsored slim dream: knocking on door after door, butt-naked with a clipboard, drenched in sunlight, trying to encourage old men to pinch-an-inch and pledge-a-pound. Worst times? Tearing off loose, white-flecked flesh and packing it into those old curvaceous Coke bottles; she is carrying them to the cornershop, passing them over a counter; and Millat is the bindi-wearing, V-necked cornershopkeeper, he is adding them up, grudgingly opening the till with blood-stained paws, handing over the cash. A little Caribbean flesh for a little English change.

Irie Jones was obsessed. Occasionally her worried mother cornered her in the hallway before she slunk out of the door, picked at her elaborate corsetry, asked, ‘What’s up with you? What in the Lord’s name are you wearing? How can you breathe? Irie, my love, you’re fine – you’re just built like an honest-to-God Bowden – don’t you know you’re fine?’

But Irie didn’t know she was fine. There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection. A stranger in a stranger land.

Nightmares and daydreams, on the bus, in the bath, in class. Before. After. Before. After. Before. After. The mantra of the make-over junkie, sucking it in, letting it out; unwilling to settle for genetic fate; waiting instead for her transformation from Jamaican hourglass heavy with the sands that gather round Dunn River Falls, to English Rose – oh, you know her – she’s a slender, delicate thing not made for the hot suns, a surfboard rippled by the wave:

Mrs Olive Roody, English teacher and expert doodle-spotter at distances of up to twenty yards, reached over her desk to Irie’s exercise book and tore out the piece of paper in question. Looked dubiously at it. Then inquired with melodious Scottish emphasis, ‘Before and after what?’

‘Er… what?’

‘Before and after what?’

‘Oh. Nothing, Miss.’

‘Nothing? Oh, come now, Ms Jones. No need for modesty. It is obviously more interesting than Sonnet 127.’

‘Nothing. It’s nothing.’

‘Absolutely certain? You don’t wish to delay the class any more? Because… some of the class need to listen to – nae, are even a wee bit interested in – what I have to say. So if you could spare some time from your doooodling-’

No one but no one said ‘doodling’ like Olive Roody.

‘-and join the rest of us, we’ll continue. Well?’

‘Well what?’

‘Can you? Spare the time?’

‘Yes, Mrs Roody.’

‘Oh, good. That’s cheered me up. Sonnet 127, please.’

In the old age black was not counted fair,’ continued Francis Stone in the catatonic drone with which students read Elizabethan verse. ‘Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.’

Irie put her right hand on her stomach, sucked in and tried to catch Millat’s eye. But Millat was busy showing pretty Nikki Tyler how he could manipulate his tongue into a narrow roll, a flute. Nikki Tyler was showing him how the lobes of her ears were attached to the side of her head rather than loose. Flirtatious remnants of this morning’s science lesson: Inherited characteristics. Part One (a). Loose. Attached. Rolled. Flat. Blue eye. Brown eye. Before. After.

Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black, her brows so suited, and they mourners seem… My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun.. .’

Puberty, real full-blown puberty (not the slight mound of a breast, or the shadowy emergence of fuzz), had separated these old friends, Irie Jones and Millat Iqbal. Different sides of the school fence. Irie believed she had been dealt the dodgy cards: mountainous curves, buck teeth and thick metal retainer, impossible Afro hair, and to top it off mole-ish eyesight which in turn required bottle-top spectacles in a light shade of pink. (Even those blue eyes – the eyes Archie had been so excited about – lasted two weeks only. She had been born with them, yes, but one day Clara looked again and there were brown eyes staring up at her, like the transition between a closed bud and an open flower, the exact moment of which the naked, waiting eye can never detect.) And this belief in her ugliness, in her wrongness, had subdued her; she kept her smart-ass comments to herself these days, she kept her right hand on her stomach. She was all wrong.

Whereas Millat was like youth remembered in the nostalgic eyeglass of old age, beauty parodying itself: broken Roman nose, tall, thin; lightly veined, smoothly muscled; chocolate eyes with a reflective green sheen like moonlight bouncing off a dark sea; irresistible smile, big white teeth. In Glenard Oak Comprehensive, black, Pakistani, Greek, Irish – these were races. But those with sex appeal lapped the other runners. They were a species all of their own.

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.. .’

She loved him, of course. But he used to say to her: ‘Thing is, people rely on me. They need me to be Millat. Good old Millat. Wicked Millat. Safe, sweet-as, Millat. They need me to be cool. It’s practically a responsibility.’

And it practically was. Ringo Starr once said of the Beatles that they were never bigger than they were in Liverpool, late 1962. They just got more countries. And that’s how it was for Millat. He was so big in Cricklewood, in Willesden, in West Hampstead, the summer of 1990, that nothing he did later in his life could top it. From his first Raggastani crowd, he had expanded and developed tribes throughout the school, throughout North London. He was simply too big to remain merely the object of Irie’s affection, leader of the Raggastanis, or the son of Samad and Alsana Iqbal. He had to please all of the people all of the time. To the cockney wide-boys in the white jeans and the coloured shirts, he was the joker, the risk-taker, respected lady-killer. To the black kids he was fellow weed-smoker and valued customer. To the Asian kids, hero and spokesman. Social chameleon. And underneath it all, there remained an ever present anger and hurt, the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere. It was this soft underbelly that made him most beloved, most adored by Irie and the nice oboe-playing, long-skirted middle-class girls, most treasured by these hair-flicking and fugue-singing females; he was their dark prince, occasional lover or impossible crush, the subject of sweaty fantasy and ardent dreams…

And he was also their project: what was to be done about Millat? He simply must stop smoking weed. We have to try and stop him walking out of class. They worried about his ‘attitude’ at sleepovers, discussed his education hypothetically with their parents (Just say there was this Indian boy, yeah, who was always getting into.. .), even wrote poems on the subject. Girls either wanted him or wanted to improve him, but most often a combination of the two. They wanted to improve him until he justified the amount they wanted him. Everybody’s bit of rough, Millat Iqbal.

‘But you’re different,’ Millat Iqbal would say to the martyr Irie Jones, ‘you’re different. We go way back. We’ve got history. You’re a real friend. They don’t really mean anything to me.’

Irie liked to believe that. That they had history, that she was different in a good way.

Thy black is fairest in my judgement’s place.. .’

Mrs Roody silenced Francis with a raised finger. ‘Now, what is he saying there? Annalese?’

Annalese Hersh, who had spent the lesson so far plaiting red and yellow thread into her hair, looked up in blank confusion.

Anything, Annalese, dear. Any little idea. No matter how small. No matter how paltry.’

Annalese bit her lip. Looked at the book. Looked at Mrs Roody. Looked at the book.

‘Black?… Is?… Good?’

‘Yes… well, I suppose we can add that to last week’s contribution: Hamlet?… Is?… Mad? Anybody else? What about this? For since each hand hath put on nature’s power, Fairing the foul with art’s false borrow’d face. What might that mean I wonder?’

Joshua Chalfen, the only kid in class who volunteered opinions, put his hand up.

‘Yes, Joshua?’

‘Make-up.’

‘Yes,’ said Mrs Roody, looking close to orgasm. ‘Yes, Joshua, that’s it. What about it?’

‘She’s got a dark complexion which she’s trying to lighten by means of make-up, artifice. The Elizabethans were very keen on a pale skin.’

‘They would’ve loved you, then,’ sneered Millat, for Joshua was pasty, practically anaemic, curly-haired and chubby, ‘you would have been Tom bloody Cruise.’

Laughter. Not because it was funny, but because it was Millat putting a nerd where a nerd should be. In his place.

‘One more word from you Mr Ick-Ball and you are out!’

‘Shakespeare. Sweaty. Bollocks. That’s three. Don’t worry, I’ll let myself out.’

This was the kind of thing Millat did so expertly. The door slammed. The nice girls looked at each other in that way. (He’s just so out of control, so crazy… he really needs some help, some close one-to-one personal help from a good friend…) The boys belly-laughed. The teacher wondered if this was the beginning of a mutiny. Irie covered her stomach with her right hand.

‘Marvellous. Very adult. I suppose Millat Iqbal is some kind of hero.’ Mrs Roody, looking round the gormless faces of 5F, saw for the first time and with dismal clarity that this was exactly what he was.

‘Does anyone else have anything to say about these sonnets? Ms Jones! Will you stop looking mournfully at the door! He’s gone, all right? Unless you’d like to join him?’

‘No, Mrs Roody.’

‘All right, then. Have you anything to say about the sonnets?’

‘Yes.’

‘What?’

‘Is she black?’

‘Is who black?’

‘The dark lady.’

‘No, dear, she’s dark. She’s not black in the modern sense. There weren’t any… well, Afro-Carri-bee-yans in England at that time, dear. That’s more a modern phenomenon, as I’m sure you know. But this was the 1600s. I mean I can’t be sure, but it does seem terribly unlikely, unless she was a slave of some kind, and he’s unlikely to have written a series of sonnets to a lord and then a slave, is he?’

Irie reddened. She had thought, just then, that she had seen something like a reflection, but it was receding; so she said, ‘Don’t know, Miss.’

‘Besides, he says very clearly, In nothing art thou black, save in thy deeds… No, dear, she just has a dark complexion, you see, as dark as mine, probably.’

Irie looked at Mrs Roody. She was the colour of strawberry mousse.

‘You see, Joshua is quite right: the preference was for women to be excessively pale in those days. The sonnet is about the debate between her natural colouring and the make-up that was the fashion of the time.’

‘I just thought… like when he says, here: Then will I swear, beauty herself is black… And the curly hair thing, black wires-’

Irie gave up in the face of giggling and shrugged.

‘No, dear, you’re reading it with a modern ear. Never read what is old with a modern ear. In fact, that will serve as today’s principle – can you all write that down please.’

5F wrote that down. And the reflection that Irie had glimpsed slunk back into the familiar darkness. On the way out of class, Irie was passed a note by Annalese Hersh, who shrugged to signify that she was not the author but merely one of many handlers. It said: ‘By William Shakespeare: ODE TO LETITIA AND ALL MY KINKY-HAIRED BIG-ASS BITCHEZ.’

The cryptically named P. K.’s Afro Hair: Design and Management sat between Fairweather Funeral Parlour and Raakshan Dentists, the convenient proximity meaning it was not at all uncommon for a cadaver of African origin to pass through all three establishments on his or her final journey to an open casket. So when you phoned for a hair appointment, and Andrea or Denise or Jackie told you three thirty Jamaican time, naturally it meant come late, but there was also a chance it meant that some stone-cold church-going lady was determined to go to her grave with long fake nails and a weave-on. Strange as it sounds, there are plenty of people who refuse to meet the Lord with an Afro.

Irie, ignorant of all this, turned up for her appointment three thirty on the dot, intent upon transformation, intent upon fighting her genes, a headscarf disguising the bird’s nest of her hair, her right hand carefully placed upon her stomach.

‘You wan’ some ting, pickney?’

Straight hair. Straight straight long black sleek flickable tossable shakeable touchable finger-through-able wind-blowable hair. With a fringe.

‘Three thirty,’ was all Irie managed to convey of this, ‘with Andrea.’

‘Andrea’s next door,’ replied the woman, pulling at a piece of elongated gum and nodding in the direction of Fairweather’s, ‘having fun with the dearly departed. You better come sit down and wait and don’ bodder me. Don’ know how long she’ll be.’

Irie looked lost, standing in the middle of the shop, clutching her chub. The woman took pity, swallowed her gum and looked Irie up and down; she felt more sympathetic as she noted Irie’s cocoa complexion, the light eyes.

‘Jackie.’

‘Irie.’

‘Pale, sir! Freckles an’ every ting. You Mexican?’

‘No.’

‘Arab?’

‘Half Jamaican. Half English.’

‘Half-caste,’ Jackie explained patiently. ‘Your mum white?’

‘Dad.’

Jackie wrinkled her nose. ‘Usually de udder way roun’. How curly is it? Lemme se what’s under dere – ’ She made a grab for Irie’s headscarf. Irie, horrified at the possibility of being laid bare in a room full of people, got there before her and held on tight.

Jackie sucked her teeth. ‘What d’you ’spec us to do wid it if we kyant see it?’

Irie shrugged. Jackie shook her head, amused.

‘You ain’t been in before?’

‘No, never.’

‘What is it you want?’

‘Straight,’ said Irie firmly, thinking of Nikki Tyler. ‘Straight and dark red.’

‘Is dat a fact! You wash your hair recent?’

‘Yesterday,’ said Irie, offended. Jackie slapped her up-side her head.

‘Don’ wash it! If you wan’ it straight, don’ wash it! You ever have ammonia on your head? It’s like the devil’s having a party on your scalp. You crazy? Don’ wash it for two weeks an’ den come back.’

But Irie didn’t have two weeks. She had it all planned; she was going to go round to Millat’s this very evening with her new mane, all tied up in a bun, and she was going to take off her glasses and shake down her hair and he was going to say why Miss Jones, I never would have supposed… why Miss Jones, you’re-

‘I have to do it today. My sister’s getting married.’

‘Well, when Andrea get back she going to burn seven shades of shit out of your hair an’ you’ll be lucky if you don’ walk out of here with a ball ’ed. But den it your funeral. Ear,’ she said thrusting a pile full of magazines into Irie’s hands. ‘Dere,’ she said, pointing to a chair.

P. K.’s was split into two halves, male and female. In the male section, as relentless Ragga came unevenly over a battered stereo, young boys had logos cut into the back of their heads at the hands of slightly older boys, skilful wielders of the electric trimmers. ADIDAS. BADMUTHA. MARTIN. The male section was all laughter, all talk, all play; there was an easiness that sprang from no male haircut ever costing over six pounds or taking more than fifteen minutes. It was a simple enough exchange and there was joy in it: the buzz of the revolving blade by your ear, a rough brush-down with a warm hand, mirrors front and back to admire the transformation. You came in with a picky head, uneven and coarse, disguised underneath a baseball cap, and you left swiftly afterwards a new man, smelling sweetly of coconut oil and with a cut as sharp and clean as a swear word.

In comparison, the female section of P. K.’s was a deathly thing. Here, the impossible desire for straightness and ‘movement’ fought daily with the stubborn determination of the curved African follicle; here ammonia, hot combs, clips, pins and simple fire had all been enlisted in the war and were doing their damnedest to beat each curly hair into submission.

‘Is it straight?’ was the only question you heard as the towels came off and the heads emerged from the drier pulsating with pain. ‘Is it straight, Denise? Tell me is it straight, Jackie?’

To which Jackie or Denise, having none of the obligations of white hairdressers, no need to make tea or kiss arse, flatter or make conversation (for these were not customers they were dealing with but desperate wretched patients), would give a sceptical snort and whip off the puke-green gown. ‘It as straight as it ever going to be!’

Four women sat in front of Irie now, biting their lips, staring intently into a long, dirty mirror, waiting for their straighter selves to materialize. While Irie flicked nervously through American black hair magazines, the four women sat grimacing in pain. Occasionally one said to another, ‘How long?’ To which the proud reply came, ‘Fifteen minutes. How long for you?’ ‘Twenty-two. This shit’s been on my head twenty-two minutes. It better be straight.’

It was a competition in agony. Like rich women in posh restaurants ordering ever smaller salads.

Finally there would come a scream, or a ‘That’s it! Shit, I can’t take it!’ and the head in question was rushed to the sink, where the washing could never be quick enough (you cannot get ammonia out of your hair quick enough) and the quiet weeping began. It was at this point that animosity arose; some people’s hair was ‘kinkier’ than others’, some Afros fought harder, some survived. And the animosity spread from fellow customer to hairdresser, to inflicter of this pain, for it was natural enough to suspect Jackie or Denise of something like sadism: their fingers were too slow as they worked the stuff out, the water seemed to trickle instead of gush, and meanwhile the devil had a high old time burning the crap out of your hairline.

‘Is it straight? Jackie, is it straight?’

The boys arched their heads round the partition wall, Irie looked up from her magazine. There was little to say. They all came out straight or straight enough. But they also came out dead. Dry. Splintered. Stiff. All the spring gone. Like the hair of a cadaver as the moisture seeps away.

Jackie or Denise, knowing full well that the curved African follicle will, in the end, follow its genetic instructions, put a philosophic slant on the bad news. ‘It as straight as it ever going to be. Tree weeks if you lucky.’

Despite the obvious failure of the project, each woman along the line felt that it would be different for her, that when their own unveiling came, straight straight flickable, wind-blowable locks would be theirs. Irie, as full of confidence as the rest, returned to her magazine.

Malika, vibrant young star of the smash hit sitcom Malika’s Life, explains how she achieves her loose and flowing look: ‘I hot wrap it each evening, ensuring that the ends are lightly waxed in African Queen Afro SheenTM, then, in the morning, I put a comb on the stove for approximately – ’

The return of Andrea. The magazine was snatched from her hands, her headscarf unceremoniously removed before she could stop it, and five long and eloquent fingernails began to work their way through her scalp.

‘Ooooh,’ murmured Andrea.

This sign of approval was a rare-enough occurrence for the rest of the shop to come round the partition to have a look.

‘Oooooh,’ said Denise, adding her fingers to Andrea’s. ‘So loose.’

An older lady, wincing with pain underneath a drier, nodded admiringly.

‘Such a loose curl,’ cooed Jackie, ignoring her own scalded patient to reach into Irie’s wool.

‘That’s half-caste hair for you. I wish mine were like that. That’ll relax beautiful.’

Irie screwed up her face. ‘I hate it.’

‘She hates it!’ said Denise to the crowd. ‘It’s light brown in places!’

‘I been dealing with a corpse all morning. Be nice to get my hands into somefing sof’,’ said Andrea, emerging from her reverie. ‘You gonna relax it, darlin’?’

‘Yes. Straight. Straight and red.’

Andrea tied a green gown round Irie’s neck and lowered her into a swivelling chair. ‘Don’t know about red, baby. Can’t dye and relax on the same day. Kill the hair dead. But I can do the relax for you, no problem. Should come out beautiful, darlin’.’

The communication between hairdressers in P. K.’s being poor, no one told Andrea that Irie had washed her hair. Two minutes after having the thick white ammonia gloop spread on to her head, she felt the initial cold sensation change to a terrific fire. There was no dirt there to protect the scalp, and Irie started screaming.

‘I jus’ put it on! You want it straight, don’ you? Stop making that noise!’

‘But it hurts!’

‘Life hurts,’ said Andrea scornfully, ‘beauty hurts.’

Irie bit her tongue for another thirty seconds until blood appeared above her right ear. Then the poor girl blacked out.

She came to with her head over the sink, watching her hair, which was coming out in clumps, shimmy down the plughole.

‘You should have told me,’ Andrea was grumbling. ‘You should have told me that you washed it. It’s got to be dirty first. Now look.’

Now look. Hair that had once come down to her mid vertebrae was only a few inches from her head.

‘See what you’ve done,’ continued Andrea, as Irie wept openly. ‘I’d like to know what Mr Paul King is going to say about this. I better phone him and see if we can fix this up for you for free.’

Mr Paul King, the P. K. in question, owned the place. He was a big white guy, in his mid fifties, who had been an entrepreneur in the building trade until Black Wednesday and his wife’s credit card excesses took away everything but some bricks and mortar. Looking for a new idea, he read in the lifestyle section of his breakfast paper that black women spend five times as much as white women on beauty products and nine times as much on their hair. Taking his wife Sheila as an archetypal white woman, Paul King began to salivate. A little more research in his local library uncovered a multi-million pound industry. Paul King then bought a disused butcher’s on Willesden High Road, head-hunted Andrea from a Harlesden salon, and gave black hairdressing a shot. It was an instant success. He was amazed to discover that women on low income were indeed prepared to spend hundreds of pounds per month on their hair and yet more on nails and accessories. He was vaguely amused when Andrea first explained to him that physical pain was also part of the process. And the best part of it was there was no question of suing – they expected the burns. Perfect business.

‘Go on, Andrea, love, give her a freebie,’ said Paul King, shouting on a brick-shaped mobile over the construction noise of his new salon, opening in Wembley. ‘But don’t make a habit of it.’

Andrea returned to Irie with the good tidings. ‘ ’Sall right, darlin’. This one’s on us.’

‘But what – ’ Irie stared at her Hiroshima reflection. ‘What can you-’

‘Put your scarf back on, turn left out of here and go down the high road until you get to a shop called Roshi’s Haircare. Take this card and tell them P. K.’s sent you. Get eight packets of no. 5 type black hair with a red glow and come back here quick style.’

‘Hair?’ repeated Irie through snot and tears. ‘Fake hair?’

‘Stupid girl. It’s not fake. It’s real. And when it’s on your head it’ll be your real hair. Go!’

Blubbing like a baby, Irie shuffled out of P. K.’s and down the high road, trying to avoid her reflection in the shop windows. Reaching Roshi’s, she did her best to pull herself together, put her right hand over her stomach and pushed through the doors.

It was dark in Roshi’s and smelt strongly of the same scent as P. K.’s: ammonia and coconut oil, pain mixed with pleasure. From the dim glow given off by a flickering strip light, Irie could see there were no shelves to speak of but instead hair products piled like mountains from the floor up, while accessories (combs, bands, nail varnish) were stapled to the walls with the price written in felt-tip alongside. The only display of any recognizable kind was placed just below the ceiling in a loop around the room, taking pride of place like a collection of sacrificial scalps or hunting trophies. Hair. Long tresses stapled a few inches apart. Underneath each a large cardboard sign explaining its pedigree:

2 Metres. Natural Thai. Straight. Chestnut.

1 Metre. Natural Pakistani. Straight with a wave. Black.

5 Metres. Natural Chinese. Straight. Black.

3 Metres. Synthetic hair. Corkscrew curl. Pink.

Irie approached the counter. A hugely fat woman in a sari was waddling to the cash till and back again to hand over twenty-five pounds to an Indian girl whose hair had been shorn haphazardly close to the scalp.

‘And please don’t be looking at me in that manner. Twenty-five is very reasonable price. I tell you I can’t do any more with all these split ends.’

The girl objected in another language, picked up the bag of hair in question from the counter and made as if to leave with it, but the elder woman snatched it away.

‘Please, don’t embarrass yourself further. We both have seen the ends. Twenty-five is all I can give you for it. You won’t get more some other place. Please now,’ she said, looking over the girl’s shoulder to Irie, ‘other customers I have.’

Irie saw hot tears, not unlike her own, spring to the girl’s eyes. She seemed to freeze for a moment, vibrating ever so slightly with anger; then she slammed her hand down on the counter, swept up her twenty-five pounds and headed for the door.

The fat lady shook her chins in contempt after the disappearing girl. ‘Ungrateful, she is.’

Then she unpeeled a sticky label from its brown paper backing and slapped it on the bag of hair. It said: ‘6 Metres. Indian. Straight. Black/red.’

‘Yes, dear. What is it I can do?’

Irie repeated Andrea’s instruction and handed over the card.

‘Eight packets? That is about six metres, no?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Yes, yes, it is. You want it straight or with a wave?’

‘Straight. Dead straight.’

The fat lady did a silent calculation and then picked up the bag of hair that the girl had just left. ‘This is what you’re looking for. I haven’t been able to package it, you understand. But it is absolutely clean. You want?’

Irie looked dubious.

‘Don’t worry about what I said. No split ends. Just silly girl trying to get more than she deserves. Some people got no understanding of simple economics… It hurts her to cut off her hair so a million pounds she expects or something crazy. Beautiful hair, she has. When I was young, oh, mine was beautiful too, eh?’ The fat lady erupted into high-pitched laughter, her busy upper lip making her moustache quiver. The laugh subsided.

‘Tell Andrea that will be thirty-seven fifty. We Indian women have the beautiful hair, hey? Everybody wants it!’

A black woman with children in a twin buggy was waiting behind Irie with a packet of hairpins. She sucked her teeth. ‘You people think you’re all Mr Bigstuff,’ she muttered, half to herself. ‘Some of us are happy with our African hair, thank you very much. I don’t want to buy some poor Indian girl’s hair. And I wish to God I could buy black hair products from black people for once. How we going to make it in this country if we don’t make our own business?’

The skin around the fat lady’s mouth became very tight. She began talking twelve to the dozen, putting Irie’s hair in a bag and writing her out a receipt, addressing all her comments to the woman via Irie, while doing the best to ignore the other woman’s interjections: ‘You don’t like shopping here, then please don’t be shopping here – is forcing you anybody? No, is anybody? It’s amazing: people, the rudeness, I am not a racist, but I can’t understand it, I’m just providing a service, a service. I don’t need abuse, just leave your money on the counter, if I am getting abuse, I’m not serving.’

‘No one’s givin’ you abuse. Jesus Christ!’

‘Is it my fault if they want the hair that is straight – and paler skin sometimes, like Michael Jackson, my fault he is too? They tell me not to sell the Dr Peacock Whitener – local paper, my God, what a fuss! – and then they buy it – take that receipt to Andrea, will you, my dear, please? I’m just trying to make a living in this country like the rest of everybody. There you are, dear, there’s your hair.’

The woman reached around Irie and delivered the right change to the counter with an angry smash. ‘For fuck’s sake!’

‘I can’t help it if that’s what they want – supply, demand. And bad language, I won’t tolerate! Simple economics – mind your step on the way out, dear – and you, no, don’t come back, please, I will call the police, I won’t be threatened, the police, I will call them.’

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’

Irie held the door open for the double buggy, and took one side to help carry it over the front step. Outside the woman put her hairpins in her pocket. She looked exhausted.

‘I hate that place,’ she said. ‘But I need hairpins.’

‘I need hair,’ said Irie.

The woman shook her head. ‘You’ve got hair,’ she said.

Five and a half hours later, thanks to an arduous operation that involved plaiting somebody else’s hair in small sections to Irie’s own two inches and sealing it with glue, Irie Jones had a full head of long, straight, reddish-black hair.

‘Is it straight?’ she asked, disbelieving the evidence of her own eyes.

‘Straight as hell,’ said Andrea, admiring her handiwork. ‘But honey, you’re going to have to plait it properly if you want it to stay in. Why won’t you let me plait it? It won’t stay in if it’s loose like that.’

‘It will,’ said Irie, bewitched by her own reflection. ‘It’s got to.’

He – Millat – need only see it once, after all, just once. To ensure she reached him in pristine state, she walked all the way to the Iqbal house with her hands on her hair, terrified that the wind would displace it.

Alsana answered the door. ‘Oh, hello. No, he’s not here. Out. Don’t ask me where, he doesn’t tell me a thing. I know where Magid is more of the time.’

Irie walked into the hallway and caught a sneaky glance of herself in the mirror. Still there and all in the right place.

‘Can I wait in here?’

‘Of course. You look different, dearie. Lost weight?’

Irie glowed. ‘New haircut.’

‘Oh yes… you look like a newsreader. Very nice. Now in the living room, please. Niece-of-Shame and her nasty friend are in there, but try not to let that bother you. I’m working in the kitchen and Samad is weeding, so keep the noise down.’

Irie walked into the lounge. ‘Bloody hell!’ screeched Neena at the approaching vision. ‘What the fuck do you look like!’

She looked beautiful. She looked straight, un-kinky. Beautiful.

‘You look like a freak! Fuck me! Maxine, man, check this out. Jesus Christ, Irie. What exactly were you aiming for?’

Wasn’t it obvious? Straight. Straightness. Flickability.

‘I mean, what was the grand plan? The Negro Meryl Streep?’ Neena folded over like a duvet and laughed herself silly.

‘Niece-of-Shame!’ came Alsana’s voice from the kitchen. ‘Sewing requires concentration. Shut it up, Miss Big-Mouth, please!’

Neena’s ‘nasty friend’, otherwise known as Neena’s girlfriend, a sexy and slender girl called Maxine with a beautiful porcelain face, dark eyes and a lot of curly brown hair, gave a pull to Irie’s peculiar bangs. ‘What have you done? You had beautiful hair, man. All curly and wild. It was gorgeous.’

Irie couldn’t say anything for a moment. She had not considered the possibility that she looked anything less than terrific.

‘I just had a haircut. What’s the big deal?’

‘But that’s not your hair, for fuck’s sake, that’s some poor oppressed Pakistani woman who needs the cash for her kids,’ said Neena, giving it a tug and being rewarded with a handful of it. ‘OH SHIT!’

Neena and Maxine had a hysteria relapse.

‘Just get off it, OK?’ Irie retreated to an armchair and tucked her knees up under her chin. Trying to sound offhand, she asked, ‘So… umm… where’s Millat?’

‘Is that what all this is in aid of?’ asked Neena, astonished. ‘My shit-for-brains cousin-gee?’

‘No. Fuck off.’

‘Well, he’s not here. He’s got some new bird. Eastern-bloc gymnast with a stomach like a washboard. Not unattractive, spectacular tits, but tight-assed as hell. Name… name?’

‘Stasia,’ said Maxine, looking up briefly from Top of the Pops. ‘Or some such bollocks.’

Irie sank deeper into the ruined springs of Samad’s favourite chair.

‘Irie, will you take some advice? Ever since I’ve known you, you’ve been following that boy around like a lost dog. And in that time he’s snogged everyone, everyone apart from you. He’s even snogged me, and I’m his first cousin, for fuck’s sake.’

‘And me,’ said Maxine, ‘and I’m not that way inclined.’

‘Haven’t you ever wondered why he hasn’t snogged you?’

‘Because I’m ugly. And fat. With an Afro.’

‘No, fuckface, because you’re all he’s got. He needs you. You two have history. You really know him. Look how confused he is. One day he’s Allah this, Allah that. Next minute it’s big busty blondes, Russian gymnasts and a smoke of the sinsemilla. He doesn’t know his arse from his elbow. Just like his father. He doesn’t know who he is. But you know him, at least a little, you’ve known all the sides of him. And he needs that. You’re different.’

Irie rolled her eyes. Sometimes you want to be different. And sometimes you’d give the hair on your head to be the same as everybody else.

‘Look: you’re a smart cookie, Irie. But you’ve been taught all kinds of shit. You’ve got to re-educate yourself. Realize your value, stop the slavish devotion, and get a life, Irie. Get a girl, get a guy, but get a life.’

‘You’re a very sexy girl, Irie,’ said Maxine sweetly.

‘Yeah. Right.’

‘Trust her, she’s a raving dyke,’ said Neena, ruffling Maxine’s hair affectionately and giving her a kiss. ‘But the truth is the Barbra Streisand cut you’ve got there ain’t doing shit for you. The Afro was cool, man. It was wicked. It was yours.’

Suddenly Alsana appeared at the doorway with an enormous plate of biscuits and a look of intense suspicion. Maxine blew her a kiss.

‘Biscuits, Irie? Come and have some biscuits. With me. In the kitchen.’

Neena groaned. ‘Don’t panic, Auntie. We’re not enlisting her into the cult of Sappho.’

‘I don’t care what you’re doing. I don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t want to know such things.’

‘We’re watching television.’

It was Madonna on the TV screen, working her hands around two conically shaped breasts.

‘Very nice, I’m sure,’ sniped Alsana, glaring at Maxine. ‘Biscuits, Irie?’

I’d like some biscuits,’ murmured Maxine with a flutter of her extravagant eyelashes.

‘I am certain,’ said Alsana slowly and pointedly, translating code, ‘I don’t have the kind you like.’

Neena and Maxine fell about all over again.

‘Irie?’ said Alsana, indicating the kitchen with a grimace. Irie followed her out.

‘I’m as liberal as the next person,’ complained Alsana, once they were alone. ‘But why do they always have to be laughing and making a song-and-dance about everything? I cannot believe homosexuality is that much fun. Heterosexuality certainly is not.’

‘I don’t think I want to hear that word in this house again,’ said Samad deadpan, stepping in from the garden and laying his weeding gloves on the table.

‘Which one?’

‘Either. I am trying my level best to run a godly house.’

Samad spotted a figure at his kitchen table, frowned, decided it was indeed Irie Jones and began on the little routine the two of them had going. ‘Hello, Miss Jones. And how is your father?’

Irie shrugged on cue. ‘You see him more than we do. How’s God?’

‘Perfectly fine, thank you. Have you seen my good-for-nothing son recently?’

‘Not recently.’

‘What about my good son?’

‘Not for years.’

‘Will you tell the good-for-nothing he’s a good-for-nothing when you find him?’

‘I’ll do my best, Mr Iqbal.’

‘God bless you.’

‘Gesundheit.’

‘Now, if you will excuse me.’ Samad reached for his prayer mat from the top of the fridge and left the room.

‘What’s the matter with him?’ asked Irie, noticing that Samad had delivered his lines with less than enthusiasm. ‘He seems, I don’t know, sad.’

Alsana sighed. ‘He is sad. He feels like he has screwed everything up. Of course, he has screwed everything up, but then again, who will cast the first stone, et cetera. He prays and prays. But he will not look straight at the facts: Millat hanging around with God knows what kind of people, always with the white girls, and Magid…’

Irie remembered her first sweetheart encircled by a fuzzy halo of perfection, an illusion born of the disappointments Millat had afforded her over the years.

‘Why, what’s wrong with Magid?’

Alsana frowned and reached up to the top kitchen shelf, where she collected a thin airmail envelope and passed it to Irie. Irie removed the letter and the photograph inside.

The photo was of Magid, now a tall, distinguished-looking young man. His hair was the deep black of his brother’s but it was not brushed forward on his face. It was parted on the left side, slicked down and drawn behind the right ear. He was dressed in a tweed suit and what looked – though one couldn’t be sure, the photo was not good – like a cravat. He held a large sun hat in one hand. In the other he clasped the hand of the eminent Indian writer Sir R. V. Saraswati. Saraswati was dressed all in white, with his broad-rimmed hat on his head and an ostentatious cane in his free hand. The two of them were posed in a somewhat self-congratulatory manner, smiling broadly and looking for all the world as if they were about to pat each other roundly on the back or had just done so. The midday sun was out and bouncing off Dhaka University’s front steps, where the whole scene had been captured.

Alsana inched a smear off the photo with her index finger. ‘You know Saraswati?’

Irie nodded. Compulsory GCSE text: A Stitch in Time by R. V. Saraswati. A bitter-sweet tale of the last days of Empire.

‘Samad hates Saraswati, you understand. Calls him colonial-throwback, English licker-of-behinds.’

Irie picked a paragraph at random from the letter and read aloud.

As you can see, I was lucky enough to meet India’s very finest writer one bright day in March. After winning an essay competition (my title: ‘Bangladesh – To Whom May She Turn?’), I travelled to Dhaka to collect my prize (a certificate and a small cash reward) from the great man himself in a ceremony at the university. I am honoured to say he took a liking to me and we spent a most pleasant afternoon together; a long, intimate tea followed by a stroll through Dhaka’s more appealing prospects. During our lengthy conversations Sir Saraswati commended my mind, and even went so far as to say (and I quote) that I was ‘a first-rate young man’ – a comment I shall treasure! He suggested my future might lie in the law, the university, or even his own profession of the creative pen! I told him the first-mentioned vocation was closest to my heart and that it had long been my intention to make the Asian countries sensible places, where order prevailed, disaster was prepared for, and a young boy was in no danger from a falling vase (!) New laws, new stipulations, are required (I told him) to deal with our unlucky fate, the natural disaster. But then he corrected me: ‘Not fate,’ he said. ‘Too often we Indians, we Bengalis, we Pakistanis, throw up our hands and cry “Fate!” in the face of history. But many of us are uneducated, many of us do not understand the world. We must be more like the English. The English fight fate to the death. They do not listen to history unless it is telling them what they wish to hear. We say “It had to be!” It does not have to be. Nothing does.’ In one afternoon I learnt more from this great man than-

‘He learns nothing!’

Samad marched back into the kitchen in a fury and threw the kettle on the stove. ‘He learns nothing from a man who knows nothing! Where is his beard? Where is his khamise? Where is his humility? If Allah says there will be storm, there will be storm. If he says earthquake, it will be earthquake. Of course it has to be! That is the very reason I sent the child there – to understand that essentially we are weak, that we are not in control. What does Islam mean? What does the word, the very word, mean? I surrender. I surrender to God. I surrender to him. This is not my life, this is his life. This life I call mine is his to do with what he will. Indeed, I shall be tossed and turned on the wave, and there shall be nothing to be done. Nothing! Nature itself is Muslim, because it obeys the laws the creator has ingrained in it.’

‘Don’t you preach in this house, Samad Miah! There are places for that sort of thing. Go to mosque, but don’t do it in the kitchen, people have to be eating in here-’

‘But we, we do not automatically obey. We are tricky, we are the tricky bastards, we humans. We have the evil inside us, the free will. We must learn to obey. That is what I sent the child Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim Iqbal to discover. Tell me, did I send him to have his mind poisoned by a Rule-Britannia-worshipping Hindu old Queen?’

‘Maybe, Samad Miah, maybe not.’

‘Don’t, Alsi, I warn you-’

‘Oh, go on, you old pot-boiler!’ Alsana gathered her spare tyres around her like a sumo wrestler. ‘You say we have no control, yet you always try to control everything! Let go, Samad Miah. Let the boy go. He is second generation – he was born here – naturally he will do things differently. You can’t plan everything. After all, what is so awful – so he’s not training to be an alim, but he’s educated, he’s clean!’

‘And is that all you ask of your son? That he be clean?’

‘Maybe, Samad Miah, maybe-’

‘And don’t speak to me of second generation! One generation! Indivisible! Eternal!’

Somewhere in the midst of this argument, Irie slipped out of the kitchen and headed for the front door. She caught an unfortunate glimpse of herself in the scratch and stain of the hall mirror. She looked like the love child of Diana Ross and Engelbert Humperdinck.

You have to let them make their own mistakes…’ came Alsana’s voice from the heat of battle, travelling through the cheap wood of the kitchen door and into the hallway, where Irie stood, facing her own reflection, busy tearing out somebody else’s hair with her bare hands.

Like any school, Glenard Oak had a complex geography. Not that it was particularly labyrinthine in design. It had been built in two simple stages, first in 1886 as a workhouse (result: large red monstrosity, Victorian asylum) and then added to in 1963 when it became a school (result: grey monolith, Brave New Council Estate). The two monstrosities were then linked in 1974 by an enormous perspex tubular footbridge. But a bridge was not enough to make the two places one, or to slow down the student body’s determination to splinter and factionalize. The school had learnt to its cost that you cannot unite a thousand children under one Latin tag (school code: Laborare est Orare, To Labour is to Pray); kids are like pissing cats or burrowing moles, marking off land within land, each section with its own rules, beliefs, laws of engagement. Despite every attempt to suppress it, the school contained and sustained patches, hang-outs, disputed territories, satellite states, states of emergency, ghettos, enclaves, islands. There were no maps, but common sense told you, for example, not to fuck with the area between the refuse bins and the craft department. There had been casualties there (notably some poor sod called Keith who had his head placed in a vice), and the scrawny, sinewy kids who patrolled this area were not to be messed with – they were the thin sons of the fat men with vicious tabloids primed in their back pockets like handguns, the fat men who believe in rough justice – a life for a life, hanging’s too good for them.

Across from there: the Benches, three of them in a line. These were for the surreptitious dealing of tiny tiny amounts of drugs. Things like £2.50 of marijuana resin, so small it was likely to be lost in your pencil case and confused with a shredded piece of eraser. Or a quarter of an E, the greatest use of which was soothing particularly persistent period pains. The gullible could also purchase a variety of household goods – jasmine tea, garden grass, aspirin, liquorice, flour – all masquerading as Class A intoxicants to be smoked or swallowed round the back, in the hollow behind the drama department. This concave section of wall, depending where you stood, provided low teacher-visibility for smokers too young to smoke in the smoker’s garden (a concrete garden for those who had reached sixteen and were allowed to smoke themselves silly – are there any schools like this any more?). The drama hollow was to be avoided. These were hard little bastards, twelve, thirteen-year-old chain-smokers; they didn’t give a shit. They really didn’t give a shit – your health, their health, teachers, parents, police – whatever. Smoking was their answer to the universe, their 42, their raison d’être. They were passionate about fags. Not connoisseurs, not fussy about brand, just fags, any fags. They pulled at them like babies at teats, and when they were finally finished they ground them into the mud with wet eyes. They fucking loved it. Fags, fags, fags. Their only interest outside fags was politics, or more precisely, this fucker, the chancellor, who kept on putting up the price of fags. Because there was never enough money and there were never enough fags. You had to become an expert in bumming, cadging, begging, stealing fags. A popular ploy was to blow a week’s pocket money on twenty, give them out to all and sundry, and spend the next month reminding those with fags about that time when you gave them a fag. But this was a high-risk policy. Better to have an utterly forgettable face, better to be able to cadge a fag and come back five minutes after for another without being remembered. Better to cultivate a cipher-like persona, be a little featureless squib called Mart, Jules, Ian. Otherwise you had to rely on charity and fag sharing. One fag could be split in a myriad of ways. It worked like this: someone (whoever had actually bought a pack of fags) lights up. Someone shouts ‘halves’. At the halfway point the fag is passed over. As soon as it reaches the second person we hear ‘thirds’, then ‘saves’ (which is half a third) then ‘butt!’, then, if the day is cold and the need for a fag overwhelming, ‘last toke!’ But last toke is only for the desperate; it is beyond the perforation, beyond the brand name of the cigarette, beyond what could reasonably be described as the butt. Last toke is the yellowing fabric of the roach, containing the stuff that is less than tobacco, the stuff that collects in the lungs like a time-bomb, destroys the immune system and brings permanent, sniffling, nasal flu. The stuff that turns white teeth yellow.

Everyone at Glenard Oak was at work; they were Babelians of every conceivable class and colour speaking in tongues, each in their own industrious corner, their busy censer mouths sending the votive offering of tobacco smoke to the many gods above them (Brent Schools Report 1990: 67 different faiths, 123 different languages).

Laborare est Orare:

Nerds by the pond, checking out frog sex,

Posh girls in the music department singing French rounds, speaking pig Latin, going on grape diets, suppressing lesbian instincts,

Fat boys in the PE corridor, wanking,

High-strung girls outside the language block, reading murder casebooks,

Indian kids playing cricket with tennis rackets on the football ground,

Irie Jones looking for Millat Iqbal,

Scott Breeze and Lisa Rainbow in the toilets, fucking,

Joshua Chalfen, a goblin, an elder and a dwarf, behind the science block playing Goblins and Gorgons,

And everybody, everybody smoking fags, fags, fags, working hard at the begging of them, the lighting of them and the inhaling of them, the collecting of butts and the remaking of them, celebrating their power to bring people together across cultures and faiths, but mostly just smoking them – gis a fag, spare us a fag – chuffing on them like little chimneys till the smoke grows so thick that those who had stoked the chimneys here back in 1886, back in the days of the workhouse, would not have felt out of place.

And through the fog, Irie was looking for Millat. She had tried the basketball court, the smoking garden, the music department, the cafeteria, the toilets of both sexes and the graveyard that backed on to the school. She had to warn him. There was going to be a raid, to catch all illicit smokers of weed or tobacco, a combined effort from the staff and the local constabulary. The seismic rumblings had come from Archie, angel of revelation; she had overheard his telephone conversation and the holy secrets of the Parent-Teacher Association; now Irie was landed with a burden far heavier than the seismologist, landed, rather, with the burden of the prophet, for she knew the day and time of the quake (today, two thirty), she knew its power (possible expulsion), and she knew who was likely to fall victim to its fault line. She had to save him. Clutching her vibrating chub and sweating through three inches of Afro hair, she dashed through the grounds, calling his name, inquiring of others, looking in all the usual places, but he was not with the cockney barrow-boys, the posh girls, the Indian posse or the black kids. She trudged finally to the science block, part of the old workhouse and a much loved blind-spot of the school, its far wall and Eastern corner affording thirty precious yards of grass, where a pupil indulging in illicit acts was entirely hidden from the common view. It was a fine, crisp autumn day, the place was full; Irie had to walk through the popular tonsil-tennis/groping championships, step over Joshua Chalfen’s Goblins and Gorgons game (‘Hey, watch your feet! Mind the Cavern of the Dead!’) and furrow through a tight phalanx of fag smokers before she reached Millat at the epicentre of it all, pulling laconically on a cone-shaped joint, listening to a tall guy with a mighty beard.

‘Mill!’

‘Not right now, Jones.’

‘But Mill!’

‘Please, Jones. This is Hifan. Old friend. I’m trying to listen to him.’

The tall guy, Hifan, had not paused in his speech. He had a deep, soft voice like running water, inevitable and constant, requiring a force stronger than the sudden appearance of Irie, stronger maybe, than gravity, to stop it. He was dressed in a sharp black suit, a white shirt and a green bow-tie. His breast pocket was embroidered with a small emblem, two hands cupping a flame, and something underneath it, too small to see. Though no older than Millat, his hair-growing capacity was striking, and his beard aged him considerably.

‘… and so marijuana weakens one’s abilities, one’s power, and takes our best men away from us in this country: men like you, Millat, who have natural leadership skills, who possess within them the ability to take a people by the hand and lift them up. There is an hadith from the Bukhārā, part five, page two: The best people of my community are my contemporaries and supporters. You are my contemporary, Millat, I pray you will also become my supporter; there is a war going on, Millat, a war.’

He continued like this, one word flowing from another, with no punctuation or breath and with the same chocolatey delivery – one could almost climb into his sentences, one could almost fall asleep in them.

‘Mill. Mill. ’Simportant.’

Millat looked drowsy, whether from the hash or Hifan wasn’t clear. Shaking Irie off his sleeve, he attempted an introduction. ‘Irie, Hifan. Him and me used to go about together. Hifan-’

Hifan stepped forward, looming over Irie like a bell tower. ‘Good to meet you, sister. I am Hifan.’

‘Great. Millat.’

‘Irie, man, shit. Could you just chill for one minute?’ He passed her the smoke. ‘I’m trying to listen to the guy, yeah? Hifan is the don. Look at the suit… gangster stylee!’ Millat ran a finger down Hifan’s lapel, and Hifan, against his better instinct, beamed with pleasure. ‘Seriously, Hifan, man, you look wicked. Crisp.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Better than that stuff you used to go around in back when we used to hang, eh? Back in them Kilburn days. ’Member when we went to Bradford and-’

Hifan remembered himself. Reassumed his previous face of pious determination. ‘I am afraid I don’t remember the Kilburn days, brother. I did things in ignorance then. That was a different person.’

‘Yeah,’ said Millat sheepishly. ‘ ’Course.’

Millat gave Hifan a joshing punch on the shoulder, in response to which Hifan stood still as a gate post.

‘So: there’s a fucking spiritual war going on – that’s fucking crazy! About time – we need to make our mark in this bloody country. What was the name, again, of your lot?’

‘I am from the Kilburn branch of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation,’ said Hifan proudly.

Irie inhaled.

Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation,’ repeated Millat, impressed. ‘That’s a wicked name. It’s got a wicked kung-fu kick-arse sound to it.’

Irie frowned. ‘KEVIN?’

‘We are aware,’ said Hifan solemnly, pointing to the spot underneath the cupped flame where the initials were minutely embroidered, ‘that we have an acronym problem.’

‘Just a bit.’

‘But the name is Allah’s and it cannot be changed… but to continue with what I was saying: Millat, my friend, you could be the head of the Cricklewood branch-’

Mill.’

‘You could have what I have, instead of this terrible confusion you are in, instead of this reliance on a drug specifically imported by governments to subdue the black and Asian community, to lessen our powers.’

‘Yeah,’ said Millat sadly, in mid-roll of a new spliff. ‘I don’t really look at it like that. I guess I should look at it like that.’

Mill.’

‘Jones, give it a rest. I’m having a fucking debate. Hifan, what school you at now, mate?’

Hifan shook his head with a smile. ‘I left the English education system some time ago. But my education is far from over. If I can quote to you from the Tabrīzī, hadith number 220: The person who goes in search of knowledge is on active service for God until he returns and the-’

‘Mill,’ whispered Irie, beneath Hifan’s flow of mellifluous sound. ‘Mill.’

‘For fuck’s sake. What? Sorry, Hifan, mate, one minute.’

Irie pulled deeply on her joint and relayed her news. Millat sighed. ‘Irie, they come in one side and we go out the other. No biggie. It’s a regular deal. All right? Now why don’t you go and play with the kiddies? Serious business here.’

‘It was good to meet you, Irie,’ said Hifan, reaching out his hand and looking her up and down. ‘If I might say so, it is refreshing to see a woman who dresses demurely, wearing her hair short. KEVIN believes a woman should not feel the need to pander to the erotic fantasies of Western sexuality.’

‘Er, ye-ah. Thanks.’

Feeling sorry for herself and more than a bit stoned, Irie made her way back through the wall of smoke and stepped through Joshua Chalfen’s Goblins and Gorgons game once more.

‘Hey, we’re trying to play here!’

Irie whipped round, full of swallowed fury. ‘AND?’

Joshua’s friends – a fat kid, a spotty kid and a kid with an abnormally large head – shrank back in fear. But Joshua stood his ground. He played oboe behind Irie’s second viola in the excuse for a school orchestra, and he had often observed her strange hair and broad shoulders and thought he might have half a chance there. She was clever and not entirely un-pretty, and there was something in her that had a strongly nerdy flavour about it, despite that boy she spent her time with. The Indian one. She hung around him, but she wasn’t like him. Joshua Chalfen strongly suspected her of being one of his own. There was something innate in her that he felt he could bring out. She was a nerd-immigrant who had fled the land of the fat, facially challenged and disarmingly clever. She had scaled the mountains of Caldor, swum the River Leviathrax, and braved the chasm Duilwen, in the mad dash away from her true countrymen to another land.

‘I’m just saying. You seem pretty keen to step into the land of Golthon. Do you want to play with us?’

‘No, I don’t want to play with you, you fucking prick. I don’t even know you.’

‘Joshua Chalfen. I was in Manor Primary. And we’re in English together. And we’re in orchestra together.’

‘No, we’re not. I’m in orchestra. You’re in orchestra. In no sense are we there together.’

The goblin, the elder and the dwarf, who appreciated a good play on words, had a snivelly giggle at that one. But insults meant nothing to Joshua. Joshua was the Cyrano de Bergerac of taking insults. He’d taken insults (from the affectionate end, Chalfen the Chubster, Posh Josh, Josh-with-the-Jewfro; from the other, That Hippy Fuck, Curly-haired Cocksucker, Shit-eater), he’d taken never-ending insults all his damn life, and survived, coming out the other side to smug. An insult was but a pebble in his path, only proving the intellectual inferiority of she who threw it. He continued regardless.

‘I like what you’ve done with your hair.’

‘Are you taking the piss?’

‘No, I like short hair on girls. I like that androgyny thing. Seriously.’

‘What is your fucking problem?’

Joshua shrugged. ‘Nothing. The vaguest acquaintance with basic Freudian theory would suggest you are the one with the problem. Where does all that aggression come from? I thought smoking was meant to chill you out. Can I have some?’

Irie had forgotten the burning joint in her hand. ‘Oh, yeah, right. Regular puff-head, are we?’

‘I dabble.’

The dwarf, elder and goblin emitted some snorts and liquid noises.

‘Oh, sure,’ sighed Irie reaching down to pass it to him. ‘Whatever.’

‘Irie!’

It was Millat. He had forgotten to take his joint off Irie and was now running over to retrieve it. Irie, about to hand it over to Joshua, turning around in mid-action, at one and the same time spotted Millat coming towards her and felt a rumble in the ground, a tremor that shook Joshua’s tiny cast-iron goblin army to their knees and then swept them off the board.

‘What the – ’ said Millat.

It was the raid committee. Taking the suggestion of Parent-Governor Archibald Jones, an ex-army man who claimed expertise in the field of ambush, they had resolved to come from both sides (never before tested), their hundred-strong party utilizing the element of surprise, giving no pre-warning bar the sound of their approaching feet; simply boxing the little bastards in, thus cutting off any escape route for the enemy and catching the likes of Millat Iqbal, Irie Jones and Joshua Chalfen in the very act of marijuana consumption.

The headmaster of Glenard Oak was in a continual state of implosion. His hairline had gone out and stayed out like a determined tide, his eye sockets were deep, his lips had been sucked backwards into his mouth, he had no body to speak of, or rather he folded what he had into a small, twisted package, sealing it with a pair of crossed arms and crossed legs. As if to counter this personal, internal collapse, the headmaster had the seating arranged in a large circle, an expansive gesture he hoped would help everybody speak to and see each other, allowing everybody to express their point and make themselves heard so together they could work towards problem solving rather than behaviour chastisement. Some parents worried the headmaster was a bleeding-heart liberal. If you asked Tina, his secretary (not that no one ever did ask Tina a bloody thing, oh no, no fear, only questions like So, what are these three scallywags up for, then?), it was more like a haemorrhage.

‘So,’ said the headmaster to Tina with a doleful smile, ‘what are these three scallywags up for, then?’

Wearily, Tina read out the three counts of ‘mari-jew-ana’ possession. Irie put her hand up to object, but the headmaster silenced her with a gentle smile.

‘I see. That’ll be all, Tina. If you could just leave the door ajar on your way out, yes, that’s it, bit more… fine – don’t want anyone to feel boxed in, as it were. OK. Now. I think the most civilized way to do this,’ said the headmaster laying his hands palm up and flat on his knees to demonstrate he was packing no weapons, ‘so we don’t have everybody talking over each other, is if I say my bit, you each then say your bit, starting with you, Millat, and ending with Joshua, and then once we’ve taken on board all that’s been said, I get to say my final bit and that’s it. Relatively painless. All right? All right.’

‘I need a fag,’ said Millat.

The headmaster rearranged himself. He uncrossed his right leg and slung his skinny left leg over instead, he brought his two forefingers up to his lips in the shape of a church spire, he retracted his head like a turtle.

‘Millat, please.’

‘Have you got a fag-tray?’

‘No, now, Millat come on…’

‘I’ll just go an’ have one at the gates, then.’

In this manner, the whole school held the headmaster to ransom. He couldn’t have a thousand kids lining the Cricklewood streets, smoking fags, bringing down the tone of the school. This was the age of the league table. Of picky parents nosing their way through The Times Educational Supplement, summing up schools in letters and numbers and inspectors’ reports. The headmaster was forced to switch off the fire alarms for terms at a time, hiding his thousand smokers within the school’s confines.

‘Oh… look, just move your chair closer to the window. Come on, come on, don’t make a song and dance about it. That’s it. All right?’

A Lambert amp; Butler hung from Millat’s lips. ‘Light?’

The headmaster rifled about in his own shirt pocket, where a packet of German rolling tobacco and a lighter were buried amidst a lot of tissue paper and biros.

‘There you go.’ Millat lit up, blowing smoke in the headmaster’s direction. The headmaster coughed like an old woman. ‘OK, Millat, you first. Because I expect this of you, at least. Spill the legumes.’

Millat said, ‘I was round there, the back of the science block, on a matter of spiritual growth.’

The headmaster leant forward and tapped the church spire against his lips a few times. ‘You’re going to have to give me a little more to work on, Millat. If there’s some religious connection here, it can only work in your favour, but I need to know about it.’

Millat elaborated, ‘I was talking to my mate. Hifan.’

The headmaster shook his head. ‘I’m not following you, Millat.’

‘He’s a spiritual leader. I was getting some advice.’

‘Spiritual leader? Hifan? Is he in the school? Are we talking cult here, Millat? I need to know if we’re talking cult.’

‘No, it’s not a bloody cult,’ barked Irie exasperated. ‘Can we get on with it? I’ve got viola in ten minutes.’

‘Millat’s speaking, Irie. We’re listening to Millat. And hopefully when we get to you, Millat will give you a bit more respect than you’ve just showed him. OK? We’ve got to have communication. OK, Millat. Go on. What kind of spiritual leader?’

‘Muslim. He was helping me with my faith, yeah? He’s the head of the Cricklewood branch of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation.’

The headmaster frowned. ‘KEVIN?’

‘They are aware they have an acronym problem,’ explained Irie.

‘So,’ continued the headmaster eagerly, ‘this guy from KEVIN. Was he the one who was supplying the gear?’

‘No,’ said Millat, stubbing his fag out on the windowsill. ‘It was my gear. He was talking to me, and I was smoking it.’

‘Look,’ said Irie, after a few more minutes of circular conversation. ‘It’s very simple. It was Millat’s gear. I smoked it without really thinking, then I gave it to Joshua to hold for a second while I tied my shoelace but he really had nothing to do with it. OK? Can we go now?’

‘Yes, I did!’

Irie turned to Joshua. ‘What?’

‘She’s trying to cover for me. Some of it was my marijuana. I was dealing marijuana. Then the pigs jumped me.’

‘Oh, Jesus Christ. Chalfen, you’re nuts.’

Maybe. But in the past two days, Joshua had gained more respect, been patted on the back by more people, and generally lorded it around more than he ever had in his life. Some of the glamour of Millat seemed to have rubbed off on him by association, and as for Irie – well, he’d allowed a ‘vague interest’ to develop, in the past two days, into a full-blown crush. Wipe that. He had a full-blown crush on both of them. There was something compelling about them. More so than Elgin the dwarf or Moloch the sorcerer. He liked being connected with them, however tenuously. He had been plucked by the two of them out of nerddom, accidentally whisked from obscurity into the school spotlight. He wasn’t going back without a struggle.

‘Is this true, Joshua?’

‘Yes… umm, it started small, but now I believe I have a real problem. I don’t want to deal drugs, obviously I don’t, but it’s like a compulsion-’

‘Oh, for God’s sake…’

‘Now, Irie, you have to let Joshua have his say. His say is as valid as your say.’

Millat reached over to the headmaster’s pocket and pulled out his heavy packet of tobacco. He poured the contents out on to the small coffee table.

‘Oi. Chalfen. Ghetto-boy. Measure out an eighth.’

Joshua looked at the stinking mountain of brown. ‘A European eighth or an English eighth?’

‘Could you just do as Millat suggests,’ said the headmaster irritably, leaning forward in his chair to inspect the tobacco. ‘So we can settle this.’

Fingers shaking, Joshua drew a section of tobacco on to his palm and held it up. The headmaster brought Joshua’s hand up under Millat’s nose for inspection.

‘Barely a five-pound draw,’ said Millat scornfully. ‘I wouldn’t buy shit from you.’

‘OK, Joshua,’ said the headmaster, putting the tobacco back in its pouch. ‘I think we can safely say the game’s up. Even I knew that wasn’t anywhere near an eighth. But it does concern me that you felt the need to lie and we’re going to have to schedule a time to talk about that.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘In the meantime, I’ve talked to your parents, and in line with the school policy move away from behaviour chastisement and towards constructive conduct management, they’ve very generously suggested a two-month programme.’

‘Programme?’

‘Every Tuesday and Thursday, you, Millat, and you, Irie, will go to Joshua’s house and join him in a two-hour after-school study group split between maths and biology, your weaker subjects and his stronger.’

Irie snorted, ‘You’re not serious?’

‘You know, I am serious. I think it’s a really interesting idea. This way Joshua’s strengths can be shared equally amongst you, and the two of you can go to a stable environment, and one with the added advantage of keeping you both off the streets. I’ve talked to your parents and they are happy with the, you know, arrangement. And what’s really exciting is that Joshua’s father is something of an eminent scientist and his mother is a horticulturalist, I believe, so, you know, you’ll really get a lot out of it. You two have a lot of potential, but I feel you’re getting caught up with things that really are damaging to that potential – whether that’s family environment or personal hassles, I don’t know – but this is a really good opportunity to escape those. I hope you’ll see that it’s more than punishment. It’s constructive. It’s people helping people. And I really hope you’ll do this wholeheartedly, you know? This kind of thing is very much in the history, the spirit, the whole ethos of Glenard Oak, ever since Sir Glenard himself.’

The history, spirit and ethos of Glenard Oak, as any Glenardian worth their salt knew, could be traced back to Sir Edmund Flecker Glenard (1842- 1907), whom the school had decided