PART 1: SIMLING
PART 2: KALIPANI
PART 3: TWO STRONG MEN
The clicking was constant now. Only when he spoke
could he block it out.
"You know mate, you're going to the wrong place," said Prison Officer
Stevens, leading him out of his cell.
He looked up. "What do you mean?"
Stevens sniffed. "Well, it stands to reason."
He said nothing.
"I mean, you could sell your story for a packet to one of the papers.
Instead you're gonna waste it on some deaf old git who ain't gonna
tell a soul. It's crazy if you ask me."
He ignored his escort. Money would be of no use where he was going,
and not for the first time since his arrest he shuddered at what
he had done: no argument, no debate, no nothing. He had done it.
As he was led into the Spartan chapel, not much larger than his
own cell, he stopped at the bowl of holy water to dip his finger
into it, crossing himself before being guided to the single confessional
that stood to the left of the candle-lit altar. He could hear murmuring
from within, and in the gloomy light he made out a pair of legs
protruding from the box. He remembered how, when he was a boy in
the Dream Time, he had had to make his sins up to keep the Father
happy. Assuredly, there would be no stories today.
"'Slike waitin' for a fucking piss!" hissed Stevens, leaning over
to whisper in his ear, so that spittle landed on his cheek.
As he wiped the spittle away, he despised himself for asking to
come here. Weakness, that's all it was. Because he was afraid of
being alone. But someone had to hear the truth, not the forensic
kind that would be heard in court, but truth of a psychological
kind. That was the only way he could explain it to himself.
The anonymous pair of legs straightened and an elderly prisoner
appeared, making for the benches before the altar, where once more
he knelt down, this time to pray.
"Alright then. Off you go," said Stevens.
Walking the few steps to the tall wooden box, he knelt down on the
padded rest, placing his elbows on the bench in front, waiting for
the panel to be pulled across. He heard a cough, the confessional
shook as someone sat down, and very slowly the panel slid open,
revealing a wire grille. He could make out the profile of a large
bald head with flappy ears and an arched nose. Another cough.
"I hope I can shake this off. The sooner summer comes the better,"
moaned the priest, in a deep, well spoken voice. "Now let me hear
The words were still there, and without hesitation he began. "Bless
me Father for I have sinned. It's been...It's been a long time since
my last confession..."
He had to think. "Eighteen years."
There was an amused grunt. "Well, no doubt you'll have plenty to
He didn't bother replying. The priest's facetious response had annoyed
him. But he wouldn't be so flippant in a minute.
"And where is your own parish church?" he continued.
He couldn't answer, and it was this mystery that had, so he believed,
brought him here today.
"I don't have one Father. In fact, I don't even know why I've come.
I'm not sure I believe in God."
"That is immaterial. He is always ready to listen if you are ready
to speak. Now please begin."
He hesitated. "Father..." He couldn't have. It wasn't possible.
"Father, I killed a woman."
This time there was no sound of amusement, only a silence of some
"Father, I don't know where to start. It might take all day."
"No matter. He has all the time in the world."
He wondered how he was going to remain in the kneeling position
for so long; it was alright for the priest on his seat.
"My mind is so confused. There seem to be so many reasons that I'm
only just seeing."
The priest sighed. "Then I suggest you begin at the beginning."
This platitudinous advice seemed to help him, but as he closed his
eyes and bowed his head, all he could see was him weeping into the
other's arms, she lying beside them, dying.
PART ONE - SIMLING
'The ballads which she sang at her music lessons
concerned with nothing but little angels with golden
wings, Madonnas and lagoons and gondoliers - mild
compositions which, through the childish simplicity of
their style and the defects of their musical
expression, gave her glimpses of the seductive world of
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
Like everyone else in England, Mary Talbot watched
the European Revolutions of 1989 on TV. Back then, in her first
year at Manchester University, the events in the Eastern Bloc had
filled her with a euphoria not unlike the Radicals' reception of
that other Revolution two hundred years before. Yet just as its
noble aims had all too quickly degenerated into the Terror, so Mary
had watched with dismay the specter of tribalism return to haunt
Europe, one of its most repugnant aspects being the resurgence of
the neo-Nazi movement. Now that there were no longer Reds to fear
and hate, so the Far Right, and many not so Far Right, had found
a new enemy and threat in those whose difference afforded no ideological
Immigration, the 'swamping' of Fortress Europe, asylum seekers whose
'bogus' nature all too easily turned them into 'bogeymen', these
were the Right's greatest fears, fears which had led to immigrant
communities across the Continent becoming the target of neo-Nazi
In her second year at Manchester University, distantly outraged
by the assaults on Bangladeshis in East London, Mary had joined
the Anti-Nazi League, an act that seemed a natural progression for
one who had been under the spell of the Subcontinent since her childhood,
a spell that had already seen her take up both yoga and a profound
sense of postcolonial guilt in her first year.
Now, some twelve months since graduating and returning to London,
she shivered in the cold October evening, waiting outside the ABC
cinema on Ealing Broadway for a bus to take her home. Tired and
depressed after another day in the dole office, she inspected her
bag one more time to check the ticket was still there. At last she
was going, really going, just as she'd always promised herself she
The 207 pulled up, and as she climbed on board she couldn't help
but notice the Indian women in their colourful saris, cholis and
shalwar kameez, the Sikh men with their bright turbans, still unable
to believe that she would soon be in that magical land. As a child
she had lived behind Ealing Broadway, and though the borough had
a large Indian population, she had gone to a Catholic girls' school
in another part of the city, so that her relationship with them
had rarely extended beyond perfunctory exchanges in the Post Office
and Corner Shop (this being before the age when local Asian bands
could appropriate such stereotypes and make them their own). Despite
this lack of real contact, and despite India itself, her childhood
spell had also led her to believe that the Subcontinent's traditions
of peace, wisdom and tolerance had a place in the new Europe, where
it seemed that many people had forgotten the very reasons for nearly
fifty years of Cold War.
Only last month, the British National Party, a splinter group from
the more notorious National Front, had won a council seat in Tower
Hamlets, an area with a substantial Bangladeshi community; while
in France, Germany, Italy and Austria, Nationalist Parties in various
guises seemed to be on the rise. Despite these developments, however,
Mary's political activism, not to mention her personal expectations,
had diminished considerably since leaving college, and with this
diminishment she had increasingly found herself longing for escape.
Today, finally, she had booked her ticket.
When Philip Oakley, leader of the Ealing ANL, had phoned her last
night, asking her to come along on yet another anti-BNP demo, she
had told him about her imminent journey. He had not approved. "Typical
student," he had sneered, "once you get out into the real world
you don't want to know. Just when the Fash' are on the rise, you
decide to run away to India."
Mary had been angered by this - though she had still agreed to see
him before leaving - but it had to be said, she had been shocked
by the contrasting styles of the ANL society at university - where
they would usually meet for an evening in a pub, agree how evil
racism was before going home having agreed - and the more robust
methods of the London ANL which, only last month, had had several
bloody clashes with the BNP. Such action accorded neither with her
fear of violence nor her philosophy of non-violence - the fear and
philosophy being inseparably linked - a philosophy she modeled on
the Gandhian, and more anciently, the Jainist principle of 'ahimsa'.
This was not a principle to which certain of her 'clients' in the
Job Centre subscribed, some of whom only today had threatened to
take her life if they couldn't take their cheques.
To her relief, the personnel department had granted her request
for six months' unpaid leave, although several of her Indian colleagues
could not understand why she had chosen to go to the Subcontinent.
Regardless, she was going, not for a long time, but enough to feel
she had had a break: from London, from her dead end job, from the
ANL and the depressing victory of the BNP, and most of all, perhaps,
For lunch today she had seen her friend Zoran in a wine bar in the
Ealing Broadway shopping centre, as much the focal point of Ealing
as every other English town. She had met him at the only bookshop
in the area, when she had been searching for a work on Eastern philosophy
and he had been standing next to her inspecting the Occult section.
They were soon talking and it wasn't long before a friendship had
He claimed to have come to England from Yugoslavia when he was a
boy, his East European accent lending the story some credence, and
though he said he now lived a life of "radical non-intervention"
and was unemployed, she had never seen him in the Job Centre. She
suspected he received some kind of allowance from his parents, of
whom he always spoke in reverential terms. Usually when they met
he would insist on reading to her some passage from an obscure author
she might have come across in a footnote at college. The only time
she had tried to bring him and Tom together had been disastrous.
She had struggled to keep the conversation going, and afterwards
she had asked Tom why he had been so reticent. "He's a bloody weirdo,"
was all he would say. But he had not expressed any desire for her
to stop seeing him, possibly because he thought Zoran was gay. Which
"So how's Mary today?" he had asked in his deep Balkan accent, standing
up as she arrived at the table in the wine bar. They were overlooking
the tacky piazza, where a dreary fountain splashed passers by, and
on Saturdays a tuneless brass band would mark time for the busy
"Alright, I s'pose."
After ordering two black coffees from a waitress, Zoran turned to
"'She's alright she supposes.' Hmmm, not too good from the sound
of it. Let me guess, another paid-up member of the Welfare Club
has offered you a one way trip to Heaven?" Mary laughed. "I don't
know, Kafka was perfectly miserable working for a large anonymous
establishment. Why you should be any less so is by no means clear."
"Work is only part of it. It's..." Mary paused as the waitress returned
with the coffee.
"Let me guess," said Zoran, sipping his coffee, "it wouldn't have
anything to do with Mister Safeway, would it?"
Despite herself, she couldn't help laughing. "It's not funny. He's
Zoran sniffed and placed his coffee on the saucer. "Personally,
I've never seen the need for a partner. It's simply a form of weakness.
Perhaps he needs to go away for a while."
"That's the last thing he'd do. As far as he's concerned, the rest
of the world's full of bloody foreigners. Come to think of it, he's
not too pleased about some of the people in Ealing."
"Simply a projection of self-loathing."
Mary shrugged. "Perhaps, but it's not him that needs to get away,
"I've had enough."
She sighed. "Everything."
Zoran nodded like a sympathetic doctor. "Classic behaviour of the
cornered animal. It has two choices: fight or flight. But remember,
if you choose flight, later on you will still have to confront whatever
it is you're fighting. There's no escape."
"I don't see it like that. I just need some space and time to reassess."
Zoran grunted. "Well that's something I suppose. After all, you
know what Socrates said, don't you?"
"No, but I'm sure you're about to enlighten me".
"'The unexamined life is not worth living'. But then," he chuckled,
"look what happened to him! You know, these days I tend to follow
the Nikeist philosophy."
She frowned and placed her coffee on the table. "What are you talking
"You know? 'Just do it'. The only thing is, I've got nothing to
do. But I love it. As James might have put it, the slogan suffers
from a great cerebral lassitude. I mean, can you imagine Hamlet's
father interrupting his son's soliloquy to indecision and saying,
'son, just do it'. That's the fin de siecle's answer to the great
existential dilemma between thought and action." Zoran shook his
head and chuckled. "Mmm, perhaps your idea of flight is not so bad
after all. This society sucks."
Mary smiled and reached into her bag, producing the ticket she had
only just collected from the travel agency in the arcade below.
For once her friend's cynicism and irony was briefly conquered.
"My God! You've really done it! You're a Nikeist just like everyone
"No, not like everyone else," she insisted, "but yes, I have done
"No doubt it's a Journey to the East?"
She nodded. "You know I've always wanted to go India."
Zoran waved his hand at her. "Asia, Africa, America, it doesn't
much matter where you go, you always take your self. That's one
thing you can never leave behind."
"No, me. So, when are you off?"
"A week today."
"Have you told Tom?"
She shook her head. "He'll find out tonight."
"Rather you than me," he said, and after finishing the coffee and
agreeing to call him when she got back, Mary had returned for her
last afternoon in the dole office.
Yes, she would tell Tom tonight, she said to herself as the bus
pulled up opposite the Viaduct pub in Hanwell. But as she went downstairs
and waited for the doors to open, she shivered again. Not from the
cold this time, but nervousness. He wasn't going to like it. Not
one bit. "Simling," she said to herself, "Simling", the familiar,
infantile mantra calming her a little as she stepped off the bus
and made her way to the flat.
"I didn't mean to kill her. It was an accident."
He could almost hear the priest smiling to himself.
"You're not the first to say that."
"Well, it's the truth. The one I meant to kill was him. Sid."
The priest went quiet again, and in the silence he could hear the
name. Sid. That name. That man. Him weeping into his arms, she lying
beside them, dying. Why? Why?
"Because he took her away from me. But is that it? Would I have
wanted to kill him if he'd been white? I doubt it. So the question
is this: how the fuck did I become a racist? I mean, already I don't
recognize the person I was just a week ago."
A week ago. Him weeping into his arms, she lying beside them, dying.
"If anyone had told me I'd get mixed up with those morons in the
BNP, I'd've laughed at them. But I did. And if it could happen to
me, then it could happen to anyone." Could happen to anyone. Yeah,
he had to believe that, had to believe he wasn't some kind of freak,
that the Hitler was in everyone, not just him and a few semi-educated
"Her name was Mary."
Mary. Jamuni. That word. That name. That name he'd only heard for
the first time one week ago. She lying beside them, dying. Jamuni.
Where are you? Where have you gone?
The priest coughed. "You said her name was Mary?"
"Jamuni. The Purple One. That's what he called her."
"Sid. That's what they called her down there."
"Southall. But I never knew her like that. To me she was always
Mary. To me..." He sighed. The priest was right. There was nothing
to do but begin at the beginning.
When they first met in the Lower Sixth at St Luke's,
she didn't obsess him at all. In fact, she was more into him than
he was into her. Because they both lived in Ealing, they went home
the same way, and it wasn't long before she knew about his coming
from Australia. Back then it meant nothing to him. The only thing
he missed was his Dad in Brisbane.
He stopped again, trying to resist the power of
that word to take him back into that world, into that Dream Time.
His parents had divorced when he was twelve, and
while his Dad stayed in Brisbane, he came over here with his Mum.
Mary was the first person he ever spoke to about it. They got on
pretty well, though she was much artier than him, and after a couple
of tube journeys together he asked her out. She agreed, and one
Friday night they met up in Ealing Broadway.
The Queen Vic was still a pub in those days. Mary was already there
when he arrived, reading. She was always reading, and when he came
back with the drinks he couldn't resist asking her why. She said
she liked to escape, and when he asked her where she'd like to escape
to, she said 'India'.
India. India. That word. That land. That country
that was to take her away from him. She lying beside them, dying.
Even on that first night he felt she needed him.
In fact, she always needed someone to be there for her. After all,
as soon as she left him she went to Sid.
That name. That man. Him. Weeping. She. Dying.
They had a good night together, kissed, even talked
about going to the same university. He went home as happy as he'd
ever been. The only problem was that the longer he was with her,
the less important the exams seemed. They'd started going out at
the end of the Lower Sixth, and almost a year later, in the weeks
before the finals, when he should've been revising, he was wondering
where they might go for a holiday that summer. He must've been dreaming,
because neither of them had any money.
A few days after the exams, she invited him round to meet her parents
for the first time. The first time. The first time he ever thought
about it. About IT. His problem.
They lived in the posh part of Ealing, very cosy
and green, not like his Mum's place in South Ealing. >From the
moment he met them, he could tell they didn't think much of him.
"So Thomas," said Gordon, her father, "you're going to be an engineer?"
"That's right. A mechanical engineer."
"Mary tells me you plan following her up to Manchester?"
"Well, I wouldn't say I was following her."
"You know," he continued, "there's a lot to be said for your going
to separate establishments. That way you'll know."
Mary turned to him. "Dad, what you should know is that we've already
applied for a shared room in the halls of residence."
As Gordon began savagely cutting his steak, too angry to speak,
it was his wife's turn to let Mary know what they thought of her
boyfriend. Brenda Talbot was never going to accept someone as working
class as him. He didn't have the right accent. He lived in the wrong
part of Ealing. And worst of all, he wasn't even English.
"Have you seen much of England?" she asked in a leisurely, middle
class accent, unlike the crisp and sharp tones of Gordon.
"Not really. I've spent most of my life in London."
She nodded. "Of course, you're Australian, aren't you?"
"Well, I was born there."
"What's it like down there?"
"I can hardly remember. I left ten years ago."
"Oh really? Well, isn't there a joke about the plane arriving at
the airport of your capital city, what is it?"
"Canberra," I said.
"Ah yes. The plane arrives at Canberra, only for the passengers
to find that the country is closed."
As Gordon burst into laughter, Mary began to blush with shame.
"I think you mean New Zealand," he said as calmly as he could.
Brenda raised her eyes to the ceiling. "Well, they're the same thing,
Hardly another word was said after that, and at the end of the evening,
as they stood at the door of the house, Gordon stiffly offered him
"Hope to see you again."
He muttered some incoherent platitude and shut the door.
He felt awful. Not because of his failure to impress Mary's parents,
but because her mother's questions had unsettled him. No one, not
even Mary, had asked him as much about Australia before, and on
his way home that night, for the first time in his life, he found
himself asking the same question over and over again: Who am I?
Who was he? That was the question that had brought
him here today, the question that even now he could not answer.
"Maybe it was then, Father, that the idea of going back to Brisbane
came to me."
Going back to Brisbane. Brisbane. And she lying beside them, dying.
He didn't see Mary for three weeks after that.
She'd gone on holiday with her parents, and while she was away the
results came. After receiving his in the post, he went down to St
Luke's to see hers. It was just as he'd feared: she was going to
Manchester, and he wasn't. Maybe it was from that moment that it
all started to go wrong. Maybe that was where he blew it.
"You've blown it, Kent."
That's what the Sixth Form Master told him that day. He was right.
The only way of getting into university now would be to do resits,
but he couldn't face that, and with Mary still in France, the only
person he could talk to was his mother, Lucretia.
By now her dream of becoming a professional opera singer in England
- her ostensible reason for
leaving Australia - was over. But with the alimony she was getting
from his Dad, she didn't have to work, spending most of her time
at home in Ealing, in a lounge full of famous composers' busts and
opera scores, singing along to all the stuff she knew she'd never
perform on stage.
When he got back from St Luke's he walked into the lounge to find
her engrossed in Mozart. It was a couple of minutes before she noticed
"Hello darling," she drawled in an Australian accent struggling
to be English. "Where have you been?"
"But I thought you'd left school?"
"I went to get my exam results. Remember? Those A levels I was doing
a few months ago."
"Of course, how silly of me. Off to Manchester now with Mary, I
"More like the dole office, actually."
"Good heavens, whatever for?"
"But you did so much revision for them!"
What she didn't know was that he'd spent most of the time in his
room thinking about Mary instead.
"Can't you go back and retake them?"
"I could. But I'm not going to."
"But you're not trained for anything. What will you do if you don't
go to university?"
"I've thought of going out to Brisbane."
For a minute Lucretia couldn't speak. In fact, he'd surprised himself,
never realizing until that moment that the desire was there.
"What the hell do you want to go there for?" she finally said.
He shrugged. "First of all I'd like to see Dad. And second, I'm
"Curious? Believe me, there's nothing there to be curious about."
If only he'd listened. If only he'd not been curious. Then maybe
she wouldn't have been lying beside them, dying.
"If I were you I'd think about doing the 'A' levels
again, or at least getting a job."
"Well, you're not me."
As he left the room and closed the door, the volume of the music
went up immediately. Lucretia couldn't see beyond her distaste for
Brisbane, and he knew he wouldn't receive any encouragement from
A few days later Mary got back, and that same night they met up
in the Queen Vic.
"So how was France?"
"Nothing special," she said. "I spent most of my time lying on the
beach, trying to ignore obnoxious French schoolboys."
He couldn't help smiling. "You mean you resisted?"
"It wasn't very hard. They were all ugly. Not like another boy I
"Even after he's failed his exams?"
"Even after he's failed his exams." Then she leaned across the table
and took his hand. "What are we going to do?"
"You're going to Manchester, that's for sure."
"But it was hard enough when I was in France. I don't like being
away from you."
"And just imagine what your parents would say if you told them you
weren't going to university because I'd failed my exams. Let's face
it, I'd definitely never see you again."
"But I don't have to go up north. There must be somewhere in London
I can go."
He couldn't believe it, but back then he was the strong one, deciding
things for him and her.
"You chose Manchester and just because I'm suddenly not going is
no reason for you not to. Anyway, if you think about it, the terms
aren't so long, and if we visit each other, then it really won't
be so bad." He squeezed her hand.
"Yes, you're right."
They paused to drink, and in the silence he realized that although
they had solved her side of the problem, it wouldn't be so easy
to deal with his.
"So what will you do?" she asked.
He could hardly think beyond the next pint, let alone the course
of his life. "I've thought of going back to Brisbane for a while."
"To see your Dad?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Just for a few months..."
"Months?! You can't leave me for months!"
"A few weeks then. Look, it's no big deal, and anyway, it won't
be for quite a while yet. I don't have any money."
"I couldn't bear the thought of your being so far away."
"Look, it hasn't even happened yet. Stop worrying." He leaned over
and kissed her.
"So you're going to have to get a job, then?" she asked.
"What will you do?"
"I've seen an ad in the local paper for something at Safeway supermarket
"Safeway in Southall?! What happened to engineering?"
"Look, I don't want to do anything like that yet. I want some time
In those days, he could still persuade her with
his strength of will, but what he'd give to start all over again
from that summer. He'd have gone back to St Luke's and resat the
exams. He'd have gone to university and got a proper job. Maybe
Mary's parents would have accepted him then. But most of all, he'd
never have gone back to Brisbane.
Brisbane. Brisbane. That word. That land. That man. Him weeping
into his arms, she lying beside them, dying.
"What exactly is this job?" she asked.
He was almost too embarrassed to tell her. "It's nothing."
"Well I'd like to know all the same, so I can imagine what you're
doing when I'm studying."
"You'll be sleeping, not studying."
She frowned and sipped on her pint. "What do you mean?"
"I'd be working on the night shift, that's what."
He sighed. "Packing bloody shelves."
"Look, it's twice the pay I'd get for day work like that. And as
I say, it's easy money, no questions asked. In a couple of months
I'd have saved enough to go to Oz. Then I'd come back and probably
go to university."
After finishing their drinks they left the pub and walked back to
"When do you leave?" he asked.
"Next weekend. But I don't even want to think about it."
She stopped and put her arms around him, and as they kissed he felt
her warm tears.
"What's wrong?" he asked, wiping her eyes.
"I'll miss you so much."
"And I'll miss you too."
"You promise to come up and see me?"
She looked up anxiously. "I love you."
"And I love you too."
That moment was probably the most she ever needed
him. Maybe if things had remained that way, he wouldn't be here
now, talking to the priest. But they didn't. No, they didn't. And
it was this inability to stop change that now made him hate life
"A week later her parents drove her up to Manchester, and while
she began her first year, I signed on, sat at home and waited to
hear from Safeway in Southall."
Southall. Another dangerous word. No matter what he said, it seemed,
a word was waiting to pounce on him and take him back to that moment,
forcing him to picture his weeping into the other's arms, she lying
beside them, dying.
The priest coughed. "You were talking about Southall?"
"Yes. They contacted me about a month later, asking me to come down
for an interview. I'd never been there before, but as the 207 pulled
up outside the Town Hall, I recognized it."
Town Hall. Him. The other. Weeping. She. Beside them. Dying.
Not long after he'd arrived from Australia, some
time in '79, a riot had taken place there. The police went mad,
killing one of the protestors. That was how he'd recognized it.
>From the TV.
The supermarket was on the Broadway, and after passing all the Indian
shops he stood outside for a few minutes. Could he really pack shelves
at night for a living? After telling himself it was only for a few
months, he went in.
A young Indian woman was fielding complaints and enquiries from
half a dozen impatient shoppers at the customer service counter.
The fact she was Indian meant nothing to him. She was just another
She directed him upstairs to an office. On the door it said 'V GUPTA
V Gupta. Vikram Gupta. A man he'd barely known,
a man whose niece was to bring him to her, to him, she lying beside
A large man, with slicked back hair and a considerable paunch, Vikram
was sitting at his desk.
"Please, sit down."
He could see his application form on the desk, and though he was
hardly going for a career job, still he was nervous. After quickly
scanning his form, Vikram looked up and smiled.
"I see you've not had a job before?" he said, his accent almost
"Eh, that's right."
"Strange. It says here that you only left school last summer, but
you took your 'O' levels two years ago. Can you explain this?"
When filling in the form a few weeks ago, he'd agonized a whole
day about whether to put down the 2 'F's and the 'U' he'd got in
his 'A' levels, finally deciding it better not to.
"I took my 'A' levels this year."
Vikram nodded. "Didn't do too well, did you?"
"What were you hoping to do at university?"
"And what about resits?"
He shrugged. "Not yet. I'm not sure what I want to do next."
"But you are sure you want this job?"
Suddenly Vikram's smile seemed as worthless as his three 'A' level
"Yes, I'm sure. I've been on the dole too long."
He nodded. "I see. And you realize what this job entails?"
"I think so. Yes."
"Packing shelves ten hours a night."
"Hmmm. I'm sure you do. But I'm not about to take someone on who
I suspect will run off after a couple of weeks. Most of our packers
have been here a couple of years."
Packers. One packer in particular. Maybe if he'd
never met Dave Morley she wouldn't have been lying beside them,
"It's hard, boring work. Are you sure you can do
Vikram reflected for a few minutes, looking down at the form. "Very
well," he said, "you'll hear from us shortly. But take it from me,
you'll be starting in two weeks."
He stood up and shook his hand. "Thanks. Hope to see you soon."
Vikram laughed. "Not likely, young man."
He looked at him blankly.
"You don't think I'm here during the night, do you? Chances are
we'll never see each other again."
If only he'd never had to see him again. Maybe
then he wouldn't have spotted Vikram's niece outside the pub, maybe
he wouldn't have found Sid with Mary, maybe she wouldn't have been
lying beside them, dying.
"Anyway, the bloke had given me a chance, and I
took it. The weekend before I was due to start, I took the Inter-City
up to Manchester. I could hardly wait to see Mary. But how could
I have known, Father? How could I have known that in just the few
months she'd been away, Mary had already started turning into Jamuni?"
Sita had slept the entire eight hours of the flight,
and when the air hostess had tapped her gently on the arm to fasten
her seatbelt for landing, she momentarily imagined that the plane
was about to arrive in Delhi. As it banked and descended for landing,
however, she only needed to look out the window to see that she
was flying over a strangely green and foreign land.
It was all wrong: he was meant to be here, not her. And now she
had been sent away from him, to a country she knew almost nothing
about and whose language she could hardly speak. All she wanted
was to be with him, and the prospect that they would never see each
other again possessed her with such agonizing force that she reached
for the paper bag to throw up. But nothing would come. She had refused
the meals on the plane, in fact, had not eaten in almost two days,
not since her mother had forced her to have some rice, chapati and
subzee the morning before she had been taken away from the only
person she had ever loved.
And who was this uncle that was supposed to find her a husband?
She didn't want to see him. She didn't want to marry anyone. She
didn't want to be here.
The Air India 747, the Hathi, touched down on the runway at Heathrow.
"Don't you just love landing?" squealed her neighbour in Hindi,
a plump, elderly lady whose flabby folds of flesh were only partly
hidden by her pink sari. Seeta rolled her head indifferently and
wished she would shut up. All she really wanted to do was hide under
one of the seats and wait for the plane to take off for India.
Soon the doors had opened, and reluctantly she left the plane and
walked along the gangway into the terminal, already feeling the
English chill, wishing she wasn't only wearing a blue sari and yellow
choli. Up ahead, the white desks of Passport Control appeared, the
passengers from her plane gradually aligning themselves into their
respective queues: UK Passport Holders, European Community Passport
Holders, Others. Having already secured the tourist visa in Delhi,
Sita imagined she would not encounter any difficulty now, although
she could think of nothing better than being informed by the authorities
that she would have to take the next flight home. Unlike the other
lines, hers was moving very slowly, for up ahead, standing at the
desk, was a young Indian man clearly having problems with the Immigration
officer. She couldn't catch everything that was being said, except
for the key words the officer was using, such as 'funds', 'accommodation'
and 'back to India'. After some ten minutes of questioning two more
Immigration officers emerged from a row of screened offices to the
side of the desks and led the protesting man away. Sita envied his
misfortune. If only she could be so lucky.
When it was finally her turn to present her Indian passport, she
was feeling more irritable than ever. Perhaps if she were rude enough
she might be denied entry.
"Next!" called the officer.
Please, thought Sita, don't let me in, send me back. Walking up
to the desk she handed her passport over, the officer flicking through
it until finding the Tourist Visa and Entry Clearance Certificate,
stamping it without so much as a word.
"Next!" he called, passing it back.
Devastated, Sita passed through the barrier and entered the Baggage
Collection area, walking up to the carousel on which her flight's
luggage was now revolving. Her garrulous neighbour from the plane
was flapping her arms at everyone, frantically searching for her
luggage. Careful not to catch her eye, Sita approached the carousel,
spotting her solitary suitcase after only a couple of minutes.
It had all been too quick, and now she was passing unnoticed through
customs, approaching the Arrivals Hall. It looked even more intimidating
than Old Delhi station, she thought, walking by the steel railing
that separated her from the many expectant faces waiting on the
other side. The sound of the PA was almost deafening and she felt
as if everyone was watching her. Voices were calling out to faces
recognized, and she noticed that there were as many Indians on the
other side of the railing as on hers. She couldn't remember what
her uncle looked like, having only met him a couple of times as
a girl, and she wondered what she would do if he didn't find her,
if he hadn't come. Perhaps they'd send her back to India.
"Sita!" She looked around.
"Sita!" It was coming from behind.
"Sita, over here!" Then she saw him, leaning over the railing, waving
a photo of herself at her.
"Go down to the end and I'll meet you there!" he ordered in Hindi,
already striding along the other side.
Sita nodded and walked slowly to the exit. He was standing there
waiting for her, dressed in a dark blue suit, his thick hair greying,
and as she walked up to him she expected him either to make 'namaste'
or shake her hand. Instead, he took her suitcase, placed it on the
ground, and without so much as a word embraced her, his strong arms
holding her tightly.
"Oh Sita! It's wonderful to see you," he bubbled, "why, the last
time we met you were just a little girl." He stepped back and looked
her up and down. "I don't suppose you remember your Uncle Vikram,
"No," she replied, "please, I'm very tired. I'd like to go wherever
it is you're taking me."
"Yes, yes, of course. Come."
It so cold outside, even the buildings seemed to be shivering. How
could anyone live in such a country? wondered Sita. Her uncle stopped
by a large, expensive looking car, like nothing she had ever seen
in India, and after opening the doors with some sort of electronic
device, put her case in the back.
"You can sit in the front with me."
"Yes Uncle," she replied.
Pulling out of the car park, Vikram switched on his tape machine,
so that they drove to the accompaniment of some Western pop music.
She had never liked it, indeed, it had been one of the few things
between herself and her distant lover in Natarajapur that they had
ever argued about. Stopping at a red light, her uncle turned to
"You don't have to worry about whatever happened back in India.
You'll find us considerably more sophisticated than those country
bumpkins in Bharat."
But all she wanted was to be back in Bharat, away from this ghastly
looking land where even the people seemed to blend in with the concrete.
"Where exactly are we going?" she asked.
Vikram laughed and lit a cigarette. "The English call it Little
India, but you'll probably find it to be just plain old Southall."
Driving across the roundabout into South Road, Sita had so far seen
nothing on the journey from the airport to relieve her almost instinctive
dislike of the land to which she had been banished. Reaching the
top of a railway bridge, they became caught in traffic, and briefly
she was able to look around her.
For as far as she could see on either side, the Middlesex plain
stretched into the distance, the odd patch of green punctuating
the ugly man-made vista of grey high rise and row upon row of terraced
housing. To her it was the embodiment of all that was dreary, an
impression that was only compounded by the dismal grey sky above,
and she longed for the more familiar and certainly more vibrant
features of the Doab. There was, however, one object that couldn't
fail to lift her, an object whose white marble, curvilinear towers
and pillars managed to gleam even in this dull light. For a moment
she thought she was back in India, as she noticed flying from the
top of the highest tower a saffron flag with the symbol 'OM' emblazoned
in black upon it.
"Uncle, what is that?"
Vikram followed her finger. "Sri Shankara Mandir. It was only built
last year," he said blandly.
"But it's beautiful!"
"Yes, if you like that kind of thing." Vikram couldn't remember
the last time he'd entered a temple, probably when his parents had
died back in the eighties.
Sita was dumbfounded to see a north Indian temple in the middle
of an English suburb, but as they drove over the bridge and down
into South Road, her uncle pointed to a building on the right.
"And that is the Glassy Junction!" he cried, "Southall's finest
"Pub? What is that?"
"It's where the English go to relax. They regard it as their second
home, and I can tell you there are many Indians for whom the sentiment
is much the same. But the Glassy Junction is unique. It is a Panjabi
pub. See up there? You don't find that on English pubs!"
Sita looked up to observe six brightly coloured, giant sized figures
of Panjabi dancers hanging against the brick wall, all in different
poses, all with musical instruments or swords in their hands.
"It's a truly wonderful establishment," he purred. "Perhaps I'll
take you there sometime."
Sita could imagine nothing worse, and as they drove along South
Road she couldn't quite believe what she was seeing, for although
the buildings were undeniably English in style, the shops themselves
were Indian in content, so much so that for a few minutes she felt
oddly at home. The windows displayed all the sweets, silks and cloths
she knew so well, while the streets themselves were full of turbaned
Sikhs and sari-, choli- and shalwar-clad women, the restaurants
boasting such names as "Jullundhur" and "Ludhiana", and didn't that
say "Himalayan Carpets" over there? Bollywood hits blared from music
stores, while fruit and vegetable stalls lined the pavement, and
as in every Indian street, it was full of traffic. Sita wasn't sure
whether all this was comforting or disturbing: would it make her
feel at home, or would it only remind her of home?
"Over there is the Town Hall," said Vikram, as they arrived at the
intersection of South and Uxbridge Road.
Sita looked across to a creamy white, neo-classical building whose
imposing three storeys and columned stairway lent it a moderately
The lights turned to green and they turned left into the Broadway.
Like South Road, it was full of Indian shops and restaurants, but
Sita hardly had time to examine them before they pulled across the
road and turned right into a narrow street whose name she noticed
was St George's Avenue, lined with the same type of houses she had
seen all along the route from the airport. She found them so ugly,
"This is it, home sweet home," announced her Uncle, pulling into
She saw the number sixteen on the door, the only visible mark that
distinguished it from all the other terraced houses in the street.
At least she now had a proper address to send him. Cruelly, her
parents had refused to give it to her when she was in Natarajapur,
rightly suspecting that she would immediately give it to him.
"I do hope you will be happy here," said Vikram, opening the front
It was much larger inside than she had imagined, with three rooms
leading off from the entrance hall.
"Let me show you upstairs," he said.
Sita followed her Uncle into a room which he had tried to make as
attractive as possible, its huge oak wardrobe, pine dresser beneath
the window, large bed with a cabinet and lamp beside it, all brand
new. Yet all she wanted was a cramped, gloomy room in a cheap Indian
café. She sat down on the bed.
"I'm glad you like it," he said. "Now, are you going to tell me
what all this nonsense back home is about? Suddenly your mother
sends you to me saying I've got to find you a husband."
Sita looked away. It was three days since she had left him, and
in that time she had spoken to no-one about it.
"Do you not trust your Uncle? I promise, whatever you say will be
just between us."
"You mustn't believe anything my mother has told you, " she said,
turning to him. "I'm not a bad girl."
Vikram nodded. "What's the boy's name?"
Vikram frowned. "That's an odd name for an Indian. He's not Christian,
"No Uncle, that's just his nickname."
"And what is it your parents object to? I know arranged marriages
aren't as common as they used to be, and love marriages are on the
up in India. Alright, so Natarajapur isn't Bombay or New Delhi,
but then, my sister isn't a peasant."
"You're right. But they still expect me to marry a respectable Hindu
boy. But not Sid, oh no, never Sid."
"Why not? What's wrong with him?
Sita wiped a tear from her eye. "Uncle, he's just different. And
I don't want anyone else. I..." With great difficulty she controlled
her need to cry.
He put his arm around her. "Now don't you worry. Your mother never
took to England, but I did, and over here we do things differently.
Believe me, I have no intention of marrying you off against your
will. Of course, I'll have to tell her that we met several suitors,
all of whom proved unsatisfactory. But there will come a time when
I suggest you return to India. Naturally you'll have to stay for
a few months at least, to convince your mother we've been trying,
but I will not force you to marry."
What he didn't tell her was that his sister had also asked him to
check all her mail, to ensure that no correspondence took place
between the two lovers, and furthermore, he had been warned that
this man was so devious he might even try to secure a passage to
England to find her. All this, and now Sita's own vague comments
about Sid, made him immensely curious about this man from Natarajapur.
Sita turned to him and gave him a hug. "Thank you Uncle, thank you
"And tomorrow night I'll take you to the Glassy Junction. It will
make you feel at home."
"Right, I'll leave you to unpack then. The bathroom is at the far
end of the hall, and when you come down we can have something to
Sita wiped her eyes. "I might sleep for a while if you don't mind."
"But of course, you are as free as you like while you are here,"
he said, before closing the door.
Sita stood up and walked over to the window, looking out across
the empty, silent street to the identical houses on the other side.
Like it or not, her Uncle was the only person she had to talk to,
and without him she even feared she might lose her mind. But as
she climbed into bed, she reflected that for all his kind words
she was still undeniably stuck with a man and a land she had never
wanted to see, far from the man and the land she had never wanted
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