Rani had been out of work for over a year. She was unemployed and had just started receiving universal credit, a new state benefit and one that had caused huge controversy. While a state benefit that sweeps up daily living payments into one bundle might make sense in theory, in practice it takes at least eight weeks to process a first payment, (and in the pilot phase, almost thirteen), so it can be a testing time for anyone who doesn’t have savings or a redundancy package.
Rani had waited until her entire nest egg was exhausted before she applied for universal credit. She had decided that her diminishing savings and the fear of dependency on the state would together motivate her to find a job quickly.
There is, of course, an overwhelming feeling of despondency on Thursday morning when she attends the job centre for the first time. The previous week, she had read in a newspaper about an older man, a skilled labourer, who had committed suicide, leaving a note describing the deep shame he would feel in collecting benefits. The note he left was scrawled on the back of the letter from the DWP confirming that his claim had been approved.
When she’d arrived that day at the job centre to sign on for the first time, she hadn’t been sure what to expect. The office was situated off from a main road. It was a plain nondescript white building, with only a small green and yellow sign reading job centre on the door. Inside, it was quiet, with banners advertising apprentice schemes and computer skills workshops. There were three rows of desks, behind which were seated administrative staff or ‘customer agents’, who dealt with the ‘clients’. Rani noted that the entire workforce, from the security guard near the door to the administrators, and all the other clients were black. That is, except for the most senior supervisor, a white woman, in a grey blazer that marked her out, sitting at a single desk shielded by screens on two sides. Occasionally, she would step out to talk to a staff member, only to retreat once again to her cubbyhole.
The imbalance made Rani feel uncomfortable. She did not know whether it was coincidental or if this was representative of something more sinister. Do we find what we look for? She wondered. But she hadn’t come looking for anything.
Back home, after Rani had been job-hunting online for several hours, she decided she needed a change of scene, if only to go for a walk, to step away from the screen. She slipped on her Converse sneakers and brushed her hair, grabbed her purse and keys to the flat, and headed out for a coffee.
Jakob’s cafe in Hampstead was owned by a Jewish couple, Anthony and Sara. At lunchtime, there was often a queue reaching out of the door for their renowned salt-beef, mustard and pickle sandwiches, and rich salmon, dill and cream-cheese bagels. In the winter, they served bowls of chicken knadle and matzo balls, and at Hannukah, freshly fried jelly doughnuts.
Rani felt comfortable in Hampstead. There had always been a bohemian feel to the borough, populated by writers and actors, and it had a strong immigrant history. The Jewish population had begun to arrive from the early eighteenth century and, in the period between the World Wars, many Jewish refugees from Europe settled in NW London postcodes, where several congregations set up their own synagogues. As an Indian woman, Rani felt a particular affinity for the area. Karl, her best friend during her A levels, was Jewish, and they had once travelled together, backpacking across Israel.
Rani knew that, at 2.30 p.m., Jakob’s deli would be quiet before mums on the school-run dropped in to get cakes for their hungry children, and local couples dropped by for tea after their afternoon walks. In the mid-afternoon lull, there was always plenty of room to spread out on the red leather banquettes surrounded by green leafy palms. Rani especially liked the ferns sitting in an unused bath at the back of the cafe, their frilly tendrils relentlessly bowing up and down.
She was grateful to find the cafe empty save for a woman immersed in a paperback, drinking coffee at a small table. Rani ordered a latte and a strawberry crème-pâtissière tart. She took her order number, a white card with a six printed on it, clipped onto a wire stalk. Then she picked out and shoehorned herself into the farthest table of three in the corner of a long banquette, figuring that if anyone else came along, there was enough space for them to sit without having to squeeze by. She threw down her purse and the door keys, and they both bounced a little down the table, landing about a metre away from her. As she regarded the keys and the purse, the thought crossed her mind that this was not her home and she should not throw around her belongings. She thought of what her mother would say about being tidy, but left them there all the same.
Just then, a couple entered the cafe. They walked past the counter, thinking perhaps that there was table service. He was black and she was white. They were dressed casually, he carried a book and she had a fabric tote slung over her shoulder, branded with the name of a bookshop chain. They were talking animatedly, laughing. Inside Rani smiled; it was so nice to see people enjoying themselves, nice to see people in love. Rani especially liked to see blended couples. Her own partner was white and she was brown.
Immediately, she reached out for her keys and purse, embarrassed that they would think her slovenly. Her mother had always told her that she should be respectful of others, and so she pulled her property back to herself hastily.
The man and woman were stood some five metres away. The black man watched Rani’s hand reach out for her belongings, and he took his girlfriend’s hand and pulled her back. ‘I’m not eating here,’ he said. The woman hadn’t seen what had just happened. She was perplexed and followed her partner out. They would have the conversation outside the cafe, Rani knew this.
Rani felt distressed and, more than this, she felt the man’s distress. She didn’t know if she should run after them. It was difficult to get out from inside the banquette because, in trying not to inconvenience anyone, she had lodged herself into a tight corner. She was also halfway through the cake and wondered, if she rushed out, well, she hadn’t paid, and would the cafe owner run after her or ring the police? And, how would she start the conversation even if she caught them? In recognising what the man was thinking, would it sound like she was defending herself? How did one articulate the layers of history and anguish that she felt now ringing in his head – and in hers?
Rani was mortified. She felt misunderstood. She felt the rawness of the man’s wound, his pain and anger, and her own. And she felt a connection, a shared knowledge, that, had she been able to catch them at the door, she would never have been able to articulate. How do these feelings translate into words? She wondered.
It came back to her. At university, in freshers’ week, when her new neighbour said, ‘Hey, I thought you were the cleaner’. And again at her first job, in book publishing, when working late to show her commitment, the company’s managing director had walked past and said that same phrase, and laughed loudly, walking out of the office with his briefcase.
She remembered being in a department store at Christmas; she was twelve, and struggling with some gifts in the queue. Unable to move, she couldn’t see what was happening behind or around her. Then a lady pushed her and said, ‘You Indians don’t know how to queue’. Rani had felt misunderstood. She had been brought up to be polite, to have manners. She had always believed she was an ambassador for her little family unit, and that always thinking of how others perceive you, always being kind and humble, would get you through. Her mother had always said to her, ‘You don’t know anyone else’s story, always give them the benefit of the doubt. Always trust.’
She knew that she was the daughter of immigrants. When Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, room-to-let and job adverts still read ‘no blacks, no Asians, no Irish’, and still her mother wore a sari every day when she went out shopping or to work. Rani remembered too, that when she was four she didn’t go to school for two weeks, because the National Front and the ‘skinheads’ were beating up Asians in the street. Then, one day, the headmistress of her school came round and said it was time for her to go back.
And she recalled still, that same year, at Christmas, they had been told to bring in their own plates for the school Christmas party – in Rani’s house, meal plates were the size of proper dinner plates, because in Indian households, you ate everything off the one plate, even if, as a child, you had small portions. When her teacher had seen the plate Rani had offered up to be put aside for the school Christmas lunch, the teacher had called her a greedy child. Rani was four, and she was tiny, a polite child; an ambassador for her family, she had thought.
Sat in the Hampstead café, Rani looked at Anthony, who was hovering at her table and wondered if she was going to able to finish the half-eaten fruit tart. On her visit to Israel with Karl, as a teenager, she would often be mistaken for a local, until once, when they had ventured deep into a quiet residential neighbourhood, a guy on the street stopped her and, in Hebrew, asked her for the time. She had not forgotten how his face paled and drained, when she had responded in English. In Israel, they were in the midst of the first intifada, everyone was ‘alert’, everyone was ‘paranoid’, and this boy had looked as if his entire world had been questioned in that one English utterance. How could he have read her so wrong?
Rani was still thinking about the man and the woman who had left the cafe. Feelings smacked around inside of her like fish caught in nets.
It came back, her father arriving home from hospital, his arm and fingers swaddled in a creamy white cloth trussed up in a sling. When the National Front was throwing stones at brown and black people, chasing them into alleys and breaking their bones, her father was working at an engineering firm, manufacturing industrial steel tubes; tubes which had rims the thickness of a man’s wrist, used in exploration and drillings shafts. Her father had decided that he wanted to stand to be the Union representative. He had represented workers and worked for a political party in Delhi. He put together his manifesto, he began to canvas the men at the plant; he stood up in the lunch-breaks and spoke about equal rights, labour laws and good working practice. It became clear, through whispers and nudges, that many of the white men at the plant didn’t want him to stand. There were the eggs thrown at his front door, the telephone ringing every hour at home with no one at the end of the receiver; his son arriving home late, nose bloody, schoolbag missing.
It was too late to run after the couple who would have found another, more welcoming place by now, she thought. Rani began to trace her finger through white sugar grains that have spilled onto the tabletop. Perhaps he would not forget Rani nor this experience.
Rani reminded herself that the fear of being misunderstood, being misread, stalks all of us; not just immigrants like her father. It was, she thought, like trying on made-to-measure garments that have been tailored for someone bigger, smaller, rounder, thinner than you could ever hope to be.
She pondered why the afternoon had so permeated her body. She knew it was because she didn’t actually think about racism at all. She felt it, like a searing brand on her forehead when it happened to her or to someone she knew, and because all the words she has to say would cough out incomprehensibly if she tried, all she can do is try to breathe out the messy anguish from her jellied brain.
Rani noticed her iPhone suddenly light up, a text message flashed across the fascia. She saw the date and the time come to life; today was 25th January. She’d read an article that morning about the date. Twenty-five years since Eric Cantona, having been red-carded in the second half, had walked off the pitch at Selhurst Park and kung-fu kicked a National Front hooligan who had hurled racist abuse at him. She remembered hearing about that kick the first time round. It divided opinion. Yet, this one act had done more to raise awareness of racism in football than any other incident in the game, ever. She was on his side. That’s what Rani wanted to run out and tell the man walking away from Jakob’s cafe.
She looked at the white china plate, the remaining half of her tart had fallen apart, strawberry leaking its juice around the pastry case, its earlier appeal gone. The coffee, half-drunk, had a creamy brown skin. She nodded at Anthony and attempted a smile as he cleared away both on a brown plastic tray. From where she was sitting, she could see the door of the cafe. It was open and a group of school-kids are shuffling in; uniform shirts half tucked-in, ties askew, girls and boys, white and brown faces.
Image © Daniela Monza