In the spring of 1975, Samad and Alsana Iqbal left Bangladesh and came to live in Whitechapel, London, the other side of town from Archie and Clara Jones. Samad and Archie had a friendship dating back to the Second World War, back to the hot and claustrophobic Churchill tank in which they sat side by side for three months, close enough to smell each other and to recognize those scents thirty years later when Samad emerged from Gate 12, Heathrow, with a young wife and a paisley patterned luggage set in tow. ‘Long time no see,’ Archie had said, reaching out to grasp his old friend’s palm, but Samad converted the handshake into a hug almost immediately, ‘Archibald Jones. Long time no bloody smell.
They fell back into easy conversation, two old boys slipping swiftly into an acquaintance as comfortable as slippers while their wives stood either side of the bags noting they had this thing in common and no more: that they were young, much younger than the men they stood awkwardly beside. They looked an unlikely pair. Alsana was small and rotund, moon-faced and with thick fingers she hid in the folds of her cardigan. Clara was tall, striking, a black girl with a winning smile, wearing red shorts of a shortness that Alsana had never imagined possible, even in this country.
‘Hot pants,’ said Clara, shyly, in response to Alsana’s wide eyes, ‘I made dem myself.’
‘I sew also,’ Alsana replied, and they had a pleasant enough chat about seams and bobbins, materials and prices per yard, in a motorway service station over an indigestible lunch. ‘The wives get on like a house on fire,’ Archie had said merrily, giving Samad a nudge in the ribs. But this made them nervous, the two young wives, and after the ice-cream sundaes they sat in silence.
So some black people are friendly, thought Alsana after that first meeting was over. It was her habit to single one shining exception out of every minority she disliked; certain dentists, certain singers, certain film stars had been granted specialist treatment in the past and now Clara Jones was to be given Alsana’s golden reprieve. Their relations were hesitant in the beginning – a few lunch dates here and there, the occasional coffee; neither wished to admit how much time they had on their hands though newly wed, or that Archie and Samad were always together. It wasn’t until the Iqbals moved north, two minutes from Archie and his favourite watering hole, that the women truly resigned themselves to their husbands’ mutual appreciation society and started something of a rearguard action. Picnics, the movies, museums, swimming pools – just the two of them. But even when they became fairly close, it was impossible to forget what a peculiar couple they made on the bus, in the park.
It took the Iqbals a year to get to Willesden High Road: 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 machine 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 plans 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 right hand, notepad in his left, 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 four in the morning was work and the rest was sleep, sleep without pause, 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 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 – Ardashir Mukhul was upon him.
‘Saaamaad,’ he said in his cloying, oleaginous way, ‘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 could get no work as a food inspector 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 cooking pot that sat on a plinth outside the staff toilets into which all tips were pooled and then split at the end of the night. For the younger, good-looking waiters like Shiva this was a great injustice. Shiva was the only Hindu on the staff, a tribute to his waitering skills that had triumphed over religious difference. He could make fifteen pounds in tips in an evening if the blubberous white divorcee in the corner was lonely enough, and he batted his long lashes at her effectively. He also made money from the polo-necked directors and producers (The Palace sat in the centre of London’s Theatreland) who flattered the boy, watched his ass wiggle provocatively to tfie bar and back, and swore that the next time someone put A Passage to India on the stage, the casting couch would be his. For Shiva then, the Piss-Pot system was simply daylight robbery. But for men like Samad, in his forties, and for the even older, like the white-haired Mohammed (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 was a boon if anything, and 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 underneath his breath.
‘You!’ Shiva swung round to where Samad stood crushing a great tub of lentils for tomorrow’s dhal. ‘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 inside 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’re a sad bastard.’
Mohammed 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 happened to respect? What kind of talk is this?’
‘And you, 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 broom inches from Samad’s mouth.
‘Kiss it,’ he sneered: and then impersonating Ardashir’s sluggish drawl, ‘Who knows, Cousin, you might get a raise!’
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. that is, i am a waiter, but not just 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 an english 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 to explain, always to explain, to reassert something, anything. Wasn’t that important? But then the heartbreaking 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. Please. With Chips. Thank you.
And fifteen pence clinked on china. Thank you Sir. Thank you so very much.
One evening, shortly after he had put the down payment on the Willesden flat, Samad had waited till everyone left and then climbed the loudly carpeted 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 enquire 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 flashes of gold, its thick pile carpet, 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) and just made it bigger. He hadn’t improved anything; it was the same old crap but bigger in a bigger building in the biggest tourist trap in London. Leicester Square. You had to admire it and admire the man, who now sat 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 deep breath. 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), from East London, with its National Front gangs, to North London, north-west in fact, where things were more . . . more . . . liberal. Ardashir’s eyes glazed over a little as Samad explained his situation. His skinny legs twitched beneath the desk, and in his fingers he manipulated a paperclip until it looked reasonably like an A. A for Ardashir.
‘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. Ardashir realized 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 indulgentiy 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, 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 wondered 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 young women these days.
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 hot pants 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 open 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 meals for her family, he said. His mother did not, he said, spend the household money, as Alsana did, on prepared meals, yogurts 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 as 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 a nice area; she couldn’t deny it as she stormed towards the high street, avoiding pavement trees where previously, in Whitechapel, she had avoided flung-out mattresses and the homeless. It would be good for the child. 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), and in the Liberal tradition it was a park without fences, unlike the more affluent Queen’s Park (Victoria’s) with its pointed metal railings. Willesden was not as pretty as Queen’s Park but it was a nice area. No denying it. No NF kids breaking the basement windows with their steel-capped boots like in Whitechapel. 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 street 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 wasn’t 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 here. It was an old-fashioned cobbler’s. 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 Alsana had moved to Willesden there would only be more of it. It used to come in longer sentences (such as, ‘Niece, you have brought nothing but shame . . .’), 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, taking Samad’s shoes off the shelf and handing Alsana the little blue ticket. ‘They were so worn through, Aunty 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 make a point of her respectability, and besides she was really very traditional, very religious, lacking nothing except the faith.
‘And don’t call me Aunty, I am only 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 storeroom.
‘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, as if she had 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, 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.’
Clara was also pregnant. When their bumps became too large and cinema seats no longer accommodated them, the two women began to meet up for lunch in Kilburn Park, often with the Niece-Of-Shame, the three of them squeezed on to a generous bench, Alsana pressing a thermos of PG Tips into Clara’s hand, without milk, with lemon. Unwrapping 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, she says to Clara: ‘Eat up! Stuff yourself silly! They’re in there, wallowing around in your belly, waiting for the menu. Woman, don’t torture them! You want to starve the bumps?’ 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. A boy is good and two boys is bloody good. But I tell you, when I turned my head and saw the 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 sat between them, sucks her teeth.
‘Bloody Hell, Alsi, he must have 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. ‘Magid and Millat. Ems are good. Ems are strong. Mahatma, Mohammed, 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 godlike task for a mere mortal: ‘I tink I like Irie. It patois. Means everyting OK, cool, peaceful, you know?’
Alsana is mock-horrified before the sentence is finished, ‘”OK”? This is a name for a child? You might as well call her “Wouldsirlike-anypopadumswiththat?” or “Niceweatherwearehaving” –’
‘. . . and Archie likes Sarah. Well, dere not much you can argue wid Sarah, but dere’s not much to get happy bout either. I suppose if it was good enough for the wife of Abraham . . .’
‘Ibrahim,’ Alsana corrects, out of instinct more than Koranic 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 and 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 bats her voluminous eyelashes, wraps her college scarf round her head like purdah, and says, ‘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 has 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 codswallop,’ 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 on the television, 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 learned that silence, what is not said, is the very best recipe for family life.’
‘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 understand –’
‘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 could you bear to marry someone you didn’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 Dhaka 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 Dhaka lawyers with their slick side-partings, ‘men are the last mystery. God is easy compared with men.
Now, enough of the philosophy. Sarnosa?’
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 has secretly subscribed (a secret from Alsana and Archie) to a lending library of Neena’s through which she has read, in a few short months, The Female Eunuch by Greer, Sex, Race and Class by Selma James and Jong’s Fear of Flying 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 bloody 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 with the physical exertion. For some reason the remark simultaneously strikes Clara as funny: hysterically, desperately funny, miserably funny; and the Niece-Of-Shame sits between them, nonplussed, while the two egg-shaped women bend over themselves, one in laughter, the other in horror and near asphyxiation.
‘Are you all right, ladies?’ It is Sol Jozefowicz, the park keeper, standing 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 she is crying or laughing; the two states suddenly seem only a stone’s throw from each other.
‘I’m fine, fine. Sorry to have worried you, Mr Jozefowicz. Really, I’m fine.’
‘I do not see what 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 says everything, passing his handkerchief to Clara. It strikes all three women – the way history will: embarrassingly, without warning, like a blush – what the 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 anticlockwise round the park.
Once Sol is out of earshot Neena says: ‘OK, Aunty Alsi. I apologize. I apologize . . . 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 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, a barefoot country girl who never went to the universities . . .’
‘Oh, Alsi,’ Neena keeps saying, weaving her regret 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.’
Just as he reaches the far gate, Sol Jozefowicz turns round to wave, and the three women wave back. And Clara feels a little theatrical, flying the park keeper’s cream handkerchief above her head. As if she is seeing someone off on a train journey which crosses the border of two countries.
Photograph © Julien