By Adil Jussawalla

(Part of a novel begun in London, probably in 1967)

 

They lived, lived on nothing, on dust, on soot, and on the dirt on their surfaces, on what falls from dog’s teeth, on any kind of senselessly broken thing that may still be bought by someone for some inexplicable purpose. O what a world is this! Pieces of men, parts of animals, remains of things that have been, and all still in movement, driving confusedly as in some uncanny wind, carried and carrying, falling and overtaking itself in its fall.

– Rilke, in a letter he wrote in Paris.

 

1
I. Rumi: 14 August, 1947

There was a funny smell in the room. No one said anything about it, but I could tell from Rustom uncle’s nose that he didn’t like it. He was sitting opposite me. His nostrils were permanently hitched up like ganga’s sari when she swept our floor. But he didn’t use a handkerchief. Nor did anyone else in the room. I suppose it had something to do with the occasion.
We were in the Blue Room. It was filled with blue Chinese vases and blue peacocks. They had put a round tray on a carved chest and on the tray a small blue dish with a flame burning in it. The blue dish had a blue cover. Smoke poured out of an urn, loban, they called it, and rose past a tall portrait.
Hair and flesh – that was the cause of the smell. I realized that when I saw a group talking in low tones and throwing looks at the door of the room where it had happened. The door had a lock on it. I got bored after I discovered this and began swinging my legs which hardly reached the floor. I was seven years old but short for my age. One look from Rustom uncle told me this wasn’t an occasion for swinging legs.
I had warned them it would happen. I had warned them. I can still hear my mother shouting ‘No’ when I first told her, and feel the air from Rustom uncle’s hand which missed me and hit my Mecanno box, scattering some of the pieces in it. I had known that Sheroo aunty, who was such a kind person and who smelt of old saris and rosewater, who dressed in baggy brocaded blouses and plain saris, was losing her mind. One day I had caught her praying before the urn, the loban: ‘God, send me to my father. God, give my father back to me.’ She had clutched her hair, fallen on her bed, and sobbed.
I had been sent with a note asking her to lend my mother a recipe book and I had walked into her room. The doors of her house were always open to us. I thought that was because soon after Daddy died, her husband had left her. No one mentioned his name though he was called Jal.
She also treated many other children as her own and would let us play in her house, even in the Blue Room. But we were afraid of her too because sometimes she would let us play, at other times lose her temper and drive us out.
That day, when she caught me watching her, she sprang from her bed, ran to me and hugged me. When she began to laugh, I, not liking the smell of her sari any more, squirmed away from her.
‘But Rumi, wait for the recipe book. Wait.’ She had snatched the note from me and read it. It was in Gujarati but she tried to speak to me in English. I suppose it was because I was going to an English school. She began opening her many wardrobes distractedly.
They were filled with clothes she never wore. I caught a glimpse of a deep purple sari shimmering with sequins, a red sari… She shut two of the wardrobes and began looking under her bed, saying ‘Recipe book, recipe book.’ Then she disappeared through a bead curtain and returned with five or six small books. They had orange and pale-green covers. A dark Gujarati script which was like Greek to me and the symbol of an urn of fire were stamped on them. She opened one of the books to the usual portrait of Zarathustra, fat and egg-like, with his eyeballs raised to heaven. I smiled. She looked at me, puzzled, and shut the book.
‘Take all of them. Tell your mother to keep, alright? I have no use. What use have I? These things just lie and rot. Give her my blessings – wait wait – give her this sari. I’ve been wanting to send it so long – but you know how it is –’ her English broke down at this stage and she started talking in Gujarati again – ‘No time, no servants – give it to her with my blessings.’
I knew quite well what my mother would say when I got home. ‘Poor thing, she knows I will never wear them and why does she keep sending them to me?’ Once, fancying the rich border of a newly sent sari, she cut it out and made it into a cap which she sold, and I used the rest of the sari, cut into small squares, to clean my Meccano pieces.

 

2

But Sheroo aunty seemed more disturbed than usual this time. She began weeping and, hugging me again, kept saying ‘O you poor child.’ She caressed my hair, said ‘Keep well, keep well’ and gave me a Sharpe’s toffee from a box I had seen on her table for the last five years. She had got it from Daman. ‘Don’t eat if you don’t like it. Go, dear, go.’ And I went.
I told my mother Sheroo aunty’s mind had slipped. That was when Rustom uncle had lunged at me and upset my Meccano box. After that he had a terrible fit of sneezing. It was a year ago.
I have a problem. I have fits. And I don’t know what happens to me when I have fits. Just before I do, everything stands out sharp and clear, not as things are in memory, foggy, but in a hard cold glare, like the light under dark wet clouds when the sun is about to fall in the sea. Now I sat in the Blue Room, making a wry face, trying not to swing my legs, feeling smoke tickle the corners of my eyes. I turned and looked past the pillars of the portico. I saw a black Chrysler crunch into the drive and saw the men get out of the front. I recognized Rustom uncle and Savak uncle. Women and children got out of the back seat. Zarir, my cousin, a thin boy, was being held tightly by Rustom uncle. He was sobbing and stamping his feet. Diniar and Arnavaz, my other cousins, followed the men into the room, their light brown hair shining like silk under their red velvet caps. They came with their long-faced mother.
‘Why is there such a bad smell in the room?’ Diniar asked.
‘Keep quiet!’ his mother said with such force that his mouth started trembling. That set his sister off. It was well-known that both would set each other off, crying or laughing, in this way. They were a strange pair. Rustom uncle was dragging Zarir after him towards a bathroom, saying ‘Stop it. Stop it.’ I wished Mummy would sit down. She was standing like a statue by the locked door, being ignored by everyone. I wondered if she was thinking of all the sewing she’d left behind at home. She could at least have looked at me when Rustom uncle had come to our place with news of what had happened. She only looked at me during the funeral sadly.
Daulat aunty was quarreling with Dina aunty. ‘Go go, now she’s gone, you think you’ll become a maharani or what? You think my brother has no right about the ceremonies. Ordering people about.’
‘No one is ordering anyone about,’ Dina aunty said in her beautiful English. ‘If you can’t conduct yourself properly on such an occasion, I suggest you take your child and go home.’
‘Now it’s my child – Zarir, you see what she says?’ She hugged the still whimpering Zarir. ‘Go away? Go away she is saying?’
I was trembling. I was feeling weak. Whenever I see people fight I feel weak and tremble. I was afraid I was going to have a fit. I don’t know what I was doing with the blue cover of the oil lamp but it slipped from my hand and broke. I bent down to pick up the pieces.

3

‘Can’t Moti bring her child in a suitable shirt at least?’ I looked up and saw Arnavaz and Diniar’s father look down on me as he passed. Savak uncle spoke English beautifully, just as his wife did. His nose looked very refined though it was choked with hair. It used to quiver every minute of the day and over the slightest things. He was said to be intolerant of Indian customs and had once ordered poor Daulat aunty to get rid of all her brass ornaments and figurines of Hindu gods and goddesses, saying, ‘Why keep pagan idols?’ and had them replaced by strangely shaped glass vases and fruit plates which he had imported from Yugoslavia. They were gifts, and like all his gifts, the people he gave them to had to buy them. The gifts came straight from his shop; with a twenty percent discount. He wasn’t Rustom uncle, Daulat aunty’s husband, so I couldn’t understand why she was so meek with him. Once he had come to ‘gift’ her a coffee set but, finding Norman uncle in the house, had made vague excuses about coming back another time and said he’d only come with the box to leave it at Daulat aunty’s – he wanted to surprise his wife with it later. When Norman uncle offered to keep it at his place since it was closer to Savak’s, he’d said he was in a hurry and got up and left. Norman uncle, who was an expert in imported things, had struck the coffee set with his thick nails to see if they made the right sort of sound. ‘Bogus,’ he had said with a smile, ‘bogus.’
Now I was trembling so much I couldn’t pick up the remaining pieces of the cover I’d broken, and leaving a handful of them on the table next to the tray, rushed out into the garden and onto the street.
I was just past the garden gate when an old man, in a black coat and black cap, caught hold of me by my arm.
‘Little one-’ I could feel his bony fingers pressing into my flesh – ‘Little one, who’s dead?’
‘Mrs. Gorwalla,’ I said, frightened, and tried to tear my arm away. The street was full of people and anyone could see if I was being kidnapped. But I was really frightened. ‘My aunty,’ I said loudly, and finding he had let go of my arm, ran down Cumballa Hill, crossed the road to the traffic island, my feet hot in my canvas shoes, ran across the road by the sea and, leaping over a parapet, went out onto the rocks.
It was two in the hot afternoon so the rocks and the pavements and benches were deserted. The rocks looked like burnt cakes placed on a tray by the sea. The sea was out, the waves just folding in on themselves on a distant line of rocks. Crabs ran along the edge of little pools of water and tiny fish with silver undersides swam in the pools, doing   siderolls, like the high school high jump boys at the Oval on Sports Day. I looked at them closely, forgetting the smell of burnt flesh. There was a new smell now – from the hot rubber soles of my canvas shoes. I couldn’t stand in one spot for too long. I slipped and stepped into a pool, drenching a shoe. I walked on towards the sea, hearing my shoes squelch around my toes. The sea was too far out, so I squatted in the middle of the black rocks and drew out a couple of negatives from my pocket. They had folded and almost cracked along the folds. I squeezed them together and looked at the sun. I always enjoyed doing this, ever since Prabhu and I had seen our first solar eclipse together. I liked seeing the sun look smaller than the moon, when, through the naked eye, it looked so much bigger. Besides, I always thought I’d catch a stray eclipse or two which perhaps no one else knew about. There was nothing on the sun this time too. Perhaps the paper Mummy read was right. The next solar eclipse wouldn’t take place for ages.
Then I saw that one of the negatives wasn’t uniformly dark. I could make out a faint figure. I held the single negative up now and looked through the figure into the sun. The light went straight into my eyes and I had to squint. A pain shot into my heart. It was a negative of my brother.

 

4

My fingerprints were all over this precious negative so I hastily rubbed it against my sleeve. My perspiration made it wet so I put it back in my pocket with the other negative. Mummy would be angry. Mummy would ask me how I got hold of this negative and I wouldn’t be able to answer as I didn’t know myself. And at the thought of this, my brother and the dark events of the day, I burst into tears.
One day, my brother had run away to England. Leaving our room, he had made a noise, and I had woken up. Sleepily, I sat up, heard a car engine running outside, and the voice of his college friend Fram. We found out later that Fram had accompanied him. In the beginning, everyone said he had put up the money and forged signatures for the passports and all. In fact, it was Fram’s father, long settled in London, who had been both Fram’s and my brother’s guarantor. He bore the expenses, air tickets and all.
Mummy had taken the news very calmly. She said she suspected Darius wasn’t very happy in college and that he had hinted he wanted to study in England. Darius had an exceptional brain. He wrote to us, week after week, for three months. Then suddenly, stopped. Fram’s infrequent letters to Mummy only indicated that Darius was alive, nothing else. After a year, Mummy wrote to Scotland Yard. There was a polite reply, asking for more details. We had no details.
But Mummy persisted. Whenever she heard of people leaving for England she would try to get hold of their telephone numbers or addresses. When she succeeded she would phone them or write to them, begging for an interview, until the surprised people, total strangers some of them, out of pity or curiosity, would agree to do their best to trace Darius. They said they’d make enquiries, that was all they could do. Hardly anyone wrote back to us.
We even went to the U.K. High Commissioner and he was very sympathetic but said he couldn’t do anything. In time I saw there was no hope and felt hollow and empty, sure I had lost my brother forever.
I felt a horrible icy mass settle on the back of my neck. ‘Eagle goo,’ my mind said in panic, as my fingers clawed at it. A white mess clung to them. I looked up and saw two strange faces, two boys. Ice cream dripped off the two sticks they were holding.
‘Hullo,’ one of the boys said. ‘Don’t you like icecream?’
‘Yes.’
‘Eat then,’ he said and gave me his half-eaten slab. I didn’t touch it.
‘Why are you crying?’
‘I got salt water in my eyes.’
‘Go on. We saw you running from your house. Who died?’
I didn’t answer.
‘I keep saying some fat Parsi bitch put herself alight, yaar,’ the other boy spoke.
‘You could smell her at Oomer Park.’
‘People don’t set themselves on fire now. The British stopped that.’
‘Was she your mother?’
‘No’
‘Poor bitch. Come on. We’re going to catch cachbas. Coming?’
I would have gone with them but their fat ayah was shrieking at them to come back. Then I realized she was also trying to say something to me. I heard her in the distance saying something about my father and pointing at someone. It was the man who had gripped my arm. He was coming towards me. I jumped up, dodged past him and ran to the ayah.
‘Eh? What, what? Won’t go home? Hai sahib, these children, getting so disobedient these days. Look at Fazal and Karim – the tide will come and they won’t listen. Don’t try and hide from me, you rascals!’ At this point, the ayah began clapping her hands, and since I was so close to her, holding on to her, her chubby arms struck me on either side of my head – ‘Fazal! Karim! Shall I tell your father now? Come in you naughty children.’ Then, louder, to me, ‘Naughty boy! Sahitan! Go home with your father. You’ll tear my blouse! Ech! What fingers!’
‘He’s not my father,’ I shouted.
‘Eh? Who are you then?’ Her voice grew deep and threatening as she turned on the man. ‘Who are you?’ She rose to her full height suddenly so that I fell from her lap backwards. ‘Trying to steal children? Shall I tell police?’
The man seemed unable to understand what she was saying but, at the last word, snorted, mumbled something, glared at me and began shuffling away.
‘Tell your ayah I am not an altufaltu,’ he said in Gujarati, ‘I am not a loafer, not a beggar. All -’ The ayah in her turn not understanding him, took a step forward so that the old man quickly broke off his sentence. Retreating, he spluttered out: ‘All I want to ask you is who died? S. P. Gorwalla or C. J. Gorwalla?’ and without waiting for an answer he walked away, shaking his head.

 

5

But I couldn’t watch him go safely out of sight for the ayah suddenly screamed. She lowered her great weight down the side of the parapet on which she had been sitting and began clambering over the rocks. One of the boys had fallen into a shallow pool.
I heard a horn being sounded repeatedly and looked back. It was Savak uncle. I didn’t want to go with him. I could see some of my aunts, all dressed in white, crowded into the back of the car and I didn’t want to sit on any of their laps. So I ran and hid behind a big rock. Savak uncle sounded the horn twice. Then, to my great satisfaction, I saw him get out of the car and climb over the parapet. He was coming to get me. I ran further away. I heard him bellowing. As he bellowed away, his foot slipped on some green slime and slid into a pool. I began laughing.
Someone, his fair-haired son perhaps, began sounding the car horn in a frenzy. Savak uncle panicked, and began clambering over the rocks back to the car. It was illegal to blow the horn here. Sure enough a policeman began walking towards the car. Savak uncle stumbling over the rocks, looked clumsier and clumsier, while I went back to the big rock, stood on it, clapped my hands and laughed. I hadn’t laughed for many days and I found I couldn’t stop. My uncle was now with the policeman, gesticulating and pointing at me. I got frightened and looked around for the ayah but she was far away, her two charges clinging to her. So I decided to cross the filth which oozed out of a big hole in the sea-wall and wait near the hole. I knew the policeman wouldn’t care to cross the filth and get his feet dirty. As I expected, he called out to me, turned, gave helpless shrugs in the direction of Savak uncle and went back to his traffic island. I waited and watched the black Chrysler speed away.
I stood with my back pressed to the wall, breathing in the stench of dead fish, for about half an hour, not daring to look and see if the policeman had returned to the parapet. After almost an hour, I peeped round the wall, saw the policeman had vanished, and made a dash for it. I stopped running when I was halfway up Cumballa Hill. My head was aching. I thought it was due to the strains of the day, the weeping and the laughter. But I was feeling unusually elated. It was four when I got home.
I sat with my Meccano set to make a windmill. Mummy took a silver dish full of fruit and some other food and put it near Zarathustra’s portrait. ‘Tomorrow is Independence Day,’ she said out of the blue. When I took off my shoes, a small dead fish fell on the floor. Rantansa the cat pounced on it and made crunching sounds. My arms and legs began moving on their own. I couldn’t control them. I was having one of my fits.

 

6

II. Rumi: 8 December, 1957

He stepped onto the platform at St. Pancras station, holding a small blue suitcase in his hand. He was doing alright so far, he thought. You didn’t have to remove your gloves to carry a suitcase. In the coach on the train from Tilbury he had hesitated. Not until he had seen the tall Englishman who’d been sitting opposite him slip on a pair of fur-lined leather gloves before lifting his briefcase off the luggage rack had he put on his own pair. They were grey, mouse-looking and made of wool.
He stopped for a moment on the platform and looked here and there. Families of Indians had already made islands of themselves as the English and Australians streamed past. Embarrassed, he found himself in their way and hurried towards the luggage van.
The porters had unloaded some of the trunks already but his wasn’t among them. Seeing he had a few minutes to wait, he looked up the platform carefully. No one. Well, he’d been prepared for the eventuality. The £5 in his wallet would presumably get him a room in a hotel for the night. He found his eyes being drawn to a blonde couple and their two children waiting near him. He had seen the couple kissing the moment he had got off the train and now the man had thrown his arms around the woman. Their children were staring at them. She had rested her head on his chest, her blond hair streaming down his shirt. Rumi could see her eyes and cheeks were wet.
He blew into the cold air, watching a bloom of vapour rise against the neon lights. Nice, much better than on cold days in Poona, or the last few days on the ship. Here, with the blondes, the clanking of iron, and all those overcoated figures crossing his line of sight, was a truly Northern darkness.
None of his picture-book images of Britain seemed to correspond with what he saw and he was glad.
‘This yours, sir? Daruwalla?’
‘Oh! Yes, it is.’ He gave the porter a counterfoil.
‘Taxi, sir?’
‘Yes.’
They made for the taxis waiting alongside the platform itself, the porter pushing a trolley with his trunk loaded on to it. There was a small queue and they joined its end. The porter unloaded the trunk from the trolley. Rumi hesitated.
‘Do I have to put it into the taxi myself or will the taxi driver do it?’
‘Cor, catch you lifting that trunk, sir. ‘Twill break you in half, it will.’
Rumi smiled feebly.
‘Course, I’ll do it for you, sir. If you make it worth my while.’
‘Yes,’ Rumi sounded uncertain. He watched the queue shorten.
‘Not smuggling gold, are you sir?’ the porter asked blandly. ‘Thought I heard something clanking about in there.’
‘Those damned Buddhas,’ Rumi swore to himself. Despite all his mother’s assurances, they’d broken loose. They were the first things in his trunk that would have to go. They and the tin-pot enema.
‘Student are you, sir?’
‘Yes’
‘Thought you was. Lots of you Indian blokes coming in, now they’ve opened the canal again.’
Suddenly, Rumi wanted to talk. ‘And it’s amazing, you can still see the sunken ships at Port Said. They’re still there – two years after the fighting.’
‘Bound to be.’
Rumi was about to ask the porter what he meant when a dark suited man with an umbrella swung between them, his right hand outstretched.
‘Hello, old chap.’
‘Fram!’
The man in the suit looked down as they shook hands.
‘Did I give you a scare? Sorry, old chap. I saw you get off the train and then I lost you and then I saw you again and have been observing you for the last five minutes.’
‘Observing me?’
‘Just to see how you get on with the natives, that sort of thing.’ He grunted with laughter. ‘Well, I must say you’ve been managing quite well. I say, you do look different since I saw you last.’
‘But why weren’t you on the platform?’
‘My dear chap, this isn’t Poona. A perfectly civilized waiting place is just behind the barrier. Perfectly good in most circumstances except that I didn’t foresee mother India sending so many of her sons and daughters with so many of their beddings. Anyway I lost you and I found you. Ah, the taxi.’
The porter loaded the trunk onto the taxi. Rumi reached for his wallet.
‘Wait for it, wait for it. You get in. I’ll settle this –’
‘But Fram.’
‘Let me. For the first and only time. Then you’re on your own.’
But Rumi’s wallet was already in his hands and fumbling for shillings he let it slip, so that the heavy British coins tumbled and clanged on the platform, one half-crown piece rolling away past the queue and the other mechanically pirouetting to its own music.
Rumi frantically stamped on the dancer, in the process dislodging some threepenny bits which began a jerky run because of their shape, before finally keeling over.

 

7

‘O for Pete’s sake,’ said a woman in the queue.
‘Don’t panic,’ Fram called out as Rumi began to look for the runaway coins. Then he turned briskly to the porter. ‘Unload the trunk, there’s a good man. Would someone else care to make use of the taxi?’
The kissing couple with the children, who’d been waiting behind them, moved forward and got in. They continued to smile dreamily and the taxi left without their saying a word. Another taxi pulled up. Rumi was still looking for his lost coins. The old lady who had said ‘for Pete’s sake’ got in.
When Rumi returned with his coins he found that Fram and the porter were having an argument.
‘Five bob? Only five bob?’ the porter was saying incredulously, five shining pieces of silver in his outstretched hand.
‘I know the rates at this station, my man,’ Fram said, one leg in a taxi, ‘and if there’s one more word out of you I’ll have you reported.’
‘Five bob? For all the time I’ve spent on that piece of tin. Could’ve shifted three lots of luggage by now.’
‘Ah there you are. Get in from the other side.’ Fram told Rumi and slammed the door of the taxi shut.
‘Fram, please let me –’
‘Get in. Don’t make the situation worse.’
Rumi got in.
‘A hundred and three please.’
The porter was saying something but Rumi only heard the words ‘their bleedin’ country’ above the sound of the taxi’s engine.
‘What did he say?’ Rumi asked Fram as the taxi turned onto the main road.
‘He said we acted as though this was our bleeding country the moment we came here. Pay no attention. Of course, he’s right. But I happen to know his bleeding country a lot better than he does, I damn well have a right to act as if it were mine. I certainly happen to know what porters should be paid at St. Pancras Station.’
‘But Fram, it was the loading and unloading. I’d offered to make it worth his while –’
‘What?’ Fram snapped, turning on Rumi. ‘You see Indians –’ He was about to say more but suddenly broke off with that odd grunting laugh of his. ‘Never mind. You’ll learn.’ He patted Rumi’s hand. ‘It’s these damned gloves of yours that cause all the trouble. You can’t handle a wallet with your gloves on.’
‘I know Fram. It’s just that I was in a hurry.’
‘And always remember to take your right glove off before you shake hands.’
‘Sorry yar.’
‘No one noticed. It’s alright if I notice but not if they notice.’
Rumi leaned back in his seat. They didn’t speak for a while.
Then Fram said, ‘What’s the matter? Cheer up. You’re in London.’
Rumi looked out of the window. The taxi felt snug and warm. A smile creased his face.
‘Are you taking me to your place?’
‘Well, no. It’s like this, old chap.’ Fram shifted in his seat. ‘My housekeeper’s a decent sort and wouldn’t mind you sleeping on my floor for a few nights, but as I’m a bit snowed under with work and won’t be able to give you as much time as I’d like to, I thought why not get you settled into some digs from the start. Of course, you don’t have to pay if you don’t like them – but I’ve found a place. Nice couple runs it. Very central too. Bayswater.’
‘Is it very far from where you live?’
‘No, just stations away by the Circle Line. Always use the tube if you can. See that sign there? That stands for a station.’
‘It’s like what they use in Bombay.’
‘Yes, isn’t it extraordinary how London seems so much like Bombay.’
‘I don’t think so. Look at the trees. And do the trains run on tyres here?’
‘No, that’s the Paris Metro.’
‘It’s all so quiet.’
Rumi stared – at the leafless trees, the strange lights, which lit them and his heart raced. His own digs from day one! Great.
‘Thank you for coming to the station.’

 

8

The taxi turned off into a street where the lights were dimmer. It pulled up at one of the terraced houses. Fram and Rumi got out and lifted the trunk to the pavement. Rumi paid the taxi driver and gave him a shilling’s tip as he’d been instructed to do in India. The boys lifted the trunk up the steps to the front door. Fram rang the bell.
‘I think you’ll like her,’ Fram said as they waited.
The door was opened by an old woman. She peered at them for a while before letting them in. She smiled, listening to Fram’s introductions absent-mindedly. Without a word, she handed Rumi the key to his room. As they were going upstairs, the trunk between them, she called out shrilly.
‘Bathroom on the landing. No baths after ten.’
‘Thank you, Mrs Fitch,’ Fram said between his teeth.
Rumi, at the other end of the trunk, began to feel its weight.
‘Wait on the landing,’ he told Fram.
‘Don’t be daft. It’s one go or nothing.’
Rumi thought they’d never make it but they got to the top of the flight. He saw three doors. Fram opened the door marked 3.
Rumi entered, panting. He felt the chill in his room. Fram strode over to the window and tried to shut it. It was one of those sash windows meant to be pulled down. It wouldn’t shut.
‘They don’t use their windows, much in this country. Almost every blasted one of them jams.’ It finally shut.
Rumi looked at the room, the bright white sheets which showed under a quilt on the bed, the old armchair with its tattered cover, the brown wallpaper with red flowers on it. Blooms of vapour from both their mouths formed and vanished in the room.
‘C’mon let’s get the trunk in and shut the door,’ Fram said. ‘There’s nothing you can do with British winters but shut them out.’
They dragged the trunk into the room. Rumi sat on it as Fram tried to light the gas- fire. There was a loud popping sound and long yellow flames began licking its clay tiles.
Fram turned the tap off.
‘Never let a flame burn yellow like that,’ he said. ‘It means there’s air in the gas pipe. It probably hasn’t been used for an age.’
Fram tried to light the fire again and this time blue and orange flames began to hiss steadily.
‘Come and warm your hands,’ Fram, kneeling by the fire, called out to Rumi. It was then that Rumi realized his gloves were missing.
‘Fram, I’ve gone and left my gloves in the taxi, yar.’
‘You chump. You haven’t.’
‘I have. What to do?’
‘Oh you’ll get them back. They really are pretty honest here. Pick them up at the Lost Property Office. But I say, why don’t you get a nice leather pair from Marks & Sparks?’
Rumi didn’t answer.
Fram rubbed his hands in front of the fire. ‘They really are honest. They leave the milk by the front door and no one steals it.’
‘So they told me at home.’ Faint sounds of the Everly Brothers singing ‘Bye Bye Love’ came from next door.
‘What’s the latest Elvis, Fram?’
‘I’m afraid I have no ear for that sort of thing.’
‘Don’t you like music?’
‘I don’t think so. Perhaps I’m tone deaf. I did go to the Proms last year. Can’t say I enjoyed them very much.’
Rumi didn’t feel like asking him what he meant by the Proms. They sat in silence for a while, accompanied only by the hissing of the gas-fire and the faint voices of the Everly Brothers.
‘You should get yourself a radio,’ Fram said into the fire.
Rumi said nothing. Fram turned to him.

 

9

‘Rumi… Listen, I know what’s on your mind. You’ve been dying to ask me a question – about him. But I’d rather not go into the details now, if you don’t mind. Some other time. But I will say this – I did my best to try and locate him and I didn’t find him. After that Hounslow address, it’s as I wrote to your mother. He’s disappeared.’
‘That’s alright Fram. After you wrote we had a friend of his come to see us in Bombay. He studies Engineering in the States and it seems he wrote to him once but got no reply. I’ve got the address he wrote to. It won’t be difficult to find him.’
‘Great, that’s great news. I was really worried – a bit guilty, you know.’
When Rumi looked at him questioningly, Fram looked into the fire and said, ‘Well, you know, me being in the same city as he’s supposed to be and not being able to find him, and you having to come all the way from India to do that. But why didn’t you write to him once you knew his address?’
‘That’s just it, the farce of it all!’ Rumi said earnestly. ‘We only got the address a week before I left, and by then I’d got my visa, booked my passage. Of course, we’ve written to him. We also sent him a telegram about my coming over. But you know, I haven’t come here only to look for him.’
‘Do you honestly think he’ll go back with you?’
‘Why not? Blood is thicker than water, you know, even if it’s the water of the Thames.’
He had thought of the last line on the ship and had been pleased. But now that he’d said it, it didn’t seem to ring true. He coloured, looking into the fire. From a corner of his eye he could see Fram looking at him curiously.
‘Have you begun to shave yet?’
‘Quit joking, yar, I’ve been shaving since I was fourteen.’
‘How do you manage with your face covered with pimples?’
Rumi didn’t say anything for a while, but continued staring at the blue and orange flames. ‘I manage,’ he said grimly.
Fram gave his grunting laugh. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.’
‘I’m not offended.’
There was a longish silence, in the space of which Rumi listened to a new rock n’ roll number filtering faintly through the wall. He hadn’t heard it before.
‘Jolly sort of tune,’ Fram said. Rumi turned and looked at him.
‘Tell me one thing Fram, why do you speak in that funny way?’
Fram drew in his lips and they both looked at each other for a second, deadly serious. Then Fram threw back his head as his grunts of laughter rose.
‘It’s the weather,’ he brought out between the grunts. ‘It must be the weather.’
Rumi began rocking with laughter, not knowing why.
‘In Britain everything’s got to do with the weather. Even the British.’ Fram said the last word deep in his throat.
Rumi rocked more than ever, his laughter ringing out, a series of shouts that seemed to rise in a crescendo to the ceiling. Fram stared at him in surprise.
‘What do you think of them yar, after twelve solid years here? They don’t look that reserved to me.’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘Well, did you see that guy and that chick who were standing behind us in the queue. Billing and cooing away.’
‘Must be artists.’
‘How do you know?’
‘He was wearing a red tie.’
‘Do all artists wear red ties in London?’
‘He was also wearing a coloured shirt. You’ve got to be careful of chaps like that. Never know where they’re leading you. No one works in an office wearing a coloured shirt.’
‘What should I wear for work? When I find work.’

 

10

‘Oh, you’re alright as you are,’ Fram said looking him up and down. Later on, you might be able to change that suit of yours for something better. And I hope you’ll have the good sense never to wear drainpipe trousers and spivvy shoes.’ Rumi laughed at the ‘spivvy’.
‘What about an overcoat? You need a good thick woolen overcoat.’
‘I’ll get one this week.’
‘Get one tomorrow. It’s almost below freezing and it looks like snow. And for God’s sake, don’t get a cheap one. An overcoat should last you a lifetime.’
But I’m only going to be here for a few months, Rumi wanted to say but Fram went on about overcoats. Rumi cut in.
‘Savak uncle asked me to go to Burberry’s.’
‘No no. Go to Austin Reeds’s. Simpson’s and Aquascutume are a bit pricy. Austin Reed’s are well-tailored, stylish and sober. Mine’s from Austin Reed.’
‘You haven’t even taken it off.’
‘No, but just feel the lining, isn’t it perfect?’
Rumi felt the lining and said nothing. Fram began buttoning up his overcoat again. ‘So, Rumi old chap,’ he said, as he pulled gloves out of his overcoat’s pocket. ‘This is your home from now on. If you need anything just give us a tinkle. You’ve got my address and phone number. And if you ever want to come over, just ring up first, old chap. Just to make sure I’m in. I’m afraid I’ve got to go, work and all that. Anything I can do for you while I’m here?’
‘No.’
‘Cheer up. Have an early night. And remember, pop over to the Lost Property Office in a couple of days.’ He paused. ‘You might come down with me to the landing. I’ll show you how the hot water in the bathroom works in case you want a bath.’
They went down to the bathroom. Fram put the light on by pulling a cord near the door. Rumi saw a cracked mirror and a basin under it. There was a brown streak under the overflow. Rumi turned to look at the bathtub.
‘There it is, the proverbial English bath tub, every bit as dirty as they described it at home.’
Fram continued in Gujarati. ‘What do these corpses know of hygiene?’ Then in English. ‘Get yourself one of those rubber showers from Boots. When you want hot water, put pennies into the meter. Here, I’ll show you.’ Fram demonstrated. Then he turned on the tap. With a muffled explosion that scattered small black particles into the tub, the flames in the geyser rose. The water from the tap began to steam as it flowed down the sides of the tub, the scum of the previous bathwater mixing with the black particles.
‘What are those?’ Rumi asked.
‘Carbon. The soot of a century.’
Rumi went out of the bathroom and Fram joined him on the landing.
‘OK old chap? See you soon,’ he said, extending his hand.
‘Can’t you take me to a pub? I’ll pay for the drinks,’ Rumi said.
‘Certainly not. You’re underage for drinks. You don’t want to be caught. Besides, have sense. You’ll get pneumonia, walking about as you are this time of night. No. But how about lunch day after tomorrow. Let’s meet at Strand station, at the ticket office.’
‘At the ticket office. OK.’
When Fram let himself out, a cold draught swept into the hall and up the stairs to where Rumi stood on the landing. Climbing back up the stairs to his door, he realized he’d left its key in his room. He gave the door a few half-hearted bumps with his shoulder and decided there was nothing for it but to go to Mrs. Fitch. He stood outside her door listening to gun-shots and screams. A terrible battle seemed to be in progress. He waited for the sounds to die down before knocking.
When he entered the room he saw the cold flickering light of a television set. It fell on an old man asleep in a high-backed armchair, his mouth open. There were dark spots on his face and a wart under his lower lip. A cat lay under the set and for a while Mrs Fitch wasn’t to be seen. Then, just as the face of John Payne came on the screen, she leapt up from the armchair which had its back to him.

 

11

‘What is it?’ she asked sweetly.
‘I’m afraid I’ve locked myself out.’ Rumi couldn’t take his eyes off the screen.
‘Have you now? Well all my lodgers do sooner or later. Better sooner than later, I suppose. Though you’ll try not to lock yourself out late in the night, won’t you, young man? Cyril’s so unwell these days, and we both like to turn in early.’ She went over to a curved sideboard and switched on a lamp that stood on it. Then she pulled open a drawer and began lifting out keys, scrutinizing the tags on them.
‘Shut the door,’ she suddenly said in her piercing voice. ‘You’re letting all the heat out.’
Rumi pulled the door shut. He looked at Mr Fitch’s sleeping face. Now he saw more than one wart hanging under his lower lip, there was a row of them. His eyes were drawn back to the screen. Indians were falling off their horses.
Mrs Fitch came with the key. ‘This should do it,’ she said. ‘But give it back tomorrow morning, will you?’
Rumi thanked her, taking one last look at John Payne’s face. It glowed, triumphant. When he entered his room he found it snug and warm. After placing both keys in his pocket, he sat on the bed for a while. It was soft, softer than his cabin bunk. The quilt had a large stain. He looked away.
He thought of unpacking. Opening his trunk, he saw its contents covered with a fine muslin cloth. Pulling it off he saw a pile of books, some brass dancing figures and the enema can. He saw a Buddha lodged upside down between the books and the can. The lid of the trunk fell across his fingers and he winced in pain. He decided to go out.
There were very few people in the street. A man hurried past, a hat low over his eyes. A Negro, Rumi saw. He saw a post box and near it a newspaper stand. ‘Blizzard Kills 3’ it said and above that The Evening Standard.
He saw a pub on the road but didn’t like the look of it. Too big. Turning into a sidestreet he saw a smaller pub. Just as he was about to enter, he saw a man being frog-marched down the street by two policemen. The man was wild-haired, strong-looking and had blood on his face. From the way he moved his feet it seemed he’d had too much to drink. How efficiently they do their job, Rumi thought. In Bombay they’d have needed five policemen for such a man and all of them would have been noisy. He looked at the backs of the receding policemen. How efficiently they worked, as if oiled.
He entered the pub and at the same moment had a vision of himself being marched off. He’d done something illegal, he was only seventeen. He stood near the door, holding it open, when there was a shout.
‘Shut that blinkin’ door, can’t yer, mate?’
He shut the door and stood facing the bar. The man behind it was polishing a glass. He  looked at Rumi from the side of his eyes with a smile. Though the man’s forehead was sharply lined it was a good-humoured face, red and stubbly. He took his time polishing the glass, hung it up in a rack, and leaning over the bar, asked Rumi, ‘And what can I do for you my little man?’
Rumi felt his legs shake. The man was being condescending, he’d clearly been found out. But he threw a quick look at the men sitting at the tables on either side of him, strode up to the bar and said, as confidently as he could, ‘Would you be having any wine?’
Savak uncle had coached him before he’d been sent to England. This was one of the things he’d been taught to say.
‘Would you be wanting a red wine or a white one, sir?’ the barman asked.
‘I would be wanting a red,’ he said, then coloured.
‘Which one, sir?’ asked the barman, standing aside to reveal an impressive array of bottles behind him.
‘That one,’ said Rumi pointing to a label he liked the look of. The barman wiped the dust off the bottle and put it on the counter. ‘That’ll be eighteen and six, sir.’
Rumi stared at him.
‘I just wanted a glass,’ he said, less confidently than before.
‘Sorry sir, we don’t serve wine by the glass here.’
Rumi bit his lip and turned to go.

 

12

‘Would you like to try something else? A half pint of bitter, or a Guinness?’
Rumi went up to the bar and leaned forward conspiratorially, ‘What would they be drinking?’ indicating, with a discreet sign, a group at a table behind him.
‘Eh? What’s that? Does the young lad want to join us?’ one of the drinkers at the table shouted.
‘Gentlemen, the young man would like to know what you’re drinking.’
‘Is he standing us to a round then? Are you standing us to a drink, son?’ the shouter shouted.
‘A pint of bitter all round,’ roared another man. ‘Here, you come and sit down, son,’ said the first man. ‘I’ll get the drinks.’
Rumi soon found a huge mug with a beery liquid thrust into his hand. He’d been propelled by one of the other drinkers to a vacant chair. The first man came with white froth sliding down the side of his own tankard. I’m Peter. What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Rumi.’
‘Come again?’
‘Rumi.’
‘Could you spell it for the likes of us. R-O-O-M-Y?. As in room?’
Rumi spelt it out.
‘Not Roomy, you’re sure? You’re not that.’
‘I can see,’ said another man.
Rumi knew he was going to be ragged. He didn’t like his drink, but perhaps, he thought, if he took enough of it, it would help him retaliate. He drank in gulps.
‘Where are you from, Rumi? No, let me guess, Cyprus? Greece?’
‘I’m from India.’
There was a moment’s silence.
‘India? Pukka Indian are you? Well, I’ll be blown. You don’t kook Indian to me.’ The others at the table agreed. ‘Hey Charley,’ he called to the barman, ‘This chaps an Indian. Would you have guessed it?’
‘Knew it the moment I set eyes on him,’ Charley said polishing another glass. ‘There’s something about the cut of his suit told me that.’
‘And it’s a smart suit he’s wearing too,’ Peter said and bent under the table. ‘And tapered trousers. Very stylish. Look at my trousers.’ Peter showed his trousers with turn-ups. ‘Lloyd George, my kids call me at home.’ The drinkers roared with laughter.
A juke box began to play ‘Rock Around The Clock’. Rumi’s heart leaped.
‘Do you get this music in India?’ one of the drinkers asked.
‘Yes,’ he said absently. He was feeling good. They had broken the seats at Excelsior when the film was shown. He’d seen it.
‘Well,’ said Peter, ‘you’ll find a lot to do out here. But whatever you do, don’t get like them.’ He pointed behind him with his thumb.
Rumi turned. Teddy boys, that was clear – the sideburns, the silver bracelets. He turned back to his drink quickly. He wished he didn’t have his back to them.
‘Just look at them,’ someone continued. ‘All they can think of is their clothes and their rock.’
‘Cool it, granddad,’ said one of the boys. Rumi was surprised at the affection in the voice.
Peter said, ‘I’ve known him since he was this high.’
One of the three men at the table had been more silent than the rest.
He suddenly turned to Rumi and said, ‘Don’t like what yer Prime Minister said about us in Suez.’
One of the other men laughed half-heartedly.
‘What things?’ Rumi said, a little aggressively. The man ignored him.
‘What’s ‘e always siding with the Russians for?,’ the man asked. ‘We educated him, didn’t we? We gave im a bloomin’ education. A proper education.’
The second man nodded. Only Peter said, ‘Come off it, Harry, a fat lot you know.’
They drank in silence. Harry and the other man avoided looking at Rumi. Rumi took out his wallet.
‘I’ve paid,’ Peter said, restraining him.
‘But I was supposed to.’
‘Nah, forget it.’ He sounded drunk. ‘We were only havin’ you on.’
‘Well, thanks,’ Rumi said, uncertainly. ‘Bye everyone.’ He moved to the door.
‘We were only havin’ you on, you hear?’ Rumi heard the words being repeated, but this time it was Harry who spoke.
‘Time Gentleman please,’ he heard the barman say, and he was out in the street. It was totally deserted. Walking towards his digs, he passed no one. A car swished past. He thrust his hands deep into his pockets to get warm.
His room felt much colder than the first time he’d entered it. He lit the gasfire and waited for its clay tiles to redden. He felt careless and the beer was exerting a pleasurable weight on his balls.
He went down to the bathroom and stood in it for a while. The whole house seemed asleep. He returned to the growing warmth of his room. An image of the blonde he had seen at the station with her wet cheeks and eyes seized him with a peculiar force. He switched off the light, took off his trousers and knelt near the fire. His penis was already erect with its tip burning. He took it in his hand and played with it, letting the blonde get on it. Then he began rubbing it vigorously. As the heat rose, he grinned and gasped, ‘England, here I come.’

 

13

III

He opened his eyes at six. Through a crack under the curtains he could see it was as dark as night outside. He’d slept badly. He’d woken up twice because his feet had felt cold but hadn’t had the courage to get out of bed and put on his socks. He hadn’t put any on before going to bed because it seemed a dirty thing to do. He hadn’t kept the window shut but had opened it about a foot for the same reason. Now the top of his ears and nose felt cold and he snuggled further down into the blanket under the quilt.
He thought for a moment about Darius. It’s going to be a drag, he thought, looking for him on such a day. He’d have preferred to have gone to a movie.
At eight, he threw off the quilt, something soft and furry was sliding past the windows. Something was falling in long grey strokes down to the street. Snow! There wasn’t a trace of white under the brisk feet of those going to the tube station.
He turned back into his room. It felt much colder than it had when he’d gone to bed. He put on the thick dressing gown his mother had given him and began brushing his teeth.
He went downstairs at nine to return the duplicate key. Mrs Fitch was bringing in a bottle of milk.
‘Shall I ask the milkman to get some for you from tomorrow?’
‘Yes.’
‘Red top, silver top or gold. I take silver.’
‘The same for me.’
‘A half pint do?’
‘Yes.’
‘Going out to have some breakfast, are you?’
‘Yes.’
‘There’s a nice café round the corner. I suppose you’ll be making your own from tomorrow.’
‘Yes.’
‘You won’t be cooking too many curries, will you? I don’t mind. But the neighbours aren’t partial to it.’
‘I don’t know how to make a curry.’
‘Oh you’ll learn in no time at all. Mr Rangaswamy, when he first came here – he was just like you. Very soft-spoken and like a gentleman. He soon had us holding our noses because of his curries. Still, it wasn’t for that I asked him to go. It was because he owed me rent. Went to the dogs, literally. Do you gamble?’
‘No.’
‘You don’t look the sort. But you never can tell with you Asian chappies.’
As he let himself out he called out ‘Mrs Fitch, is that snow?’
‘Snow? It’s sleet, dearie. And shut the door!’
The sleet made his collar and shirtfront wet and he was grateful for the warmth of the Lyons in the next street. After breakfast he went to station and got himself an A to Z. The pavements were slippery with little particles of grey ice, as slippery as oil.
He looked up Regent Street in the A to Z and found he was standing in peoples’ way. He moved to a corner of the station and stood in a draught.
With the A to Z and the Underground map he found it was simple to get to Oxford Circus. He was disappointed there were no escalators at Bayswater and was indifferent to them at Oxford Circus. They had spoken so highly of escalators in Bombay.
But once outside, following the curve of Regent Street, he was excited. He had seen a bit of Piccadilly as he neared Austin Reed. He decided to make a lightning purchase.
The salesman in the overcoat section was surprised. Rumi seemed to be willing to take the first overcoat he had offered, a long, brown tweed, but just as the salesman was about to make the bill, Rumi asked to see another. The second one, a calf-length coat in grey Harris Tweed which he put on, made him turn to one of the shop’s mirrors. He stared at his pimples, prominent outcrops in the slanting light, stepped back and decided to buy the coat. When the salesman said 25 guineas, he fumbled with the buttons, as he tried to take the coat off. But the fumbling stopped. It was no use. He’d keep it on. Fram had said it was an investment. The salesman gave him the bill and he paid the cashier downstairs. At Rs 13 a pound it worked out to about 360 rupees – what Mody had got per month after forty years work in the same office. He almost ran out of the shop.
Walking towards Piccadilly he was grateful for the new, thick, enveloping warmth, grateful that he could put his hands deep into warm pockets. The sleet had stopped. Though the sky was dark there was no rain. He stood at the corner of Regent Street and watched the Coca-Cola sign. So this was it. Piccadilly. He watched the sign for a while, saw the statue of Eros and bought a copy of the Times. He took the tube home.

 

14

He’d return later because Piccadilly didn’t seem quite right at daytime and because he had thought of getting rid of the brass dancers at the Circus. He’d offer them to some passerby; someone would buy them. But now that he’d taken them out of their muslin bags they seemed to provide the room with its bits of decoration. He put his clothes in the wardrobe and put the Zarathustra Savak uncle had given him on the little desk. He still didn’t like the dancers but decided he’d know what to do with them later.
He sat on his bed and looked around. He liked to see his room tidy. Then, slowly and deliberately, his heart thumping, he turned to the back of the A to Z to try and locate Westbury Road. It was a name he had memorised ever since Sujit, Darius’s college friend, had given it to him. He opened his address book to check. He saw the name under Darius. That and Fram’s address were the only two addresses in the book.
There were fifteen Westbury Roads listed at the end of the A to Z. Rumi stared at them. The one in his address book just said London. No postal district.
Damn! Eight postal districts of London to go to with the others marked Brom., Croy., – and so on. He didn’t know where to begin looking. ‘Oh hell, oh hell,’ he muttered. And he’d thought he’d find Darius and take him to see ‘Island in the Sun’ – with Harry Belafonte – in the evening.
Well, that could wait. So could Darius! He wondered if there was a cinema nearby he could go to. He looked at the Times and couldn’t find the cinema page. He finally found a number of cinemas listed in very fine print. He went downstairs to ask Mrs Fitch where they were.
The television was on and she was sitting in front of it but all the screen showed was some kind of design.
‘Mrs Fitch where are all these cinemas?’ he pointed at his Times. ‘They’re all in the West End.’
‘Aren’t there any cinemas in Bayswater?’
‘Of course there are. But you won’t find them in that paper. Thinking of subscribing to the Times are you?’ Rumi hesitated.
‘Shouldn’t I?’
‘Cyril and I are Express wallas. You didn’t take your milk this morning.’
‘Oh.’
‘I took it in for you, just in case. It’s on the table in the hall.’
‘I was told you could leave milk out all day. No one will take it.’
‘Never you mind what people say. You take the bottle in every morning. Things aren’t what they used to be.’ She stared at him, then leaning towards him confidentially, said, ‘Too many West Indians.’
Just then, the image of a clock appeared on the screen and a voice announced something. Mrs Fitch turned to the set with a cry.
Rumi took the milk. Back in his room, he tried to peel off the silver top but couldn’t. Pushing his thumb down on it, a shot of milk hit him in the eye. He poured some of the rest of it out in a cup and drank. It tasted odd but was thick, cold and soothing.
He heard the telephone ring, then stop. Mrs Fitch was coming up the stairs. It was for him.
He felt bad that the old woman should have had to climb the stairs for him but she had the same thin smile on her face that she always had.
The voice at the other end drawled a greeting.
‘Anil! are you telephoning from Cambridge?’ Rumi asked, feigning enthusiasm.
‘I am. Just thought I’d be the first to make contact. How are you?’
‘Oh fine, fine.’
‘Is it snowing in London? It is here.’
‘No, it’s –’
‘I’m sorry I shan’t be seeing you in London over Christmas. I’ve been asked to spend it with an English family.’ He paused. ‘I say. I was awfully sorry to hear about your grandfather.’
‘Hear what?’
‘You mean you don’t know? I say, I’m awfully sorry.’
Rumi froze.
‘He died more than a fortnight ago. The day after you left Bombay.’
There was a long silence.
‘But didn’t Fram tell you?’
‘No.’
‘I say, I haven’t given you a shock, have I?’
‘No.’
‘No. Well, Goodbye then-’
‘Goodbye.’

 

15

Fram knew. And he didn’t tell him. What was going to happen to Mummy now? He rushed upstairs, put on his overcoat and rushed out again. He took the tube to South Kensington. There seemed to be many roads leading to Onslow Gardens and it took him some time to find No 12. The front door was open, and taking a quick look at the numbers on the doors of the rooms on the ground floor, he ran up to the first and then the second. Outside 13, he began pounding the door.
‘Fram,’ he called, ‘Fram.’
After about five minutes, Fram opened the door, his face black.
‘What on earth’s the matter with you? You’ll disturb the whole house.’
‘Fram. Darabshah’s dead. You knew and you didn’t tell me.’
Fram’s eyes opened wide, his features relaxed.
‘I knew, old man, but your mother phoned asking me not to tell you.’
‘But you knew!’
‘Yes, I just told you I knew. Look, let’s have a chat, shall we. Let’s… let’s go to a pub. Just wait downstairs and I’ll be with you in a jiffy.
‘I’m underage for a pub.’
‘Well, then we’ll go to a coffee bar,’ Fram said with some irritation, reducing the door to a crack. Just wait downstairs.’
‘OK’
Fram shut the door, and Rumi waited, not downstairs but on the landing. He folded his arms, leant against the wall and scowled. He was a Teddy boy. After about a minute he heard a woman’s voice come from the room. It sounded querulous. Feeling hot around his ears, he ran down the remaining flight of stairs and waited for Fram in the hall. This time he didn’t fold his arms or lean against the wall. Merely scowled.
Fram descended, immaculately dressed, fingering a spotted tie.
‘I see you took my advice,’ he said gently. ‘Nice material,’ he said, running a finger down Rumi’s overcoat.
He paused outside the front door to put on his gloves.
‘There’s a coffee bar near the station. Shall we go there?’
‘I want to go to a pub.’
‘Really, Rumi. You seem blithely unaware of the danger of –’
‘You suggested it.’
‘But really –’
‘No, really Fram. Let’s go to a pub.’
‘If you insist.’
They went to the Drayton Arms. To Fram’s horror, it was Rumi who strode up to the counter.
‘Two pints of bitter, please.’
It was Fram’s turn to scowl as he sat at a table. Rumi brought the drinks.
‘Who taught you how to say that?’
‘One learns. Cigarette?’ Rumi offered him a pack.
‘Really Rumi, this is outrageous.’
‘Cigarette?’ Rumi repeated.
‘No thanks. If you will only let me explain. Your mother phoned me and asked me to tell you the news only after you’d found Darius. She said he’d help you bear it. On your own you’d be upset.’
‘I am upset.’
‘I must say you don’t act as though you were. The first thing you can think of doing is to rush up and accuse me.’
‘I don’t like things being kept from me.’
‘But sometimes things have to be kept from people. After all we’re not all the same age, we don’t all have the same experience. Who told you?’
‘Anil.’
‘But I should’ve thought your mother would have warned him not to tell you first.’
‘His family and mine haven’t been on speaking terms for a long time. I suppose she thought he wouldn’t bother to tell me. He didn’t sound very bothered, I can tell you that.’
‘You were very close to your grandfather.’
‘He was a good-hearted man. I don’t want to talk about him now.’
Fram fidgeted in his seat. ‘Rumi old man, I’ll have to be moving on. Shall we still meet for lunch?’
‘Of course, yar, what’s there? I’m not going to sit at home pulling a long face.’
Something in his voice held Fram back. ‘Let’s have one more round, shall we? I’ll get it.’ When Fram returned to the table, Rumi began talking in Gujarati. Heavy Gujarati words fell in the beer-smelling air, and altered their mood. Soon, an avalanche of Gujarati came crashing on their table. Gujarati sent currents of air and clouds of dust all round the pub, or so the two of them thought. Fram’s dry coughs of laughter rose from the debris, Rumi rocked from side to side in his chair, almost hysterical.
The laughter quietened down. It was time to use English again. Rumi had gone to get the final round. When he got back they sat in silence at the table. Then Rumi said,
‘You’ll never guess how I first met him.’
‘How?’ Fram’s voice was thick.
‘It was the day Sheroo aunty set herself on fire. I ran away from her house, all the way to Scandal Point. He caught me and asked me if S.P. Gorwalla or C.P Gorwalla had died. I thought he was a beggar. Some fellow’s ayah chased him away. He was Daddy’s father.’
They finished the round in total silence.
Outside the pub Fram’s face fell as he looked at his watch. He ran towards his digs.

 

16

IV

The air in the room felt cold even as he stirred under his blanket and quilt. He had written his mother a long letter. Grandfather with his black cap and grey stubble, soaking batasa biscuits in his tea; grandfather with that sidelong look and whine when he would plead with his mother for just one peg more, pulling a quart bottle out of his pocket and drinking when he thought she wasn’t looking; grandfather who he had seen angry only once, raising his cane to strike a Hindu lawyer who had come to see Mummy. The old man reciting ghazals through his blackened teeth, and how many ghazals he knew! The old man with a rose in his long black coat and a string to hold up his white trousers. Only three of five mother of pearl buttons dangled from his coat and he wore cycle clips round his trousers.
‘Darabshah, besi jao ni.’
‘Darabshah, su akho vukhat gaya karoch?’
The Gujarati taunts of the aunts who tolerated him filtered through as he wrote the letter.
He went to bed exhausted.
Now he was trying cautiously to get out of bed. Faint sunlight filled the room as he drew back the curtains. He read the letter and found it horribly sentimental. He tore it up.
She needn’t know he knew. It was more important to find Darius. Now especially. Now that there would hardly be anyone to talk to her, now that the Barias would make sure she heard what they felt about her. He felt he should try one of the further Westbury Roads first. Instinct told him his brother would not be living close to the city’s centre. He had three hours to spend before he met Fram.
Westbury Road, Croydon, had pleasant-looking houses which stood on opposing rows. Two old ladies in green and red overcoats were walking their dogs and he saw only one Indian with a college scarf round his neck at a baker’s. Nobody seemed very happy in this Westbury Road. He found 53 and rang the bell.
A lady with tiny white hairs all over her face and specially over a jutting chin opened the door and peered at him. When he asked her about Darius, she began shaking her head, but continued to stare at him.
‘Darius Daruwala!’ Rumi repeated.
‘That must be ‘im,’ she suddenly barked, pointing to the Indian who was carrying armloads of bread down the street.
‘No, that’s not-’ Rumi began but found himself facing a shut door. He turned and ran towards the Indian.
‘Excuse me.’
The Indian walked faster, his college scarf trailing over his shoulder.
Rumi tried to catch up.
‘Excuse me, please.’ The Indian began walking even faster. Loaves of bread began tumbling from his arms. He had to stop. Rumi came up to him with three loaves that had fallen.
The Indian looked at him, frightened.
‘Excuse me, does a Darius Daruwala live in this street?’
‘No, No,’ the Indian said, obviously relieved. ‘I don’t live here too. I am just helping friend for a party.’
‘You seemed to be in a hurry.’
‘Oh, that was nothing. I thought you was Teddyboy.’
Rumi looked down at his Austin Reed overcoat and his polished shoes, dumbfounded. ‘But-’
‘Teddyboys come in disguise,’ the Indian said. ‘You must be very careful. You see,’ he turned his dark face to Rumi. There was a scar above his left cheek.
‘Teddyboy work,’ the Indian said.
‘But how do you know my brother doesn’t live here if you don’t live here.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I am seeing no Indian in this street. Never.’
Rumi decided to believe him. ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I must be going.’ He’d wanted him to ask him to the party. After all, it was Indian to Indian in this cold, foreign place. The Indian did. ‘Our group is meeting at Hansom House, Uxbridge, next Tuesday. Come.’
Rumi shrugged and walked to the tube station.

 

17

Fram was tense at lunch. He had taken Rumi to the Lyons corner house on the Strand, and Rumi’s animated account of his adventures only seemed to make him tenser. At last, Rumi sat back with a lit cigarette and asked, ‘What’s it, yar, did I spoil your evening with the dame? The Englishwoman?’
Fram looked up, his eyes flashing, ‘You have no right to –’ he began, put down the fork his fingers had tightened around. ‘There is no dame.’
‘Cut it out, yar. I heard her in your room when I was waiting.’
‘What?’ Fram’s eyes flashed again. This time he didn’t let go of the fork.
‘She has a loud voice yar,’ Rumi said, and smiled, with a corner of his mouth, going up.
Fram’s aggression vanished, fork fell. Shoulders hunched, he leaned across the table and put his face close to Rumi’s.
‘I say, you’re not going to tell my Dad about it.’
Rumi was enjoying himself hugely. He leaned further back into his chair and smirked. ‘Well, I might. It’s not cricket,’ he said, then added overemphatically, ‘old boy.’
Fram coloured. ‘Look, it’s all very innocent. There’s nothing in it.’
‘Then what’s the harm in my telling your Daddy about it.’
‘Have you lost your mind?’ Fram said in Gujarati. ‘What if he cuts off my allowance?’
‘But if it’s innocent-’
An expression of great pain came over Fram’s face. He also seemed to have lost his spine. ‘Come on yar, be a sport. He has someone in mind for me.’
‘A Parsi girl? OK, I won’t tell. On one condition. Tell me your girl-friend’s name.’
Fram found his spine again. ‘Certainly not!’ he shouted, sitting bolt upright. ‘It’s none of your business.’
‘Don’t you want to tell anyone about it?’ Rumi asked, shaking his head.
‘No. Why should I?’ There was a long pause. Then Fram said. ‘I’ll tell you her Christian name.’
‘Well?’
‘It’s Mary.’
‘Mary. Now why should you keep such a name secret? If it was a Parsi name like Avan or Bachi, – a Parsi virgin’s name – ’
Fram banged his fork down. ‘Really Rumi. I think we ought to go. Your share is fourteen shillings and six pence.’
‘OK OK, I’ll pay.’ Rumi tried to give him fifteen shillings when two half-crowns rolled from his hands and fell under their table. Fram had a suffering look.
Outside Rumi turned to him and said, ‘Can’t handle those bloody coins yet, isn’t it?’
Fram turned to him. ‘Look, you’re not going to tell anyone, are you?’
‘No. But tell me why you were so ragged with me from the start.’
‘You promise.’
‘Yes, I promise.’
They walked towards Trafalgar Square in silence.
‘So you’re not going to tell.’
Fram looked at Rumi. ‘It was the way you said Englishwoman.’
‘How did I say it? I didn’t say it in any bad way. I’d like to have an Englishwoman, yar.’
Fram screwed up his face. ‘You don’t understand, you’re too young. It’s not just – having her. And Mary’s not an Englishwoman, she’s Irish.’
‘Makes no difference to me.’
‘But it does to me,’ Fram said hotly. ‘The Irish are frank, passionate. They aren’t hypocrites like the English.’
‘Oh?’ said Rumi, genuinely intrigued. At Trafalgar Square tube station he asked, ‘Does she have red hair?’
Fram left without saying goodbye.

 

18

V

Rumi spent a gloomy week. During that week he had seen several films, bought two Buddy Holly discs, gone to the Taxi Lost Property Office and found no trace of his gloves. He bought another pair at Marks and Spencers and lost them too. He had exhausted all but three of the Westbury Roads.
On a Monday evening, after having seen ‘Paths of Glory’ at an Odeon, he had spotted a Westbury Road and certain that such a coincidence meant good luck he had rushed up to 53. The man who opened the door had said ‘NO, he doesn’t live here and I wouldn’t have ‘im if he paid me 20 guineas a week.’ The door had slammed in his face. At N11, the 53 was full of West Indians and at N12 53 didn’t exist. That was when anxiety began to give way to fear – fear of a constant nagging kind. What if his brother too, like the house, didn’t exist? What if – he could hardly allow himself the thought – he were dead. A tube train had rumbled over a railway bridge, as he stood at the spot where 53 should have been. A caterpillar, he thought, with its end chopped off. He didn’t like the blunt cut end of the tube trains. Moving fingers of death, he thought, their tips chopped off.
He thought of buying a radio. He heard snatches of new rock n’ roll numbers being played on jukeboxes in the coffee bars he passed, and sometimes he put his ear to the wall between his room and Mr. Jones’s to hear better.
Came Tuesday and he decided to take up the Indian’s invitation.
They were nibbling sandwiches, seated in chairs along the sides of a room in Hansom House when he entered.
He was welcomed by a woman with enormous breasts and a face as long as a shoe. ‘We’ll take care of that, shall we?’ she said gently, taking a carefully wrapped bottle of wine from him. ‘Hang your coat there and sit you down!’ He heard her voice saying ‘Ooh naughty, naughty’ to someone else. He heard ‘Ramu, didn’t you tell your friend what sort of party we give.’ Ramu, the man who’d invited Rumi, smiled.
‘It was thoughtful of you to have brought this, dear,’ the woman told Rumi still holding the bottle of wine, ‘but I’m afraid one bottle won’t go very far with twenty people.’
‘Miss Veal, Miss Veal, with some of us it may go too far,’ the heavily accented voice of another Indian rang out. There was a great deal of laughter at his remark, and Rumi found himself looking around the room to see its effect. ‘Star performer,’ he thought, with a heavy heart. He knew the type. The neck of the bottle of wine Miss Veal held stood out of its encircling wrap of paper like a dark prick.
‘You will remember to take it back with you, won’t you?’ she asked. ‘I take it you know Ramu here.’
‘I met him last week, Miss Veal,’ said Ramu. ‘He was looking for his brother.’
‘And have you found him?’ Miss Veal asked solicitously.
‘No.’
‘Dear, dear.’ She turned to the company. ‘In a sense, of course, that’s what we’re doing, aren’t we? Looking for our brothers, our spiritual brothers?’
No one responded. An English boy whistled incredulously. The rest fell to chattering.
‘You must tell us all about him later.’ Miss Veal seemed to have grown several inches taller and had developed a flutter in her voice. ‘In the meantime, do introduce yourself.’ Rumi did, half-heartedly.
‘Hello, I’m Liz,’ said a girl to his left. Rumi had noticed her looking at him every now and then and ten minutes later, when Rumi had thought everyone had forgotten about him, she was there! The Chinese-looking boy next to him had spent those ten minutes leaning forward and cracking his fingers.
Liz was plain looking and dressed in a shapeless looking sack dress. Her hair was frizzy with a reddish tinge in it.
‘Would you mind getting me a fizzy orange?’ she asked.
‘Sure.’ Rumi rose and returned with a paper cup filled with a vile coloured fluid.
‘Are you a Hindu, Loomy?’ Liz asked between sips.
‘The name’s Rumi. No, I’m –’ A burst of clapping from Miss Veal drowned the last word.
‘Soul-cleansing time,’ Miss Veal spoke loudly.

 

19

‘Last week, Reverend Okara entrusted us with his soul. He showed us his dark spots, its patches of filth. Today Mr M. T. Nambiar will speak about himself. Do not be afraid of sharing your secrets with each other, friends. It is only by being absolutely honest with ourselves that we can be absolutely honest with one another. How else shall the soul be washed clean except through absolute honesty. Mr Nambiar, the platform, please. But before you begin, we’ll join hands and reach out for your soul through our hearts and minds, so that it may know it has nothing to fear in this, our living circle of friends.’
Rumi found one of his hands being held by Liz, and waited for the Chinese-looking boy to take the other. When he didn’t, he reached out for it himself. He found it cold, clammy and trembling. Everyone had their heads bowed and Rumi looked at the floor. The Chinese-looking boy’s hand trembled uncontrollably.
Miss Veal took a deep breath, and stared tragically through a window into the black night. It was the signal to disengage hands.
‘Mr Nambiar?’ she said, and bowed her head again.
Nambiar was the person who had made that remark about the wine bottle. He stood on a platform at the back of the room, his smile a little forced. He spoke rapidly, his voice which rose and fell, never paused.
After a while it was difficult to tell where his sentences ended, if they ended at all. His ‘I’s’ sound like ‘Y’s’. Rumi, concentrating hard, was able to follow most of what he said, though his heavy accent made him curl his toes.
‘I was a Communist, yes a downright bally Communist. In my Indian state of Kerala, long has been the history of Communism, but it is now only that the Communist Party has seized power. It is now only that its bally nefarious activities are all to the fore, though every Tom Dick and Harry in Kerala doesn’t see it. But please remember, every Tom Dick and Harry in Kerala is not a Commie. Like myself, many are the people seeing the light, many people being saved by The Moral Crusaders Movement.
Let me begin by telling you how I was saved. I was fifteen and student at Tittikutti (it sounded like that) college which is near Trivandrum which is near Cape Comorin which is at the uppermost point of India’s southern tip. I was a so-so student, not good, not bad, but I wanted to study to please my parents. I wanted to make my mother-father rich. Then one friend of mine, E. L. Namboodripad by name, asked me to come to meetings with him. I refused because I was not having anything to do with politics. But he coaxed and cajoled and for friendship’s sake, I agreed. I heard E. V. speak. What a speaker, what oratory! My heart was on fire from then on. My friend gave me pamphlets. After reading, I wanted to give up studies and become communist, but I was afraid of mother-father. But everywhere now, I was seeing oppression. If I saw lepers, I said a capitalist is responsible. If I saw an old farmer sitting on the road, I saw landlordism is responsible. Finally I broke studies to do work for the Party. I also broke my mother’s heart. I used to enjoy my work for the party, I must confess it. Now I cannot look back at the low things I was doing without tears coming to my eyes. They made me turn against my friends, they made me turn against God. But one thing I will not forgive is that they made me say things about our English professor Mr E. T. Mehta, to the principal. They made me say he was an agent of Eisenhower. And he was sacked. I worked in the villages. Then one day I slapped my father. God punished me the next day by giving me diarrhea. I was saved from death’s jaws by a miracle. I was in Mumphally (it sounded like that) hospital in Cochin when Miss Bonnie walked in like an angel and spoke to me in low softness and said certain things which made me think I was wrong. She left some literature about the Moral Crusaders. When I saw in the pictures the lovely mountains of Switzerland, my heart flew out of me, and I was cured of diarrhea. I was so enchanted, so blissful. Miss Bonnie told me more about Moral Crusading when I got out of hospital. I said sorry to my father. Later my joy knew no bounds when she told I was selected with fifteen others to go to their headquarters in Interlaken, Switzerland.’
He paused for breath and Miss Veal spoke.
‘Tell us some of the things you did for the Communists, Mr Nambiar?’
‘Oh I cannot. They are horrible!’
‘Why horrible? Mr Nambiar, you must. That is the whole point of talking to us. Absolute honesty, remember? Come on now, be a brave lad and try.’ Nambiar made a great effort. ‘They made me read Marx.’
Heads nodded wisely. After a slight buzz of conversation, there was an expectant hush. Nothing came.

 

20

‘And?’ Miss Veal asked, at her solicitous best.
‘They made me read Marx and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.’
This time there was no buzz. Nambiar was clearly a disappointment. Miss Veal reduced her smile by half and said, somewhat mechanically, ‘So that’s what comes with mixing with certain kinds of people. We are not a political organisation. To each his beliefs, we say. But when certain ideologies are immoral, when they encourage immorality in the pure souls of our brethren, then we must speak out, we must act. Thank you, Nambiar.’
There was half-hearted applause.
A tall black man in dark clothes and a priest’s collar strode towards Rumi. ‘I used to make too many demands on my wife,’ he said in a booming voice from half-way across the room. When he reached Rumi and gripped him by the hand, Rumi didn’t know what to say.
‘That was a fascinating session, Father Okara,’ Liz said, sipping another fizzy orange. You should have been here last week Loomy, it was fab.’
‘And this is my wife,’ the Reverend Okara said, indicating a pale woman. She wore thick glasses and wore a baggy dress. Her hair had frizzed to what seemed an oil-less powder in the African sun.
‘Tell me something about your brother, I may be able to help,’ said the English boy, coming up to Rumi.
‘Yes, do,’ Miss Veal chimed in, within earshot. ‘Tell us all about the lost brother.’
The English boy glared at her as she led Rumi towards the platform vacated by Nambiar. Rumi hesitated.
‘It’s not a soul-washing session, is it Miss Veal?’ Liz asked loudly from across the room.
‘No Elizabeth, it isn’t. I just thought Mr er – what’s your surname? – would like to tell all about his brother. We might be able to help.’
‘There’s nothing to tell. He ran away from home twelve years ago and stopped writing to us. I got an address by chance, 53, Westbury Road, but I’ve tried all the Westbury Roads in London and there’s nothing.’
‘Why do you think he stopped writing to you?’ Miss Veal asked.
‘I don’t know.’
‘But you must know, deep down inside you, you must know. He’s your brother. Do you think he wants to be found by you?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Sometimes, we ourselves drive away the ones we love most,’ the Reverend Okara said. Did you do anything to drive him away.’
‘I?’ Rumi laughed. ‘No I don’t think so. He almost drove us mad, though. He was always running away and I had to cover up for him.’
‘Does that make you feel guilty?’ the Reverend Okara boomed on. ‘Sometimes people who make us feel guilty make us retaliate. We do things unconsciously to hurt them. And perhaps you’ll never know what they are until you come clean with yourself. Did your brother have a hold on you? We don’t like people who have a hold on us.’
‘Perhaps he did.’
‘And so you don’t really like him. Or perhaps you do. It’s for you to find out, to look into your heart, into the depths of your soul and wash it clean. It’s time you had a soul-wash.’
Like a bowel-wash, thought Rumi. He had once had a bowel-wash. It felt as though its rubber tube was sucking his intestines out.
‘Not now Father, surely. Give the lad time to get used to us.’ It was Liz who spoke.
‘I wasn’t suggesting now, Miss Elizabeth. I was thinking of next week, or even a fortnight from now.’
What shall I say, soul-washers? Last night I wanked into the fire which is supposed to be holy? That I’m supposed to feed my body to the birds of the air just so that fire can stay free of my corpse, stay clean? Holy Fire, Holy God! Holy Wank that went right into its eye.
‘Will you?’
‘Let the lad think.’
‘Let me think,’ Rumi said, ‘but I can’t next week.’
‘The week after then.’
‘Perhaps.’
‘We’re forgetting, it’s Piyusha’s turn the week after.’

 

21

The group around Rumi dispersed. He wanted to make for Liz. There seemed something there. But the English boy was at him again. ‘I know someone in the Salvation Army. They generally help find missing persons.’
Rumi looked at him incredulously. Hope, his heart said; and fluttered. He began telling the boy what his brother looked like.
‘Hang on,’ said the English boy, fishing for a piece of paper in one of his jacket-pockets. ‘Tall, well-built, wide-set eyes, black hair, thick black eyebrows…’
Liz was leaving. ‘Excuse me,’ Rumi told the English boy and dashed to her just as she was going out of the door. ‘I’m Zoroastrian.’
‘And I’m Aries,’ she said. ‘I’m told it’s a good combination.’ Rumi looked at her blankly as she went down the stairs.
The door slammed behind him. He would have to ring the door-bell. When the Chinese-looking boy let him in, he was conscious of every eye on him. His ears felt hot.
‘Any distinguishing marks?’ the English boy resumed.
Bad liver, foul temper… Would he have to degut his brother before strangers? And Liz gone.
‘None.’
‘Pop in at the head office and ask to see Mr Spoon some time this week. I’ll hand over the details as soon as I can.’
‘Thanks.’
Some of the Moral Crusaders were leaving, the Chinese-looking boy had gone. Rumi took his overcoat off a hook and said goodbye to no one in particular. Miss Veal came up with his bottle of wine.
‘I knew you’d forget. Will we be seeing you next week?’
‘Yes, I think so.’
Large numbers of people had gone, leaving him alone, as though he’d never existed. He suddenly felt small in his overcoat. The Indian Moral Crusaders hadn’t come up to him at all. Just smiled as they went past him through the door. All the women except Liz had partners, and dark-coated couples were stepping out of the doorway into the fog. There was something unfinished about this evening, he felt. He didn’t want to return to his digs. And he couldn’t walk the streets in the cold and the fog. On the other hand, why not? He could. The radium on his watch showed ten. He decided to take the tube to Piccadilly and roam around till the last tube.
On his way to the station, he found someone walking next to him. It was the Chinese-looking boy. They walked in silence until Rumi asked, ‘What did you think of the soul-wash?’
‘Arse-wash. What the holy fuckers need is something up theirs if you ask me.’
Rumi was both shocked and pleased by the boy’s language.
‘I suppose you enjoyed it?’ the boy said aggressively.
‘No I didn’t.’ They walked on in silence. ‘I shouldn’t have told them anything about my brother. It makes me feel all dirty.’
‘That’s the idea. They’ll make you feel so dirty you’re ready to vomit. Half the time no one there’s telling the truth. Just airing their fantasies. The other half they’re trying to get their hands into one another’s pants.’
‘So why do you go there?’
‘For the second thing. For a bit of tit and twat. Can’t say I’ve got it though. This’ll be my last fuckin’ soul-wash.’
He didn’t elaborate and Rumi felt he didn’t want to. He said, ‘That Liz girl, you’ve got your eye on her, haven’t you?’
‘Well, -’
‘You have. And I can see she likes you too. Well, she’s the only piece I wanted – catch me trying to make Mrs Reverend fuckin’ Okara or Angel Veal – yeah, that’s her name, Angel – but I guess Dizzy Miss Lizzie has never liked my face. Till you came along I though it was due to my lovely leprosy, my youth’s blossoms – but I guess it just depends who they’re on.’
Rumi suddenly felt sorry for both of them and turned to look at the boy. For the first time he saw him properly. He was smaller than Rumi, thin, and walked with a slight stoop. He was wearing a long brown raincoat which came down to his shoes and which he hadn’t buttoned. It made him look absurdly frail. The boy turned and grinned at him, showing broken teeth.

 

22

They had arrived at the tube station. ‘Know where we can use a good bottle of wine?’ the boy asked hesitantly. ‘My place. Would you like to?’
‘Yes,’ Rumi said, all thoughts of Piccadilly gone. Something about the way the boy spoke indicated experience. And perhaps he’d tell him more than Liz.
They walked towards the boy’s digs in silence. They were on a long grey street that led past the tube station. There was hardly anyone about. The houses repeated each other, one large grey mass after the other, their windows shut, the curtains drawn.
‘Cheerful sort of place, innit?’ the boy said as though reading his thoughts. ‘Came up after the first War. British imagination at its best.’
What a desert, Rumi thought. At the same time, there was something in its bleakness which appealed to him, the bleakness and the fog which was now thickening.
‘This way.’ They stopped at a house like any other, and the boy led the way up some steps to the tall black front door and all the way to the top of the house. Rumi passed what seemed like ten doors on each floor before reaching the boy’s room.
Despite its sloping roof, it seemed large, but it was difficult to move around in it. There were the piles of books and newspapers on the floor. Whole towers of books seemed to have leaned over and crashed near a desk. Makeshift shelves on a wall were filled with white sheets of paper. In a corner of the room there was a drawing board with some kind of plan on it. Instead of a bed there was a mattress on the floor.
‘Sit where you can. I’ll open the bottle.’
The floorboards under the thin carpet moved under Rumi’s feet and creaked. He removed a book called The Outsider from an armchair and sat down.
A red streak of wine shot past the Chinese-looking boy’s thumb.
‘Sorry, had to push the cork in.’ He poured the wine out in two glasses and said ‘Skol.’
He sat on the edge of a wooden chair, leaning forward, just as he had done at the soul-wash.
Rumi felt a sour red taste in his mouth and wondered if he would get used to it.
‘Do I worry you?’ the Chinese boy asked.
‘No.’
‘That’s funny. I worry everyone else.’ He gulped some of the wine. ‘Bet you can’t tell where I’m from.’
‘Hongkong.’
‘Try again.’
Rumi didn’t want to. His far-eastern geography was non-existent.
‘Bangkok.’
‘No. And please don’t say Tokyo. I’m from Peking. Though my parents have settled in Singapore. My name’s too strange for you to remember but you can call me Ong. Funny how they got your name wrong at the soul-wash. I remember Loomy.’
‘No, Rumi.’
‘Gosh.’ The boy grinned, showing his broken teeth again. It was the first time he had smiled. He shook his head, ‘Gosh.’
‘What does your father do?’
‘He’s a doctor. Had a fuckin’ good practice in Peking. In 1949, we fled.’
‘Why?’
Ong looked at Rumi incredulously. ‘Because of the great fuckin’ Chinese revolution, man. We ran, like the best fuckin’ running dogs of Imperialism.’
Rumi reddened. Ong leaned back in his chair and looked at him curiously. ‘There’s one thing I notice about you Indians. You don’t know much about politics.’ Before Rumi could reply, the boy went on, suddenly morose. ‘You’re wise, very wise. Never did anyone any good. With me there was no choice. What with the Red Dragon right on our butts. My old man shipped me out to London. Like a parcel, care of an old English friend.

 

23

His practice went phut but he paid for my board and lodge and other things he didn’t know of. I worked like a nigger at school. Now I’m on scholarship. With three fuckin’ years to go.’
‘Studying what?’
‘Architecture. You bet your arse I’m going to chuck it up one day. You bet.’ He began looking through a sheaf of papers and came up with a few which he gave Rumi. ‘Have a look. It’s part of a play I’m working on.’
Rumi looked. The wine was taking effect and the play’s dialogues seemed incomprehensible. He gathered it was set in a Chinese village.
‘Have you heard of John Osborne?’
‘No.’
‘Well, he wrote this play Look Back in Anger. They said it was an angry play. But, boy, wait till they see this baby. It’ll put ten Osbornes in the shade. I’ve got to write, you see. It’s like my acne. It won’t go away. Here, take a look at this.’ Ong handed him a sheet with a poem on it and snatched the other sheets away. The poem was even more incomprehensible. When Rumi got to its end, all he remembered was the title, ‘Ravens’ and a line ‘caw-cawing their crabbed cacophonies.’
‘A bit too much like Dylan Thomas perhaps?’ Ong asked.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t know Dylan Thomas.’
‘Don’t you read British writers?’
‘No.’
‘What do they teach you in your colleges in Bombay.’
‘I never went to college.’
‘That’s good. You’ll learn a lot that way. That’s the best way to learn. What do I or you need a college for? That’s why I’m going to give up fuckin’ Architecture. I can’t work. I can’t think. I go about in a daze. I get so depressed thinking about my past, my parents. The chaps in my class say I look like death warmed up. They think I’m playing at being an angry young man. But it’s no act. And I’m not angry about the same things Osborne is. A chink can’t get angry about Suez or about fuckin’ class distinctions. Or he can’t get boozed up in bars and sing about bloody Wales like Dylan Thomas. I’m angry about something else. About what I saw in China as a boy. And I’m most angry that I have no fuckin’ language of my own to be angry in. A boy from revolutionary Peking swearing like a fishwife in Billingsgate. On your stage, now: Chinese Peasants with Cockney Accents! How the British will laugh. It’s all they can do in the ugly little world they created.’
Rumi was impressed. His glass was empty and Ong re-filled it. He looked at Rumi’s face as he did so.
‘Wine’s not good for your crop. That’s what my guardian here keeps saying. How did you get yours?’
‘My bad thoughts, according to my mother. Chocolates, according to an uncle, but I never eat them. A medical encyclopedia says it’s due to serbacious glands. And Vitalogy says it’s due to shagging.’
Ong yelled with laughter, then suddenly became serious. ‘Putritis, yes. Sometimes I wish I had a tap in my cheeks to turn off the serbacious lake so that everything would dry up and fall away like scabs. Lazar was lucky – skin after washing like a newborn babe’s, I itch to have a skin like a new born babe’s. Every time I step out of the bath I hope the miracle has happened. They don’t make water like that any more. Got any Indian remedies? You have fewer pimples than I have.’
‘No. I tried everything. Witch hazel, lemon juice and channa no atto – it’s Indian flour. I exposed my face to the sun, but that made it worse. At dinner I used to sit all covered in white paste and my mother would lecture me about my bad thoughts. I bought every paste they advertised and put it on, Nixoderm onwards, sometimes two or three pastes at a go. But it won’t leave.’
‘All I leave is little red dots on the pillow case,’ said Ong. ‘But there’s hope. Girls don’t mind it as much as we think they do. You’re the second confirmation I have of this. A chap named Phil in my form had it all over his back but he got into more twats than I can count. I’m just unlucky.’
Or too outspoken, Rumi thought, admiring him at the same time. Ong made him feel uncomfortable, but the discomfort itself was exciting.

 

24

‘Never mind,’ Ong continued. ‘This is the Age of Youth. We don’t all have to screw. Maybe if I can sublimate sex into something. Look at Colin Wilson. Wrote The Outsider at the age of twenty-three. Marvellous book. Guess he sublimated a lot. Probably didn’t have a bird when he wrote it. And I’m twenty-two, without sublimation, without book.’
He gulped the wine down and poured himself another glass. There was a little left over.
‘Begin deranging your senses, man,’ he said, tossing the bottle to Rumi. ‘Start having visions, start hearing voices. Like Rimbaud. Great poet. And to hell with Architecture.’
His hand moved and wine from the very bottom of his glass struck a plan drawn on a sheet pinned to the drawing board and streamed down it.
‘I’m going mad, I’m going mad,’ Ong said suddenly, rising from his chair and shutting his eyes. ‘I see cunts everywhere.’ He turned and looked at the rose-coloured splash on the plan. Then he laughed. ‘Menstruation.’
Rumi felt a certain excitement rise and die down. The wine was having the same effect on his balls as the beer and he wanted to be back in the privacy of his room. He stood up.
‘I must go.’
Ong looked at him blankly, then at his watch. ‘Go? You plan to walk to Bayswater?’
‘No. Why?’
‘You’ve missed the last tube!’
‘It can’t be. It’s not even twelve.’
‘The last tube leaves here at 11.43.’
‘Oh no,’ Rumi was angry. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
Ong looked hurt. ‘I forgot, that’s all.’
‘Now what do I do?’
‘Spend the night here, of course. Unless you can afford a taxi. From the looks of that overcoat, I suppose you can.’
‘I can’t. That overcoat’s an investment.’
‘You mean its value will appreciate the longer you wear it?’
Rumi scowled. ‘Yes, I’ve got a solid gold body.’
Ong opened his mouth to say something, but didn’t. He turned to the gas ring, ‘I’ll make you a coffee, shall I? End of Scene 1, Cunts. Scene 2, Derangement of the Senses.’ He got busy with a saucepan. ‘In case you’re worried about sleeping arrangements, you use the bed and I’ll sleep on the floor. I’ve done it hundreds of times.’
Rumi looked at the carpet on the hard floor and felt guilty. ‘I can sleep on the floor too, you know,’ he said aggressively.
‘And leave the bed empty?’
‘You use the bed,’ Rumi said, irritated. Ong convulsed with laughter. Rumi found himself joining in.
‘You’re a complex guy, you know,’ Ong said as he sat down on a worn carpet, letting the water boil. Rumi didn’t know whether to take it as a compliment. ‘You’re much more complex than I thought. There’s lots of little things in you struggling to get out except that you don’t know how to say them. Perhaps you can in your own language.’
Now Rumi knew it was an insult. The Chinese prick was insulting him.
‘I can speak English just as well as you,’ he said loudly.
‘I know. But what’s your own language?’
‘English!’ Rumi shouted. Ong looked startled. Rumi thought about Fram and the laughing fit in the pub. English and everything was muffled. Switch to Gujarati and… ‘No. Gujarati,’ he said meekly.
‘I had a friend at school whose parents spoke Gujarati. They were from Kenya. He himself could hardly speak a word of it. Learned to eat beef and speak English with my kind of accent at the same time. Spends most of his time in Soho. You been to Soho?’
‘No.’

 

25

They fell into a long silence. Then Ong said, ‘I suppose you want to turn in?’
‘Might as well.’
‘Go ahead then, go to bed.’
‘And you?’
‘Oh I guess I’ll write a little. Will the light disturb you?’
‘No.’ Rumi knew it would. He could never sleep with the light on.
In bed he worried. The weight on his balls called for a wank but that was impossible. He hoped he wouldn’t have a wet dream. Indian boy leaves traces of his spunk on Chinese bed. Poker-faced Chinese youth outraged. Were the Chinese as fussy about using each others towels and sheets as Parsis? Ong couldn’t be squeamish. There was a smell of him on the pillow-case and the sheets but better that than the carpet. Ong looked stern as he worked. Rumi wondered if he had offended him, in some way. The clacking of Ong’s typewriter began to interrupt his thoughts. It was going to be impossible to sleep. After fifteen minutes the clacking stopped and the room was plunged into darkness. Now, though Rumi, but he couldn’t sleep. Half an hour later, he heard a funny noise. He listened to it for a while without moving. There was no doubt, Ong was crying.
In the morning, frost. On the window-panes jagged patterns, frozen explosions of ice. Rumi got out of bed, feeling immensely sorry for the figure which was still asleep on the floor. The light outside was grey. In a week, a white Christmas. When Ong woke up and said ‘Morning’ he sounded preoccupied and irritated. They didn’t talk much in the freezing room which the single bar of the electric heater didn’t seem to heat. They ate cornflakes out of teacups and had coffee in the same cups later, without washing them first.
‘What are you doing for Christmas?’ Ong asked finally when Rumi rose to take his overcoat.
‘Hope to spend it with my brother.’
‘A family Christmas. How like the British.’ The bitterness in Ong’s voice was clear.
‘How do I get in touch with you again?’
Ong laughed. ‘As if you want to.’ He turned away and began muttering, ‘This place doesn’t have a phone. Not that I’ve missed it. Oh, I suppose I’ll see you at one student do or another. It’s a small world.’
Rumi didn’t tell him he wasn’t a student. Well, perhaps Ong was moody. He wished, however, that he would smile once more before they parted.
‘You won’t be coming to the great soul-wash any more?’
Ong didn’t smile. ‘No. No, Never.’
Rumi hesitated, then asked. ‘Is Liz Irish?’
‘No. English through and through. Why do you ask?’
‘Just like that.’
Rumi opened the door and left. Half-way down the stairs he looked up the stairwell, just in time to see Ong’s back.

 

26

VI

Fram was looking at him sternly. ‘You’ll just have to work. I’d no idea you were spending so much!’ He picked up the sleeve of Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Cumberland Gap’ from the bed and dropped it back. Rumi could tell from his face that he was disgusted.
‘How many records have you bought?’
‘About twenty.’
‘Christ!’ Fram exploded. ‘Do you realise you’ve spent more than £40 on – on – I really don’t know what to call it.’
‘Trash?’ Rumi asked.
‘Call it what you like. I’m amazed at you. Here you are with Christmas coming on with less than £20 left. And not a trace of your brother.’
‘What do you mean, not a trace – When I find him I hope I find him whole, not just a finger or a leg.’
‘Joke, joke, what do I care? He’s your brother after all.’
You helped bring him here, Rumi wanted to say, but he realised the thought had perhaps occurred to Fram too just then as he changed his tone somewhat.
‘What happened at the Salvation Army?’
‘I filled up a form. They said they’d see what they could do.’
‘God, what a situation,’ Fram said, striking his forehead. ‘Two weeks here, and already you feel despondent. Don’t let them get away with saying they’ll see what they can do. Pester them. And the police. And you’ll just have to try and get work.’
Rumi didn’t respond. Fram paced the floor as the gas-fire hissed.
‘We’ll just have to get you a job. Dishwashing, floor-scrubbing. Your mother would kill me if she found out.’
‘Maybe she’ll kill herself too and then all our problems would be solved.’
Fram stared at him. ‘Did you have to say something like that?’
‘Just because I’m on the track of her big darling son, I can’t enjoy myself in London or what?’ Rumi said angrily.
‘Enjoy yourself? Buying records you can’t hear?’
‘But I’m going to hear them, don’t you understand? I’ll work. If I can’t save up and buy a record player here, I’ll hear them in a few months time. In Bombay. You can’t get records like this in Bombay any more. You know that.’
‘All this is getting away from the point. The thing is do you want to, really want to find your brother or not? From the way you talk, I would think you didn’t care.’
‘Well, perhaps I don’t,’ Rumi said angrily. ‘And if anyone should be caring it should be you. He was always closer to you than to me. And what do you think he’s been to me these last ten years? What else but a cause of worry? He spoils our days in Bombay and now he spoils my days here.’
‘How’s that? You’ve plenty of time to yourself.’
‘Yes, but I can’t do anything with it. Go to a cinema, and in five minutes I’m thinking where must he be? I should be looking for him. What must Mummy be doing all alone? Go to a pub, and after the first drink, I’m thinking, Mustn’t waste a second. Must make more of an effort to find him. That’s my job, isn’t it? That’s why I was sent here. To bring back a lost dog.’
‘Well, I’m sorry for you but he is your brother. And maybe if you really care to find him, you will. It’s all a matter of effort and will. You can do it.’
‘Thanks.’
‘In the meantime, you’ll have to start looking for a job. Tomorrow, if you can.’
‘How?’
‘Start by looking at the Vacancy columns in the Evening Standard. There should be plenty of part-time jobs over Christmas. Do you know any students?’
‘One.’
‘Ask him about jobs. All the colleges advertise jobs before Christmas. Except that they’ll all have gone by now.’ Fram sighed. ‘If worst comes to worst, you’ll just have to go around restaurants asking to help as a dishwasher.’
Rumi wondered if Ong would help. It was just three days since he’d met him. He wanted to see him but not to ask for a job. He could visualise his reaction.
‘I’ll look for a job, don’t worry.’
A tune came through the wall. Rumi stopped talking and grew restless.
‘God,’ Fram said and got up to leave. ‘Why don’t you read some books for a change? Become a member of a library. This is the land of Shakespeare, you know.’
‘I thought you once told me to see Shakespeare not read him.’
‘Yes, yes, but tickets cost money and that you can’t spend any more. Become a member of the local library and borrow Shakespeare’s The Complete Works. Or Graham Greene if you prefer.’
‘Who’s Graham Greene?’
‘A fine writer. A must.’
‘A student I know spoke highly of Rimbaud.’
‘Never heard of him. Leave these new fangled authors alone. Try Graham Greene.’
Rumi lapsed into silence again, one ear turned towards the wall the music was coming from.
Fram sighed and got up to leave. ‘Goodbye Rumi,’ he said and went out of the door.
‘Goodbye.’
Rumi heard his footsteps descending the stairs, quickly picked a tumbler off a chest of drawers, placed the rim of the tumbler against the wall and pressed his ear to its base.
He’d guessed wrong. It wasn’t Petula Clark singing ‘Suddenly There’s A Valley’ but Rosemary Clooney singing ‘Where Will The Baby’s Dimple Be?’

Unfinished……..

© Adil Jussawalla

Advertisements