Azhar’s mother led him to the front of the lower deck, sat him down with his satchel, hurried back to the bus stop to retrieve her shopping, and took her place beside him. As the bus pulled away Azhar spotted Big Billy and his son Little Billy racing alongside, yelling and waving at the driver. Azhar closed his eyes and hoped it was moving too rapidly for them to get on. But they not only flung themselves onto the platform, they charged up the almost empty vehicle hooting and panting as if they were on a fairground ride. They settled directly across the aisle from where they could stare at Azhar and his mother.
At this mother made to rise. So did Big Billy. Little Billy sprang up. They would follow her and Azhar. With a sigh she sank back down. The conductor came, holding the arm of his ticket machine. He knew the Billys, and had a laugh with them. He let them ride for nothing.
Mother’s grey perfumed glove took some pennies from her purse. She handed them to Azhar who held them up as she had shown him.
‘One and a half to The Fox,’ he said.
‘Please,’ whispered mother, making a sign of exasperation.
‘Please,’ he repeated.
The conductor passed over the tickets and went away.
‘Hold onto them,’ said mother. ‘In case the Inspector gets on.’
Big Billy said: ‘Look, he’s a big boy.’
‘Big Boy,’ echoed Little Billy.
‘So grown up he has to run to teacher,’ said Big Billy.
‘Cry baby!’ trumpeted Little Billy.
Mother was looking straight ahead, through the window. Her voice was almost normal, but subdued. ‘Pity we didn’t have time to get to the library. Tomorrow we will. Are you still the best reader in the class?’ She nudged him. ‘Are you?’
‘S’pose so,’ he mumbled.
Every evening after school mother took him to the tiny library nearby where he exchanged the previous day’s books. Tonight, though, there hadn’t been time. She didn’t want father asking why they were late. She wouldn’t want him to know they had been in to complain.
Big Billy had been called to the Headmistress’s stuffy room and been sharply informed – so she told Azhar’s mother – that she took a ‘dim view’. Mother was glad. She had objected to Little Billy bullying her boy. Azhar had had Little Billy sitting right behind him in class. For weeks he called him names and clipped him round the head with his ruler. Now some of the other boys, mates of Little Billy, had also started to pick on Azhar.
‘I eat nuts!’
Big Billy was hooting like an orang-utan, jumping up and down and scratching himself under the arms – one of the things Little Billy had just been castigated for. But it didn’t restrain his father. His face looked horrible.
Big Billy lived a few doors down from them. Mother had known him and his family since she was a child and they had shared the same air-raid shelter during the war. Big Billy had been a Ted and still wore a drape coat and his hair in a sculpted quiff. He had black, bitten-down fingers and a smear of grease across his forehead. He was known as Motorbike Bill because he repeatedly built and rebuilt his Triumph. ‘Triumph of the Bill,’ father liked to murmur as they passed. When, for weeks, numerous lumps of metal stood on rags around the skeleton of the bike, and, in the late evening, Big Billy revved up the machine, while his record player balanced on the window-sill repeatedly blared out a 45 called ‘Rave On’, everyone knew Big Billy was preparing for the annual Bank Holiday run to the coast. Mother and the other neighbours were forced to shut their windows to exclude the noise and fumes.
Mother had begun to notice not only Azhar’s dejection but also his exhausted and dishevelled appearance on his return from school. He looked as if he’d been flung into a hedge and rolled in a muddy puddle – which he had. Unburdening with difficulty, he confessed the abuse the boys gave him, Little Billy in particular.
At first mother appeared amused by such pranks. She was surprised by Azhar taking it so hard. He should ignore the childish remarks: a lot of children were cruel. Yet he couldn’t make out what it was with him that made people say such things, or why, after so many contented hours at home with his mother, such violence had entered his world.
Mother had taken Azhar’s hand and instructed him to reply ‘Little Billy you’re common – common as muck!’
Azhar held onto the words and repeated them continuously to himself. Next day, in a corner with his enemy’s fists going at him, he closed his eyes and hollered them out. ‘Muck, muck, muck – common as muck you!’
Little Billy was as perplexed as Azhar by the epithet. Like magic it shut his mouth. But the next day Little Billy came back with the renewed might of names new to Azhar: sambo, wog, little coon. Azhar returned to his mother for more words but they had run out.
Big Billy was saying across the bus, ‘Common eh? Why don’t you say it out loud to me, eh? Won’t you say it, eh?’
‘Nah,’ said Little Billy. ‘Won’t!’
‘But we ain’t as common as a slut who marries a darkie.’
‘Darkie, darkie,’ Little Billy repeated. ‘Monkey, monkey!’
Mother’s look didn’t deviate. But, perhaps anxious that her shaking would upset him, she pulled her hand from his and pointed at a shop.
‘What?’ said Azhar, distracted by Little Billy murmuring his name.
The instant Azhar turned his head, Big Billy called, ‘Hey! Why ain’t you lookin’ at us, little lady?’
She twisted round and waved at the conductor standing on his platform at the far end of the bus. But a passenger got on and the conductor followed him upstairs. The few other passengers, sitting like statues, were unaware or unconcerned.
Mother turned back. Azhar had never seen her like this, ashen, with wet eyes, her body stiff as a tree. Azhar sensed she was making an effort to keep still. When she wept at home she threw herself on the bed, shook convulsively and thumped the pillow. Now all that moved was a bulb of snot shivering on the end of her nose. She sniffed determinedly, before opening her bag and extracting the scented handkerchief with which she usually wiped Azhar’s face, or, screwing up a corner, dislodged any eyelashes. She blew her nose and sobbed. Now she knew what went on and how it felt. How he wished he’d said nothing and protected her, for Big Billy was using her name. ‘Yvonne, Yvonne, hey Yvonne, didn’t I give you a good time that time?’
‘Evie, a good time, right?’ repeated Little Billy.
Big Billy smirked. ‘Thing is,’ he said, holding his nose. ‘There’s a smell on this bus.’
‘How many of them are there living in that flat, all squashed together like, and stinkin’ the road out, eatin’ curry and rice!’
There was no doubt that their flat was crowded: grandpop, a retired doctor, slept in one bedroom, Azhar, his sister and parents in another, and two uncles in the living room. But mother always denied that they were ‘like that’. She refused to allow the word ‘immigrant’ to be used about father, since it applied to illiterate tiny men with downcast eyes and mismatched clothes.
Her lips were moving but her throat must have been dry. At the first attempt no words came. Then she managed to say, ‘We’re not Jews.’
There was a silence. This gave Big Billy an opportunity. ‘What you say?’ He cupped his ear and the long dark sideburn. With his other hand he cuffed Little Billy, who had begun hissing. ‘Speak up. Hey, tart, we can’t hear you!’
Mother repeated the remark but could make her voice no louder.
Azhar didn’t know what she meant. In his confusion he recalled a recent conversation about South Africa, where his best friend’s family had just emigrated. Azhar had asked why, if they were to go somewhere – and there had been such talk – they too couldn’t choose Cape Town. She replied painfully that there the people with white skins were cruel to the black and brown people, who were considered inferior and were forbidden to go where the whites went. The coloureds had separate entrances and were prohibited from sitting with the whites.
This peculiar fact of living history, vertiginously irrational and not taught in his school, struck his head like a hammer a gong, and echoed through his dreams night after night. How could such a thing be possible? What did it mean? How then should he act?
‘Nah,’ said Big Billy. ‘You no Yid Yvonne. You us. But worse. Goin’ with the Paki.’
All the while Little Billy was hissing and twisting his head in imitation of a spastic.
Azhar had heard his father say that there had been ‘gassing’ not long ago. Neighbour had slaughtered neighbour, and such evil hadn’t died. Father would poke his finger at his wife, son and baby daughter, and state, ‘We’re in the front line!’
These conversations were often a prelude to his announcing that they were going ‘home’ to Pakistan. There they wouldn’t have these problems. At this point Azhar’s mother would become uneasy and could start shouting. How could she go ‘home’ when she was home already? Hot weather made her swelter. Spicy food made her ill. Being surrounded by people who didn’t speak English made her feel lonely. As it was, Azhar’s grandfather and uncle chattered away in Urdu, and when uncle Asif’s wife had been in the country, she had, without prompting, walked several paces behind them in the street. Not wanting to side with either camp, mother had had to position herself, with Azhar, somewhere in the middle of this curious procession as it made its way to the shops.
Not that the idea of ‘home’ didn’t trouble father too, for he himself had never been ‘home’. The family had lived in China and all over India; but since he’d left, the remainder of his family had moved, along with hundreds of thousands of others, to Pakistan. How could he know if the new country would suit him, or if he could succeed there? While mother wailed, he would smack his hand against his forehead and cry, ‘Oh God, I am trying to think in all directions at the same time!’
Lately he had taken to parading about the flat in Wellington boots with a net curtain over his head, swinging his portable typewriter and saying he was expecting to be called to Vietnam as a war correspondent, and was preparing for jungle combat.
It made them laugh. For two years father had been working as a packer in a factory that manufactured shoe polish. It was hard physical labour which drained and infuriated him. He loved books and wanted to write them. He got up at five every morning; at night he worked for as long as he could keep his eyes open; even while they ate he scribbled over the backs of envelopes, rejection slips and factory stationery, trying to sell articles to magazines and newspapers. At the same time he was studying for a ‘How to be a Published Author’ correspondence course. The sound of his frenetic typing drummed into their heads like gunfire. They were forbidden to complain. Father was determined to make money from the articles on sport, politics and literature which he posted off most days, each accompanied by a letter that began, ‘Dear Sir, Please find enclosed.’
But Father didn’t have a sure grasp of the English language which was his, but not entirely, being ‘Bombay variety, mish and mash’. Their neighbour, a retired school-teacher, was kind enough to correct father’s grammar and spelling, saying he used ‘the right words in the wrong place, and vice versa’. These pieces were regularly returned in the self-addressed stamped envelope that the Writers and Artists Yearbook advised. Lately, when they plopped through the letterbox, Father didn’t open them, but tore them up, stamped on the pieces and swore in Urdu, cursing the English who, he was convinced, were barring him. Or were they? Mother once suggested he was doing something wrong and should study something more profitable. But this made everything worse.
Every morning now mother sent Azhar out to intercept the postman and collect the returned manuscripts. The envelopes and parcels were concealed around the garden like an alcoholic’s bottles, behind the dustbins, in the bikeshed, even under buckets, where, mouldering in secret, they sustained hope and kept away disaster.
At every stop Azhar hoped someone might get on who could discourage or arrest the Billys. But no one did, and as the journey continued, the bus emptied. Little Billy took to jumping up and twanging the bell, at which the conductor only laughed.
Then Azhar saw that Little Billy had taken a marble from his pocket, and, standing with his arm back, was preparing to fling it. When Big Billy noticed this even his eyes widened. He reached for Billy’s wrist. But the marble was released. It cracked into the window between Azhar and his mother’s head, chipping the glass.
She was screaming. ‘Stop it, stop it! Won’t anyone help! We’ll be murdered!’
The noise she made came from hell or eternity. Little Billy blanched and shifted closer to his father; they went quiet.
Azhar got out of his seat to fight them but the conductor blocked his way. If you couldn’t kill them, what could you do with your anger?
Their familiar stop was ahead. Before the bus braked mother was up, clutching her bags; she gave Azhar two carriers to hold, and nudged him towards the platform. As he went past he wasn’t going to look at them, but he did give them the eye, straight on, stare to stare, so he could see them and not be so afraid. They could hate him but he would know them.
They stumbled off and didn’t need to check if the crepe-soled Billys were behind, for they were already calling out, though not as loud as before.
As they approached the top of their street the retired teacher who assisted father came out of his house, wearing a three-piece suit, trilby hat, and leading his Scottie. He looked over his garden, picked up a scrap of paper which had blown over the fence, and sniffed the evening air. Azhar wanted to laugh: he resembled a phantom; in a deranged world the normal appeared the most bizarre. Mother immediately pulled Azhar towards his gate.
He raised his hat and said in a friendly way, ‘How’s it all going?’
At first Azhar didn’t understand what she was talking about. But it was father she was referring to. ‘They send them back, his writings, every day, and he gets so angry ... so angry ... can’t you help him ...’
‘I do help him!’
‘Make him stop then!’
She choked into her handkerchief and shook her head when he asked what the matter was.
The Billys hesitated a moment and then passed on silently. Azhar watched them go. It was all right, for now. But tomorrow Azhar would be for it, and the next day, and the next; no mother could prevent it.
‘He’s a good little chap,’ the teacher was saying, of father.
‘But will he get anywhere?’
‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘Perhaps. But he may be a touch ...’ Azhar stood on tip-toe to listen. ‘Over hopeful. Over hopeful.’
‘Yes,’ she said, biting her lip.
‘Tell him to read more Gibbon and Macaulay,’ he said, ‘That should set him straight. Are you feeling better?’
‘Yes, yes,’ mother insisted.
He said concernedly, ‘Let me walk you back.’
‘That’s all right, thank you.’
Instead of going home, mother and son went in the opposite direction. They passed a bomb-site and left the road for a narrow path. When they could no longer feel anything firm beneath their feet, they crossed a nearby rutted, muddy playing field in the dark. The strong wind, buffeting them sideways, nearly had them tangled in the slimy nets of a soccer goal. He had no idea she knew it here.
At last they halted outside a dismal shed, the public toilet, rife with spiders and insects, where he and his friends often played. He looked up but couldn’t see her face. She pushed the door and stepped across the wet floor. When he hesitated she tugged him into the stall with her. She wasn’t going to let him go now. He dug into the wall with his penknife and practised holding his breath until she finished, and wiped herself on the scratchy paper. Then she sat there with her eyes closed, as if she was saying a prayer. His teeth were clicking; ghosts whispered in his ears; outside there were footsteps; dead fingers seemed to be clutching at him.
For a long time she examined herself in the mirror, powdering her face, replacing her lipstick and combing her hair. There were no human voices; only rain on the metal roof which dripped through onto their heads.
‘Mum,’ he cried.
‘Don’t you whine!’
He wanted his tea. He couldn’t wait to get away. Her eyes were scorching his face in the yellow light. He knew she wanted to tell him not to mention any of this. Recognising at last that it wasn’t necessary, she suddenly dragged him by his arm, as if it had been his fault they were held up, and hurried him home without another word.
The flat was lighted and warm. Mother went into the kitchen and Azhar helped her unpack the shopping. She was trying to be normal, but the very effort betrayed her.
Father had worked the early shift. Now, beside grandpop and Uncle Asif, he was listening to the cricket commentary on the big radio, which had an illuminated panel printed with the names of cities they could never pick up, Brussels, Stockholm, Hilversum, Berlin, Budapest. Father’s typewriter, with its curled paper tongue, sat on the table surrounded by empty beer bottles.
Azhar ran to his father who poured some beer into a glass for him, mixing it with lemonade.
The men were smoking pipes, peering into the ashy bowls, tapping them on the table, poking them with pipe-cleaners, and relighting them. They were talking loudly in Urdu or Punjabi, using some English words but gesticulating and slapping one another in a way English people never did. Then one of them would suddenly leap up, clapping his hands and shouting ‘yes – out – out!’ Azhar was accustomed to being with his family while grasping only fragments of what they said. He endeavoured to make out the gist of it, laughing, as he always did, when the men laughed, and silently moving his lips without knowing what the words meant, whirling, all the while, in incomprehension.