We’re not Jews

Hanif Kureishi

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!’

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