(From Common People)
I thought, by now, I understood something about the New Country. I had gathered things, small trinkets of familiarity that I’d picked up, as instructed, along the way; I collected them, like other people collect butterflies or shells, pressed flowers and unusual stamps. But the similarity ended there: there are only so many butterflies in the world; so many countries, so many stamps; there are only so many spaces in a house that you can cram a hobby into. But I don’t know how you can quantify understanding; how a collection such as mine could ever be complete. How many things, how many days, how many moments of clarity. How many touches does it take before you know the feel of someone’s skin? How many times do you have to look at them before you can reconstruct their face in memory? What I longed for was a little indifference: a time when I could shrug my shoulders at all this, dismiss it with a flick of the wrist. ‘Oh, London,’ I’d say. ‘Yeah, sure.’ With affection, yes, but not with awe.
The list grew as I ticked items off it. Vinegar on chips; lager shandy; small change; steak and kidney pies; fry-ups. Tick. Pubs; punters; post office queues; the BBC. Tick. I could ride the tube to most places without getting lost. I could buy a ticket without help. I could do my shopping in Tesco; I had a Clubcard. New friendships: tick. Handshakes, instead of kisses on the cheek: tick. Sex in a different language: yes, and tick. Mince pies, dog and bone, butcher’s hook, bubble and squeak. Glasgow Rangers: strangers. Cheers mate! Tick.
And football: the Premiership, and the FA Cup. Divisions one, two and three. The Sunday League doesn’t count. Friendlies and internationals. London derbies. The Gunners and the Hammers and the Spurs. And the season was over now. I understood that. Tick. I had seen chairs flying and tables knocked over and glasses smashed. I had seen men explode, go all twisted like hurricanes. I had seen blood and bruises, and I understood that football had a hold over these people. A 1-0 changed them, a 0-0 draw made them sigh and shake theirs heads. Losing made them angry, and victory put fire inside them, and it singed those around. And on match days, they drank a lot of spirits, and that inflamed them even further. And then I’d seen thousands march in honour of their team, and sing and laugh and hold children high over their heads, and I’d taken that to be the closing of a circle. Tick. I shrugged my shoulders at it. And then, suddenly, the World Cup was upon us. And everything started all over again.
On my way to work one day, I received some education. I noticed the man as soon as I got on the tube: he was sitting alone at the end of the carriage, and he seemed very agitated.
‘Bastards!’ he said to his feet. ‘Fucking bastards, all of them.’
I smiled a little to myself, the way you do when you come across crazy people and judge them to be harmless; not with malice, but for something to do. I looked around, expecting to catch someone’s eye and share the smile, but nobody looked up. Their eyes were glued to their books and newspapers or fixed on the floor. Their bodies were rigid, in forced imitation of aloofness. It was very odd.
The man continued his one-sided argument. ‘Yes mate,’ he affirmed. ‘Bastards.’
About a minute into our journey, the train came to a halt. The speakers crackled and the driver said something about King’s Cross; from the sighs of the other passengers, I discerned it to be bad news. I looked around for someone to ask, when the agitated man stood up.
‘Cunts,’ he announced. He staggered towards the centre of the carriage, then stopped abruptly. ‘Immigrants,’ he added, and nodded his head manically. ‘Yes mate, I’m telling you mate. Fucking immigrants. Cunts.’ Collective intake of breath followed this, and the passengers stiffened even more: a monologue of “bastards” was normal, but “cunts” was something else entirely. Newspapers rustled.
The man waved his arms in the air, for emphasis, but entirely out of synch with his speech. ‘Send ‘em all back, is what I say.’ He nodded again, then had a change of heart. ‘No!’ he cried. ‘Line ‘em up and shoot ‘em. One by one, mate, like dogs. And good fucking riddance.’ He attempted a wave, lost his balance, and nearly toppled over. Somebody coughed.
The man took another couple of steps and leaned forward a little. ‘Innit, mate?’ he said; he seemed to be addressing a middle-aged man who was trying to hide behind the Evening Standard. ‘We understand each other, you an’ me. Yeah. We’re British, mate. British.’ And having established that, he straightened up and moved on. He was wearing a red football shirt, I noticed, but it didn’t look like Arsenal. I squinted, trying to make out the writing on the badge, as the man stopped again, a couple of metres away from me. I looked down at my hands, but not fast enough.
‘Cunt,’ he said. Ominous switch to singular. ‘Fucking immigrant cunt. You fuck off, yeah, you fuck right off back to wherever you came from.’ He took another step forward. ‘Oi! I said fuck off. Do you understand? You speak English?’
He was looking straight at me; I felt it even before I lifted my eyes to see. His finger was pointed in my direction, unwavering. I looked around, and then up at my accuser.
‘Excuse me?’ I said politely. ‘Are you talking to me?’
This seemed to infuriate him. ‘You fucking cunt,’ he said. ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? Fucking immigrant bitch! Can’t even speak fucking English.’ With that, he lurched forward; his face came so close to mine that I could smell the alcohol in his breath. I leaned back in my seat, and then I made out the name on his badge: England. He was wearing an England shirt.
‘Cunt! Fucking bitch! Go back to where you came from, yeah? You don’t belong here, nobody wants you here. Fucking immigrant.’ My face was covered in spittle. I felt sick. The people next to me shifted uncomfortably; one girl got up and took another seat, at the far end of the carriage. Nobody was going to defend me.
‘I’m sorry that you’re upset,’ I heard myself say. ‘I had no intention of upsetting you.’
‘You – fucking – what? How fucking dare you talk back at me? I am the voice of Britain. Yes mate. And Britain is telling you to fuck off.’ He pushed his face even closer to mine, and his voice lowered to a growl. ‘Do you understand? Fuck off.’
He straightened up, called me an immigrant bitch once more, and spat; phlegm landed on my shoes and slowly trickled to the floor. I didn’t move.
Over the speakers, the driver’s voice apologised for the delay and informed us that we were now ready to go. The train jolted, and set off again, and the man walked away and stood by the door. He resumed his mumbling.
I got off at Highbury and Islington. As the train doors shut, the voice of Britain bestowed his last piece of wisdom on me.
‘And learn to speak fucking English. Cunt.’
I stood at the platform, shaking. People pushed past me in all directions. Someone touched me on the shoulder: a woman.
‘Are you alright?’
I shook my head.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. She gave my shoulder a squeeze, and turned to leave. I stopped her.
‘Why?’ I said.
‘I don’t know love. I honestly don’t know.’ She paused. ‘Maybe it’s the World Cup; it seems to bring out the worst in people. You know, nationalism.’ She had noticed the shirt too. ‘Don’t take it personally.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t mean that. I mean why did nobody help me?’
‘Oh.’ She looked very uncomfortable. ‘I suppose… I suppose it’s just London. You don’t get involved. It’s just how it is.’
‘But. That’s not right.’
‘No. Of course.’ She seemed to think about it. ‘It isn’t.’ She put her hand on my shoulder again, then pulled it away. ‘I’ve gotta go, love. I’m late for picking up the kids. Are you going to be alright?’
I nodded. She gave me a sad smile, and walked away towards the exit.
I stood where she left me for a little longer. Then, mechanically, I walked up the stairs and out of the station and into the pub, and down to the office. I sat down in Toni’s swivel chair and lit a cigarette. Upstairs, there were songs and cheers. England was playing.
I sobbed. This was not the kind of indifference I had in mind. This, no: I couldn’t shrug it off.
This is an excerpt from my latest novel, Common People. Set in late 90s London, in a reality ever so slightly removed from our own, Common People explores issues of immigration, integration and adaptation, racism and xenophonia, the preconceptions and stereotypes that hold us back – whether we’re aware of it or not – and the ever-present quest for identity and belonging, wherever we choose to make our home. It is available to buy on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.