This is an excerpt from my upcoming novel Common People. Set in London in the late 90s, it explores issues of immigration, culture shock, racism, diversity and adaptation through the eyes of Eleni, a recent Greek immigrant struggling to find her identity in the UK. I thought, in the current climate, it was appropriate: none of this is new.
That day, I was accused of being from Bradford. I didn’t know it was an accusation until Luke interfered. He bounded up behind me, out of nowhere, and said: ‘Oi!’
I was on the twelve to six shift, which was, as usual, a quiet one; on Sundays, people preferred other pubs, bigger ones that served food. I’d spent the hours between twelve and four perched on a stool at the end of the bar, smoking and looking through a copy of The Mirror that somebody had left behind. Luke was in the office, doing paperwork; he came up every now and again, to check on me. Pete and John were there, of the regulars, and two couples, who drank pitchers of Vodka and Red Bull, and laughed loudly. I was glad when the two men arrived. The one who spoke was short, pale, shaped like a beer barrel; he was young, despite his lack of hair. He’d asked his question in a knowing way, with a hint of mocking aggression.
Judging from Luke’s reaction, I assumed Bradford must be something like Bristol, and I looked about my person for treacherous body parts, sticking out where they shouldn’t. Nothing seemed out of place.
‘He was just asking,’ I said in the man’s defence.
‘No,’ said Luke, in a voice of stainless steel: polished and purposeful. ‘He. Wasn’t. Just. Asking.’ He directed this not to me, but to the man.
I turned around, and was baffled by what I saw: not the Luke I expected, but someone else; a man, tall, and solid; not simply angry, but indignant. His arms were crossed over his chest, and the expression on his face was anything but accidental; in fact, it gave the impression of something meticulously planned. Of someone who knew what he was doing and, more, knew he wouldn’t fail. He was a warning.
The man, however, wasn’t paying enough attention; he persisted. ‘She hasn’t answered my question,’ he said.
I was about to speak when Luke cut in again. ‘The lady,’ he said, ‘will not be answering any of your questions.’ He moved closer, so close I could feel the heat of his body on my back. And then I recognised it, this behaviour. It was chivalry. It was a man protecting a woman; it was Luke protecting me.
The second man picked up on it, too, though I didn’t know this at the time; most of what he said sounded, to me, like another language. ‘’E’s pissed off,’ was his contribution, ‘cause you’ve dissed ‘is bird.’
The first man seemed to agree, and added his own wisdom: ‘He’s pissed off cause his bird’s a Paki.’
‘That’s enough,’ said Luke. ‘I want you to leave.’ With another step, he was next to me; he unfolded his right arm across my body and held it there, like a barrier. A shield. The sudden movement surprised the two men, who took a step back each, realising, as they did it, that they had lost. Which, as I learned much later, is exactly the point where things might get dangerous. But not this time.
The first man made a final attempt to pull his pride out of the situation intact.
‘Oh yeah?’ he said, with malice. ‘And whatcha gonna do about it?’
Luke didn’t speak; he stood where he was, very still, one arm stretched out in front of me, the other balanced on his hip, and stared at both men, hard.
The second one was first to look down. ‘Mate,’ he said, ‘leave it. ‘E’s not worth it.’
‘Yeah,’ said his friend, seizing the opportunity. ‘His big man act don’t convince me. He’s a wuss.’
‘E’s a wanker, that’s what ‘e is.’
And with that they left, but not before they spat – big fat lumps of phlegm – on the floor.
It was a while before Luke moved. Eventually, he let both arms drop, and sighed so deeply his whole body shook with it. He poured himself a coke and I noticed his hands were trembling. I had an urge to hug him and run my hands over his hair and press my face into his chest and say soothing, muffled words, and cry; I kept myself busy with dirty glasses until it had passed, and then I spoke.
‘I’ll get the mop,’ I said.
Bradford, Luke explained later, was known for having a large population of Asians: people from India, from Pakistan, from Bangladesh. It was synonymous, he said, with being from one of those places. I thought about it for a while.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘But what does it have to do with me?’
‘He probably thought you were from there too.’
‘No: India. Or Pakistan. Or someplace.’
‘Maybe because of your colouring,’ Luke said. ‘Your skin, your hair. Your eyes.’
A memory floated to the surface. ‘At school,’ I said, ‘they used to call me a gypsy. Because I was dark. It was meant as an insult, but I don’t know why. I always thought gypsies were very pretty. I used to say thank you.’
Luke laughed. ‘That must have confused the hell out of them.’
‘I suppose it must have; I was too young to notice.’ I paused. ‘Is that what that guy meant by Paki? From Pakistan?’
‘I don’t understand. What’s wrong with being from Pakistan?’
‘Nothing,’ said Luke, shaking his head.
‘But he said it in such a horrible way. With spite.’
Luke sighed; he spoke calmly, but his voice shook a little. ‘That’s got nothing to do with Pakistanis. Or Indians, or anybody else. It’s nothing to do with you. It’s just because he’s ignorant.’
I liked that word: ignorant; I knew it, but I’d never used it before. I tried it now: ‘Ignorant.’
‘Just like those kids in your school. Those people, they don’t know any better. It’s racism of the lowest form: they’re just parroting. They don’t even know why.’
I took a moment to be impressed by what he’d said. ‘Next time, I’ll say thank you,’ I declared.
‘Good,’ he said, smiling. ‘I’m sorry if I scared you before. Just didn’t think it was fair, you know… I won’t have anyone talking to my staff that way,’ he added, firmly.
‘I know. It’s OK.’
A customer came in and nodded at me, yes please; I headed towards him.
‘Bubble,’ said Luke. I turned. ‘You’re right: gypsies are very pretty.’
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