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Authors: Niven Govinden

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BOOK: Black Bread White Beer
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Though he knows the terrain by heart – there have been many of these walks with either one or both in-laws since before the engagement; Ma and Puppa even struggling up the hill twice during the wedding rehearsal week – he realizes that he has arrived at the village parade when the stream of bunting begins. More rows of the same white ribbons that have marked their journey from the A-road are wantonly doubled over, like silly string, and trail the main road and footpath that lead to the Green, making those final few steps feel like being led to the Wizard of Oz.

It only occurs to him now that both Liz and Sam are wearing white shirts and shoes, and there are other white-shirted figures busying themselves along the Green with
the opening business of the Herald of Spring afternoon. It is the unofficial uniform for every Pagan festival celebrated in twenty-first century England, especially this one, where the soberness of winter's dying days, its loathed browns and blacks, are finally shaken off. Colour is welcome but white is all right.

‘We could do this another time. I thought you'd want to listen to the cricket.'

‘Nothing worth hanging around for. They're getting slaughtered. I'll catch up with it later.'

‘Our poor son. Are you flagging so soon?'

Liz has a chuckle at his expense, expecting to be joined in, but with Sam forging ahead her laugh is absorbed by hedgerows that flank the road. They all know him as a spectator, unwilling to take part in overtly physical activity. When the midsummer charity tug of war took place on the Green to raise funds for the village hall he stayed at the back hoping to keep out of trouble, not realizing that those who held on to the last fringes of rope had to exert themselves even more than the rest. He almost gave himself a hernia with the muscular pull he had to draw from the benign fullness of his soft, wobbly stomach, and when that failed, his guts. Similarly, on a family weekend on the Scilly Isles he had been unwilling to play racket ball with Sam, wary of a descent into competition, almost having a bat forcibly thrust into his hand by Claud to avoid argument.

‘Play the damn game, 'Mal. Stop throwing a spanner every five minutes.'

The family, his new family, cannot accept that he is not a physical person. He has been raised on food and books and the need to find a secure career. In Leicester they are not outdoors people, all of life's learning comes from within the home.

By the time he reaches the Green with Liz, he sees leaflets in several hands. Sam is impatient to get his message across, covering ground with an attacking speed. Amal wonders how effective a few flyers thrust into the same circle of people day after day actually is. Whether they will end up as beer mats and non-absorbent pooper scoopers by the end of the afternoon.

‘Let him have his fun,' says Liz, reading his mind.

Being married to the same person for almost thirty-six years does that, he supposes, makes you apologetic on your husband's behalf, understanding that others are not predisposed to show the same level of tolerance to a man's projects. He wonders whether Claud is already doing the same for him, if this is an intuition all wives take possession of on their wedding day along with the compliments and the treasure on the wedding list.

They head towards the tombola to deposit the canvas, whose wretched weight pulls without mercy on his upper arms and tightens in spasm across his knuckle joints. If he had been on his own he would have made at least three or
four rest stops en route, but he has clung on regardless, conscious that Liz should not have any cause to believe that her daughter married a sissy. When he finally dumps it on the prize table, currying favour with some tired-looking soft toys, cheap local wine, and an unimpressive fruit basket, he slams it down harder than he intends to; the clunk of the wooden frame against the flimsy trestle table amplifying his intention to never see the damn painting again.

Free to roam, the pair of them watch as Sam holds court with a group of men in their late forties and early fifties with whom the leaflets generate close discussion. As if to make up for lost time he already has a pint in hand.

‘He's been like this since he retired. All this is a wild goose chase of course, but it gives him a reason to get up in the mornings. It'll stop once the baby arrives.'

So it is not just true of him and Claud. Everyone around them is using their due date to put an end to their personal issues. They are all after a clean slate.

‘I've seen men not dissimilar to him on those morning talk shows. They're a bunch of windbags,' he says lightly, a return joke for the knocking of his poor athleticism. What he holds back from describing is the demented self-belief of some of those men.

He overdosed on too much daytime TV last year recovering from the busted knee and grew familiar with
the breed. It feels like the male response to empty nest syndrome – men overtaken with their singular campaigning, consumed with it to the point where family become the casualty. Obsessed with kicking out kerb crawlers, eastern bloc immigrants, the building of new mosques in residential areas, teenage anti-social behaviour, and plastic bottle recycling plants, they end up pushing away all that they seek to protect.

Liz always has a stoic look about her, able to take any amount of his nonsense. He cannot speak for Claud, but recognizes how she encourages her father's childishness, precisely because it too makes her feel young, and safe. A girl and her dad. Whilst he and Liz regularly roll their eyes at Sam's suggestions, she is the first to volunteer for dry tobogganing down the hill or an impromptu cycle race around the village. Father and daughter are more alike than they realize.

Amal hates everything about the campaigning zeal bar that it gets Sam off his back. There is something lonely in the man with the stiff posture as he walks from group to group clutching his empty pint glass, something like the beggars he despises. It makes a sad sight, and he is surprised about how protective he feels towards him, so much so that he almost quickens his pace to join him and put him at his ease, if it was not such bad manners to leave Liz alone.

He is plied with tea and cake from one of the stalls. The
village is not one of the ecologically aware, bohemian ones further away from the coast attracting the disillusioned city dwellers. The population here is more workaday, and ageing. Therefore he gets the special treatment and the nice china, being ‘from London', a euphemism designed to cover a sea of other observations. He is called ‘London lad' when warmly greeted by a couple of the older men, which manages to both flatter and insult in its delivery. There are children everywhere all of whom he tries to ignore. It is not the sight of them, mostly chubby and boisterous, more their sound that seems to force the shutters down deep within his chest. The idea of welcoming childish joy on this day would cripple him. Already their laughter acts as a mummifying agent, like formaldehyde, killing all sensation in his arms and legs. He looks at them critically, shaking his head at each heckle and squabble. His children would be raised better than this sorry lot. His children would behave and know their place.

The post on the Green trails white ribbon, purely decorative, unlike the hardier string they use on May Day and Midsummer's Eve. Unable to believe his eyes, he ragged Claud endlessly when he first saw it, like an East Midlands hick who had little experience of the world outside the city.

‘Your parents live in a village where there's Morris dancing? Exactly what kind of place have you brought me to?'

Even though no one dances beneath it, the children too taken with their violent revolution aboard the bouncy castle and at the water rifle range where parents are repeatedly shot for the simple misdemeanour of refusal, the adults converging around the trestle table outside the pub on which lies a spread of cakes and ale, he still feels uncomfortable to be near it; something in the back of his mind telling him he would be tied to it if he comes any closer than five feet. The post is primal and brutal, used for celebration as well as punishment. Standing within its radius, not tethered, makes him a shorter King Kong, unleashed, free to pillage stores and ravage local women.

He is glad he held back from shaving, because the twoday growth, what they will suspiciously label as a beard, helps the cause enormously. Makes him look like a brown-skinned bogeyman, alien to the tea and scones, the fair-weather skin, and once round the maypole, merrily merrily.

But they are not like that with him, expelling his crass paranoia within minutes. Firstly, everyone offers their congratulations, which manages to both unnerve and humble. Friendliness flows as freely as the beer and elderflower alternatives. He puts down the tea and gulps hard on a half pint as they generously and optimistically wet the baby's head. Seven and a half months too early or twenty-two hours too late, depending. The beer sits thickly at the top of his gullet for a few uncomfortable moments before being granted safe passage, a hidden focal point for
his uneasiness. He had prepared himself to lie to Liz and Sam, not the whole village.

‘To baby Joshi,' toasts the pub landlord.

‘Baby Joshi!'

Knowing he will not be able to stop himself from crying out if another such toast is made, he downs the remains of his half in spite of his trouble swallowing and quickly takes another. He is ready to drown his insides if that is the only way to trick his body into a different response.

Better to deflect all round. Swerve the baby talk so that he cannot be accused of being fraudulent at a later date, when they find out. He is willing to talk about anything. With the men the discussion is cricket and cricket only, exchanging views on the failure of the English team to capitalize on the promise they'd shown less than three hours ago.

‘Bloody bunch of premature ejaculators,' spits one, with a brio that feels out of place in bucolic Sussex and more in tune with the rum-fuelled disenchantment of a Leicestershire living room filled with the cigarette smoke of Puppa and his friends.

‘They can't keep it up for more than a couple of hours. Bunch of lard arses. All preening and no action.'

To the women he talks about the county recycling scheme, school waiting lists, and the easiness of making an Indian savoury spice cake. No one wants to speak about the asylum centre. He feels embarrassed to even bring it up. Disloyal and embarrassed.

Liz is forthright on all topics including a rundown on a tried-and-tested spice cake recipe using courgette, carrot and frozen peas. Like Claud she too has thrown herself into the new world, knowing that if she could not understand everything about religion – too many gods, a cast of thousands – she could at least understand the food. No, not understand the food, but master it.

‘Bloody woman,' complained Puppa down the phone after one wet bank holiday get together. ‘We drove all this way expecting a nice rib of beef and Yorkshire pud, and she serves us this tasteless, watery thali in cereal bowls! We had to stop at the services on the way home to make up for it.'

He heard Ma shouting exasperatedly in the background, from her tone probably not the first time that day. Any longer than an hour in the car and they were usually set to kill each other.

‘The woman's trying, Ganno, eh? I don't see you making suet pastry for your kidney and steak pud when Claud and the boy visit.'

‘I expect people to take me as they find me. And so should they. That way neither of us would have to endure another bland lunch whilst making stupid comments on the weather to calm their bloody nerves. Yes, I know it is windy today. Any fool can see that. My car was being shunted on the motorway by strong side winds but that doesn't make me want to deliver a five-minute speech on
it. Know why? Because the weather is bloody boring! These people you have married into are so scared of putting a foot wrong they can't think of anything else to say. Speak your mind, man! Tell us your fears about what's happening to pension funds, the wear and tear on your 4x4, your worry of what brown-skinned sweat might do to your John Lewis cushions, or the future of your lovely farmhouse filled with brown babies, whose shitty arses you'll be required to wipe on occasion. Tell us about your fingers covered in Paki shit and the road that led you to it. But most importantly, give me bread and beef dripping and be done with it. No more of these chicken tikka skewers that come from a packet and pong of dishrag. Ha! Give me some bloody taste!'

When Liz hands him a piece of cake from the WI stall, smelling damp and moist with stored apples, he does not look at her hands lest his eyes give him away. Liz is nothing like Sam, but she too must have her worries.

‘I sweat all night over this baby,' he begins, hoping he can be her mouthpiece, a ventriloquist's dummy for her fears. ‘If I'm like this now, how will I cope when he's actually here?'

If the collection of cells has to be personified, it can only be a He. Has to be He. Amal does not have faith in Claud's genetic code and its ability to battle the might of tenacious, studious, subcontinental DNA. Ma was unable to fight Puppa's short and tubby string of cells. What chance, freckle-skinned, copper-haired Claud?

‘Oh, no! You mustn't! This is the part you should be enjoying. Plenty enough time to worry, son of mine. Plenty of things to be worrying about. Safest time of a baby's life is when they're cosy in Mum's tum. Where they have no argument with the world.'

‘And afterwards?'

‘It's hard to live up to that same level of protection. Nothing compares. I suppose that's why they spend so many years hating you for it. Becoming little shits.'

‘Is that how your felt when you were carrying Claud? Like her ultimate protector?'

‘Actually I was in shock for most of it. We'd only been married three months, and I'd just started a new job sub-editing at the
Argus
. I think I spent the first twenty weeks pretending that it wasn't happening. You're much more looked after these days. Clinics and health visitors and everything. Back then, they didn't give a stuff. As long as you could shove a bottle into its mouth and didn't kill it, they left you alone.'

BOOK: Black Bread White Beer
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