Today Words, Pauses, Noises is delighted to present another of our international students and screenplay writer Krishna Anaberi.
Think of an awkward social situation, mental health issues, political (in)correctness, and then put them in a bus in north London. This is exactly what Krishna does in this short story, Thirty Years in London, a story that brings to the foreground comfort, fear, xenophobia, and the many faces of ‘national identity’.
‘Thirty Years in London’
The first page of The Guardian was all pictures about the last week’s riots and stories of how the shops were coping and getting back to life. I turned the pages, not wanting to read any more of this. It was blown out of proportion by the media. Only the rain has been one hundred percent real. Not the best time to have my friends from Brazil over.
Murillo opened the curtains and smiled. “Look who’s out,” he said. It was sunny and almost looked like it had never rained. Rachel sighed, “English weather.”
We first walked to Hampstead Heath, the same park where George Michael was caught rubbing his torso against a truck driver. An ultimate tourist destination. Murillo was hoping he would run into a celebrity. No matter how much you walk, the green never ends in the Heath. Untouched by the riots, it was so peaceful. The park was deserted as we headed to Camden Town.
Rachel despised cigarettes but always wanted to smoke shisha so we sat around the table of a shisha shop. Murillo dragged a chair closer to the pipe placed in the center of the table.
“Camden is so empty, I think it’s the riots,” he said.
Rachel put the pipe down. “Can we please not talk about riots, we have been at it all week.” The three of us went silent. It wasn’t like we were hurt in the riots or anything, but somehow the air in London seemed tense. We all just wanted to go back home.
“When I find time, I will go to East Ham and pick some Rotis for us,” I said. I thought of the infinite kebab shops, Saree-clad mannequins, and every second store with a name of an Indian God. With its neon rectangles and arrows flashing “Open”, East Ham is the only place which comes close to home. I didn’t like anything about East Ham. The Indians living there cling so desperately to their roots that they’re more “Indian” than people back home. They wanted the “Queen’s” money but not to eat the scones, it seemed. For me, East Ham was a place where Rotis could be bought in bulk for dirt-cheap.
We got on the 214 and headed home. The bus wasn’t crowded but I sat on the seat right behind the driver’s cabin. It was a bit high and too small for me but I wanted a break from trying not to mention the riots. Rachel and Murillo took the seats after the exit door. A man in his fifties got on the bus. I was sure he wasn’t homeless even though he had all the attributes – long beard, dirty grey coat and wrinkles that leave no space for clear skin, and a face like he had fought in a war. He carried a backpack and a cream pastry in his hand.
He stumbled to the seats in a rush, the seat diagonal from me, then coughed and coughed. He put next to him his bag and a bottle of water. Then he turned back and stared at each passenger.
I was regretting the decision to sit here. I wasn’t comfortable, wasn’t sure if it was the seat or if it was just me. He glared at me and started yelling in the air.
“You make me sick, you lesbian wanker!”
I made sure not to look in his direction.
“You make me sick. Do I make myself clear? You lesbian wanker!” I could still see him from the corner of my eye. On my right was the driver’s cabin and my back was against the window so all I could do was look ahead of me. It was obvious I was scared.
“Long long ago I knew who you were, wanker!”
The bus stopped at Coronation Street. Silence. A woman with too many bags got on. I wanted to get off. The tension in the air was unbearable. He was quiet when the bus stopped, only yelling when it was in motion.
The woman started to get nervous, too. You could tell she was having a hard time balancing all the bags, but didn’t dare sit beside him. She turned her back towards him. He went on, in his adapted British accent, spread his legs wide across the seat and kept adjusting his cap. I desperately wanted somebody to sit next to him. When a punk looking, red-haired girl got on I was hopeful but she skipped him, too.
“I have an AK 47, and it’s Russian made. You make me sick. Lesbian wanker, I can kill you, lesbian wanker!”
I looked down at my shoes and kept staring at them. Surely he wasn’t carrying a gun, but screaming about it so loudly must be criminal. The bus stopped again and people who were standing beside him got off. A woman who looked like she could be a professor boarded the bus and was about to sit next to him when he started moaning and rubbing his chin to his shoulders. She walked away. I could make out from the corner of my eye that he was staring at me. At the next stop, a woman dressed in burqa with a baby in a pram and two toddlers got on.
“You fuck the system with more kids. Bangladeshis are the worst immigrants. They live on benefits. Ask me, I tell you. I lived in East Ham for thirty years. Bengalis are the worst. They suck you off.”
He seemed like a terrorist to me now. Or was he just mad? He was shouting and I was getting paranoid. Why was the driver not saying anything? Couldn’t he hear the maniac? He could be dangerous. He just mentioned an AK 47. I managed to slowly turn my face and look for Rachel and Murillo. They were sitting far away and looked at me with raised eyebrows. I nodded at them in silence. I glanced at the psycho who was rummaging through his bag. Was he looking for something to hurt someone?
“Fucking benefits you live on!”
I got a good look at him. I wasn’t sure which part he came from but he looked South Asian to me. It’s sometimes difficult to tell a Bangladeshi from an Indian. I had been mistaken for Sri Lankan or Bengali so many times in London, and even in India people ask me if I’m a Bong. I prayed he didn’t think I was Bengali. I knew that the drink in his hand or something from that bag was coming my way. I could feel my heartbeat, it was beating fast.
“Will you get down now and give my Johnny a seat?” he shouted into the bag. Was he talking to me? No doubt he wanted me out of his sight. Did he want me to give him my seat? I wondered if I dared to get up because I would have to stand next to him.
His hand was still in the bag but it stopped moving. He seemed to have found what he was looking for. He gave a quick look to everybody on the bus, then looked at me. I quickly looked away. The bus stopped. He got up and I could sense that he was walking towards me. I was just about to duck when I realised it wasn’t him. A fat man passed by me. He was still on his two seats, fidgeting, taking his hat off and putting it back on. The bus was on the move again. The lady in burqa hugged all her kids. I was sure we shared the paranoia.
“Wankers, all wankers. So many fucking kids. You need Tesco to pump your breasts!”
It was my stop next. I had to pass by him and I knew he was going to throw his drink at me. He hadn’t taken a single sip. I got up and walked. He tapped my shoulder. I started sweating. I clenched my fists really tight. I didn’t dare look back. The lady in burqa and her children were getting off in front of me. The moments stretched like old chewing gum. It was like approaching a teacher with unfinished homework, only worse.
I could feel every part of my spine. He touched my shoulders from behind and I was ready to punch him. I turned around but it was Rachel nudging me to get off.
“Goodbye Johnny,” boomed behind me, “I will take care of these Bangladeshis! Goodbye Johnny, you no more have to sit in those small seats.”
We got off. I stared in his direction. He gave me a big smile and nodded. Then with his fingers he made an impression of a gun, firing at everyone on the bus.
Everyone, whether they live in the city or come for a visit, has a unique experience of London. That is what makes it such a multicultural centre, a place where anything can – and frequently will – happen. Some of those experiences are amazing and beautiful. Some of them are slightly less so. They are strange and gritty or uncomfortable, but they are, however weird, just another facet of this city. As Krishna’s piece reflects, though, for an author these awkward encounters can make for wonderful story fodder.
Join us again next week for more creativity from Words, Pauses, Noises!