All around them, all this time, things were changing and continued to change.

As Mrs Glass said, the place wasn’t the same. If she hadn’t lived right through the changes, she told her friend Mrs Fletcher, she wouldn’t have recognized it, she would have walked up the street and right past her house and not known it, the surroundings were that different. But of course she, like the Fletchers, and the Srinivases, and the remaining older residents (of whom there were not many left) had lived through it all. They had lived through demolition, and rebuilding, and road widening, through community planning and trial runs for ring roads. They had seen the elms chopped down along their avenue, and the piles being driven in, and new housing taking the place of the old. They had got used to the traffic, and their truncated front gardens, to the accelerating sounds of the age, and to the sight of perpendicular buildings framed in their front and back windows.

Skyscrapers, Mrs Glass called them.

‘Why, you seen those then?’ inquired Mrs Fletcher.

‘Maybe not in the flesh, but there is such a thing as pictures, isn’t there?’ said Mrs Glass, glaring.

‘No need for acerbity,’ said Mrs Fletcher.

‘It’s acerbity that keeps us friends,’ said Mrs Glass. ‘Too much sweetness is very apt to get cloying.’

‘No danger of that,’ said Mrs Fletcher, sniffing.

As there was some ambiguity here Mrs Glass was silent, though resolutions formed to attack on other topics, especially Fred Fletcher, who was now back in England, Australia not having been to his taste.

Skyscraper was Mrs Glass’s description. Nobody else called the flats that, since they did not brush the sky, even if they did disrupt the skyline. But they were tall enough: ten, twelve, twenty storeys some of them. Tier upon tier they rose, these concrete quarters for the living, and into them disappeared the exhausted homeless, delirious with the happiness of having a place of their own, though presently they would feel the loneliness of heights, and yearn for gardens and fences to drape their friendliness over, and miss earth levels without quite believing in root causes for their restlessness, and to wonder what it was that ailed them, and to look around for scapegoats.

These were the lucky ones. Those who waited outside, names on lengthening housing lists, looked up with envy, contrasting the comforts of modern living with their own squalid existence, crammed five and six to a room. They would wait their turn, these people. Only a few would attempt to jump the queue which was the yardstick of fair dealing. But their numb misery fermented, waiting for obscene voices to nominate scapegoats on whom they could offload the frustrations of their living.

He lumbered out of the pub, in which he had received his moment of illumination, feeling he had been put on his guard against imminent calamity, and determined to be on the lookout. Exactly for what, he was not too sure.”

Over at No. 6 Fred Fletcher was in a state of some frustration. He didn’t care who knew it.

‘I’m fed up,’ he told his mother. ‘Fed right up to there,’ he said, and drew a finger across his gullet.

Mrs Fletcher bridled. It was her privilege, she considered, to be fed up, lumbered as she was with Fred and six kids, and more being conceived if she was any judge of the noises that came from the back bedroom at night, and the afternoons too, they were that shameless.

‘You’re fed up,’ she said, and sniffed. ‘You don’t want to stay, you don’t have to, you know. Nobody’s forcing you, neither your dad nor me.’

‘Oh, no,’ said Fred. ‘There’s homes waiting I could walk into tomorrow. You would,’ he said vindictively, ‘cast out your own flesh and blood and it wouldn’t worry you nothing, not a damn thing.’

‘No cause for swearing,’ said Mrs Fletcher. ‘I’ve seen my duty as a Christian and I’ve done it. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here under my roof, Fred Fletcher!’

Fred kept quiet. They had had this argument before. The last time he had shot his mouth and gone to Australia, and it had done him no good whatever. He had not found anywhere decent to live there either, and although he was not what you might call a skilled worker, he had not really expected to work as a road mender, which was the only job they offered him. So he came back, using up the last of his savings and losing his place in the housing queue into the bargain, and went to live with his mother. There was only one thing worse, Fred considered: living with his wife’s mother. It did not make him thankful for small mercies. He felt, indeed, that he had been done, though he did not know on whom to pin the blame.

One day he found out, from a mate of his who had had it straight from the mouth of his councillor. The blacks were responsible. They came in hordes, occupied all the houses, filled up the hospital beds and their offspring took all the places in schools. A great light burst upon Fred. Why had he not thought of that? He lumbered out of the pub, in which he had received his moment of illumination, feeling he had been put on his guard against imminent calamity, and determined to be on the lookout. Exactly for what, though, he was not too sure. The blacks, of course: but his mate had also spoken of different habits and alien characteristics, so that he had the confused impression that what he had to look out for was a species of ape with black faces.

As it happened Ashcroft Avenue was rather short on these. Fred had to go farther afield. At the poorer end of the borough he found a man sweeping the street. He was not at all like an ape, but he was coal-black and he had thick lips. Fred felt he would have to do.

‘Here, you,’ he said to the man. ‘You got no right to be in this country. You bugger off, see?’

‘I got my right when you lot carved up my country,’ said the man, who happened to be a graduate, of London University in fact, doing the best job London could offer him.

‘You disputing my word?’ asked Fred, and bunched his knuckles.

‘Yes,’ said the man, and leaned on his broom. His biceps, Fred noted, were huge. His own were not negligible, labouring in Australia had developed them, but they shrank in comparison.

‘You watch it,’ said Fred, moderately, and stalked off.

His next encounter was more satisfactory. Standing alone at a bus stop he found a thin, elongated coloured youth, whom without preliminary he sent flying into the gutter. Then he turned for home, pleased with the evening’s work and prepared to call it a day.

Rounding the corner into Ashcroft Avenue, however, opportunity presented itself again, in the shape of an elderly brown man walking along by himself. His face seemed familiar, but Fred could not place it; possibly it would have made no difference if he had. He planted himself squarely in the other’s path.

‘You got no right to be living in this country,’ he said, and thrust his face close to the brown man’s. Beery fumes rose from his nostrils. Srinivas stepped back fastidiously.

‘Why not?’ he asked.

‘You telling me you’re English?’ asked Fred.

‘By adoption,’ said Srinivas happily.

Fred, feeling he needed nothing further, lashed out. Srinivas dodged the blow. Fred spun round once, staggered two steps, fell on the pavement and rolled into the gutter. Srinivas ran to help him up. Fred looked up at him from where he lay. It seemed to him a harmless face, but the colour was wrong. He decided he hated that colour, and the man, and the untold evils he and his kind were letting loose in his country, his beloved England which he felt he had never loved so much before, not even when he left its shores for Australia.

‘Get stuck, you fucking ape,’ he bellowed, and as his rage built up with foul words he channelled it into still more fetid reaches, until a constable arrived, and shared out his disapproval impartially between the two men.

Unknown to her her lips began moving. They formed words without sound, like tiny balloons in which messages were written. Love thy neighbour, these read, love thy neighbour… Even if the neighbour was peculiar.”

Mrs Fletcher was upset. Her name had been dragged in the mud, no doubt of that. By Fred. Sitting in the gutter, he had been, tight as a tick, shouting and swearing. Filthy language such as Mr Fletcher, if he had been in any state to hear, which he was not, would have been ashamed of his son for using. As Mrs Fletcher was. And a worse feeling for the other thing, to which she could not quite put a name. She sat with her hands motionless, as still as two frightened mice in her lap, while quivers ran through her frame. For Mr Srinivas, and what her son had said to him: to an old man who lived among them, and did them no harm. Unknown to her her lips began moving. They formed words without sound, like tiny balloons in which messages were written. Love thy neighbour, these read, love thy neighbour. When at last she caught their drift Mrs Fletcher agreed. Fred had done wrong. Without cause he had wronged a neighbour. Even if the neighbour was peculiar, which Mr Srinivas was. Kept human ashes in the cellar – which Bert Glass had seen – and something cannibal about his gods (or his people, she wasn’t sure which), whose toes were eaten away.

The quivers turned to shudders, threatening Mrs Fletcher’s angular form. But she rose. She was a Christian, and would do her Christian duty. She put on her coat and crossed the road and rang the bell of No. 5. Mr Srinivas opened it.

‘I have something to say to you,’ she said to him straightly, raising her eyelids, which seemed to be weighted, and seeing the old calm face, which eased her. What Srinivas saw was strain, its lines and stresses plain on the harassed, blanched face.

‘Won’t you come in?’ he invited.

‘It can be said here,’ she said, trembling, her limbs like water weeds somehow upholding her. ‘It needs to be said, because my son had no call to say what he did. No call at all. You’ve been a neighbour to us these many years, Mr Srinivas, and you’ve been a good neighbour, and whatever’s been said you’ve as much right to be here as any of us and there’s few as wouldn’t be sorry if you were to feel you had to leave because of what our Fred said. And if he hasn’t got the decency to apologize,’ concluded Mrs Fletcher, her eyes beginning to flash, ‘then his mother’s got to do it for him.’

Delivered, her tremors eased. It was Srinivas who felt the shafts now, thin lances that cleaved through him, so subtly that the flesh closed over before blood was drawn, leaving no injury, leaving almost no injury, only this that was like the beginning of pain to be lost in unconsciousness as the stunning blow took effect.

Because if he left he had nowhere to go.

Nowhere, he said to himself, and he scanned the pale anxious eyes which were regarding him for reasons that might drive him out, a nowhere man looking for a nowhere city. But the eyes wore a film, a watery film that gave him back his own anxieties, and Mrs Fletcher, who tried, did little better.

‘You don’t want to pay any attention to Fred,’ she said, giving no reasons, only this quavering reassurance. ‘He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You’ve got as much right to live here as what he has. More,’ she claimed, extravagantly, prepared for any extravagance in order to right a wrong. ‘Even if you weren’t born in this country, Mr Srinivas, you belong here, and don’t let anyone convince you different.’

‘I won’t,’ said Srinivas, and he gazed at her remotely, emptily, until presently her face swam back into focus, a nervous face desperately embarked upon reassuring him.

Do people reassure when there is no danger?

No, said Srinivas, judiciously considering: reassurance is shaped only from the ingredients of existing danger.

‘I won’t,’ he said however, to calm Mrs Fletcher. ‘I do belong here now. It was good of you to remind me.’

From The Nowhere Man (Small Axes, £10.99)

 

Kamala Markandaya (1924–2004) was born in Mysore, India. She studied history at Madras University and later worked for a small progressive magazine before moving to London in 1948 to pursue a career in journalism. Her debut novel Nectar in a Sieve (1954) was an international bestseller. A contemporary of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and R.K. Narayan, Kamala Markandaya is now being rediscovered as an essential figure in the post-colonial canon. The Nowhere Man, first published in 1972, is her shocking portrayal of a London filled with fear, intolerance, envy, inequality and racial hatred. It is reissued in paperback and eBook by Small Axes, an imprint of Hope Road Publishing, with a new introduction by Emma Garman.
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Read Emma Garma’s introduction in The London Magazine

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