A Short Story by Nasir Ali Hussain
She was a heavyset, middle-aged lady with a heavy, brown leather handbag that was the same colour as the skin on her face. The bag bounced invitingly from one shoulder strap as she walked. It was about six o’clock, and the hot weather that afternoon had turned balmy. There was now a much needed light breeze calming the air. She gripped a bag of shopping in each hand and hummed the melody of a hymn to herself as she ponderously went her way. She had been sitting on the bus and at one point on the journey the boy sitting behind her spied her counting a small tidy roll of banknotes.
“There must be at least a couple of hundred quid in there,” he thought to himself with a lick of the lips. And for a fourteen year old a hundred quid was like a hundred grand to a thirty year old. He had watched her put the money back into a little pay packet and then saw the pay packet vanish into that brown handbag. She got up from her seat near Harrow and Weald Station. The boy hurriedly followed suit, partly because this part of Harrow was something of a mystery to him. He walked several paces behind her and then, when they were away from the main thoroughfare of the Junction near the actual Weald Stone, and there were no other people milling around, his feet quickened. He ran up behind her and made a desperate grab for the handbag. The woman made objectionable noises at this sudden intrusion and instinctively twisted away on her heels to create space between herself and her assailant. Her sudden reflexes surprised the boy. He was now fully committed in a kind of leaping lunge and lost his balance due to her unexpected nimbleness. He went hurtling onto the side pavement in a painful trajectory. The boy was lucky not to bang his head or do himself some other damage from his collision with the concrete. The woman’s handbag and shopping bags went flying along with him. Less than a minute all was well with the world and now chaos replete with flying groceries. He lay sprawled on his back. His short legs splayed up in the air; looking like a fighter felled by a good one- two combination. The street had not only gone blurry to his eyes, but it had also turned upside down. A ringing sound chimed in his ears. He furiously blinked his eyes to focus. He vaguely hoped this would help him gather his senses enough to get up and hare away from what he had caused to happen. Then find some other bus stop from where he could take either the 258 or 140 bus to the safety of the seven streets of South Harrow. As he pushed his palms into the ground to lift himself up the woman rushed up to him with a speed that was surprising for someone her size. She bent down and drew almost face to face with him and pulled her hand back to serve him the kind of slap that he’d remember, but never talk about. She would have grabbed his hair if he had had any, but this little toe-rag was one of those skinheads she’d so often seen on the TV, wearing braces and check shirts like he was and going about causing ruckuses and generally being a nuisance. Yet, something in the desperate way he looked up at her made her stop with her hand still drawn back in the air above his head. They stayed like that for a few seconds. The boy on the floor looked up at her. His blue eyes were no less startled as those of animal’s caught in the glaring headlights of an oncoming car. The lady loomed menacingly over and above of him. Her chest heaved behind her floral patterned, dark blue dress and her annoyed, nut brown face frowned looked down at him with a look that was equal parts pride and disgust. It was a rapid reversal of roles. Within a brief, yet furious flurry of seconds he had gone from hunter to hunted, from predator to prey.
She reached down, pulled the boy up by the lapels on his green donkey jacket and gave him a rough shake that made both their teeth rattle.
“Wha dee hell d’ya tink you playing at bwoy!” She said in a strong, slightly out of breath, Jamaican accent. “Givin’ me a fright like dat! I could ‘ave dropped stone dead from dee damn shock of it all! Now pick my bag and pass it over ‘ere,” she said not taking her hand off his jacket in case he tried to do something stupid again.
“How can I get it if you won’t let go of me,” the boy shrilled. She loosened her grip from his shoulder and he slid over to his right side to grab the bag.
“You should be ashamed of yourself for attacking an old lady, a hard working Christian lady like me’self. Help me pick up my shopping, oranges and bananas strewn everywhere.” The boy dutifully complied and together they gathered up pieces of fruit, a box of PG Tips tea and a now scuffed and, amongst other things, a frayed box of Mr Kipling’s Manor House Cake.
“Tell me bwoy, aren’t you feeling ashamed of yourself?” She asked again, adjusting her large black hat.
“Yes, yes I am,” the boy said.
“Then why you do wha’ you did then?” She said.
“I didn’t plan to do something like this when I left my house today, it sort of like just ‘appened didn’t it,” he said with a frown of realisation that what he was saying was actually the truth of the matter.
“Jus’ appen,” she scoffed, angrily throwing the boy’s words back at him.
“You must have seen me countin’ me pay packet!,” she said suddenly looking shrewdly at him. “Well, lets just see what the police have to say about it. Me boys Clyde and Leroy be comin’ round the corner any second now to see what all dis commotion be about.”
The boy’s eyes grew big turned and his face and ears turned an agitated beetroot red colour. By now a good little crowd had gathered round to enjoy the show.
“I’m sorry, lady, it won’t happen again, I promise!” Hollered the boy. “Can I go now?”
She looked at him again, properly taking him in for the first time. He had a checked shirt, blue jeans that were rolled up at the bottom and shoes that had seen better days. But what really struck her were the state of his hands. They were dark and dirty, as was the back of his neck and his fingernails had black rims on them.
“No, you ce-yant.”
“Because you is a fil-tee bwoy!”
“Oh Laard! Ain’t you got a bath in your house? Why is you so grimy looking? I got a good mind to scrub your face. Ain’t you got someone at your house to tell you to wash?”
“No,” said the boy in so plaintive a manner that the woman decided not wish to push that line of questioning any further because it looked like any more sentences like that and he was going to cry.
“Then you is going to get a good dose of soap and water dis evening then,” she said and passed her shopping over to him to hold. “Come on! You is coming with me,” she said. Some jeers and some cheers came from some of the people stood watching as she put one hand tightly round his collars and made him leave with her. Her other hand held one carrier bag whilst he carried the other.
“How old is you?” She asked with her eyes looking ahead.
“I’m going to be fifteen next month.”
She sniffed and gave a dismissive wag of the head.“You should have been born my son. If you were my chile I would show you what’s right and what’s wrong, but the best we can do now is to clean you up.” The boy’s mind was still trying to catch up with the fast turn of events.
“I’ve learnt my lesson. Honest. Can you just let me go home now.”
“Now, tell me, was I giving you any botheration when you ran into me around dat corner back there?” She asked him.
“So, you is the one who made this link,” said the woman. “If you think that this linkage is not going to last at least a little while longer, you best be ready. When we is done young man, you’re at least going to remember Mrs. Lorna Yates Lewiston.”
The boy turned to make another run for it, but Mrs Lewiston tightened her grip on his neck so that he gave in with a little squeal. She then proceeded to frogmarch him up the street till they were outside the green front door of a large, brown brick, Edwardian house. “You gwan to feel the back of my hand if you don’t watch out!”
The boy was cowed into compliance now.
She turned a key in the door and dragged the boy inside through the passageway, and into a large furnished room at the rear of the house. She switched on the light and left the door open. The boy could hear the laughing and talking of West Indian men coming from another part of the large house. He was terrified that these black people were going to beat him till he was unconscious and then chuck him out onto the street. He looked at her handbag and bit his lip so as not to cry in frustration and anger at himself for this mess he had got himself in trying to take off with the bloody thing. Money was the furthest thing from his mind now.
His parents, dad in particular, didn’t care much for West Indians or coloured people in general. Neither did his skinhead mates. Even though most of them listened to The Specials, Selector and other Two Tone groups, who all displayed a style of not only music, but dress, that was a homage to early 1960s Jamaican Ska.
“Bloody wogs come to our country, steal our jobs and bring down the values of the property in the places they go and live. Look what’s become of Brixton!” he’d moan. Not that the boy had much time for his dad. This big black woman had only threatened to give him the back of her hand. His dad had done more than just threaten to give him the back of his hand, on more than one occasion. He was never slow to hand out a slap, a push, a shove or a punch. No, not his old man.
“Tell me, bwoy, what is your name?”
“Adam,” Answered the boy.
“Adam?” She said, her eyes narrowing contemplatively. “You don’t look like an Adam to me. What’s your real name?”
“Oliver,” he said in a small voice looking down at the floral patterned carpet. “Ahrigh, dat’s better. You look like an Oliver. Now, why did you lie to me?”
“Cos I hate that name, everyone always says ‘Please, Oliver can I have some more?’ from that bleedin’ Oliver! or sing that bloody ‘consider yourself one of the family’ song at me to take the flippin’ piss.”
“I won’t have a boy your age use that kind of language in my house,” she said looking sternly at him.
“Ok. Now look I’m going to run a bath for you and we are going to get you nice and clean ok?” her voice had grown much softer and had suddenly lost much of its Jamaican accent. “I don’t want you to be afraid, Ollie.”
He nodded. Nobody had called him Ollie before, well not to his face anyway, but he liked the way she said it. She went into a side room not far from the large kitchen area and he could hear the sounds of a bath being filled.
He got into the hot foamy water and immediately felt a warm, soothing, almost tingling sensation that was so good that he found himself laughing. Mrs Lewiston diligently applied soap to his body and shampoo to his hair. He could not remember the last time he had felt such luxury. The water had turned to an almost purple foam and there was a wonderful fruity smell smokily wafting from it. He closed his eyes in a kind of half-swoon as the water darkened from the dirt that had come off of him. He had never experienced such luxury. Ever. At home they didn’t even have a proper bath, or bathroom even. Just a heavy, iron tub that you had to fill up. And that he often had to get into after his older brother had already been in the same water and an outside toilet that was torture in the winter.
“Here, take this clean towel,” she said after. “It’s getting late, do you want me to call your parents? They must be wondering why you haven’t shown your face for dinner.”
“Nobody’s at home,” he said for the second time. “So, you’re not going to take me to the police station then?”
“I wouldn’t have taken you anywhere with the face you had when you came in. I wouldn’t take you anywhere looking like that,” she said. “Here I am trying to get home to stew, dumplin’ and rice and peas and then there is you trying to snatch my wages from me!…. Something about the look on his face made her pause. She suddenly changed tack. “you eaten child?”
“Not since lunchtime at school,” said the boy.
“Then, we’ll eat,” said the woman. “I believe you must have been crazy with hunger to try to part me from my handbag-”
“I wanted a pair of Doc Martin boots,” said the boy. “All of my mates have got them. Them and a Crombie coat.” He did not tell her how he would often stand outside the shop near his school that sold them with his face sometimes pressed against the window staring at the display within.
“Well, you didn’t have to make off with my handbag to get some new boots now did you?” said Mrs. Lorna Yates Lewiston putting her hands on her hips. “You could maybe have just asked.”
“You what?” He said, wiping his head with the small towel she had given him, looking and feeling thoroughly confused now.
There was a protracted pause as she went rustling about in the kitchen. After he had dried his face and not knowing what else to do, dried both his face and hands again. The back door was open, leading to a kind of side yard that led back out into the street. He could make a run for it down the hall before the men behind those laughing voices upstairs came down and did God knows what to him.
His thoughts of quietly exiting this strange place were interrupted by Mrs Lewiston’s voice.“I was young once too you know; and I also longed for things I could not get.” Mrs Lewiston suddenly remembered a book she had wanted when she was roughly the same age as this little street urchin it was a beautifully illustrated copy of Alladin and other tales from the Arabian Nights. She had gone to that little shop in the market day after day to just stand and stare at it. About a week later her mother finally gave her the money for it. She had rushed to buy it, but it had gone, sold. The shopkeeper had tried to show her other books, but that had only made it worse and she had embarrassed herself by bursting into tears right there in the market after battling to control herself.
The boy felt awkward now. He did not want to hear her going on about what he had done again. He looked at the door and again thought of bolting out into the street.
The woman said, “You think I’m going to tell you about how I didn’t go about trying to rob people. Well, that’s not what I was going to say…. I have done things, too. Things that I would not dream of telling to another soul, not my children or anybody else. So just sit down while I get you a plate.”
Mrs. Lewiston had left her purse, with that envelope with all that cash in it, on the sideboard. She went about her business not checking to see if he was going to do a grab and run job.
Oliver took care to sit at the side of the table furthest away from her bag. He did not want to give Mrs Lewiston a reason to not trust him. And for some reason, he really didn’t want her to mistrust him now.
She put a bottle of a malt drink in front of him. “I have some patties and chicken and rice and peas.”
“That will be fine,” he told her.
“After that we got some carrot and coconut cake.” He was surprised that she did not ask him any questions about himself, his parents, where he went to school or where he lived. Nothing. She did however tell him about her job as a nurse at the hospital and what the people there were like. She told him that she had come over to London from Jamaica in 1956. She never forgot those early years of loneliness and hostility. There was no sadder feeling, she had thought at the time, than of being not wanted and not knowing why. Every year she had told herself that she and her husband and two children would go back soon. But her husband had died two years earlier in 1977 and with that her dreams of going back to Jamaica forever had sort of died with him. Going back home would not be the same without him, and what was home after living in London? Her life was here now with her two grown up kids and her grandchildren. “Here, eat some more,” she said, adding more to his plate as he eagerly ate.
When they had finished eating she got up and went to her purse and took out a twenty pound note “Here, take this and go buy yourself those boots that you like so much. And next time, do not make the mistake of latching onto my nor anybody else’s handbag—because things bought from stolen money have a habit of bringing bad luck to you. I’m going to go sit and watch the TV now, you’re welcome to stay a while longer if you like- Top Of The Pops is on.”
He stayed a while with her watching TV. They both laughed when the singer of one of the pop groups on the show sang a chorus that went, “Nice legs, shame about the face!” “Oh Lord, and they call THIS music!” she said chuckling and scratching her head. Then Bad Manners came on to mime to their latest hit ‘Special Brew.’
“Oh my God, now I done seen it all,” she hollered. “Here we have a big, fat, white man singing like a big ole black man from Jamaica! Lard have mercy on us boy!”
‘I love you yes I do cos I know that you love me to. I love you yes I do gonna spend all my money on you. We’re a pair it’s not fair when they say we’re a special brew!’
Then Buster Bloodvessel got up off his chair and did a comically maniacal dance. Sweat ran down Buster’s face as he moved. His arms swung from side to side as he stuck his tongue out and pulled faces in his maroon pullover. They laughed and laughed and laughed till they had tears rolling down their faces. Ollie even got up and mimicked the crazy dance- which made Mrs Lewiston laugh even more. So he carried on dancing some more because he liked seeing and hearing her laugh. Oliver’s ears had never heard a sound as honest as that laughter.
“This the kind of music you like, Ollie?”
“This is exactly the kind of music I like.”
“I like calypso and gospel myself, but this is good too, reminds me of home.”
By the time Blake’s 7 came on Mrs Lewiston was snoring. None of the men upstairs had come down, though he could still hear their loud happy voices. They seemed to be playing some game like cards or dominoes. He got up, put her handbag by her side and quietly shut the door on his way out.
He bought a pair of Doc Martin boots the next day from Hartex on the Northolt Road. It was the only local shop that sold Fred Perry tops and other such items that skinheads like him coveted. He wanted to go to her house and show her them, but realised that he could not remember the street she lived on. He had, after all, been following her from a bus route he seldom took. After almost an hour of trying to retrace his steps and locate her house he gave up.
He never saw her again, but never forgot the foam and fragrance of that bath.
Nasir Ali Hussain Copyright 20/05/2021