The first two sections of this piece were printed in the book, Totem.
I was on the train last week, a 45-minute stretch from Uxbridge to King’s Cross, with my little pink iPod as my only companion. I walked through the long mirroring carriages toward the front of the train. I always wonder why single riders choose to sit on the seats for groups of 4, but I still find myself sitting there every time a space is available.
“The next station is Ruislip Manor” echoed down the old Metropolitan line train as it started to slow to a stop.
A man, who looked Arabic to me, stepped aboard and decided to sit on the seat diagonal to mine. He was smartly dressed in a fresh white shirt, stone grey trousers and black dress shoes. His socks were black with hot pink polka dots on them. We occasionally shared eye contact but something about him intimidated me. He looked like that model that Kourtney Kardashian is dating, so maybe it was just that he was good-looking. You know in that odd, you-don’t-know-if-they’re-hot-but-they-are way? Usually people stare because they are either trying to figure out what I am (a boring old Indian) or how my lip got busted (I fainted – nothing overly interesting unfortunately, but a great icebreaker).
As the journey went on, I made a conscious effort to avoid looking in his direction although I could feel him looking into mine. Typing away to friends on my phone didn’t work and I didn’t realise I was dancing along with Miguel until he was looking my way with the beginnings of a smile upon his caramel coated face.
“This is Rayner’s Lane.”
This is where everything happened so quickly.
People got up and bade farewell to the train whilst a few stepped into the carriage. I love to people watch in London, everyone is so interesting. Families were dressed in cohesion for a day out in Central and two old women, dressed to the nines, sat down to read The Evening Standard after eyeing me. A Black man got onto the train and walked a few steps looking for a seat.
At the same time, my flimsy, yellow handbag was on the seat so I picked it up and placed it on my lap to hug for the remainder of my travel and silently indicate the seat beside me was free.
Simultaneously, the human caramel picked up his laptop case from between his legs and placed it on his lap – inserting his hand into the handle and leaving it to rest on his wrist. Seeing me moving also, he looked at me and smiled and I smiled back contagiously.
I wish I didn’t smile now. For the rest of the train ride, I was deeply concerned that I had just taken part in a racist incident. Did this Arab think I was moving my bag because I thought it would be stolen? Was that what it looked like? Did he think I was of the same background as him and we could share in this demeaning joke, like family?
That’s exactly what it seemed to be to me. I sat there staring out the window and refusing to look in the racist’s direction. Who did he think he was to try and pull me into the black mass of racism? Did he not realise that brown people have to deal with it too and therefore, we should – oh, I don’t know – show each other a little bit of support and tenderness?
Every story of every racist event I’ve ever been told came tra…il…ing through my mind. Some people are so arrogant it’s unreal. Others are just plain stupid, with a side of more stupidity.
My sister once visited Newcastle with her friends and was called ‘naan bread’. Really? Is that the best you can do, Sir? Besides, what’s a curry without a good ol’ naan anyway? I bet you get them every Saturday night after football or when you’re watching X Factor with the ‘Mrs and little ones’. I’m sorry, was that a racial stereotype? My bad.
After hearing someone ask me a bit about arranged marriages, a girl in my class said to me “Oh, Aladdin finally makes sense.” I didn’t have the calmness to explain that Aladdin is Muslim and that despite us being the same skin tone or use of wrapping fabrics around our heads, Sikhism and Islam are not the same religion.
Racism is something that is engraved within us. We are taught how to be racist. Look at headlines and everything in the news at the moment.
Notice how in many schools, children are educated on mainly on Christianity and Hinduism, but very rarely any other religion.
We ridicule people because of the colour of their skin. Put two babies together and they won’t know the difference. It’s us, the adults, that teach them who are ‘better’.
“This station is Kings Cross St Pancras. Please exit for The British Library and St Pancras International.”
I got off at my stop but that did not make my head stop thinking for even a fraction of a second. In my disappointment of this tiny yet telling event, I found myself walking at an increased rate and not even aware that I was still listening to music until a child screaming hurled me back to reality.
The train is 3 minutes late which means I am now 3 minutes late for a meeting again. Finally, it’s starting to pull in. I really do not know what it does at Uxbridge.
“This is Ruislip Manor.” There looks like there’s seats.
The girl diagonal to me keeps staring. I knew I shouldn’t have shaved, I wonder what my clients will think. Everyone gets a bit squeamish when they see a brown, bearded guy get on the train so, why am I still being judged? No, I am not going to bomb the tube. I’m just trying to get to work.
She’s not wearing makeup, the staring girl, I can tell you that for a fact. Are those contacts? I really don’t understand why all these young girls think they have to plaster themselves in gunk, change their hair and eye colour and wear next to nothing anymore. I don’t want to think of the day my little Princess Jasmine starts wanting to wear the shit.
I wonder if I just laughed out loud. Have you ever done that in public? Had a funny thought and laughed aloud. My wife is still a Disney girl at heart and beams with pride that there is an Arab princess. Of course, as soon as we had the ultrasound – Jasmine was named without us even seeing if she looked like anyone else.
This girl is singing and dancing now. I am always intrigued when people are miming to themselves. What are they singing? I can’t keep up with all this new music anymore. I’m still into the good oldies and I’m not even that old. The 90s will always be the best decade musically though. All this new guns, gangs and gangster music is just angry noise in your ears.
“This is Rayner’s Lane.”
Feet left and entered the train, including that of a young black chap – easily in his mid-twenties. This brings back so many old memories. Now I’m not racist but black people and myself just do not get along.
I was about 25 myself, I’m 29 now and not getting any younger, when I saved a girl from being robbed by a black man on the way to the tube station. I was walking home from the shisha café, yes I am a cliché – haha! very funny, when I heard the damsel in front of me scream. Glancing up quickly, I notice a silhouette escaping with her expensive looking bag. My immediate instinct was to bolt after him and retrieve what was hers. I grabbed him by his puffed out, beige jacket and yanked him back by his hood. He was jolted back into my right arm but his grip never gave out on the bag. He argued and ruffled a bit more until the girl had caught up with us and stood sniffing a few pavement stones behind me as a protective shield.
I went home happy that day that I helped out a young lady, even if all she had in there was a fake Louis Vuitton purse, some hand sanitizer, old tissues and a condom. I had saved her like Clark Kent would and stopped that black guy from going through with a crime. Since that day I don’t trust one though. That’s why now this guy is on the train and could possibly sit opposite me, and next to the staring girl (she’s still here), I need to keep a very tight grip onto my laptop. Jasmine spilt cereal all over the other and now I’m using my wives with none of my files on it. If something happens to this, I will be belligerent believe you me.
Oh, the staring girl moved her bag as well. Maybe she understands to keep your things away from these people. Good girl, she’s been raised right.
“The next station is Euston.”
Is that the time already? What a quick journey. Better grab my laptop and get ready for this big meeting.
Oh, fuck. The clients black.
“Shall we just get an Addison Lee?”
“No no, dear. The station is only around the corner.”
Debbie and Mary-Beth made their way down Imperial Drive to Rayners Lane station for the 4:03pm train to Liverpool Street. Both elder ladies were finely dressed in their most expensive garments. Debbie wore her black evening midi dress with nude stockings, thick black kitten heels and a longline black fur coat. Her ears were home to chunky pearl earrings and she had Christmas-red lipstick smeared across her baggy lips. Mary-Beth wore her famous blue floral patterned white dress and a navy blazer with her petite navy leather gloves that Johnny had given her for their Wedding Anniversary.
“Oh dear, I can’t seem to find my Oyster card Mary.”
“It’s in your hand, you mad cow!” Both women chuckled and trotted their way through the barriers and down the steps to Platform B.
** STAND BACK TRAIN APPROACHING **
“Here it comes, Debra!”
“I know, I can see too you know.”
They were getting on when a black young man beside them stopped and allowed them to get in before him. What a sweet boy. They sat down after removing The Evening Standard from their seats to begin their journey. They gawked simultaneously at the young brown skinned guy and girl opposite them. Maybe they were a couple. Brown people are like that, aren’t they? The girls are married off to the older men, poor things. Both were clung to their belongings as if they were protecting it with their lives.
Strange those ethnic people. You hear about the animal sacrifices they make in their countries, the human trafficking and Debbie’s friend even got food poisoning from the local Curry House once. She was in bed for days.
The two archaic women did not have to look nor speak to one another to share in their judgement. This man was probably taking advantage of this girl. She had green eyes, was wearing hardly any makeup and they both kept exchanging tense smiles. Something was certainly going on. Maybe they had met on Tweetbook.
Oh, is it Facebook? Mary-Beth’s granddaughters had just constructed her a profile so she could keep up with them whilst they attend university in Sheffield. She was immensely proud and never failed to boast about them whenever she could. The two little ladies were getting older and were not as robust as they once were. Monthly suppers on Liverpool Street were all they had to look forward to now.
“This is Euston.”
The brown man got off but the green-eyed girl stayed on. Maybe they didn’t know one another after all.
“This station is Kings Cross St Pancras. Please exit for The British Library and St Pancras International.”
The ethnic girl stood as the train started to slow into the station and picked up her bags to head to the doors. She looked so small so it was awfully strange seeing her without an escort. Debbie reminisced back to the time she went to her daughter’s house for a glass of white wine and to watch Sex in the City 2, she could have sworn Carrie Bradshaw and the girls were required to have an escort in Abu Dhabi. That reminded her:
“Didn’t your Josh go to Abu Dhabi, Mary?”
Mary-Beth looked up from her paper and her turquoise blue tassel earrings swung back into her, greying, mouse brown hair.
“Yes, dear. He came back not long ago actually and bought all sorts of presents for us all. He even met a girl out there.”
“An Asian girl?”
“No. She is Italian and was there for some sort of exchange programme with university. I’ll show you a picture, she is quite something.”
Mary-Beth pulled out an iPhone 4 from her suede bag and held it a good 30 centimetres from her face. She tapped fiercely with her pale fingertips, getting apps wrong and tutting along the way. Finally, she found the photo of her beloved grandson and his new girlfriend and shoved their love right into Debbie’s face.
Looks like a little Sicilian lemon tart to me, thought Debbie. But she smiled graciously and let Mary have her moment of pride. Little did she know, Debbie’s grandson is graduating in July and the other just passed his driving test. At least Josh didn’t come home saying he’d met an Indian girl. It would be extremely difficult for Debbie to accept that.
The Singhs across the street are always making so much noise and having arguments. Don’t even ask Debbie about the amount of cars they have when their family visits from all over the world. The food is great though. The samosas, chicken tikka masala and even the onion bhajis are just divine. Sometimes there’s nothing better than a gool ol’ Indian on a Saturday night, is there?
But, there’s a story in Mary-Beth’s paper about terrorism and the man in the main picture is wearing a turban towel around his head. All that thinking Asians were decent people was too good to be true after all.
Tall, Dark and Handsome
Le’s start off plain and clear, yeah? Nah, I’m not even gonna put it in words y’know. I’mma show you real quick. More than that, I’m gon’ show you in colour – just so you get it.
So you see init? This is how this world works. This Donald Trump shit. This whole new generation of slaves shit. No wonder Kanye so mad.
Did you really think that’s how I speak? Maybe sometimes. Maybe with mandem. But nah, that’s not me all the time. I damn made sure I listened in school, got them grades and made something of myself. But, that’s what society doesn’t want to see – a Black man succeeding, winning, achieving.
But it’s okay when you wanna listen to Jay-Z and Drake? When you wear a Kobe jersey? When you support Lewis Hamilton in the Grand Prix. Look in the mirror, ‘cause you be looking like some Prix yourself. Were you smart enough to get the word play? My little brother can’t say Prix. Doesn’t understand it’s a French thing so he walks around on race days shouting a curse word.
Sometimes I get mad at this world. For not seeming to understand the struggle. For romanticising slavery. 12 Years a Slave? Is that it? Only 12? Do you know how long my ancestors struggled? No. The movie won awards and bought attention to an issue decades later but did you white kids care about it back then, when you would whip a black man for jokes?
Didn’t think so.
Nowadays, every other kid wants to be black. Girls are wearing darker foundation or whatever it’s called. Guys are bustin’ out on the street in Timbs and playing Kendrick Lamar in their Corsas. They call me ‘bro’, ‘blud’, ‘bredrin’. Nah, we ain’t brethren. (Are you surprised I knew the origin? Shakespeare my guy.) Talkin’ about how they want to go to Notty Hill Carnival for the ‘big batty tings’ and asking if my Mum can make them some jollof rice. Make it yourself, you racist prick.
This is why I get so confused when people are racist. You want to be something so badly, yet you are ashamed of it so you have to cuss us and make us feel like pigs just because our skin is darker.
The girls at my high school would be like that. They would sneak out of their fancy big houses with 9 windows on its face and a BMW or two parked outside. They’d come school in uniform but quickly run to the bathroom to put on makeup, braid their hair and put on red checked shirts, only ever doing the top button. Some girl in my Science class, Leila, came in a grill once. Man had gold teeth in Biology. Everyone was laughin’ and clapping for her. I felt like clapping her ‘round the head. But, you don’t do that to women.
My Mum was abused. My Dad left us when I was 6 and my brother Jaden was 4. I walked in on them fucking once, I didn’t realise until a few years ago that when a woman’s screaming ‘Get off me’ from the top of her lungs – it’s rape. She used to put makeup on over the puffy bruised bits of her face but it just looked like melted ice cream dripping onto moss.
We had moss growing in our house. Dad didn’t give her any money for us kids so, we couldn’t afford heating and proper water. My bedroom was like a jungle, it was like some animal with mud on its tongue had licked every corner. We struggled. She would leave the water running for all three of us to shower. Jaden in then out, then me in and out, then her. I think she was scared that if she risked turning it off, we wouldn’t be cleaned for a few days again.
I’ve always got ill quickly and it is probably because of our living conditions. I took every other day off of school and to be fair, the teachers new life was difficult so they didn’t put up fights with Mum as time went on. I couldn’t stand being home in a nasty smelling, cold house and my Grandma chats so much shit y’know. I ended up at the library instead because it was warmer and no one bothered me. That’s where I met Fernando; well his name is actually Franky or Fred, or some basic white name, but I liked Fernando better.
I walked in one day and he was sitting crying in the kids section. He went school with me and was pretty good at basketball. I was confused seeing a guy my age, fifteen then, reading books for youts. He saw me walking over and quickly wiped his face with his sleeve but his eyelashes were pushed out and were all wet and like, hugging each other. I asked him what was up and he was just vexed he couldn’t read a book his little sister could read. He told me about his dyslexia and I felt pretty bad. I mean, I didn’t read or anything but at least I knew that I could if I ever wanted to.
I started to go through letters with him after that. Letters turned to words and words turned into books. 11 years later and he’s even writing his own stuff now. He’s quite good. It made me happy knowing I was helping him and being a better man than my Dad was. I never thought about making it into a career until Fernando’s Mum gave me £20 as a thank you. I went home and told Jaden to put his shoes on to come to the chippy with me. The responsibility and the happiness I got was like a high.
So, now I teach children with learning disabilities. I run classes from the same exact library and Fernando comes in every month for writing classes. I make sure I still show the kids that I’m a normal guy like them. I wear joggers sometimes and hoodies. They still respect me ‘cause I’m their teacher.
I travel everyday on the same Met line train from Rayners Lane and still laugh to myself when people kind of look at me funny or flinch when I sit next to them. I’m just a young guy tryna do some good. Let me be, bro.
What the bystanders (or ‘Byseaters’ because it’s a train and people sit) are thinking:
Hurry up, driver. I’m late.
Really? Another screaming baby?
I am mad horny right now.
Should’ve packed the leftovers for lunch.
Fuck, I left the door unlocked.
I swear I know that girl.
Can you approach someone on a train and hit on them though?
La la la la la.
He is hot. I’m freezing.
I needed milk, bread and noodles.
So many appointments and not enough time.
I need a holiday.
Are we there yet?
Oh my God, I’m on the wrong train.
I should’ve updated my iPod.
Her shoes are fab.
I miss him so much.
Seriously, are we there yet?
It would be a good idea to start writing down everything I see on the trains. It’d make for an awesome story.