By bedtime that night, it had all got too much. I had to ask. So before my Mum turned out the light, I ventured. “Mum, Mr Tenby sometimes calls the Wassans and the Jinnahs Pakis but he doesn’t say it nasty but that’s wrong anyway …”
“Yes,” she interjected, “people used that word in a nasty way for so long that it became something that hurt people no matter how people meant it. So it’s not good to use at all. Ever. And even though the Jinnahs did come from Pakistan, it was Nasir and Samee’s grandparents. Their Mum and Dad were born in Scotland and England. And the Wassans are from India. So there are lots of reasons not to use that word. … You don’t say it, do you?”
“No!” I was mortified that she would think that. I might not have known exactly why it was bad but I had been aware for a long time that it was. And the fact that it had come from my mouth only that afternoon still sat in me like a stone. “So …” I collected myself again to try and find some clues to the puzzle, “… it’s racist … to say it.”
“Mm.” She switched off the light and came over to the bed. “Because it’s saying something nasty about someone because of their race.”
“Because they’re brown?”
For a moment, it felt as if I’d punched a hole in the darkness. But before too long, her voice came again, with a quiet calm to match the lighting. “Yeah. That’s it, a lot of the time. … Your race is to do with the place your family comes from but people who look different get it a lot. … Are you worried about this for a reason?”
“I’m not worried,” I lied, because it seemed as if that would be something that would lead to an uncomfortable investigation. Or long unwanted conversations at times not of my choosing. “I just wanted to check.”
“Who’s saying Pakis?” she asked, with too much interest.
“No one. Just Tenby … Mr Tenby … sometimes. And the older ones at school say lots of things.”
“Well, they shouldn’t. And you shouldn’t listen. Or think that you can say any of that.”
“I don’t!” More indignation. Did she not know me? I must be invisible even to her. But then … that afternoon … perhaps I wasn’t who I thought I was …
“Good. Now go to sleep. We’ve got to leave early tomorrow to get Tess’s project to school.”
The next time we went past Wassan’s, nothing much had changed. We had to catch a bus from the stop opposite on Lawlors Road and, even though I wanted to look at normal things as if the fire hadn’t happened, there wasn’t anywhere else to look.
The big black hole didn’t seem quite as black as it had been with the last things inside now gone but there was nothing new except a few tradesmen’s ladders. And the police tape outside was flapping unpleasantly in the breeze – like whips or menacing cobras. Or hungry dragons’ tongues.
“They’re probably never coming back,” Tess prodded, her own tongue hissing too close to my ear. “They won’t get the money to fix it ‘cos old Wassan did it himself.”
“Did not!” Unfortunately my shout was a reaction – a loud one – that contrasted the sly nudging of my sister’s whisper.
“Ben! … For goodness sake – don’t shout at your sister!”
“But Mum …” I looked at Tess whose glare was daring me to continue. But my sense of injustice won out over the possible repercussions. “Tess says that Mr Wassan did the fire. And he didn’t! He wouldn’t do that!”
My mother’s frown turned to her firstborn. “Tessa Sarr! Did you say that?”
“Loads of people are!” the defence came. “They owed money …”
“You don’t know that and you shouldn’t be talking about it anyway! That is horrible gossip, Tess. And gossip’s as bad as lies. Most of the time, it’s the same thing. … I was going to say we could have McDonald’s after the dentist but you certainly don’t deserve that now!”
The punch into my shoulder was to be expected. I had to use my other arm to pull myself up onto the bus. And even though I sensed us driving away and leaving crispy hot nuggets and chips behind us on the pavement, I actually felt a tentative warm feeling inside. Even though my sister’s scowl indicated I was up for some more punishment later.
That night something woke me up. A creak, a rattle. My feet tangled in the sheets. An ache in my shoulder. So I got up to go to the loo. In the hallway, I stopped. There were voices coming from Tess’s room. I took a few steps closer.
She was crying. Big tough Tess was crying. I heard my Mum’s calm tones, the way they would be when I’d had a nightmare. Tess wouldn’t have nightmares, though – she caused them but she didn’t have them.
I leant towards the slightly open door.
“I know that … but I can’t say it,” Tess was saying through gulps for air. “They wouldn’t be my friends if I told them they were wrong.”
My mother’s voice was a soothing murmur.
“Yes, I do!” Tess replied adamantly to whatever reasonable insight had been proffered. “I didn’t have any friends when I first went there and that was horrible. I don’t want to be by myself all the time again. … And they’re the ones everyone wants to be friends with, anyway. … and not everyone can … you just don’t understand!” The strange sobs came again – so alien that I was repelled back to my bedroom, forgetting the reason for leaving in the first place. I sat on the bed and slid my feet under the covers to find the still-warm patch before enfolding the cooled top sheets back on top of me. A strange contrasting mixture. My sister.
So I went to sleep with yet another puzzle sitting uneasily in my brain. And no real solutions for anything that had nagged at me since the fire.
“Right then, Ben, you’d be up for making a bit of extra pocket money … only a bit, though – you should be thanking me for giving you the chance to do a bit of physical exercise for once. Why don’t you come over and you can break up the dead branches from the elm in my back garden and get the pieces tidied into bin bags.” Mr Dalventin’s bark over the fence had the vocabulary of a question but not the intonation. And all I’d been doing was trying to extract my Tamagotchi from the hedge after it had been dispatched through the window by my sister (by daylight, restored to her villainous self). The Tamagotchi was a source of ongoing stress. My heart had sunk when I’d opened my Christmas present from my parents. A plastic game is not a puppy but I knew that I’d feel like a murderer if I didn’t ensure the upkeep of my virtual pet. It was an albatross around my neck … even though it looked more like a cross between a rabbit and a poodle.
But back to Mr Dalventin … he only spoke to me when he had a job to be done that anyone in double digits would have turned their nose up at for the price on offer. Otherwise, he and his wife would talk over my head to either or both of my parents as if I didn’t exist. In almost every way, I preferred the latter.
My Dad appeared in the doorway. “Course he will, won’t you, Benny?” I think my Dad’s eyebrows were telling me to get it over with and that maybe he might help me because he wanted to shut up Mr Dalventin as much as I probably did … but that might be too complex for two caterpillars of facial hair to communicate. And anyway, I couldn’t let it be thought that I was always open to these kinds of commands from over the fence.
“But Dad …”
“Kids … always arguing,” critiqued Mr Dalventin, rolling his eyes. “Don’t know how lucky they’ve got it.”
“C’mon, Benny … I’m sure Mr Dalventin will give you more than the going rate. He was telling me only yesterday how well things were going in the city so he’s just wanting to spread that good fortune around, aren’t you Roger? Very generous. Ten quid an hour’s probably what you’re thinking, isn’t it? Or am I short-changing my own son with a low estimate there?”
“What? Er … no … well … ten pounds … fine … “ The scowl on Mr Dalventin’s face and the grin on my Dad’s as he turned to go back inside slightly muted the dread of an afternoon of hard labour. As did the boost to my paltry two pounds a week pocket money. “Come on then – get yourself over here then and I can start to get my money’s worth.”
Later that afternoon as I was making my way down the Dalventin’s path with yet another bag full of twigs, I heard a voice from two doors down.
“You’ve put in some manful work there, young Ben. Quite the arborist now, are you?”
“What? I mean … pardon, Mr Tenby?”
“A tree expert.”
“Oh … no, I’m not at all. I’m just getting rid of the old branches from the Dalventin’s tree.”
“Going to sell them for firewood then? That’d be a canny enterprise.”
“But it’s spring, Mr Tenby. No one wants firewood in spring.”
“No one with foresight, young man. But the careful planner would snap up a good deal. The squirrel doesn’t wait for winter to get hold of his nuts.”
I ‘squirreled’ away that line for Calvin. A richly ambiguous use of the word ‘nuts’ could get him laughing so much that he dribbled. Thankfully though, in the moment, I was able to push the gurgle in my throat down and respond to my neighbour’s suggestion. “Well, Mr Dalventin wanted me to just put them with the bins to get collected.”
“Seems to me that would be a waste of good fuel … and a good business opportunity. But I suppose stockbrokers just deal with numbers in the air, don’t they? Not practical salesmen of the real world, it would seem.”
“Well, where would someone sell firewood … if they wanted to?”
“Hmmm … well … if you – they – were to home deliver, it could be quite an attractive prospect to some of my vintage. Not everyone has the wherewithal to carry bundles of firewood easily, so … I might be able to line up some buyers at the Pensioners’ Centre … for a fair tradesman. And there’d be a few of the lads from my days at Smithson’s who are still around who wouldn’t pass up the chance to stock up for the winter.” He looked pointedly at me. “You’d need to bundle them properly, mind. Manageable sized pieces, tied up tight. …” His eyes narrowed. “Tell you what, it’s a two man job … and I’ve got enough on my plate with being your liaison. Why don’t you partner up with the young Wassan boy …”
“My friend Calvin could …”
“Ah, but is Calvin the man for fun or the man for work? … that’s what I’d be asking. I’ve known a few in my time who I’d seek out for their company but they wouldn’t be the ones to get their heads down when some graft was needed. Our young Paki friend’s got delivery experience. And his old man would expect efficiency – keen businessman, industrious – so young Wassan’d be the one I’d be collaborating with … you think about it.” He turned to go, but threw his final words casually over his shoulder as he headed up the path. “Oh, and you can store those bags in my back shed for two weeks before I take full ownership. If I happen to see you down there sorting and bundling in the meantime, I might bring you some squash if I’m making myself some. … Who knows? Might even have some names and addresses of a few fireplace enthusiasts by then …”
The door closed behind him. And I’d gone from almost finishing one neighbour’s dirty work to immersed in some kind of ongoing business with the other.
And so I found myself about to push my unwanted attention yet again on Aayu Wassan – this time, though, suggesting he endure hard labour alongside me and my new business mentor, Old Man Tenby.
“Alright … when do we start?”
I couldn’t believe it. After all my mental rehearsal and dealing with Calvin’s repeated efforts to be cut in without having to undertake packaging or delivery tasks, Aayu didn’t need any convincing at all.
“Uh … are you sure?”
“’Course,” he said. “My auntie’s place is brutal, man … and my Mum won’t let me leave unless it’s school or somethin’. So doing some kinda shit that’ll turn some cash is my ticket out.”
Had Aayu Wassan always talked like he was from some slick U.S. telly programme? I wasn’t sure. Perhaps his older cousins currently had him immersed in the colourful vernacular from one of the many crime dramas I wasn’t allowed to watch. Or maybe the trauma of the fire had made him tougher … older … American. Anyway, he was in. So plans that I had never had were all falling into place.
Aayu and I worked pretty well together. We got a system going – first, sorting the wood into three basic sizes, then creating even piles for bundling and then he’d hold and I’d tie – he had bigger hands and the Industrial Revolution had got me used to precision work. We didn’t talk much. Why would we?
“20p a bundle, 50 for three would be the kind of price a genuine customer’d be looking to pay,” our advisor commented when he dropped into his shed with the promised refreshments. Aayu and I looked at each other and shrugged. It seemed reasonable. As had all the guidance Tenby had imparted. “And here’s a list of customers – all agreed at that price.” Another glance between the labourers seemed to bond us over the good-natured railroading we were benefitting from. As he left with his tray, Tenby gave his final directive. “They’re expecting delivery within the week, boys. And I’m expecting my shed to be empty by next Monday too. … Just so you know.”
“Bossy old bastard,” Aayu muttered with a smile, once Tenby’s back door was finally closed.
“He’s just helping,” I justified, weakly.
“I know,” Aayu sighed. “He gave my Dad three month’s paper money in advance yesterday. And he knows he won’t get anything from us for ages. … Said he can wait ‘till the shop’s up and running again.“
We both looked up towards the house. Although we were predominantly bemused, I imagine now that we may have been exhibiting as much respect as two juveniles could ever have painted on their guarded, surly faces.
Nothing was simple anymore.