I spent money for the first time at Wassan’s. I shoplifted there. (First and last – peer scorn only outweighed the law until the guilt set in.) I would have delivered papers for them but Aayu Wassan had that covered. Even though he didn’t want to. (Strange world. His burden, my prize.) So I knew them. Saw them more often than some people I was related to. But I didn’t know them. Kids don’t know anyone, do they? Immersed in ‘me’ doesn’t allow that. Too scared, hungry, tired, baffled, excited, shunned, trying, wanting, wishing … empathy’s even more elusive than popularity.
But they were there. Familiar.
Like Old Mr Tenby at number 8 and the Dalventins at 12.
You don’t know when you’re a kid, do you? That things’ll change. That those days are either your best or your worst. That people aren’t just their scowls and smiles. And I was even more unsophisticated than most. Cowed by worry about things that were a waste of my time but seemed then to be the key to paradise. Or out of a wimp’s oblivion, at least.
I see now that my invisibility allowed me to be a spectator where others couldn’t. But blinkered by that juvenile selfishness, I utilised my advantage only when my curiosity was aroused. And that was a haphazard occurrence.
Until the fire.
That event – that didn’t even happen to me – brought enough out into the street that was normally behind closed doors to make we wonder. About the world. About people – adults – and how they can be cruel or clumsy, generous or afraid … and stupid. Mostly stupid.
My parents weren’t high flyers. Some education, good intentions, a few hopes, minimal dreams. But they’d never seemed like idiots. To me, they were – like everyone over eighteen – members of the club. The club of knowledge, authority and freedom. (So clearly, I was the stupid one to have believed they were all so infallible. Until I was eleven.)
And then Wassan’s burned one Wednesday night. And the veil was lifted.
It felt like everything had changed … but not in the way it actually had. It just seemed then as if the world had landed on our doorstep. That crime wasn’t something purely on the news or films or alluded to by big brothers or bullies. The insights about people, about me, came later. But the cards were played then. Seeds planted. Whatever metaphor you choose. And I’ll try and steer clear of the obvious embers, flames, igniting …. Because, as an adult with a modicum of insight, I pathetically strive to be seen as unique. Not one of the masses. An aspiration that probably makes me even more stupid than the average. (Especially since I’m still expending energy and brain cells on futility – what’s the real difference between trying to be one of them and now just trying to be One?) But enough of my hyper-introspection.
It was primarily a newsagency but of course it was much more. Bread, milk, loo paper (things you could run out off that necessitated an immediate restocking), lottery tickets, cigarettes, drinks. And, of course, sweets. Chocolate. Crisps.
My first purchase with my own money – when my grandma had given up on finding out about the current fad fixation for birthday presents and opted for cash – was a bag of chocolate buttons. (Juvenile, basic, but I stand behind the choice now as classic.) The ‘lifted’ item was mundane too, in its own way. A Mars bar. A challenge because of its size but that was the risk of the dare. (Thankfully, my collaborators were happy to consume it … I was so close to vomiting there wasn’t any sense of injustice at having my ill-gotten gains re-snatched.)
So Wassan’s was, perhaps, a blue plaque location in my childhood, though it only seems that now – when nostalgia has set in. When I was eleven, it was just part of the scenery.
And then it burned.
We knew before we set foot outside that day.
Dad professed to having heard fire engines during the night after he had spoken to Old Tenby over the fence during his (failed) morning paper retrieval. When our pathway was bare, Tenby – who didn’t like his paper delivered (“a walk first thing gets the blood circulating”) was able to report that he’d discovered the scene. So there was enough tenuous information and speculation to keep my parents busy enough through breakfast not to check if both of us had done our homework.
Aayu Wassan and his sister Diyaa weren’t at school that day so there were some minor mutterings at morning break. But a fire didn’t seem to have the same caché for the younger generation as it did for the adults (a forensic discussion was unlikely to overtake gobbing, taunting, fighting, … or even maths) so the whole thing had faded before lunchtime.
But as we were walking home, Calvin was suddenly struck with the idea to take a detour to check out the damage. “It’s like a bomb went off!” he said, newly enthused.
“How do you know?” I had been duped by his impressive commitment to lies too many times.
“Murad Shah said,” Calvin’s retort came as he accelerated around the corner. (He was as competitive as he was inventive and not averse to starting a race before the other competitors even knew one was in the offing.)
By the time we got to the burnt out shell, I was sick with exertion. But I had won.
Neither of us could talk and I knew better than to taunt Calvin with my victory. (I’d treasure it later when there were no ramifications to happiness.) The time it took for us to get our breath back allowed us to examine the exterior of the shop. What had been a shop. It was like a cave – black inside every inch with charring around the doorway and smoky scars on the outside walls. The fire had incinerated all the detail – there was just the counter and a shelf or two left to form eerie shapes within the black …
“All right, you two – get off home with you.” A policeman strode beyond the tape barrier and loomed over us.
“We just wanted to see if our friend’s alright,” said Calvin resourcefully. “Aayu Wassan’s in our class and we don’t know if he’s dead or not.”
The policeman’s eyes narrowed. “No one’s dead ‘cos of this, lad … not yet anyway …” The menace in his voice was enough to flatten even Calvin’s bravado. So we left. And parted ways at the end of our street.
Tess, as usual, had her litany of “Apparently …”s throughout tea time. But her tales of midnight raiders or a troupe of vengeful rats making short work of power cables strangely disappeared into the black cave that wouldn’t leave my thoughts. And the fragments of my parents more subdued conversation (building compliance, faulty wiring …) did the same. I just thought of the Wassans and that burnt out shell. How it must have been to wake up in smoke and come down to a flaming barricade between home and the world (even though I knew there was a back door). It just seemed odd to be talking about money and rats when that had just happened. Less than a day before. Around the corner.
“Where are they now?”
They all stopped and looked at me. I hadn’t realised that I’d said it aloud. “What, love?” my Mum enquired, looking more surprised that I’d talked than any of the discussion about a massive fire had elicited.
“Oh … the Wassans – I was just wondering where they are. Are they still living above the shop?”
“They’re at Diyaa’s auntie’s,” Tess blurted smugly, spreading her nugget of information liberally across my parents with a self-satisfied flash of a grin cast briefly in my direction. “On the other side of High Street. Monica and them were going round after school.”
My father addressed my concerns more directly, like a patient translator giving reason to the megalomaniacal ramblings of the kingpin of a rogue state. “They couldn’t stay with possible structural damage, Benny. And the police and insurance’ll still be investigating.”
“Oh,” I said, realising why I usually kept quiet at the table. Eyes could be like beacons shining through your empty spaces to leave a shivering skeleton of historic failures and private yearnings.
“’Course not, BennyPenny,” Tess sneered. “Even your puny weight could make the whole place crumble. ‘Specially if a thought managed to creep into your brain and weigh you down.”
“Tessa!” My mother did try to indicate that abuse wasn’t tolerated but Tess and her 13 year old Gestapo cut their adult molars on insults so there was little respite.
Later, as I brushed my teeth to the vague sounds of a quirky crimebuster attempting to distract my parents from the poll tax and the office politics that housed my father’s anonymous job, I heard snatches of idle conversation that introduced a fresh element to my uncertainty.
“Susan Dalventin was dropping some nasty hints when I saw her in Boots today. Rumours about debts and Rukma Wassan having to take in sewing. She’s the one who’s all careful about language but she’s fine with saying stuff that makes it look like they did it.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing. What do you say? ‘You look at Tenby like he’s dirt when he calls them Pakis, Sue, but maybe you should steer clear of calling them arsonists!’? … I know it’s a cop-out but I don’t want to give her anything to add to her gossiping. She’s all smiley and fighting for people’s rights but when you get down to it …”
As I lay in bed, there seemed no room for relishing my triumph over Calvin with my mind overrun with images of rats, intruders and the Wassans themselves turning a normal shop into an abandoned cave … right there between the tile shop and Maryland Fried Chicken.
And though, over the next few days, so many people seemed to be able to devote brief periods of intensive speculation to Wassan’s before moving on to other aspects of daily living, I continued to feel as if I was under a cloud. And the smell of scorched newsagency clung to my nostrils like a greedy itch.
Aayu Wassan was back at school by the end of the week. I watched him standing in the yard nodding and shrugging at the questions and comments that surrounded him. He grew a little taller with the rare attention and interest. At first. But then he deflated abruptly when a few clusters of rougher boys loomed near and seemed to throw some more pointed comments into the gathering. I saw him later in the corridor and we acknowledged each other. (I still don’t understand the need that girls and women have to talk for ages when you can say it all in a cursory look.) I remember thinking that he looked then like he was waiting for a sniper to take him out or, perhaps not quite that terminal – that he’d been told that an unwanted surprise party was lurking just around the corner. And I, for a second, relished my perpetual invisibility.
It wasn’t until the following week that it seemed even close enough to ordinary to ask him a question. We were working on our timescapes (the art and history teachers seemed thrilled at combining their classes but the enthusiasm hadn’t caught on with those who had to actually construct a scene from historical England out of papier-mâché) and his Plague was next to my Industrial Revolution. He was cutting steel wool into rats and I suddenly heard myself say “Was it rats that did it? Biting through the cables and making sparks?”
He said nothing at first. Then a shrug. “Wouldn’t know. No one tells me nothing.”
I nodded. “Yeah. When my Gran was sick, no one told me. They just said we were going to the pictures instead. Do they think we’re stupid?”
“Must do,” he muttered, looking for the glue. “Or deaf or something.” Then he looked directly at me. “What are they saying? About it. People.”
I felt odd. I wanted to tell him – but it would be like saying they thought his sister was easy or something. (And I knew that wasn’t good – whatever it actually meant – so no one would respond well to hearing that was being bandied about.) “Well, like you said, they don’t talk to me about it. My sister’s all on about rats and burglars and that and some people just say stuff about insurance …”
“Who says that?” He was suddenly tense. I thought I’d kept to the safe stuff, especially about boring inspections and forms.
“I dunno … a few people – why?”
“Cos that’s out of order. That’s fuckin’ out of order … you know?”
I had never heard Aayu Wassan swear. Ever. And during class! No one in my group ever really said “fuckin’”. It was all through the rough ones and the older classes all the time – but not us. Not yet. I was so taken aback that I stuck the Tic-Tac box printing press on upside down.
I caught up to him after school. “Bike gone?” I said redundantly, falling in with his paces.
“They reckon it melted,” he said. “Everything in the downstairs hallway as well as the shop and the storeroom.” He looked around. “Where’s your mate?”
“Oh, Calvin … he got detention. Mrs Shepton heard him telling some kids that she’d got a secret tail so he has to write lines about ‘slander’ or something until she says he can stop.”
“What the point of that?”
“The tail? … I dunno.” (No one bothered to query the futility of school punishment – everyone knew it was just senseless and mean.) “He says all sorts of stuff. It just comes out and he looks like he’s hearing it for the first time like everyone else.”
Aayu smiled slightly.
I waited for a bit as we walked. And then I plunged. “Why’d you get so angry about what I said before? About insurance. That’s just filling in forms explaining what happened, isn’t it?”
Aayu stopped. “No, it’s not. It what people talk about when they’re saying that we did it. That we burnt our own shop so we’d get money. And my Dad wouldn’t do that. So they should shut up about it.” He turned and added determination to his steps to accompany the loaded silence.
I couldn’t disagree. I’d heard people saying those kinds of things so I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t. I knew my Dad wouldn’t burn our place down for money so if Aayu knew his Dad wouldn’t, that just affirmed what I’d already thought.
“Why would people say that? It’s stupid.” I was finding it hard to keep up with the increased pace. “I mean, all your stuff’s gone and you have live with your auntie and there’s all sorts of cleaning and building to be done to get things back to how they were. Why would people think you’d all want to do all that just for money. That you have to spend getting it fixed.”
“’Cos people are racist.”
I knew that word. Who didn’t? It was one of the really ugly ones. But, if I was honest, I didn’t really understand exactly how it worked.
“Because you’re … Pakis?”
“Fuck off, man – I’m no Paki, I’m English, right? And who cares anyway? You’re all faggots and whores!”
‘Fuckin’, ‘faggots’ and ‘whores’. As Aayu sped off across the High Street, I stood for a while, getting bumped by annoyed shoppers before making my way home in a muddled daze.
(to be continued)