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The Summer of Dust
By David Gardiner
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With a pang of envy I leave my wife still sleeping and shower and dress silently, skipping breakfast so that I can arrive early to work as planned. The list of new students should be in today. There’s going to be a lot of administration before I can give any thought to my opening lecture.
I log in to the University e-mail system. Yes, the list is there. But before I click on it I notice another e-mail from someone with the first name Balgeet. Seeing the name gives me a little jolt – like a shot of electricity going through my body. Ridiculous, I tell myself, after all these years. It’s probably a very common name in the Punjab. My finger hovers above the left-hand button on the mouse but does not descend. I lift my eyes and see the dust motes drifting in the shaft of light from beneath the window blind. The empty office fades from my vision. I am lost in a reverie, back in that tatty two-bedroom flat in Southall almost forty years ago…
I was a student, not long off the boat from Belfast, away from home for the first time, adrift in a culture that I had only seen on television, crippled by deep-seated feelings of provincial inferiority.
My place of study, an imposing Victorian building near Richmond-on-Thames, had been built by the last heiress of a fabulously wealthy family of slave traders as a sop to her conscience. Everything about it was pretentious and overblown: the pseudo-Grecian pillared entrance hall festooned with portraits of the great and the good who had passed through it, the oak panelled corridors, the dimly-lit classrooms and laboratories with high windows so that nothing distracting could be seen, the huge semi-circular lecture hall with stepped terraces of polished wooden seating descending to the formal dais and entire wall of blackboards and screens at the front. What this building said to me was: You aren’t good enough to be here. This institution is not for the likes of you. You are scum. Go away to a concrete-and-glass monstrosity in some ugly industrial city. That’s where you belong.
I tried not to listen.
In our first year we were allowed to live on campus, in one of the Halls of Residence – five storey red brick outbuildings, tastefully positioned behind high trees so that their bland functionality would not detract from the grace of the main building. Inside, female floors and male floors were alternated as in a layer cake, each Hall overseen by a constitutionally grumpy resident warden whose main task was to prevent leakage between the layers. Nevertheless, such mixing was rife.
Friendless at first, I gravitated towards those I saw as fellow outcasts – the Jamaicans, the half dozen or so students from the African Commonwealth, fellow Celts from Scotland and Wales, and of course the largest outcast group of all, the second generation children of the immigrants from the Indian subcontinent.
I became obsessed with one Indian girl in particular: bright, energetic, sociable, with flawless features and a smile that at first reduced me to an inarticulate wreck, but also with an underlying sadness about her that never fully went away. I stalked her shamelessly for the whole spring term, changing my study options so that I could sit in the same classes, following her to the canteen, carrying her tray, offering to help her with her essays and assignments, leaving single red roses in her pigeon hole, telling her that I thought she looked fabulous and wanted her to have my babies. By the beginning of the long summer holidays I had more or less broken down her resistance.
The College rules said that in the second year each student had to find his or her own accommodation off the campus, and my beautiful Balgeet agreed that we should look for somewhere together. It wasn’t a declaration of love or even of intimacy, but I think we both understood the direction in which things were going. I knew nothing of her community or her religion – what the rules were for contact between men and women – to me she simply seemed unimaginably exotic, and I felt like the luckiest man in the world to have got as far as I had. But beyond that she might as well have been a Martian. It became a joke between us – me calling her huge extended family the Martians.
The speed with which Balgeet came up with somewhere to live was amazing. She had an uncle (indeed she seemed to have an infinite supply of uncles) who was in the property letting business. His name was Raj but he preferred to be known by the English translation, King. King Estate Agency notice boards were planted in the front gardens of a huge number of run-down terrace houses in the Southall and Greenford areas. They included the phrase “DHSS welcome”, an invitation to those on state benefit and a clear indication of the socioeconomic group of King’s customer base.
This landscape was familiar to me. This was simply another Belfast, one in which the people had brown faces. They were all Martians in disguise of course, but it was easy to forget.
King was a big blustering man with a laugh to make the windows rattle. He wore Western dress, but with an impressive white beard combed upwards and disappearing into a bulging cream turban. He extended a huge hand to Balgeet when he first met us outside the agreed address, down a back street behind Southall Railway Station. “How is my cleverest niece today?” he boomed, shaking her hand vigorously. “And you too,” he added, grasping mine and squeezing it with painful force. “Danny, isn’t it? Welcome to Southall!” He unlocked the front door and ushered us in through a hallway strewn with flyers and circulars for kebab houses and Indian sweet-shops, up a short carpetless staircase and through a landing door that separated the upstairs flat from the rest of the building.
“This is a very fine flat,” he assured us with unnecessary loudness. “All it needs is a little bit of paint and a new carpet. Maybe one or two very minor repairs. But we can come to an agreement about all that. There are two good-sized bedrooms, and you’re right beside the railway station. You can be in College in fifteen minutes, door to door.” I thought that was an exaggeration but let it go.
The sight that greeted us was one of squalor and neglect. The carpet was worn through and filthy beyond description, one of the bedroom doors looked as though it had been kicked in, and there were great areas of plaster missing from the walls and ceiling, revealing the ancient wooden laths underneath. Worst of all there was a filthy mattress almost filling the floor of the tiny kitchen alongside a pile of decaying garbage and empty bottles where one or more tramps had obviously created a home at some time in the past. “There were squatters for a few months,” King explained jovially, “but we got them out. It’s just a bit of surface dirt. Half an hour’s work and you won’t know the place.”
I could hold back no longer. “You don’t really expect us to live here, do you Mr King? To pay rent and live here?”
His smile broadened. “No – I won’t ask for rent. Not for the moment anyhow. All I ask is that you put a little bit of work into the place. A little bit of tender loving care. It won’t cost either of you a penny,” he continued with regal aplomb. “Everything will be provided. Paint. Plaster. Carpets. Underlay. Nails. Filler. Even kitchen units and basic furniture. Anything you need. By the end of the summer you can have this place like a palace, all at my expense, and it won’t have cost you a thing. The least I can do for my favourite niece.”
My instincts about King’s deal were not good, but whatever the future held for us it was at least a future that included Balgeet, and that was enough to make everything alright. I had no special handyman skills but I could learn. We could do it – we could make this work. I caught her eye and gave her a wink. The exquisite goddess smile flickered across her face for a moment and we both knew that the decision had been made.
We moved in that same evening. The first thing we had to do was buy some light bulbs at the corner shop, because all of them had been removed. Only one of the rooms looked even remotely habitable. We spoke little as we cleared out as much of the junk as we could onto the paved front yard, ready for throwing in the skip that King had promised would arrive “in just a day or two”. Everything we tried to do created suffocating clouds of dust, so that even though the flat began to look superficially cleaner the air thickened to the point where we had to go out into the front yard ourselves to keep from choking.
We stood there, linking arms in the failing light, our clothes and hair covered in dust, our hands and faces filthy, the flat still nothing short of disgusting, no bathplug even if we could get the bath clean enough to use, the kettle and gas stove in the kitchen our only source of hot water for a wash. And what I felt was elation, perfect happiness, a sense of closeness to Balgeet and of shared destiny that might have taken months to achieve without this massive common task to draw us together. Balgeet relaxed into my arms and I kissed her very lightly on the lips. I felt her tense-up but she did not resist.
There was one serviceable double mattress and we lay on it together that night, fully clothed, with rolled-up overcoats as pillows. After a little while Balgeet snuggled up to me and I embraced her very gently until I fell asleep. I couldn’t have been happier. It was only when the sun came up that I saw the tracks of the tears down her dusty face. I felt an overwhelming tenderness but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Of course I wanted to ask her what was wrong, was it me or was it the dust, or was it something else entirely? But what if it was me? What if she told me the very thing I couldn’t bear to hear? Cowardice won out and I just let it go and told her I would try to make breakfast.
I determined that I would get to know her better first, find out what to do or say to make her happy – the truth is that I never did. But at least for a time things got a lot better.
We spent the next few days emulating the slaves whose labour had paid for our College, getting the absolute basics into place. We bought a bathplug and managed to get the gas boiler to light and give us hot water. We borrowed a vacuum cleaner from Balgeet’s younger girlfriend and unspecified relation Surinder who lived nearby, and paid several visits to King at his estate agency premises with lists of the other things we needed. He was quick to promise but painfully slow to deliver. There was always “just a small problem” that meant it would take a day or two longer to get the paint, or the chairs or the curtain rails or whatever it was that we asked for. On the other hand he was very keen to know how much progress we had made with the clean-up. Had we lifted the carpet in the bedroom yet? Had we made a start on the damaged plaster? Had we got the door of the smaller bedroom to close properly? Had we done anything with the wash-hand-basin that had come away from the bathroom wall? The truth was we had done very little except clean the place up to the extent that you didn’t get dirt on your hands every time you touched anything. Our priorities were not the same as King’s. For one thing we were almost out of money. One or other of us needed to get a job. Rent might be free but food wasn’t.
Sleeping on the double mattress together, more or less fully clothed, became part of our routine. When Balgeet washed or dressed she did it very modestly, wrapping enormous lengths of colourful sari material around herself, always closing and bolting the door of the smaller bedroom where she dressed and kept her personal things. I could feel my frustration building, I knew that sooner or later my almost unbearable lust was going to become an issue.
But on the day that she got her job, Balgeet surprised me. Maybe I mean that she shocked me. Yes, that’s closer to the truth.
I was attempting to plaster over one of the big sections of exposed laths on the corridor wall, and the wretched stuff just kept falling off again on to the dirt-coloured remains of the carpet. I had obviously made the mixture too wet. Balgeet came running up the stairs, through the open door at the top, and flung her arms around me as she had never done before. “I’ve got a job,” she announced proudly. “I’m a receptionist in a travel agency run by one of my uncles. Tell me I’m a clever girl.”
“You’re a clever girl,” I laughed. “Just how many uncles have you got?”
“All Martians are officially my uncles. And I have even better news.” She produced something small and silvery from her shoulder bag. “Do you know what these are?”
I looked at them and could hardly believe what I was seeing. “Those are…well, I think they’re birth control pills…”
“That’s right. And you may notice that I’ve already taken the first five. As from now, I am officially On the Pill. I want to seduce you. Wash your hands first – and your teeth. I’ll wait for you in the bedroom.”
It was one of those moments when you need to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. I wasn’t. She’s a Martian, I thought to myself. Got to be a Martian.
For the remainder of that summer I had very little to complain about. I could put it more strongly and say that those were probably the happiest few weeks of my life. Balgeet exceeded all my fantasies as a lover. There was no limit to the pleasure she could give to both of us, or to the depth of the tenderness that she left me with when I was utterly spent. Just the memory of lying with her in my arms afterwards, and feeling her heartbeat next to my skin, can still bring tears to my eyes when I think about it. In the daytime I wanted to hold her hand all the time, to maintain physical contact, touch any part of her that was available. I really couldn’t leave her alone. I don’t think I’ve ever been like that with anybody else.
I got through the work very quickly. After a bit of experimentation I became a minimally competent plasterer. My greatest triumph was getting the beastly stuff to stick to the ceiling, against all the laws of Newton and Einstein. The trick was to do it in very thin layers, allowing each to almost dry before applying the next. I got a book out from the library that explained how to get a proper flat surface. My work wasn’t perfect but it was acceptable and I was immensely proud of it.
We did all the making-good and decorating before lifting the carpets, so that plaster and paint could be free to drip to their heart’s content. King supplied industrial-size buckets of a paint called “magnolia”, which he wanted on every plastered surface, be it wall or ceiling. He said that it looked clean and tidy and prospective tenants found it inoffensive. It reminded me that our time in the flat would one day run out.
Beneath the carpets the rubber underlay had metamorphosed into a dry black dust that got everywhere. I shovelled it into bin-bags while Surinder’s vacuum cleaner ran continuously to keep the airborne particles to a minimum. Balgeet’s job kept her busy for the whole working day, including Saturdays, so I did most of the work alone and tried to have the place habitable in time for her return each evening.
Surinder visited often, and she and Balgeet chatted in their own language. I found this a little bit excluding but I didn’t comment. I could tell that they were very close – I think I even felt a slight pang of jealousy. King visited occasionally too, to see how the work was going. He was loud and domineering and laughed a lot, but I sensed that he liked Balgeet and wouldn’t let her come to any harm. Balgeet treated him respectfully – he seemed to be an important man in the Sikh community.
As we entered the last week of our summer recess, with most of the work complete and the place looking very respectable, I noticed that Balgeet was opening up to me less and less. We were still talking, but our conversation had somehow become superficial. The sadness seemed to have surfaced once again, and the balance in our sex life shifted towards the tender holding rather than anything more active.
I told myself it was the stress of having to go back to College, books to be read, summer assignments to be written-up and handed in, new routines to be established – a return to the pressures of academic work. But in my heart I think I knew that wasn’t it. Something else was wrong. Something that Balgeet couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about.
Anxiously, my hand shaking slightly, I lower my finger and click the mouse. The e-mail opens and I begin to read:
Sorry, I suppose I should call you Professor Conroy. I got your e-mail address off the College website. Your picture was there too so I knew it was you. I have to tell you though, you have changed a bit. So have I. I’m glad my picture isn’t on any website.
It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?
I think the most upsetting aspect was that Balgeet didn’t tell me herself, she left it to Surinder, who made a special afternoon visit so as to get me on my own – although of course I would have been devastated however the news had been delivered. I can’t remember much of what she said because my mind went numb and stopped processing information after her first couple of sentences. I just remember that she asked me to sit down and her opening words were: “There’s been a change of plan.”
A change of plan? Whose plan? Who makes these plans? The whole family I suppose. The whole damn Sikh community in secret conclave. The Martian Council.
Surinder and Balgeet had the entire event choreographed. Balgeet walked through the door just as Surinder finished her speech. They sat down side by side on the second-hand sofa that King had given us, and for a long time nobody said a word.
“I’m sorry,” Balgeet said at last.
Sorry? Was that all she was going to say? I couldn’t take it in. My head was reeling. “You’re going back to India to marry somebody that you haven’t even met?” She didn’t answer. “Which of us is crazy? Is it me or you?”
“Our families are different,” Surinder said very quietly. “Things aren’t like they are in England. It’s all…different.”
I looked Balgeet straight in the eye. She didn’t flinch. “Okay, maybe I’m not very important to you. A pleasant little summer diversion. But you’ve completed one year of a three year degree course. You have far better grades than me, you can have a great future here. You can do anything you want to. The world is at your bloody feet. Who is this man who’s worth throwing it all away for? Tell me about him.”
Surinder hesitantly answered for her. “He’s just a man. His family is good, but poor.”
“What does he do for a living?” I couldn’t believe that I was being so cool and rational. I don’t think I was feeling anything much at that moment. My emotions had temporarily shut down. They would open for business again later.
“He’s just a worker.” Balgeet answered this time. “A worker in the building trade. An honest man.”
“You’ve got four ‘A’ levels,” I whispered. “You’re probably in the top three or four students in your whole year group. You’re headed for a first. And he works in the building trade?”
This time I saw tears beginning to form in the corners of Balgeet’s eyes. There was nothing there but the sadness now, everything else was gone.
Balgeet didn’t say any more. She stood up and left the room. She didn’t even say goodbye. Surinder took over the conversation. “It isn’t like England,” she repeated, as though that made everything clear.
“How can a builder be good enough for an honours student like Balgeet? Tell me. How?”
It took Surinder a long time to reply. When she did her voice was so faint I could barely make out the words. “Balgeet…isn’t a virgin.”
That was something I could certainly confirm. “And that matters, does it? That makes a difference?”
“Yes. In our culture it makes a big difference.”
Although I can’t have been thinking very straight I could see right away that there was something skewed about all this. Something that didn’t make sense. “Are you blaming me? Did Balgeet tell you that she was a virgin before she met me? Is that what she said?”
“No. Balgeet hasn’t been a virgin for a long time…I don’t think I should be talking about this.”
“Don’t you? Well I think I have a right to some kind of explanation.”
“I’m sorry but that’s all I can tell you. May I go now?”
“No, you damn well may not! I think I’m beginning to see what’s going on here. I’m actually part of this plan, aren’t I? King wouldn’t have put the two of us together in this place if he thought…That’s it, isn’t it? I’m the evil white man who seduced the poor little innocent Indian girl and stole her virginity. I probably took it by force. There was nothing she could do about it, was there?”
Surinder did not answer but I could see that she understood what I was saying.
“What really happened? Who was it? Was it somebody in the family? How long ago? Tell me the real story, Surinder. I can take it. I’m doing the goddamned family a favour. I think I have a right to know, don’t you?”
“You’ve got it completely wrong,” she said quietly. For a long time we just looked at one another. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to tell me anything more.
“And what about you?” I asked, as calmly and gently as I could. “Are you going to marry a builder’s labourer in some godforsaken Punjabi village when they tell you to? Is that all you have to look forward to?”
“I am not like Balgeet,” she whispered.
“What does that mean? Hymen intact? Undamaged goods? Hoping for a doctor or a lawyer…or maybe an estate agent? Top caste totty. They could auction you off at the Lahore cattle market. Never know what you might fetch.”
She stood up to go. I didn’t try to stop her. “Why don’t you put up a fight?” She turned away from me and walked towards the door. “Why don’t you do something? Why do you let them treat you this way?” I realised that I was shouting and lowered my voice a little. “Even your name sounds like ‘surrender’.”
My anger was spent. I turned back to the empty couch. “Martians,” I blurted out in a voice that was now choking up. “Bloody Martians, the whole damned lot of them.”
I remained in the chair after she had gone, watching the dust motes slowly descending through the shaft of sunlight from the kitchen window. Then I realised I was not alone. King had presumably been waiting on the landing. I stood up and turned to face him in total disbelief. He closed and locked the door and motioned me to sit down. I opened my mouth to speak but no words came.
“Mr Danny,” he began, speaking more quietly than I had ever heard him speak before, “I don’t normally discuss family business with anybody, but I believe that you are a good man, and out of respect I will try to answer your questions.”
I sank back into my seat and he flopped onto the centre of the couch, his bulk almost filling it.
“Nobody has forced Balgeet to do anything,” he began. “This marriage is a way of giving her back her good name. It restores her respectability. It means she becomes a member of this community again. I’m talking about other people now, in my eyes Balgeet has never been anything but a wonderful girl.”
At last I found my voice. “I want you to tell me,” I said coldly. “I want to know…” I couldn’t use the word but King knew what I meant.
“How she lost her virginity? You think very badly of us, Mr Danny. No, it wasn’t anybody in the family. In her early teens she went a little bit wild. Yes, just like any other teenager. Just like a British teenager. Pop music and discos and strong drink. Contraception on demand even if you’re under age. All-night parties and god knows what kind of drugs getting handed around. Our community is no better at coping with those things than yours is, Danny. Does that surprise you?”
“I…suppose it shouldn’t…”
“No, it shouldn’t. Everything is coming apart, the whole world is changing for everybody. Maybe good things will come out of it, I don’t know. Maybe there will be love and peace. Maybe your generation won’t have to fight a World War like my generation did. I can’t see into the future. All I can do is try to hold things together right now, while we’re waiting, and try to stop people from getting hurt.”
“And…you say that Balgeet really chose this marriage…I can’t believe that. How could such a thing be?”
“This way, Balgeet keeps her options open. If she wants to turn her back on this community in the future she can. We won’t try to stop her. We’re not Martians, Danny – or monsters. Bad things do happen in our community and sometimes we’re stubborn and bigoted, but we don’t treat our women like cattle. You’re wrong about that.”
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, “I shouldn’t have said that.” He dismissed it with a wave.
I tried to understand the enormity of what had happened. “She could come back to England with this husband, couldn’t she?”
“Of course she could, if that’s what they decide to do.”
I watched him closely. “But you don’t think that’s going to happen, do you?”
“Anything could happen. They might divorce. Or they might live perfectly happy in India. The point is, now she has the choice. She can decide whether she wants the Western ways, or our ways. The time is coming when we’ll all have to make that choice. All I did was lay out the options, as honestly as I could.”
He paused but I could think of nothing to say.
“About your rent – there is none. Our arrangement continues until you want to move on. Don’t thank me for that. It was Balgeet’s idea. We can’t refuse her anything, either of us, can we?”
You must know by now that you were my last little fling before I settled down. Every girl is allowed one of those, isn’t she? At least that was what I wanted it to be, but it got a little bit out of control.
I’m really sorry for hurting you. I know that I did. I don’t think I realised back then that men have feelings too. Even Western men. What chance has a Martian of understanding an earthling?
I can tell you about my life in a couple of sentences. It has been very simple, very ordinary. I still have the same husband and we have three girls. It’s funny, most Indian men want boys, but my husband only ever wanted girls, and that’s what we’ve got. King was right, he’s a good and honest man. And his plastering is a little bit better than yours.
I never finished my degree. I suppose I could have, but other things just got in the way and I never did.
And that brings me to my reason for writing. My youngest daughter is going to your College to study Information Technology. It’s the big thing over here, everybody wants to get qualified. Her name is Asha. She’s very like I was back then, so I wanted to ask you not to seduce her.
Only joking – I want to ask you to look after her, like King looked after me. Will you do that for me, Uncle Danny?
I was going to end with ‘love’ but that wouldn’t be appropriate for a respectable married Indian lady, would it? So I’ll just say that not one day of my life has gone by without thinking about you, and I don’t suppose one ever will.
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