The Summer of Dust

  • 20 Mar - 26 Mar, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

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 carpet less 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 forehead. I felt her tense–up but she did not resist and kept her head on my arms for long.

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 talked to her very gently about how beautiful she was 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 itÊwasÊme? 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 girl friend 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.

to be continued...