In this wrought-iron world of crisscross cause and effect, could it be that the hidden throb I stole from them did not affect their future? Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov ii The Miseducation of Irie Jones
There was a lamp-post, equidistant from the Jones house and Glenard Oak Comprehensive, that had begun to appear in Irie's dreams. Not the lamp-post exactly, but a small, handmade advert which was sellotaped round its girth at eye level. It said:
LOSE WEIGHT TO EARN MONEY
081 555 6752
Now, Irie Jones, aged fifteen, was big. The European proportions of Clara's figure had skipped a generation, and she was landed instead with Hortense's substantial Jamaican frame, loaded with pineapples, mangoes and guavas; the girl had weight; big tits, big butt, big hips, big thighs, big teeth. She was thirteen stone and had thirteen pounds in her savings account. She knew she was the target audience (if ever there was one), she knew full well, as she trudged school wards mouth full of doughnut, hugging her spare tyres, that the advert was speaking to her. It was speaking to her. lose weight (it was saying) to earn money. You, you, you, Miss Jones, with your strategically placed arms and cardigan, tied around the arse (the endless mystery: how to diminish that swollen
enormity, the Jamaican posterior?), with your belly-reducing knickers and breast-reducing bra, with your meticulous lycra corseting the much lauded nineties answer to whalebone with your
elasticated waists. She knew the advert
was talking to her. But she didn't know quite what it was saying. What were we talking about here? Sponsored slim? The earning capacity of thin people? Or something altogether more
Jacobean, the brain-child of some sordid Willesden Shylock, a pound of flesh for a pound of gold: meat for money'?
Rapid. Eye. Movement. Sometimes she'd be walking through school in a bikini with the
lamp-post enigma written in chalk over her brown bulges, over her various ledges (shelf space for books, cups of tea, baskets or, more to the point, children, bags of fruit, buckets of water), ledges genetically designed with another country in mind, another climate. Other times, the sponsored slim dream: knocking on door after door, butt-naked with a clipboard, drenched in sunlight, trying to encourage old men to pinch-an-inch and pledge-a-pound. Worst times? Tearing off loose,
white-flecked flesh and packing it into those old curvaceous Coke bottles; she is carrying them to the corner shop passing them over a counter; and Millat is the bindi-wearing, V-necked corner
shopkeeper he is adding them up, grudgingly opening the till with blood-stained paws, handing over the cash. A little Caribbean flesh for a little English change.^
Me Jones was obsessed. Occasionally her worried mother cornered her in the hallway before she slunk out of the door, picked at her elaborate corsetry, asked, "What's up with you? What in the Lord's name are you wearing? How can you breathe? Me, my love, you're fine you're just built like an honest-to-God Bowden don't you know you're fine?"
But Me didn't know she was fine. There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Me, without reflection. A stranger in a stranger land.
Nightmares and daydreams, on the bus, in the bath, in class. Before. After. Before. After. Before. After. The mantra of the make-over junkie, sucking it in, letting it out; unwilling to settle for genetic fate; waiting instead for her transformation from Jamaican hourglass heavy with the sands that gather round Dunn
11The Miseducation of Irie Jones -1
River Falls, to English Rose oh, you know her she's a slender, delicate thing not made for the hot suns, a surfboard rippled by the wave:
Mrs. Olive Roody, English teacher and expert doodle-spotter at distances of up to twenty yards, reached over her desk to Irie's exercise book and tore out the piece of paper in question. Looked dubiously at it. Then inquired with melodious Scottish emphasis, "Before and after what?
"Er .. . what?"
"Before and after what?"
"Oh. Nothing, Miss."
"Nothing? Oh, come now, Ms Jones. No need for modesty. It is obviously more interesting than Sonnet 12.7."
"Nothing. It's nothing."
"Absolutely certain? You don't wish to delay the class any more? Because .. . some of the class need to listen to nae, are even a wee bit interested in what I have to say. So if you could spare some time from your doooodling '
No one but no one said 'doodling' like Olive Roody.
'and join the rest of us, we'll continue. Well?"
"Can you? Spare the time?"
"Yes, Mrs. Roody."
"Oh, good. That's cheered me up. Sonnet 127, please."
"In the old age black was not counted fair," continued Francis Stone in the catatonic drone with which students read Elizabethan verse. "Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name."
Me put her right hand on her stomach, sucked in and tried to catch Millat's eye. But Millat was busy showing pretty Nikki Tyler how he could manipulate his tongue into a narrow roll, a flute.
Nikki Tyler was showing him how the lobes of her ears were attached to the side of her head rather than loose. Flirtatious remnants of this morning's science lesson: Inherited characteristics. Part One (a). Loose. Attached. Rolled. Flat. Blue eye. Brown eye. Before. After.
"Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black, her brows so suited, and they mourners seem .. .
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun Puberty, real full-blown puberty (not the slight mound of a breast, or the shadowy emergence of fuzz), had separated these old friends, Me Jones and Millat Iqbal. Different sides of the school fence. Me believed she had been dealt the dodgy cards: mountainous curves, buck teeth and thick metal retainer, impossible Afro hair, and to top it off mole-ish eyesight which in turn required bottle-top spectacles in a light shade of pink. (Even those blue eyes the eyes Archie had been so excited about lasted two weeks only. She had been born with them, yes, but one day Clara looked again and there were brown eyes staring up at her, like the transition between a closed bud and an open flower, the exact moment of which the naked, waiting eye can never detect.) And this belief in her ugliness, in her wrongness, had subdued her; she kept her smart-ass comments to herself these days, she kept her right hand on her stomach. She was all wrong.
Whereas Millat was like youth remembered in the nostalgic
eyeglass of old age, beauty parodying itself: broken Roman nose, tall, thin; lightly veined, smoothly muscled; chocolate eyes with a reflective green sheen like moonlight bouncing off a dark sea; irresistible smile, big white teeth. In Glenard Oak Comprehensive, black, Pakistani, Greek, Irish these were races. But those with sex appeal lapped the other runners. They were a species all of their own.
"If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head
She loved him, of course. But he used to say to her: "Thing is, people rely on me. They need me to be Millat. Good old Millat. Wicked Millat. Safe, sweet-as, Millat. They need me to be cool. It's practically a responsibility."
And it practically was. Ringo Starr once said of the Beatles that they were never bigger than they were in Liverpool, late 1962. They just got more countries. And that's how it was for Millat.
He was so big in Cricklewood, in Willesden, in West Hampstead, the summer of 1990, that nothing he did later in his life could top it. From his first Raggastani crowd, he had expanded and developed tribes throughout the school, throughout North London. He was simply too big to remain merely
the object of Irie's affection, leader of the Raggastanis, or the son of Samad and Alsana Iqbal. He had to please all of the people all of the time. To the cockney wide-boys in the white jeans and the coloured shirts, he was the joker, the risk-taker, respected lady killer. To the black kids he was fellow weed-smoker and valued customer. To the Asian kids, hero and spokesman. Social
chameleon. And underneath it all, there remained an ever present anger and hurt, the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere. It was this soft underbelly that made him most beloved, most adored by Irie and the nice oboe-playing, long-skirted middle-class girls, most treasured by these hair-flicking and fugue-singing females; he was their dark prince, occasional lover or impossible crush, the subject of sweaty fantasy and ardent dreams .. .
And he was also their project: what was to be done about Millat? He simply must stop smoking weed. We have to try and stop him walking out of class. They worried about his 'attitude' at sleep overs, discussed his education hypothetically with their parents (Just say there was this Indian boy, yeah, who was always getting into .. .), even wrote poems on the subject. Girls either wanted him or wanted to improve him, but most often a combination of the two. They wanted to improve him
until he justified the amount they wanted him. Everybody's bit of rough, Millat Iqbal.
"But you're different," Millat Iqbal would say to the martyr Irie Jones, 'you're different. We go way back. We've got history. You're a real friend. They don't really mean anything to me."
Irie liked to believe that. That they had history, that she was different in a good way.
"Thy black is fairest in my judgement's place
Mrs. Roody silenced Francis with a raised finger. "Now, what is he saying there? Annalese?"
Annalese Hersh, who had spent the lesson so far plaiting red and yellow thread into her hair, looked up in blank confusion.
"Anything, Annalese, dear. Any little idea. No matter how small. No matter how paltry."
Annalese bit her lip. Looked at the book. Looked at Mrs. Roody. Looked at the book.
"Black?... Is?... Good?"
"Yes .. . well, I suppose we can add that to last week's contribution: Hamlet?... Is?... Mad?
Anybody else? What about this? For since each hand hath put on nature's power, Fairing the foul with art's false borrow'dface. What might that mean I wonder?"
Joshua Chalfen, the only kid in class who volunteered opinions, put his hand up.
"Yes," said Mrs. Roody, looking close to orgasm. "Yes, Joshua, that's it. What about it?" "She's got a dark complexion which she's trying to lighten by means of make-up, artifice. The Elizabethans were very keen on a pale skin."
They would've loved you, then," sneered Millat, for Joshua was pasty, practically anaemic, curly-haired and chubby, 'you would have been Tom bloody Cruise."
Laughter. Not because it was funny, but because it was Millat putting a nerd where a nerd should be. In his place.
"One more word from you Mr. Ick-Ball and you are out!"
"Shakespeare. Sweaty. Bollocks. That's three. Don't worry, I'll let myself out."
This was the kind of thing Millat did so expertly. The door slammed. The nice girls looked at each other in that way. (He's just so out of control, so crazy ... he really needs some help, some close one-to-one personal help from a good friend .. .) The boys belly-laughed. The teacher
wondered if this was the beginning of a mutiny. Irie covered her stomach with her right hand.
"Marvellous. Very adult. I suppose Millat Iqbal is some kind of hero." Mrs. Roody, looking round the gormless faces of 5F, saw for the first time and with dismal clarity that this was exactly what he was.
"Does anyone else have anything to say about these sonnets? Ms Jones! Will you stop looking mournfully at the door! He's gone, all right? Unless you'd like to join him?"
"No, Mrs. Roody."
"All right, then. Have you anything to say about the sonnets?"
"Is she black?"
"Is who black?"
"The dark lady."
"No, dear, she's dark. She's not black in the modern sense. There weren't any .. . well, Afro-Carri-bee-yans in England at that time, dear. That's more a modern phenomenon, as I'm sure you know. But this was the i6oos. I mean I can't be sure, but it does seem terribly unlikely, unless she was a slave of some kind, and he's unlikely to have written a series of sonnets to a lord and then a slave, is he?"
Irie reddened. She had thought, just then, that she had seen something like a reflection, but it was receding; so she said, "Don't know, Miss."
"Besides, he says very clearly, In nothing art thou black, save in thy deeds .. . No, dear, she just has a dark complexion, you see, as dark as mine, probably."
Irie looked at Mrs. Roody. She was the colour of strawberry mousse.
"You see, Joshua is quite right: the preference was for women to be excessively pale in those days. The sonnet is about the debate between her natural colouring and the make-up that was the fashion of the time."
"I just thought .. . like when he says, here: Then will I swear, beauty herself is black , .. And the curly hair thing, black wires'
Irie gave up in the face of giggling and shrugged.
"No, dear, you're reading it with a modern ear. Never read what is old with a modern ear. In fact, that will serve as today's principle can you all write that down please."
5F wrote that down. And the reflection that Irie had glimpsed slunk back into the familiar darkness. On the way out of class, Irie was passed a note by Annalese Hersh, who shrugged to signify that she was not the author but merely one of many handlers. It said: "By William
Shakespeare: ODE TO LETITIA
AND ALL MY KINKY-HAIRED BIG-ASS BIT CHEZ
The cryptically named P. K."s Afro Hair: Design and Management sat between Fairweather
Funeral Parlour and Raakshan Dentists, the convenient proximity meaning it was not at all
uncommon for a cadaver of African origin to pass through all three establishments on his or her final journey to an open casket. So when you phoned for a hair appointment, and Andrea or Denise or Jackie told you three thirty Jamaican time, naturally it meant come late, but there was also a chance it meant that some stone-cold church-going lady was determined to go to her grave with long fake nails and a weave-on. Strange as it sounds, there are plenty of people who refuse to meet the Lord with an Afro.
Irie, ignorant of all this, turned up for her appointment three thirty on the dot, intent upon transformation, intent upon fighting her genes, a headscarf disguising the bird's nest of her hair, her right hand carefully placed upon her stomach.
"You wan' some ting, pickney?"
Straight hair. Straight straight long black sleek flick able toss able shakeable touchable finger-through-able wind-blow able hair. With a fringe.
Three thirty," was all Irie managed to convey of this, 'with Andrea."
"Andrea's next door," replied the woman, pulling at a piece of elongated gum and nodding in the direction of Fairweather's, 'having fun with the dearly departed. You better come sit down and wait and don' bodder me. Don' know how long she'll be."
Irie looked lost, standing in the middle of the shop, clutching her chub. The woman took pity, swallowed her gum and looked Irie up and down; she felt more sympathetic as she noted Irie's
cocoa complexion, the light eyes.
"Pale, sir! Freckles an' every ting. You Mexican?"
"Half Jamaican. Half English."
"Half-caste," Jackie explained patiently. "Your mum white?"
Jackie wrinkled her nose. "Usually de udder way roun'. How
curly is it? Lemme se what's under dere -' She made a grab for Irie's headscarf. Me, horrified at the possibility of being laid bare in a room full of people, got there before her and held on tight.
Jackie sucked her teeth. "What d'you 'spec us to do wid it if we ky ant see it?"
Me shrugged. Jackie shook her head, amused.
"You ain't been in before?"
"What is it you want?"
"Straight," said Me firmly, thinking of Nikki Tyler. "Straight and dark red."
"Is dat a fact! You wash your hair recent?" "Yesterday," said Me, offended. Jackie slapped her up-side her head.
"Don' wash it! If you wan' it straight, don' wash it! You ever have ammonia on your head? It's like the devil's having a party on your scalp. You crazy? Don' wash it for two weeks an' den come back."
But Me didn't have two weeks. She had it all planned; she was going to go round to Millat's this very evening with her new mane, all tied up in a bun, and she was going to take off her glasses and shake down her hair and he was going to say why Miss Jones, I never would have supposed .. . why Miss Jones, you're "I have to do it today. My sister's getting married."
"Well, when Andrea get back she going to burn seven shades of shit out of your hair an' you'll be lucky if you don' walk out of here with a balled. But den it your funeral. Ear," she said thrusting a pile full of magazines into Irie's hands. "Dere," she said, pointing to a chair.
P. K."s was split into two halves, male and female. In the male section, as relentless Ragga came unevenly over a battered stereo, young boys had logos cut into the back of their heads at the hands of slightly older boys, skilful wielders of the electric trimmers. ADIDAS. BADMUTHA.
MARTIN. The male section was
all laughter, all talk, all play; there was an easiness that sprang from no male haircut ever costing over six pounds or taking more than fifteen minutes. It was a simple enough exchange and there was joy in it: the buzz of the revolving blade by your ear, a rough brush-down with a warm hand, mirrors front and back to admire the transformation. You came in with a picky head, uneven and coarse, disguised underneath a baseball cap, and you left swiftly afterwards a new man,
smelling sweetly of coconut oil and with a cut as sharp and clean as a swear word.
In comparison, the female section of P. K."s was a deathly thing. Here, the impossible desire for straightness and 'movement' fought daily with the stubborn determination of the curved African follicle; here ammonia, hot combs, clips, pins and simple fire had all been enlisted in the war and were doing their damnedest to beat each curly hair into submission.
"Is it straight?" was the only question you heard as the towels came off and the heads emerged from the drier pulsating with pain. "Is it straight, Denise? Tell me is it straight, Jackie?"
To which Jackie or Denise, having none of the obligations of white hairdressers, no need to make tea or kiss arse, flatter or make conversation (for these were not customers they were dealing with but desperate wretched patients), would give a sceptical snort and whip off the puke-green gown. "It as straight as it ever going to be!"
Four women sat in front of Irie now, biting their lips, staring intently into a long, dirty mirror, waiting for their straighter selves to materialize. While Irie flicked nervously through American black hair magazines, the four women sat grimacing in pain. Occasionally one said to another,
"How long?" To which the proud reply came, "Fifteen minutes. How long for you?" "Twenty two. This shit's been on my head twenty-two minutes. It better be straight."
It was a competition in agony. Like rich women in posh restaurants ordering ever smaller salads.
Finally there would come a scream, or a "That's it! Shit, I can't take it!" and the head in question
was rushed to the sink, where the washing could never be quick enough (you cannot get ammonia
out of your hair quick enough) and the quiet weeping began. It was at this point that animosity arose; some people's hair was 'kinkier' than others', some Afros fought harder, some survived. And the animosity spread from fellow customer to hairdresser, to inflicter of this pain, for it was natural
enough to suspect Jackie or Denise of something like sadism: their fingers were too slow as they worked the stuff out, the water seemed to trickle instead of gush, and meanwhile the devil had a high old time burning the crap out of your hairline.
"Is it straight? Jackie, is it straight?"
The boys arched their heads round the partition wall, Me looked up from her magazine. There was little to say. They all came out straight or straight enough. But they also came out dead. Dry.
Splintered. Stiff. All the spring gone. Like the hair of a cadaver as the moisture seeps away.
Jackie or Denise, knowing full well that the curved African follicle will, in the end, follow its
genetic instructions, put a philosophic slant on the bad news. "It as straight as it ever going to be. Tree weeks if you lucky."
Despite the obvious failure of the project, each woman along the line felt that it would be different for her, that when their own unveiling came, straight straight flick able wind-blow able locks would be theirs. Me, as full of confidence as the rest, returned to her magazine.
Malika, vibrant young star of the smash hit sitcom Malika's Life, explains how she achieves her loose and flowing look: "I hot wrap it each evening, ensuring that the ends are lightly waxed in African Queen Afro Sheen(tm), then, in the morning, I put a comb on the stove for approximately '
The return of Andrea. The magazine was snatched from her hands, her headscarf
unceremoniously removed before she could stop it, and five long and eloquent fingernails began to work their way through her scalp.
"Ooooh," murmured Andrea.
This sign of approval was a rare-enough occurrence for the rest of the shop to come round the partition to have a look.
"Oooooh," said Denise, adding her fingers to Andrea's. "So loose."
An older lady, wincing with pain underneath a drier, nodded admiringly.
"Such a loose curl," cooed Jackie, ignoring her own scalded patient to reach into Trie's wool.
"That's half-caste hair for you. I wish mine were like that. That'll relax beautiful."
Irie screwed up her face. "I hate it."
"She hates it!" said Denise to the crowd. "It's light brown in places!"
"I been dealing with a corpse all morning. Be nice to get my hands into somefing sof'," said Andrea, emerging from her reverie. "You gonna relax it, darling'?"
"Yes. Straight. Straight and red."
Andrea tied a green gown round Irie's neck and lowered her into a swivelling chair. "Don't know about red, baby. Can't dye and relax on the same day. Kill the hair dead. But I can do the relax for you, no problem. Should come out beautiful, darling'."
The communication between hairdressers in P. K."s being poor, no one told Andrea that Irie had washed her hair. Two minutes after having the thick white ammonia gloop spread on to her head, she felt the initial cold sensation change to a terrific fire. There was no dirt there to protect the scalp, and Irie started screaming.
"I jus' put it on! You want it straight, don' you? Stop making that noise!"
"But it hurts!"
"Life hurts said Andrea scornfully, 'beauty hurts."
Me bit her tongue for another thirty seconds until blood appeared above her right ear. Then the poor girl blacked out.
She came to with her head over the sink, watching her hair, which was coming out in clumps, shimmy down the plug hole
"You should have told me," Andrea was grumbling. "You should have told me that you washed it. It's got to be dirty first. Now look."
Now look. Hair that had once come down to her mid vertebrae was only a few inches from her head.
"See what you've done," continued Andrea, as Me wept openly. "I'd like to know what Mr. Paul King is going to say about this. I better phone him and see if we can fix this up for you for free."
Mr. Paul King, the P. K. in question, owned the place. He was a big white guy, in his mid fifties, who had been an entrepreneur in the building trade until Black Wednesday and his wife's credit card excesses took away everything but some bricks and mortar. Looking for a new idea, he read in the lifestyle section of his breakfast paper that black women spend five times as much as white women on beauty products and nine times as much on their hair. Taking his wife Sheila as an archetypal white woman, Paul King began to salivate. A little more research in his local library uncovered a multi-million pound industry. Paul King then bought a disused butcher's on Willesden High Road, head hunted Andrea from a Harlesden salon, and gave black hairdressing a shot. It was an instant success. He was amazed to discover that women on low income were indeed prepared to spend hundreds of pounds per month on their hair and yet more on nails and accessories. He was vaguely amused when Andrea first explained to him that physical pain was also part of the process. And the best part of it was there was no question of suing they expected the burns. Perfect business.
"Go on, Andrea, love, give her a freebie," said Paul King, shouting on a brick-shaped mobile over the construction noise of his new salon, opening in Wembley. "But don't make a habit of it."
Andrea returned to Irie with the good tidings. "Sail right, darling'. This one's on us."
"But what' Irie stared at her Hiroshima reflection. "What can you '
"Put your scarf back on, turn left out of here and go down the high road until you get to a shop called Roshi's Haircare. Take this card and tell them P. K."s sent you. Get eight packets of no. 5 type black hair with a red glow and come back here quick style."
"Hair?" repeated Irie through snot and tears. "Fake hair?"
"Stupid girl. It's not fake. It's real. And when it's on your head it'll be your real hair. Go!"
Blubbing like a baby, Irie shuffled out of P. K."s and down the high road, trying to avoid her reflection in the shop windows. Reaching Roshi's, she did her best to pull herself together, put her right hand over her stomach and pushed through the doors.
It was dark in Roshi's and smelt strongly of the same scent as P. K."s: ammonia and coconut oil, pain mixed with pleasure. From the dim glow given off by a flickering strip light, Irie could see there were no shelves to speak of but instead hair products piled like mountains from the floor up, while accessories (combs, bands, nail varnish) were stapled to the walls with the price written in felt-tip alongside. The only display of any recognizable kind was placed just below the ceiling in a loop around the room, taking pride of place like a collection of sacrificial scalps or hunting trophies.
Hair. Long tresses stapled a few inches apart. Underneath each a large cardboard sign explaining its pedigree:
1 Metres. Natural Thai. Straight. Chestnut.
2 Metre. Natural Pakistani. Straight with a wave. Black. 5 Metres. Natural Chinese. Straight. Black.
3 Metres. Synthetic hair. Corkscrew curl. Pink.
Me approached the counter. A hugely fat woman in a said was waddling to the cash till and back again to hand over twenty-five pounds to an Indian girl whose hair had been shorn
haphazardly close to the scalp.
"And please don't be looking at me in that manner. Twenty-five is very reasonable price. I tell you I can't do any more with all these split ends."
The girl objected in another language, picked up the bag of hair in question from the counter and made as if to leave with it, but the elder woman snatched it away.
"Please, don't embarrass yourself further. We both have seen the ends. Twenty-five is all I can give you for it. You won't get more some other place. Please now," she said, looking over the girl's shoulder to Me, 'other customers I have."
Me saw hot tears, not unlike her own, spring to the girl's eyes. She seemed to freeze for a moment, vibrating ever so slightly with anger; then she slammed her hand down on the counter, swept up her twenty-five pounds and headed for the door.
The fat lady shook her chins in contempt after the disappearing girl. "Ungrateful, she is."
Then she unpeeled a sticky label from its brown paper backing and slapped it on the bag of hair.
It said: '6 Metres. Indian. Straight. Black/red."
"Yes, dear. What is it I can do?"
Me repeated Andrea's instruction and handed over the card.
"Eight packets? That is about six metres, no?"
"I don't know."
"Yes, yes, it is. You want it straight or with a wave?"
"Straight. Dead straight."
The fat lady did a silent calculation and then picked up the bag of hair that the girl had just left.
"This is what you're looking for. I haven't been able to package it, you understand. But it is absolutely clean. You want?"
Me looked dubious.
"Don't worry about what I said. No split ends. Just silly girl trying to get more than she deserves.
Some people got no understanding of simple economics ... It hurts her to cut off her hair so a million pounds she expects or something crazy. Beautiful hair, she has. When I was young, oh, mine was beautiful too, eh?" The fat lady erupted into high-pitched laughter, her busy upper lip making her moustache quiver. The laugh subsided.
"Tell Andrea that will be thirty-seven fifty. We Indian women have the beautiful hair, hey?
Everybody wants it!"
A black woman with children in a twin buggy was waiting behind Irie with a packet of hairpins.
She sucked her teeth. "You people think you're all Mr. Bigstuff," she muttered, half to herself.
"Some of us are happy with our African hair, thank you very much. I don't want to buy some poor Indian girl's hair. And I wish to God I could buy black hair products from black people for once.
How we going to make it in this country if we don't make our own business?"
The skin around the fat lady's mouth became very tight. She began talking twelve to the dozen, putting Irie's hair in a bag and writing her out a receipt, addressing all her comments to the woman via Irie, while doing the best to ignore the other woman's interjections: "You don't like shopping here, then please don't be shopping here is forcing you anybody? No, is anybody? It's amazing: people, the rudeness, I am not a racist, but I can't understand it, I'm just providing a service, a service. I don't need abuse, just leave your money on the counter, if I am getting abuse, I'm not serving."
"No one's givin' you abuse. Jesus Christ!"
"Is it my fault if they want the hair that is straight and paler skin sometimes, like Michael Jackson, my fault he is too? They tell me not to sell the Dr. Peacock Whitener local paper, my God, what a fuss! and then they buy it take that receipt to Andrea, will you, my dear, please? I'm just trying to make a living
in this country like the rest of everybody. There you are, dear, there's your hair."
The woman reached around Irie and delivered the right change to the counter with an angry smash. "For fuck's sake!"
"I can't help it if that's what they want supply, demand. And bad language, I won't tolerate! Simple economics mind your step on the way out, dear and you, no, don't come back, please, I will call the police, I won't be threatened, the police, I will call them."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah."
Irie held the door open for the double buggy, and took one side to help carry it over the front step. Outside the woman put her hairpins in her pocket. She looked exhausted.
"I hate that place," she said. "But I need hairpins."
"I need hair," said Irie.
The woman shook her head. "You've got hair," she said.
Five and a half hours later, thanks to an arduous operation that involved plaiting somebody else's hair in small sections to Irie's own two inches and sealing it with glue, Irie Jones had a full head of long, straight, reddish-black hair.
"Is it straight?" she asked, disbelieving the evidence of her own eyes.
"Straight as hell," said Andrea, admiring her handiwork. "But honey, you're going to have to plait it properly if you want it to stay in. Why won't you let me plait it? It won't stay in if it's loose like that."
"It will," said Irie, bewitched by her own reflection. "It's got to." He Millat need only see it once, after all, just once. To ensure she reached him in pristine state, she walked all the way to the Iqbal house with her hands on her hair, terrified that the wind would displace it.
Alsana answered the door. "Oh, hello. No, he's not here. Out.
Don't ask me where, he doesn't tell me a thing. I know where Magid is more of the time."
Irie walked into the hallway and caught a sneaky glance of herself in the mirror. Still there and all in the right place.
"Can I wait in here?"
"Of course. You look different, dearie. Lost weight?"
Irie glowed. "New haircut."
"Oh yes .. . you look like a news reader Very nice. Now in the living room, please.
Niece-of-Shame and her nasty friend are in there, but try not to let that bother you. I'm working in the kitchen and Samad is weeding, so keep the noise down."
Irie walked into the lounge. "Bloody hell!" screeched Neena at the approaching vision. "What the fuck do you look like!"
She looked beautiful. She looked straight, un-kinky. Beautiful. "You look like a freak! Fuck me! Maxine, man, check this out. Jesus Christ, Irie. What exactly
were you aiming for?"
Wasn't it obvious? Straight. Straightness. Flickability.
"I mean, what was the grand plan? The Negro Meryl Streep?" Neena folded over like a duvet and laughed herself silly.
"Niece-of-Shame!" came Alsana's voice from the kitchen. "Sewing requires concentration. Shut it up, Miss Big-Mouth, please!"
Neena's 'nasty friend', otherwise known as Neena's girlfriend, a sexy and slender girl called Maxine with a beautiful porcelain face, dark eyes and a lot of curly brown hair, gave a pull to Irie's
peculiar bangs. "What have you done? You had beautiful hair, man. All curly and wild. It was gorgeous."
Irie couldn't say anything for a moment. She had not considered the possibility that she looked anything less than terrific.
"I just had a haircut. What's the big deal?"
"But that's not your hair, for fuck's sake, that's some poor oppressed Pakistani woman who needs the cash for her kids," said Neena, giving it a tug and being rewarded with a handful of it.
Neena and Maxine had a hysteria relapse.
"Just get off it, OK?" Irie retreated to an armchair and tucked her knees up under her chin.
Trying to sound offhand, she asked, "So .. . umm .. . where's Millat?"
"Is that what all this is in aid of?" asked Neena, astonished. "My shit-for-brains cousin-gee?"
"No. Fuck off
"Well, he's not here. He's got some new bird. Eastern-bloc gymnast with a stomach like a washboard. Not unattractive, spectacular tits, but tight-assed as hell. Name .. . name?"
"Stasia," said Maxine, looking up briefly from Top of the Pops. "Or some such bollocks."
Irie sank deeper into the ruined springs of Samad's favourite chair.
The, will you take some advice? Ever since I've known you, you've been following that boy around like a lost dog. And in that time he's snogged everyone, everyone apart from you. He's even snogged me, and I'm his first cousin, for fuck's sake."
"And me," said Maxine, 'and I'm not that way inclined."
"Haven't you ever wondered why he hasn't snogged you?"
"Because I'm ugly. And fat. With an Afro."
"No, fuck face because you're all he's got. He needs you. You two have history. You really know him. Look how confused he is. One day he's Allah this, Allah that. Next minute it's big busty blondes, Russian gymnasts and a smoke of the sinsemilla. He doesn't know his arse from his elbow.
Just like his father. He doesn't know who he is. But you know him, at least a little, you've known all the sides of him.
And he needs that. You're different."
Irie rolled her eyes. Sometimes you want to be different. And sometimes you'd give the hair on your head to be the same as everybody else.
"Look: you're a smart cookie, Irie. But you've been taught all kinds of shit. You've got to re-educate yourself. Realize your
value, stop the slavish devotion, and get a life, Me. Get a girl, get a guy, but get a life." "You're a very sexy girl, Me," said Maxine sweetly.
"Trust her, she's a raving dyke," said Neena, ruffling Maxine's hair affectionately and giving her a kiss. "But the truth is the Barbra Streisand cut you've got there ain't doing shit for you. The Afro was cool, man. It was wicked. It was yours."
Suddenly Alsana appeared at the doorway with an enormous plate of biscuits and a look of intense suspicion. Maxine blew her a kiss.
"Biscuits, Irie? Come and have some biscuits. With me. In the kitchen."
Neena groaned. "Don't panic, Auntie. We're not enlisting her into the cult of Sappho."
"I don't care what you're doing. I don't know what you're doing. I don't want to know such things."
"We're watching television."
It was Madonna on the TV screen, working her hands around two conically shaped breasts.
"Very nice, I'm sure," sniped Alsana, glaring at Maxine. "Biscuits, Me?"
"I'd like some biscuits murmured Maxine with a flutter of her extravagant eyelashes.
"I am certain," said Alsana slowly and pointedly, translating code, "I don't have the kind you like."
Neena and Maxine fell about all over again.
The?" said Alsana, indicating the kitchen with a grimace. Irie followed her out.
"I'm as liberal as the next person," complained Alsana, once they were alone. "But why do they always have to be laughing and making a song-and-dance about everything? I cannot believe homosexuality is that much fun. Heterosexuality certainly is not."
"I don't think I want to hear that word in this house again,"
said Samad deadpan, stepping in from the garden and laying his weeding gloves on the table.
"Either. I am trying my level best to run a godly house."
Samad spotted a figure at his kitchen table, frowned, decided it was indeed Me Jones and began on the little routine the two of them had going. "Hello, Miss Jones. And how is your father?"
Me shrugged on cue. "You see him more than we do. How's God?"
"Perfectly fine, thank you. Have you seen my good-for-nothing son recently?"
"What about my good son?"
"Not for years."
"Will you tell the good-for-nothing he's a good-for-nothing when you find him?"
Till do my best, Mr. Iqbal."
"God bless you."
"Now, if you will excuse me." Samad reached for his prayer mat from the top of the fridge and left the room.
"What's the matter with him?" asked Me, noticing that Samad had delivered his lines with less than enthusiasm. "He seems, I don't know, sad."
Alsana sighed. "He is sad. He feels like he has screwed everything up. Of course, he has screwed everything up, but then again, who will cast the first stone, et cetera. He prays and prays. But he will not look straight at the facts: Millat hanging around with God knows what kind of people, always with the white girls, and Magid .. ."
Me remembered her first sweetheart encircled by a fuzzy halo of perfection, an illusion born of the disappointments Millat had afforded her over the years.
"Why, what's wrong with Magid?"
Alsana frowned and reached up to the top kitchen shelf, where she collected a thin airmail envelope and passed it to Irie. Irie removed the letter and the photograph inside.
The photo was of Magid, now a tall, distinguished-looking young man. His hair was the deep black of his brother's but it was not brushed forward on his face. It was parted on the left side, slicked down and drawn behind the right ear. He was dressed in a tweed suit and what looked
though one couldn't be sure, the photo was not good like a cravat. He held a large sun hat in one hand. In the other he clasped the hand of the eminent Indian writer Sir R. V. Saraswati. Saraswati was dressed all in white, with his broad-rimmed hat on his head and an ostentatious cane in his free hand. The two of them were posed in a somewhat self-congratulatory manner, smiling broadly and looking for all the world as if they were about to pat each other roundly on the back or had just done so. The midday sun was out and bouncing off Dhaka University's front steps, where the whole scene had been captured.
Alsana inched a smear off the photo with her index finger. "You know Saraswati?"
Irie nodded. Compulsory GCSE text: A Stitch in Time by R. V. Saraswati. A bitter-sweet tale of the last days of Empire.
"Samad hates Saraswati, you understand. Calls him colonial throwback, English
Irie picked a paragraph at random from the letter and read aloud.
As you can see, I was lucky enough to meet India's very finest writer one bright day in March. After winning an essay competition (my title: "Bangladesh To Whom May She Turn?"), I travelled to Dhaka to collect my prize (a certificate and a small cash reward) from the great man himself in a ceremony at the university. I am honoured to say he took a liking to me and we spent a most pkasant afternoon together; a long, intimate tea followed by a stroll through Dhaka's more appealing prospects. During our lengthy conversations Sir Saraswati commended my mind, and even went so far as to say (and I quote) that I was 'a first-rate young man' - a comment I shall treasure! He suggested my future might lie in the law, the university, or even his own profession of the creative pen! I told him the first-mentioned vocation was closest to my heart and that it had long been my intention to make the Asian countries sensible places, where order prevailed." disaster-was prepared for, and a young boy was in no danger from a falling vase (I) New laws, new stipulations, are required (I told him) to deal with our unlucky fate, the natural disaster. But then he corrected me: "Not fate," he said. "Too often we Indians, we Bengalis, we Pakistanis, throw up our hands and cry "Fate!" in the face of history. But many of us are uneducated, many of us do not understand the world. We must be more like the English. The English fight fate to the death. They do not listen to history unless it is telling them what they wish to hear. We say "It had to be!" It does not have to be.
Nothing does." In one afternoon I learnt more from this great man than "He learns nothing!"
Samad marched back into the kitchen in a fury and threw the kettle on the stove. "He learns nothing from a man who knows nothing! Where is his beard? Where is his khamise? Where is his humility? If Allah says there will be storm, there will be storm. If he says earthquake, it will be earthquake. Of course it has to be! That is the very reason I sent the child there to understand that essentially we are weak, that we are not in control. What does Islam mean? What does the word, the very word, mean? I surrender. I surrender to God. I surrender to him. This is not my life, this is his life. This life I call mine is his to do with what he will. Indeed, I shall be tossed and turned on the wave, and there shall be nothing to be done. Nothing! Nature itself is Muslim, because it obeys the laws the creator has ingrained in it."
"Don't you preach in this house, Samad Miah! There are places for that sort of thing. Go to mosque, but don't do it in the kitchen, people have to be eating in here '
"But we, we do not automatically obey. We are tricky, we are the tricky bastards, we humans.
We have the evil inside us, the free will. We must learn to obey. That is what I sent the child Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim Iqbal to discover. Tell me, did I send him to have his mind poisoned by a Rule-Britannia worshipping Hindu old Queen?"
"Maybe, Samad Miah, maybe not."
"Don't, Alsi, I warn you '
"Oh, go on, you old pot-boiler!" Alsana gathered her spare tyres around her like a sumo wrestler.
"You say we have no control, yet you always try to control everything! Let go, Samad Miah. Let the boy go. He is second generation he was born here naturally he will do things differently. You can't plan everything. After all, what is so awful so he's not training to be an alim, but he's educated, he's clean!"
"And is that all you ask of your son? That he be clean?"
"Maybe, Samad Miah, maybe '
"And don't speak to me of second generation! One generation! Indivisible! Eternal!"
Somewhere in the midst of this argument, Me slipped out of the kitchen and headed for the front door. She caught an unfortunate glimpse of herself in the scratch and stain of the hall mirror. She looked like the love child of Diana Ross and Engelbert Humperdinck.
"You have to let them make their own mistakes .. ." came Alsana's voice from the heat of battle, travelling through the cheap wood of the kitchen door and into the hallway, where Me stood, facing her own reflection, busy tearing out somebody else's hair with her bare hands.