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Dances with Wolves in Southall

by Cathal Brown

About half-past two, I got on the 207 bus in Southall. It’s a handy bus-stop, just down the road from my flat. I was the only white person on it. Not surprising, really. Southall, in west London, is known as little India.
Me, I’m not a bit prejudiced. Don’t mind who I live among so long as they’re well-behaved. And they are, these Indians. In fact, a damn sight more well-behaved than us English. The parents are thrifty beggars, with their little shops, and the kids are hard-working at school and well-behaved outside it.
You take the graffiti in the park here in Southall. There’s a sort of a shed thing, divided in four, with benches-a sort of a shelter from the rain that the kids hang out in. Now if they were English kids, they’d have real vulgar graffiti all over it - ‘fuck’ this and ‘cunt’ that. But let me tell you: there ain’t one swear-word on the thing. Now there is graffiti - plenty of it. But 99% of it is something like ‘Nirmal loves Mahnaz’ or even ‘I love Mahnaz’ or else just their names. And that’s it. Oh, I did see a funny one saying, ‘9:05 a.m. before the maths exam 25/5/90. Help! ‘or something like that. But it’s all clean. Not one curse-word.
Anyway, back to the bus. I was on me way to the cinema in Ealing Broadway. It was a Saturday afternoon and I thought I’d go and see a movie. ‘Dances with Wolves,’ the new American one, was on. So I went upstairs on the bus, like I always do and, luckily, there was a free seat - I don’t like sitting beside strangers. There was this big black bloke in front of me. I was looking at the back of his head and his shoulders, like you do on a bus. It’s funny, you feel kind of embarrassed doing it, like you should keep your eyes to yourself. But think about it: the chances are, the person behind you is doing the same thing. And it don’t matter to you, you don’t even know they’re doing it, so why not do it yourself?
Oh, I should have mentioned that I work for British Rail. Just in case you’re interested. Also, I’m single. Me parents are still alive but they live on the other side of London and I don’t see them too often. I should visit them, I know, only son and all that, but frankly it’s boring. I’d sooner stay at home and watch the cricket.
The bus is gliding along now, not much traffic, and stopping now and then. It’s always the same: you hear the ‘ping’ of the bell to stop the driver, people getting off, starting her up again and off we go to the next stop. Bloody boring job, busdriver, if you ask me.
So I’m looking out the window, sort of aimlessly, at the people and the shops………..
Tell you one thing, Indian shops are a lot more interesting than English ones. I often go for a stroll along the Broadway in Southall, and I’ll tell you, it’s like a village in the middle of India. First of all, you have Indian music pouring out at you from all sides, really weird and screechy it is to me - I suppose they like it. And it’s all busy and bustly and there are stalls out on the paths, and foreign voices and wonderful colourful dresses for the women and turbans for the lads and it smells different and they sell little religious books and trinkets and gorgeous golden jewelry and not a white face to be seen.
There’s hardly any white people on the street, like I say, but there’s some English chain-stores like Boots and W.H. Smith. So you’re walking along, lapping up the foreignness, and you come to a Boots and you walk in and it’s so different! All the cashiers are English and the books are in English and the music is American and every white person within miles must have come there. And it’s so open and bright compared with the dark, crowded little Indian shops. Like stepping into a different world, really.
One thing I should mention, their women are so beautiful. I’d say the proportion of beautiful women in India must be about eight out of ten. Funny thing is the men ain’t smashers at all.
So the bus stops again, and a girl gets on. I notice her straight away - she’s like a princess, a queen. She has on all the traditional clothes - a long yellow skirt-thing, and a purple sort of blouse on top, and she’s got jewelry and lipstick on and she has this incredible long, rich, dark hair. And her eyes are like black magic. Like something out of the Arabian Nights, she is.
But it wasn’t just her looks. She had a kind of quietness about her that made you look at her twice. You could tell she wasn’t a bit vain about her appearance. She just seemed really calm and happy - serene, like.
This only took a few seconds, this looking at her. And let’s be honest, I was bowled over. My heart just leapt when I seen her. She was so special that I forgot to be self-conscious, and I just stared.
Now I want to make this clear: I ain’t no dirty old man. But that don’t stop me admiring women. It’s one of my greatest pleasures, admiring women. It’s what they’re for in a way, isn’t it? I mean, it’s why they get themselves dolled up, so’s we can look at them.
And when you look at a girl on a bus or wherever, you think: would I have a chance with her? I mean, I’m presentable enough, I’ve got a good job and a bit of money. And to be honest with you, I’d like a steady girl. I haven’t had much success for a few years now, I’m getting on, I suppose. I did alright when I was young, but then I used to hang out with the ‘gang’ and we’d see a lot of young girls and you’d flirt and well, it just happened naturally. Now it hardly happens at all.
So anyway, I collect meself and stop staring. And she’s looking around for an empty seat, and there ain’t one, and what do you think: she walks straight over and sits down beside me. Well, I can tell you I wasn’t half chuffed that she chose me out of all the blokes on the bus.
It had quite an effect on me, I must admit. My heart is pounding. I get this terrible urge to say something to her, start a conversation. Now that’s not the kind of thing I do, I’m mostly pretty reserved, but just this once I get this notion that I have to, like it’s my last chance or something, and I say to meself, ‘Look Terry, you might never get an opportunity like this again. Go on, talk to her.’ And another part of me is saying ‘But you just don’t do things like that.’ And the first me says, ‘Look, to hell with it. Go on. Do it.’
I didn’t delay. If I delayed I probably would have said nothing. I went bald-headed in and said to her:
“Nice day, isn’t it?”
And she turns and gives me this lovely smile and says:
“Yes, it is beautiful” in her lovely accent.
Well, I’m delighted at her response so I say:
“Are you going out for the day then?” And she says:
“Yes, I am going to the cinema in Ealing Broadway.”
“Are you going to ‘Dances with Wolves’?”
“That’s right.”
“So am I.”
“Why, really! Why, what a coincidence!” she says and she laughs out loud, a big happy smile on her face.
I don’t need to tell you how I felt then. I could imagine us already, queueing up together at the cinema, buying sweets and sitting down side-by-side…….. And even if that was all that happened, it would’ve been enough. But the possibilities… I’m even thinking what my parents would say if I married an Indian woman.
So we go on talking and I ask her what part of India she’s from and she says, “Punjab”, and of course I’ve heard of that because of the trouble there a while back. Turns out she came to England four years ago with her family. I tell her, her English is very good after only four years and she says, “Why, thank you.”
And all the time I’m talking to her I’m thinking, ‘Terry, you are so lucky.’ And it’s not like a normal conversation because we really like each other and are really interested in each other and we’re smiling away like crazy. And I tell her about my job and my parents and in no time we reach the cinema.
And we get off the bus together like it’s a dream and there’s the cinema with a bit of a queue outside it and this guy busking and she walks straight up to this black geezer in a leather jacket and takes his hand and says,
“Terry, I would like you meet Albert,” and smiles at me.
And we shake hands and this Albert is very friendly. But I’m not feeling too friendly, I can tell you.
But the three of us queue up for tickets together and make conversation, and when we go inside it looks like they want me to sit beside them, but I make my escape and go off and sit on my own. And when the film is over - quite good it was, though I wasn’t in the mood for enjoying it - I make a break for it in the darkness.
And I go round the corner to the Pig and Whistle, which is a pub run by me mate, Tony. And pretty soon I tell him about it and he sort of consoles me and gives me a few pints. And some regulars come in and Tony introduces me to them and we have a good old argument about whether Britain should be in the EEC or not - I reckon we shouldn’t, we’d be better off on our own - and we tell a few jokes.
So around closing time, I sort of stagger out - it don’t take much to floor me - and I’m not in the mood for taking a bus or a mini-cab, so I start walking home. I’ve drunk too much as usual and I want to sober up a bit. And besides, it’s a lovely night with a big shiny full moon up in the sky. So I walk along the old road, whistling to meself, and I don’t feel half bad. In fact, I realise I’m in a very good mood. And I think back on what happened on the bus and say to meself, ‘Well, Terry, old son, that’s part of life. She’s a really nice girl, and she’s happy with her boyfriend. And you’re a decent old sort and you’ve got an easy life, so you might as well enjoy it and not expect wonderful, impossible things to happen. You’ve got yourself, and your mates, and your Mum and Dad and life ain’t half bad.’


Taken from ‘This is where we came in’ (1992), pages 53-56.

Cathal Brown

P.J. Curtis