The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Portraits from B'ham: Ralf the Ravin' Bajan

I left my house for that familiar little trek into town to buy some trainers and return a shirt that was too big for me. It is evening but it is still bright. The sky is clear but the air is blustery and cold. I reached the bus stop and joined in waiting beside an aging Black man for our transport. I always have a book handy, just for these occasions, so that my time need not be wasted entirely. In this case it was a lovely slim little photo biography of Franz Kafka. I sat on a post and just as I was about to begin reading, the man solicited my attention. I smiled and lent him my ear (as I love meeting old people, wisdom and generosity are a pleasant mix). He smiled cheekily as he began in a strong West Indian accent I couldn’t discern.

“You goin’ into town? To cause trouble?”

I smiled “I’m a good boy, never cause trouble.”

“That’s good. You know boys gettin’ into town this time is often to cause trouble! You don’t smoke. Good. You can drink but don’t get drunk.”

“When I was uni I used to get drunk, but I don’t smoke. I’m mostly good.”

Then, his eyes lit up with some new, related, thought that must have returned to his head, a thought so important he felt he needed to share with me.

“When I came here in ’57, it was good! I’ve been around here 50 years. But now, it’s not…” Then he adds what ought to have been a secretive whisper, but his voice was so desperate it was loud affirmation: “Too many Pakis!”

Well, I thought, that was brutally to the point. Somewhat disorientated, I muffled a compatible response “Yeah… Small Heath has the highest concentrations of Asians in the UK.”

He looked at me with a cheeky look of surprise, “No! You ever been to Manchester? It’s much worse there! I went down there once, with two White men. And… I was just sittin’ on the bus. And this young man, a Paki, comes up to me and says: ‘You, Black man, you’re spyin’ on us!” As he continued his story, it rambled a little, I must have tried a few different expressions from surprise, shock, smile and nervous laughter. I couldn’t make it all out, but he reached the end of his story anyway.

“And this fella’, this White man, came up to the boy and said, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ He answered ‘This Black man’s spyin’ on us!’ And then, the White man said (this was the punch line) ‘I am a police officer!’” He then shook my arm as he cackled with laughter.

I got a better look at him as he spoke some more, on the subject of work and pay, it came up somehow. “I am from Barbados… before I came here in ’57. It’s just a small island.” He was an old man with dark brown skin, a mostly smooth face, and little gray hairs protruding around his mouth. “We used to work for 12 hours in a day.” He looked a little ridiculous, in an endearing precious way, with his little beige trilby hat, rim-glasses and rickety-looking blue-tartan umbrella. Like an eccentric great uncle. “And we’d get two pennies for that! TWO PENNIES!”

I tried to simulate a surprised interest: “That’s not much. What could you get for that?”

He ignored me and rambled on a little more. “My daughter, she is…” Right. “…and I had my second wife…” Good. “…she was sayin’ that…” And etcetera it went on. He’s really quite fond of me.

The bus came and whisked us off both. I sat first, and he sat beside me. I just realized, I’ve forgotten the shirt. The shirt. Always the shirt. But I thought, I’m beside this old man, perhaps I’ve made a friend. This’ll be an experience anyway, not a waste of time (and I still need to get those trainers). I can see him close now, his expressive face and his hands clutching his umbrella... His hands! They were so dry and crackled they were almost pale. I can smell him close too, he carried that distinctive old person smell, slightly pungent, but ultimately associated with the wholesome goodness of loving grandmothers and gentle grandfathers. He continued with another story.

“You know it’s not good to get drunk. Boys like to get into fights. One day, this came up to me and said he was gonna [indiscernible] my car!”

“He was gonna steal your car?”

“No!” he said with reenacted anger “He was gonna kick it!” Oh. “So I got to my trunk and got my…” What did he say? It was a muffle. Was it crow(bar) or sledge(hammer)? In the event, he continued “And I went up to him and whipped him good in the leg!” He swung his umbrella through the air for emphasis and to great effect. “And I woulda got him in the head too…” and the punchline “…but he hopped away!” He burst out into laughter and shook me some more. He then added, in a dire voice, “What I work for is mine. I’ve stopped workin’ but go in every mornin’ the last couple years for two hours. They give me 12 pounds. You can’t let people, with what’s yours, you can’t let them…”

“Take it?”

“Yes!” and adds with indignation and conviction “Or smash it!”

We got off in town and began walking in the same general direction. We make some more conversation…

“So you work?”

“I’m a waiter.” He looked shocked. I had slipped that I’d gone to university at some point earlier in our frenetic, slightly deranged, conversation.

“In a restaurant?”


“You born in this country?”

“Uh, no.”

“What? You Polish?”
”It’s complicated.”

“It’s all complicated…”

“I’m born in France, I’m from France, but my dad is from the states…”

“There’s your mistakes! Haha!”

“…but my Mom is from Preston.”

Preston? Why don’t you live there with your mother till you find good work?”

“There’s only my grandmother… so I’m living in Small Heath.”

“You’ll be living near me, where you live?”

“Middle of Bankes Road.”

“That ain’t so far from me… I have a house 59 Dudley road. I used to rent on Bankes road. I used to have the landlord come every week for his rent.”

“That’s me! Every two weeks he comes for his rent…”

He stopped us in the middle of the road, he pulled me close… “He does? Is he Asian?”


He got indignant there, “He is? How much do you pay?”

“120 pounds every two weeks.”

He took a step back. Then he took one deep breath as his face twisted into an expression that screamed ‘This is an outrage!’

“What? That much? One-hundred-and-twenty pounds! A fortnight! Does he cook for you?”

“Uh, no.”

“Does he do laundry?”

I shake my head.

Exasperated… “One-hundred-and-twenty… e’ry fortnight…” He continues to mutter under his breath at the unfathomable amount. What has the world come to? He takes me closer, and utters, as some forbidden fantasy, “If I had my way… I’d kill every last one of them!”


Soon our paths diverged, I to my clothes store, he to another bus stop. “Go to your shop!”

“Yes, what’s your name?”

“Alf!” We shook hands, firmly.

“I’m Craig.” He keeps holding my hands tightly in his as he smiles with all his teeth and his eyes twinkle from behind his spectacles.


I continued towards the store, a little dazed. They didn’t have any trainers I wanted and I obviously couldn’t return the shirt. I walked home with empty hands, but not exactly empty-handed, I had acquired something else: a little food for thought, though it would take some thorough digestion, like some really thick mash. I stood at another bus stop again, for the way back, and there was a young carefree couple, very young, teens. The boy in his black cap lay across the bus-bench with the ease, that relaxed confidence, of someone who knows he is loved by someone worth being loved by. His girl, gorgeous little thing with smooth brown skin and a sparkling smile, playfully took pictures of him with her camera phone. “This one’s not too bad!” She giggled as her phone clicked and snapped. What a cute couple… or… is it… the mouth of an ouroboros? I did read my Kafka for the last leg the trip.


Anonymous wyt said...

Experiences like those are priceless.

This one reminds me of the old Jewish guy we had dinner with in Berlin. He was a bit more lucid, mind.

5:25 PM  
Blogger CJWilly said...

He was almost famous too. I don't suppose he still wants to see our pictures? What was the name of his Canadian-artist wife?

6:39 AM  
Anonymous Kev said...

Very nice craigy, Sounds like a traveling story, but staying in your in very own neirbourhood! sounds like a very interesting place your living at, especialy after seeing that pigeon sign on your other post, thats just funny =) , take care bro

3:14 PM  

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