SHORT STORY FOR THE WEEKEND: The Immigrant Widow by Rebecca Faller

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Nadia Albina and John Kelly in Reasons To Be Cheerful.  Picture by  Patrick Baldwin

Show’s new Blockheads song is a reason to be cheerful

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Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers’ Hub

On a mantelpiece in the front room of Nana’s house was a picture of Jesus.

Through a child’s eyes it was terrifying; the sacred heart there to uplift.

But why was Jesus tearing open his skin and exposing his bloody insides? He felt no pain and it gave her comfort.

There in dreary Leigh Park – a sprawling council estate, home to the post-war, human overspill of bombed and abandoned Portsmouth, our heroic island city – the irksome and rough squeezed into each other then trudged off begrudgingly to set up home in amongst the new green, with electric fires and Formica-topped kitchens.

Rows and rows of brick houses with little front gardens, each one garnished with a metal green gate.

Oh, those green gates of my childhood that led up many a concrete path to the same painted front doors.

All humanity lurked inside: murderers, wife-beaters, gypsies, a sprinkling of immigrants and some ‘good christian people’, which was rare in that human mire.

Nana stopped cooking years ago and she had never cleaned.

Decades of filth accumulated. Two vicious dogs barked when the bell was rung. With gnashing teeth, the threadbare Jessie and Blue would snap at heels, only to be dragged away howling by Uncle Walton.

The upright piano in the hall gave an impression of musical frivolity which never took place, ever. On a perch in the back room a buzzard would sit and stare, its hooked beak giving children a dark warning to sit still.

Tea would be offered and take an age to arrive; stewed and milky, in a chipped old cup that you didn’t want to drink from. The lavatory upstairs reeked from years of sons emptying their bladders without a care.

Her bedroom was full of plastic bags and inside those bags were plastic dolls, purchased for pennies from weekly jumble sales.

On occasion Uncle Roger would drive us up to London in his orange Opel Ascona.

We’d visit Auntie Camilla and Cousin Lionel and be made to wait outside in the car while they scouted around for shops that sold Indian sweets. Horrible Indian sweets that sounded appetising when the Children of the Raj reminisced.

Delicious in appearance only, those lime green, orange and white fluffy balls; how patriotic their colours.

When bitten the taste was dust with a sickly side-effect, vile sweetmeats never to be tried again, not even now when, with age, one’s tongue and taste buds may be able to apply forgiveness.

My family was Anglo-Indian. Indeed, a very small and curious race oft-misunderstood by the pigeon-holers of this world who enjoy putting everyone into categories.

The British planted seeds which propagated and flourished; hybrids sprung up. Not Indian, not English.

Ours came to England in the fifties thinking they might just slip quietly into society with their boarding-school accents. Nana soon developed a relationship with Max Factor face powder that would last until her final breath.

She caked on that remedy; when you leaned down to kiss her your nostrils were introduced to a whiff of chalky sweetness which left an imprint on your cheeks.

Picture a woman bent over, her tiny dark fingers twisted round into claws that constantly fiddled with the clasp of her Maggie Thatcher handbag.

Her face was a far lighter shade than her hands; bobbed hair always covered in a scraggy tartan scarf of beige insipid hues, held in place by two kirby grips.

If you saw her wedding photos you’d be surprised. There she stood in bias-cut silk, a Juliet cap veil atop her shiny, black hair; the oversized bouquet drooping down to the floor. Such stark contrasts of white lace and dark skin.

The groom was slightly lighter, but only just. She of great beauty and promise, a child-bride born into a glorious heyday of gin on the bungalow veranda whilst the gramophones played on.

Those fingers weren’t bent then. They’d be able to slip out the old 78s from their paper sleeves and fasten the leather buttons on her Mary Jane shoes.

Those fingers would take up a pencil and scribble down recipes into heavy, Moiré paper scrapbooks as the Ayah browned the onions.

Those nimble fingers tore up the coriander and worked the pestle; soon the old house in the old country was drenched in the smells of frying spice.

The day her husband died she went grey. She was only 35. The children were woken from their beds in the dorms of St. John’s Vestry school, were hurriedly dressed by the house master and bundled onto the train.

Camilla looked out from the window into the night; knowing something terrible had occurred.

Mummy was on the rocking chair, silently moving back and forth, little David on her lap concealing a swollen belly; her unborn eighth child would never meet his father.

India in 1947 – turmoil, revolt, people got hurt, people got stoned whilst travelling in rickshaws.

Fanatics foolishly floundered with guns they didn’t really know how to use, all knowledge garnered from a Gene Autry comic.

She eked out ten more years in her homeland, most spent in a constant state of shock that never really ebbed. She never met another man, never kissed another’s lips. Not through loyalty but through a brewed and nurtured bitterness.

Daddy was never mentioned; she referred to him as ‘that dog’ for dying when he did and leaving everything in a mess.

The old country was fading fast. Her eldest children were alumni of The Lawrence School; they had shaken the hand of Viceroy Linlithgow. Her youngest suffered racism in an English comprehensive system. Events change things.

Railway trains were chock-full of undesirables who smelled of sweat. Squawking chickens flapped around the carriages, female shrieks, hullabaloo.

At each halt hawkers would appear from the shrubbery wielding urns of scorching chai, balancing trays of potato-filled parathas.

Monkeys and goats added to the breathing cargo which trudged along the tracks that took them far away from Tamil Nadu. Unsettled and harsh. She lived long and never went home. It didn’t exist.

Rebecca Faller was born in Leigh Park in 1969. When her student days finished in 1990, she decided to flee England. Rebecca and two friends took a ferry to France the day before Christmas and ended up in Gibraltar, and she’s never looked back...