A little background to what you are about to receive…
What if anything is a blog? What function does it serve? For me there are a number of reasons as to why I’ve purposefully set out not to be left behind by this craze for putting whatever you’re thinking about online into the public domain. Probably principle among these reasons is the fact that a blog can be used as a convenient dumping ground; a place where you can put things that really have no place anywhere else. This little fragment of a story that I’ve entitled ‘Maisa My Dear’ belongs in that category.
Now some background to my background:
I wrote this in about late 2011 when I was still suffering from something called undiagnosed hypothyroidism. If you want to know more about this – which I seriously doubt – there are articles I’ve written about this on this blog as well as on The Guardian and the Daily Mail websites. Suffice to say I was feeling pretty shitty and actually about as close to death as I’ve ever been. I was seriously in a bad way and spent my nights laying awake in bed contemplating the nature of the universe (I really did!) and wondering how I could make my death as easy as possible to take for my wife and young daughter.
In the daytime I was crippled by something called ‘brain fog’, which in simple terms made thought very difficult indeed. I couldn’t concentrate; in fact, I hadn’t been able to concentrate in any real sense since my last book ‘Rope Burns’ was published way back in 1999. But I was still trying.
What tended to happen with me would be that I would start working on an idea and simply run out of gas. It happened to me time after time and left me thinking that I’d never again be able to write anything of any appreciable length. To compensate I dabbled with other things that took less concentration: I wrote songs and tried to record them, I tried poetry, I wrote occasional articles for magazines. But I always wanted – craved – to return to writing books.
‘Maisa My Dear’ is the result of one of my bursts of energy that petered out. It’s an aborted attempt at a children’s book. Let me give you the background to the background to the background of that one:
I was born in the 1960s in a small mining town in the north of England called Burnley, a place that is now the epicentre of racism in this country. My family left Burnley when I was nine-years-old in a somewhat controversial way. They were, you see, one of the first people to sell their terraced house to a family from Pakistan. And our neighbours were certainly not happy about this. I wanted to incorporate this into a book.
With ‘Maisa’ I was trying to achieve a number of things:
1/ I wanted to write from the perspective of a female.
2/ I wanted the main character, Maisa, to be from Pakistan and encounter racism.
3/ I wanted the book to be set near Burnley, I chose Nelson which is a couple of miles away.
4/ I wanted Maisa’s best friend to be white and also encounter racism because of her association with Maisa (one of my best friends when I was a kid was from Pakistan).
5/ I wanted Maisa to run: to run so often and so fast that it eventually became her career, representing her adopted country in the Olympics.
6/ I wanted the book to be set in the Beatlemania of the sixties (hence the title), so that every chapter was linked to changes in the Beatles’ appearance and music, which itself mirrored changes in social development.
7/ Oh, and I wanted it to be a cracking story.
When I was writing ‘professionally’ in the 1990s my habit was to write three chapters and a synopsis and send them to my agent, who would then try to get a publisher to buy it. This is what I did with Maisa My Dear except that by now I had long since discarded my agent. So I sent it to a new agent (only one) and even though I hadn’t written anything for years I was still cocky enough to think that the agent would instantly bite. The fact that she didn’t was a bit of a blow to my confidence which was already terminally depressed because of the hypothyroidism. So I dumped the book. Until now.
So now, in the dumping ground of my blog, here is ‘Maisa My Dear’. I’m not expecting anybody to read it (because deep down I have a feeling that nobody actually reads anybody’s blog) or indeed comment upon it. But it’s here. Belonging to an era when I was almost dead. And probably reading like it.
1963 – I saw her standing there
I’m not going to tell you my name. I’m not going to tell you my name because if you know who I am it might change the way you think about what you’re about to hear. For the purpose of this story – which isn’t really a story because everything I’m about to tell you is true – you’re going to know me as Sofia. Sofia is the name of my granddaughter and she is just about ten years old, which is how old I was when I first met Maisa all those years ago. I’m borrowing my granddaughter’s name because she’s going to help me remember. Not remember events or dates or things that happened but help me to remember how I used to be when I was a little girl. Because every time I look at Sofia I see myself as I was almost fifty years ago and if my memory gets a little vague, if I have trouble recalling exactly who said what, and how so-and-so happened I only have to think about how Sofia might have reacted had she been in my shoes, what Sofia might have said in such-and-such a situation and I know that I would have behaved in exactly the same way.
My story begins one Sunday evening on 13 October 1963. I remember the date very clearly because it is a special date. It is a date in which three things happened that would change my life. The first thing that happened is that my dad bought our first TV. Actually, that is not strictly true – the TV was delivered to our house the day before but because dad was away working in Manchester we did not actually plug it in and switch it on until Sunday morning. My mother and I were too scared to touch it until he returned.
Of course, anyone reading this now will probably already have started to think that this old lady is a little crazy. After all, these days televisions are just about everywhere aren’t they? In fact, if you don’t own a television, people will probably think that there is something wrong with you. But in those days a television was a marvellous, mysterious thing that looked nothing like those sleek shiny giant flat screens that you have in your living room. For one thing they appeared to be made of wood, shiny varnished wood that looked like an old-fashioned cabinet that you might find in an antiques shop, and for another they were enormous heavy things that took two or three people to lift and the screen was tiny and only in black and white. This is perhaps why all my memories of my childhood seem to be in black and white.
I was born in a small mining town in the north of England called Nelson, which was named after a pub called the Nelson Inn, which itself was named after the famous Admiral Nelson, who defeated the French at Waterloo. If the name conjures up colourful images of swashbuckling sailors battling with cutlass and cannon for the freedom of their country then nothing could be further from the truth. In Nelson you were hard pressed to find a colour that was anything but grey. The streets were grey: grey, hard cobblestones. The houses were grey: grey, cold, dull and monotone. And the people were grey: grey, ashen faced and work weary – and if they weren’t grey then they were black, black from the coal that most of the men spent their lives digging up from the ground.
My father was one of the lucky ones: he worked as a foreman in a factory that made car engines, which was quite an important position. Compared to a lot of his friends he was relatively well off, although there was never a week that went by in which he did not run out of money by Tuesday. My mother also had a job, as did all the other women in the town. She was lucky, too, because she was good at sewing, so good that she didn’t even have to go out to work. Each day she would clear a small space in the corner of our cramped living room and sit behind a sewing machine and magically conjure up beautiful dresses and coats with the help of pieces of tissue paper that she called ‘patterns’. She didn’t earn a fortune doing this but she made enough money to ensure that there was always food on the table. Father also had another source of income: he had been blessed with a deep, rich baritone singing voice. And every Saturday he would grease back his hair, put on his best black suit and head off to the clubs to croon whatever happened to be in the Hit Parade that week. For this he was usually paid a small fee and given as much beer as he could drink. That was what he was doing on the Saturday that the TV was delivered. He was on the bus to Manchester to sing in one of the clubs.
Quite why my father decided to get a television I will never know. Even though we were better off than a lot of people who lived on our street we could ill afford it. In fact, in those days nobody could afford a television. For this reason, the only means of getting a television into your living room was to rent it. This meant having somebody knock on your door every Thursday evening to pick up a rental fee that was always paid in cash. Many’s the time we had to wait for that knock on the door with the lights in the house turned down, pretending that we were out. But get a television we did and my mother and father were determined that everybody else in the street would know just how far they had come up in the world. An open invitation was extended to friends and neighbours for the grand unveiling of our TV set and you could scarcely move in the living room of our small terraced house as my father reached down and switched on this wondrous machine with a twist of the pearly white ‘on’ switch with a satisfying ‘click’.
If I close my eyes I can still remember that moment as if it were yesterday. My father, now out of his best suit but his hair still greased back, standing proudly smoking a cigarette along with all the other men in the house. A small dot of white light appearing in the centre of the tiny screen, and the smell of burning dust as the television slowly buzzed into life. There was nothing instant about televisions in those days: if you wanted to watch the magical moving images that shone from the screen you had to be prepared to wait while the machine warmed up; you had to have patience.
Amazingly, the first thing that appeared on our television that night was the black and white image of a smiling besuited Bruce Forsyth introducing the acts on a programme called ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’. Nothing, it seems, really ever changes. Because I was only ten years old and smaller than everybody else in the room I was allowed to stand at the back of the room on a wooden box to watch the first act on the show, a comedian whose name was Dave Allen, go through his paces. Soon our little living room was filled with gasps of wonder at the sight. Most of our friends and neighbours had never even seen a television, let alone watched one in action. To them it was as if a small piece of magic had suddenly been brought into their grey, overcast world. I’m not kidding but some of them truly believed that the foggy black and white figures shining from the screen were actually inside the television set. These gasps of wonderment quickly turned into laughs, giggles and guffaws as the people in the room began to forget their amazement and listen instead to the comedian’s funny jokes. It was then that I became aware of another person standing next to me. It was then that I felt the presence of Maisa. It was then that the second thing that was to change my life forever inched its way into my world.
Maisa was just a little taller than I and had shoved her way through the crowd of onlookers in the hope of sharing my box. Without a word, I felt an elbow in my ribs and Maisa was suddenly nudging up tight beside me. Torn between my desire to continue watching the incredible images on the screen, I stole a look at the newcomer and what I saw was even more incredible than the television. Maisa was like nothing I had ever seen before. She had coffee coloured skin and long dark hair that cascaded wildly down her back. Her eyes were black as coal and she was wearing a strange patterned dress that amazingly was not grey – it was red and green and gold and blue and purple and orange with gold braiding, and even more amazingly, she appeared to have a small metal stud through her nose. Her appearance was every bit as astonishing as what were we were witnessing on the television screen – and I was not the only person in the room to have noticed her. As I looked on dozens of pairs of eyes in the room slowly turned away from the screen to stare at the apparition that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Mouths fell open, more than one cigarette dropped to the floor and the sounds of laughter were once again replaced with gasps of astonishment. Maisa smiled.
Standing sheepishly by the entrance to the living room were two other amazing apparitions – Maisa’s parents. Less extravagantly dressed, but equally remarkable in appearance. Not many people knew it then but Mr and Mrs Ahmed had just moved into our little street. They had taken over the the corner shop at the end of our road that sold things like bread, milk, Oxo cubes, potatoes and sweets. In the midst of moving boxes and suitcases into their new home they had somehow heard of the open invitation to the unveiling of the television and had been just as intrigued as everybody else. They were here to meet the neighbours and to witness the future. And they had brought their daughter along with them. The Ahmeds were from Pakistan, a place that I had never even heard of, nor for that matter had a lot of the people in the room. Like Maisa, they smiled back at us all.
It was at that moment that something else happened and once again all eyes turned back to the television screen. What had caught everyone’s attention was the noise that was coming from that direction. It was a sound that was every but as foreign to me as the strange looking people from Pakistan. Once again there were more gasps from the room. On the screen were four young men. They were dressed in smart black suits and three of them were playing electric guitars – very loud electric guitars. The other young man was sitting behind a set of drums and literally hammering the life out of it. All of the young men had long hair, – longer than many of the girls in my class. The sound they made was music but it did not sound like any music I had ever heard. It was filled with screams and howls and yelps that seemed to come from another world. That noise that I heard in that room was the third thing that was going to change my life forever.
My father stretched his shoulders and shook his head and lit up another cigarette. He always seemed to have a cigarette in his mouth. To a man everyone in the room glared in disapproval. Such disapproval, however, did not seemed to be shared by the television audience which seemed to consist of hundreds or maybe even thousands of teenage girls who at once launched into a cacophony of screams that quickly began to drown out the music. The song – if it could be called a song – came to an abrupt end and one of the young men looked up into the auditorium and said: “For those of you in the cheap seats I’d like you to clap your hands to this one; the rest of you can just rattle your jewellery.”
“Bloody cheek!” scowled my father as some of the men in the room began to boo.
It was this point that that I felt hot breath on my cheek. Maisa had moved closer to my ear and was saying something to me. “That’s John,” she whispered. “I love John. I’m going to marry John.”
Like everything else in Nelson, school was also grey. But sometimes it was red. In my school, which went by the name of Stoneyholme Junior School, the girls were just as prone to fighting with each other as the boys were. And it was during one of these almost daily scuffles that I met Maisa for the second time.
Generally, fights occurred after school by the large rusty metal main gates. There, a crowd of dozens of excited school children would gather in the drizzle (in Nelson it always seemed to be raining) to witness the drawing of blood. Often a couple of teachers would stand guard as events unfurled. Not to stop the fights but to watch.
It was the Monday after the unveiling of the television set and school had been no different to how it usually was. This consisted of lessons in spelling, sums, a game or two of netball in the school yard and the odd whack with the ruler for any boy or girl who had strayed out of line. Fights at school were often compelling events, undoubtedly the highlight of the week, and I, like all the rest, immediately sought out a good vantage point when the shouts and howls of excitement that could be heard from the school gates as we headed home indicated that something was about to happen.
This, however, was an unusual fight: it was not between two children but three: three girls, in fact. From my vantage point close to the the gates I watched as a tangle of bodies rolled about on the harsh cobbles, an occasional arm surfacing clutching a handful of hair. The crowd of watching children seemed even more excited than usual: their shouts became louder and more urgent as they demanded blood. It was then that I noticed something different about one of the figures on the floor. The person in question was wearing a strange multicoloured coat and her skin was darker than the other two girls, who both attacked her with ferocity. She was giving back as good as she got but the disparity in numbers was taking its toll. She was losing and taking a beating in the process. It was Maisa.
It was then that I did something that every ounce of common sense told me not to do. I don’t know why I did it, I still, to this day, don’t know why I did it, but I did it. Without thinking I moved toward the trio of figures and pitched in. One of the attackers I recognised as Trudy Grainger, a particularly nasty piece of work from the fourth year with a face like a bulldog who made a quiet living by taking some of the younger children’s dinner money. As she concentrated on administering a savage beating to Maisa I took hold of her long red hair and gave it one almighty yank. There was a scream of surprise and pain. I followed this by running my sharp nails down the side of Trudy’s face. Immediately, blood began to flow.
My unexpected attack left Maisa’s assailants temporarily non-plussed. The other girl, whose name was Helen Walker – another from year four who seemed to spend most of her time bullying the younger girls – momentarily released her grip on Maisa, allowing her opponent the chance to retaliate. This she did with a force and brutality that left the onlooking crowd speechless. Maisa was like a wildcat: throwing herself on top of her aggressor and sinking teeth and claws into face and neck. Before anyone had the chance to know what was happening the two older girls were retreating. You could have heard a pin drop when moments later the fight was ended in the customary way: ‘Give in?” said I. “Yes… all right…” said the other two girls reluctantly. Thus, in a matter of mere seconds I had managed to make myself two worst enemies and one best friend. School would be a different place in many different ways from now on.
Maisa and I walked home together. The colourful coat that she was wearing was now covered in grey Nelson grime and there was a tear or two here and there. “Thanks for that,” she said. It was the first time that I heard her speak aloud and I was a little taken aback by her accent. Broad Nelsonian it was not.
“That’s OK, “ I replied. “I couldn’t really let them beat you up, could I? Two against one isn’t fair.”
We chatted some more until we reached Belgrave Street, the street in which we both lived. Maisa, I learned, was from a city in Pakistan called Islamabad which, she said, was bigger and more beautiful than any city in the world. Maisa had been very happy there and had gone to a large school for girls only. Her parents, she said, were very wealthy but had been forced to flee the country when her father had given an interview to a newspaper criticising the government. Along with her older brother, Solomon, they had taken a long, uncomfortable and hazardous boat ride to England, eventually arriving in Nelson. Maisa said that she longed to go back to Pakistan but might have to wait a very long time for that to happen.
We reached Maisa’s parents’ shop, still with the previous owner’s sign above the door and she beckoned me in. Maisa’s mother was standing behind the counter wearing an exotic patterned dress that looked a lot like the one Maisa had been wearing in our house the night before. She smiled as she saw me enter and said: “Hello there. I see Maisa has made a friend. That is very good, Maisa.’ Then she saw the dirt on Maisa’s coat and her smile quickly evaporated. “Maisa!”she said angrily. “What have you been doing! Your coat is ruined!”
Maisa began to explain but before she could even speak her father appeared, looking even angrier than his wife. “Maisa!” he cried. “Go to your room. Now!”
It was then that I stepped in to help Maisa for the second time that afternoon and explained what had happened. How Maisa had been picked on by two older girls. How it wasn’t really her fault. Her father stopped looking angry and smiled at me. “What is your name, young lady?” he asked.
“Sofia,” I replied. “Sofia Probert.”
“Well then, Sofia Probert,” said Mr Ahmed. “In that case we all owe a very big debt to you. Please let me offer you a gift as reward for your valour.”
I took a look around the shop. At the cans of beans and the loafs of bread and the packets of tea. “That’s OK,” I replied. “You don’t need to do that.”
Mr Ahmed’s smile grew broader, as did that of his wife’s. “I see that you are an honourable person, Sofia Probert. Only an honourable person would refuse a gift.”
“Not really,” I shrugged.
“Honourable and modest,” said Mrs. Ahmed.
Mr. Ahmed reached into a drawer in the till and pulled something out of it. He leaned over the counter towards me. “Come here, Sofia Probert, please,” he said.
“Go on!” urged Maisa.
I edged forward and Maisa’s father slipped something into my hand. It was a thin chain made of a gold-coloured metal. Attached to it was a shining stone that was dark green in colour. “Please take this,” he said. “In my country we give these necklaces to only the bravest and most honourable people. And you are both.”
“I can’t,” I said, feeling slightly embarrassed.
“You can!” smiled Maisa.
I took the necklace and placed it around my neck. It felt heavy and I felt proud. I thanked Maisa’s parents and made for the exit.
“Before you go, Sofia Probert,” said Mrs. Ahmed, ‘It would be our honour and privilege if you would come to our humble house for tea. Sunday will be good, yes? Be sure to ask your parents permission.”
“Oh let her keep it. It’s not causing anyone any harm, is it?” said my father.
“No, I want her to give it back. I don’t want her accepting charity from those sort of people,” replied my mother.
“What sort of people?”
When I had returned home clutching my new gold necklace and told my mother how it had come into my possession she had reacted in an unexpected way. Instead of congratulating me for protecting our new neighbour from a beating she quickly grew angry, first accusing me of stealing the necklace and then demanding that I give it back. When my father returned home from work, my mother quickly sought his support. I was confused. Surely I had done a good deed? Why was she insisting that I return my reward for that good deed? And why was she so angry? And Pacis? It was the first time that I had ever heard that word and by no means the last. What did it mean? My father read my mind and asked the same question:
“What do you mean ‘Pacis’?” he asked.
“Pacis,” repeated my mother. “People from Pakistan. That’s what they call them.”
“That’s what who calls them?”
I was ushered out of the room as the discussion continued. Sitting at the top of the stairs I listened to raised voices beneath me. My mother grew increasingly agitated as my father tried to reason with her. This went on for some time until I was finally called back into the living room to hear the outcome of the conversation. I was told to put my coat back on and my mother marched me down the street to the Ahmeds’ corner shop. Mr Ahmed was standing behind the counter when we entered. “Good evening, Mrs Probert,” he said, smiling broadly at us. “What can I do for you and your beautiful daughter?”
My mother looked embarrassed as she spoke. “That necklace that you gave to Sofia,” she said. “I want you to take it back.”
Mr Ahmed looked up from the counter and small frown spread across his features. “Take it back?” he said. “Why would you do this?”
My mother looked down at her feet and took a moment or so before responding. “We don’t want it,” she said.
“But why?” repeated Mr Ahmed. “You daughter did a very valiant thing today. It gives me great pleasure to offer a small reward for her help and bravery.”
“Well we don’t want it… It’s not needed.”
Mr Ahmed shrugged his shoulders and looked in pain as I edged forward and placed the necklace on the counter. “I’m very sorry,” he said, looking into my mother’s eyes, “It was not my intention to offend you.”
“You haven’t offended us. We just don’t want it,” said my mother. And with that she turned on her heel and left the shop.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the shopkeeper. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
“You didn’t,” said Mr. Ahmed, who could see that there were tears in my eyes.
“Come on Sofia!” ordered my mother.
After that I decided it would be best if I didn’t mention Sunday’s tea invitation to my mother. I knew that if I did she would stop me from going. So on Sunday afternoon I left the house, telling my mother that I was simply ‘going out to play’.
That’s another thing that I ought to mention to you before we go any further. In those days children of all ages were allowed to leave the house on their own and simply go out to play. It seems incredible now, doesn’t it? But that’s what we did. There was no such thing as play-dates like there are nowadays. If a child wanted to play with another child he simply knocked on their door and asked. When I was a child I spent hours and hours and hours ‘playing out’ on the streets with other kids and most of the time my parents would have no idea where I was, nor were they remotely concerned. They had nothing to worry about. There was a safety about those days, an innocence. Maybe it was because there were considerably less cars on the roads or perhaps it was because people trusted each other more. Whatever the case I feel a little sorry for children growing up today – their parents worry about them a lot more than they used to and they’re missing out on an awful lot of fun.
And so it was that at 4.00 pm on Sunday afternoon I found myself sitting in the Maisa’s living room, drinking tea and eating cake with the Ahmeds, who seemed a little surprised that I had actually turned up. “Did you tell your mother that you were coming here?” asked Mrs. Ahmed, who I noticed for the first time also had a metallic stud through her nose and had a small jewel attached above the bridge of her nose. I wondered how this was done – was it glued into position or had she had an operation to place it there permanently?
“Yes,” I replied innocently, not really sure if the Ahmeds quite believed me.
The Ahmeds’ living room was a bit of a mess. They were still in the process of moving in and it was full of unpacked wooden crates overflowing with their possessions, as well as cases of baked beans and other groceries from the shop. Indeed, every now and again the bell to the shop would ring and Maisa’s parents would take turns serving behind the counter. This again was a new thing for me. The previous owner of the shop, Mr Bartholomew, who was always bad tempered and had a wooden leg, had never opened the shop on a Sunday. In contrast, the Ahmeds never seemed to close it. Once or twice, Maisa was even allowed to go and serve, which I found amazing.
After we had eaten I was allowed to go upstairs to play with Maisa in her bedroom. On the stairs I met her brother Solomon for the first time. He was about fifteen-years-old and very tall and handsome with skin that was even darker than the rest of his family. As Maisa and I passed by he gave me a smile, revealing the whitest set of teeth that I had ever seen. And then he took my hand and shook it, “So this is the brave Sofia,” he said. “It is my honour to meet you.”
Maisa’a bedroom was even smaller than my bedroom at home but here the similarity ended. Whereas my room was a dark drab little place with only a couple of pictures on the walls and a few books scattered here and there, Maisa’s bedroom was covered from floor to ceiling with pictures, pictures of young men with long hair, pictures of the group that we had witnessed on our television set the previous Sunday. And in the corner of the room was a small blue coloured box that I recognised as a record player. Beside it was a stack of shiny black disks. ‘This is my Beatle room,” announced Maisa.
For the next few hours Maisa gave me the history of these strange young men. The pretty one was called Paul, the handsome serious looking one clutching a guitar was called George, the one with the big nose was called Ringo and the angry, intelligent looking one was called John, “He is the man that I’m going to marry,” explained Maisa. Together these for young men formed a pop group called the Beatles. Of which Maisa was apparently their Number One Fan.
Alongside the posters on the wall were attached dozens of newspaper cuttings, and drawings of the Beatles by Maisa, mainly of John. “Let me teach you how to scream,” smiled Maisa. With that she placed one of the shiny black disks on the record player and lowered the needle on to it. The sound that came out of the record player was crackly and strange. The song they were singing was called ‘She Loves You’ and seemed to consist of a lot of howling and ‘yeah, yeah yeahs’. Nevertheless I instantly fell in love with this exotic sound. Then Maisa cupped her hands around her mouth and let out an ear splitting scream. “You try it,” she said. “You’ve got to scream when you’re listening to the Beatles. It’s the rule.” So I did as I was told and soon the room was filled with our youthful screams, until, that is, there was a bang on the bedroom door.
“Maisa, enough!” ordered Mrs Ahmed.