Thursday, October 11, 2007
6. Secrets and News
So there I am, sitting in St Ann’s Square Starbucks while this Neil, a perfect stranger – not a psychopath, as Brenda and Jody worried, but an unthreatening thirtyish guy in jeans; friendly manner, actually really nice; pretty intent though – while this stranger insists on telling me a story.
This is the story:
It is 1952. A young Manchester woman and a young man not long arrived from India fall in love. They want to marry, but for racial reasons her family object. She defies them and the young couple run off together to London. Her family respond by cutting her off. They have children, but this fails to disarm her family, indeed their disapproval seems to intensify. Even when the young man falls ill with TB and dies they go on rejecting their daughter and her half-Indian children. Widowed and alone, she never sees her parents or her much younger sister again.
She was Neil’s grandmother, now dead.
And then he gave me a good hard look and told me this :
Her much younger sister, younger by fifteen years, was my nan!
Well, I’m telling you, I knocked over my Starbucks medium cappuccino with extra cinnamon, it spilled everywhere, all over his jeans and my leggings, and everyone was staring and a Starbucks guy came to help, and I didn’t know what to do or how to feel or what to believe, but somehow I knew it was true and I went kind of hollow inside and I started to cry, but then something else tugged inside me and I started laughing as well.
‘Nan!’ I said to her later, in shock and fury. She looked shocked too, but a bit sad and troubled and she didn’t deny it. Turned out she kind of half-knew it, but then she hadn’t really known it either, at the time she was very young and her elder sister had hardly ever been mentioned again.
‘Oh love!’ she cried when I took him to see her, and rushed forward and hugged him. ‘Oh love!’ cried my mum, and my dad, my nan’s son, hugged him too. ‘Good god!’ cried Ahmed when I told him, and I was so excited I forgot myself and I flung my arms around him.
Last night we all went for a drink, me and Ahmed – well yes, we are an item now – Jody, Neil my new relative, and Mike and Magda still wrangling about the news blackout in Burma.
I thought about suppressed knowledge. I looked out at the city with all its histories, some of them still secret, some of them exploded like ours. I watched the people passing and I thought of how much more closely our lives can be tangled with those of passing strangers than we imagine.
I focussed back on the conversation which had turned to Mick and Magda’s favourite subject, the class struggle. Magda was telling Jody that as a bourgeois she could hardly comment, and Jody exploded: ‘My dad might be a doctor, but my granddad was an Irish peasant!’ Magda looked shocked and then said wryly, ‘Well, yes, what do I know? In my country my family are the ruling class.’
Everyone looked at her in shock, and it was Neil who started laughing.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention: I asked Neil: ‘Why on earth did you decide not to show your face in the library that day?’ (The place, it turns out, where he looked up the records when he came here to work and tracked us down). ‘And avoided me for so long afterwards?’
‘I just bottled it. I was worried about your nan. Worried I’d just cause trouble. Well, what really got to me was that thing your dad was always saying about the family being English through and through.’
I stared. ‘How did you know he was always saying that?’
He grinned. ‘Well, you’ve not been very secretive. I’ve been reading your blog, haven’t I?’
Many thanks to all the readers and voters who helped make this project a success, and especially to Elizabeth Baines, richardfair.co.uk and the Manchester Literature Festival for their support. We hope to see you again next year!