Winning Ticket by Keith Bullock
It's Saturday night; the big push. I go through with the teas. It's quite busy already, though nothing compared with what we can expect when the football crowd returns. It's a Prem' League local derby against the Villa – pray God the Baggies won, happy fans splash week-end cash: the Lottery, booze, ciggies and sweets. When push comes to shove, my clientele will always put these above paying the rent.
Jas, is serving Me and our Mom, a couple we joke about. He's thirty five-ish, going on sixty, small, effeminate and joined at the hip to his elderly mother. I could put their weekend order together without them ever having to open their mouths. ('Me and our Mum would like eight ounces of liquorice allsorts and two packs of salted peanuts, if you please. And me and our Mum would like a bottle of ginger beer and the Woman's Own.')
I pass my wife her tea. The shop's pepping up now – old fellas anxious to get their hands on the racing pages, early troopers from the young lager brigade, single mums mooching for Friday night fast food solutions, nicotine-stained baccy whackers and a ceaseless stream of Camelot big-win dreamers. I cross to the opposite counter where our assistant, Isha, is busy doling out the Lottery tickets and I hand her the second steaming cup.
I'm about to return out back for my own brew when four lads enter. They've drifted over from the flats opposite, the only local tower block left standing. It looks like Party Time, they're carrying two armfuls apiece of canned lager. Strictly speaking, I should be checking their IDs for age, but if I did much of that around here I'd lose half my takings and get my windows kicked in for good measure.
"Come on, Rakki!" yells Ryan, their spiky-haired leader. "A man could fucking die of thirst!"
Wayne, Dwayne and Kyle crack up at the World's Greatest Joke. Wayne and Dwayne are twins. I checked out the veracity of their names with their mother, who looks not a lot older and certainly no wiser than her offspring. She told Jas that back then when she was expecting, she'd hoped for triplets for the additional child allowance. The third arrival would have been dubbed: 'Cain'. To my mind, 'Gain' would have been a more appropriate fit.
Jas is flashing us disapproving glances. Mainly for her benefit, I put on my stern look. "You watch your language now, young Ryan," I tell him.
They're not the brightest stars in the firmament, bless 'em and by a whisker, Kyle twinkles even less brightly than his un-heavenly soul mates. He once asked me good-naturedly whether we were ever going back to Iraq.
"Why Iraq?" I enquired with some surprise.
"Well, your name's Rakki, innit?"
"I know a bloke called Ted Winters," I told him. "So d'you suppose that perhaps he's from the North Pole?"
The four facial expressions before me were reminiscent of the Mayan death masks I've seen at the British Museum.
"So why are you called Kyle?'' (I'll never know why I persisted.)
"I think it's Gaelic," I informed him.
"Where's that then?"
"It's not a place, it's Scottish for 'a strip of water'."
"Are you taking the piss? I'm from Dudley."
He's never quite forgiven me.
Back in the present Wayne and Dwayne are cheerfully chorusing: "Come on, Rakki! Come on Rakki! We wanna neck some booze!"
I take their money with a smile and hand over their change. I can see from Jas' face that she expected a more robust reaction. When she's at her lowest, I remind her that we only have to serve them and that some poor sods spend five days a week trying to teach them. I suppose it's difficult to bear that in mind when she's cleaning Saturday-night sick from the front step on Sunday mornings.
There's no denying that our customers are rough and ready, but there's no real harm in them. I grew up with a similar crowd in the nearby streets. It's what I love about the job, the cut and thrust of it all, rolling with the punch, giving 'em back their cheek and backchat. It makes the world go around.
My tea is still out back, it'll be bloody cold by now. No matter. I choose a moment of slack and push through into our pokey living quarters behind the shop. Sangita's gently trying to persuade Amal to work with her on a jigsaw. It's one of his jigsaws but he's not in the mood. When he wants to, he can finish them at stunning speed. It's part of his condition: there are areas of his mind that work with the speed of a computer and yet for much of the time he seems incapable of understanding the simplest of instructions. It's not right that his sister should have to take so much responsibility for him, but it's the only way that Jas and I get a break from it when he's at home. God knows what we'll do next year if she gets into the Royal College of Music.
Time to cut the mental dilly-dally, the shop must be filling up. I cross and give my darling Sangi a quick cuddle. She's a little miracle worker, my daughter. It breaks me up to think of her with her violin, making such beautiful music in our tiny box-room. What inspiration can there be in a view of the corrugated roofs of two engineering factories? If I had my way, she'd have a light and airy music room looking out over a rose garden.
The place is humming! I get a look from Jas that says I've been out back too long. My God how she hates the shop! A bus from West Brom' has dropped off the first wave of jubilant fans. Many have had a skinful at the match and the atmosphere in the shop is soon tinged with the odour of stale lager. Six or seven of the first in have scooped up their evening booze supplies and are approaching the counters. I hasten to intervene... too late, they're heading for Jas.
"Come... on.... the... Bagg--ies!!" screams the group simultaneously.
Jas is only half their size but she eyeballs them fiercely.
"Can you please show a little respect for other customers and keep the noise down!" she shouts. Ironically, she's almost matched their decibels. There's menace in her demeanour and the piercing stare from those dark brown eyes could stop trains on Indian level crossings and send sacred cows running for the hills. The macho rabble quietens but one brave soldier has the temerity to put his fingers to his lips and make mock-shushing noises. He's a good two feet taller than Jas, but she's around the counter in an instant and fixes him with a death stare. He's not looking so cocky now and Jas makes sure that they all have to wait on her convenience for their booze and fags.
I'm embarrassed, but there's no doubting her spunk. These are guys who might well have blood on their boots from the skulls of rival Villa supporters. They leave, chastened and sobered and Jas throws me another deeply reproachful look. It probably conveys that I was expected to draw upon my ancestry, leap from behind the counter, unsheathe my kirpan and slash them into a thousand pieces.
It pains me, but in the five years that we've owned the shop, she's never known a day's happiness. The problem's not easily solved. When I chucked my job as a postman we sank every last penny into this venture and mortgaged ourselves up to the eyeballs. There's no way back into the Post, jobs there are as rare as chapattis in Chattanooga. I just thank God that she's no real idea of just how much debt we're in. Sooner or later, we'll have to get out. I can't stand by for ever, watching her diminish by the day. But why is Life so perverse? Despite all of the debt, and all of the worries, from the minute we moved in, I came alive. I'm a born trader, a wheeler-dealer. I identify with the business: it's me.
Back to the fray. I'm in the middle of serving Pop Richardson with his daily ounce of Old Holborn when I hear Jasvinder's voice rise again. She's eye to eye with Two Ton Tess – a fat, greasy-haired woman whose name I've never bothered to retain.
"I've told you more than once, Mrs Yarnall, we don't do credit."
"So, that's OK then? My kids can bleedin' starve tonight, can they?" cries the indignant woman.
No, no – don't rise to it, Jas, I'm thinking... but of course, she does.
"Well perhaps you should have thought of that when you bought your cigarettes earlier in the week," says Jas.
"Cheeky cow! I'll spend my money on what I likes," shouts TTT. Her face seems to have swollen to twice it's normal pancake size and she's turning towards the queue behind her, in the hope of mustering client solidarity.
"Yes, but not my money, Mrs Yarnall," says my redoubtable wife.
Notwithstanding the moral superiority of my wife's argument and its reflection of a mutually agreed commercial strategy, I fear that the confrontation is rapidly attaining critical mass and I cross the shop at warp speed.
"Look, what is it that you actually need to purchase?" I enquire.
"Just a mini-pack of your over-priced fish fingers, a loaf and a bleeding tin of beans," comes the reply.
I keep my gaze firmly away from Jasvinder and dismiss the frightful image of haemorrhaging bean cans.
"Well on the basis that you may have misunderstood our policy, we're going to make a one-off exception for you tonight, you may have a ten pound credit until Tuesday."
"In that case you can add ten Silk Cut," says the resourceful behemoth.
I know my wife is furious, she stalks off to serve somebody else and leaves me to enter the woman's items into the till. By an act of Providence, Jas is fully occupied and fails to notice when finally the fat lady sweeps triumphantly from the premises.
When it rains it pours... Jas is moving on towards Tom Andrews. He's one of our regulars, a down and out who lives in a Salvation Army Hostel at the end of the road. Tom's usually a mild-mannered type, so it's out of character for him to be tapping a two litre cider bottle heavily and rhythmically against the counter top. Frequently, we see him the worse for wear, but up to now he's never been any trouble. I've got him pegged as an educated guy who's fallen on hard times but he hasn't told me that directly and I've never asked.
As Jas approaches, he's still banging down his cider bottle and looking extremely unhappy. It must be a reaction to the delay caused by our mini-drama with the dowdy diva. If he's throwing down a challenge to my missus, he's on a very slippery wicket – I can see that customer relations have tumbled progressively to the basement of her commercial agenda.
"You prefer cider when it's exploded all over you then, Mr Andrews?" she enquires.
"I'd have preferred it a couple of hours ago, when I first got to the till," he replies.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear...
"No doubt you saw how busy we've been," says Jas. "Or are you late for a board meeting?"
"That's nice... that's very nice," says Tom, holding his own.
I go over at a gallop, urgently fixing my most winsome smile. Jas sees me coming.
"Oh, to hell with it!" she shouts and turns on her heel. Bang! goes the door to our private quarters. One or two packets of fags fall from the shelves. She's gone.
"Sorry about that," I mutter. "Will it be just the cider?"
"It's Saturday," says Tom and affects a dramatic pause. He's apparently under the impression that I'm clairvoyant. I can see that he's had more than a few drinks already. "You know... my lottery ticket."
Isha has overheard and prints me one off. I take Tom's money and he shambles over to collect his ticket. She's a great girl, Isha, only nineteen, quiet, efficient and hardworking. Outside the shop, sport is her life: netball, hockey and women's cricket – fairly unusual for an Asian girl.
"Is Jas OK?" she asks me, when finally we have a break in the stream.
"If it's all right with you, I'll just nip through and see."
I put my head around the door to our tiny dining and living area, intent on a peace pow-wow. Sangita's on the settee reading a borrowed copy of Hello! from the shop. Jas throws me yet another dirty look; she's at the table helping Amal. We're not advised to spoon-feed him but he'll sit there all day sometimes, staring at his plate. It's tiresome, frustrating, gut-wrenching.
"We're just about to start cashing up," I announce, "should be through in about twenty minutes."
"Well you can get your own food, I've had it. I'm going to bed when I've finished with him."
Amal is rocking backwards and forwards on his chair. It's something he does.There's a dent beginning to appear on the freshly emulsioned wall behind him. Against my better judgement, I let it get to me.
"Can't you stop him doing that? There'll be no bloody wall left?"
No one is allowed to knock Amal. Jas doesn't move a muscle but flashes me another salvo, from tonight's burgeoning armoury of hostile looks. Sangita springs to her feet with tears in her eyes and puts a protective arm around her brother's shoulders. I feel wretched, but I'm on a short fuse now and I step backward and slam the door shut from the shop side.
Isha has put up the 'Closed' sign and as she walks back to the counter she gives me her special enquiring look. I needed no prompting, I know I have to return and smooth things over. I sigh, throw my arms theatrically into the air and push back through the interior door. I'm now looking at the two finalists in The World's Unhappiest Face Contest and there's not an eyelash to choose between them.
"Look... I'm sorry..."
I go over and put an arm around Amal.
"Once we've closed up tomorrow, how about we go over to Himley Hall after lunch? The forecast's good and we could all use the fresh air?"
Sangita pulls a bit of a face, but Jas nods, almost imperceptibly. The way to her heart is through Amal. We all know he's fascinated by flowers, he can spend forever tramping around staring at individual blooms, it's been one of his few abiding interests.
"There's some dhal in the fridge, you can warm it up," she says, by way of a truce.
By the time Isha and I have balanced and closed the safe, it's ten o'clock. I see her to the door and wave to her Dad sitting out there in his car. They're a nice Hindu family, a little stricter on Isha than we are with Sangita, but that's their way – it takes all sorts.
"See you Monday!" I shout.
Isha doesn't work Sundays. On Sundays, Jas and I manage alone and close up at one o'clock. Half a day off a week and then, frequently, there's stock to order, or the occasional problem with a balance carried over. I worked it out once – I do an average of ninety-seven hours a week – that's well over double the hours I did as a postman and lately, I'm not even covering our costs.
I lock up and go through to the lounge. They're all in bed. I know exactly what I'm going to do next. In the light of the austerity regime I'm imposing, it's unfair, but I've rationalised: it's once in a blue moon and I deserve it, it's medicinal, it keeps me sane and it's well under control... I return to the shop and take a bottle of Bell's whisky from the shelf.
The micro-waved dhal tastes good. I eat it with my fingers, dipping pieces of wholemeal bread into its savoury interior; not traditional, but the way I like it. Between mouthfuls I pour whisky, three fingers at a time, topped with a finger of water. My mind quietens and my body relaxes. Jas will find the half-empty bottle in the morning. She may feel resentful, but it's doubtful that she'll say anything. At the end of the day, I'm the head of the bloody household... if I feel like a drink, I'll have a bloody drink.
I get to thinking about what kind of a Sikh I am. Pretty good, in general I believe, but then again, that's one of the forbidden sins: Pride – and there's been another one to feel guilty about today: Anger. But seriously, I believe in the one God of all things and that all men are created equal and I try hard to uphold the moral values I've learned. I'm a good family bloke and I've never lusted after other women.
I can feel the whisky beginning to work. Why am I so screwed up? I know I'm not supposed to be attached to material things and that I should |practise contentment, but is it really asking too much to want to get out of the economic hole that we're in?
I pour another shot and down it quickly.
The great thing about Sikhism is, it is gentle, forgiving and all-embracing... There's even a term for people like me: Sahajdhari – slow adopters. I haven't yet committed to the Khalsa and don't follow the five K's, even though I do wear the turban most of the time.
I'm Dudley through and through, almost third generation. My old man was fourteen when his parents stepped out in a daze from an East African plane. It was nineteen fifty-five and they headed from Heathrow to distant relatives in the Black Country. He attended just one year of secondary school before being taken on by the local foundry. By the time I came along he'd been working as a caster for a full fifteen years. I feel Sikh, but it's difficult to feel Indian. On Dad's side of the family no-one has set foot in Mother India for almost a hundred years. They were in Africa building railways from the earliest days of the British Raj. My Mum was from there too, but her family had the sense to get out of Uganda long before Idi Amin chucked out the rest in nineteen seventy two. She died together with my little brother, in childbirth, when I was three. Dad was a very special man, he brought me up alone, with occasional help from Mum's family.
I don't remember Mum of course, nor Granddad. Granddad was a signed up member of the Khalsa, a fully practising Sikh who kept Kesh, wore Kara, Kanga and Kacha, carried the Kirpan and visited the Gurdwara each day. Dad believed that Granddad didn't come back, that he'd reached Level Five: Sach Khand – the final Union with God. It's a nice comforting thought... I can't believe the same of Dad; he was a great father, a good, hard-working bloke but he liked his pint, trimmed his beard and stayed away from our temple, the Gurdwara. It's easy now to understand why: all foundry workers were given a shift beer allowance to counter the sweat they lost, and several of the first Sikhs to enter British foundries met with horrendous industrial accidents when their unshaven beards caught fire from the sparks and furnaces. Blisters on Dad's face and arms and burns to his clothing were almost weekly occurrences.
Jas never dwells much on matters spiritual; maybe it's because she's so grounded in the here and now and doesn't feel the need? She's the genuine article, an Indian Sikh from the Punjab. I went over there for her and brought her back to all this. It wasn't exactly an arranged marriage, but in a way it was: Dad was terminally ill from the foundry fumes and trying to claw back elements of his culture. To please him, I agreed to review three eligible young ladies selected for me back in the Punjab by more spiritually-minded friends of his at the Gurdwara. I met Jasvinder over there by chance. She was best friend to Potential Wife Two and the prettiest of them all; clever too, the only girl in her village ever to win an open scholarship and full board to a public school in Amritsar. If anything, her English is better than mine. I didn't win any medals with the marriage brokers of Dudley of course, in fact, most of them still don't speak to me, but I did find the love of my life. As for the old man, he died happy because no one had the heart to tell him that I'd upset local planning and plucked a different apple from the tree.
The warm glow has spread all over. I could sit here all night and see off the bottle. Jas, Jas, Jas... what the fuck am I going to do? Maybe in India, you would have achieved your full potential? I don't like to think too much about that... you married me. You're feisty, honest and hardworking, the mother of my two kids and still as beautiful as the day of our wedding in Amritsar. I know now that putting you behind a counter in Netherton was like planting a rare orchid in a nettle patch. If only you could see that Dudley folk aren't the enemy. Your enemy's your inability to go with the flow – and to dream you married a foreign Prince, rather than a poor bastard from Netherton who's doing his best to keep our heads above water.
I reach again for the bottle. Bloody hell! What happened to it all? I must have missed the glass a couple of times... I take a panicky look at the carpet and the sofa cushions, but there's no evidence of spillage.
So, how can I make things right for her? How can I return us to the happiness we knew in the early days? To put it another way: how do we quit our small Indian news agency and grocery shop in the rougher part of Dudley and start over again? The accommodation is tied to the job, our mortgage is crippling and we've bank loans and outstanding debts to suppliers. I feel like a rat in a trap. God knows I've tried. I've pulled the plug on all but the most vital elements of our expenditure and it's still touch and go whether we can even hang on to Isha. Without her, I think we'd sink anyway.
When I worked on the Post, Jas took pleasure in sending money back home. It was never more than a few quid here and there, but in the Punjab that's the difference between whether your kid can go to the village school or not, or whether Jas's old Uncle Gurdip can get the odd bottle of jollop for his stomach ulcer. That's had to go – temporarily, of course. We've argued. Jas refuses to look at the bank statements or to attempt to understand the financial issues. That's probably what started her depression. She's had to cancel her gym membership too and she moans that she's lost her circle of friends. Some friends, I say, if it's all down to money. Very un-Sikh-like. But then, that's not entirely honest of me either. How many times have I seen mates down at the Gurdwara lately? Most of the buggers I grew up with seem to be doing pretty well and it kind of rubs against the grain a little.
It's the alcohol talking now, I realise I'm just a conduit. It's never made me fierce and nasty – I drink to think. Sadly, it's an aspiration that's subject to the Law of Diminishing Returns. I'm long past sharp and reflective and I'm drifting rapidly out of maudlin into foggy and confused. Alcohol of course, is one of the four kurahits: an absolute bloody no-no, even though most of us indulge. I'm feeling bad about that too – am I just some massive hypocrite? I hope not, I'm Sikh to the core, but just like Dad used to say about himself: I'm not yet ready for the Khalsa, the demands of everyday life get in the way too much.
The demands of life... Shit! It's half past midnight and Sunday's a five o'clock start, counting out the paper rounds before the delivery kids arrive. I creep upstairs and undress clumsily. Jas is snoring gently. I slip in beside her. I brush against her bum which is stationed well over on my side of the bed and I feel a twinge of desire. It's enough to sober me, I'm now on a baser mission and clear as a bell – no pun intended with Bell's – and eagerly I wriggle closer to her musky warmth.
"You've been drinking," she murmurs and straightens herself. It has the effect of creating a six inch divide between us and immediately, I feel myself shrinking.
I have to tell myself, she said drinking – fool – nothing to do with shrinking! She must have the nose of a search and rescue hound, my wife... and now, her bum might as well be an iceberg and me the marauding Titanic. Well – just as long as we don't become ships that pass in the night... I'm stupidly pleased with my drunken extended metaphor, it makes up for the shrinking/drinking confusion. Just as well, as it's the only satisfaction I'm going to get tonight. Come to think of it, our lovemaking's been like the Dover ferry lately: roll on, roll off. Hah! Sheer genius! King of Wit. I'm grinning like an idiot in the darkness.
My head's beginning to spin, so I turn over away from her. I've always loved words, words and word play – at school it was the only thing that I was any good at. I remember Mr Montgomery telling the English Language class: 'Basra is bound for greatness – our first brown Shakespeare.' It was my proudest moment.
Oh fuck, who am I kidding? It's as much as I can do nowadays to write out the tobacco order... I'm a snuffed-out candle, a busted flush and I feel as miserable as sin. Sikh to the core. I'm bloody sick to the core. I close my eyes at that, it's just one pun too many... one pun too many... one pun too many...
The alarm clangs in my left ear and I leap for it like a cat on a sparrow. I can't believe it! I've only just shut my bloody eyes! My head's banging and my mouth feels like the bottom of a birdcage. I'm full of toxins and feeling ill. The four Sunday paper rounds are waiting to be counted, it's the only morning we deliver. Jas sleeps on. I'm feeling sorry for myself and it's a sentiment I hate. I stumble through to the bathroom and shower quickly. After I've towelled off, I reach for the barrier cream and cover my arms. Don't know why I bother, it doesn't seem to prevent the eczema; by the end of an hour's newspaper-counting my hands and arms are black with newsprint, rough as sandpaper and as cracked as the earth of Bihar. 'You must wear gloves, Mr Basra,' my GP tells me. He's never tried counting Sunday newspapers. Wearing gloves, I'd be counting 'em until Monday.
I'm just about through marking up the rounds and on my second cup of tea when the paper kids knock the front door. They're a lively, cheeky bunch – Sean and Marie, a carrot-haired brother and sister aged fourteen and fifteen, and Lee and Sting, both sixteen, street-wise and shaven-headed. 'Sting' – I get to wondering about Netherton parents and names again: where on earth did that label originate? Why not 'Itch' or 'Irritate'? I'm guessing it is his real birth name, for no one ever calls him anything else. What matters however is that they're a good team and reliable. I used to have eight rounds, but when they began demolishing the tower blocks around here it cost me dear. It looks like the Syrian front-line out there these days.
Jas comes through at seven thirty and I go and grab the quick breakfast that she's left out for me. No mention of last night's booze. So far, so good. Once I get into my rhythm, I quite like Sunday mornings. The luckiest of the boozers are still in bed, the rest are draped over street bollards, in A&E, or waiting to be unlocked from overnight cells. More to the point, they're not in here and the abstinent minority are so much easier to handle. Jas is relaxed, there's sometimes time for a chat with people and ahead, there's the prospect of a few hours to ourselves.
Sangita and Amal are up early and having breakfast with me. Sangi tells Amal that we're going to Himley this afternoon. I think I see a reaction in his eyes, but I'm always seeing reactions in his eyes. I rise from the table, give my daughter a squeeze and ask her if she's slept all right.
"I'm worried, Dad," she tells me. "What if I never get into the RCM?"
The RCM, I've learned, is the Royal College of Music. She has to present the first part of a concerto and some other backing music at an audition next year, if she's to have any chance of gaining admission.
"You will, darling, I'm sure. You just have to keep up with the practising."
"But Dad, you don't understand! – Dads never do, I've learned – "I don't do enough. I need to start going to practice sessions on Saturdays in Birmingham."
"We'll sort it," I tell her. "But Love, I have to get back to the shop right now."
I see her beautiful face fall and my heart falls with it. She wants me to be more supportive – a hands-on Dad – but I'm always pushed for time and full of worries... Or perhaps it's just that I don't want to think that far ahead?
"We'll sort it, I promise," I repeat and kiss her on the forehead, wondering how the hell we can ever sort it. Without Sangita to watch Amal on Saturdays, we'd be totally up the creek. Just once a month we get some relief, when he's 'on the house' as they call it, for a weekend. I'm guessing that one Saturday's practice in four in Birmingham, won't be enough to guarantee that Sangi makes the grade.
I go through. The shop's quite busy. An early morning surge – a group of anglers on their way to a fishing contest in Bewdley (pipe tobacco, chocolate and lemonade), a couple of shift workers coming back off nights (fags and the Sunday Mirror), a few other early birds in for newspapers, fags, loaves of bread, packets of cereals, margarine and jam. Jas and I work our way through them. I'm still trying to gauge her temperature... she seems fine with the customers this morning. Mrs Kumar enters. I'm not too keen on her – too much of a gossip – but she and Jas get on well. For the next ten minutes, whilst they chat, I'll be doing the donkey work. At least, there are no rowdy youths in to light her fuse.
I'm serving Fred Johnson, he's a Jamaican bus driver. It's complicated: he wants to pay his papers but it's been five weeks and the book's not up to date. Two of his kids have comics, his wife takes three knitting magazines but reckons that she's not had two of them for a fortnight, he takes a racing paper in addition to the Daily Mirror which he wants to change for The Sun and his missus paid four quid against the bill last Friday. They're the kind of issues that take forever to sort out and always end with me losing money.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see our boozy friend Tom Andrews walk in. Unusual for a Sunday morning, he must have found some additional cider money from somewhere? He looks grim: unshaven, sallow and unkempt. Uncharacteristically, Jas breaks off from her natter with Mrs Kumar and heads towards him. I can see from her face that she's not forgotten the previous evening. I daren't intervene for a second time. Please, please, God, keep the lid on things.
"How can I help you?" she asks.
I'm pleased – that sounded civil enough...
Tom nods in my direction. "I'll wait," he tells her.
Jas shrugs nonchalantly. "Suit yourself." She turns and heads back to Mrs Kumar.
Sweet relief! I feel as though an Exocet missile with my name on it just passed by, with GSP failure. I've totally forgotten Fred Johnson and the financial complexities of his newspaper account and I exhale so forcibly that three of his receipt counterfoils blow straight off the counter.
"Whoops! You OK dere, Mista Basra?" he asks in his wonderful sing-song accent.
Tom wanders over to the booze shelves. He returns with a four-pack of Bulmer's. I hasten to finish off quickly with Fred; it's well worth the four quid loss.
"Right," I say at last. "Will it be just the cider?"
Tom fishes in his shirt pocket with his dirty finger nails. "And can you check last night's ticket?"
I take his money and his ticket. He could have bloody-well checked it for himself – the winning numbers are there on the wall, staring him in the face. I have a Camelot display board and four times a week I post the lottery winning numbers: Wednesday and Saturday – the Euro', Thursday and Sunday – the National. I pass him his change and double-check what I'm seeing on the board and on his ticket: the numbers are identical!
"I couldn't face the Dragon this morning – too much of a hangover."
I don't really catch what he's saying, my heart is pounding so loudly in my ears. Jas is on the way over for some reason... I'm dimly aware that she's looking pissed off. I tear my gaze from the ticket again and see she's eye-balling him.
"What did you say?" Jas demands.
"If you don't mind – I was talking to your husband."
"Rakesh! Are you just going to stand there and allow this man to insult me?"
"Yes..." I say. Oh, God Almighty... the numbers are identical!
"Yes?" she demands.
I look up briefly from the ticket. She seems absolutely furious. I wonder vaguely what in hell's upset her now...
"Did you say 'Yes'?"
"No, I mean, no... Look, listen, both of you, there's something-"
"I was having a private conversation, here," Tom is saying.
"Read that notice!" shouts Jas, pointing towards the till. "It tells the world that no member of staff here will tolerate abuse!"
I try to gather my wits... to ground myself. "But Jas... I'm sure he was only -"
It's too little, too late. Jas is incandescent. "Get out of my shop!" she orders.
Tom picks up his cans and tries to retain some final vestige of dignity by brushing real or imagined fluff from the sleeve of his threadbare coat.
"I don't have to shop here, you know."
"No, you certainly don't!" says my spit-fire wife.
He heads for the door and Jas follows, arms akimbo. I follow Jas, still clutching the ticket. There seems to be no real opportunity to intervene.
At the doorway, he seals his fate: "You really are a dragon," he mutters.
I have to take hold of Jas' arm to restrain her, she's already half way over the step and would have followed him outside.
"We can do without your drunken riff-raff!" she shouts at his back. "Get off with you and don't come back!"
"Jas, Jas," I shout, "that's enough!"
She's totally lost it. "And you can just get off me, Rakesh! That was a question of honour! You dare to let that man insult me!"
She breaks free and flies through to our private quarters. Mrs Kumar, who has stood and witnessed it all, now walks haughtily past me with a look of total contempt. I'm left standing alone, the shop empty of customers.
"Oh, my God! What do I do?" I exclaim out loud. I sprint back to the shop door. Tom is about fifty yards away, heading towards his hostel, swigging from one his cans. For a second I think of pursuing him down the street, but I can't leave the shop and the tills.
"Oh my God!" I repeat to myself, trying to catch my breath. I return to the displayed numbers and check and double check. I put the ticket down, close my eyes and try again to control my breathing. I grab the ticket once more, hold it in trembling fingers and re-check... there is not a shadow of doubt, it's the winning ticket from the Saturday Lottery.
There's no sign of Jas. I know I'm in no state to face another customer. It's only just after ten, but I hurry over, pull the blinds and turn around the 'Open' sign to 'Closed'. In the half-light remaining, I take out the small steps from behind the sweet counter and place them next to the high shelf where we keep the adult magazines. The formica up there is loose on the shelf and in need of replacement. Carefully, I place Tom's winning ticket between the shelf and the formica and descend the steps.
I realise that I've been repeating 'Oh, my God,' over and over again and I force myself to stop. I've no idea why I've hidden the ticket, no idea of what to do next. Should I tell Jas? Go around to the hostel? Could I keep it? – I dismiss the thought immediately, it would be a criminal act... But who's to know?
Jas is surprised to see me but too angry to admit it.
"I'm feeling ill Jas," I tell her. "I've had to close up early."
She turns over the page of her newspaper so savagely that it falls to the floor, causing her to mouth a swearword as she bends to collect it. She's still refusing to look in my direction. "Well, I'm not bloody-well going back in there, if that's what you think?"
Inwardly, I bristle. When I first met her in India, she would never have dreamt of acting like that, least of all with her husband. Over there, a wife could get herself killed for less. I force myself to calmness. We're not 'over there' – nor would I ever want to live by those values... Her words are only slightly less hard to swallow. I remind myself that she's struggling with the lifestyle, struggling under the shadow of our debts.
"Look Jas, can we just cool down? Let's do what I suggested, go to Himley Hall this afternoon and try to put things back together again. We can discuss it all there, out in the fresh air."
She softens slightly, enough to put down the newspaper and look at me. There is still anger but it's tinged with concern. "And you've really had to close the shop?"
It's an opportunity to divert my anger. "Bugger the shop for half a day! I know we'll lose on the newspapers and we'll have some explaining to do, but nobody's going to die from lack of a newspaper, or a packet of fags. I just can't face any more this morning and I know you've had enough too."
"But we can't afford to do that very often."
"Let's just call it a one off... try to get ourselves mended."
"So, where are you poorly?"
"Everywhere and bloody nowhere, nothing that a few hours in Himley Park won't cure."
We lapse into silence. Neither of us has tried quite hard enough to fully restore normal relations. She goes off to make lunch and I interrupt Sangita's violin practice to tell her we're going out earlier than planned. We gather around the table. To speed things along, Jas has settled for open chicken sandwiches and ice cream from the shop fridge. I spice the top of my sandwich with too many dried chilli flakes from a defective sprinkler, my head explodes and my eyes begin to run. I'm coughing and sneezing and Amal is looking at me quizzically with his big, brown eyes. It breaks some of the remaining tension. Sangi thinks it's hilarious and even Jas manages a reluctant smile. I'll probably survive if I can drink a hundred or so gallons of water.
As Jas showers and prepares for the outing, I sit on the end of the bed, my mind doing overtime again. The way to God is through our actions... and what have I done? Pinched a poor man's lottery ticket. Not true! I'm simply safekeeping it until I can get it to him. I should cancel the Himley Hall trip right now and take a walk down to his hostel. I should remain true to my faith: the way to God is through contentment, satisfaction with one's lot – fighting the enemy of Envy, and not lusting after the good fortune of other men. But to hell with it, all that can wait until Monday. Tom will be too hooked on his cider to take much notice before then and when he gets the thirst again, he's sure to be back breaking Jas' exclusion order. I can give him the accursed ticket next time I see him.
What's a guy like that going to do with so much money, anyway? – Out! Out! Ignoble thought!
I creep downstairs to the lounge and check with the telly. My instinct was right: there's just one single big winner on yesterday's draw. I have to check again. Back in the shop I re-climb the steps and stare at the numbers on the ticket: 8, 17, 22, 31, 37, 39: there can be no doubt about it, it's the Jackpot. My legs go to rubber and I'm in danger of falling down the steps.
In spite of Dudley's dark, satanic sweat-shop reputation, we're spoiled for choice when it comes to beautiful surroundings. There's canal walks with herons and swans, the Clent Hills just twenty minutes away with panoramic views across the West Midlands, Bewdley and the River Severn, Kidderminster and its Safari Park, the Wyre Forest, the Malvern Hills, Cannock Chase – all within easy reach. We chose Himley Hall for Amal, he's easier to control there and fascinated by the gardens, it's also the closest. We pull into the car park and Sangita tells us she's learned that Charles the First once stopped by on his way to the Battle of Bosworth. Apparently, it was landscaped by some guy called Capability Brown; Capability Brown – I wish I was Capability Someone, instead of bloody Incapability Basra.
Sangi wants to go straight to the log cabin for tea and cake. I have to remind her that we've only just arrived, she's never been a great one for walking. First we'll look at the gardens to spark up Amal, then there'll be a walk around the great lake. I'm hoping it will lift Jas' spirits. Then there'll be time enough for tea and cake.
We walk past the entrance to the nine-hole miniature golf course.
"Remember we used to borrow some clubs and have a go at that? You were good." I remind Jas. She nods. She isn't going to reward me with any enthusiasm, even though she loved the game.
"You and Mum, played?" Sangi enquires incredulously. She has the normal teenage difficulty in imagining that Mum and Dad could have done anything, pre-Sangita.
"They lend you a driver, two irons and a putter," I tell her. "Mum used to beat the pants off me."
Sangi snorts her disbelief and I get no corroboration from Jas, who has lapsed back into silence. We walk on and Sangi asks me to explain the strange names I've given to golf clubs. I'm not sure whether it's genuine interest or a test. She breaks off every now and again to chase after her brother like a working collie. It's remarkable how Amal comes alive at the sight of plants and flowers. I'm always thinking he's on the edge of a breakthrough into genuine communication, but it never quite happens. We tour the lake and he's in his shell again, no significant interest, not even in the cute little baby ducklings paddling like crazy to stay in their mother's wake.
Finally, we sit at an outside table and I order refreshments. Jas is still under a cloud, not exactly a storm cloud, more like a dull mist. Amal scoffs two cakes. At one point he has so much in his mouth that he's in danger of choking. Jas hardly seems to notice. When he takes off to stare at a nearby flower bed, Sangita shadows him and my wife chooses her moment.
"You never really support me, do you Rakki?"
I'm shocked. I hadn't seen that one coming and it's not at all the image I have of myself.
"Jas, I do, I'm always there for you! How can you even think that?"
"What do they have to do then: knock me down, kick me, rape me before you notice?"
"Jas! What are you talking about...Who? When?"
"The football yobs, Mrs Yarnall, the alkie I chucked out... all in the space of one weekend and right under your nose. You should stand up for me, wade in and defend my honour."
"Tom? – He's not an alkie, just a homeless bloke who drinks," I say, sheepishly. It's not the response she was looking for, but Tom Andrews is at the forefront of my mind.
"Oh for God's sake! I'm talking about you – us, not him! Rakesh, whatever's gotten into you?"
"Calm down! There's been a lot on my mind lately."
I knew it wasn't over, even though we'd cleared the air before lunch the storm clouds were never far away.
"Does that explain the whisky then?"
That one, I had been expecting.
"It's an occasional need. It calms me down, keeps me sane."
"I'm not challenging your right to drink – whatever our faith says about that – but what about your austerity regime? It doesn't stretch as far as whisky, obviously! Me, I can't send money home, I can't go to the gym, I can't afford anything, according to you!"
I'm on the edge now too. "Give me a break, Jas, that's unfair! You know why we're having to be careful; it won't last forever. The whisky's occasional, once in a blue moon!"
"Well I'll have to find something occasional too," she says, childishly.
We lapse into a new silence. Sangita and Amal are holding hands walking around the flower beds. Sangi has spotted that there's an issue between her Mum and Dad and she's giving us some breathing space. She's amazing.
Jas changes tack. "I don't know how much more of the shop I can take, Rakesh."
It's less of a statement, more of an invitation for me to engage in a mutual Basra life-style audit.
"I know it's tough right now," I say. "I've been thinking: if you really feel you can't take the shop, how about doing some office temping? If you covered the price of another assistant we could stay cash neutral?"
She shrugs non-commitally.
"Come on, Jas, I'm trying to think constructively here. How about it?"
"It might work, I suppose... Things have moved on – I don't know whether I'm up to working in the modern office."
"Of course you are!"
"It's not just about me you know? – How can you be happy bringing up the kids in that dump of a shop?"
On another day, I'd have been more than half-inclined to agree with her; today, it hits me as a put-down to all I've strived for.
"Come on Jas, it's hardly a dump! Things aren't that bad... The sun's shining, we have our health, our family, each other." They're platitudes, but none the less for that.
She sighs. "I dreamed of so much more, you know... the village girl from Amritsar who met the visiting English millionaire."
"Some millionaire! It'll get better though. Times are hard, people are spending less. I've always said – when they start building the new flats opposite, our takings will -"
"Oh Rakesh, please! I've heard it so often, I'm just sick of it!"
Now, I'm feeling really angry and resentful. Angry with the bloody local council for turning our area into a wasteland and knocking shit out of our takings, resentful of Jas for not making the time and effort to familiarise herself with the economics of our situation. Angry with her for being so basically pessimistic and insensitive. Somehow, I manage to keep the lid on.
"Whatever you say, we have to beat the negative equity – that's pure economics. We wait for an upturn, then we can start thinking of real alternatives. Maybe I should take a leaf out of our customers' book: start doing the National Lottery?"
She sighs heavily again. "Mum said from the beginning you were a dreamer... I should have listened. What about her cataracts, we were set to pay for the treatment? Look at us: can't go on holiday, can't replace the car, can't treat ourselves to the gym, or the pub, can't even pay the bills you tell me. What are we going to do? How in hell will we get Sangita through music college? What about Amal, what kind of chance in life are we going to give him?"
Amal's problem is ASD – it's short for Autistic Spectrum Disorder. I'd never heard of it before his diagnosis, we just noticed that from his earliest days, you could seldom get through to him. He looked through you, made noises and got on with his own thing. Bringing him up's been like a slow-motion car crash: first you had a tiny worry about early infant responses, then it began to hit you that he didn't seem to have normal baby reactions, then came tantrums, fits and constant screaming. He came out of much of that at around five, but by then, there were new challenges, no real language development, fixations, rocking, head banging and social withdrawal. It's all to do with his perception of reality – he can't 'read' other people the way we do and therefore he can't work out the appropriate responses. The result is massive permanent frustration with the world.
His diagnosis brought us some relief. At least we were able to put a name to the poor lad's problems. Autism West Midlands has a branch in Dudley and the staff has been great. He was statemented and he goes to a school for autistic children. It was a shock to discover just how many like him there are out there. For our part, we had to learn how to handle his challenging behaviour without anger, frustration or depression. That's the theory! Of course we get angry, frustrated and depressed – and desperate and fearful – for his future. He's our little Amal and I'd give everything to hear him say 'Hello Dad,' like other kids can.
It's below the belt, she knows I have no answer. What indeed will become of him if we never have the money to provide? It pains me like a stake through the heart. 'Singh' means Lion – I'm her lion, Sangi's lion, Amal's lion. I should be their protector, the bringer of all comforts and rewards.
"He's in the right special school," I reply. It's a weak-as-shit answer, but it's all I have – other than to tell her to go out and get a bloody full-time job!
She's not finished yet. "And don't you think that the rich would have done so much more? Tutors, specialist equipment, an environment where he could have begun to grow and develop, instead of being stuck in a couple of shoe-box rooms behind a bloody sweet shop?"
She begins to weep.
I'm furious; trapped, cornered, frustrated. "Can you stop carping on about the shop? – It's hardly a bloody sweet shop, Jas. Like I said, I'll have to start doing the Lottery."
She jumps to her feet enraged. "If you mention the bloody lottery again, I swear I'll walk out of this park and you'll never see me again!"
Sangita runs over and places a protective arm around her mother's shoulders. Jas is crying openly and buries her head in our daughter's neck. I give Sangi an open palms sign of defeat and despair. Struggling to control my anger, I stride over to rescue my innocent little boy from the flower beds. I walk him around whilst Sangita does her best to calm her mother. So much for the ambrosial effects of Himley Park! I drive us home in silence, my mind buzzing like a hornet between my ears. I'm sitting on a winning ticket worth several million quid, the answer to all of our prayers... What in Merry Fuck's name do I do? It could change everything.
Some Sikh, I tell myself: I don't defend the weak, I covet my neighbour's wealth, I drink, I've stopped giving to charity, I ignore the needs of Jas's family, I don't visit the temple, I don't follow the five K's and I couldn't be feeling more pessimistic – yes, pessimistic!!! And I don't have to remind myself that optimism is yet another key demand of our faith.