Red clouds grew angry in the north country. Wind rushed through the trees, singing blue songs. And the white children stood with their bicycles in their hands, shoes solemnly fixed upon dusty ground. They were here because the story of the night before had not escaped their ears. There were three or four of them, under the age of ten, and there they stood in silence, transfixed, before the black house where the Kashmiri and the Romanian had once lived.
The Kashmiri and the Romanian, it is said, shared ice-blue eyes, each forged in the diamond valleys of their mountainous homelands. Those eyes first caught sight of one another on a train, heading north, in the summer of 1964. In the sweltering heat of that closed-window carriage, surrounded by children mimicking Beatles and Daleks, the reflections of two sapphires collided and two lives changed forever. The Kashmiri had been wearing a dark jacket, his hair dolled backwards with oil; a smart man, who had made it a habit to look towards the ground only. He had discovered, shortly after arriving by boat to this gold-paved land, the wonders of limiting eye-contact as a means of preventing trouble. But still, he looked up this once. It did not take long for the Romanian, whose plain white dress matched her lips, and whose ears were draped with tiny silver chains and rings, to catch sight of his dazzling blue and decide, on a whim, to take the risk.
A boy of about eleven or twelve, salt-skinned and straw-haired, gazed back at them as they had their first conversation, bemused indeed at the smiling gypsy and the blushing paki.
She had been a student of history, three years his senior. He worked at a tyre factory though he was, in his spare time, an avid reader. They were to elope four years later, in the autumn of 1968, though the exact details of this ceremony remain unknown. Had it been she, seductive iele, some nymph of the woods, who made that initial first move, who had bewitched the paki, forced him into some unholy congregation, cursed him so? Or was it he, docile and slimy, who had mistakenly taken the gypsy for a oneofus, who sought to integrate through her, that poor soul? And what kind of ceremony had it been, exactly? Some of the children had sworn that they had seen the couple moments after the wedding rites, head-to-toe in wog-costume, but others insisted that the surviving descriptions of their marriage implied that they had donned cheap and parodic Western attire. Whether the marriage had been Christian, or Hindu, or whatever gypsies believe in, nobody could say for sure.
And certainly, nobody knew that the proposal had taken place in an empty room in the library by the town hall, earlier that year. At lunchtime, on that fine April day, he had taken the number seven bus to an electrical goods shop on the other end of town, in which the Romanian was the only female employee. They had then enjoyed a short walk which ended, indeed, in the library, whereupon the Kashmiri, with great, teary conviction in those sky-blue eyes, had taken her hands into his own for the first time in public. And when – as imaginary eyes blared bright – she, without wanting to, pulled away her trembling hands, he simply smiled and shook his head.
“Pay them no attention,” he whispered, and she, trying as best to ignore those knife-sharp glances, returned her hands to his familiar warmth. The Kashmiri continued, “I know, I know. How dare I stir such big trouble by placing on your hands my own?” He smiled. “The answer, of course, is that I do not have the right not to do so.”
She had been unable to say yes, properly at least, and she could only hope, as she lay on the floor of her tiny box room, all alone, that her tears, her incessant nodding, her long embrace, had been enough. Sleep shied away for hours, but when it did arrive, she saw in her slumber colourful transmissions of a colour-soaked marriage, and a life soundtracked by what would be, in his tongue, a great, warm mohabbat.
There was no big wedding speech, no celebrating family, no exotic honeymoon. Just a paper signed and an ecstatic walk home to the small flat they now shared, but then, once inside, what a performance! All conventions flouted, torn up! The Kashmiri and the Romanian, all alone in the world, were free to create their own traditions, make up their own music. That old dream wedding, therefore, exploded like Holi powder into reality, behind the rickety old bedroom door. The music was unfashionable (Alma Cogan records), the dress unconventional (they both wore suit jackets) and the guests, non-existent (nobody they knew approved). And at the end, the Romanian climbed up onto the bed whilst the Kashmiri sat down, cross-legged, to listen.
“I will tell you story,” she began, impersonating the received pronunciation of television. “Sixty-five-thousand years ago the small group of people travelled from Africa over Red Sea into strange, barren land made empty by volcano. This small group survived Ice Age and reached all across what is now South India. They meet and mixed with European emigrants and began farms. They travelled up to Indus River and caught Hinduism. And war chariots were invented, and borders crumbled. India became some huge melting pot which the descendants of group had fallen into, were moulded by.” She twirled on the bed, like a Sufi mystic, spinning around and around until she fell, with a soft thud, landing on the mattress.
The Kashmiri laughed at her, and she, the Romanian, tried to scowl back, but all her mouth could do was curl upwards, in tune to her husband’s chuckling. He watched her through wet, lapis-blue eyes, as she attempted to wobble back up, standing tall above him; this was a venerable figure he admired, his very own Sara the Kali.
“Carry on, teacher-ji,” he said to her, “I was enjoying your history lesson!”
“Okay sir. Where was I?” she paused for a second, then continued, once again adopting that British television voice, “Melting pot. Moulded by… Ah yes! These people went North as Hindu farmers. There was in North India at that time a rich patchwork culture and language. These people, you must understand, are our ancestors. Mine and yours. And one day, some many hundreds of years ago, they parted ways. Let us say there was then one pair of young lovers in the group. Well the story goes: The girl moved West and her descendants barely survived Mongols and lost all record of their culture, and then they were enslaved for hundreds of years. The boy, however, stayed at India and his descendants travelled north and met the Mughals and eventually became Muslim. Then came the British. And the Russians. And here we are.” She leaned forward and reached out to him, hoisting him up towards her on the bed. She kissed him and he kissed her, and they fell, weightlessly, onto soft pillows. “It is now 1968,” she whispered finally, “and we have at last reunited.”
In time, a comfortable routine emerged. He would bring back, every evening from work, the slight taste of black rubber which collided, right on time, with her cool lips. She returned with aches, from day-long manual labour, from standing around shop, but under the knowing shine of the moon each night, a mutual massage ensued. In blue light, each dull twinge was caressed and squeezed out like kneaded dough, all stress removed and put to rest, to float downstream like the colourful eggshells at Easter. And the Kashmiri and the Romanian slept with smiles on their faces, fingers intertwined.
But in time perfect smiles faltered through the taunting efforts of milk-bottle children. Curses hurled from the shadow-leaking mouths of rat-shaped heads, local children made from smokeless fire, hiding in the upside-down, invisible night. Blajini or Djinni or what, who knows? The windows behind which the Kashmiri and the Romanian lived would crack from pelted stones. Go Home! Go Home! Out! Out! Out! He hadn’t wanted to move at first, or react in any way, seeing the matter as a stain upon his honour, some great insult. No, he thought, let us stay put and show them we are not affected, will not be swayed. She, however, carrying in her blood and holding in her belly the great truth about home and belonging, tried as best as she could to change his mind. It was only when a glass bottle had breached the boarded-up bathroom window, and the carpet inside had foamed like the Tiber, that he swallowed his shame and agreed.
So, expelled and exiled, in 1971, they moved into a new house. The Romanian painted flowers and leaves in seven colours onto a wooden welcome mat and placed it at the foot of the door. This was, like the forgotten banks of the Indus in memories long lost to time, home.
One cold night, they both sat up across from one another in their new bedroom, their toes touching. He stroked her soft cheeks, and whispered, “You know, you are right. Homes are not simply countries or buildings, like you said, my little ewe,” and he smiled, glancing towards the view of television static the frosted windows offered. “I agree. Home is – real home – it is the place only where we are together. All three of us.” Her eyes crinkled when she smiled, and her cheeks burnt pink when he pointed this out. Even now – she thought – after all this time – he grinned – everything felt brand new.
The house did not last the year; nor, even, the winter.
Later, the children crinkled their noses as they stared at the blackened building in front of them. Smells, duzznit, the tallest one said. Yeah, bloody smoky, another replied. The tallest one edged forwards, letting his bike crash to the floor, not flinching. Slowly, he approached the gate and walked down the rickety garden path. Don’t go no further! the girl behind him cautioned, who knows, might be ghosts or what-not. They had heard, each of them, this part of the tale too. Some said it was John’s son. Others said the Cotterill’s eldest had done it. Probably though, the children all agreed, this had been the action of some organised group whose names had, somehow, evaded the local bill. Whazzit matter anyway, the taller boy said, having backtracked now, picking up his bike, they’ve gave us a great honour in doin’ it, that’s for sure! The girl shifted uneasily at this, but the other boys laughed. Hey, one of them chimed, as me dad always says, if we sent all wogs home, we’d have an extra hour of daylight!
Eyes as blue as corydalis and hepatica flowers first collided on a train in ’64. Eyes as blue as the stormy sea their ancestors had crossed sixty-five-thousand years ago. As blue as the Indus, as the sky beneath which they had, hundreds of years ago, split, heading eastwards and northwards on their own. Eyes as blue as the moon, the English Channel, the badge at Enoch’s breast.
And on that night, at the end of ’71, in searing, suffocating heat, eyeballs boiled and burst. The blood was red. The tears, blue. And children came on their bikes to see the ruin the next morning, all of them ash-white.
About The Author
Sufiyaan Salam is a British-Pakistani writer and animator living in the North West of England. He has made music videos for artists such as James Blunt, Grouplove and Jimmy Barnes and won the Robert Bolt Prize for Screenwriting in 2018. He is currently studying for an MA in Screenwriting at the University of Manchester.
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