Saturday, 21 January 2012
Adventures During the Age Of Aquarius - Part II
Dumbfounded, I stared at her.
The Nigerians too were rooted to the spot, frozen in mid-movement. Faces of other workers turned to us expectantly. Lightyears separated hearing the words and grasping their meaning; my face creased with concentration, I repeated "What?"
The concept of whores was fairly new to me; I had an idea that women who sold sex for money were called 'whores' or 'Huren' in German; there were women being called 'whores' in novels, particularly French and Russian ones. I rather enjoyed reading about their usually tragic fate, and was mildly excited by accounts of what went on in French boudoirs and on wild sleigh rides across the frozen Russian tundra, but I had never come across a live practitioner of the profession. And what had the Nigerians to do with it?
I genuinely wanted her to explain what she meant. I was, even then, a reasonable sort of person, but pretty unlikely to be overly concerned with anyone's opinion of me. I blame my father for that attitude, having inherited his conviction that survival is not only the prerogative of the fittest but also those with impermeable skin. "Pay your way, my girl," he used to say, "stay true to yourself, and hold your head up. You're the equal of anyone". He had survived a lot more than name calling.
What she had said made no sense; I was puzzled, why would she say that? Gradually, the paralysing effect of her words evaporated inside the steamy atmosphere of the 'greasy spoon'. There would be no drama. Blondie herself seemed to be in shock, she literally shook, her face a livid mask of shame, anger and accusation. I observed the phenomenon closely. She looked past me to the open door of the cafe, grabbed her bag and left. I followed, the Nigerians on my heels.
Blondie started to run; so we left her to it. The Nigerians knew what they had had to do with Blondie's outburst. They stopped me at the entrance to the factory and the man who had invited me to the party unsmilingly asked "Will you come?". "No", I said, "thank you very much, but I don't think I will". "We are black, is that what it is? You whites are all the same, no matter where you come from. We thought you were different"; the man spat out the words angrily. One of the girls said she was sorry they had befriended me and she would never trust me again. I was angry too, "It's nothing to do with being black," I said, "I have a boyfriend and I can't just go out without him". But, of course, my initial attraction to this close knit group of Nigerians, in their sober black and white outfits so much more neatly and smartly dressed than any of my white fellow workers, was due to their very 'otherness', they were so very different from anyone I'd ever met. No black people lived in my home town and although I was seeing every race on earth represented in the streets of London, these people were the first with whom I'd had direct contact. They left me standing on the steps to the laundry's entrance, confused and possibly a little ashamed, without knowing the reason why.
One of the other German girls caught up with me. "Don't let her get to you", she said, "she is very unhappy. Her boyfriend is a nasty brute who knocks her about". Blondie had met him in Germany where he was serving in the British Army, fallen in love, followed him to the UK and now they were engaged to be married. All her hard work and thriftiness came about because of the pressure he put on her. He forced her to hand over her wages and was given a meagre allowance in return. "I have never heard this rumour in the factory", my little German friend said, "she's probably just jealous". She smiled endearingly, then clapped her hands over her mouth and blushed. She was missing her two front teeth and was waiting for new ones to be inserted. Was she too being knocked about? I didn't know, but hoped not. She was a sweet little thing, who attached herself to me for the few weeks of slave labour left before I was sent packing from the factory.
The works doctor had found nothing wrong with my chest or any other ailments. I was as fit as anyone to work wherever it pleased them to put me. The supervisor gave me no peace, her quota needed filling, or else she herself would be in trouble. "Idle cow", she called me. She probably believed the rumour about my second profession, which had now actually spread on the floor. Blondie no longer looked me in the eye, but I couldn't be bothered to challenge her. The only thing that made work at all bearable was the Music-While-You-Work drizzling down on us from the speakers on the ceiling - we were allowed to sing along - and my new German friend, who came out for lunch with me. She had her new teeth before I left and looked pretty and happy.
Two weeks after the incident at the cafe the supervisor came over and told me to present myself at 'the office' half an hour before the end of the working day. It was Friday, I had my pay packet in my pocket. The Personnel Manager was a grey-haired, friendly man, quite handsome; about the same age as my father. He told me to sit on the chair in front of his desk; I put my heavy library book bag and my much lighter handbag down and waited.
He looked at the bag. "Do you enjoy reading?", he asked. "What have you got there?" For the next twenty minutes we discussed books, with particular emphasis on Dickens, whom I was devouring in great chunks. But I also had a couple of thrillers in the bag, Dorothy L. Sayers was my favourite. Mr. Personnel Manager became interested in me and asked me a number of personal questions. "Where do you come from? What have you done so far? What are you doing in England?" Finally, he came to the point. Very gently, with an apologetic smile, he said "Works Doctor has found nothing wrong with you, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to perform as well as your colleagues, unless it's your attitude to the work. I am sorry, but we can no longer employ you". He was giving me the sack. He then said, "You could be my daughter and I would really ask you to consider going home. You don't belong here". I had lasted for exactly six weeks. He had a point.
But grimy, smelly, noisy, shabby, seedy, vibrant London, with its music, street theatre, coffee bars, and flower power was calling to me. I stayed. A friend got me a job in a fish and chip cafe.
to be continued