(Un)arranged Marriage, page 6
‘My mum’s picking me up after school. Are you going to wait for me and get a lift home?’
‘Will that be all right with her? I don’t want to be a bother to her.’ Lisa knew I wasn’t telling the whole truth – she knew I couldn’t have my old man see me pull up in a car with two white women. He just wouldn’t understand.
‘Of course it’s all right. Meet you outside at four.’
While we waited for Lisa’s mum after school, I talked a little more to Lisa about the whole deal to do with arranged marriages the way my parents saw it. Lisa told me again to say ‘no’ and to keep on saying it until my parents gave up.
‘They can’t make you do something you don’t want to do.’
‘I know that. It’s just that I can’t say no. I’ve tried.’
‘So just keep on trying until you get through to them. Talk to them.’
‘You don’t understand, Lisa. It isn’t that simple. The girl I’m supposed to marry is going to be here, and my old man is threatening to take me to India if I don’t agree. My mum just cries every time we talk about it.’
‘So what are you gong to do? Say yes to keep them happy? What about what you want?’
That was the problem. I knew that I didn’t want to get married young to some girl who I didn’t even know. I didn’t want to end up like Ranjit and Harry, doing that whole wife and kids thing. I didn’t want to spend my life looking after my parents in their old age and having to go to the weddings of distant cousins because it was the right thing to do. I knew what I didn’t want to do. It was just that I didn’t know what I actually wanted to do. And deep down inside I was scared that if I did say no, my dad would kill me and my mum would kill herself as she kept on threatening to do, because of the shame. How could I do that to them? How? And how was I supposed to explain that to Lisa who was never going to have to choose between what she wanted out of life and her family? She didn’t have to fight to be seen as an individual.
‘I told you what they’ve been like. All my mum does is cry, starts slapping her thighs and threatens to kill herself.’
‘But she did that with your brothers too. And you know that she doesn’t mean it, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, but what if she does?’
‘She won’t, Manny, I promise.’ She held my hand and squeezed it really hard, Trying to reassure me. ‘It’ll be fine after a while. When they’ve accepted you for you.’
‘I really don’t think that will ever happen, Lisa. They’re just too set in their old ways to accept what I want to do with my life. They’ll just see it as a slap in the face.’
Lisa kissed me on the cheek and squeezed my hand again. I looked at her and tried to smile. She managed a smile for both of us.
‘On a more selfish level, what about me?’
‘You know how I feel about you, Lisa.’
‘And you know that I love you too. But if you end up having an arranged marriage, provided we’re still together at that point, are you going to just cast me aside?’
This time I kissed her, on the lips and gave her a big hug. ‘Never. And we will still be together – I know we will.’
‘Oh Manny, what are we going to do?’
‘We’ll just unarrange the marriage.’
Lisa’s mum pulled up as we were kissing. I pulled away in embarrassment but Lisa took hold of my hand again and led me to the car, a metallic blue Vectra with a diesel engine. Lisa’s mum brought down the driver’s side window and smiled out at me.
‘Hi, Manny. Jump in!’
I’d met Lisa’s mum – Amanda, as she liked me to call her – several times before and this certainly wasn’t the first time she’d given me a lift. Sadly, she too knew the way my old man was about my going out with Lisa. She wasn’t happy about the situation, but she had said it was something for Lisa and me to sort out – not her business.
Lisa turned to me. ‘Can you come for dinner?’
‘Nah, I’d better get home. I’ve got loads of homework to do and then there’s what my old . . .’ I started to say it but I always felt embarrassed about it in front of Lisa’s mum. Lisa saved me again. She squeezed my hand and opened the rear door of the car.
‘Come on, get in and we’ll drop you off at the bottom of your road.’
I just looked at her and nodded and suddenly hated the way I had to sneak around in order to be with the girl that I loved . . .
I didn’t speak again for the rest of the way home.
I STARTED YEAR 11 badly, Not paying attention to the work or to the teachers; or to the two sessions that I had with Mr Sandhu in which he tried to get me to confront my problems. I couldn’t take all that stuff seriously. I felt like one of those stupid American kids on the Ricky Lake Show – you know, the ones that want to divorce their parents. Sandhu was like, let it all hang out, let your feelings out – like some old hippie. Not me. Not with him. And most definitely not in school. No way. I didn’t need therapy, I just needed out of my whole family.
I had seen as much as I could of Lisa over the summer, spending time with her family instead of mine. And increasingly I spent lots of time after school, once term had started, sitting with Lisa and her dad’s old vinyl jazz collection, getting into Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. I also started to skip lessons to see Ady and go into town, stealing money from home so that I could afford it.
And then I got put on an attendance report – about a month before my sixteenth birthday. It began with my skiving a PE lesson so that Ady and me could go into town for a coffee. After that I began to skip afternoons on a regular basis, taking money out of Ranjit’s wallet so that Ady and I could have lunch or buy CDs and stuff. It took the teachers about five whole weeks to work out that I wasn’t suffering from a chest infection or vomiting up a bad sandwich every other afternoon. The thing is, by that time they had already caught and expelled about eight other kids for skiving.
Ady had been the first one out, which was quite funny, because he wasn’t actually in school when they expelled him. It was done in something called ‘absentia’ which Mr Cooke explained. He was all right, Cooke – the only teacher who I really liked or respected. Ady’s leaving wasn’t a shock. After all, he was never in school. In fact, I saw more of him outside of school than in it. The football team went right down the drain though – it just wasn’t the same without our little partnership.
Eventually I got called into the principal’s office and put on the attendance register. Nightmare! I had to sign in with one of the senior teachers in the morning, at lunch-time and at home-time. I was given three chances. If I missed three signings, that was it. Out the door. And to top it all I was kicked out of the footie team too! I began to miss the freedom that skiving gives you, even though it meant that I saw more of Lisa. Lisa wasn’t happy about skiving; she thought I was attacking the wrong target, even after I explained my whole ‘cheat’ thing to her. In fact, at one point it nearly split us up because she wanted me to do well at school and I just couldn’t be bothered. Scared that she would dump me, I began turning up every day and, for a month, I didn’t miss a single signing-in time.
My attempt at being a model pupil had to end, though. One night, just before my birthday, I was sitting in my bedroom at home playing one of those stupid computer games where you collect coins and sweets and stuff on different levels, getting really worked up because I couldn’t get to the next level, when Ady rang up.
Ady told me about some night at a bar in town, and did I want to go? It was on all night and his brother was working on the door, so we could get in for free. Could I go? The grief that I’d surely get would be unimaginable. But, having said that, I found out that only Jas and Baljit, Harry’s wife, were at home. I could probably get out and they’d get the blame if I was found out. And if I left my bedroom window open I’d be able to climb on to the low roof of the kitchen extension and sneak back in . . .
‘What about the cheat, man?’
‘Your cheat, my dan. Y’know, about being a bad bwoi to avoid the dreaded arranged marriage.’
‘What about it?’ I questioned him, but my brain had actually clicked on.
‘Think about it, Manny. You’re gonna be sixteen this weekend, yeah? An’ you wanna show them that you ain’t no kid? So this is like saying, “Yo, I’m a man now and ain’t nuthin’ you gonna say or do, gonna stop me doin’ what I want”.’
Ady’s Fresh Prince act kind of made everything a joke, but he was right. At least that’s the way I thought at the time.
‘Think about it, man. All free too.’
‘I ain’t got no money, though,’ I told him. ‘I’m gonna have to nick some out of one of my brothers’ wallets.’ I spoke really quietly, making sure that neither of my sisters-in-law could hear me.
‘Fret not, dear boy. Uncle Ady has the wonga.’
‘Yeah, all right then, I’ll meet you up by St Philip’s Church.’ I’d been sold.
As soon as I said it, Ady started laughing. I swore at him and put the phone down, then turned my attention to finding Ranjit’s wallet. I knew that he hadn’t taken it out with him. He never did. All the money that came into the house was put together, like a pool, and everyone that worked gave a share to cover the bills and food and stuff. I did feel bad about taking his money. I knew that it was wrong. But the way that I saw it, they were all more in the wrong than me, for making my life such a misery. I mean, all I wanted to do was be normal, like Ady and all my other friends at school. I just had a different way of going about it, that’s all.
The night was wicked. There were two brilliant House DJs from Leicester playing, Bump Allen and The Baron. Neither Ady nor me really liked house music but the stuff that they played was really good. Ady seemed to know everyone in there, through his brother, and we didn’t pay for a single drink in the end which was a major bonus. I was still drunk and buzzing with excitement when I climbed through my bedroom window at three in the morning. I’d been bricking it all the way home, thinking that the old man would be waiting up for me. I’d sneaked out before and not been caught, but never until that sort of time, so I was half-expecting my dad to be in my room with a bottle of Teacher’s in one hand and his shoe in the other. But nobody noticed a thing. I could hardly believe it. It was like everything was going my way for a change.
End of November
AFTER THE NIGHT out with Ady I was on full bad bwoi attack. I didn’t get into school until after eleven the following day because I just couldn’t get out of bed. I had a major hangover and something in my head – the rebellious bit – was telling me to stick two fingers up at the whole world. I just told Mr Sandhu that I had lost my alarm clock, then spent the whole day in a daze, not bothering to get involved in any of the lessons and spending my time doodling in the back of my folders.
On the way home I walked into the village with two of my classmates. I nicked them both a bar of chocolate from the shop which they happily took. I was buzzing. Even when I got home I was in a good mood and managed to smile at Ranjit and Jas, which gave them a bit of a shock.
‘You up to something, innit?’ was all that Ranjit could say.
‘Nah, man. I ain’t up to nothing.’ My smile widened as I replied.
‘Just don’t let me catch you.’
I spent the whole night writing short stories in one of my A4 pads – stories about moving house and living in a beach hut in Jamaica. Fantasy stuff. I had spent so long just thinking about my ideal way of living that I had decided about a year earlier to write it all down. It was fun. Just me and my thoughts, written down in a way that no-one else but me could understand. I mean, they could read it – my family – but they’d never understand it. Then again, Harry probably wouldn’t even have been able to read it, full stop! My room, with posters of Liverpool all over the walls, was like my little hidey-hole. It wasn’t like before, when I had had to share with Harry and put up with the mess and the smell. It was all mine. And it was private. Being a teenager was hard enough without some privacy. I mean, once, when I had shared with Harry, I had caught him wanking while he was looking at pictures of half-naked women in Loaded. It was well embarrassing, especially for him.
My actual birthday was on a Saturday and, when the day came, my old man decided that I should go to the pub with him and my brothers in the evening because I was a man now – now my intended bride had been to England and the ‘engagement’ was all set up. It was all really macho stuff.
The pub was like an Asian-only social club on Evington Road and it was really tacky inside: tatty seats, card tables and a pool table in the corner. Bhangra music was blasting out of four ancient speakers that looked like they had been made before the war. It was full of men too – not a single woman in the place – and they were all pissed and swearing and shouting at each other. My brothers were loving every minute of it because all their mates were there. It was all ‘innit’ and ‘wicked’. By about ten-thirty I was so bored that I told my old man I was going to get a kebab and walk home. I thought that he would tell me to wait for him but he was so pissed that he handed me a twenty-pound note and told me that he’d see me at home. I looked over at Harry, sitting with a bottle of Holsten Pils and a triple shot of neat Bacardi, then went over to tell him that I was going. He started to laugh at me.
‘Look at him,’ he said to his mates, pointing at me. ‘Doesn’t want to be a Punjabi, man. Wants to be like a gorah, innit. Thinks he’s better than us.’
I looked around at all of his mates. They were all just like him: overweight with greasy hair, wearing gold sovereigns and black leather jackets like it was the latest fashion. Some of them had heavy gold rings in each ear and wore a gold khanda – the symbol of Sikhism – on a chain, around their necks but over the top of their shirts or jumpers even though they weren’t real Sikhs. Real Sikhs wore turbans and didn’t drink alcohol. For my brothers and their mates, it was just an image they liked to portray.
‘See him, the wanker, the virgin,’ Harry carried on. ‘Ehnu ki patthah (what does he know? ) Thinks he’s cool, innit, hanging about with kaleh. Wait till it all comes to a fight, innit. See if your kaleh friends gonna help you then.’
All his mates were laughing at me and I was getting angry. I wanted to pick up Harry’s bottle of lager and smash it over his head, the fat bastard!, but I stayed as calm as I could and gave him some back.
‘At least I didn’t have to get married to have sex, you arsehole. And at least I have a shower every day.’
Harry’s mates began to laugh at him a little and I could see that he was going red.
‘All you are is an immature little mummy’s boy,’ I continued. ‘With a body odour problem, man. Big time.’
‘Shut it or I’m gonna slap you up.’ Harry was getting madder and madder and I couldn’t wait to turn the screw.
‘I bet your wife has to wear a nose peg and a blindfold, you fat ugly tosser.’
That was it. The killer line. The punch. Harry shot out of his seat and grabbed me around the neck. As he did so, I threw a couple of punches at his fat belly, but they just sank into his flesh. The next thing I knew, Ranjit had pulled us apart and was walking me to the door. I looked over at my dad who was laughing at me. As I left he shouted out in Punjabi after me.
‘Hey, Manjit, you’re becoming a real man at last. A real Punjabi.’
I didn’t bother to get a kebab or even go home. I put the twenty-pound note in my pocket and, fuming still, went to a call-box and rang Lisa who told me that it was all right to come round.
Walking to her house, a feeling started taking hold of me, as if I was being told something. About my future. I just knew, as I walked down Queens Road, that I could never fit into the kind of life that my father and brothers had. It was just too sad, too boring. I couldn’t help comparing Lisa’s life to mine – the way she didn’t have to fight to
I HAD TO wait until lunch-time on Monday to see Lisa again. I hadn’t left her house until three on the Sunday morning after talking to her and her dad about my problems. Luckily my old man and Harry had passed out by the time I got in and only Ranjit came to check on me during Sunday, just shaking his head when I told him I had got home at around one in the morning. I didn’t leave my room for the whole day apart from when I went to Evington Road to get a kebab. I wasn’t talking to my old man or Harry. They had really pissed me off the night before and there was no way that I was going to just forget about it. Especially not Harry – and part of my protest was not eating anything that had been made for me. Leaving the house for school on Monday morning was like being let out of prison.
Lisa came over as I was sitting on the tennis court steps watching some kids playing football.
‘You all right?’ she asked, kissing me on the cheek.
I looked at her and shook my head. ‘I don’t know. It was really nice of your dad to listen to me the other night but I still don’t know what to do.’
‘I really hate all this, Manny. I know it’s the way your parents were brought up and the culture they live in but it makes you so sad. I wish I could change it all for you.’
‘Thanks, Lisa. The way you support me and listen to me really means a lot, you know. That goes for your mum and dad too.’
‘They love you, Manny – my mum’s jealous that she isn’t my age again!’
‘I’m really glad we got together. Without you or Ady to talk to, I think I’d just go mad.’
‘You’re too young to have to think about so many serious things all the time.’