Under the Skin, page 1
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Under the Skin
Nina Bawden was one of Britain's most distinguished and best-loved novelists for both adults and young people. Several of her novels for children – Carrie’s War, a Phoenix Award winner in 1993; The Peppermint Pig, which won the Guardian Fiction Award; The Runaway Summer; and Keeping Henry – have become contemporary classics.
She wrote over forty novels, slightly more than half of which are for adults, an autobiography and a memoir describing her experiences during and following the Potters Bar rail crash in May 2002, which killed her husband, Austen Kark, and from which she emerged seriously injured – but fighting. She was shortlisted for the 1987 Man Booker Prize for Circles of Deceit and several of her books, like Family Money (1991), have been adapted for film or television. Many of her works have been translated into numerous languages.
Born in London in 1925, Nina studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University in the same year as Margaret Thatcher. Following Potter’s Bar, she was movingly portrayed as a character in the David Hare play, The Permanent Way, about the privatization of the British railways. She received the prestigious S T Dupont Golden Pen Award for a lifetime’s contribution to literature in 2004, and in 2010 The Birds on the Trees was shortlisted for the Lost Booker of 1970.
To Juliet O’Hea With Love
‘Good God,’ I said. ‘He does look black.’
In Africa, under that desultory, bright glare, one simply hadn’t noticed. Here, on this pale October day – light strained through a veil of thin, blue silk – he looked as if he had been dipped into a vat of bitter chocolate or polished with Kiwi Dark Tan for a fancy-dress ball. He was wearing a fawn, light-weight suit cut too long in the jacket, too tight round his neat, high buttocks; a sparkling white shirt, white and beige calf shoes, an emerald satin tie. Coming down the stairs to the customs hall at London Airport, Jason – Jay – Nbola looked as exotically out of place as a peacock in an asphalt yard.
Louise frowned. My wife is a conscientious liberal. She ignores the colour of a man’s skin as resolutely as her grandmother would have ignored a need to go to the lavatory. Louise would have pretended not to notice if Jay had appeared before her stark naked and striped like a zebra. This thought produced in me a faint, deciduous melancholy. I hoped she wouldn’t treat Jay with too much caution, too much awful, patronizing reverence – as if he had some killing disease that couldn’t be mentioned.
‘Black as the Ace of Spades,’ I said in a loud, determined voice, collecting several startled looks from the other people waiting behind the sheep-pen barrier and an especially reproachful one from an ancient lady beside Louise. She had one of those nice, papery old faces you sometimes see, lined with gentleness and resignation. I saw, too late, that she had a small Indian girl by the hand. Her expression as she drew the child away, out of my contaminated vicinity, made me feel like the overseer in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
‘Tom, you are an awful man,’ Louise whispered and dug her nails into my wrist. I winced and she laughed softly. ‘He looks nice.’
‘He is.’ I tucked her hand under my right arm and waved vigorously with my left, trying to attract Jay’s attention. He looked less jaunty than I remembered, standing alone in the middle of the hall and showing the whites of his eyes. A new toy, an expensively gleaming camera, dangled before him like a sporran and made him look like a lost child. A spasm of anxiety gripped my stomach; then he saw me and raised his pink-palmed hand in welcome.
I waved back, suddenly full of the curious embarrassment that comes when you have to greet a friend from a distance. (You can’t go on waving and grinning like an ape indefinitely, but it seems impolite to stop.) Luckily, before my arm began to ache too unbearably, the rest of the passengers from the charter plane appeared. A small tidal wave of Africans, they surged down the stairs and swept Jay along with them towards the customs benches. A short, bald man rounded them up, yapping at their heels like a fussy sheepdog. A label saying ‘British Council’was pinned on his grey jacket. His flock listened with grave politeness while he chattered at them and waved his expressive little hands.
‘I hope he remembers to declare that camera,’ I said.
‘He will. Stop worrying, Tom.’ Louise squeezed my arm. ‘Old worry-guts.’
We smiled at each other. It was absurd to feel so nervous. Louise said, ‘I wish it wasn’t so cold. He’ll be frozen.’
‘It’s not that hot where he comes from. Sometimes no more than a damp-ish summer here. As a matter of fact, a lot of the children get bronchitis. The English disease.’
And leprosy and T.B. and malnutrition, I thought. I had seen children at the hospital with bellies swollen like pig’s bladders and hair that was no longer black and woolly but thin and red and downy. I hadn’t told Louise about them, though. She would have been so sorry, so upset, and I have a horror of pity: it is too easy a way to purge one’s guilt.…
‘Poor little things,’ Louise said gravely. Then she added, equally gravely, ‘I asked mother to get me a hot water bottle for Jay. All ours have perished.’
‘I bet she was delighted,’ I said.
My mother-in-law grew up in Kenya at a time when gay young sparks from the White Highlands still rode horseback into Nairobi, drunk as lords on Friday nights, and shot out the street lamps one by one. Her opinion of Africans is uninhibited; as it suits her mood they are either lovable children or savages just down from the trees. In recent years the latter viewpoint has prevailed; since Ghana became independent, her chief amusement has been gloomy prophecy. She collects tales of outrage from Africa like stamps or shells.
When Louise announced that Jay was coming to live with us for a year because his Government grant was inadequate to maintain both him in London and his family at home, she was thunderously silent for a while. Then she told us that all Africans smelt and if they didn’t smell they stole. If we insisted on behaving so ridiculously would we at least lock up Aunt Harriet’s valuable collection of silver porringers given to Louise at her christening? For the past few weeks she had brimmed over with sage and hospitable advice of this kind.
Louise said, ‘I told her Jay’s father was a Chief. I thought it might impress her.’’
‘A Sub-Chief,’ I corrected. Even so, it conjured up a slightly misleading picture: a benign character in a gay blanket. Solomon Nbola was a sly, disreputable old man who always wore a long, ancient Army greatcoat, puttees on
‘You too were in the Army,’ he said to Agnew. ‘You know how deeply we suffered. We gave and did not count the cost. But I ask you, sir, is it fair that I should not have my medals? I have never received them. For years I kept silent. In the last war I joined up again. I did an important job – as important in its way as many a great general’s – and still I have no medals.’
Jay told me that in the last war his father had made a sizeable amount of money by stealing food from the barracks – his cousin was a cook there – and selling it back to them again. He spoke of his father with an indulgent, amused affection: Jay was not a university graduate but he had had a secondary education and thought of his father, I think, as quaint and left-behind, rather as a second generation American might regard his Polish parents.
When I came home I had a set of miniatures made for the old man – Burma Star, Victoria Cross, the lot – and sent them out to him. I hope they gave him pleasure.
The British Council man ran a prettily manicured finger-nail down the list in his hand. ‘Here we are,’ he said. ‘Mr Jason Nbola. One year course at L.S.E. Will you take him now?’
‘What?’ I said, startled. ‘Yes. If you wrap him up nicely.’
He didn’t smile. ‘R-right. One thing, though. Just be sure he has absolutely all his luggage, will you? Some of them are so careless.’
‘No sense of responsibility,’ I said. ‘Just like children.’
Louise kicked me on the shin. ‘Oh, you—’ she began to mutter, and then switched the savage expression with which she often meets my silly jokes to one of enchanting sweetness. Jay had appeared at the barrier. He was laden with bags and dropped them all to hold out his hands to us.
‘So this is your beautiful wife,’ he said. ‘Mrs Grant, I am so very delighted to meet the wife of my dear friend.’
I said, ‘Well, Jason, you still praising the Lord?’
He threw back his head and laughed his gurgling, infectious laugh. ‘I surely am, Tom. Praise the Lord, you son of a gun.’
People looked at us sidelong. Louise went pink and smiled in a fixed, embarrassed way.
Jay saw her expression and said quickly, ‘Mrs Grant, I must confess something. For years I believed that when Europeans greeted people, they always said “Praise the Lord”.’
She looked at me blankly. I explained. ‘Jay was educated in a mission school. By an evangelical hearty.’
‘He was a very good man indeed,’ Jay said. ‘He was a father to me. But he was sometimes alarming. Once, in the rains, he drove a whole lot of us boys to Nairobi and each time he came to a dangerous corner he took his hands off the wheel to pray to Jesus. It worried us very much.’
He spoke gravely, though his eyes were dancing. It is terribly difficult to take the right attitude towards people who have helped you and whom you have outgrown. Jay managed, without apparent effort, to strike just the right note – not mockery, but amused, respectful affection. I felt again the full, sweet force of his charm. I smiled at Louise in the fatuous way of a parent who wants his child to be appreciated and was delighted to see her smiling too. Of course she was bound to like him – not just because she was disposed to like all black men – this was a tendency I despised – but because he was Jay.
‘It must have done,’ she said. ‘I—’
She stopped. A man was standing beside Jay. Although Jay was tall, he had to look up to him. He said, a trifle reluctantly, I thought, ‘Mrs Grant, Tom – I would like you to meet my friend, Mr Okapi. Mr Thomas Okapi from Uganda.’
He had a wide, wide smile. His teeth were white, regular and large, like new tombstones.
‘Any friend of Mr Nbola’s is a friend of mine,’ he promised, engulfing my hand in his. His voice was rolling and sonorous, like a preacher’s. He switched the headlight beam of his smile onto Louise. ‘Mr Nbola is fortunate to have English friends, Mrs Grant. Not to be alone in a strange country – ah, that is good fortune indeed. Most of us are not so lucky, we have to plough our own furrow.’
‘Mr Okapi is a law student,’ Jay said. ‘He has studied two years at Makerere. We have met on the plane.’
‘We are comrades in a great adventure,’ Okapi said. ‘We are come to complete our studies and widen our view of life.’
‘You’re going to London University?’ Louise asked in an intelligent voice.
‘I am indeed. But it is not only law I shall study. I shall strive with all my heart to understand your way of life. I hope to make a great many friends, through the university and through my church.’
‘I’m sure you will,’ Louise said. There was a pause. ‘Have you somewhere to stay?’
He shook his great head sorrowfully. ‘The British Council have arranged for me to stay at Capricorn House. But this is only a temporary measure for me. With God’s help I shall soon find suitable lodgings with a charming English family, like the lucky Mr Nbola. Indeed, you might be pleased to assist me, Mrs Grant? You must have a wide circle of friends.’
‘Perhaps we might be able to think of someone.’ She shot me a nervous look, and he saw it.
‘I’m sure you will do your best,’ he said.
Louise stiffened, chilled by the calm assurance in his voice, the fixed, fat smile; not noticing the sweat on his broad forehead or his eyes, which were humble, like a dog’s.
‘If we think of something, we’ll let you know,’ she said and looked relieved as he glanced at his gold watch.
‘I am afraid I must deprive you of my company now. We are to be taken into the city on the airport bus.’
Louise said, ashamed – she was always ashamed when she disliked people – ‘Perhaps we could drive you in.…’
I said firmly, ‘We don’t go in the right direction. The bus will be quicker, anyway.’
There was nothing to dislike in Mr Okapi, he was only tedious, but I was glad to see him go. Even the ostentation of his gold watch, his extremely expensive suit, was pathetic: if he had stayed any longer I might have felt it my duty to feel responsible for him. Perhaps it was my duty. Perhaps, in a sense, I was responsible for every black face on that charter plane, but I didn’t feel it. I only felt responsible for Jay, who was my friend.
Slightly to my annoyance, Louise insisted we should go to the restaurant for coffee. (I hate public eating places above the level of those cheap cafés that simply cater for the body’s need: there is something so gross about those enormous menus, the fat men with jaded palates, the pointless, unnecessary greed.)
We ordered coffee and buttered toast, watched a plane take off outside the window, and talked a little. Jay was rather silent until the coffee came, when he said suddenly, ‘Tom, I have something to tell you.’
He was looking nervous and my heart sank – had he decided that he did not want to stay with us after all, but in London? That it would be more fun to live with a crowd of students, pigging it in loathsome digs, somewhere jollier and more central than our house in Putney?
But it wasn’t that. He said, ‘Tom, Philip is arriving in three days time.’
For a moment I couldn’t think who Philip was. ‘Philip?’ I repeated stupidly.
‘My eldest son,’ he said, not reproachfully, and to Louise, ‘I named him Philip because he was born in Coronation Year. After your Prince.’
I couldn’t look at Louise. I felt a sudden wild fury. What did Jay expect? That Louise would look after his boy? Then my anger ebbed and I felt embarrassed and ashamed. If he did expect us to take Philip, what of it? By African standards, most Europeans are grossly inh
Apparently he had not expected so much of us. ‘My uncle has offered to send Philip to school. He had intended a boarding school in Mombasa but it is not so much more expensive in England, except for the fare. And, since you are being so good to me, I can pay for that out of my grant.’ He beamed happily.
‘I thought the grant was only just adequate to support Agnes and the children after you’d taken your allowance for pocket-money?’ He looked at me. ‘Agnes has taken a job as a schoolteacher.’
Louise said, ‘Have you chosen a school for your little boy?’
‘Yes. My uncle is headmaster of a secondary school near Kisumu. He has a friend, a professor at Makerere, who has suggested this school in Surrey. Philip can go there almost as soon as he arrives, but perhaps he can stay one or two days with you if it is convenient? He won’t disturb you, he is a good boy.’ He smiled at me sweetly, not to placate me but as if he had no idea I might need placating. ‘Philip is looking forward to seeing his Uncle Tom.’
I smiled back, hypocritically. I couldn’t remember what Philip looked like. Jay had three boys – or was it four?
Louise said, ‘We’ll be delighted to have him, Jay.’
Her tone was emphatically genuine but a sly, give-away smile twitched the corners of her mouth. She was fond of children but she was ‘delighted’to have Philip chiefly because she knew it would annoy her mother. (Louise is fond of her mother, but there are too many prejudices they don’t share. Not that they quarrel, exactly; it is more a matter of trampling over old battlefields together, a process they both seem to enjoy.)
‘It is very kind of you,’ Jay said. ‘I was worried. I did not want to seem as if I was imposing on you.’
‘Don’t be absurd,’ I said. Though I did not want Philip, I was hurt because Jay had thought that I might not. I was not usually ashamed of my real feelings; in fact I had always prided myself on being honest about them. I had thought of myself as a dry, cautious, rather cynical man, the kind of man who never lets himself go and takes what other people may say with a pinch of salt – and been not displeased with the image. But since I had met Jay I had begun to wish I was someone quite different; someone more eager, more warm-hearted, more simple. All the old springs of conduct seemed rusty and worn-out and I wanted to replace them. My mind was cluttered up with centuries of other people’s opinions, rather like a dusty attic crammed with old furniture: I had a spring-cleaning urge to chuck them all out, sweep the place bare. It wasn’t possible, of course, it never is. You can’t recover innocence by taking thought. …
Other author's books:
- Who Calls the TuneDevil By The SeaThe Outside ChildChange Here For BabylonJust Like a LadyThe Peppermint PigThe FindingThe Witch's Daughter
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