Later on, Harry and Liz leave together. There appears to be some sort of quiet row going on between them. Ray and Solly smile knowingly at each other and then conspiratorially at me.
‘Slight marital contretemps I suspect’ he says in a nasal voice.
‘Never pretty’ says Ray, rearranging his latest hand.
‘Better out than in’ says Solly.
‘As the actress said to the bishop’ adds Ray burping. ‘I do beg your pardon’ he says to Brenda. She waves it away with her cigarette hand and looks at her cards.
On the odd occasion that Harry and Liz leave early the mood improves markedly. Brenda never says much usually but she can quite funny. She smokes long black cigarettes and waves them around while she thinks. We play for a while in silence.
‘You shouldn’t pay too much attention to Harry you know lad’ says Ray eventually. This is new, this camaraderie. I’m not used to it. What’s he up to?
‘He’s got a bit of a chip on his shoulder, that’s all.’
‘A bit?’ says Brenda ‘More like a whole fish supper if you ask me.’
‘He’s got a point though, don’t you think?’ says Ray, turning to me. ‘I mean, how would you feel – a whole lot of Pakkies move in next door? Now I’ve got nothing against coloureds. Perfectly fine...’
‘Decent...’ interjects Solly.
Ray nods. ‘Most of them, but...’
‘But’ says Solly, as if he’s made his point.
‘You wouldn’t want the whole lot of them moving in next door. Do you see where I’m coming from?’ I try to look neutral. I remember our neighbours back home. Not exactly shining examples of the British way of life. We’ve got an old lady one side can hardly get herself to the loo and doesn’t see her sons from one week to the next, and the other side is rented out to students and is slowly being allowed to fall apart by the absent landlord. My mum and dad are forever having to go round and help out.
‘I don’t know really...’ I say vaguely.
‘Think about it’ says Solly. ‘Your average British family these days, it’s not two point four kids any more, more like two if your lucky. Some have three or more, but loads more have one or none at all.’
‘Got to allow for mortality too’ adds Ray.
‘Right, and infertility. Stands to reason. Everybody wants kids but nobody wants a load of them. We’re not replacing ourselves. Got an ageing population is what it is. Meanwhile, Abdul and all his mates are coming over here, families eleven, twelve...’
‘More’ says Brenda. ‘One lot near us had fifteen kids, I swear.’
‘Taking over. Can’t speak a word of English a lot of them either. Good workers mind, but I ask you, what’s this country going to look like in fifty years time?’
‘Well we did go there first’ I suggest without much confidence. ‘I don’t think...’
‘Listen’ says Brenda into my face. ‘Until the East India Company went over and sorted them out they were living in the Stone Age. We did them a favour.’
‘Railways, democracy...’ adds Ray.
‘But maybe that was how they wanted to live’ I mumble. ‘Wasn’t it up to them? I don’t think we had the right to...’ and I can hear this weak, pleading sort of sound in my voice as I say it, and I hate myself for it. Why can’t I just say what I mean, what I believe?
‘Progress. You can’t stop progress’ says Solly.
‘Well...’ I begin, but Brenda cuts me off.
‘Look, you want to live in filth, you live in filth’ she says. She’s suddenly really angry I realise. Is it my fault? I’m not sure.
‘That’s not what I meant really...’ says me, trying to be nice again. God I’m pathetic.
‘I like my comforts’ she says fiercely, in my face ‘and I’ve worked bloody hard for them, and I won’t let anyone...’ she jabs her finger at me ‘tell me...’
‘Let the boy talk Bren’ says Ray ‘Go on lad.’
My mind’s blank. I can’t remember what I wanted to say.
‘What I meant was...’ I say slowly, playing for time, but Solly takes over.
‘Thing is, you’ve got to be realistic. All through history, it’s the primitive have been subjugated by the more technologically advanced. It’s survival of the fittest.’
We leave it there. I shrug and head off. I know they’re wrong.
Later, in bed, I think of all the things I should have said, like, ‘I don’t care if a thousand ‘Pakkies’ do move in next door as long as they’re alright with us. And another thing – I bet the food would be better.’ But I know I never will.
It takes a while for me to get to sleep.
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