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A Kindness

The award-winning author of the The Quickening Maze tells a short urban tale about hope, charity and a chance encounter in the bleak British winter.

The television was on but there was nobody in the room. Miles must have run out again. A purple dinosaur waggled across the screen, stopped and addressed the empty carpet with exaggerated friendliness. Steve picked up the remotes and switched it all off. Putting them back where they should be, he caught sight of Miles horizontal on the other sofa, his arm around the neck of his new soft toy, his face soft and pink with sleep. Steve walked through to the other room and found Jake still playing his video game. He was lying on his back, his feet in the air, jabbing at the console, while on the screen, amid a terrifying din of war machines and automatic weapons fire, square-jawed men shot flashes of scarlet blood out of each other and fell stiffly to the ground.

“Do you have to do that while your grandparents are here?”

Jake didn’t hear him. Steve tapped the top of Jake’s head with two hard fingers.


“Your grandparents are here.”

“I know but they’re not in here though.”


“Five more minutes. Don’t . . . oh, come on.” Jake was talking to the game, his fingers frantic at the buttons.

Steve sighed angrily and stood a moment with his hands on his hips. He tutted and walked out. He didn’t have the energy for the fight that would ultimately detach Jake from his game, only to deliver him into the company of his grandparents where he would sit and scowl. In the kitchen, Tess and his in-laws were reading the newspapers. Steve didn’t particularly want to join them. He’d read as much as he could take of the Sunday papers before they’d arrived. Also, they had that look. The family resemblance of Tess and her parents was strongest when they sat together in silence. They breathed in unison. There was an unspoken, animal solidarity about them that was gently repelling. Not that Steve had anything to say, particularly. He certainly didn’t want to start Frank off again about the difficulties of selling his car.

Steve opened the fridge and appeared to examine the contents. He said, “I’m just going out to get some milk.”

Tess looked up vaguely from her supplement. He could see her expression focusing, the thoughts occurring to her. He answered her question before she had asked it.

“Miles is crashed out on the sofa with his giraffe and Jake is busy killing everything.”

Tess smiled.

“I won’t be long,” he added.

“All right. Put a scarf on,” she said. “And don’t be long.”

“I just said I won’t be long.”


It was a relief to get outside into the early dark, the cleansing shock of the icy air. What remained of Tuesday’s snow had formed smooth, hard webs of ice across the pavement. Steve trod his weight down carefully over them, walking up the street on stiff, pincering legs. As he passed neighbours’ houses, their security lights clicked on, mindlessly noticing him. They illuminated little empty stage sets of front doors, driveways, rows of bins. Frosted cars crouched along the kerb. Down here no cars passed.

Up on the main road, a few cars, widely spaced, flashed by. Steve saw that the council’s Christmas lights had gone up. Coloured stars with arching tails were tethered to the lamp posts. Christmas, that whole thing to do again.

Across the road, only the corner shop was lit up. It was generically a corner shop. Actually it stood in the middle of the parade, glaringly open, between an estate agent and a shuttered tanning studio.

Steve jogged across the wet road and walked in. He nodded to the Indian lady behind the till. From her nose flared a piece of gold jewellery that seemed out of keeping with her air of fatigue. Her collarbone was noticeable: dark, triangular hollows between the swaths of coloured cloth she wore. Her eyes were dark and heavy.

Steve let his gaze run over the unsold newspapers, mostly tabloids showing the same photograph of a girl in an orange dress emerging from a nightclub. She was very pretty. Apparently she’d had sex with several footballers. The banner across the top of the last remaining quality title, a sizeable wedge of printed matter, offered a free DVD and a winter recipe book.

Steve walked on to the chiller cabinet filled with soft drinks, cheap strong beers and ciders, bottles of white wine, milk, yoghurts, snacks in pots and mineral water. He picked up a large plastic bottle of semi-skimmed milk. He walked further into the shop to browse. He was in no hurry. This was an outing. He was on his own.

He stopped by the breads and looked at the different kinds, white and brown, pitta breads, serious-looking Polish breads, bags of cheap yellow croissants. He heard a voice, not the owner’s. There was someone else in the shop. A woman was asking the price of some cheese. Something strident about the voice, abrupt, maybe the London accent.

The shopkeeper answered and the other voice said, “OK, that then. Come on. You know me. You do know me.”

Steve looked across the top of the shelf and saw a blonde ponytail hanging over the back of a leather jacket.

“Just that cheese. Come on.”

The woman was pleading, aggressively begging. As she spoke, she hung her head on one side. She gestured with a loose arm. Steve blushed with a panic of embarrassment.

The owner shook her head. “If you don’t have money . . .”

“Just the Cheddar. The big one. You know I’ll pay you back. I’ll have the money at the end of the week.”

The milk was starting to hurt Steve’s finger, the cold loop of plastic chilling through to the bone. Silently, he moved the bottle from one hand to the other.

The Indian lady was not persuaded. “Each week put some money for food.”

“I do. It’s just . . .”

She shook her head. “Life is from food. Life is not from drink.”

The owner looked at Steve who, engrossed in their argument, had forgotten his own presence. Her glance woke him. The other woman noticed and turned. Steve hesitated for a fraction of a second almost as though he might crouch down behind the shelf and hide. Instead, he got hold of himself, stood up straighter and nodded at the other woman. She was young, late twenties, early thirties, and she looked fine. In fact, she was pretty: a neat girlish face with the kind of snub nose Steve thought of as particularly working class. She didn’t look derelict. She gave off no smell. You wouldn’t know but for the sloppiness of her movements and the carelessness of her rapidly changing facial expressions. Her face had the unselfconscious tiredness of drink. She was a sad sight.

She was still looking at him. Steve blinked. He turned and moved as if with purpose towards a shelf of canned goods, blue tins with inset pictures of steaming orange beans or spaghetti. Steve picked one up and held it as though reading but with all of his attention in his peripheral vision.

The woman turned, sort of swerved around, back to the shopkeeper.

“You think I’m like that, don’t you? I’m not lying to you. I wouldn’t. I’m not a liar.”

“Put some money for food,” the owner repeated.

“You don’t know. You don’t know what happens in a person’s life.”

Steve tried to imagine what that might be. In his mind’s eye he glimpsed a bleak flat, a stupid and violent man.

“Look, I cannot begin with this for you.”

“You know me. The end of the week. One week. Just that cheese. That’ll do me.”

This was horrible. It was what Steve’s mother would have called “a scene”. There was a scene going on. It burned like a fire in the room and made Steve sweat with em­barrassment and pity. And that cheese she kept asking for – Steve couldn’t help picturing it: solid and miserable, a pathetic block of inexpensive cheese in a corner-shop fridge that somehow she would eat for a week. Steve wanted to get out.

He walked to the till, catching the owner’s eye. He looked as sober and serious as he could, trying to empty his expression of any reference to the situation. As he did so, the young woman slouched heavily in her helplessness and almost fell on to him. Steve stepped back. “Sorry,” he said, as though he were responsible. He set the milk and whatever tin he was holding on the desk above the racks of sweets. He turned and looked at the pretty young woman with her tired face and fidgeting, childish hands. As he did so, a car went by outside. The sound of it on the wet road made Steve feel the night outside the shop, how large and dark it was.

The owner rang up the items. She said in a quiet voice that it would be one pound forty-seven.

“Oh. OK. Sure.” Steve took out his wallet. As he unzipped the small compartment for coins, he saw the upper edge of a £5 note. “Right,” he said, taking it out and handing it to the woman, “why don’t you just have this?”

“What?” she asked. Steve was immediately impatient for her to understand and take it and end this exchange. She did. She saw him holding out the money and realised. “Oh God,” she said, taking the note from him. “Thank you.”

“No worries,” Steve said. Her eyes were wide, blue and grateful. He put his hand on her arm. He allowed himself that. He’d purchased it. She smiled up at him, holding the note by its edges.

“That’s one pound forty-seven,” the owner repeated. He fished out and handed over a couple of pound coins. He was given his change, his purchases in a blue plastic bag.

“That’s so kind of you,” the young woman was saying. Now she put her hand on his arm. “I really appreciate it. I really do.”

“No worries,” Steve said again. “You can get that cheese now.”

“Yeah.” The woman stood there, apparently contemplating the intricate picture on the note. “You’re a kind man.” She didn’t move.

Behind her, Steve noticed the chiller cabinet, again all the cheap beers and ciders, the wine. “Oh,” he said out loud. Maybe he’d been an idiot. Maybe she was now just waiting for him to leave. He looked round at the owner who looked back at him with hard, dark eyes. Her look said that whatever the young woman decided to buy, she would have to sell to her.

“Like the lady said, life is from food,” Steve said.

“That’s right,” the woman said. “I just need some food.” She looked up at him so sincerely, her expression so calm and relieved, that Steve was persuaded, at least enough to be able to leave the shop.

“All right,” he said. “I better get back home.”

“You take care now, darling. You’re very kind.”

“OK then.” Steve nodded encouragingly and walked out.

He jogged again across the wide main road then slowed on the pavement ice, walking carefully home, the carrier bag swinging from his hand. Something had gone wrong. He felt that more and more clearly. It wasn’t that the young woman was probably right at this moment buying more alcohol with his donation. It was something else. Now that the scene in the shop was over, he felt shut out again, rejected. At home, he put the unnecessary tin of beans in a cupboard and the milk in the fridge. He sat down with his wife and in-laws and picked up the motoring supplement as though to read. Looking at Tess, he decided he wouldn’t tell her what had happened. The thought pleased him. He would never tell her. He would keep it to himself. The secrecy was a sort of consolation. Only he would ever know about it, like an adultery.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis