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The Coup

A new short story.

To be denounced before eight in the morning interferes with the digestion. Gerald, unable to swallow his cereal, wondered what he’d done.

“Shame on you!” chanted the lone protester outside.

Much as Gerald searched his memory for past disgraces, nothing wicked came to mind. Disappointing, really: by one’s mid-forties, oughtn’t a man to be ashamed of something?

He strode the length of his townhouse, upstairs past the back terrace, across the living room, beyond the guest and master bedrooms, up to the top-floor study, which still smelled of paint three weeks after they’d moved in. At the window, he peeped down on the street.

The protester, a pudgy bearded man, stood there holding a sign that declared “Filthy Pig”, followed by three exclamation points. Gerald turned from the window, glancing at the attic clutter: the rolled-up Persian runners for which they’d not yet found the right floor space; an obsolete iMac that was hard to toss out; emptied suitcases and assorted leftovers of the recent move. What had he to be ashamed of?

After all, much of Gerald’s adult life had been devoted to charitable works. Eighty-three nonprofits entrusted him with a total of £1.6bn, which it was his duty to protect and increase at Wisset-Brown, the private bank whose charities department he directed.

There was something childlike (in the best way) about many in the charitable sector, he believed. They were optimists about humanity, which was a form of extremism in the sense that children were extremists – that is, endearingly so. Especially since this was so demonstrably not an era of empathy. Then again, which ever had been?

He returned to the window. Three more demonstrators had joined the bearded man, who raised a megaphone for a new chant, words of loathing that seeped into Gerald’s consciousness with utmost relief: this rally, he realised, was aimed at his neighbours.

When he’d first contemplated buying this house, Gerald had noticed on the adjacent property a rain-dirtied flag with an exotic yellow bird at its centre, marking the embassy of a nation he thereafter referred to as the Kingdom of Budgerigar – one of those tiny states he knew to be brutish and hot, but whose location on a map required two minutes to find.

He’d contemplated whether the act of residing beside a despicable regime raised moral questions, particularly for his partner, who was at the Foreign Office. But, as a friend had commented, if Britain were willing to accept diplomats from Budgerigar, surely Gerald should be broad-minded enough to live next to them in South Kensington. Plus, the house was extremely reasonable.

Thankfully, the Budgerigarian diplomats proved a genial bunch, particularly a chargé d’affaires called Ústaffa who invited them to dinner with the ambassador soon after their arrival. All the Budgerigarians at the meal were charming, articulate, cultured – and eager to play down media reports. Gerald’s only lingering complaint was that they put out their rubbish so much earlier than the council demanded, causing an awful stink, given that fish featured so highly in the national diet.

As he stood in his attic, the protest-chant outside took hold of him, an irritatingly catchy tune: “Go away/You fat goats/Or we choke you/By your throats.” The temptation was to lean out and remark that a throat was the only place one could choke a goat, wasn’t it? Though, to be fair, they needed a rhyme with “goats”, and he couldn’t think of a better one.

Gerald avoided eye contact with the demonstrators when he left for work that morning, biking off for Wisset-Brown. A satisfactory day ensued, including a luncheon with his fourth-largest charity, some of whose fund - raisers had been pushing for a shift to so-called ethical investments – that is, no oil companies, no big tobacco, no orang-utan abusers. Gerald cautioned that he had yet to encounter a socially responsible investment that performed long-term. You could set out with ideals and indeed should. But you could not achieve ideals with ideals.

The head of the charity was relieved – times were tough without taking a risk on their holdings. The financial crisis had led to a decline in giving and a rise in neediness; rampant inflation ate into their funds; the government had been threatening to cap how much the rich could write-off in donations. Not that donors gave for tax relief alone. Just that . . . Anyway, the existing investments would stand. As the luncheon concluded, the head of the charity made a few conscience-salving comments, remarking that Gerald had “forced our hand” and been “so hard-nosed, as ever”. Untrue and unfair.

Yes, money was a priority but that was his professional duty. And it was his private belief too. Money ensured comfort for those he loved: his partner, his nephews, his god-daughter. Their happiness could not be purchased but it could be rendered more probable in charming lodgings, with decent schooling, proper travel, exposure to aesthetics, varied cooking. So, no, money wasn’t the point – but it paid for the point. Cycling home, he proceeded down a chain of thoughts, worrying first that he was a horrible person, then if they ought to have lamb again, wishing there were a Waitrose nearby, and whose turn it was to cook tonight, his or Gerald’s? (It should be noted that Gerald and his partner enjoyed a contented domestic relationship, with one vexing feature: both men were named Gerald. Early on, this had been amusing. But soon, Gerald took to encouraging the other Gerald to change his name to Ivor, which – they agreed – was a pleasing alternative. However, Gerald insisted that Gerald should be the one to change. Each remained wilful, referring to the other as Ivor and refusing to surrender his own Geraldness.)

So it was that Gerald, director of charities at Wisset-Brown, bicycled home with thoughts of spring lamb, new potatoes and Rioja (did lamb go with Rioja?), and forgot about the morning protest till he arrived in his own square, finding the rally still noisily in force.

He cooked that night and Ivor, arriving late, recounted his workday, which included a maddening ministerial briefing in which he’d been permitted two minutes to distinguish among three conflicts, one rooted in a ludicrous colonial-era border, another due to cocaine trans-shipment, a third pertaining to cashew production. In each, armed men swarmed the country, leaving unspeakable wounds, mocking any notion of justice in life. Dispirited, Ivor salted his new potatoes at length.

Day after day, the rallies continued, lasting till after midnight, resuming in the early morning. Coming and going grew awkward – Gerald felt like a strike-breaker pushing through the crowd. When Newsnight broadcast a segment on the embattled insurgency in the Kingdom of Budgerigar, they showed a snippet from the embassy demo, including a shot of Gerald in his bike helmet, fiddling to get his key in the front-door deadbolt.

The protest grew and the litter increased – crisp packets in the gutter, fish bones. Gerald came to dislike the demonstrators and, secretly, longed for them to bugger off – only to wince at this churlish thought, making a point thereafter of accepting all their pamphlets. Tidying up one night, he found himself leafing through the protest literature. The awful claims gripped him and he read to the end, doing follow-up research on the internet. Hard to tell if the government really was that horrible, or if the opposition just had a better website. Nevertheless, he was in a righteous mood when Ivor returned from Whitehall, and was soon advocating the expulsion of their neighbours. They agreed that Ivor would raise the situation at work. To denounce another country was always tricky. Problem was, so many foreign governments were fairly repellent – picking one was, Ivor explained, “a question of resources.”

Plus, any condemnation risked stirring the Daily Mail, which might then pry into Foreign Office programmes that had inadvertently funnelled British taxpayer money to foreign thugs. Thankfully, a review of recent spending in Budgerigar revealed a paltry £843 expen diture – although the associated word “mangoes” was worrying, in the Daily Mailgetting- wind-of-it sense. Nevertheless, Ivor lobbied at work, and he and Gerald missed no opportunity to rail against the regime; they become bores about it. Ivor returned from work aglow one night, having wrung out a three-sentence press release chastening the Budgerigarian administration (though in no way casting aspersions on the nation’s famously succulent grapefruits, nor any affiliated UK-based citrus importers).

Gerald was effervescent about their victory for a few days. But the protesters outside – unaware of his efforts – became no more considerate. Their rowdiness only increased, with noise around the clock.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, he decided not to skulk inside any more, imprisoned as he had been by the cacophony outside. He had bought this townhouse to enjoy, not to cower in. He marched into his back garden, put on his iPod, and settled down with the FT crossword. When he glimpsed Ústaffa across the fence, Gerald hastened over.

They chatted amiably, lamenting the traffic snarls expected from the Olympics, until Gerald sneaked in a mention of the protesters, noting that they’d be outfoxed, were the embassy personnel to up and move. He passed over a business card from his estate agent.

Within days, the embassy was empty. The protesters dispersed too. Not, it transpired, because of Gerald’s suggestion. But because insurgents had stormed Budgerigar Palace in the capital, ousted the despots, and installed a caretaker council. The rebels, Ivor explained, had been anxiously awaiting any sign of support from the west. And it had come in the form of a three-line British communiqué. Not insignificantly, the insurgents had the good fortune to attack when the entire cabinet was out of the country, attending the summer sales at Harrods.

Presently, a new flag fluttered from the pole next door. The brass nameplate was replaced to reflect the changed title of the state, which Gerald now referred to as the People’s Republic of Parakeet. A new set of diplomats moved in. What relief: they lived beside liberators now. The new neighbours threw a vast Parakeet party in their garden and, though they failed to invite Gerald and Ivor, it seemed a merry occasion. Worryingly, the parties continued. This new lot were so triumphant that they wouldn’t shut up about it, with barbeques all summer, and not just on weekends. Fish bones found their way into Gerald’s back garden, along with beer cans and empty crisp packets.

In a fit of pique, as a live band did its soundcheck on the other side of the fence, Gerald fetched one of the old protest pamphlets, whereupon he called the listed mobile number to learn what they thought of their new regime now. The number rang, seemingly in stereo: once through the handset at Gerald’s ear and again across the fence.

“Yes, hello?” a man replied.

Gerald stood on his tiptoes to see into the adjacent garden.

“Hello?” the man repeated. It was the pudgy bearded protester, now in suit and tie. They had moved in over there.

Gerald hung up. “Shame!” he shrieked. Well, it wasn’t a shriek so much as a mutter, but with a degree of vitriol that was formidable. Autumn arrived and the parties dwindled. Still, the Parakeetians scarcely acknowledged Gerald, even when he and they happened to be putting out rubbish at the same time. As for the stench, this lot were even more prolific eaters of the pungent national fish than their predecessors had been.

All of which was pretty inconsiderate given that it was Gerald who had liberated their homeland in the first place.

Developing countries, he thought, you just want to give up on them after a while, don’t you. One puts one’s faith in the new lot. Then they turn out even worse than the last bunch of bandits.

Tom Rachman is the English/Canadian author of “The Imperfectionists” (Quercus, £7.99)

Tom Rachman is the English/Canadian author of “The Imperfectionists” (Quercus, £7.99).

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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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