Once he has noticed one, it seems as if they are everywhere….white girls in burkahs.
Often they are those fleshy girls,their faces made more moon like by the scarf that wraps around their hair, skin shiny, eyes almost downcast.
They look, to his eyes, almost totally wrong.
Their presence on the pavement derails him, causes him to look, to stare and then to try to look away before they notice his looking, his stare.
He steps to the side, his own eyes looking away, gaze dropping to the pavement and then they are gone, a flurry of fabric and buggies and blue plastic carrier bags from the halal butchers shop on the corner.
I’m not a racist he thinks, knowing, knowing for sure that what comes next should be, must be a comment of mind blowing ignorance.
I’m not a racist, he starts the thought again and then lets it drift.
Thinks back,feet making their automatic journey to the supermarket, a walk he has made day after week after month, the dog, his footwear changing over the years.
This dog, the latest dog, mostly black,mostly staff, mooches along, both of them a little stiffer, a little slower than they used to be.
Back in the day, his then dog would freestyle off lead, but these days, mindful that many of his neighbours children are frightened of dogs, he keeps the current one on a lead, has learnt to pull it back sharply if it shows a friendly interest in the passers by.
He has lived in this neighbourhood a long time, a room in that house,a flat share on this road, girlfriend, ex girlfriend living there and there and there, a meandering path of red dots, a journey to no-where really.
He has finished off almost where he started, but has , he supposes, gone up in the world, now has a housing association terraced house, front door painted a standardised red, windows cheap UPVC double glazing, but home all the same.
He remembers when he first moved here, skinny white boy, looked like a student, but wasn’t. Somehow had forgotten to do the whole college thing, just did the other bits, sans studying.
Late nights and cheap beers and huge pans of lentil stew and potato curry.
Went to student parties, didn’t remember to take a bottle of cheap wine, but drank everything in sight, sat on doorsteps at 4 am, wilted roll up at the corner of his mouth, talking about the novel he was going to write, the film he was going to make.
Sometimes, he convinced even himself, could see the finished manuscript, words uttered as the sun came up, became the reality of a finished project, but mostly he knew the truth, engaging bullshit.
Walking home, to whichever room was home then, 6,7 am, always meeting the big black guy, shiny bouncers suit, sheep on a lead and a nod
Almost a whigger, but not quite, knew enough to keep it in check, knew enough to never try to coax his baby fine, mouse brown hair into inadequate dreadlocks.
The student friends moved on, back to suburbs, off to bigger cities, but he stayed, settled, comfortable.
Would stand some days outside the bookies, one heel just off the ground, resting on the sun warmed bricks, watching the world go by.
He became part of the street furniture, always on a float at carnival, learnt to drop the the, carnival, never the carnival, still danced like a white boy though.
Knew the Delroys and the Leroys and the Devons, peppered his conversation with rich, island language
” Ras Clout”
And 30 came and went and so did Leroy and Delroy, moved to semis with gardens, moved to where the schools were better, moved because that’s what people do.
But he stayed, took stock, hung out with the thin white girls, angry, defiant butts in tight jeans, beige and saffron coloured children running in and out of the under furnished terraced houses.
Different sorts of parties, angry edges, always on the tip of sliding into something nasty, but still he cooked big pans of lentil stew, sat on doorsteps, smoked and walked home, wondering what had happened to the big man and the sheep on a lead.
He fathers a couple of kids, thin white faces reflect their mothers’ anger. He is an absent dad, more absent minded than actually absent. After all he lives too near to really get away, but he forgets them, their names, ages slip away from him.
At first he likes the new changes, the streets are quieter, less boom bastic, the call to prayer reminds him of a short lived interest in meditation. He sits up in bed, skinny shoulders hunched against the cold, first cup of tea, first roll up of the day and rock in rythmn to the Imans’ chant.
It’s a good way as any to start the day.
The shops change, the bookies closes, another halal supermarket opens in it place. He likes to wander around its aisles, buys huge bags of rice, garam masala, fresh coriander.
One day it strikes him, his is the only white face in the store, in fact, given it’s 11am, his is, with the exception of the 2 men hefting cans of cooking oil, the only completely exposed face in the store. All the other customers are women and all cover some or all their face, hair, head.
He wonders, as he ambles home, hands deep in pockets against the November chill, head down, shoulders slumped with the weight of cut price groceries, when all of this happened, when exactly did his neighbourhood change to this extent.
He cannot shake the feeling of not belonging, even at home, feet up on the sofa, fag lit, cuppa brewed and the dog, the current dog, up on its back legs, staring out of the window, watchful for cats and buggies and dogs that don’t belong, even then, the feeling that this is not his place anymore persists.
He starts counting off the houses on his own street, using his fingers to help make the list.
He is the last white man on the street.
The angry, skinny white girls drifted away in twos and threes, with their angry children, railing against something, anything.
Lips like rat traps, defiant butts in too tight jeans, pushing this years’ baby in last years’ buggy to another meeting –
and so on and so on.
Their anger especially reserved for the next meeting, the next shrugged shoulders, the next hopeless outspread palms.
He realises he misses them, their untidy houses, their unruly hearts, the likelihood of cheap beer, cheap smokes and the nearest child sent to the chippy on evenings when not much was happening, not much to say.
The Hawkins got rehoused last year and everyone, odd and even numbers drew a collective sigh of relief,
” Good riddance to bad rubbish” said Mr Ashkir and he had nodded, glad to see the back of a family so feral that they gave feral a bad name.
But he hadn’t realised the significance, just him now, in a sea of women who hide their faces, their hair, their bodies in clouds of billowing black.
He rolls another fag, ponders putting on the kettle, but settles for patting the dog, ears soft velvet between his fingers and stares out of the window, watching white girls in burkahs vanish into the house next door.