The Right to an Answer

Extracts from The Right to an Answer (1960)

‘We might as well have a cup of tea,’ he said, and we noisily marched over the hollow boards of the glass-covered bridge, down the stairs to Platform Four. We entered the filthy Gothic tea-room and Everett ordered. The serving-woman served us with tired distain; she treated her customers like a dull and endless film that could only, with order and money, make a very rare stereoscopic contact with her real though duller world. Everett took me to a table and began to talk sadly but eagerly.

‘They say the church spire interferes with their bloody television reception,’ he said.

He seemed to lose interest in the subject of his daughter, glooming at a yellow card of ancient railway regulations on the wall. But when the harbingers of the coming train were audible – porters trundling, a scrambled gabble from the station announcer, frantic blowing on hot tea – he became eager again and was out swiftly on to the platform. I followed him. The train slid in. I saw the driver look down disdainful from his cosy hell, sharing – like soldier and auxiliary – a mystique with the tea-room woman. Passengers, disillusioned with arrival, got out greyly amid grey steam; passengers, hungry for the illusion of getting somewhere, jostled their way on.

I know little about the women of my own race…

…when I went out I tried to push the door instead of pulling it. ‘Pull it, mate,’ said someone, and I had to obey. I nearly tripped over a footscraper and, the door closed, had the impression of loud laughter. The vile blunt-razor-blade wind blew hard from my sister’s house. I felt ashamed and furious. In the East there was politeness, doors opened the right way, there were no footscrapers.

…of course, keep-fit people are no good in bed…

She was an appetising woman with a full-cheeked smile, about thirty, a Nordic blonde but not icy, though ice was suggested in its tamed winter-sport aspects : the flush after skating, log-fires and hot rum and butter, fine heavy thighs, that would warm your hand like a muff, under a skirt that had swirled in a rink waltz. Her beaver lamb coat was thrust back from a green suit : solid charms, thoroughly wholesome, were indicated.

…a man who sold meat but knew nothing of the poetry of the slaughterhouse…. Ted Arden was no ice-cream butcher.

I had a sudden longing, like a pain, for the hot smelly East, and remembered that Everett had said something about an Indian restaurant. I asked the barman, a hot-haired Irishman, and he asked one of the business-men (who, I saw now, was a Pakistani) and then was able to tell me that the Calicut Restaurant was on Egg Street, by the Poultry Market. I went there and ate insipid dahl, tough chicken, greasy pappadams, and rice that had congealed to a pudding. The décor was depressing – brown oily wallpaper, a calendar with a Bengali pin-up (buff, deliriously plump, about thirty-eight) – and it was evident that the few Indian students were eating the special curry prepared for the staff. The manager was from Pondicherry : he caled me ‘monsieur’ and was not impressed by my complaints. At least one of the waiters was from Jamaica. I went out angry and, at a pub where the landlady sniffed in curlers, drank brandy till closing-time.

…the mysterious and lucrative Orient…

Ted, I noted, was very busy – at the pumps, at the glasses behind, the bottles below, the merrily ringing till, like a percussion-player in some modern work who dashes with confidence from xylophone to glockenspiel to triangle to wind-machine to big drum to tambourine.

I was only the returned Oriental eccentric, drunk at that…

It began to worry me that I could never possibly settle in England now, not after Tokyo nude-shows and sliced green chillies, brown children sluicing at the road-pump, the air-conditioned hum in bedrooms big as ballrooms, negligible income-tax, curry tiffins, being the big man in the big car, the bars of all the airports of Africa and the East.

“…The returned exile and how he sees philistine England…”

…it is recognised in England that home drinking is no real pleasure. We pray in a church and booze in a pub: profoundly sacerdotal at heart, we need a host in both places to preside over us. In Catholic churches as in continental bars the host is there all the time. But the Church of England kicked out the Real Presence and the licensing laws gave the landlord a terrible sacramental power. Ted was giving me grace of his own free will, holding back death – which is closing time – making a lordly grant of extra life.

The dog now slept, occasionally farting very gently.

The rain eased off, but the streets were greasily wet, rainbowed with oil. I went to the bank for more five-pound notes, stood like a pauper in the public library reading the Christian Science Monitor, then went for the first drinks of the day to a dive-bar popular with merchants. Hungarian refugees waited on at the tables and a West Indian negro collected dirty glasses – we were all exiles together.

As I walked towards travel, that illusion of liberation, I strangely felt myself walking back into childhood.

Stamping around, waiting, I cursed England aloud, hands dug deep into pockets, dancing to the wind that knocked in vain at the Sunday shops. Cigarette-packets, football fixtures, bus-tickets sailed by in dust-ghosts of Saturday. A woman with a puce face and a blancmange-coloured prayer-book was waiting also for The Priest and Pig, and she looked puce disapproval at me. Twenty minutes late, the bus yawned in from town, near-empty, and it swallowed us in a gape of Sunday ennui. So we sundayed along, rattling and creaking in Sunday hollowness, I upstairs, tearing my elevenpenny ticket while I read the prospectus of Winter Commercial Classes stuck on the window.

Well-fed and liquored, I responded with ardour.

‘That it is still possible for a man of initiative to make money in the East is the firm opinion of balding, plump Mr Denham who adds, however, “Not if you take a wife with you.” Mr Denham has scathing things to say about Englishwomen and their lack of domestic virtues. He particularly selects their cooking as a target, but considers also that they are far inferior to the slant-eyed beauties of the Orient in the all-important matter of fidelity to their menfolk. Mr Denham is considered an authority on the women of Japan who, he says, are lovely, demure and submissive….On his own admission he has little time for anything except money, dalliance, and the “imbibing of liquors of all kinds”.’

I watched the grey villages limp by, the wind tearing at torn posters of long-done events. What I needed, of course, was a drink.

Ah, well, if they wanted their adultery, what did it matter to me? I hadn’t much room to talk, anyway, with my five-pound prostitutes who did a bunk and the Japanese girls who cost far less and didn’t do a bunk and whatever I was likely to pick up in Colombo.

‘You are admitting, then, to frivolity of attitude to important global problems?’

‘…Your little feuilleton…recording…my crude nabob’s philistinism…’

Mr Raj had been purely Orientally and fancifully complimentary (‘So great a man, his lingam as long and thick as a tree, the father of whole villages’)

‘…The senior Mr Denham’s,’ he said, with deadly Eastern realism, ‘will perhaps only be better in the grave

‘I come here to your beautiful country -’ Mr Raj saw through the window bare branches, coil after coil of dirty clouds, washing on neighbour lines, forlorn pecking birds, a distant brace of gasometers. ‘- your beautiful country, I say,’ he said defiantly. ‘…So far I have had mixed career. Fights and insults, complete lack of sexual sustenance – most necessary to men in prime of life – and inability to find accommodation commensurate with social position and academic attainments…’

‘They’ll be in all our houses,’ I said, ‘blackies of all colours, before the century’s over. The new world belongs to Asia.

Singapura means lion-city; prehistoric, myopic, Sanskrit-speaking visitors having spotted a mangy tiger or two in the mangroves. Sly Malays sometimes call it Singa pura-pura, which means ‘pretending to be a lion’….It is a profoundly provincial town pretending to be a metropolis.

…jumped-up commercials pretending, too late, to be the ruling class..

‘I knew im, she knew im, e knew im, we all knew im.’ After this paradigm, which impressed his hearers, he paused. ‘E was a customer ere. Not perhaps one of the best customers. Not like Roger Alliwell ere oo drinks whisky to the tune of near one bottle a day, which is good for the ouse and, as far as we can see, does imself no arm. But e was a customer, loyal to the ouse, regular in attendance, and that’s all we ask of any man or woman for that matter. Well, now e’s gone. We’re sorry e’s gone. You’re sorry e’s gone. I’m sorry e’s gone. And we can’t say much more than that. Now the question is: is e gone to a better place? I don’t know the answer to that, nor do you, nor does she. Perhaps e knows,’ said Ted, shrugging towards the vicar, ‘because it’s is job to know. But the rest of us don’t know. Right. But I say this. E done is best for all. Never a ard word come out of that man’s art. Right. Well loved e was and for all is faults we would love im still, if e was still alive. But e’s dead now and we wish im all the best in is new destination. And I can’t say no fairer than that.’

That night we visited various places where well-shaped and scented, though completely naked, Japanese girls came to sit on male knees.

…surely that sneered-at suburban life was more stable than this shadow life…in a country where

no involvement was possible…better than the sordid dalliance that soothed me after work?

After all, what bit of money I’ve made has been made among mosquitoes and sand-flies, snakes in the bedroom, long monotonous damp heat, boredom, exasperation with native clerks. Who are these sweet stay-at-homes, sweet well-contents, to try and suck it out of me and feel aggrieved if they can’t have it?

Love seems inevitable, necessary, as normal and as easy a process as respiration, but unfortunately

The greater part of the time I spent, when I talked at all, talking to men. I liked to take luncheon in some pub or other, sitting on a high stool at the snack-counter, barons of beef, hams, salads and dishes of pickle spread before me, the server in his tall white cap carving with skill. Other male eaters would be wedged against me, champing over newspapers, and there were a peculiar animal content in being among warm silent men, raising glasses in smacking silent toasts to themselves, the automatic ‘ah’ after the draught, the forkful of red beef and mustard pickle. Sitting with my gin or whisky afterwards I would often manage to get into conversation with some lonely man or other – usually an exile like myself – and the talk would be about the world, air-routes and shipping-lines, drinking-places thousands of miles away. Then I felt happy, felt I had come home, because home to people like me is not a place but all places, all places except the one we happen to be in at the moment.

The dog looked up through its hairy yashmak and farted.

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