Chapter 1 Cows
The weirdest thing happened at work today. Even weirder than usual, that is, since everything’s a bit random at our place at the moment. I arrived late, sweating and panting from cycling in the rain, to find that Eleanor had turned the heating on full against the draughts that blow in under the wonky door. I peeled off my dripping cagoule, my fleece jacket, and finally my ‘Save the Rain Forest’ T-shirt.
“Shelley!” Eleanor eyed with horror the spaghetti straps of my vest top, coyly entangled with black bra straps on my gleaming brown shoulders. I imagined a cartoon bubble floating above her head containing the words, Brazen Hussy!! She can be so old-fashioned sometimes.
“But it’s hot in here,” I moaned weakly, pulling my T-shirt on again.
“Try an alarm clock,” was her abbreviated response.
“Love you too,” I grumbled and yanked my black and white cow apron down from its hook on the kitchen door.
I’ve been working in the Dancing Cows vegan cafe for about eight months now and sometimes it feels like eight years. I live, sleep and breathe nut roasts, red dragon pie, green tea and Eleanor’s freckled face; which is usually white with exhaustion beneath her ginger curls as she puzzles over yet another intractable problem. She and Matt sank everything they had into setting up this place. She’s always stressing about the salads, or tearing off to the wholesalers in her rusty yellow van to sort out some order they’ve got wrong. Matt, on the other hand, is so laid back he spends most of his time horizontal. He thinks he can run the place telepathically from the sofa in their flat upstairs. I try his telepathy method in reverse sometimes: staring very hard at the black and white cows painted on the ceiling to see if I can will him to come down and lend a hand. Never works.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the cafe too. I’m vegan now but I've been a vegetarian since Cheryl Fenwick and I decided to stop eating dead animals when we were twelve. Cheryl eats meat now that she’s shacked up with Carl the Carnivore, but I'm still true to the cause. I remember the first time I read about animals being transported to abattoirs to be slaughtered. I saw the pictures and felt sick. I stopped eating dairy products the summer I was fifteen, when we went to the caravan in Pembrokeshire. One day we could hear this cow just lowing over and over for hours. The site manager told us they’d taken her calf away so that people like us could have her milk to drink every day for the rest of the year. I felt like each cry was coming from inside me, this huge, towering scream of grief. I just knew that never again was I going to be responsible for causing that amount of pain to another living creature. And I realised that Rehana (that’s my birth mother) must have found it unbearable to give me up, whatever her reason for doing it.
Mum and Dad seemed to take it as a personal criticism when I got involved with veganism and animal rights. Or maybe they thought it was Rehana’s genes surfacing despite their best efforts. I couldn't make them see it was just me, what I wanted to do. It's like working at Dancing Cows. They're so uptight about it, like if I don't rush out and get a 'proper' job right this minute I'll turn into a New Age traveller or something. Which wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but I don’t say that because I don’t want an argument.
“What happened to all your plans, darling?” Mum complained in John Lewis’s coffee shop on my graduation day. Fair enough. I had invented all sorts of schemes to keep them happy: applying to the civil service, researching a course in town planning, even attending a teacher training recruitment day. But it was all just a way of fending off their questions. Every time I nearly went to the careers office, or nearly phoned for an application form, I had this sinking feeling and my brain kind of shut down.
As I took up my post at the till this morning I couldn’t resist a small glance upwards to Matilda and Winifred. I whispered,
“Don’t say it, I know – late again!”
Me being late hardly mattered because the only customers all morning were my lot from the anti-vivisection campaign. They trickled in after ten to hold a meeting at the window table. I had invited them to use the cafe so I could be at the meeting too, but it didn’t pan out quite how I’d imagined. I barely got a sense of what was going on as I danced back and forth between their table and the till, trying to keep one eye on the door to the kitchen and the other on the door to the street. I’d sold the meeting to Eleanor as a way of bringing in more business, but by half-past eleven Carmen, Ritchie and Dave had been sitting over the same drinks for an hour and not bought so much as a date and walnut slice. Only Angela had ordered a veggie breakfast and then changed her mind when she found out it wasn’t on the house. On the house. As if! Did she think we were so made of money we could afford to feed them for nothing? Luckily no one heard: Eleanor was upstairs with Matt, ‘doing the books’, in other words having a row about money. And Jill was in the kitchen preparing salads for lunch.
I was just about to clear the mugs on the meeting table in an attempt to remind them that they must be thirsty, when the front door opened and this Indian woman swept in. She was wearing a cream fur coat and a dazzling emerald green sari. She stood by the till shaking rain out of a large pink umbrella, which I noticed was elegantly lined with grey satin. Her hair was oiled and twisted into a bun at the back of her head and she wore intricately carved gold hoops in her ears. Her lips were a bright poppy-red. Maybe I was staring. I hurried to the till and asked if I could help her, trying to hide my surprise that she had stepped into our cafe at all. She probably doesn't know the area, I thought, and she certainly doesn’t know what we’re about or she’d think twice about wearing fur in here, even if it’s imitation. I could see Ritchie’s shoulders twitching at the sight of it.
"Tea please." She smiled warmly at me and I caught a flash of recognition in her eyes that seemed to be clocking me as Asian too, the way people do. It made me want to get her sorted into a corner as quickly and quietly as possible before she showed me up.
"Which tea? We do Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, and Lapsang Suchong, with or without soya milk and herbal teas which are listed up here." I rushed through the usual patter, pointing to the blackboard. The Indian woman considered the many possibilities with an anxious frown. I was about to suggest Darjeeling when she demanded firmly:
"Camomile, please, and a honey and almond flapjack."
As I squirted hot water from the urn into a stainless steel teapot and placed it with one of our black and white mugs and her biscuit on the scratched tray, I couldn’t help thinking she must be used to something better. She seemed happy enough and carried her tray carefully to a table by one of the pillars covered from ceiling to floor in flyers and ragged notices. She leaned her folded umbrella against the table leg and took off her coat, reaching awkwardly to drape it over the back of the chair and revealing as she did so a startling fold of bare caramel flesh around her midriff. Let’s see Eleanor tell her to cover up, I thought with a disgruntled sniff. The end of her sari swirled dramatically across her back in stiff rustling swathes of gold embroidered silk, reflecting the ceiling light above her a thousand times in clusters of tiny sequins, making me hot with embarrassment at her gaudiness.
Jill brought me a stack of boxes through from the fridge, so I gave up on the idea of my lot buying anything before lunchtime and took her not-so-subtle hint that guarding the till does not mean giving up on all other human activity. As I was decanting salads and sandwich fillings into the bowls in front of me, I tried to steal an occasional sly glance at the new customer.
Our cafe is in a really mixed area with students, pensioners, white and black families, and newly arrived refugees, all living together in the same Victorian terraces, and barracks of boxy, 60’s maisonettes. The area is sandwiched between main roads that fan out of the city up the valleys towards the barrier of dark hills looming on the western horizon. I watch Asian women passing our door every day, raincoats wrapped over long patterned kameezes, some pushing buggies holding noisy toddlers with curly black fringes and chubby hands that remind me of pictures of myself when I was little. They never come in here, and I suppose I've hardly ventured into their shops either. The clothes shops are bewildering to me. Behind the displays of shining silks, I can see groups of women chatting and laughing, but I'd never dare step in. I wouldn't know what to ask for. I can't use a sewing machine to save my life, and I'd feel ashamed not knowing things they might expect me to know.
Once I went in the Asian grocers up the road on my way home, but I hadn't realised it was a meat shop as well. A burly man in a white coat splattered with murderous stains was chopping carcasses at the back of the shop and chatting to a knot of younger men gathered around him. His friends turned and stared at me as I stood in the queue with my bunch of fresh coriander and packets of cumin and chilli powder, dying to get out and wishing my jeans weren't so tight and my T-shirt so thin and ragged. I probably wouldn't have cared if I was white, but I felt I was disgracing them, being Asian and dressed like I was. Stupid really, I wanted to tell them they had got it wrong. I may look Asian, but I wasn't part of their world, so they didn't have to look at me like that. Even if I had been brought up Asian, it still wasn’t any of their business what I wore, I wasn’t accountable to them. I came out flustered and reminded myself to buy my spices from the wholefood collective next time.
I was thinking all this when I looked up straight into that woman's eyes and slopped hummous all down the side of the bowl and onto the shelf. I swore under my breath and looked at her again guiltily, but she was fiddling with her sari like nothing had happened. I wiped it all up and tried to concentrate on filling the bowls in the chiller cabinet.
"Shelley." A chorus from the window table interrupted me and I hurried over, conscious of the woman’s gaze following me.
"You know this action at the uni labs in May," Ritchie began to explain, "There’s a problem with the access. We could do with getting something in place the day before. Do you think we should — " he followed my eyes as they darted back to the woman in the sari and lowered his voice. “I think we need someone in the building overnight? Do you know anyone at the uni who could do it?”
University felt so far away already. Once I stepped out of it there seemed to be no going back. “Not really. All my mates have left now, and most of them were Arts students anyway. Look, it’s nearly lunchtime and it’s going to get busy soon. I’ll have to stay by the till.”
As I was returning to the counter, the woman in the sari interrupted me with a slightly raised finger.
"Excuse me," she began, and I thought she was going to complain about her tea. I knew she should have had Darjeeling. "Is this your cafe?"
"Pardon?" I was confused. She repeated her question, articulating very precisely and emphatically,
"Is this your cafe?"
"No," I giggled, amused at the thought, "I just work here. The owners are upstairs." I glanced behind me to see if anyone else had heard this bizarre suggestion, but Jill had the volume on the stereo turned right up in the back, blasting out Manic Street Preachers.
"Are they Indian as well?"
“As well as what?” I eyed her suspiciously.
“As you.” Her gaze was unflinching.
First I was supposed to own the business; now I was assumed to be from a country I had no connection with.
"No they're not,” I muttered, trying to stay calm. “Is there anything I can help you with?"
"I'm sorry. Excuse me asking so many questions, but I'm intrigued by your cafe, it's so unusual. It's vegetarian isn't it?"
"It's vegan actually.” Here I felt on slightly safer ground. I perched on the edge of a neighbouring table to continue. “That means we don't use meat or dairy products in our food, and we only use organic produce. We try to show how you can eat well and stay healthy without exploiting animals or destroying the environment." Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Carmen standing up and realised I had missed the end of the meeting. I curled my fingers around the edge of the table, itching to launch myself across the room to catch the others before they disappeared. Thing is, I felt anchored to her curious eyes fixed on mine.
"How interesting. It sounds very spiritual, a very Indian way of thinking."
Her languid words stung me into action. "It’s not meant to be and I’m afraid I’m not religious. Excuse me." I hopped off the table and steered my way across the room to the disintegrating meeting.
"Shelley, are you okay for the same time in two weeks?" Carmen looked up from her diary as she saw me approaching.
"Actually, can we do it after the cafe closes? I can't really concentrate if I'm working here," I explained. "You can come any day after six, I'll sort it out with Eleanor." There was a shuffling of pages and a bid for the pub as an alternative venue on Dave's part, but Ritchie was worried about being overheard. Finally we agreed another date in the cafe.
The room went fairly quiet after they’d gone. I gathered up their dirty mugs and spoons and wiped the table in the silence, uncomfortably aware of the woman sitting behind me. I felt bad for ignoring her, but I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn't say to her, it's no good you going on about India to me because I don't know anything about it, and anyway it's Bangladesh, actually.
"I’m not religious either, you know.” Her rich musical voice suddenly floated out into the empty room. “I used to be quite political like you when I was younger."
"Really?" I grunted ungraciously, without looking round.
"I don’t often come across people brave enough to take direct action in this country. Of course, we were brought up on direct actions in India, you know, hunger strikes, sit-ins, lie-ins, even self-immolations… “
I flashed an awkward smile at her as I manoeuvred around the table. I had no idea what she was talking about. Now she was starting to seriously irritate me. She must have overheard Ritchie talking and seemed to think she knew all about us. I glanced desperately at the kitchen door for a way out of the conversation, but reggae beats thudded out from Jill's inner sanctum and Eleanor had still not descended to organise us for the lunchtime rush. Business must be bad, I noted fleetingly. Normally she would be down by now, and some days so would Matt to drawl witty pleasantries at the customers and mess up the till, moaning, "Shelley darlin', come and fix this bloody thing fer' us."
The front door suddenly swung open, crashing loudly against the table behind it, and a dishevelled boy with darting angry eyes beneath his combat-style cap burst into the room propelled by a shove from two more following close behind. He shouted something unintelligible that sounded like ‘Al Qaeda’ at the woman in the sari and the others growled echoes of the same taunt. Their white faces were blotched and pimpled and they mumbled in gruff teenage voices, clenching their fists and kicking at the tables. The woman never moved a muscle, not the faintest flinch.
Oh my God, I’d better do something, I thought, suddenly remembering my responsibilities. But the first boy seemed to have run out of steam, pinned to the spot by the woman’s calm stare.
“This is a vegetarian cafe. If you’re interested in halal you’ll have to try somewhere else,” she smiled with perfect charm.
The first boy looked desperately at the others, swept his arms across a couple of tables sending sugar bowls and salt cellars flying and ran out, followed by the others, shouting a straggled chorus of, “Kill the Paki bastards!”
In the stillness that followed it took me a while to realise the pounding I was feeling was not Jill’s music still pumping away in the back, but my own heart thudding in my chest, even louder than the roar of traffic blown in through the open doorway. The woman and I looked at each other.
“Wow,” I breathed. “You were pretty cool.”
"I’m used to it,” she shrugged. “It’s not their fault, actually. It’s the parents, you know. They’re like all young men, trying to prove themselves, they just need a bit of guidance.”
I closed the door and began picking up the pieces of a smashed sugar bowl. The woman drew a chair out from under her table and patted the seat, saying, "We can tidy that up in a minute. Why don’t you come and sit here? I’m Veena, by the way."
Tentatively, I sat down on the chair beside her and told her my name.
"Shelley," she frowned, puzzled. "Is that Bengali?"
"It can be English or Bengali, but mine’s the English version.”
"Hello, Shelley." She stretched out a plump hand with long elegant fingers, which I shook self-consciously. She smelt of sandalwood, like the incense I used to burn in my room in halls of residence, only more fragrant and mingled with coconut oil. I noticed the creased divide between her pink palm and the silken brown skin on the back of her hand and was struck by the contrast. For a moment I was in the playground again: ‘Why aren’t your hands brown on the inside, Shelley? C’mon, tell us. Why? Why?’ Children pushing, hot breath all over me, rough hands pulling my hands open, turning them back and forth so they could all stare. Then I wanted to cut my hands off I was so ashamed.
"I'm going to an interview in the Asian Women's Centre down the road, Awaaz, you must know it?” Veena withdrew her hand carefully and I realised that I had held it too long. I nodded, a vague picture of purple and pink paintwork and windows full of posters flashing through my mind. “I'm far too early, it's not till one o’clock. Anyway, they'll probably give it to a younger person."
“You look the perfect part for an Asian Women's Centre to me.” I was feeling bad now about having been so grumpy earlier. “You’d have my vote. But what do I know?”
“Enough,” she patted my hand with something that felt like affection. “You’re an Asian woman and you’ve voted for me, so the job’s mine.” Her laughing eyes were full of kindness, but I couldn’t carry on talking to her. She wouldn’t say those things if she knew. Any minute now she was going to start asking questions again and I would have to close down the conversation or hand my life over to be prodded and picked at like a prize marrow. I couldn’t do it.
Eleanor's sharp voice suddenly startled me out of my seat.
"Shelley, what are you doing?" I realised that somehow three people had materialised at the counter.
"A sugar bowl smashed. I’m just clearing it up," I dumped the fragments of china onto Veena’s tray and hurried off to get a dustpan to sweep up the sugar scattered across the floor, while Eleanor attended to the queue of customers.
When I returned Veena was putting on her coat. Even at close quarters I couldn’t tell if the fur was real or imitation. I decided I didn’t want to know.
“Good luck with your interview,” I volunteered instead.
"I hope I haven't got you into trouble," she whispered. "By the way, I love your cows." She picked up the amazing silver-lined umbrella, unhooked her bag from the back of the chair and flashed a parting smile to me as she made her way to the door. As the cascading folds of her sari rustled past me, I inhaled a last heady breath of sandalwood and coconut and wanted to follow her, like a rat after the Pied Piper.
"Friend of yours?" Eleanor quizzed when I joined her up front again.