Brief Encounter


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RACISM [image, unknown] Learning from black people

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Brief encounter
Like most of us, Beth would have said she wasn’t prejudiced.
But a chance meeting with an old flame made her ask new
questions of herself. A short story by Christine Hughes.

BETH felt a stirring in her memory as she looked at the younger of the two men who sat down on the other side of her desk in the advice centre, They were both black, one elderly, the other about her age. She asked their names; the older man spoke. ‘Maurice Thackeray.’

‘What’s the problem, Mr Thackeray?’

Illustration: Clive Offley ‘The landlord, he wants us out of our rooms. He gave me notice to be out by Saturday, that’s tomorrow.

‘Why does he want you out, Mr Thackeray?’

‘I’m unemployed, I can’t keep up with the rent, I’m behind six weeks. That’s what he says. But that area’s goin’ up in the world, so he wants to sell the place. People move out and he won’t let their rooms. There’s only us two left now and I think he’s got someone interested. But where do you find another place when you’re unemployed and black? This is one cruel country, man.’

Beth bit back a sarcastic reply. Another one with a chip on his shoulder! Everyone had problems. ’Well, Mr Thackeray, I don’t think you have any need to worry. The landlord cannot evict you simply because he wants to sell the house. The law is this...’ She explained as simply as she could but wondered how much they understood. When she had finished the older man said ‘Thanks for your help. I don’t know if it will do any good, but thanks.’ As they turned to go the younger man spoke for the first time. ‘Nice to see you again, Beth.’

Beth was surprised - the nameplate on her desk said ‘Ms E Jeevins’. ‘How did you know my first name?’

He smiled slightly. ‘I was wondering if you’d recognise me, but it’s been too many years, I suppose. Michael West. We were at college together. I took you to the Summer Ball, 1974. Nice to see you’re doing well.’

They left.

Beth couldn’t stop thinking about him as she drove home that night. She remembered him now. But he’d changed. She found it hard to believe that the quiet, even stern-looking man she had just met was the same lively, laughing boy she had known. She gave herself a mental shake and told herself she wasn’t going to think about him all over the weekend. But she did.

They came to the centre again on Monday evening, just as it was closing at six.

‘Mr West - ‘

‘Mike. It was always Mike.’

‘Mr West, we’re just closing.’

‘We won’t take up much of your time. I just want to ask if you can tell me a place to take Mr Thackeray here, a hostel or something, - just until I sort something out for him.

‘You’ve decided to leave your rooms, then?’

He smiled. ‘The landlord decided for us. He ‘sent round a few very heavy blokes yesterday and put me and Mr Thackeray into the street. We stayed with a friend of mine last night but he’s only got one room himself and it’s too cold for an elderly person. So now he needs a place to go until I fix him up.’

Beth was annoyed as much by the seemingly gutless way they took it all as by what had actually happened.

‘Look, he can’t get away with this. He has to give you properly written notice to quit of at least four weeks, and when that runs out he has to apply for a court order before he can evict you - he can’t do this.’

‘Woman, he’s done it. We’re out.’ He looked straight at her. ‘I’ve got friends, I can take care of myself, and I’ll take care of Mr Thackeray. I only came here at all because he wanted to. I don’t need your white law. All I want from you is an address, but if you don’t know anywhere, we’ll be on our way.

They turned to leave but she called them back. She made a few ’phone calls and sorted out a hostel bed for the old man. Then, simply to make conversation, she asked Mike if he was going to stay on at his friend’s place.

‘No. He’d let me, but his landlord can be very funny about people staying in his house without paying rent and I don’t want to make trouble for my friend. But I’ll find somewhere. Maybe not tonight, but tomorrow. A night under the stars won’t do me any harm.’

Impulsively she said: ‘Mike, I really shouldn’t do this, it’s against all the rules in the book, but, well, if you really don’t have anything arranged, I suppose I could put you up for a couple of days. If you’d like that, of course. Don’t feel you have to.’

He looked surprised, but after a moment his dour expression relaxed, and he smiled and said ‘Thanks, Beth. I’m grateful.’

Mr Thackeray had his few possessions with him and she drove him to the hostel before taking Mike to his friend’s house to pick up the things he’d left there. As they struggled down the stairs, Mike with two bursting suitcases and Beth with assorted carrier bags, a door opened on the ground floor and a haggard-looking woman came out. ‘Bloody good riddance, dirty niggers!’ she shrieked. ’You’re not wanted in this house, you’re not wanted in this country! Why don’t you go back to the jungle where you belong?’

She spotted Beth and her pinched face turned blue with rage. She came to the front door and screamed after them as they staggered to the car.

‘Bloody nigger-lovin’ slag! Decent white women ain’t safe on the streets ‘cos o’ the likes o’ you! Why didn’t you get yourself a white man? You’ll not get one now! Who’d want a niggers leavin’s?’

Beth’s unpredictable temper suddenly flared and she dropped all the bags and dashed back up the path. pushing back the door the screaming woman wasn’t quick enough to close. She burned to slap the woman’s face but merely clenched her fist and roared: ‘How dare you make such a suggestion? I happen to be his parole officer! How dare you suggest that he and I are - anything other than - than - ’ For once words failed Beth and she went back to the car. scooping up the carrier bags on the way. Mike stood by the car looking at her with contempt. She knew he had heard and she blushed. But the fact that she was in the wrong only made her angrier still.

‘Why do you swallow all this shit?’ she said. ‘What’s the matter with you?’

The tyres screeched on the tarmac and the car sped away.

She was still simmering when they arrived at her house. As she pushed a can of beer into his hand she said ‘What happened to you, Mike? You’ve changed so much. You used to be full of life, ambition. Now you look as if you’re not in the same world as me. What happened?’

He looked a little amused at her rage; he was in complete control of himself. ‘I’m in the same world as you all right. I wish I wasn’t. This is a white world, made by you, for you, and I don’t like it. It’s full of hate.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘White hate of black.’

‘Oh, come on. Hate’s pitching it a bit strong. Prejudice, maybe, but even that’s less than it was.’

‘Who says so? How do you know? You’ve never gone for a room and the landlady says "Sorry, the room’s gone" and a couple of hours later a white man gets it. You’ve never gone for a job and the foreman says "Sorry, the job’s been taken" and a couple of hours later a white man gets it. No policeman ever stopped you in the street and pushed you around and called you "sambo" and "nigger" and said he’ll let you go this time and you’ve done nothing, nothing.’

‘People like that are in the minority now - ‘Who says so? How do you know? It’s all talk to you. It’s life to me. What do you know? You’re prejudiced yourself’

‘That’s quite untrue! I’ve never been prejudiced that way! I’m putting you up, aren’t I? I even used to go out with you, remember?’

‘Why? Because you liked me? Or because it was a smart thing to do, to go out with a black boy? It upset your parents, you liked that. And all your girlfriends said how brave you were, and they were all curious, and they asked you - you know best what they asked you about me. Then the novelty wore off, and someone threw a stone at us one day when we were out together, and your girlfriends stopped admiring and started sniggering, so you said "Mike, I don’t want to see you any more." That was a real cheap move, Beth.’

‘I was practically a child! I’ve changed!’

‘And some of your best friends are black?’

‘If this is all the thanks I get for sticking my neck out and letting you stay in my house - ‘

‘I do thank you, I’m grateful, I said so. I’m just trying to make you see. The first thing you white people have to do is see that you’re all racist. You, Beth, not somebody else. It was you who was so insulted when that hag in the house said what she said. You told a lie so as to be damned sure she’d know I wasn’t your lover. That was a real cheap move, Beth. You wouldn’t have been so angry if I was a white man.

‘I’ll show you to your room.

She didn’t want to talk any more. It was all too near the bone.

She didn’t see Mike before she left for work next day but again she found herself thinking about him. Could he be right, was she prejudiced herself? She thought of their college days together and cringed in the memory of the smug little madam she had been then, confidently telling Mike that the answer to racial prejudice and discrimination was ‘assimilation’, and ‘adaptation’ of ‘immigrants’ to ‘our’ ways, their ‘integration’ into ‘our’ culture. Clearly, she was wrong. But if that wasn’t the answer, what was?

Throughout the afternoon Beth worried and wondered about things she’d never given more than a passing thought before. She went home with a blasting headache and looked at Mike almost with hatred. It was all his fault, putting such thoughts into her head. She banged about the house till he asked her what was wrong.

‘Nothing. A bad day at work. Not that I’m saying work is bad. Work is good. You should try it.’

‘That’s a real cheap remark, Beth.’

Once again it was true - but that made her angrier still. ‘Don’t tell me you couldn’t get a job if you tried!’

‘There aren’t even shit jobs for blacks these days. Even if I’d take one, which I wouldn’t. I’m a skilled man.’

‘Who said you should take a shit job?’

‘That’s what us niggers were brought here for, remember? Well, maybe you don’t, but in the Fifties and Sixties black people came here to do the low-paid, unskilled dead-end jobs white people wouldn’t do. And most of you still think that’s all we’re fit for! Well, anyway, there aren’t even those jobs nowadays.’

‘Then do something about it! Change it!’

‘You haven’t been listening. It’s you who needs to change most of all. You’re doing the discriminating: we just suffer from it. What do you want? Black Panthers?’

‘I’m not suggesting violence. But why isn’t any concerted effort being made to eliminate racism through democratic means? I know legislation isn’t the whole answer but strong anti-racist laws, vigorously applied, would be better than a kick up the backside.’

‘And who’s going to make these laws and vigorously apply them? Name me the party or even the politician who has any ideas about ethnic minority populations beyond how to control them. Why should they have? There are campaigns, support networks - I’m involved myself. But we’ve got nothing to bargain with. Who wants to win our support?’

‘We’re not talking about bartering in the market place.’

‘Aren’t we? Even pensioners and the handicapped have public sympathy on their side. We haven’t. Any election candidate who talks too much about anti-racism is branded a nigger-lover and he loses votes. But let him say "Immigration Control!" and he’ll be snoring on the back benches before you can say passport. We’ve got nothing to bargain with, woman.’ He gave one of his rare smiles. ‘Sorry, Beth, but we need you, too!’

Beth sighed. She didn’t want him to need her too.

He was gone when she came home from work next day. He’d left a note saying where he’d gone, if she wanted to know, and a few pounds ‘for the electricity and gas.’ He had spent only two nights in her house but now that his determined presence was gone it felt completely empty. She knew she wouldn’t - couldn’t - simply forget him. She felt she should do something. But what? She had become a social worker because she had felt a need to do something and what a spectacular success that had turned out to be. But still... ‘I’ll look after Mr Thackeray’

What was the idea that was niggling in the back of her mind?... ‘There are campaigns, support networks - I’m involved myself

She hadn’t had a clue what he was talking about. She still hadn’t. Perhaps she could find out?

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