Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Greeks Bearing Gifts

Here's the current opening from Greeks Bearing Gifts, the novel I'm working on at the moment. I'm basically thinking of it as Howard Jacobson for gingers. More specifically, it's a combination of three illustrious genres:
  • Ethnic minority kid grows up in crap town
  • Narrator has a difficult relationship with father
  • Gentlemanly thievery
So here's that extract. If it looks familiar that's because it's developed from a rushed short story I wrote a while ago.

*

When I was ten my father taught me how to punch people, on the assumption that it would be a useful skill for an ugly boy with red hair. He turned out to be right, but for all the wrong reasons. 

It wasn’t until several decades later that I had occasion to remember my clobbering lessons, and I recall thinking, as I walloped the Turkish soldier, that my father had been right: just like the catwalk, or childbirth, it’s all in the hips. 

As they arrested me, I realised how surprising it was that I hadn’t managed to thump anyone until the age of forty-two. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t had the opportunity, or didn’t move in the right circles. I was practically in the old-boys’ network by then, if the rigorously nefarious can be said to have one. 

I never meant to become a criminal, mainly because I was paralysed with embarrassment by the idea of my parents attending my trial, with my father sat in the front row of the visitors’ gallery crunching sweets and lamenting, and my mother scowling at journalists and blaming my behaviour on the English. 

The English aren’t entirely innocent, of course. They have an awful habit of being somewhere in the background, sighing and wringing their hands, whenever something goes wrong. In my case, though, they have to share responsibility with both my parents. And Sebastian, and Eoin, and all the rest, I suppose.

The day my life first hinted at going off the rails was cold, dank, malodourous, and generally like the rotton floorboard at the back of the airing cupboard. Most days were, in Yorkshire in 1969. We didn’t get a summer of love, up there. We barely got a summer at all. Just watch a BBC Four documentary if you don't believe me. Some of my memories are even in black and white.

Dressed in our best, my mother, my sister and I were closing my father's cafe and preparing to carry the day's takings to my father's club, where they would be locked in the safe. A lot of buildings carried the description 'my father's', in that town. We weren't rich, you understand; he just liked opening businesses. I was entrusted with carrying a small sack of coins, which I enjoyed because it made me feel like a dashing burglar lugging his swag, or, when I was feeling more civic-minded, a policeman carrying the swag back again. It was usually the first one.

We pottered along the road, my mother striding along on her bulletproof fell-runner's legs, and me scurrying beside her. My sister, Helena, wasn't scurrying, because she was ten months old, and besides which she was destined to be a lady of elegance, and so would never stoop to such movements. I don't think she ever even crawled: she made men do that for her. In those days, though, she spent the journey wrapped up in a shawl, sleeping, slung over my mother's shoulder. 

After a brisk march, we came to the club. It was ‘the’ club because there weren’t any others in town. We lived in Mizzenfold, a collection of streets in West Yorkshire that could only really call itself a ‘town’ on days when it was feeling particularly confident. Today the club would be called a nightclub, but in those days it was described, without a trace of humour, as a discotheque. It was, specifically, Nick’s Discotheque, where Nick was my father. I didn’t call him that, of course: he was papa. 

He was ‘papa’, rather than ‘dad’, or ‘pa’, or ‘old man’, because my father was Greek, or possibly Cypriot. Definitions get fuzzy as soon as borders become involved. What he was very clear about was that he was not a Turk. The reasons changed over the years, from culture to land to war crimes to mere habit, but a sense of unremitting fury was nearly always there. In the early 1960s he ditched Cyprus and wound up in Yorkshire because he fancied his chances against a bunch of louts with cricket bats and haircuts like a nits ward more than he did against politics. He explained it to me one day. 

"Son." He always began this way, presumably to remind himself who I was. "You can choose your enemies, and it is wisest to choose ones that don’t know you." Then he attributed the remark to Alexander the Great, as he did with nearly everything clever that crossed his mind. It’s his fault that I grew up with an inflated impression of the wit and wisdom of ancient military leaders. 

His first name was Nikos, which became Nick, and his surname was Diamontopoulos, which became Diamond, mainly because Diamantopoulos didn't fit on any of the official forms. And in those days there were a lot of official forms for people who wanted to flee a bomb-scarred, divided nation like Cyprus and settle in a bomb-scarred, divided nation like the United Kingdom of Great Britain And Possibly Also Northern Ireland, Depending On Whom You Ask. 

You try having a pa called Nick Diamond and see if you can avoid ending up a thief. 

My parents married, which is what one did in those days, in an entirely confusing ceremony that involved one church, two ministers, three languages, and a suspicious lack of relatives. You see, my mother was Scottish, insistently so, and that explains the second language. The third one was the registry man, who, in a suit and tie that made accountancy look like rock and roll, was so entirely English that one-third of his bone marrow was tea, and he couldn't understand a word either my mother or my father said. It's entirely possible that they couldn't understand one another either, which might be why the marriage was so successful.  

The progeny of a Scots lass and a Greek gentleman do not turn out to be beautiful half-breeds, with flaming locks, dusky eyes and modelling contracts. Rather than a cordial agreement between the two sets of genes, you get a fight, in which one ethnic origin kicks the shit out of the other. I am a Scotsman. I have limbs and hair all over the place, and I melt if I look at the sun. My sister is Greek. Her dark hair shimmers, her eyes flash and she breaks crockery. We're so different that if we appear somewhere together and give our surname, people think we're married. Either that or they start muttering about milkmen. That's when my sister slaps them, because she's Greek. I, being Scottish, retreat into the highlands to plot revenge in the winter months. A genetic aptitude for long-term plotting has proved very useful.  

But this underlying Greekness is why my name, Jon, was short for Yanaka, not Jonathan. It was also why when we reached the club, there was a crowd outside it. Like everything seemed to be in those days, the crowd was split down the middle. On one side were the local lads, with their shiny skulls, chewing gum, leather jackets and jug-handle ears, and on the other were the foreign boys who worked for my father, arrayed in aprons, suits or waistcoats, depending on whether they worked the kitchens, the doors or the bar. Around both of these chorus lines was a circle of the uncertain, the townsfolk who liked my father because he brought them a greasy café, a launderette, a corner shop and something that resembled night-life, but liked the local lads because, well, you know, they were Freddy's boys from down the road and they were good kids really and it was just high spirits and they'd settle down when they got older.  

In front of each of the two nervous, embarrassed gangs was a champion. The locals had Ken Fenwick, who owned the pub, and didn't like the way my father's club sold drinks he'd rather sell himself. He was a hefty, bulging man who wore clothes that were too small, possibly because they were cheaper than the kind of overgrown coats that would actually fit him. 

Opposite him was my father, who looked embarrassingly small but, lest we forget, came from the country that invented athletics. He was also blinking like a lost mole, because he'd taken his glasses off. 

"Son, the spectacles, they cost more than my face." He later explained.  

None of this is how my mother described it. After we'd shoved our way through the crowd to our rightful ringside seats, I pulled at her sleeve, looked up with the wise, worried eyes of childhood, and asked her what was going on. She scowled at me, then at the circle, then at her husband, then answered me. 

"It's business." 

Then my father punched Ken Fenwick in the neck.  

My mother’s understanding of business came to inform much of my working life. 


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