For fans of Nick Hornby, David Nicholls and William Boyd, this vibrant and unforgettable 'coming-of-awareness'
novel will fill you with nostalgia as you're transported back to the heady days of the nineties.
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Weston-Super-Mare, February 1991
Considering all the things we did during our brief spell in Somerset that should have got us into trouble – smoking weed, pinching bottles of gin from the hotel, setting free the chickens from the farm – it's ironic that the act which did cause the police to come looking for us was an accident.
We had finished our shifts at the hotel early that evening and Yvonne had nicked a half-full bottle of London Dry from the bar. It was a bitter February night, and we drank the gin huddled in our usual corner at the end of the pier. Unsurprisingly, we were both pissed in no time. I had a few coins in my pocket, and once we had finished the bottle, Yvonne suggested we go to the offie and buy another. But the cash was all I had until my next pay cheque, and I didn't want to blow it on more alcohol. I tried to argue with her, but my protestations ended with Yvonne hugging me tightly and sliding her hand inside my jeans, and before I knew it she had grabbed the money out of my pocket and was running back up the pier towards the off-licence.
In the end, all we could afford were a couple of bottles of Holstein, and we slunk off towards a covered bus stop on the seafront to drink them. An old man was already hunched in the far corner of the shelter. Not that the dilapidated wooden structure provided much protection against the wind racing in off the channel.
I must have been more drunk than usual because I carried on arguing with Yvonne even as we were drinking the beer, something I would never normally have done because of my fear of upsetting her.
'What's your problem with me gaining experience in the hotel kitchen?' I demanded.
Yvonne took a swig of beer. 'You still dreaming of being a chef, Vik?'
'There's more chance of me becoming prime minister.' 'There's more chance of that than you becoming a singer,'
I yelled back.
Yvonne glared at me. 'Youse saying I cannae sing?'
'Margaret Thatcher can sing better than you.'
My words came out before I could stop them. Of course Yvonne could sing, she had a strong voice. I had heard her perform many times in Leeds pubs. But I was pissed off with her, wanted to get a reaction.
Yvonne didn't pause, and with a furious shriek, she hurled her bottle of Holstein at me. I saw it coming and ducked, but as I swerved out of the way, I watched the flight of its trajectory as it sailed through the air and hit the old man square on the forehead. It knocked him sideways and he fell, his head bouncing off the shelter and then against the concrete floor as he crumpled to the ground.
We stared in horror at his prone figure, expecting him to moan and try to get up, before I realised it was more serious. I edged up to where he lay and peered at his face. He wasn't moving. I leaned over him – his eyes were closed but he was still breathing.
'Wha'?' She looked at me uncertainly.
'You could have killed him. Look.'
'Ye must be joking. Stop pissing me aboot.'
Yvonne's Scottish accent always became more pronounced when she was angry. Or scared.
'I don't know –'
'Vik, he's not unconscious. The guy was already drunk.'
'Are you sure? Look at him. Maybe he's in a coma. 'I hesitated. 'Christ, what are we going to do?'
'Well, feel for his pulse or something.'
'What do you think I am, a medic? I don't know how to do that.'
I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed us. Luckily there was nobody else on the windswept front, it was just a typical, dismal Wesson scene: all the shops had their shutters pulled down, the pier was dark and uninviting, damp fag-ends littered the floor of our bus shelter.
I knelt beside the old man, my fingers hovering above his face. I noticed what could have been the first shades of a bruise colouring the side of his head.
Yvonne reached down to grab my hand.
'Come on, Vik. Let's get out of here. Now.'
'But -' I looked up again. On the other side of the road was a man walking a dog, but apart from him there were only one or two people hurrying along with their scarves wrapped tight against the wind, and they didn't seem to have noticed us. The old man wasn't visible from that side of the street. 'We can't just leave him. Shouldn't we do something?'
Yvonne snatched her woollen hat from her pocket and pulled it down tightly over her short hair.
'He'll be fine. He's probably just fainted. I'm sure someone else will come along in a minute and check on him.'
'Look, let's just go, all right?'
We abandoned him. We ran back towards the hotel, praying noone would see us fleeing the scene, not even daring to pause at a phone box to call an ambulance, my fear outweighing my guilt. By the time the Hotel Neptune's façade loomed up ahead, I was having second thoughts: I should have called for an ambulance. Why hadn't I? But at least we had got away with it. As we reached the back entrance of the hotel, Yvonne turned and winked at me. We hadn't really killed some poor old duffer, we couldn't have. That sort of thing didn't happen to us.
When we were lying in bed that night, Yvonne was uncharacteristically quiet. I assumed she was thinking about what might have happened. She lay in my arms and occasionally rubbed her cheek against my chest, but barely said a word. I didn't know if I should break the silence or let her lie undisturbed; all that happened was that I got increasingly more tense. Pins and needles kicked in. Eventually, I heard Yvonne's breathing change and I knew she was falling asleep. I started to ease her body off my arm, but as I did so, she stirred and looked up at me sleepily.
'Still thinking about that old man, Vik?'
'I can't help it. We should have called an ambulance.'
'And then we'd have been questioned by the police and both lost our jobs here. He'll be fine, don't worry.'
'Are you sure?'
'We didn't kill him, Vik. Trust me.'
We didn't ... Not I, we. Even though Yvonne had thrown the bottle.
'Vik, I have to ask you something.' Yvonne shifted her weight.
'I can ... rely on you, can't I? If it comes down to it?' 'What do you mean?'
For a few seconds, Yvonne's eyes fluttered shut again, but then she turned her face towards me. 'Would you kill someone for me, Vik?'
'Are you serious?!' I let go of her for an instant. 'Right now?'
'No, not now,' Yvonne murmured. 'Not at this moment. But sometime in the future, if I asked.'
'I'm deadly serious, Vik. I need to know if you would do that for me. If I can rely on you.'
'Well, I ...'
I didn't say anything. Was she serious?
Yvonne waited for a moment. 'Well, Vik, would you?'
I squeezed her more tightly. 'I would never let anyone hurt you, Yvonne. I promise.'
We lapsed back into silence. After a few minutes, I heard a gentle snore, and I let out a long breath as Yvonne drifted back to sleep.
Her question remained unanswered.
But I had thought about it. I had thought about it for over thirty seconds, and for all that time I wondered whether I could say no. It took me that long to come to a conclusion. Yvonne had that kind of power over me.
'I would do anything else for you,' I whispered in the dark.
I forgot all about her question for three and a half years.
Leeds, March 1990
I met Yvonne at an Original Landlords'gig in The Fox and Firkin, a short walk from my shared-house in Burley. I was waiting for one of my house-mates to get me a beer, half-thinking that Dave would come back any second and tell me they wouldn't serve him because he looked under-age, even wearing his faded Wedding Present T-shirt. We were both twenty, but whereas I never got challenged about my legal status, Dave still had to carry his ID.
The last thing I expected was for a mesmeric young woman to chat me up. In fact, when Yvonne did approach me with her short, punky peroxide hair, multiple rings in each ear, as well as her nose, I assumed she was trying to take Dave's chair. She sat down beside me in her ripped, black T-shirt and short skirt without even asking, and gave me a wicked smile.
'So, your nose. I noticed it was big but is that because you are Jewish, Punjabi or just because you have a big hooter?'
Other men might have laughed at that or told her to fuck off, but I did neither. I sat there somewhat stupefied, unable to take my eyes off her.
'Or is that too personal a question?' Yvonne added.
Well, yes! Of course it is.
'No, no. It's fine,' I stammered.
'Good. So?' Yvonne asked again. 'Oh and by the way, can I bum a cigarette?'
And that was that. She had got me. I managed to croak a few lines about my family history – Jewish father, Indian mother, mixed up heritage – to which Yvonne nodded sagely and blew rings of smoke. Then she asked me my name, told me hers, enquired where I lived, and finally told me to wait there and not to move. Jumping up, she pushed her way through the throng at the bar and disappeared from view for a few seconds. Then she was back at my table and reaching out towards me. I looked at her blankly.
'Your hand, dummy,' she said kindly and held up a biro. 'Give me yer hand.'
I held out my left hand and she pulled it towards her, twisting my arm around and scribbled some numbers on the back of my wrist.
'Call me,' she said succinctly, 'we'll go out sometime.'
I watched her walk back to her friends, but she didn't look back once.
I didn't call Yvonne after the Landlords' gig. I woke up the next morning back in Burley, still with her phone number tattooed on my arm, but I knew she hadn't been serious about me calling her; why would someone like her want to go out with someone like me?
Two weeks later, however, there was a knock on our front door, and there stood Yvonne, arms crossed with a pissed off look on her face.
'I thought you were going to call me?' she said.
I didn't know what to say, as per our first encounter; I just stood there with the door open. Not getting any response, Yvonne tutted and strode past me into the house.
'Were you at the Poll Tax protest last week?' she called as she marched into our shared lounge. 'You must have been there, right? No?' I shook my head as she spun round. 'Jesus, Vik, we could have done with yer support. We need to show Thatcher that she cannae just push us around with something which is so fundamentally unfair. Look at me – I'm twenty-one fer Chrissake, and I can't afford to pay it. Imagine what it would be like for a pensioner.'
We went out that evening to the pub and by closing time I was captivated. And for some reason, she still appeared interested in me. In no time, I was getting the induction course in the ways of Yvonne Anderson. This involved discovering her favourite haunts, starting with the more disreputable pubs and clubs of Leeds and, after a couple of nights in my room, moving on to her preferred, more extreme places for having sex, whether that was indoors, outdoors or on moving transport.
I was renting a room in a shared house when I met Yvonne. My income was a pittance, gleaned from a combination of cold calling for a 'marketing firm' and a few lunchtime shifts at our local fish n chip shop on the Kirkstall Road; but at least that meant I got a free meal if there were any leftovers.
Yvonne, after she graduated from Leeds University, lived in a squat west of Hyde Park. She spent most of her days distributing protest leaflets, in deep political discussions with other squatters, or volunteering with a local women's charity. She was always circumspect about where she got her money, but somehow she always seemed to have enough cash for a couple of pints or a few grams of weed.
Yvonne did make a few quid playing guitar in Leeds pubs and she had an occasional spot as guest vocalist for a local band called The Young Bilkos, who played in some of the more ignominious pubs in the city. On one occasion when she was singing with the band, one young lad came right up in front of her, and winked and waggled his tongue. I was sure she was going to clock him, but Yvonne just smiled and beckoned him towards her with a finger. The lad grinned, and as he got closer to her, Yvonne pulled him provocatively towards her by his shirt collar and then abruptly pulled her neck back and headbutted him. Hard. The guy fell backwards, screaming while Yvonne just flicked her earring and carried on singing. The audience gave her a standing ovation at the end of the song.
At least the aftermath of that event gave me the opportunity to confront Yvonne about something which had been on my mind. We were back in my bedroom after the gig and we were discussing what had happened.
'Didn't it hurt?' I asked her.
'Of course it fuckin hurt,' Yvonne spat, 'it hurt like fucking crazy, but I wasn't going to let him see that. The prick deserved it.' She stubbed her cigarette out. 'Now hand me the Rizlas, will you. Maybe a spliff will stop my head pounding.'
She rolled a joint, and we lay on our backs on my bedroom floor and smoked it. Then she rolled on top of me, pulled off my T-shirt and we had long and slow, weed-enhanced sex for the next hour.
'Jeez, Vik,' Yvonne said happily after our session, lying naked with her back across my legs, 'I am so glad I met you. You are so good for me after a day like today.'
I eased myself up on to my elbows, trying not to disturb Yvonne's position and reached for my cigarettes. When Yvonne came out with statements like that, all I really wanted to do was to press pause on my life and not move on. But it also worried me that one day she wouldn't say such things; after all, I was nothing like her, I didn't come from the same background as her, and I was sure she could have anyone else if she wanted to. I took a deep breath. There was something I had to do.
'Yvonne, can I ask you a question?'
'As long as the question is, do you want to have sex again.'
For a split-second I almost said it was but then I shook my head and steadied myself, and the words tumbled out of my mouth. 'When you first met me in the Firkin, why did you come and talk to me?'
Yvonne frowned and I thought she looked disappointed. I tensed. I had wanted to ask this for months, but I had been afraid that if I did, then she would suddenly realise that she shouldn't be with me, and just walk away. Now I had asked it, maybe I was right – perhaps she would jump up and disappear from my life. But she stayed where she was and pursed her lips.
'Well, the truth is that one of my friends dared me to say hello to you. I did it for a bet.'
I felt my stomach lurch. 'Really?'
'No, of course not dummy.' Yvonne sat up and smacked one of my feet. 'I wouldn't do that to anyone.'
'Look. You weren't to know of course, but I had seen you in the Firkin before, with your mate and I ... I wanted to come over and say hello. We clearly shared the same taste in music as we were at the same gigs and you looked ... interesting.'
'Interesting? Interesting good?'
'Oh, Vik, for fuck's sake. Yes, interesting good. If you want me to say it, then yes, I quite fancied you. In case you hadn't noticed, you're not like many boys who live round here. OK?'
'OK.' I grinned. I couldn't help it. 'Great.'
'And what I also found,' Yvonne continued more evenly, 'was a guy who is calm and modest, and articulate, and nothing like the sort of boys I had been with before. You intrigued me. Oh, and you're damn good in bed.'
'Oh, that's all ... good, I guess.'
'Yes, it's very good! Christ, Vik, where has all this come from? Are you not happy with me? Is that what you're saying?'
'No! No.' I leaned forwards and grabbed Yvonne's hands. 'Of course not. I love being with you. I couldn't be happier. But I, I'm not always sure why you're with me.'
Yvonne slid across the floor and wrapped her legs around my waist, so our faces were inches apart. 'Vik. I am so happy I am with you. I want to be with you, and I am not about to run off with someone else if that's what you're worried about. OK?'
'Good. Now. What about that other question ...?'
I grew up in Harrogate, and being the late seventies, my older brother, Ajay and I were the only mixed-race children at our school. This, of course, meant that Ajay and I were on the end of some bullying, but the racism was more about words (Paki, Yid, darkie), and I brushed off the taunts, put up with the odd shove, ignored the real trouble-makers and kept to myself. But being called Ajay and Vikram Cohen made us stand out and even gave one or two of our teachers the chance to have some bigoted fun at our expense.
Ajay was two years older than me and studied much harder than I did, and he went on to Middlesex Polytechnic in London. I ended up with four O levels and a couple of CSEs, didn't bother with A levels and instead looked for work immediately after leaving school.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Kosher Delhi"
Copyright © 2019 Ivan Wainewright.
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