An extract from Nicolas Padamsee’s debut novel, England is Mine, which explores a struggle for identity and belonging among second-generation immigrants.
England is Mine
‘Stay away’ and ‘what happened?’ and ‘stay away’ and ‘what––’ and ‘stay away’ and on and on. Leaning over the counter, he surveys the street with his gun and waits for the police. ‘Someone help’ and ‘fucking call them’ and ‘they’re coming’ and ‘where are they?’ and on and on. The soles of his boots are sticky and crunchy. Blood, glass. The laces splashed with Pop Tart, lumps of vomit.
‘Oh God’ and ‘holy shit’ and ‘oh God’ and ‘where are they?’ and on and on. The uncomprehending fear. The pleas. The spasms. ‘Is he still there?’ and ‘how?’ and ‘this can’t be real’ and ‘why?’ and on and on. The first victim, an elderly worker, lies by the window. He spent the last conscious moments of his life holding his jaw in place. The second victim, a teenager, took bullets in the neck, in the right shoulder, in the chest. He made a lunge for the gun. The third victim, another teenager, hid his face. In the bowl of his baseball cap swim bits of bone. A ceiling fan whirrs, fridge buzzes, television murmurs, landline rings, the residue of a sweet, lost ordinariness.
‘Get out of here’ and ‘run’ and ‘where are they?’ and’ ‘I called them’ and on and on. He reminds himself that he had no choice, that it was necessary, that the replacement must be stopped.
Just like that, it stops, the pre-show music. Darkness. A plastic cup whizzes over David, showering him with beer. He laughs and runs a hand through his hair. Brixton Academy, Karl Williams. A gig he’s looked forward to for eight months. He’s wearing two T-shirts: the one he came in plus a new exclusive one from the merch stall with tonight’s tour date. The girl in front screams, starts to video, wrists wrapped in red and black barbed-wire gummy bracelets. He’s tall enough to see over her phone and all the other phones. Zoe, his stepsister, not so. Fans jostle to get closer, creating a crush. In shards of smoke and sherbet light, Karl walks on, swigging a bottle of wine, and salutes the crowd. ‘Good evening, London.’ The crush worsens, helping David and Zoe slide into the pit.
Karl opens with ‘Sleeping Pills’ – a song by his former band, Salomé. Guitar jangles, spiky and blue. David closes his eyes to savour the moment then finds himself tumbling left in a sway. Zoe grabs hold of him and tumbles too. Karl yanks the collar of his shirt and claps and points and punches the air. ‘I’ll return empty-handed,’ David sings. ‘But with you.’ Before the next song, Zoe untoggles her chunky chain necklace and pockets it. ‘No way that was staying on.’
David falls on the sticky, beer-soaked floor multiple times, but is repeatedly pulled up. There is no menace in the crowd. Everyone is on the same team. He manages to take a couple photos. The sways are too intense for him to aim the camera. He’s thankful for his Dr Martens.
Behind Karl and his touring musicians, large screens play fast-moving black-and-white videos of bleak empty streets, interspersed with images of Germaine Greer, Ralph Ellison, Emily Dickinson. Floodlights spray vibrant colours over the stage and out onto the crowd. Karl says little between songs. It’s a slick, professional performance. When he returns for the encore, he mumbles something about England: ‘Unrecognisable. Isn’t it?’ Cheers. Karl smirks, shrugs, motions to his touring musicians to play the final song. David wonders what Karl meant, then puts it out of his mind. ‘Black Glass’ is a favourite, an early solo one. ‘You’ll pay a price,’ he sings.
Outside, he can’t stop shivering. The steady slash of winter air. Yet he’s seen Karl and it was even better than he thought it would be. He lets his eyes rest on the semi-domed entrance, which glows neon green and whose battered old billboards are slotted with black letters that read Karl Williams Sold Out. His eyeliner has run. His ears ring. His hair is frizzy, swamped with beer. His jeans no longer seem super skinny. The plastic cap on a lace has split open, leaving a thready mess. Sharing a cigarette with Zoe, he examines his photos and posts the least blurry one on Instagram with the simple comment: ‘Best night of my life. #karlwilliams #salome #brixtonacademy.’
‘How was it?’ Mum asks, leaning against the radiator, legs crossed. She has on a yellow shirt, black trousers, gold lace earrings. She looks ready to leave. David is hungover.
‘Great,’ he says. ‘Just sent you the Guardian review.’
His stepfather, Stephen, joins them in the kitchen. ‘Have fun last night?’
‘Yeah.’ David is now willing to engage with him. But not in a meaningful way. They will never be pally. However much Mum might want that.
‘It was at Brixton Academy right?’
Stephen says that he saw U2 and The Cure there. ‘Great venue.’
Stephen checks his Apple Watch. ‘I’ll see whether Zoe is awake.’
They are supposed to be having brunch in Broadway Market. David and Zoe went to the Beehive after the gig. He stuck with beers. She shifted to double G&Ts, a decision she might be regretting. She hasn’t tweeted anything this morning, She hasn’t even retweeted or Liked anything.
‘Can you get my work phone while you’re upstairs?’ Mum says.
‘Sure. I should actually send some emails too.’ They used to work together at Action Aid. She’s still there. Stephen has moved on to a more exciting role at Amnesty International.
At twelve they finally make it to The Oaktree. Its tables have flyers for a sister company, Creative Block. The windowsills are decorated with cactuses. The curtains are frilly. Scandi-pop foams out from ceiling speakers. At a nearby table, someone tinkers with a PowerPoint presentation on a rose-gold MacBook. The presentation has a slide asking what a robot is. David still regards Newbury Park, where Dad lives, as home. The cafes there are not like this. He studies the menu. He has been vegan for six months now. An impressive amount of options here. Knowing that Mum or Stephen will pay, he orders scrambled tofu with sun-dried tomatoes, a freshly squeezed orange juice and an oat flat white, a change from his normal breakfast: Rice Krispies, instant coffee.
‘There used to a place in Broadway Market called Hey Sugar,’ Mum says. ‘They had poolaki. I’ve never seen it anywhere else in the UK. It’s an Iranian candy that looks like a coin, and is made from sugar, water, vinegar, saffron, coconut, cocoa powder. Baba would bring it back from his trips to Isfahan.’ Zoe reveals that it has moved to Deptford. They discuss rent prices for businesses. David has zero interest in the conversation. He is itching to watch YouTube videos from the gig and read more reviews on the Karl Williams subreddit. But whenever Mum takes him to a cafe or a restaurant and he starts using his phone she has a go at him. ‘How’s university?’ she asks Zoe.
The compulsory Shakespeare module is dull. A Hollywood cinema one starts soon, though, and that should be fun. She is also organising a protest as part of the Ally Club society.
‘We put a petition up and three thousand people signed it in twenty-four hours,’ Zoe says. ‘Yet they’re still going to go ahead and let Rachel Vine speak on campus. They’re scared the government will send them a strongly worded letter for going against their guidance. It’s cowardly. They’re giving a platform to someone who spreads hate, who has made a career solely out of spreading hate.’ Since starting at Queen Mary, she’s learned to speak with confidence, authority. Her words come fast, in full sentences and from the centre of her mouth, not from the corners, as with David.
The Ally Club will picket the event. They won’t stop Rachel Vine from speaking or use violence but they will make their feelings known. Stephen offers his support. ‘You can be sure the right will claim the Ally Club interfered with Rachel Vine’s freedom of speech,’ he says, topping up their water glasses. ‘They have no idea what freedom of speech means. It means no one should face violence, intimidation or imprisonment for what they say. That’s it. Nothing less. Nothing more.’
‘What do you think, David?’ Stephen asks.
He shrugs. In his autobiography Karl wrote that he is a free-speech absolutist. He quoted Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it, or something like that. David has read it twice. He agrees. He’s happy for anyone to say anything. But he doesn’t want to argue. He’s impressed Zoe managed to style her blue-black hair today. He looks like shit.
‘We’re peacefully letting the university know that they made a mistake in inviting her to speak,’ Zoe continues. ‘People talk about “healthy disagreement” as if saying sexist, homophobic, racist things were totally harmless. That’s ridiculous. Because speech isn’t harmless. It has consequences. If it had no consequences, what would be the point of protecting it in the first place?’
David takes out his phone. He might not be able to get away with watching or reading something but he will get away with quickly checking how many Likes his gig photo has got.
No more. It has stalled on five.
The waiter brings their food. He hopes it will ease his tentacling headache.
‘I think it is a tricky subject, free speech,’ Mum says. ‘I remember … Near the end of the Shah’s regime, Baba, my father, went to ten evenings of poetry at the Goethe Institute, and each evening people recited anti-Shah poems. And for the next two weeks I would wake up every night at three or four a.m. and go to my parents’ room to check whether he was still there. I was scared that the secret police, the SAVAK, would come and take him away. Everyone was scared of the SAVAK. And then, of course, with the new regime, he spent a week in prison for his painting of a man with hand on a woman’s body. So much changed from the time of the Shah to the time of the Islamic Republic but one thing that stayed the same was a yearning for free speech. It seemed obviously dreamy, free speech. I still find it hard to wrap my heard around the way it’s been co-opted by the right and become synonymous with hate in the West … But I know it has.’
‘I can’t imagine how scary that must have been,’ Zoe says. ‘What you and your family experienced in Iran. That’s a real freedom of speech crisis, unlike the manufactured one here.’
Mum nods and sinks her fork into her egg yolk.