05 February 2012

An Alien in Brighton by Tinashe Chiurugwi

He noticed a girl sat in the passenger’s seat of a car parked in space number 118, a few meters in front of him. She was dressed in a lacy light green top – maybe it was a sun-dress, he couldn’t tell – and a bright yellow sun-hat. Her apparel seemed to shout to everyone, it’s summertime! It wasn’t the see-through clothing which caught his attention. Over four years of living in Brighton, on the English south coast, had taught him not to expect Brightonians to dress the way they did in, Zimbabwe, his landlocked motherland. He had quickly appreciated the difference between swimsuits and underwear. He was no longer sexually excited by bikini-clad women on the beach. Even the topless ones, lying face up on sun-loungers, or the occasional nude sunbathers no longer aroused erotic emotions in him. He didn’t know how this had happened. A Swedish friend of his, Erik, had once proffered an explanation; something about the intentions behind the exhibition of one’s body parts and the motivation of the observer. Whatever it was, he no longer considered exposure of bodily parts for purposes of cooling or tanning as sexual advertisement.

He had parked his car in space number 251. He was pleased with himself when he realised he had, without realising it, done what Tamara, his friend, a health and safety executive for a construction company, had advised him: ‘Always reverse your car into a parking space. This way,’ she had said, ‘you can easily get away from the site in case of an emergency.’ The habit was progressively permeating into his subconscious. Even though he had parked deep inside the supermarket car park making a speedy getaway virtually impossible, he was still impressed with his progress.

Her make-up was a bit over the top. He had heard of a few men, immigrants, and native Brightonians, who had been fooled into harbouring adult thoughts about school children because of their make-up. He didn’t share that problem. He could see beyond the cosmetics. His urban upbringing back home had taught him how to read make-up. To him make-up was the huge glass in the window of a high-street shop; it displayed to a passer-by what was available and possible. He had heard of immigrant and native Brightonian men, who thought make-up, like the glass, sometimes had signs alerting the passer-by not to lean into it, for safety reasons. For them, the glass’s function was double-edged: it advertised and protected the merchandise, and enticed and protected the onlooker. This type of man seemed not to exist in his motherland; where men talked and laughed with anyone without fear of reprehension. The culture there had meant that the word paedophile was confined to the dictionary; he had learnt of it during his first week in Brighton. And he knew many of his fellow countrymen in Brighton who didn’t know how to pronounce it.

What astounded him was the way the girl was sat in the car, tapping on her iPod and nodding vigorously, awaiting an elderly woman who, after returning from parking a shopping trolley, was now sat in the driver’s seat next to her. It wasn’t the vigorous nodding that befuddled him. He wasn’t bewildered by the fact that she had her earphones on while sat in a car either. It was the waiting. Why had the girl not taken back the trolley and saved the old lady the trouble? He sighed and shook his head.

The shaking, somehow, rearranged thoughts and ideas in his head. The rearrangement was different to the effect shaking has on potato chips in a baking tray; it was akin to the effect shaking a bottle of medicine with a shake well notice has on the medicine’s efficacy. Inside his shaking head, inert ideas had been radically transfigured through a rapid thought process. His initial opinion vanished like a mist in the Kalahari — he couldn’t be judgemental. And, like the Kalahari sands under the scorching sun, his brain matter was exposed to the shining and searching rays of what felt like impartiality. He told himself there were more sides to the story than his eye could see. And he should have seen them. Maybe the elderly lady had offered to return the trolley? Maybe the short trip to the trolley stall gave her the much desired exercise her ageing limbs were missing in her retirement days? Maybe he had to stop thinking like an alien? Maybe...

The growing chain of maybes — simple logical facts joined together by grains of cultural intelligence, devoid of subjectivity — was interrupted by the aroma of cooked meat which greeted him as he retrieved the shopping trolley the elderly lady had just parked and headed for the supermarket entrance.

A voice in his mind was also interrupted by the aroma. It was saying: everyone on encountering something, through any of their senses, finds their mind in a hurry to find a mental cupboard, a compartment of the mind, to place that thing in. If such a place doesn’t exist already, the workmen of the mind get busy to hastily fashion one. It is the way of life. He laughed at the voice, he wasn’t prejudiced. The voice laughed back. He couldn’t understand why. It explained itself: prejudice may sound like a negative word but pre-judgement isn’t; it is the intention that matters. And life is really a process of developing prejudices; the prematurity or irrationality of a judgement is a matter of opinion.

The aroma drowned his thoughts and, as a flood would stop the thinking parts of an electronic device, his gears of reason ground to a sudden halt. When, in a split second, they sprung into motion again, it was as if they had changed direction and plane of motion. He had often found the smell of cooked food from supermarket restaurants irritating. Why did a store selling household goods, clothes, medicines, bicycles, computers... have a restaurant in it? Where he came from, the supermarkets sold cooked meals but no one consumed them on-site. Some supermarkets in his motherland even had signs, next to the Specials board above the cooked food counter, warning customers of the possibility of prosecution if they were to be caught eating on the premises. He had never bothered to find out if these warnings had any basis in law, and he didn’t know of anyone who had.

In Brighton, it was different. Supermarkets had cheap metal, plastic chairs and tables, fixed to the floor in a narrow crowded room: the supermarket café. The café was one of two services the customers encountered first on entering the supermarket; to the right or to the left, opposite the toilets. He had often wondered if this architectural juxtaposition was informed by scientific understanding of the customer’s psyche or merely a stupid design mistake, replicated throughout England. He had also wondered if the supermarket café was a way of squeezing out profits from low quality or nearly expired food taken from the supermarket shelves. Was it a way of selling food which could only be acceptable after purification by cooking? That morning he found the smell of cooked breakfast irresistible. Somehow his senses had teased out the aromatic particles from the whiff he had previously found repulsive. He was tempted.

He thought the change in heart had something to do with the article he had read in a local tabloid recently. The article entitled ‘Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, sup like a pauper’ was based on research whose results had shown that progressively smaller meals, as the day progresses, led to a healthier life style. The article, most likely targeted at blue collar workers, had a few words, practically diluted of all meaning, squashed into a narrow strip next to an overblown picture of a shapely model with a huge greasy breakfast in front of her oversize breasts. He had later discovered that the article had grossly misrepresented the research; the results had been taken out of context. When he saw the newspaper article however, what caught his eye was the first word of the title. He had quickly retrieved his pocket dictionary to find out if breakfast was indeed a verb. He was furious when he found out it was. Bloody English! An internet search had led him to the Journal of Nutrition research article quoted by the tabloid journalist. He hated to admit that the tabloid, the bloody tabloid, and its scantily dressed model had educated him.

He decided to have some breakfast. He was going to breakfast in the supermarket café that morning. He picked up a tray and a plate and began to fill his feast. He thought it wise not to check the utensils for cleanliness. But he couldn’t resist noticing the size of the warm white plate — too small for a kingly breakfast. The aroma from the fried, baked, boiled, and sautéed food, in stainless steel trays sitting in boiling water, grew stronger. He switched off the part of his brain that cooked up bad opinions about smells and sights and swallowed a mouthful of saliva. He had never liked the smell of cooked pig, in whatever form: bacon, sausage, gammon, trotters... He disliked pigs. And he hated how the pig had muscled its way into the Western breakfast; even its disgusting blood, in the form of black pudding, had its designated tray. To him, there was something un-kingly about a piggy breakfast. The chicken, through its egg, seemed to have sought to restore some balance to the breakfast. The chef, an accomplice in this conspiracy, had come up with numerous ways of cooking the egg. He counted five trays with eggs in them. The chicken had to be congratulated for such an achievement.

He smiled, thinking of the chicken, its egg, and his vegan friend, Anna-Louise, who wouldn’t eat eggs because she thought they contained little chick embryos. He laughed to himself: would Anna-Louise eat the lab-produced pig meat he had read about in the journal Science. According to the report, scientists had grown pig muscle tissue from a single cell and, after some exercise — the method of exercise hadn’t been explained — the tissue could turn into a tough muscle with steak-like consistency. Surely meat so produced wouldn’t be offensive to vegans. But maybe, just like the unfertilised chicken eggs in the stainless steel trays, it wasn’t the production process that mattered to the vegan, but the source of the originating cells. Something, he could not tell what, reminded him that he wasn’t in the lands of his ancestors where the only forbidden animals were one’s totem, dog, cat, and donkey; everything else was food. He had to stop thinking like an alien. He was going to breakfast on pig and egg.

He sat at a table close to the window as if he planned to enjoy the view of the car park. Those who knew him would have said his real desire was to keep away from the people around him. Those who really knew him, like Anna-Louise, would have dismissed this as one of his counter-segregation schemes. She would have said he was doing it to avoid the social awkwardness that precipitated from a situation in which a person of colour sat at a table for four in the middle of a restaurant or on a seat for three on a bus. Everyone else would subsequently avoid that table or seat the way one avoids a puddle of urine in the Gents. Everyone, including other people of colour, avoided the disgusting pool. And, as in the Gents, the end result was, the more people came into the scene, the larger and more noticeable the pool became as each pisser aimed for the urine receptacle from a distance and missed it. The cleaner, with a mop and bucket, would be the final solution. For him sitting at the smallest table along the edge of the restaurant or on a single-person seat at the front of the bus was the solution. He knew that there were rules against such forms of prejudice but policing them, akin to policing urine puddles in the Gents, was an impossibility deliberately written into the laws themselves. The solutions: avoid or clean up; prevent or cure. He had chosen prevention. But Anna-Louise said he had chosen to concede defeat and philosophise on it.

He hated it that the chairs and tables were fixed. And he wondered how those with deviant bodily proportions managed to use them. Deep inside himself he was glad because the chair-table spacing fitted him just fine. He didn’t show his joy, as if it was too deep for him to sense it. Maybe he didn’t want those around him to notice it, but he was glad that sometimes he fitted into Brighton sans adjustment. He felt the joy, in the fabric of his insides; it was a joy he had experienced before, in the same supermarket. He had gone to the medicines shelf, towards the back, next to the clothes section. Tamara, a fellow countrywoman, had told him that was the place to get condoms from. He hadn’t thought to ask why condoms were classed as medicine. He was happy enough knowing where to find them. Tamara had told him he would never have his way with Anna-Louise unless he had a pack of Durex extra safe condoms to back his supplications.

“That pack will be your multiple-entry visa!” Tamara had said.

He tried to develop the analogy further in his mind but he failed to see to what passport the visa would be affixed. He stopped. He thought instead about the significance of the statement.

Tamara, as if having read his mind, added, “They are extra thick, with extra lubrication. That will put her mind at ease, for the first few weeks at least, before she gets used to you or tired of the latex.”

Ah, the penny dropped; “…a multiple-entry visa!” He loved the analogy and respected the advice.

When he had failed to find what he was looking for on the medicines shelf, he called for help. The joy had been triggered by something in the expression on the shop attendant’s round face when he asked her for the extra-large version of the condoms — Tamara’s advice. The joy was a bright quick flash some place inside his being. It vanished rapidly before reaching the surface, as if his dark skin suppressed and stifled it. But he had felt it. For that brief moment, it took his mind to places he had never been. It led him down a narrow path to a faraway place somewhere inside himself, where his soul resided. His senses had not registered when the shop attendant stole an inspecting glance at his crotch. Neither did he hear her when she mumbled something over a muffled giggle before heading off to get him his medicine. He was happy to be different. He had rejoiced in his deviancy.

He tucked into his breakfast. He slowly munched each mouthful as a cow would chew the cud from a dry and fibrous pasture. After a few moments he paused. His tongue was probing, trying to retrieve a stray piece of bacon lodged in a space at the back of his lower jaw. He wished he was at home; his real home. He would have reached back there with his forefinger, and thumb if necessary, and helped his tongue dislodge the annoying particle. He thought of the pig that had produced the nuisance. Bloody pigs! After the good part of a minute had passed, he started chewing again.

Just as he swallowed the bacon, when he was done with the annoying pig, he noticed the feet and colourful toenails. He had been totally preoccupied with the bacon: his eyes and every other bit of his conscious self. He noticed the feet in loose fitting sandals in front of him. The sandals looked like the ones Anna-Louise had received from her ex-boyfriend — a present for her birthday — a week after they had started sleeping together. His gaze moved up from the pedicured feet and their supple toes, up towards the knees. The legs were hairless — something he had been told was every girl’s dream — and athletic. He got to the knees, his gaze moving back into the chair. He noticed the fabric a few centimetres behind the knees. It was a short skirt. Before his mind could determine what colour the skirt was. Before he could decide if the knees were together or apart, and therefore what feast awaited his eyes. Before the cultural abacus which he relied on to decide whether to continue looking and the motivation for his inspection — borrowing from Erik’s theory of socio-cultural conditioning — could get to work.

Before all that; in the fraction of a second it had taken his eyes to travel from the bacon in his mouth, to the feet and up the legs, to just behind the knees, the waiter interrupted him: “I like your skirt sir. Where did you buy it from?”

He was shocked. The disgust came small moments after the shock. To aid himself understand the situation he was in, he moved his gaze above the table, skipping the bits wrapped in the skirt. His eyes must have moved like the feet of a long jump Olympian, past the table, the breakfast, the chest... He nearly vomited, the annoying piece of bacon almost returned: a bald head and a goatee. He hadn’t yet imagined the full implications of his experience when the goatee moved. His mind went into overdrive. He didn’t catch the whole sentence but he understood that the sir the waiter had quizzed about the skirt said something to the effect that his boyfriend bought it as a present from a place he wasn’t aware of. “…You can ask him when he comes back from the Gents,” he heard as he caught the last sentence.

A feeling he had last felt when he had fallen off a powerboat at sea welled up inside him. He couldn’t name the emotion but he recognised it. It had been his first summer in Brighton. He didn’t know how to swim. The shock of masses of water engulfing him, sucking him into the deep dark mouth of the hungry sea had snapped some nerves in his system. He was completely unaware of the life jacket, slowly inflating itself, around his torso. He had wriggled like a maggot in a pile of stale shit, trying to reach for the surface waters. The more he tried to clutch at the surface, the deeper he sunk. He tried to close his eyes and mouth but the signs of the fast disappearing brightness of the sun scared them open. The salty water flowed freely through his mouth, nose, and ears and, like some cold amoebic parasite, reached his throat and burned it. He yelled out and struggled to liberate himself from the liquid beast but everything he did seemed to worsen his predicament. After some time, his frightened mind could not judge how long, he was floating again. He had once heard that dead people float on water and had joked that mastering how to play dead would be the best survival technique at sea. He knew he wasn’t dead because he felt the warm salty water dripping from his ears. The rescue party pulled him into the rescue boat. Everyone on the boat was laughing. He had joined in the laughter without knowing why he was laughing.

He didn’t finish his breakfast. He left without knowing from where the skirt had been bought. He left without hearing about the Scottish wedding the man with pedicured feet and his friend were taking their girlfriends to. He left before he could see another man dressed in a knee-length skirt made from pleated tartan cloth. As he headed for the toilet, he kept repeating to himself: bloody supermarkets, bloody breakfasts, bloody pigs...

'An Alien in Brighton' was written by Tinashe Chiurugwi.

Copyright © Tinashe Chiurugwi 2012.

Tinashe Chiurugwi is a Zimbabwean writer, and molecular biologist, who likes to write about how he sees and responds to the world around him. He writes because he believes that most regret is centred on the things we thought about but failed to say or do. And it is painful to have to watch, in shame, strangers say eloquently or do without hesitation what we have thought and felt ages before them. Then, like one watching a could-have-been lover in another’s arms we give ourselves the hard instruction, “in future, say something, write something, do something!” only to repeat the same mistake yet again. This is his first published story.


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