[Editor’s Choice: THE BALTIMORE KID – Social Short Story]
The flight from Los Angeles to Frankfurt was droning on and on. Having finished browsing through the in-flight magazines of Lufthansa, I leafed casually through a book someone had left behind in the plane. A small poem attracted my attention; it made such an impression on him that I read it a few times over.
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December:
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
I genuinely felt sorry for that unknown boy, who, at age eight, should have been enjoying life with no animosity towards anyone.
I cast my mind back some 45 years, to my stay in England. I was just a little over twenty at the time I went to train with an engineering company. I was much older than the ‘Baltimore Kid’, so perhaps better able to cope with unkind situations.
The company had factories at several locations, but I spent the most part in Stafford. During the twenty-odd months I spent there I made many friends with whom I went out for an occasional beer, played cricket on Sundays and practiced ball-room dancing . It was as though learning engineering practices was only incidental to my other activities!
Mr. Clarke, the Education Officer, called me to his office one day. “You now have to go through the last part of your stint, my lad” he said. “Time to get some hands-on experience in testing and commissioning of transformers and switchgear at actual locations. We have arranged for you to work with Tom Hamnett at the Sutton Leach transformer station. Pre-commissioning tests are due to start. Tom has asked for additional help; he is experienced of course, but is not formally qualified as an engineer, so you should be able to help him.”
“Where is Sutton Leach?”
“Oh, just a few miles out of Liverpool. It is in fact like a suburb of Liverpool. Here is a list of bed and breakfast addresses in Liverpool, one of which you will surely find suitable. Tom says it is easy to take a bus to Sutton Leach from anywhere in Liverpool. Can you report a week on Monday next, which means you go from here on the preceding Saturday or Sunday? I will inform Tommy.”
“Alright, Mr. Clarke.”
It was mid-morning of Sunday when I reached Liverpool. I ate a snack at the station cafeteria and fished in my coat pocket for the list of B & B places Mr. Clarke had given. Good God, what have I done with it? I looked in the other pockets and in the shoulder bag, but the slip of paper remained elusive. I felt quite foolish, but decided to ask someone at the railway station to suggest an affordable place, within a bus ride of Sutton Leach. A middle aged person, with a cap and a cigarette loosely hanging from his lips as he walked along, caught my eye. “Excuse me, sir. I am looking for digs close to Sutton Leach. Can you suggest any?” “You new to these parts, eh? No problem. Bootle is a nice suburb which is packed with B & B places, you know. Can’t go wrong. Just look for the sign ‘Bed & Breakfast’ or ‘vacancy’ on the door of the houses.” I thanked him and moved on.
On the way to Bootle, I rehearsed the lines I would say to the would-be-landlady. “Good morning, Ma’m. I have just come to Liverpool from Stafford. I am looking for a room for about 3 months. Can you help? If you wish, you can check me out with Mrs. Hagan, my landlady in Stafford for the last two years. Here is her telephone number.” How could anyone refuse accommodation, with such a direct appeal?
The first door he knocked on was opened by a portly woman who looked over me from head to foot for a few minutes before responding “Yes, what do you want?”
“Good morning, I have just come to Liverpool from Stafford. I see you have vacancy sign…”
“Hold it right there, young man. There is no vacancy.”
“But… the sign out there…?”
“Oh, that? Should have been taken down last week. Sorry, Good Day.” The door slammed shut.
The brass name plate on the front door of the house two blocks down the road displayed the names of the owners as Ruth Johnson and Rick Johnson. It was Rick who answered my knock on the door. “Yes?” he asked impatiently.
“Sir, my name is Murti..”
“Could be, but did I ask to know? What d’ya want?”
“I am looking for accommodation for….”
Rick cut me short again. “Look, there ain’t no vacancy.”
“But the sign there says….”
“We have decided to do up the place. The sign needs takin’ down.”
“Sir, if you wish to check me out with Mrs. Hagan in Stafford…….” I persisted. Rick held up a hand. “Don’t you know when to take a ‘no’ for an answer, fella? Cor Blimey! Why on earth would I wanna check you out with any Missus Hagan or Logan?”
“Who is it, luv?” chimed a lady’s voice from within, probably Ruth Johnson’s.
“Never mind, pet. It is one of those curry blokes looking for digs. I am sendin’ ‘im away.”
“We wanna ‘ave nuthin’ wi’ any of them, do we, dear? The whole bloomin’ country is crawlin’ wi’ them. Don’t ya fall for any sweet talk, luv.”
Rick glared at me. “Heard the missus, didn’t ya? Try your luck somewhere else, boy.”
The next place too was a ‘no’ and so were several others, the only variant being the reason – the vacancy was filled just yesterday, I only accept British boys, I have decided to spruce up the place, I am going to be away for the next two months …. And so on.
The day was slowly coming to an end and I was beginning to tire out. It was warm and I hadn’t eaten any lunch either. Hotels were unaffordable and I was unsure if the Company would pick up the tab, if I checked into one. And this had to happen on a Sunday, when I could not even call Alan Clarke! Cursing my fate, I sat on a road-side bench, wiping the sweat off my face, the shoulder bag still weighing down heavily on my shoulders.
Should I sleep out the night in the Railway waiting room? I then heard a faint voice: “Helloow, I am Paula, Paula Newman. Are you looking for an address, young man? Can I be of some help?”
I was embarrassed at having to explain my predicament. “Hello Mrs. Newman, pleased to meet you. My name is Murti. I am an Indian trainee from Stafford. I have been posted to work at Sutton Leach. I have lost the addresses of bed and breakfast places my Company gave me and am looking randomly for affordable digs. So far no luck.”
Mrs. Newton surveyed me from head to foot as the others had done earlier and after a long pause said, “From India, are you? Poor boy, you do look so tired! You are so far away from home, aren’t you? Why don’t you come in for a bit and let me make you a cup of tea? I am sorry I do not take boarders myself, but I could check if you like, with some people I know who do take guests in.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Newman, you are very kind. I would indeed love a cup of tea.” I was glad for the chance to put down my bag.
Presently Mrs. Newman brought some tea and crumpets and placed them before me. “Here, get some of this stuff inside you while I phone a few of my friends to see if anyone can help you. By the way, what is the maximum damage you can take?”
“Damage? I don’t understand, Mrs. Newman.”
“I mean, what is your budget? How much can you spend on B & B?”
“Oh, about 8 pounds a week, I suppose. That is not much Ma’m, but that is the allowance I get.”
Mrs. Newman laughed out. “Ma’m? No, no! Call me Paula. Eight pounds should be fine. Now let me see what I can do.” She disappeared inside. Boy, aren’t I glad for this kindness! I must have done some punya in my previous birth to deserve this! I dug into the tea and crumpets ravenously.
Soon Paula returned. “Julie Lambert is willing to take you in, Murti, as a boarder. Her B & B accommodation for single occupancy will cost you £ 6 a week, others won’t be any cheaper you know, and they will expect you to share your room with other boarders. Moreover, Julie is a very good cook – if you like British food, that is – and maintains her place spic and span. She will let you watch BBC News with her, if you like. The address is 6, Meadows Road. Julie says you will get bus route 45 E from near her house to Sutton Leach, just a 20 minute ride. Would you like to try out Julie’s place, at least for a while?”
“Wonderful, Mrs. Newman, er… Paula. I just don’t have words enough to thank you! I don’t know why you have taken so much trouble for me, a total stranger!”
Paula chuckled and said “Perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you this, but Murti, I think the people you contacted earlier were not comfortable having you as a boarder.”
“Why Mrs. Newman, I mean, Paula? Nobody even knows me.”
“That is precisely the point. I do not quite know how to put it to you, Murti. You are not…………er, white. I know many of them have turned away accommodation seekers from Asian and African countries, even when they had no boarders at all. It is quite irrational, this kind of racial prejudice, you know. Yet we have to live with it.”
The possibility of my being discriminated against because of my dark skin had never occurred to me till then. In Stafford it had been so different. “My God! I have never encountered any problem of discrimination so far.”
“Good for you! Moreover, I have a son Mark, who is a fair bit older than you and he is now in the Congo. For a moment I wondered if he too walked the streets of Leopoldville, just as you are doing here. Maybe it was the mother in me!”
“No, no. Mark should be fine. In the colonies and former colonies of Britain, white skin is still considered superior by the locals.”
Paula shrugged her shoulders, perhaps in disagreement.
I put on a brave face and said “Paula, maybe the others have some problems other than the colour of my skin. Why blame them? Anyway, you have been an exception. I am happy for just that. Can I keep in touch with you after I am settled at Mrs. Lambert’s place?”
“You are very forgiving, Murti. I am so happy you don’t nurse any hard feelings even after your frustrating experience. That way you will yourself be happy. Of course, you are most welcome to drop by whenever you wish to.”
It is not Ugadi, but am I getting a practical taste of Bevu – Bella that we eat in Bangalore to drive home the concept of bitter-sweet amalgam in life?
I spent the next few months in Liverpool immersed in the job. Tom Hamnett was a fine guy, forever willing to teach me whatever he knew. Julie Lambert proved to be a very considerate and affectionate lady and everything Paula had described her to be. I ran errands for Julie whenever I could and narrated anecdotes from my childhood and student days. I visited Paula several times, tasted some of her vast range of homemade snacks, played scrabble and watched the Richard Dimbleby shows on the ‘telly’ with her. I would take her some chocolates during such visits. I sprang a surprise on her birthday by booking tickets for ‘An affair to remember’. On her part, Paula took me to the nearby Green Marsh Grammar School to give the kids an exposure to the Taj Mahal, tigers, Maharajas, elephants and the Himalayas.
On one of my visits Paula said, “You know Murti, every time you come here I feel my son is visiting me.”
“Oh, in that case I may start calling you ‘Mom’!”
Paula beamed a broad smile. “Sure, you can call me ‘Mom’, but you are no Mark. I do not even know where Mark is now. Ditto for my husband, Christopher. You are very different from either. For me Brenda and her family are my family.”
“My sister, she lives in Netherton. She has a lovely family and we are thick as thieves!”
I took care never to mention Christopher or Mark in my subsequent conversations with Paula.
On a particularly blustery evening I missed the bus from Sutton Leach. There wasn’t another service for the next hour, so I decided to walk home. After about two miles on the desolate road, the weather turned wet and windy. I plodded on and soon came upon a Hillman Minx parked on the left of the road, with the bonnet open. Apparently the car had stalled and the driver had stuck his head into the engine compartment to fix the problem. I knew a thing or two about automobiles and decided to offer help. I walked over to the car and asked the man under the bonnet “You in trouble? Can I lend you a hand?”
The car owner, emerged from under the bonnet. “Okay, mister. ’aven’t a clue what is wrong. The bloody rain ain’t ’elping either. ’ave a go, if you will.” In the enveloping darkness I looked at the man’s face and wondered where I had seen him earlier.
The coin dropped suddenly. Rick Johnson, the man who had shoo-ed me away some weeks earlier! “Mr. Johnson, aren’t you? Remember me? The curry bloke?” I asked. The man stared at me, and a slow look of recognition came to his face. Obviously embarrassed, he exclaimed “Oh, it is you! Sorry can’t remember your name. Sure you want to ’elp? Er….. I was not exactly ’elpful when you needed ’elp, was I?”
I laughed. “Forget it, Mr. Johnson. Let me get to work. If it is the spark plug or ignition coil or fuel supply, I should be able to fix it.”
“Call me Rick, please. I still cannot remember your name, my dear man.”
“I am Murti.”
“Hello, Murti. I appreciate your ’elp.”
The fault lay in the ignition cable contact. I soon succeeded in bringing the engine back to life.
Rick thanked me and asked me to get into the car. “Where are you headed? I will drop you off wherever you wish.” We traveled in silence, lost in our private thoughts. When I got down, Rick took his hands in a tight grip and said “Thanks, Murti. I am truly sorry about that day, I am quite ashamed of myself. Will you lemme buy you a beer?”
“It is okay, Rick. Really. Glad to have been of help.”
Soon it was time for me to bid good-bye to Liverpool. Paula, Julie and I promised one another, through misty eyes to remain in contact.
We kept our promise for some years after my return to India, exchanging greeting cards on special occasions. Julie did not have the patience to write even occasionally, but Paula was different. In every one of her letters Paula envied the climate I was privileged to enjoy in India and bemoaned her own misfortune in having to endure the infamous British weather, even as her arthritis got worse.
Two years ago I received a post card from Paula’s sister, Brenda. It read “Dear Murti, Paula made peace with her Maker three weeks ago. She had asked that I should let you know, after she had passed on.”
I said a silent prayer for Paula’s soul.
The commander of the flight announced the imminent landing of the plane at Frankfurt, shaking me out of my reverie and taking me back to that unknown kid of Baltimore. I shut the book and muttered, “Life isn’t always unkind, kiddo. You will have your days too.” Did I think time would have stood still for him until now?
The passenger in the next seat turned to me and asked “Did you say something to me?”
I said absent-mindedly, “No, I was talking to the Baltimore kid.”
I smiled. “Just some one I know. Never mind.”