Monica Ali, Brick Lane (2004)

Brick Lane

A row of police vans covered the mouth of Brick Lane. Behind them a legion of policemen stood with arms folded and feet turned out. A length of tangerine-and-white-striped tape stuck the sides of the street together.

“Let me through,” said Nazneen.

“The street is closed, madam. Go back.” The policeman sounded friendly but decisive. He seemed to think the conversation was finished.

“I have to go to Shalimar Café and find my daughter.”

The policeman looked ahead, as if she had not spoken. Nazneen glanced down the line at the black-suited men, all of them braced against an invisible force. What was happening in Brick Lane? Could they have closed it just for the Bengal Tigers to march? Wasn’t this the last place on Karim’s route? But it was dark, it was late. By now the marches would be over.

“Why I can’t go through?” said Nazneen. She put her face right up to the policeman’s face. Do you see me now? Do you hear me?

“Disturbances,” said the policeman. She felt the warmth of his breath and drew her head back. […]

Nazneen slipped around the back of him. She hoisted her sari and hurdled over the orange and white tape. Someone thumped her on the back. She turned her head, but there was no one behind her. It was only her heart playing tricks. She stuck close to the walls and shadows, crossed a side street with its little vein of houses and entered the main artery of Brick Lane.

Across the way, formed in a semi-circle, was a row of perspex shields, and behind the shields of an arc of police with bulging jackets. A group of lads stood on the pavement and in the road, hoods pulled up, scarves around their faces, as though they had entered a manly purdah. It was quiet.

Nazneen passed behind the boys. They paid her no attention. In lighted windows, waiters pressed their foreheads to the glass. Restaurant owners stood by, nerves flickering across important faces. All the mixed-blood vitality of the street had been drained. Something coursed down the artery, like a bubble in the bloodstream.

A police car was parked at a crazy angle in the road, the front doors wide open and the interior abandoned. The car rocked. A door swung shut. It rocked again. Nazneen looked at the boys pushing it. They worked quickly and quietly, as though this was a task they had been assigned to do and they wanted to make a good job of it. The car went over and suddenly a noise licked around Brick Lane like a flame, crackling from every corner. […]

Ahead, eight or ten boys gathered behind a bin. The large black tank stood at shoulder height. Two lads darted out to the side and made an overarm bowling motion. They hurled themselves behind the bin and al the lads crouched down. Nazneen stopped moving. A lighted window at her back. She wished she had picked a better place to be, during this sinister game of hide-and-seek. There were no white people here at all. These boys were fighting themselves. A dizziness came over her and she leaned against the glass. How long, she thought, how long it has taken me to get this far.

Missiles rained across the road. Empty bottles, full cans, a brick, a chair, a winged stick. A bottle smashed at Nazneen’s feet. She decided to run again. But which way? Towards the Shalimar and the source of the missiles? Or back up the road or take shelter? She turned round and back and round and suddenly she was not sure which way the café was. She recognized nothing. Silhouettes across the way, substantial as shadows but solid enough to smash through windows. Crouching shapes and whirling arms, the pale streak of trainers on the black ground that had gone soft beneath her feet. The buildings curved away from her, shrinking from the violent pavement. The light came in crackling twists of red that stabbed at the dark and did not lift it, as though a devil had danced through with his blazing torch. Nazneen tried to focus on a window and take refuge in the clean white light, but when she looked the light burned her eyes. In the middle of the road, a coiled snake of tyres flamed with acrid fury and she skins, thick, black, choking, to the wind. Shop alarms rang, clang, clang, clang, more frightened than warning. Back up the road, an ambulance crawled stubbornly along, its twirling blue eye sending out a terrible, keening lament.

—Monica Ali, Brick Lane. Reading: Transworld Publishers, 2004, pp. 468-473.