Authors: Nigel Williams
is the author of sixteen novels, including the bestselling Wimbledon Trilogy. His stage plays include
and a dramatization of William Golding’s
Lord of the Flies.
He wrote the screenplay for the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning
, starring Helen Mirren. His BBC Radio 4 comedy series
(featuring Jonathan Pryce and Nicholas le Prevost) is now in its fourth series. He has lived in Putney for thirty years.
Also by Nigel Williams
My Life Closed Twice
Jack Be Nimble
Charlie (based on his teleplay)
The Wimbledon Poisoner
They Came from SW19
East of Wimbledon
Scenes from a Poisoner’s Life (short stories)
Hatchett & Lycett
Sugar and Spice
The Adventures of Jasper Ridley
My Brother’s Keeper
As it Was
Lord of the Flies (adapted from the novel by William Golding)
The Last Romantics
Harry and Me
HR (radio series, currently in its fourth season on
BBC Radio 4
Two and a Half Men in a Boat
From Wimbledon to Waco
Constable & Robinson Ltd
55–56 Russell Square
London WC1B 4HP
First published in the UK by Faber and Faber Limited 1993
This edition published in the UK by Corsair,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2013
Copyright © Nigel Williams, 1993
The right of Nigel Williams to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication data is available from the British Library
ISBN: 978-1-47210-677-3 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-47210-686-5 (ebook)
Typeset by TW Typesetting, Plymouth, Devon
Printed and bound in the UK
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Illustration by Tom Gauld; Design by Chris Callard
‘We teach here,’ said Mr Malik, ‘Islamic mathematics, Islamic physics and of course Islamic games—’
‘What,’ said Robert, feeling it was time for an intelligent question, ‘are Islamic games?’
Mr Malik gave a broad wink. ‘Islamic games,’ he said, ‘are when Pakistan wins the Test Match.’
He spread his hands generously. ‘You, of course, among your other duties, will be teaching Islamic English literature.’
Robert nodded keenly. His floppy, blond hair fell forward over his eyes, and he raked it back with what he hoped was boyish eagerness. He should really have had a haircut. ‘In that context,’ he said, ‘do you see Islamic English literature as being literature by English, or Welsh or Scottish Muslims?’
They both looked at each other in consternation. Perhaps, like him, Mr Malik was unable to think of a single Muslim writer who fitted that description.
‘Or,’ went on Robert, struggling somewhat, ‘do you see it as work that has a Muslim dimension? Such as . . .
What was the Muslim dimension in
Robert became aware that the room had suddenly become very hot.
‘Or,’ he went on swiftly, ‘simply English literature viewed from a Muslim perspective?’
‘You will view English literature from a Muslim perspective,’ said Malik with a broad, affable grin, ‘because you are a Muslim!’
‘I am,’ said Robert – ‘I am indeed!’
He kept forgetting he was a Muslim. If he was going to last any time at all at the Islamic Independent Boys’ Day School Wimbledon, he was going to have to keep a pretty close grip on that fact.
He had decided to pass himself off as a Muslim shortly before his twenty-fourth birthday. His father had waved a copy of the
at him as Robert was being dragged out of the front door by the dog. ‘Could be something worthy of you in there,’ he had said, prodding at the Situations Vacant column. And, out there on the Common, on a bench facing a murky pond, Robert had read:
Are you a broadminded teacher of the Muslim faith? Are you young, thrusting and keen to get ahead, with good interpersonal skills? Are you under fifty-five with a clean driving licence? We want you for a new and exciting all-Muslim venture in the Wimbledon area.
It was the word ‘broadminded’ that had caught his eye. It suggested, for some reason, that the job might lead to encounters with naked women. There was certainly something breezily sensual about the man now facing him across the desk.
He seemed pleased to see Robert too. There was no hint of prejudice in his eyes. Robert had feared the headmaster might be a sinister character of the type given to chaining people to radiators in down-town Beirut. He had stopped watching the news shortly after the hostage crisis. In fact, these days he found that, by lying on his bed with the curtains closed and deliberately emptying his mind, he was able to forget most of the unpleasant world events that had troubled him for the first twenty-four years of his life. He was no longer quite sure, for instance, who was the current leader of the Labour Party. With serious mental effort he was hoping to achieve the same state with respect to the president of the United States, the names of the countries of central Europe and almost every geopolitical incident not located within a five-mile radius of Wimbledon Park Road.
Mr Malik grinned, got up from his desk and crossed to a large map of the world on the wall next to the window. Ruffik or Raffik, or whatever his name was, had been taping it to the wall when Robert came in for the interview. Already one corner had come adrift. North-West Canada lolled crazily out into the room. Timber forests brushed lazily against the deserts of Saudi Arabia, as the August breeze sidled in from Wimbledon Village.
‘All of the world,’ said Mr Malik, jabbing his finger in the vague direction of America, ‘will soon be Muslim.’
‘I hope so,’ said Robert, knitting his brows with what he hoped was a typical convert’s expression, ‘I hope so!’
Mr Malik stepped smartly to his left and looked down at the green lawn that stretched between the Islamic Independent Boys’ Day School and the High Street. Beyond the wrought-iron gates, flanked by two dwarf cypresses, girls in summer dresses, their legs and shoulders bare, walked homewards, calling and laughing to each other. Mr Malik gave them a tolerant smile.
‘Muslim ideas and Muslim thinking are making great strides everywhere. Even in Wimbledon. Look at yourself, for example!’
‘Indeed!’ said Robert.
He hoped they weren’t going to get into a detailed discussion of how he had seen the light, or whatever it was you saw when you converted to Islam. If the headmaster asked him which mosque he went to, he had already decided to say that he always visited the nearest one to hand.
What does one need
, he heard himself say,
except a prayer mat and a compass?
‘Were your parents Muslim?’ said Malik.
Robert blinked rapidly and said, ‘Our family has been Muslim for as long as any of us can remember.’
‘Since the Crusades!’ said Malik.
They both laughed a lot at this. But the headmaster of the Islamic Independent Boys’ Day School then leaned back in his chair, folded his arms and gave Robert a slow, shrewd glance.
‘My grandfather converted during the Second World War,’ said Robert. ‘He served in the desert, and I think that had a profound effect on him. He was involved with the Camel Corps, I believe.’
Malik was nodding slowly. He had a big, well-sculptured nose. Tucked under it was an elegant moustache. But his eyes were his most notable feature. They flickered on and off in his face like dark lanterns, expressing now amusement, now scepticism, but mostly a resigned acceptance of human weakness.
‘You were brought up as a Muslim?’
‘No, no,’ said Robert hastily, ‘My . . . er, father was a . . .’
Malik was looking at him steadily.
If the headmaster was surprised at the volatile nature of the Wilson family’s religious convictions, he showed no sign of it. He got up and started to pace the threadbare carpet around his desk. ‘Our boys,’ he said, ‘are sent to us because their parents wish them to become part of British society and yet to retain their Muslim identity.’
‘I must say,’ said Robert, with the unusual conviction that he was speaking the truth, ‘that I don’t really feel part of British society!’
Malik ignored this remark. He gave the impression of a man speaking to a large and potentially hostile crowd.
‘Their parents,’ he said, ‘want them to be lawyers, accountants, businessmen, doctors. But they also want them to be brought up in a Muslim environment. By Muslims.’ He gave Robert another shrewd, appraising glance. ‘Such as yourself, for example!’
He should not have worn the sports jacket, thought Robert. Or the grey flannel trousers. He should probably not have come at all.
‘Are you keen on games?’ went on the headmaster in his fruitily accented English.
‘Mustard!’ said Robert. ‘Keen as mustard!’
Mr Malik savoured this out-of-date colloquialism like a world-class wine-taster. He nodded slightly and then, backing towards the window, placed his left hand, knuckles outwards, over his ribs, and his right hand, palm up, to about head height. At first Robert thought he was going to be made to swear some Islamic oath. Then he realized he was supposed to get up from his chair. He did so.
‘Let’s look over the facilities,’ said Mr Malik, rubbing his hands, briskly. ‘As the brochure is not yet printed we can’t look at the brochure, can we, old boy?’
Robert found he was laughing immoderately at this remark.
Malik opened the door and waved his hand, expansively, over to the right. ‘Chemistry labs!’ he said.
This sounded like something out of the
– a command for the chemistry labs to appear. It certainly bore no relation to the rather shabby stretch of corridor, leading to a narrow, circular staircase, towards which the headmaster was pointing.
‘Impressive!’ said Robert.
Malik’s eyes narrowed. Robert wondered whether this might be taken for a satirical remark. Then he realized that the headmaster was doing something natural to politicians or actors – putting on a face to match some titanic thought that probably did not exist.