Five Voices Leicester

The Grassroutes Commission took 'transcultural Leicestershire' as its theme. It was awarded to Anita Sivakumaran for a poetry sequence called Five Voices Leicester. The commission is now complete.

Auntie from Nuffield Sauna

Before I can back out,
‘Call me Auntie,’ she says. ‘Come sit down.’
She comes here every day. Keeps her fit.
Should she pour more water? I will?
Thank you very much.
Closest she gets to tropical heat.
I must be Gujarati no? No?
East of Kerala? Across the water from Sri Lanka?
No. She’s never been.
Tropical heat is something she sees only on TV.

My family, fortune, friends?
My height, weight, sun, moon and stars and their respective houses?
My expectations of matrimony?
She has one son, two nephews, three close second cousins.
What a good fortune to meet a girl such as myself—
she needs good girls in her family.
Married, five months pregnant?
To an Englishman?
Well, it is true. Only the goodness of the heart counts.
Culture vulture, star schmar, totally unnecessary.
Should she pour more water?
The heat is cooling down.
‘Come to my house with husband,’ she tells me.
Eat ghar ka khana.
She cannot make masala dosa,
but Gujarati food is also best in the world.
Plump me up and good for baby.
My husband will also like, not spicy, very mild.
Like English curry.

Ooo baba, the heat is now roasting.
It must be like this all the time, no, over there?
One day, she will go.
But today she must be getting out to some cool English weather
to recover.
But should she pour more water before she goes?

The Butcher on Queen’s Road

‘A good, strong cleaver like this,’ he tells me,
‘been in my family three generations.’
This business too. Three generations.
Right here on Queens road.
Changed over the years, yes. Not the shop. The road.
He likes it now. The way it is.
The road. Not the shop.
Skin on or off?
No problem. He can do it for me.
Ten pounds fifty, a bit steep?
The supermarket butchers,
(shakes head),
all they do is unwrap the cling film.
The TV adverts, they lie.

A good cleaver like this chops clean. No splinters.
He changes with the times. Does hog roasts. He’s for hire. Any time. Sundays too.
Corporate events. Family parties. In my garden.
Hog roasts are great for parties.
A great, big hog turning on the spit,
Evenly roasting on all sides, the crackling crackling.

This chicken he guarantees is worth the price.
Free range. A chicken that has ranged free.
Other people come here and say they can get two for the price in Asda.
(shakes head)
The supermarket butcher doesn’t have the skill to chop up a chicken.
The supermarket butcher is a spotty sixteen year old.
Give him this cleaver and he’ll chop off his own fingers.
The TV adverts, they lie.

‘This cleaver,’ he tells me. ‘You can’t get it in a shop.’
It is sharp and cuts clean. You can’t buy it off a shelf no more.
Been in his family three generations.
But he can get me one, cost price.
I can’t go far wrong
With a good, strong cleaver like this.
(nods head)

The Leafleter on the High Street

‘If you’re going to stand here talking to me,’ I tell him,
‘nudge your brolly over my head.’

‘I’ve got a leaflet for every taste,’ he tells me.
Kebab, Christ, literacy,
no matter what our proclivities.
It is not a job he loves, but it’ll do.
It has its perks – the folks who invite him in for a cup of tea,
a chat, and there’s the amusing incidents with dogs, cats,
a parakeet once,
even a leafleter—his double, perhaps—
she leaflets people who leaflet her at home.

Yes, he has preferences—wide-mouthed mail slots for one.
He takes pride in his job,
hates crushing his leaflets through the brushy things
people line their mail slots with
to keep the good, honest air from their homes.

‘Growing up I read Oscar Wilde,’ he tells me.
He dreamed himself into Wilde’s shoes.
The toast of London. Standing on his head at parties,
bird of paradise hat in one hand,
cocktail in the other, toasting his own success.
He wanted to write plays that challenge the status quo,
but it’s a job without the perks,
or even basic pay.

He is a playwright. No, leafleting isn’t a sad compromise.
It merely pays the bills.
Recognise his name?
Not a theatre goer, perhaps?
Or nothing contemporary?
His latest play is on the stage, at the Curve, Thursday to Saturday,
all through November.
Reviews in the Leicester Mercury.
The one with the two scientists in a cardboard box?
Not last year. This year.

And there’s another one coming up—‘Midlands Mania’—
East Midlands goes to war with West Midlands,
sort of a modern-day War of the Roses.
Show them northerners.
And those southerners.
Leicester—centre of the arts for the new England,
through him, through him.

But he doesn’t leaflet his own plays.
There isn’t any budget for direct marketing.
Or, come to think of it,
indirect marketing.
Roundabout marketing?
On roundabouts, do I mean?
‘Here’s an idea,’ he tells me.
‘You could put it in a poem.’

The Leafleter of Leicester City,
I can call it.

The Neighbour in Birstall

‘Yes, it’s mine,’ she tells me, ‘the grubby old ginger cat.’
Had it since her student days at uni,
through her first three jobs to now
when she’s stranded, like the cat was stranded
out my front door in the rain,
while she was off on a weekend away.

She didn’t much like the job anyway.
But like her cat which found shelter in my house,
(‘A pleasure. We are cat people’)
Stayed two days, recovered, she too has found
A different path.

She supposes she was a bit of a stray herself.
Travelled in Australia, Canada,
Came here to study, and stayed.
Found the cat in a shelter.

Gorgeous specimen
who’s never made her house her home.
Comes and goes as she pleases.
Likes it here well enough.

Nice people, cosy city, if that were a possible combination.
(‘I think I see what you mean’)

See this.
(‘Bird droppings?’)
Instead, it’s what she learned to make in the first class—
Piping flowers for a cake.

Dandelions now. Roses in a month.
Next class they’ll be making cupcakes in three different colours.
Come around for tea.

Take this cat.
(‘As a metaphor?’)
‘I mean it,’ she tells me.
The cat likes me more than her.
Perhaps she’ll stay put at mine.
Or till austerity drives her out.

The Writer Remembers Evington Road

Do I like the smells in her book?
They are smells of Leicester.
Rain. Leather. Sun. Spices.
Separate and commingling.
(signs book)

‘You can buy all the spices on Evington road,’ she tells me.
Not the supermarket 5 gram 10 gram kind stuck in bottles
smaller than my fingers.
But the half kilo packets,
soft and heavy like babies,
whole and wrapped in newspapers,
spilling in the aisles, milling.
Baskets of bittergourd.
Curry leaves still fresh from the subcontinent.

(draws a map on the book just signed)
Roundabout. Zig zag. Right at the lights.
Next to the betting shop.
Just down from the Co-Op.

(Hands book, but doesn’t let go)
‘Evington road,’ she tells me, ‘we played there as children.’
The wall for cats. Or was it Humpty Dumpty?
The boundary separating each of them—
separating friends and their other worlds.
Their friendship a delicate egg balanced on the wall,
yes, like Humpty Dumpty.

(releases the book)
They played and huddled,
sometimes ventured into that green suburb,
Stoneygate. Walked around brick and stone and
period glass like a visitor in a museum,
or climbed up the hill beyond the mosque,
to watch other people and their fancy ways,
or gaped at the Clarendon Park students,
their dishevelled styles so alien to
her mother’s oiled-hair neatness, that she was ashamed of.

They hugged the tarmac of Evington road.
They peeked this side and that,
temporarily trying on each other’s skin,
and now they don’t much speak of it.
They don’t much visit each other’s homes any more, she tells me,
where the colours and smells and tongues are so different, so threatening.

(addressing the next person in the queue) She says,
‘We perch like Humpty Dumpty on Evington Road.
We hold breaths so the cracks don’t appear.
We are safe from each other on Evington road.’

(the baffled autograph hunter looks on)

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