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Chapter 52: It's a Town
The Fens Part II
Spalding was my destination, Kings Lynn was Dev’s. He was a serious man, in the first car that drove past. I’d not seen a hill all morning.
Dev said he was from Bombay. He moved to Britain 20 years ago. Do you miss it? I asked. Kings Lynn is very different I presumed. Dev wobbled his hand. He was a man who spoke only when necessary. I pressed him and he thought for a moment. “I miss the food…family…festivals…” The three Fs.
“Does Kings Lynn’s Indian cuisine not cut it?”
“It’s not really Indian. They’ll say Bangladeshi or Nepalese food is Indian. I mean the paneer they say is paneer in Spalding for instance… well, it’s not paneer.” I wondered what it was. He said there was good South Indian food in Cambridge but he couldn’t be going there all the time.
Kings Lynn was all right otherwise he thought with another wobble of the hand. It’s a historic town, or at least an old town, he corrected himself, but it was full of drunks at the weekend, stumbling out of pubs, shouting, causing a nuisance. He didn’t join in.
“Spalding’s quite a nice town though,” I added, keeping it cheerful. We were nearly there.
“It’s not a nice town,” replied Dev flatly, “It’s a town…”
He was partly right. It was a town. Flat in the Fens, laced with canals and the River Welland. Brick bungalows insulated the edges. It felt unfriendly and I carried an urban assumption, making me think it was probably hostile and racist. A couple of windows bore St George’s flags which seemed to confirm it. Three hooded men tossed pebbles aimlessly in the canal, and a man with a droopy cigarette lugged a two-litre bottle of cider to his car.
Towards the centre, the town grew grander. Georgian facades set back from the road, Jacobean chimneys slanted with age. It became elegant, charming in fact. A plaque on a hotel in the square told me Jean Jacques Rousseau stayed here for a few months in 1767. Not many places can claim that. My opinion of Spalding was on the up.
The door to the Latino cafe tinkled as I pushed it. Three men looked too big for their little red stools. Morning I said. Morning they said back, cheerfully. The lady behind the counter smiled at me. Her hair was in cornrows and the unbraided ends curled like unfurled ferns. I asked if they served food. “Yeah, sure,” she smiled.
“What do you have?” There wasn’t a menu in sight.
“We’ve got… steak and rice?”
She thought for a moment. “We could make you a sandwich?…Steak sandwich…Or…We could do a cooked breakfast?” She didn’t seem confident but I didn’t fancy a steak. Perfect. One of those.
The three old men grinned up at me from behind folded arms, fascinated by the presence of a foreigner. Not a foreigner from another country, the cafe had people of several ethnicities, but a foreigner to the cafe.
I explained what I was up to, adding that I thought Spalding was a nice town. The eyes of the man nearest me veered off in different directions. He was impossible to understand, a slurred Fenland burgh that swallowed words, blending them into soup. Every sentence ended with a big grin and an upward inflexion of his skinny chin.
“You only see the nice bits,” a second man said, saving me from having to reply to his friend, I hadn’t understood a word, “We have to see all the rest!” They all laughed. If you tell anyone in Britain their town is nice, they’ll tell you it’s not.
The man was called Karl. He was leaning against a chipboard wall, his bald head resting on it, his thin white arms resting on a big boulder of a belly. I got on best with Karl, mainly because I could understand him. His jowls hung from cheekbones that jutted out at angles.
I asked if they were from Spalding. “Agh am,” said the man nearest me, his name was Keith, “Barn n raized.”
“Ha! We can tell!” chipped Karl and they all laughed. Karl was from Spalding too, though he’d been all over the world. He used to work for Google and Microsoft. “Building the cloud,” he told me. He’d been a software engineer but a year ago he had a stroke and lost his short-term memory. The third of the three, a heavy man from Romford, mumbled something about the AstraZeneca vaccine.
My breakfast arrived and the men sipped their skinny glasses of SuperBock lager as the waitress set it down.
“This place is just about the only place I can remember how to get to!” Karl continued, laughing at the thought. The Romford man made a joke about all the other pubs. Karl explained how he had to quit his job, he couldn’t carry on working. He got paid a pension and lived off benefits. He seemed cheerful about it and the jokes were lighthearted. It was difficult though, he qualified. Waking up every morning confused, not knowing what happened yesterday, sometimes not knowing where he was. He said he wouldn’t remember the conversation we were having. He’d have no idea who I was come the morning.
“Well it seems you’re keeping cheerful,” I said, rolling with his chuckles.
“Not always,” Karl replied, suddenly serious, “I’ve had times when I’ve had my head on a line, waiting for a train and that…”
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling bad for presuming for the second time that day.
“But if I wake up, I take my first breath and the sun’s out, like today, it’s ok.”
I set into my breakfast and Keith gargled something about where I should go next. Towards Boston I think. Karl followed on, clearly understanding perfectly. “Yeah, they got one of the last Lancaster Bombers,” he said, “Well worth going up there. You. can see the planes flying right over your head. Or you could go down to Peterborough. Thomas Becket’s buried there. Or Ely, that’s where William the Conqueror lived.”
I remarked that he could still remember a great deal given. “Well I still got my long-term memory! I studied history at school you know.”
All three men liked travelling further afield too, when they could. Keith had been to Thailand a few years ago, he loved it. He’d been to Chichen Itza too. He loved that even more. Karl meanwhile had lived all over. He loved being out in the world. Dublin, Warsaw, Barcelona, Amsterdam. Amsterdam was his favourite. He had the city’s three Xs tattooed on his forearm.
“Ahh Amsterdam,” he shook his head awed, arms still folded, “I loved it there. No one was rushing to do anything… and it was so cosmopolitan!”
“Well Spalding’s pretty cosmopolitan,” I replied, looking around the cafe. The clientele was diverse, “And no one’s rushing to do much either.” The three men had nearly finished their second beer and it wasn’t yet one o’clock.
“It’s just a small market town though isn’t it. Quiet.”
Admittedly there were about eight people in the cafe, of which we were four.
“Trouble is there’s just nothing to do. Only so many times you can go to the pub…”
I’d finished my breakfast and reckoned it was time to get on. As I paid the bill at the counter the lady with the cornrows said I could come and have a full English anytime I liked. One of the men picked my hat up for me. Another my bag, patting me on the back.
“Next time you’re in Spalding,” Keith roared, “Come and ‘ave a drink with us. We can go out together!” I said I’d like that. I promised I’d go straight to the cafe.
As I stepped into the rundown streets, past the bingo hall with letters hanging off, I thought how wrong I’d been to assume it was an unfriendly place. No doubt there were unfriendly people, but if you look hard enough there’ll always be good apples.
I walked back past Rousseau’s plaque and wondered what he thought of the town. 250 years ago it must have felt very isolated here, nothing but flat for miles around. Not far on I passed another plaque. Jimi Hendrix stayed here that one said. It may not be Amsterdam, I thought to myself,
but it was pretty cosmopolitan for a small town in the Fens. I decided Dev was wrong. Spalding wasn’t just a town, it was a nice town.
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