The Spoiled Heart

Sunjeev Sahota

April 16, 2024 
The following is from Sunjeev Sahota's The Spoiled Heart. Sahota is the author of three novels: China Room, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize and a finalist for the American Library Association’s Carnegie Medal; The Year of the Runaways, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Dylan Thomas Prize; and Ours are the Streets. In 2013, he was named one of Granta’s twenty Best of Young British Novelists of the decade. He lives in Sheffield, England, with his family.

‘Helen Fletcher’s returned home?’

Until then, on a call to his baby sister in the spring of 2017, Nayan had no clue what her name was. He’d seen her around a dozen times, maybe more, first her photo – on the phone of that woman from the nursing agency – but most often on those evenings his run coincided with her end-of-day beer, when there she’d be, knee flexed on the busted wooden rail of her porch, in shorn-off denims and a Bud raised to her lips. Hers was the very last house before the unmarked lane shrank to a track rutted by quad bikes, and her nearest neighbour, The Saracen’s Head, was a good way b-ack down the hill, a seclusion that dealt his jog past her a tense self-consciousness. Nayan always resolved to say hello, always bottled it. He was out of practice, sure, and also unaccustomed to feeling intimidated: the back of her head against the post, imperious, not giving a shit, and her drive – gravelled, flaunting weeds, too pinched for anything but the smallest hatchback – was far too steep, as if she really was up there on her decrepit throne gazing down her nose at him. He saw her up close about a week before calling his sister, when he was waiting in line at the post office. It was those denims again. Cut-off denims on a cold April morning. The photo must have been from a few years ago, because in the flesh she was older, albeit – and he registered this with a start – still younger than him, and with greying blonde hair hanging loose and jutting cheekbones that gave her entire face a sealed quality. At the counter, she spoke minimally, inaudible to Nayan, collected her gas card and Silk Cuts from Margot, and left, unlit fag in her mouth, wicker shoulder-bag crushed under an armpit.

As if by magic, he saw her five more times that week: twice when he was out running and passed by her porch; in The Head on the Friday night, where he clocked her in her care-worker’s uniform; in Aldi the next day, too, grim-facedly studying the back of a Thai green curry kit; and finally: once more in the post office, where Margot caught him watching her leave.

‘Looks good out,’ he said, putting red-top milk, multi-vitamins and bananas on the counter.

‘This is the post office. The shop is over there,’ and she pointed to the next counter along. He shoved his items across even as Margot didn’t move because the same fucking G-G-G-Granville till served both post office and shop.

‘She looked familiar,’ Nayan lied.

‘Mm-hmm,’ Margot said.

‘That woman. I can’t place her, though. She’s new, right? Newish?’

Her mouth a thin rouged seam, Margot plucked the note – she only took cash – from Nayan’s fingers.

‘I wonder why she looks familiar,’ he pressed on.

‘Perhaps because she once hit out at the headteacher,’ Margot said, in an airy way that intimated she knew all the secrets of this old estate.

‘Ah, yes. That must be it. Was it Nether—’

‘You’d have long left school by then.’ She slapped his change onto the counter, slammed the till shut. ‘Your sister might remember her.’

‘That so?’ Sliding the coins off the counter and into his palm, Nayan said, ‘You grow lovelier every day, Margot.’

As he was leaving, he saw her mimicking him in the glass pane of the door. He turned round, curbing his smile when her face froze. ‘What’s her name again?’

Why did he want her name? What was he going to do with her name? Google it? Certainly, she was an outsider, or she at least projected the aura of an outsider, something he found deeply appealing. Either way, Margot never told him her name, if she even knew it. She seemed altogether too busy stealing a glance at the rose oval of her wristwatch and taking careful note of what he’d bought and what he was wearing, ready to write these details down in a slow neat hand the moment he left, because surely no good could come from this brown man’s interest in that white woman, and surely – her mind racing gleefully on – a police officer would be calling in the days and weeks ahead to ask if she could possibly shed any light on who might want to harm the quiet, if unashamedly dressed, woman who lived so remotely? Outside the post office, Nayan spat at the ground, took a steadying breath, and ploughed onwards, to the hardware store for some caulking (leaky bathroom), and then home to call his sister.

‘So you do remember her? This Helen Fletcher.’

‘Barely. She must’ve been, what, two years below me.’

That made her thirty-seven, five years younger than him. ‘But you know her name.’

‘A kid, a girl, kicks the shit out of the headteacher? Her name travels.’

He switched ears. ‘Merv?’

‘Then she left. Broke his nose, I heard.’


‘Oh, I dunno. I was away by then. How long she been back?’ Sonia asked quickly.

‘A few months? She was meant to be Dad’s home help, but she turned it down. I can’t help wondering why.’

There was a cool silence as Sonia weighed things up: did she need to once again acknowledge Nayan’s sacrifice? Because while she lived her zingy lawyer’s life with her girlfriend in Chicago, it had been twelve years now that he’d been caring for their ill father alone, a man who obstinately continued to beat whatever odds the doctors threw at him. Speaking of illness . . .

‘How’s Trump?’ Nayan asked, forever the big bro, rescuing his sister from tight corners. ‘Gotta be dementia, right?’

But Sonia didn’t want rescuing, and looped back, asserting herself. ‘They won’t tell you? Why she turned it down?’

‘Said she wasn’t feeling it.’ He thought for a moment. ‘She left town for punching a teacher? Bit drastic.’

‘Why you so interested in her?’ He loathed, while being half-buzzed by, the teasing lilt of her voice. ‘Are you? Interested?’

More than interested. He was rapidly becoming beguiled by this Helen Fletcher. Her direct face, its worries withheld, the challenge with which she set down her beer in the pub, the powerful absence of pleasantries, her refusal of spontaneity; essentially, her willingness to court disapproval meant that for the first time in years, decades, Nayan felt himself captivated, without them having exchanged a word.

He told me all this, their story, several years later, when the country was still wrestling with the pandemic, the talk all of boosters, and I found him occupying a room in a multi-let house in the centre of Chesterfield.

Growing up, though we lived only a mile or so apart, we’d not had much to do with one another. Nayan was six years older than me – I’m closer to Helen’s age – and attended Netherthorpe, the former grammar whose Victorian façade still carried weight in the local imagination, when really it was every bit as rough and failing as Springwell, its rival and my concrete block of a school. I’m not saying I didn’t know Nayan. There were at most five Asian families in the town back then, all Sikh households, and all, to a man, living above their shops. Sometimes we got together, for Diwali usually, each family taking turns to host. I have jumbled memories of orange, swirly carpets and cord settees that folded out, and of the women, my mother among them, singing hymns and frying crackers in Formica kitchens while, in the front room, great images of gods loured over our fathers and their whiskies. The rest of us would congregate in a kid’s bedroom, and I have a clear recollection of one Diwali where I was playing Dynablaster on a secondhand Amiga 500+. I’d have been perhaps eight, joypad in hand and gangling over the monitor because the swivel-chair was taken. All noise was blotted out until a cheer went up behind me, applause that met with my screen death, and I turned round and saw Nayan accept his umpteenth arm-wrestle win. He was fourteen, athletic, the peak of his Steelers cap tilted upwards so his fringe swept across his forehead. He clapped his (older) opponent on the shoulder, handed him back the pound coin, and with that easy smile said, ‘I got lucky, man.’

I remember being struck by how cool that was, how magnanimity only furnished his standing among us. Later, we were called into the lounge for final prayers, and since all the rooms were on one level, I stood just inside the bedroom door, keen to bagsy the Amiga. Beneath a photo of a haloed Guru Nanak, an auntie chunni-ed her head and recited. All else was silence. The men stood tottering, holding onto a kid, any kid, for ballast; except, that is, for my dad and Nayan’s, who had their arms around one another’s shoulders, swaying in place like old chums. Like me, Nayan was near the back, but he didn’t see me watching, not at first, and he definitely didn’t think anyone spied him tugging the pink jumper of the girl in front. It was Deepti, whom he’d go on to marry and divorce, and the pink jumper was paired with tight white jeans that held the smooth expansion of her hips in a way that did something to my young boy’s stomach. Her lightweight chunni was very much an afterthought, balanced over big thin curls lacquered with hairspray, and she didn’t turn around at Nayan’s behest. She only smiled, twisted her hand behind her back and gave him the finger. He put three Hula Hoops on that finger – there were plates of nibbles on the sideboard – which she brought up to her face and ate behind her hand. Transfixed, I watched them do this twice more, until Nayan caught me looking, winked, and offered the bag of crisps. Before I could shake my head, the auntie’s voice cracked at the end of its crescendo and we all folded onto our knees and touched our foreheads to the carpet.

As the Nineties creaked round and I approached my own teens, a couple of the families sold up at a loss and left town, done in by the recession, and the Diwali and Vaisakhi meets began drying up, until they stopped happening altogether. The name Nayan Olak still occasionally got aired in our house – after he won the regional high jump, or when a picture of him appeared in the Derbyshire Times, raising funds for former miners suffering with chronic emphysema – and we’d attended his wedding, a speedily organised affair at a community centre with jugs of Five Alive and KP Roasted Peanuts in white paper bowls, all pulled together once some envious, vengeful priest discovered Nayan and Deepti locked in an embrace ‘like sucking Velcro’.

I don’t remember much about the fire that killed his mother and his child. I was sixteen and struggling, and once I started to get my act together, following a summer in India, I left immediately for university in London and avoided my hometown. Truth be told, Nayan Olak never bothered my mind, not until around two years ago, when I went back to Chesterfield because the only school friend I’d kept in touch with had had his first child and invited me to wet the baby’s head.

This was just before the first lockdown, February 2020, and the once busy marketplace was now familiarly sad, with its closing-down sales and boarded-up windows, its Betfreds. Walking the cobbles that cold night, I was once more the cornershop boy, the pedlar’s son, whose life felt small and imprisoning, half hung out to dry, all the usual intimations, I guess, when a nearly forty-year-old visits his unhappy past. I arrived outside the bar with a feeling of relief – here was life! – and watched for a while through the large uplit window. People. Laughter. Drinking. I saw my friend, Rory. He was keeping half an eye on the entrance, no doubt mindful of me walking into a busy, small-town bar full of only white people. I’ve always liked that about Rory, his natural reserves of unshowy empathy. I could see how the evening would begin: I’d walk inside, throwing on a grin, and Rory and I would shake hands homie-style, as we always do, honouring with irony the provincial boys we once were, and would forever be. He’d introduce me to those six others around his table – ‘He’s a writer,’ Rory’ll say – and I’d chart them recalibrating their idea of me, and of this evening. There would be wariness, perhaps, because I was an interloper in the group: unknown to them, brown, educated, a writer.


From The Spoiled Heart by Sunjeev Sahota. by Sunjeev Sahota, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Sunjeev Sahota.

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