The following is excerpted from Nikita Lalwani's latest novel, You People, about the price we put on life and what it means to love in an age defined by seismic political change. Lalwani is the author of several novels, including Gifted, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and won the inaugural Desmond Elliott Prize for Fiction. Lalwani is a trustee of the Civil Liberties Trust, a human rights organization.
In those days they were all a bit in love with Tuli, every-one who worked for him in the restaurant. They couldn’t help it, somehow it came with the territory: a solid admiration leavened with a kind of vulnerable unrequited romance. Nia considered this oddity often: she really did mean all of them—male or female, front of house or in the kitchen, take your pick—the waiting staff (Ava from Spain), the gaggle of South Asian cooks (Shan, Rajan, Guna, Vasanthan), even Ashan, the clipped French Tamil guy who shared the lease with him, purveyor of crucial expertise from working at the Pizza Express. This is how they appeared to her, even though, or maybe because, Tuli was so infuriating and endearing in equal measure. It wasn’t just because they were beholden to him. You could argue that he had rescued everyone who was there from something or someone, but this was more to do with his manner, his way of being.
When Nia started working there, she was proud of the fact that he didn’t affect her, but soon enough this indifference to his charms was undermined by the fact that she envied him—she wanted to be him rather than the object of his affection. He was so expansive, a bit arrogant with it, sure, but that heart . . . to possess such a heart, to look outward like that, rather than inward to the hidden pockets of the self as she did. An audacious heart. It seemed to thud against his lanky frame with its own strength and vibration, exulting in a freedom from the scrutiny of others.
Oh, it was an emotional time of ups and downs, and she would often veer from her happy, chatty persona at work to such a loneliness when the sun went down, as though the whole of the day’s cheer had been an elaborate gossamer web and now the web was ripped, there was nowhere to hide. She would spend her days off without speaking to anyone, and there was a kind of bruise in her speech when she tried to talk upon return to the restaurant. But it was always there, solid and accommodating, happy for her to slide back in once she had pinned her apron and hair.
She stared at everything and everyone in the beginning, ignoring the veneer of detachment that protected other commuters in the mornings. It was the summer of 2003 when Nia joined the restaurant, and that particular part of southwest London was just beginning to gear up for gentrification. You could see the bankers—male and female alike—dipping their toes in, walking past the burger joints and chicken shops with appraising gazes, bodies taut with the effort of remaining open-minded. Tentatively making it down to the imposing residential squares they had heard about and staring up at the red-brick and stucco mansion blocks and sliding timber-sash windows. They would go up to the hushed communal gardens that lay at the center of these squares and lean on the railings, not worried by the locked gates that always caught her out. Instead they seemed to be practicing for a lifestyle that appeared to be entirely up to them. She saw them on her way to and from the restaurant and marveled at this idea radiating out from them, that the responsibility of shaping a life was all down to the choices you might make. They seemed full to bursting with choices.
She had loved the place instantly, in fact, she loved the whole process—walking from the tube and turning down the small road, past the greasy spoon, the betting place, the Australian pub on the corner, till she was right there, standing at the paneled glass doors and looking up at PIZZERIA VESUVIO, each word hammered in gold and angled to form two sharp mountain slopes. They were warm days at the start of that summer, and these huge baroque capitals would be flashing with reflected sunlight against a vermilion background, while underneath you had all the offerings in a humble white font: “Café, Restaurant, Pizza, Pasta. Vesuvio: Your home from home!”
Inside, the space was laid out pretty traditionally: twenty small square tables on the ground floor with the till, counter, and wine racks at the back, near the kitchen. Diaphanous white tablecloths, small accordions of folded paper printed with photos of diners and the splashy headline: “Welcome to the magic of Vesuvio!” One candle per table, along with single stems in water—a pink rose or carnation usually. A spiral staircase at the front led up to an event room, with the bar at one end and leather sofas at the other—this was the area where Tuli entertained guests, unless it was hired out for a private party, but also where the staff mostly had their meals between shifts.
Some of the Sri-Lankan cooks lived above this first floor in a flat that Nia had heard about, and she’d witness them disappearing at the end of the night through another door near the bar. She’d watch them go through a dark portal into relative privacy, one or two guys at a time, catch a glimpse of an impossibly steep flight of stairs, register the knitted warmth of their murmurs after the door was locked from the inside and they were no longer visible.
There was something fascinating about the definitive way in which they sealed themselves off. They were different from her, in that they had a clear end to the day, some place that they wanted to go when work was done, even if it was just upstairs.
In contrast, she always lingered when her hours were over, unsure as to what she should do next. There was a perk for staff: on your day off you could come to the restaurant with a friend and both eat a meal for free—you knew not to choose the steak, of course, and to stick to pizza or pasta, at most a glass or two of house wine, but it was still pretty generous. Nia was aware that she didn’t have anyone to bring with her on these days, but Ava would swing by with a different friend from a different country each week for lunch it seemed, before heading out to comb the sights and sounds of London. The cooks preferred to avail themselves of the promised meal at night—hanging out and chattering on crates in the kitchen as usual, directing those on duty to cook their favorites. Sometimes Tuli would send in a bottle of whiskey for those who were off duty and everyone would be happy.
Nia was pretty sure that Tuli was a Catholic even though he wasn’t often at church; he was all bound up with Patrick, the priest from Laurier Square. They had a thing going on Fridays at closing where they gathered leftover sandwiches from the supermarkets and bundled them with a batch of pizzas from the restaurant, leaving by midnight to distribute the goods on the streets. One time she even found herself going to Tuli in a state of chaos, asking him to help convert her to Christianity. He sent her on her way, shaking his head in mock sorrow and ruffling her hair at the nonsense of it.
“Are you mad?” he said, laughing with an edge to it, the way you do when confronted with an insult of some sort. “Nia, what do you take me for? Bounty hunter, marking out my place in heaven type of thing? Scalps hanging from a satchel as I’m walking into the sunset? Really? What about your Hindu blood, can’t you mainline some more of that into your veins at least? When you come from so much, why would you look elsewhere?”
It made her smile. There was something undeniably funny about this, even though he did mean what he was saying. Something to do with Hindu sounding so exotic the way he pronounced it with his questioning twang. And that it was directed at someone who looked like Nia. “An affront” was how her mother had described her relationship to her skin. She wasn’t far wrong—it was no secret that Nia wished for more of her father’s coloring. People around the restaurant mostly mistook her for Italian, with her permanent bisque tan and dark hair. In fact, she was quite sure that was one of the reasons Tuli hired her.
“Where are you from?” he’d asked at that very first meeting, minutes after she’d swung through the door to ask for a job.
“I grew up in Newport,” she said. “Welsh mother, Indian father. Mostly Welsh mother without Indian father.”
“Ah,” he said, as though he understood everything necessary from that clutch of sentences. “Got it. Come.” Pulling out a chair in front of the bar. “Please, do sit down.”
Often Tuli would come back from the nightly rounds with a single oddball of choice—an unshaven man in thready denim with a smell to match and a bag of loud opinions, or more of a smarter guy in a white shirt—someone clocking out of a shift stacking shelves at Tesco, say, or even the red-eyed halal butcher from two doors down. One regular, a white guy in a battered brown suit and brogues, a hovering impatience on his face, was a pimp, apparently. Tuli had revealed this to Nia after the man had left, mainly because she asked him the question directly.
By this time she had figured out that although Tuli operated on a need-to-know basis, he didn’t lie; this seemed to be part of his personal code, a pact he had made with himself. She had the idea that she could find things out, providing he was in the mood to respond rather than evade. It was all about coming up with the right question, the correct code to unlock the safe. And she was very curious about all of it.
He’d sit them down, these finds of his, in the front of Vesuvio, where they’d smoke and talk while Nia was spraying the counters or polishing the beveled glass on the front of the bar with newspaper, and she’d bring them a free pizza of some kind usually, but also leftovers to nibble with him—bruschetta with tomatoes and garlic or sticky giant olives rolled in a blood chili sauce. She was attractive to a certain kind of man, and she’d often get a nod of approval, maybe a grunt of acknowledgment for the bust and hips in front of them, their eyes lingering at her waist, cinched in with an apron. She, in turn, wasn’t sure if they expected her to giggle like a naughty milkmaid in response, but she took it in stride, it was no big deal. Sometimes these stragglers would play chess—by candlelight, no less, with Tuli always making a point to put Bach on the stereo—and there would be something almost regal, timeless, about the two faces in concentration when set against that music, seemingly blissful in shadow as they moved those wooden pieces to oblivion.
Every now and then he would disappear to the back to check the freezer contents in the kitchen for the next day, eye up the pizza oven, or get that pale serpentine bottle labeled Martini from upstairs, a huge carton of Marlboro Lights to go with it. Sometimes, it was just some cash from the plastic bag that was always hanging behind the counter. While he was gone, his guests would stare at the theatrical masks on the walls, try to make sense of the framed gondolas sliding through pastel sunsets, the strangely erotic quadrants of lace that he had pinned up too, in the name of building “character” into the place.
One of Nia’s long-term jobs was to conceive of a cosmetic makeover for Vesuvio, sort the decor out. Although it grieved Tuli to admit it, he knew it didn’t quite work, and she knew he wanted to give her a project that might prove satisfying. The dee-cor she would call it, only knowing this word from books she had read. It was an unexpected tic, to have these aberrations in fluency, even though she’d grown up with books around her, a tic that fascinated him. And he was usually ruthless in response.
“Sorry, but just checking, Nia—when I interviewed you, I had a sense that English was your first language, lah?” he said once, ramping his accent up the ladder of Southeast Asia with this emphasizing word he liked—lah!”—whenever she stubbed her toe on one of these boulders.
“Yes, but I didn’t grow up with ponces.”
“You grew up with whom exactly? The salt of the Welsh and Bengali earth?” A pitying look for her predicament.
“And you got yourself to Oxford by your bootstraps.”
“Yes, good, you’ve got the picture.”
“Because it’s not easy being a nurse’s daughter. Too busy keeping it real in the green grass of Wales?”
“I’d have thought you wouldn’t be obsessed with pronunciation like British people. Did they bother with that sort of thing when you were growing up in Singapore?”
“Oooh. Oooh!” And then, with naked joy, “Trying to analyze me, is it? Aren’t we fancy when we get on our high horse!”
And he got out this teddy bear he kept behind the bar—big, beige, nylon-furred thing the length of his forearm—and made it dance on the worktop while he hummed a melody for it.
Always, in these exchanges, Nia would throw something at him at this point: a scrunched-up crimson napkin, her ballpoint pen with the nib extended like a dart, or the whole notepad she used for taking orders, while his shoulders shook with silent laughter, hand over his heart as though, dear Lord, there was no way to contain it.
Excerpted from You People by Nikita Lalwani. Excerpted with the permission of McSweeney’s. Copyright © 2021 by Nikita Lalwani.