All The Colours Of The Rainbow
Alison Carter’s compelling complete story set in Wales in the Sixties welcomes you to our brand-new Special.
A period story by Alison Carter
PALVINDER BHANDAL opened up her wardrobe and surveyed its contents. On the left were two sets of sensible skirts and shirts in restrained colours, the things she’d worn when she worked on the assembly floor, hidden beneath a brown cotton overall. Then came her current work outfits – smart, silky blouses, and two skirts with matching jackets. These were for her supervisor job.
Finally came her Punjabi suits. Palvinder had brought them from London to Deeside, unable to talk herself into leaving them. Yellows, pinks and reds fought for dominance with purples, greens and peacock blue, each dupatta scarf draped over a hanger to match its kameez and shalwar. The silks glowed.
Palvinder frowned. Nothing was right for this evening. For . . . what was it? A trip out with a senior colleague to talk about her progress? A date?
Clive Neill hadn’t specified where they’d go, or what they’d be doing. All she knew was that her boss had asked her to go to Chester with him.
Palvinder had barely been out since arriving to take her job at Rainbow Appliances. A visit to a pub with the girls on the floor had been her only social event, and that had been awkward. The women were kind enough, and tried to be welcoming, but she felt different. Since her promotion, she’d mainly stayed in and read novels.
Clive arrived in a blue sports car. He climbed out of it slowly, held out a hand to her and led her to the passenger side as though she were a queen. “It’s a Triumph Fury,” Clive told her. “It looks like a big blue dolphin,” Palvinder replied. Clive laughed loudly. “Excellent,” he said. “It goes a treat with that stunning outfit of yours.”
Palvinder felt relief. She had opted, in the end, for one of her shalwar kameez. In for a penny, as she told herself, in for a pound. If she was going to get the tone wrong, why not go the whole hog and stand out like a sore thumb? But he liked it. “Where are we going?” she asked bravely. “For a bit of dinner. I love Chester – after the industrial sprawl that you and I inhabit.”
He made it sound as though they were equal at work, though she was a supervisor working shifts and he owned the place.
“I don’t want to sound awkward,” he said as the car purred into motion, “but I’d like to get your name right; the pronunciation.”
She smiled. People sometimes avoided using her name in case they got it wrong. Those who were civil to her, that is. There were others who called her insulting names because of the colour of her skin. “As it’s written,” she said. “Pal-vind-er.” “Super,” Clive replied. “I’d love to know about where you hail from. I’m the curious type.” He steered expertly round a corner. “I’m also a bit of a globetrotter. Talk to me about your homeland.”
“I came over with my parents in nineteen forty-eight,” she said. “I was ten.”
“Giving away your age there,” Clive said, laughing.
He was really very charming – not the frowning figure who sometimes observed the floor from the walkway above.
“I recall a mixture of fear and excitement,” she went on as they drove, “though I imagine it was more difficult for my parents. My father had been in the police force. Many Punjabi men from the Forces ended up emigrating, looking for an easier life.” “Jolly pleased you came,” he said, smiling. “We sailed in warm weather, but landed at Tilbury Docks in cold drizzle. I was fascinated.”
They stopped at traffic lights, and Clive wound down the window and hailed a passing pedestrian. “Mike!” The man hurried over. “Clive! Can’t stop, but –” “This is Palvinder,” Clive interrupted. “Gosh, I didn’t see . . .” The man stopped, took in the emerald silk draped across her shoulder and the toffee brown of her skin.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said eventually. The lights changed. “Got to go,” Clive called as Mike stepped back to the pavement.
They went to a bar in the centre of Chester, where Clive met at least five people he knew and introduced Palvinder. There were cocktails before dinner. He took her arm everywhere and held open every door.
Later, Palvinder unlocked the door of her digs, feeling that she’d been well and truly charmed.
THERE were two new employees due to start the next morning, and Palvinder went through her mental checklist. It was best to be on top form every day, all the time.
“Jenny, have the new staff arrived?” she asked an older woman. Jenny grinned. “The new man’s arrived. The girls are giving him the once over.”
The once over meant a good teasing. The staff here was over half female, and any new man went through an initiation ritual of ribbing. Women got their own version – queries about their love life, mostly.
Palvinder had not been subjected to these. They’d stood back from her, politer than usual (as she had learned later), had slowly circled until they found that she was like them, then relaxed.
She hurried to find the new employee, who was a Scot. He was sandy haired, big and broad shouldered, which was a relief as there was never enough muscle in the loading bays.
“Say that again, Jock,” one of the younger women was saying. “Say ‘I doon’t knoo’.” The man frowned. “I’m Angus. Angus Gunn.” The girls shrieked with laughter. “Och aye the noo,” Helen Symes said, laughing. “Auld lang syne, laddie.”
“Morning, Helen,” Palvinder said, and the group turned.
“Had a nice time in Chester?” Deirdre Smith was older, a Rainbow veteran. “News travels fast, love.” A giggle rippled round the group. Deirdre ushered the girls away, and
Palvinder was entranced by rich, handsome Clive’s attentions, but was he everything he seemed?
Palvinder raised her clipboard. “Mr Gunn, isn’t it?” “Angus, yes.” “Well, we’ll show you the ropes. Then we’ve a load of orders waiting to clear the floor. It says here that you have fork-lift experience?”
Angus was a quick learner. He also listened – a skill that was rare.
“What brings you to Deeside?” Palvinder asked. “Where are you from?”
“Dumbarton,” he said. “I came south because . . .” He paused. “I wanted a change.”
He took the overall she offered, the largest the stores had.
“Thanks,” he said. “Were you born here? In this country, I mean.”
Palvinder was taken aback. People usually skirted round the issue of her origins. “I’ve been here since I was ten.” “And you’re how old?” How blunt he was. “I’m twenty-six,” she said, seeing no reason not to answer. He looked down at her. “It’s harder to tell someone’s age when they’re from a different race, don’t you think?” He grinned. “Maybe all Scottish men look the same to the English – hair like Rob Roy?”
“Um, I don’t know. Look, both of us ought to get on.” He buttoned up the overall. “Sorry. I put people off, the way I talk. I’ve a big mouth.” Palvinder looked at him. “I wasn’t put off. It’s just that it’s nearly nine o’clock.”
She watched him stride away towards where Jenny stood beckoning. He went with his head a little bowed, and Palvinder wondered if that was because he was so tall, or because – in some way – he was sad.
CLIVE was keen to see her again. “You looked stunning the other night. Do you have other outfits like that?” “Shalwar kameez? Several.” “Why don’t I cook? My house, seven on Saturday night.”
Palvinder was surprised, when she arrived, to find six other guests waiting in the dining-room. Six white faces, three of each gender, smiled politely at her.
“Palvinder works with me,” Clive said. “Isn’t she fabulous?”
Palvinder blushed. A drink was put in her hand, and soon Clive was leading her about the room.
“Her family is Punjabi; she’s lived in London, and now she can almost claim she’s Welsh! Wonderfully exotic.”
“You have to tell us more about your journey,” he said as they ate.
Six faces turned towards her. Palvinder felt a little as though she were on show, but Clive smiled encouragingly.
“Well, it was nineteen forty-eight when we ended up in an immigrant camp in a basement near Selfridges.”
“I bet that was upsetting,” Clive said, looking round the group. “Living rough beside a store crammed with things to buy.”
“I suppose back then there wasn’t much in Selfridges to buy, even if I’d known what it was. We were divided up, girls and boys.” Clive sighed. “I hope our attitude to visitors is more civilised these days.”
“We got rooms in London after a week or so, and then my father walked all over the city looking for work.”
“And you children drew comments?”
“It was natural.” Palvinder shrugged.
“When they learned I was Indian, they expected a Red Indian. After I began school, I changed my accent fast,” she went on.
Clive’s hand was on her arm. “You shouldn’t have had to do that.”
Later Palvinder wasn’t completely sure, as she thought about the evening, if it had been nice to be the centre of attention or unsettling. But Clive told her on the phone the next morning that she was a huge hit.
“They adored you.” Palvinder blinked. Had there been time to become adored?
THE following Friday Palvinder was coming out of the factory when she noticed the new man, Angus, heading in the opposite direction. Jenny and the girls called to him. “You’ll come for a beer or two, Jock?” “I’m tired,” he said. “Come on!” Jenny yelled. “We’ll wake you up!” She saw Palvinder. “The boss here will buy. It’s a new employee’s traditional treat!”
Was it? Palvinder felt she couldn’t say no, but she was expecting a call from Clive that evening. He had mentioned dinner on Saturday.
The pub was busy, and the next hour was mainly spent trying to hear shouted conversations and see through the smoke.
Angus, opposite Palvinder across three tables, listened, but stayed apart from the rest.
He had a mild face, but there was something in his movements which hid emotion. The factory girls didn’t
seem attracted to him.
“They aren’t impressed by Angus,” Jenny told Palvinder. “He doesn’t have the gift of the gab.”
“Far from it,” Bette added. “He’s no subtlety. When Margot asked him if her colour and set was nice, he said she was ruining her hair!” Jenny nodded. “The young ones don’t like that. They like a man to make them feel good.”
Palvinder knew that the next evening she was likely to be in the company of a man who knew how to do that more than most.
It was a cold night, and when the bus failed to arrive, Angus suggested they both walk.
“I go the same way as you,” he said matter-of-factly.
“The company would be nice,” Palvinder said politely. “I’m no conversationalist.” Palvinder frowned. “You seem quiet,” she agreed. “Everything all right?” He laughed. “I’m an open book, aren’t I? Can’t hide a thing.”
“I’m your supervisor. Maybe you’d work better with whatever it is off your chest.” He smiled. “You don’t want to hear about me.”
“I do,” Palvinder said, and at that moment it felt true.
“I came south to escape,” he explained. “Nothing new – the usual tale of a bloke dumped, needing to get away and start afresh. Why did I always speak my mind, she wanted to know. She wanted to be wooed or something.” He sighed. “I told her she was the one for me, but she needed to know why. She wanted glamour and mystery.”
Palvinder thought of Clive. The glamour, the way he wooed her – it was certainly welcome.
“Oh, I live here,” she said, stopping. They were standing below a street lamp. The lines of his jaw and cheek were lit by its yellow glow. Palvinder saw in his uncomplicated face a kind of beauty. “Goodnight,” he said. Palvinder walked up the path, and as she turned her key, she felt his eyes on her.
Palvinder went out with Clive often.
“I confess I’m showing you off,” he said one evening at his club in Chester. “Not many chaps get to have a girl like you on their arm.”
He’d just given Palvinder a beautiful set of bangles.
Later, he kissed her in the lobby of the club as people came and went. It felt public, but Clive laughed at her shyness.
“I like making other chaps jealous.”
“I’m just off to powder my nose,” Palvinder said.
“I’ll wait. There’s a man I want to see you. I mean, a man I want you to meet.”
When she returned to the lobby Clive was deep in conversation with a very fat, red-faced man. Palvinder hesitated beside a pillar. Clive was being expansive, waving his hands.
He kept talking, and Palvinder held back, not wanting to interrupt. Business, she knew, had sometimes to mix with pleasure.
The fat man stepped nearer to her pillar and collapsed into a chair. Palvinder decided that it would be embarrassing to pop out suddenly from behind a pillar, so she waited.
“She’s a corker,” Clive was saying, and Palvinder blushed. “Indian. She wears saris and all of that.”
“I bet Geoff Easton is impressed,” the man said. Clive chuckled. “I showed her to old Geoff last week. He was green with envy. He’s with some bland local girl – nothing special.”
“You’re something,” the man said. “I liked the look of the one you had in the summer. Six feet if she was an inch. Old Geoff couldn’t take his eyes off her. From . . . where was it?”
“North Africa somewhere. Very tall girls in North Africa. You know I’m liberal when it comes to this sort of thing, and I think it gives me an edge.”
“I’m all for it, Clive, having an exotic on your arm. As long as they’re happy to be decorative.” Clive laughed. “She gets wined and dined regular as clockwork. Jewellery gifts, the lot. She works for me at Rainbow. The company’s as open-minded as I am, Maurice! And I do love it when curtains twitch – I enjoy disapproval.”
“You’re quite the cosmopolitan.”
“That’s the word. Actually, it’s more convenient, too. She’ll go off and marry her own kind in the end.”
Palvinder didn’t stay to hear more. She skirted the edge of the hall and ran into the street. It was cold and her coat was draped over Clive’s arm, but she wasn’t going back.
She found her way to the bus station and thankfully there was a final bus back home.
Sitting hunched in her seat as the tears flowed, Palvinder thought angrily about how naïve she had been, mistaking selfishness and superficiality for genuine interest. The only thing he wanted was someone exotic to adorn his ego. She was a temporary bit of tinsel.
IT began to rain as Palvinder climbed off the bus. A few people she recognised from Rainbow came out of a coffee shop.
Just behind the main group was the large figure of Angus. He had completed his training, she remembered, and was beginning with a week of late shifts. She’d handed him a time sheet and they’d had a chat about the complexity of the form. He’d said some choice things about company bureaucracy and made her laugh.
Palvinder ducked across the road to avoid meeting them all, but it was almost as though Gunn sensed her presence, and he crossed, too. “Miss Bhandal,” he said. His voice was soft. She had been focusing ahead, but the sound made her stop and suddenly he was beside her. “You’re unhappy.” The simple words, without the small talk that would normally have come first, were too much for her and she burst into tears. He wrapped his arms around her until she barely felt the rain. Palvinder had no idea how long they stood like that, but when she disentangled herself, she saw water running down his neck, and hair plastered to his skull.
“You listened to me,” he said, leading her home without waiting for her to speak. “Now it’s my turn.”
Palvinder told him everything. He didn’t comment; he didn’t interrupt her with platitudes or encouraging lies.
“I’ve been the biggest fool,” she said finally. “I’ve been paraded and gawped at, and the man who arranged it all doesn’t care about me one bit. He said I was fascinating.”
She looked up at Angus, who sat opposite her on a stool, his elbows on his knees. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had just waited while she talked.
“I don’t know what that means,” he said.
“He made me feel I was the most extraordinary person in the world.”
“Nobody’s the most extraordinary person in the world,” he said. “At least, it’s statistically very unlikely.”
She laughed in spite of her distress.
“You are funny,” she said. “I’ve never met someone so plain-spoken. Wasn’t the girl you loved in Scotland extraordinary? Didn’t you find yourself under a spell?” She looked at the worn carpet.
He frowned, and shook his head.
“I don’t think I’m capable of being fascinated by women. I suppose I have no romance in me.”
Palvinder saw his chest rise and fall slowly.
“I loved Kirsty. That’s all I said because it was all I had to say. I wanted her to be beside me always. I was attracted to everything about her and I thought she loved me.”
Palvinder stared back at him. Her breath seemed to have been taken away by what he said.
“I can’t say what’s not in my heart. She wanted more.”
Palvinder reached across the space between them and took his hand. For a moment they sat there, but then he stood, his tall f igure f illing the space in the tiny room, a presence that was comforting but also powerful. He pulled her to her feet, looking all the while into her eyes, and kissed her.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t know about the preamble.”
“I don’t think Kirsty was listening,” Palvinder replied. She was astonished by what was unfolding, but certain that it was all right.
“Let’s not talk about Kirsty,” he said. “People like me – people who only know how to speak their mind – they live in the here and now.”
“That’s fine,” Palvinder replied, before they kissed again.