While Meena is sitting on the steps in front of her house, Anita Rutter walks by. She shows Meena leaves where butterflies lay their eggs and throws a naked branch at Meena’s legs. Although the branch stings, Meena understands this as a test and does not try to protect herself. Anita then asks Meena what candy she has and, when Meena shows her, Anita grabs the bag and begins walking, asking Meena if she plans on following her. Meena remembers that this is the first day of her six-week summer holiday and decides to follow her.
Anita has previously tried to test Meena’s credulity by telling her about her father on Mr. Ormerod’s poster, and she now tries to test Meena’s physical resistance and loyalty. This foreshadows Anita’s frequent use of abuse and violence in her relationships. It also serves as an indication that Anita herself might suffer from abuse, and therefore does not find it unusual to use it on other people.
Meena follows Anita from a certain distance, knowing that it is an honor merely to be in the older girl’s presence. Anita always rules over everyone and has a group of smaller kids who follow her around everywhere, though her most regular friends are Fat Sally, a shy girl from an upper-class background, and Sherrie, the farmer’s daughter. When Anita and Meena reach one of the alleyways (called “entries”) leading to a communal dirt yard behind the cottages, Anita turns into the one closest to the Christmases’ house.
Following Anita from a distance will become a pattern throughout the novel, symbolic in its implications. It suggests that Anita only accepts relationships in which she is able to lead and control others. In this way, it also reveals Anita’s rejection of true vulnerability: she will never be able to let others bridge the emotional distance she establishes between the world and herself. This protects her from potential harm, but also prevents her from benefiting from true connection.
Meena explains that Mrs. Christmas has cancer and is likely to die. Meena then realizes that she has not seen Mrs. Christmas in a long time, since back when Meena was in charge of knocking on people’s doors to ask if they would donate anything to the Spring Fayre, which could then be sold. At the time, Meena knew that people were disappointed to see her knock on their door instead of Uncle Alan, a youth leader from the Methodist church whom everyone finds incredibly charming. However, that day, when Mrs. Christmas saw Meena, she gave the girl a large pile of clothes, saying that she wouldn’t need them where she was going. Meena noticed how delicate the fabrics were, and the colors were more delicate than her mother’s vividly colored clothing. Mrs. Christmas was kind with Meena, offering her a piece of candy and waving at her as she walked away.
Mrs. Christmas’s warm attitude toward Meena makes the young girl feel truly appreciated and welcomed in the community. Mrs. Christmas’s willingness to get rid of most of her clothes shows that she knows she is soon going to die and that she no longer needs material possessions.
Meena is about to ask Anita if she has seen Mrs. Christmas recently when Anita suddenly runs down the entry, yelling as fast as she can, generating echoes all along the walls. Anita then tells Meena to do the same. Meena does, finding this activity liberating, as though she has always wanted to evacuate such screams. However, at that very moment, Mr. Christmas emerges from his house, furious.
Meena’s concern with Mrs. Christmas’s well-being contrasts starkly with Anita’s utter disregard for others, as she focuses exclusively on her own selfish whims, oblivious to the rest of the community. At the same time, Meena appreciates the freedom she feels with Anita. These mixed positive and negative elements will remain central to Meena’s relationship with Anita.
Mr. Christmas yells at the girls, telling them that his wife Mrs. Christmas is sick and needs peace and quiet. He threatens to tell the girls’ mothers about what has happened. Meena, who feels as though she has already gotten in enough trouble for one day, begs him not to. In addition, she knows that being told off by a white neighbor is, to her mother, an insult to India in general. Mama always says that the family needs to behave impeccably, so that people might not be given the chance to think of them in even worse ways than they already do.
Although Meena has not yet experienced direct racism personally, she already knows that people might see her in a different way than she sees herself. This awareness of her difference from white people reinforces her feeling of exclusion from certain aspects of English culture. It highlights the social and emotional burden that immigrant communities bear, as they are forced to deal with people’s pre-existing racist stereotypes and hostility.
Meena tries to get Anita to apologize as well, but Anita merely says that she doesn’t care if Mr. Christmas tells her mother, Deirdre, about this. Meena considers such behavior treason and is shocked to then hear Anita call Mr. Christmas a “soft old sod.” Disgusted, Mr. Christmas makes an ironic comment about how nice Meena’s new friends are, before slamming the gate and turning up the TV.
Anita’s lack of solidarity with Meena serves as an early indication that she will always be more interested in following her own desires than in listening to her friend. Her defiance of traditional behavior toward adults also reveals the gap in the two girls’ upbringings, as Meena is used to respecting her parents.
A few minutes later, when Meena and Anita reach Anita’s house, Meena sees Tracey, Anita’s sister, a pale, weak-looking child, the complete opposite of her sister. Tracey says that their mother Deirdre is not home yet. Hairy Neddy, their neighbor—a man who used to be covered in facial hair—tells them that Deirdre must have gone shopping.
Deirdre’s absence reinforces the idea that Anita probably benefits from little adult guidance and discipline. It also introduces the theme of neglect, as the two girls learn to be self-sufficient—which they will later have to do permanently, when Deirdre abandons her family.
Hairy Neddy is the only bachelor in the village and Meena recounts an anecdote when his musical band tried to drive away with their various instruments but could not find a way to fit them all in the car. Neighbor and divorcee Sandy then gave Hairy Neddy one of her stockings, explaining that they were extra-long and might help. This confused Hairy Neddy, although the stockings did succeed in tying together the instruments, keeping them from falling out of the car. From that moment on, Sandy tried to seduce Hairy Neddy, her neighbor, though she gave up when Hairy Neddy failed to reciprocate.
The fact that Meena knows so much about the relationship between Sandy and Hairy Neddy reveals the extent to which gossip in the village allows everyone to know the personal details of their neighbors’ lives. Although this particular anecdote is not necessarily harmful, people’s judgments of their neighbors’ private lives contributes to the tensions in Tollington, which creates rival social groups. Cultural differences are not the only potential factor for exclusion in the community.
Meena describes the village’s atmosphere, noting that adults sometimes get into vicious fights. She explains that showing pain only demonstrates vulnerability, thus inviting greater violence. In contrast with her mother’s sentimental attitude, which is bound to pity others, Meena knows that she sometimes needs to use violence against other children to keep from being bullied. Meena realizes, though, that Tracey is infinitely more scared and vulnerable than she is.
Meena’s understanding of relationships among children as potentially tinged with violence serves as an introduction to the violent events she will later witness. Tracey’s shyness and vulnerability also foreshadows Meena’s later discovery that the young girl is probably being sexually abused. Tollington is not as peaceful as it might appear.
Deirdre soon arrives, wearing high heels and a very tight sweater. Meena notices that it looks as though Deirdre has been running, because she is sweaty and her mascara has run a little bit. When Anita asks her mother what she was doing, Deirdre says she was shopping, although she has no bags with her. Deirdre then says that she was only window shopping and asks the girls if they want fish fingers for dinner. Both Anita and Meena are excited, because Meena knows that it is customary to invite the children’s friends for dinner, and she enjoys these opportunities for socializing like grown-ups do. However, after Deirdre opens the door and looks at Meena confusedly, Anita simply tells Meena “See you tomorrow” and closes the gate.
In light of what later happens in the novel, it is easy to interpret Deirdre’s explanation that she went shopping as a lie, meant to hide her affair with another man—as her runny mascara and seductive clothing seem to confirm. Anita’s family’s failure to invite Meena over underlines that they do not follow traditional social norms—and are, in that sense, separate from the rest of the community. This also explains Anita’s frequently rude behavior and lack of generosity, as she has not grown up in a family that upholds such values.
Meena is thus forced to walk home, wondering if she behaved in the wrong way. On her way home, she passes by Sam Lowbridge’s house. Sixteen-year-old Sam is considered Tollington’s rebel, as he already has a criminal record and scares the little children. However, he has always been polite and kind to Meena. His mother, Glenys, is the town’s oldest single parent. When Meena passes in front of their house, Glenys, who looks much older than her age because she smokes so much, asks her if she has seen Sam, but Meena says she hasn’t. Glenys says she needs to play bingo and asks Meena to tell her if she sees Sam later.
In the same way that elements of Anita’s behavior make sense in light of her family dynamics, Sam’s behavior also appears connected to his family life. Glenys’s smoking and comment about bingo suggests that she might be addicted to harmful habits. Her ignorance of her son’s whereabouts also indicates that she has little control over Sam’s actions. These details highlight a negative side of youthful rebellion, fueled by frustration and the absence of a rich family life. This contrasts with Meena’s more innocuous desire to be outside and take part in exciting activities.
When Meena reaches her house, she sees her mother at the Bike Shed, a small shed in their backyard (next to the outdoor toilet) that they use as storage, though they have no bikes. Mama yells to Mrs. Worrall, their kindly neighbor who shows much interest in Meena, that she has found what she was looking for. Meena has wondered in the past if Mrs. Worrall is childless, but her mother explained that Mrs. Worrall has children who live very far away. Mama then added that she did not understand English family relationships, in which children strive for independence and soon abandon their parents. Meena enjoys these speeches, because they make her feel as though her future and her family life are more special and loving than everyone else’s.
Meena’s mother’s comments about English families seemingly confirm the lack of closeness that Meena has noticed in Anita and Sam’s families. However, this comment remains a generalization, based on cultural differences and the dynamics Meena’s family sees in Tollington. The fact that Meena lives in a house with an outdoor toilet and no bikes suggests that her parents are probably from a humble economic background. This highlights the fact that family happiness has little to do with one’s socio-economic situation.
Mama walks to Mrs. Worrall, giving her an old vase. Meena says that she is hungry but refuses the Indian food her mother offers her, asking for fish fingers instead. Mama then focuses on her daughter, gently asking her why she stole money and lied to her father, but Meena stubbornly answers that she didn’t lie, even though she knows that her parents have already discussed what happened. Although Meena feels confused by her own obstinate behavior, she concludes that she has had the best day of her life, as she has spent time with her new friend Anita.
Meena’s desire to eat fish fingers derives from having seen Anita—whose behavior she admires—eat fish fingers with her family. It also highlights Meena’s frustration with knowing that she is a foreigner and her desire to fit into traditional English society. Meena’s awareness that her obstinate lying is ridiculous suggests that she does not necessarily want to behave in a bad way, but that she sometimes cannot control her instinctual reactions.
After mama walks back into the house, Mrs. Worrall asks Meena if she would like to help her out with cooking. Meena has seen Mrs. Worrall’s kitchen countless times but has never entered her house. Meena knows that her mother must be surrounded by boiling vegetables and the fresh smell of spices at the moment, preparing a meal that her father desperately needs after his day at the office, which he never talks about. Usually, as soon as Meena’s mother leaves school, where she teaches, she goes into the kitchen to spend time cooking rich Indian meals. Mama has tried to teach Meena how to cook, but Meena always proves disinterested.
The contrast between Mrs. Worrall’s mysterious kitchen and Meena’s mother surrounded by spices highlights the cultural differences between the two families. Despite growing up in Britain, Meena—like her parents—considers rich, spicy food typical of home, while British food, however bland, is exotic and mysterious. Meena’s attitude toward food mirrors her ambiguous feelings about her identity.
Mrs. Worrall tells Meena that she is making jam tarts, which her husband, Mr. Worrall, loves. Meena accepts to join her. She has never made pastry but soon finds the process fun, as she sees the dough turn into small tartlets. Meena hears moaning from the other side of the kitchen door, and Mrs. Worrall tells her to go say hello to her husband. Meena sees Mr. Worrall sitting in a chair in a living room that smells unaired, in addition to the faint smells of medicine and pee. Mr. Worrall is visibly very sick and unable to communicate, looking straight ahead with surprised eyes and moaning incoherently.
Meena’s help in the making of jam tartlets serves as an image of her participation in typical British life. Mrs. Worrall’s attitude demonstrates that she wants Meena to feel welcome and cherished. The distressing appearance of Mrs. Worrall’s husband reveals how little people actually know about each other’s private lives, despite the omnipresence of village gossip. The actual details of people’s struggles remain out of public view.
As Meena gets ready to leave, she realizes that Mrs. Worrall is courageous to take care of such a sick husband. She concludes that, unlike what her mother says, not all the English are selfish. Rather, the Tollington women often demonstrate a sense of endurance and resignation that reminds Meena of some of the Aunties’ attitudes toward their children or their jobs. On her way out, after taking a lemon curd pie, Meena hesitates and yells goodbye to Mr. Worrall. Mrs. Worrall then leads her out the door.
Meena realizes that stereotypical assumptions about people are just as wrong when they target foreigners as when they target locals. Thanks to her sharp critical judgment, Meena is able to grasp the similarities that exist between people’s behaviors, despite their cultural differences. She concludes that people should be judged by their actions, not by their identity or appearance.