On a cold London evening in the middle of winter, Moses Aloetta takes a bus to Waterloo Station and waits to meet a man arriving from Trinidad. Moving through the foggy city, he cusses and laments the fact that he had to get out of bed and leave his warm apartment to meet Henry Oliver, a man who isn’t even a family member or friend, but rather somebody a mutual friend asked Moses to show around. Knowing what it feels like to arrive in an unknown city, Moses agreed to help Henry, but now he resents himself for having a “heart so soft that he always doing something for somebody and nobody ever doing anything for him.”
This book’s opening passage immediately establishes Moses as a role model and mentor to newly-arrived immigrants. The fact that Moses is “always doing something for somebody” tells readers that, whether he likes it or not, he has a soft spot for the immigrant community. And although he curses his friend for asking him to help Henry Oliver, it’s obvious that this isn’t the first time he has agreed to go out of his way to help a fellow expatriate.
Moses feels that he has hardly had any time to settle into his new life in Britain with all the people “coming straight to his room” upon arriving in London from the West Indies. These new arrivals claim that “so and so” has encouraged them to contact Moses, who helps them find jobs and places to live. To make matters worse, white Britons are beginning to complain about the steady influx of black immigrants, though the British are “too diplomatic to clamp down on the boys or to do anything drastic like stop them from coming to the Mother Country.” Each day, the newspapers run articles about the new arrivals, including one especially absurd piece claiming that West Indians think streets in London are paved in gold—a story many white people actually believed.
Once again, Moses is presented as a character upon whom other immigrants depend, a central figure in a rotating cast of new arrivals, all of whom need guidance. That he hardly has time to settle into his own life before he’s required to help others is an indication of how much people rely on one another in the immigrant community. Unfortunately, he himself doesn’t seem to have anybody to turn to, and his commitment to helping others is further complicated by the fact that England is becoming increasingly reluctant to welcome immigrants with open arms. As such, Moses not only has to struggle to help his new friends as he works to establish his own life, but he also has to contend with the ignorant and racist society in which he lives—a society that hides its bigotry under a guise of diplomacy.
The current immigration situation in London makes Moses nervous because most of the people coming over from the West Indies are, “real hustlers, desperate,” and when they show up needing his help, he finds himself unable to refuse. Although he himself struggles financially, Moses does what he can to help fellow immigrants, sending them to other helpful people throughout the city. As such, he becomes something of an unofficial “welfare officer,” “scattering the boys around the London” (not wanting a particular concentration of West Indians in “the Water,” which is his neighborhood).
In this moment, it becomes even more evident that Moses is worried about how the steady stream of immigrants into London will influence his own life—a life he’s built without the kind of guidance he’s now providing the next generation of immigrants. As such, his attitude toward helping his new peers is rather conflicted. On the one hand, he recognizes that their presence runs the risk of making his life harder in a city that is already rather unaccommodating to black immigrants. On the other hand, he perhaps feels a sense of duty to aid these “desperate” newcomers, since he knows what it’s like to be in their position. As a result, he helps them in a way that also benefits him, “scattering” them throughout the city so that they don’t encroach upon his life too much.
While waiting for Henry on the platform, Moses experiences a strange feeling of nostalgia and homesickness, one he’s never felt in the ten years he’s been living in London. “For the old Waterloo is a place of arrival and departure,” the narrator writes, “a place where you see people crying goodbye and kissing welcome, and he hardly have time to sit down on a bench before this feeling of nostalgia hit him and he was surprise.” Apparently, some immigrants living in London come to Waterloo on a regular basis just to reminisce about their own arrivals and see “familiar faces” descend from the train. Moses, though, never does this, not wanting to indulge this kind of nostalgia. Nonetheless, the station makes him feel “soft,” maybe because he’s “thinking [it] is time to go back to the tropics.”
This is an informative moment, as it shows readers how Moses handles nostalgia. That watching people “crying goodbye and kissing welcome” forces Moses to sit down suggests that something about the arrivals and departures makes him uneasy. Unlike so many other immigrants, who make frequent pilgrimages to the station, Moses tries to ward off this kind of nostalgia. In this moment, though, he’s unable to do so, a fact he attributes to the possibility that he wants to “go back to the tropics.” That he sees this desire as “soft” indicates that he normally tries to harden himself to the world, striving to live uninfluenced by the nostalgia he feels for his homeland.
Sitting on a bench in the station, Moses comes across Tolroy, a Jamaican friend who has sent for his mother to join him in London. Tolroy explains that he’s saved up money to bring his mother over and that he’s expecting her on the incoming train. “Ah,” Moses says, “I wish I was like allyou Jamaican. Allyou could live on two-three pound a week, and save up money in a suitcase under the bed, then when you have enough you sending for the family.” He says he’s unable to save any of the money he earns. The narrator describes another Jamaican man who, when he first came to London, opened a “club,” saved money, and bought a house. Before long, he had enough money to buy multiple houses, which he rented to newly arrived immigrants. And although many of these immigrants were his fellow countrymen, he made them pay full price.
When Moses expresses his jealousy of Tolroy’s frugality, readers begin to understand that he’s having trouble achieving financial stability, or at least upward mobility. Although Moses has been in London for a decade, he still barely makes enough money to cover the bare necessities of his life. The anecdote the narrator provides about the Jamaican contrasts starkly with Moses’s inability to save any money, but there’s a notable difference between Moses and this man: whereas Moses is willing (albeit begrudgingly) to help his fellow immigrants, this Jamaican man knowingly exploits his countrymen’s desperation, forcing them to pay full price on their apartments. In this way, Selvon suggests that achieving upward mobility in London requires a cold disposition, an attitude that enables a person to turn his back on those in need.
As Moses waits for the train, a reporter approaches and asks him if he’s just arrived from Jamaica. Lying, Moses says that he has indeed, and the reporter asks what the conditions are like there. Although he doesn’t know “a damn thing about Jamaica,” Moses—a Trinidadian man—says, “The situation is desperate,” referencing a (most likely fake) hurricane that the reporter claims to already know about. Switching gears, the reporter asks why so many Jamaicans are coming to London, and Moses assures him it’s because people can’t get good jobs in the West Indies. “Let me give you my view of the situation in this country,” he continues. “We can’t get no place to live, and we only getting the worse jobs it have—” but at this point, the reporter loses interest and turns away.
The reporter’s question in this scene reinforces the notion that white Britons are growing weary of the influx of black immigrants in the city. However, the reporter doesn’t actually care what Moses has to say, making it obvious that the question itself is more important than the answer. Indeed, simply by asking this question, the reporter turns the idea of immigration into a sensational headline, framing it as a problem without interrogating its nuances or origins. Uninterested in what Moses has to say, he dismisses him as soon as he begins talking about the unfair treatment of black immigrants in the city.
Moses is disappointed to lose the reporter’s interest, since he rarely gets the opportunity to express his ideas. Once, though, a reporter came to the railway yard while he was at work and took his picture because the other white employees were all threatening to quit unless the boss fired him (he was the only black worker). The article that ran said that the “colour bar was causing trouble again.” In response to this headline, Moses’s boss let him go, saying that he had to “cut down” the staff, though he didn’t fire anybody else.
Moses’s boss refuses to admit that he’s firing him because he’s black. This is a perfect example of the narrator’s previous assertion that Britons are too “diplomatic” to reveal their racism outright. Rather than leveling with Moses, the railway boss acts like he’s treating him as an equal. This ultimately makes things even more complicated for Moses, who’s forced to figure out for himself why he’s being let go. Of course, this “diplomatic” tactic does little to obscure the boss’s racism, but it does protect the boss from having to explain that he is a bigot, thereby enabling him to continue mistreating people like Moses without having to confront himself and his own unethical behavior.
Suddenly, Tolroy sees his mother coming off the train. To his surprise, she’s followed by his aunt, Tanty Bessy, and his relatives Lewis and Agnes, along with their two children. His mother explains that when he wrote to her saying how much money he makes each week, nobody in the family wanted to be left behind in Jamaica. “Oh God ma, why you bring all these people with you?” Tolroy complains, but Tanty immediately calls him “ungrateful,” and his mother reminds him that Tanty helped raise him as a child. “But ma you don’t know what you put yourself in,” Tolroy says. Just then, the reporter returns and starts talking to Tanty about why so many Jamaicans are coming to England.
Tolroy’s frustration with his mother is understandable in this moment, as it’s clear from Moses’s financial situation that surviving in London is quite difficult. Although Tolroy has somehow found a way to save money to support his mother, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to successfully provide for Tanty Bessy and the rest of the family. What’s more, the fact that Tanty and Ma refuse to listen to him illustrates the extent to which life in London appeals to people unfamiliar with the reality of living abroad. Indeed, Tanty and Ma have clearly underestimated how difficult it is to stay afloat in England, which is why they so eagerly throw themselves into Tolroy’s life without considering the possible negative consequences of abandoning Jamaica.
Tanty tells the reporter that Jamaicans come to London because there are more employment opportunities in England than in the West Indies. When he asks what she will do in the city, she says she came to look after her family. At this point, the reporter asks to take her picture, and Tanty tries to gather the family for a portrait, though the reporter tells her that just one of them will suffice. Still, she insists that the entire family pose, pulling out a straw hat and donning it for the photo. The next day, this photograph appears in the paper with the caption: “Now, Jamaican Families Come to Britain.”
Tanty’s notion that her family needs her to take care of them illustrates the extent to which she is unfamiliar with life in the city, where people like Moses and Tolroy spend very little time in their apartments to begin with, instead focusing on their jobs and surviving financially in the city. Indeed, life in Jamaica is much different from life in London, and Tanty’s rather off-base conviction that the family needs her only further reinforces Tolroy’s fear that his family members are perhaps unprepared for what life is really like in the city.
While Tolroy’s family poses for the photograph, Moses waits for Henry. When the young man finally appears on the platform, he’s wearing nothing but an “old grey tropical suit” with no “overcoat or muffler or gloves or anything for the cold.” He good-naturedly approaches Moses, greeting him warmly. When Moses asks if he’s cold, Henry says he isn’t, and expresses surprise that this is what the winter weather feels like—he’s even a bit warm. Moses doesn’t believe this, guessing that Henry must be wearing wool beneath his clothes, but Henry insists this isn’t the case. Moving on, Moses suggests they get his luggage and leave, but Henry tells him that he doesn’t have any luggage. He says he didn’t want to load up [himself] with a set of things,” he says.
Henry’s shocking unpreparedness builds upon the same kind of naivety that Tolroy’s family members—especially Tanty—exhibit upon arriving in London. To veteran immigrants like Moses and Tolroy, such behavior is outrageously out of touch with the harsh realities of living in London, a cold city where it’s difficult to survive. Ultimately, Henry’s lack of foresight and outlandishly high spirits only reinforce the importance of Moses’s position as the young man’s cultural guide and role model. After all, if Henry didn’t have Moses to rely upon, it seems he’d freeze to death before even finding a place to spend the night.
Moses can’t fathom the fact that Henry hasn’t packed anything except a toothbrush, and he’s even more astounded to learn that the young man didn’t even bring the full amount of money each immigrant is allowed to bring into the country. As the two men walk out of the station, Moses tells Henry that London will surely catch him by surprise. “Thus it was that Henry Oliver Esquire,” the narrator writes, “alias Sir Galahad, descend on London to swell the population by one.”
It’s worth noting here the significance of Henry’s alias, Galahad. A character from Arthurian legend, Sir Galahad is a knight of the round table who sets out to search for the Holy Grail, a meaningful object in Arthurian literature that represents—among other things—happiness, youth, and sustenance. As such, when Galahad “descend[s] on London to swell the population by one,” Selvon is suggesting that he is a seeker, a man looking for happiness and prosperity in a new city. At the same time, Selvon emphasizes that Galahad’s presence in the city is inconsequential—a single drop in a vast bucket.