Flags – Coco Khan
An extract from The Good Immigrant
One morning Coco Khan woke up next to a boy and surrounded by Union Jack flags. These are her thoughts on sex and self.
Letters, they were the key. As long as you could find a letter stating the address of the flat you’d found yourself in, you could call a taxi and sneak off without waking him, indeed without anyone ever knowing you’d been there.
That was a trick I learned with Felix – Felix with the peroxide hair so blonde it could (in the right light) appear to be a continuation of his porcelain skin. Blue-eyed Felix in the patent Dr. Martens and the MA1 jacket. I remember him distinctly: six-feet tall, ravenous roll-up smoker, aloof in demeanour but animated quickly by discussions about sculpture, which he was studying. I met him a few times, at various art shows – mutual friends, cursory chit-chat, nothing special.
When Felix and I eventually had sex, it was based on very little conversation. I like to imagine that it was my raw, potent animal power that did it – that the shirt with stains from breakfast made his heart skip a beat; that he watched me from across the room hovering around the canapé table and his loins stirred; that he once saw me pull up my ill-fitting jeans while balancing not just one, but two plastic cups of warm white wine and thought now that is a woman of true brilliance. But I suspect the free bar at the after-show party had something to do with it.
We had sex in the dark because the light bulb burst as soon as we switched it on. He offered to fix it but I said it didn’t matter. After, Felix slept soundly but I tossed and turned. As dawn broke, light began to filter into the room, and for the first time I came to see, to learn, something personal about him.
He had flags, lots of flags. Union Jack flags everywhere, all over the room. Reality had jolted and the world was vibrating from the impact. Suddenly, the room felt blindingly bright, and claustrophobically small. One flag was tacked to the door, another took the form of a desktop mug crammed full of pens. Hung up on the rails was a button-down Union Jack shirt that felt like it had been pulled from a costume cupboard and, to my alarm and bewilderment, the very bed we lay on – a red, white and blue striped spread.
Between the shock, confusion and increasing alcohol withdrawal, my body began to turn. Only a shrill ringing filled my ears now, while piercing shards of glass made themselves present inside my head. Who? Who? Who? I kept asking myself, Who is this person? Why wouldn’t he mention them, didn’t he know how they’d make me feel? Was that supposed to be a part of it? Is this a game, a fantasy, some imperial-themed kink that I didn’t know about?
The flags, the boots, the jacket – a terrifying thought began to dawn on me. A skinhead. He’s a skinhead, a stealth skinhead with hair. I thought he was an art student, that it was fashion not fascism …
I pulled the covers off my body, quietly and slowly, and after putting on my dress, I gathered up my belongings and left.
By the time I hit 16, I felt I had gleaned everything about relationships I possibly could have from my immediate surroundings. E12 was a working-class neighbourhood, mixed racially but with more South Asians than most, and despite being part of London, it had a distinctly small-town feel – comforting and suffocating in equal measures.
From the adults in my community, I learned that sex was something to steer clear of unless it was within marriage (or you knew how to keep it a secret). From the kids at school – mostly other brown kids like myself – I learned that sex was something to steer clear of, unless you were a boy (or you knew how to keep it a secret). From Bollywood, I learned that men with handlebar moustaches are evil, that men in white linen flares are good, and that women were damned if they do, and damned if they don’t, whatever the situation. In the background of all of this were the independent women of Destiny’s Child and the guiltless hedonism of Sex and the City, which we weren’t supposed to watch, but knew how to keep it secret.
Back then, I lacked confidence but felt at least that I was wise to the world. I was certain that, unlike many of my teenage friends who found themselves in difficult situations, I had a view of the bigger picture even though I’d had no practice. I understood men were allowed to be reckless and hurtful, but it was women who’d get the blame. It was always women who were made to hide. Strange how something so banal and everyday had become so powerful.
There was my best friend, Praveena, who, when she was 17, fell for an older man. He was 32 at the time, but she was young and naïve, not suspecting that this love could have been somewhat predatory. Praveena and the Predator had made a sex tape, which, in retrospect, should have been handed in to the police. Somehow this tape made its way into her brother’s possession – and then her father’s – and Praveena was told she would never be allowed out of the house unsupervised again until she was married.
For a long while, I would cover for Praveena and say she was studying at my house, when in fact we were out at some under- 18’s club night. Over the years, my own overprotective mother began to loosen up, and understood that I was a sensible girl who didn’t need constant monitoring – not least because I kicked up quite the fuss if I was. Soon, she began to cover for us too, answering the house phone and speaking to Praveena’s mum in Urdu – yes the girls are studying hard, very hard indeed.
I learned a lot from my mum. She came to the UK in an arranged marriage that was unhappy for many years. She divorced her husband, struggling to raise two children singlehandedly, and when she eventually found love, bore another child: me. My father didn’t work out, and he had the privilege of returning to his old wife, scar free. I only found out many years later quite how burdensome it had been for my mother – people, sometimes even close relatives, made her feel ashamed for falling in love, and, I suppose, unwittingly, for bringing me into this world.
Although she never publicly approved of Praveena, or later, me, I know she had a quiet sympathy – a sympathy for women who dared to take a chance.
‘I’ve decided to give it a go, this whole sex thing, I want to have a pop.’
I was talking to Stacey, my study buddy from Sixth-form College. Stacey was 18, and as fiery as her wavy red hair. She drove a distinctive purple Nissan Micra, which clashed marvellously with her appearance. She was always nipping around in that thing, getting speeding fines, making blowjob gestures at any rubberneckers at traffic nights. Stacey ended up dropping out of college when she fell pregnant. She and her entire family moved out of the neighbourhood before the baby was born – rumour had it, her boyfriend’s father had paid them to leave, to hide them away somewhere.
‘So where should I start?’
‘You don’t have to start, it just happens doesn’t it? You just have to let it.’
For Stacey, maybe that was true. I wasn’t – and never have been – the girl who walked into a room and made heads turn. I was always that little bit too short, too fat, too dark. Besides, I didn’t want sex to be something that just happened to me, like a tragedy.
‘Anyway, don’t you want it to be special?’
‘If I’m waiting for someone who is actually hot and awesome to just rock up and say they want me, I’m going to be waiting a while. Look, I don’t want to go to uni next month as a virgin – I’ll have my own place – I don’t want it hanging over me; get it over with so I can have some fun. Mate, I’m a safe-sex evangelist, I know what I’m doing. Honestly I’m not going to make the same mistakes as everyone else but I don’t see why I should miss out, life’s too short.’
‘Well, what about Sandeep? He’s cute, you said you liked him. You can borrow my car if you want, just make sure you don’t bring it back gross.’
‘Is it bad to say that I really hope I’m good? You know, in bed. I really hope I’m a natural. I mean, how am I supposed to know what to do?’
‘You don’t have to know. They know. You just follow their lead’
‘How do they know?’
‘They just do, don’t they? Dirty mags, I guess. And they talk, they’re always talking about shagging. Listen, you’ll be fine. Practice makes perfect.’
* * *
When I came back to London after university, I was cockier than ever. I’d learned a lot in those four years away. I’d learned how to flirt, how to party exceptionally hard, how to orgasm, and how to tell any man who was selfish, pressuring, or downright unwelcome to fuck off without a second thought.
I’d read a lot of books, fantastic books from heroic women who ventured into the darkest corners of humanity and returned with messages of equality and hope; working toward a day when sex would no longer be about power, about stealing something from someone else, but instead about shared joy. I wanted to have that joy in my life, on terms that suited me, and felt it was possible. I enjoyed my independence and my close female friendships; I wasn’t scared to grow attached to the right man and some chance dalliances did develop into more formal relationships. As for the rejections, well they were all part of growing as a person.
I had life in the bag. I’d laugh thinking about the younger me, curled up like a pretzel in a Nissan Micra, so threatened by the hard cock in my hand, whispering soothing nothings at it as though it were a wild animal that could attack me at any moment. And the laughs kept coming, for years. The nocturnal life – bars, clubs, parties – were already silly enough without the unexpected thrill of meeting someone. I took great pride in regaling my friends with female-focused bedroom tales, stories that had no doubt been around for millennia but never seen the light of day. How else were we going to make sex equally ours if we didn’t talk freely about it?
So I’m on top of this guy like a cowgirl champion. My belly’s there, it’s hanging out, and I’m like, swish-my-hair I don’t care. But then, I’m not even joking, I start to get vertigo, like actual AlfredHitchcock-James-Stewart spinning around like a Spirograph vertigo. Do you think too much wine can induce vertigo? Cowgirl, down! Dismount!
Then, one day, it was talking freely that changed everything.
‘So am I your first?’
‘Was I that bad?!’ I said laughing.
‘No no, I mean, white boy. Am I your first white boy?’ he grinned widely.
‘Afraid not. I’ve had all the races, and before you ask, yes they were all better than you.’
He smiled genuinely. ‘You’re my first. I’ve only ever been with white girls so I’m glad I have.’
I hadn’t thought a great deal about the colour of my skin, or theirs, but now I couldn’t get it off my mind.
Is that why they want me?
I asked myself that question every day for weeks and months after that, and not just about the white boys, but the black boys, and even Asians like me. At first, I ignored it. What was the big deal? How different was it really to any of the quick judgement calls we make on who we fancy? But I felt uneasy, and I couldn’t shake the feeling. I wondered if he went back to his friends and told the ‘I shagged an Asian girl’ story over the ‘I had a great time last night’ story.
I felt defeated.
I decided I had to take control of the situation. I tried for a while to wear it like a badge of honour, imagining myself as some kind of sexual crusader, breaking down stereotypes with the power of banging. I took it seriously, like it was the Olympics and my nation’s hopes rested on my shoulders. I took time to learn new sexy moves, and pulled many muscles attempting some impossible tantric pose that no modern human being could possibly do. On dates I would tolerate the vaguely insulting stereotypical questions, patiently answering, ‘No, I have never been promised to a man I’ve never met. Actually I can barely cook at all.’
Perhaps worse were the apologisers. The ones that were like, ‘I just want to check, is this okay with you?’ before watching an episode of Homeland.
Eventually, I couldn’t take any of it anymore.
The first time I was called a paki, I was at primary school. I must have been around seven years old – eight maybe – and I was in the lunch hall queuing for school dinner. Somehow, an argument had broken out between me and another girl in my class, Amy. We were arguing about something completely meaningless (as children will do) when it came out. I’m not sure if she even knew what she was saying; she looked surprised as the words passed her lips – ‘you are a paki’.
It was like time had stood still. Even at that age, I knew this was a step too far; up shot my hand, Miss! Miss! I called a dinner lady over. Now, this dinner lady was more a dinner nan; a grey-haired, older woman, who must have been hard of hearing because, when I told her that Amy had called me a paki, she replied in complete earnestness, in her thick East End accent, and said: she called you a packet? A packet of what, love?
After that, I didn’t hear the word again until I found it spray-painted on the side of our house: ‘Pakis go home, NF’. I always found it mildly amusing that they signed their name. Why? As though we wouldn’t know who it was? Just in case we mistook it for the racially themed high jinks we brown people were always up to.
Days later, my older brother and some of his friends frogmarched a scrawny, trembling white teenage boy to our house. He was the culprit and he was here to apologise.
‘It was a dare,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean it, I’m sorry.’
‘Let him go,’ said Mum. ‘Can’t you see he’s crying? He’s just a child.’
He couldn’t have been more than 13, he had those awkward teen proportions where the hands and feet are huge, but the rest of the body hasn’t caught up.
He was a skinhead but he wasn’t scary. Indeed, there was something strikingly clown-like about him – huge cherryred Dr Martens, strangely high-waisted trousers, braces, shirt buttoned up to the top. As he scooted off he turned back to me before he’d disappeared around the corner and, raising his arm, did a Nazi salute. Then, he was gone.
I didn’t expect to see Felix ever again, but he was hard to miss. He was tall, and his hair was unmistakable. He didn’t seem pleased to see me, but he did remember who I was, which was something. Maybe I was the only non-Aryan he lured back to his flag dungeon after all.
We exchanged courtesies, talked sculpture, he rolled up two cigarettes, put one behind his ear and held the other out to me, saying, ‘I can’t remember if you smoke or not.’
Outside, we sat on the curb and smoked. He joked that I could have left a note and I explained truthfully that his whole flag get-up was nothing short of terrifying.
‘As if you wouldn’t have just fucking stayed, and actually asked me about it.’ He paused, catching the expression on my face. ‘I do understand. I know the flag’s a bit, you know, sensitive, and maybe I should have said something. I’m sorry if I intimidated you. No, I definitely should have said something but hey, I was drunk and distracted by the hot girl in my room.’ He leaned over and bumped his shoulder against mine. ‘You know there wasn’t a moment when I was hanging those flags and I thought, Well I wonder what would happen if there was 128 FLAGS an Asian person in this room? To be honest I didn’t think there was going to be any girls in that room at all.’
‘So you’re not extremely right-wing with a Kryptonite for weird but-notably-babe-ish Asian girls that is secretly tearing you up inside?’
‘Ha, no. My dad was a punk in the 70s – and not a racist one – so we always had flags in our house. I brought them to the flat because they remind me of home, that’s all.’
A queue was beginning to form at the door now. The bar was getting busier, the music sounding louder and louder each time the door swung open.
‘I guess I should apologise too maybe. I’m sorry I didn’t give you the chance to explain. I had this really weird experience a few months before we hooked up where this dude basically told me he was happy that I was Asian and it really freaked me out –’
‘– I don’t know, did he want me to be grateful or something, that he chose me? Did it make him feel better about himself that he was a cool, right-on guy? You know, I just want to have some fun, while I’m young and I don’t have a mortgage or kids or whatever, but there’s always something, some bullshit thing, that turns whatever could just be really cool, into something horrible. And you know, I do want to keep meeting people and having fun, whether it’s a one-off thing or something more, I’m open to what life wants to give me. But that comment, it’s just ruining it for me. I’m always thinking, does this person actually want me or am I a brown-shaped thing that will do? It’s a real mood-killer to say the least. I wish I could just find a way to know for sure’
‘Can I make a suggestion?’
‘Is your suggestion getting a taxi and going back to your punk palace, because if it is, I’m up for it?’
‘Ah see, I don’t think my girlfriend will like that very much. But, I was going to say, why don’t you try talking to the guys, getting to know them for real-’
‘I’ve tried that and it’s even worse, so many stupid, shitty questions-’
‘Well then, don’t keep talking to them if they’re douchebags. If you want to engage ’cos they’re nice but a bit daft then cool but if you don’t want to, then don’t. It’s not your job to try and correct everything. We should go inside, the bouncer is getting angry.’
‘No, I think I’m going to go home. Would you be really offended if I said I hope I never see you again?’
‘Because you’re great and I feel annoyed at myself for disappearing.’
His eyes smiled. ‘Okay, well tell you what, I’ll disappear now, and we’re even. Just make sure you remember what I said.’
I gathered up my handbag and put on my coat slowly, watching him as he put out his cigarette. He shook my hand, formally like at the end of a job interview, and with a perfunctory ‘yes, sir’ nod clicked his heels together theatrically. He walked through the entrance and turning back just before the door closed behind him gave me a wink. Then, he was gone.
Extracted from The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla (Unbound £14.99).