‘Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime’ – Herbert Ward
I remember it well. The day when I first saw her on the TV screen a few years ago. I was watching the news with Bill and there was some article about politics, I can’t recall what exactly, but there she was. “That’s Pritti!” I exclaimed, pointing.
“Which one?” asked Bill looking up from his mobile.
“Her there, to the right of the prime minister.”
He looked. “Yeah, she is quite pretty,” he replied.
“Not ‘pretty’, Pritti. Pritti Dhatt, that girl I was mates with at school!”
“He looked up more attentively this time. “Jesus love, you’re right, that’s Pritti! You can still recognise her! Bloody hell, to think that she’s there with the government! Wonder what she’s doing there?”
So did I but by this time the news had moved onto the story of an alligator snatching a child in Florida so I never found out.
Seeing her though, made me think back to the time when we first met. It was in the playground at Meadows Primary and she was standing all alone by the beech tree, immaculate in her new uniform.
“Are you new here?”
She nodded. “I’m in Miss Wilcox’s class.”
“So am I; we were told that there’d be a new girl joining us this morning, but I had a dentist’s appointment so I missed you coming. Don’t you have no friends yet?”
She shook her head.
“No problem, I’ll be your friend if you like. Me name’s Vicky.”
“I’m Pritti,” she replied.
And true to my word, I became her friend. None of the others would because she was new and brown but I didn’t care. We sat together in class and held hands in the playground. True, she helped me with my schoolwork – she was dead clever even back then – but then I helped her ingratiate herself with the other kids and stood up for her when the bullies came which, at the beginning, was frequently.
“Can you smell something around here?”
It was one of the Year 6 boys. His mate sniffed theatrically. “Curry, yeah, definitely curry. Smells like one of them dirty Pakis!”
“But it can’t be! Pakis aren’t allowed round here,” replied his mate. “This is a clean school!”
“Then what is that thing over there?”
“I’m not a Paki,” Pritti had replied.
“What was that? Fuck me, it speaks English!”
“Well, if you aren’t a Paki, then what are you ‘cos you definitely look and smell like one!”
“I’m a Sikh.”
“You’re sick? Well, that definitely explains the smell. But are you sick of being a Paki, eh?”
I couldn’t stand anymore, even if they were in the year above us. “No Simon Baker and Nick Braithwaite, you’re the sick ones! What are you picking on her like that for? She hasn’t done nothing ‘gainst you!”
“And who are you? Her bodyguard?”
“Or her support worker?”
“No, I’m her friend and I don’t like people picking on my mates!”
“Oh don’t you? And what are you gonna do about it? Tell the teacher?”
“No, tell me mum who is mates with your mum Simon Baker and who knows yours and all Nick. I shouldn’t like to imagine the bollocking that you’ll both get when I get me mum to go round your houses and tell ‘em both as you two are both bullies and racists.”
“They wouldn’t give a toss.”
“We was only joking anyway, having a laugh like.”
“Well why not have a laugh about someone else as isn’t one of my mates?”
We stayed friends throughout primary school and on into high school, although by that time Pritti had learned to look after herself and the racism had stopped. Looking back, I guess she changed in other ways too, although at the time I never noticed it, or at least, not until around Year 9 when she suddenly transformed from a girl into a woman and began to attract a very different sort of attention from all the boys.
All of a sudden lads that had previously ignored her followed her with their eyes as she walked down the corridor and would come up to her to make small talk. She did not reject them but then neither did she ever appear to love a single one. She would go out with them, let them pay for everything, but then the next time that I saw her, she’d have moved onto another. Indeed, she almost seemed to enjoy using them in that way and whenever we talked about boys, her comments were more directed towards, “He bought me a drink,” or “He’s paying for us to go to Alton Towers” rather than any genuine affection.
And, looking back, it wasn’t just the boys either. As I’ve already said, Pritti was always clever, but whereas before she’d been shy about the fact, by the time we were doing our GCSEs, she was always the first to demonstrate it and prove others wrong, even the teachers. I never saw her happier than the time when we had a debate on legalising cannabis. She was given the for position and she absolutely destroyed the other side; ironic really considering how she ended up. For the rest of the afternoon she relayed the debate over and over again to me, with comments like, “Did you see her face when I mentioned the cost to the taxpayer of illegal drugs?” so much so that I said to her, “You must really care deeply about the issue to have argued so well.”
Her response should have told me everything.
“Care? No, Vick, not at all, I couldn’t care less. I don’t smoke it do I, and I’m certainly not about to start so why should I care? I was in it for the debate and I won that hands down!”
That was one sign that I didn’t pick up on but others I soon did. By the time we were sixteen or seventeen and going out to clubs, we would go together but then when she’d found someone she would just up and leave and I was left to fend for myself and pay for my own taxi home. We were fast drifting apart and by the time that she left for university, it was all but complete. I invited her to my eighteenth and she came and was all nice to my face, but the closeness had gone. In fact, she got very drunk and in the end Bill had to take her home whilst I stayed at the party. So, my best friend left my life, but by this time I’d been going out with Bill for a year and so I didn’t miss her company too much.
And then that was it. She went off to study – Manchester I think it was, although it could have been Oxford – and I entered the University of Life and got married, and that was that.
Until that is, that evening when she appeared on our TV screen.
Following that I kept a closer eye on the news and discovered that Pritti Dhatt was now an MP and one of the rising stars of the government. The prime minister had given her a junior ministerial post pretty soon after she was first elected and from there she kept on rising. It was a year or so later when she really hit the headlines as the Welfare Secretary who decided to slash all the benefits for disabled people. I thought that sounded a bit wrong, but to be honest, I didn’t know enough about the situation to comment that much.
What interested me more was how a pretty and intelligent woman like her had never got married, since you would have thought that there would be any number of men willing to snap her up, particularly with her being Asian and women in Asian families generally getting married younger. I mentioned it one evening to Bill after she had been on TV explaining why she had voted with the government to bomb a particular Middle Eastern country – I forget which one, they all seem much the same to me – and he replied, “What are you on about? She is married; she has been for five years!”
“So how come her name’s still Pritti Dhatt then?”
“Well, she obviously decided to keep her maiden name, didn’t she? Besides, she could have hardly taken her husband’s name.”
“Because her husband is none other than John Pitcher, CEO of BP!”
“So what if he’s important; she could still have taken his name!”
“No she couldn’t, Vick. Think about it. She’d have been Pritti Pitcher then…”
“Pritti Pitcher… Pritti… Oh shit, I get it! Yeah, that would’ve been a bit weird!”
“The papers would’ve had a field day, so she kept things as they were. Pritti would never do anything that could damage her career.”
“No, you’re right there; Pritti would never do that.”
So I kept an eye on Pritti, but nothing more. To be honest, politics have never really been my thing; I don’t understand them and I struggle to find them interesting. But occasionally Pritti said things that piqued my interest. She seemed to be rising fast in the government and was given minor posts and then the position of Industries Minister. And it was then that she re-entered our lives.
It was all to do with the steelworks. Scunthorpe has always been a town based around one industry and that has been its steel. My Bill, along with most other folk in town, worked there and that work paid the bills.
But then, out of the blue, the plant’s owners stated that it would be shutting. The reason given was something to do with “a drop in global demand” whatever that is supposed to mean, but the long and short of it was that the entire town would soon be unemployed unless the government – or to be more precise – Pritti Dhatt, did something about it. Politics, which had always been so distant, now came much closer to home and we began to worry about how the mortgage would be paid next year. The local papers were full of debate as to what would happen. The government was newly-elected with a large majority and committed to cutting spending and reducing state involvement.
So, the prospects that they would bail us out were limited. But then Pritti, the local lass who was such a rising star, could she not be the factor that changed all that: compassion for her people, the community that raised her? Our hopes were raised and so I tuned in when she gave her speech on the matter. But what a speech that was. Yes, she talked about her own background but it was all about the harsh lessons that she’d learnt on the school playground. “When people attacked me because of the colour of my skin or the faith of my parents, no one came to my aid and no one sheltered me. I had to learn to stand up for myself and forge my own way. So it is with the people of Scunthorpe. The past is the past and it is gone. It would be wrong for the government to spend taxpayers’ money on bailing out British Steel. So, like me, you need to face up and make your own way. It will be hard, but you can do it. I know it because I am one of you.”
I, like Bill and the rest of the town, was gobsmacked. How dare she?! To dismiss so cruelly the very people who had succoured her! And to lie about the playground so blatantly. Had not I come to her aid? Had she actually forgotten that? Angry yet desperate for my children’s future, I did something that I had never done before: I found out her email from the government website and asked if we could meet up.
And the next day she replied, agreeing to just that, and so a week later I was heading down to London to see my old best mate.
“Vicky! So great to see you! How many years has it been?”
As she hugged me I wondered if perhaps the old Pritti was still there, that the hard bitch on TV was all an act.
So, we talked. We talked about the old days, our fellow students and teachers. Not once though, did she mention me helping her in the playground. And not once did she mention Scunthorpe. So instead, I did.
“Why does it matter to you Vick, what happens to the works?”
“You know why Pritti, the whole town relies on it. Me husband works there; we’re doomed if it goes.”
“Who is your husband, Vick?” she asked.
“You know him, Bill Parker from school who I started dating there. He remembers you as well. He’s a brilliant father and a good man and he doesn’t deserve this. Can’t you do something for us, him, the town and me?”
She sat back and looked me in the eye. “Honest answer?” she asked.
“Yeah, honest answer,” I replied.
“I can do something. I don’t need to, since we don’t need the votes and Scunthorpe always goes Labour anyway, but if I wanted to, I could. But for the town, the town that bullied, humiliated and restricted me? No way, no fucking way! Can’t you see? This is my revenge for all those Paki jibes and jokes. They deserve to suffer for that.”
“But not everyone did that to you. I stuck up for you! I stopped them!”
“To make yourself feel good, not me, Vicky. I can see through it now just as I could then. So no, I can but I won’t do anything, and Scunthorpe will die for what it did.”
“I can’t believe that I’m hearing this! I’m…”
“And I have an appointment in a minute so I have to go but before I do, let me tell you something: You say that Bill Parker is a good man. Well, trust me, he wasn’t that good.”
The other day in our new flat Freya saw a picture of Hitler in a book. She’d been studying all about him in school so she knew who it was. “Look mummy,” she said, “you see that man there and how ugly his face is; that’s how you know he is evil.”
“No Freya,” I replied, “you’re wrong. Evil can be Pritti sometimes as well, pretending to be your friend. And that is when you have to be really careful.”
Note to reader: Any similarities between Pritti Dhatt in this story and the Conservative MP Priti Patel are purely coincidental.
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