Never far from nowhere
About the book
This is the story of two sisters, Olive and Vivien, born in London to Jamaican parents and brought up on a council estate. They go to the same grammar school, but while Vivien's life becomes a chaotic mix of friendships, youth clubs, skinhead violence, A-levels, discos and college, Olive, three years older and a skin shade darker, has a very different tale to tell...
An extract from Never far from nowhere...
Nothing stopped Carol and me going up Chapel Street market on Sunday morning. Nothing. Not rain, not snow, and definitely not Olive standing sideways in the mirror, puffing out her huge pregnant belly and saying 'Vivien, come and feel, quick, quick, it's kicking.'
Now everyone knew she was pregnant she would spend hours looking at her bulge - fiddling with her protruding belly button, fascinated with every new line and wrinkle. All she wanted to talk about was her wedding, her husband-to-be, her baby. She started every sentence with, 'When I'm married', as if she was going to be born again in a better form. 'I can't believe I'll be a married woman and a mother,' she'd say with a vacant stare. My mum stopped shouting at her altogether and started smiling instead. Occasionally I would hear them in the kitchen discussing things.
'The baby will need a little cot and a pram, Olive, I can get you one from the catalogue - a sort of wedding present.'
'Thanks, Mum - and Peter said his mum's still got a baby bath.'
'Ah yes. You know, we should make a list.'
' Yeah, I've got one - look...'
I made Carol swear not to tell anyone about Olive. Made her cross her heart on Upper Street. 'On your life - no, on your mother's life - no wait a minute on...on...' I tried to think who Carol really wouldn't like to see dead, but I couldn't.
'On my nephew's life,' Carol said helpfully.
'Yeah, on Jason's life.'
'What?' she shouted.
'My sister's going to have a baby.'
Carol didn't look as shocked as I'd hoped.
'I thought she was getting a bit fat,' she said, without even opening her eyes wide and shouting, 'But she's not married.' Or screaming that I was going to be an aunt. Or laughing and asking me when Olive had done it. I looked at her, ready to answer any further questions, but none came.
When we got to Chapel Street we went straight to Otis. Otis was a clothes shop, a boutique it said above the door, but there was also a record shop at the back. Paul, the man who ran it, was famous. Or at least we thought he must have been because he was in a group in the sixties called yellow Sun. there was an LP tucked away in the Y section of rock and pop that had a picture of him and his band. Four smiling men standing around in suits with neat haircuts and guitars.
'I look different now,' Paul said, when he showed us the picture. And he was right. Now he had grey hair, 'prematurely grey,' he said, and wrinkles round his eyes when he smiled. Carol said he was mature, 'Not like the tossers down the club.' When she was around him she didn't swear. She laughed at his jokes, even sat on his knee, giggling. Or she'd look at record sleeves and ask him what sort of music it was and if he thought she'd like it.
'I like Ray Charles,' she said, although I knew for a fact that she'd only just heard of him. Olive had his Greatest Hits record and Carol said 'Eh, what's this rubbish,' when I put it on. But Paul liked Ray Charles, so carol listened on headphones to him singing 'The Long and Winding Road' and declared it better that the Beatles version. Sometimes Carol got on my nerves.
We stayed with Paul in the shop for a few hours, until it got really busy and he didn't have time to talk to us and 'educate our ears'. We walked up the market, in the middle of the road looking at the stalls on either side. Then on the pavement past Manzies café and Carol breathed in heavily and sighed, 'Oh, smell that pie and mash -I love it'. And I breathed in the sweet fumes and felt sick.
'It's dirty food,' my mum had said. 'Don't you go eating that dirty food, you hear me, you don't know what they put in those pies, and what is that green stuff? Disgusting.'
We watched people eating bacon sandwiches in De Marco's café.
'You see him?' Carol said. Pointing a young man who was pushing egg on toast into his mouth. 'He's the one that killed a bloke with a pole.'
I remembered the story going round the club about the boy who hit another boy in a fight with a pole you use to open high windows. It knocked him out and he never regained consciousness. So he was being done for murder. He got the nickname Polar, and the boys bragged about how they knew him. 'He's hard. He's a wanker. He's mad in a bundle.' And girls stared at him and his girlfriend often cried in a corner.
'He looks normal, dun he?' Carol said. And he did, sipping tea and looking around.
We got a lemon ice-ream from the window at the side of the café. No matter how cold the weather we always bought a lemon ice-cream when we were 'up Chap'. My fingers went numb holding the little tub and scoop. And when we passed the apple fritter stall I wished I'd got two of the hot, sugary fried fritters instead.
'Rock 'ard yer tomatoes ' come on ladies, rock 'ard tomatoes,' Tony sang out from a vegetable stall.
'This one's soft,' Carol said, pretending to squeeze a tomato as we approached.
'Al'right,' Tony said. He looked pleased to see us. I smiled.
'Get us a cup of tea, Carol?' Tony asked.
'Get off,' she said. He looked at me but didn't say anything.
'Well give us some of your ice-cream then,' he said, trying to grab at Carol's tub. Carol twisted out of the way, stuck the scoop on her mouth and bumped into Dor.
'Where'd you come from?' Carol said, surprised.
'I was behind you all the time,' Dor laughed. She opened her mouth wide so she could eat a hot apple fritter using only her front teeth.
'Get us a cup of tea, Dor?' Tony said, as politely as he could.
'Get your own,' she said.
'Oh, come on Dor, I can't leave 'ere and it's fucking brass monkeys.' He put his hands up to his face and blew his breath into them.
'Come on then,' Carol said, holding out her hand, 'I'll get you a tea.'
Tony smiled and felt in the blue pouch round his waist that had a little sprig of leftover mistletoe pinned to it.
'I'll let you kiss me under me mistletoe when you get back,' Tony said, sticking his crotch forward and laughing.
'I'll bring me tweezers ' help you find your dick,' Carol grinned. She grabbed the change from Tony's hand and before I had time to say, 'I'll come with you,' I could see her back disappearing through the crowds. I turned back to Dor who was wiping sugar off her chin. I looked at Tony and prepared to smile, but he started serving a customer.
'Where's Pam and Linda?' Dor said.
'Dunno,' I said, 'I don't think they could come out.'
'Have you got a job?' Dor asked, as she screwed up the fritter bag and threw it on the ground.
'No, I'm still at school.'
'I've got a job,' she said. I looked around for Carol and nodded.
'Oh,' I said, 'You left school then?' Tony pushed Dor gently out of the way so his customer could get by.
'Yeah, I couldn't stand it. I got a job now though.'
'What you doing?' I asked.
'When?' Dor said, looking puzzled.
'In your job - what job you doing?'
'Well,' Dor took a breath and started. 'I get this box and get this label and what I have to do is put the label on the box and then close the box up with this tape stuff and put it back on the belt and then get another box - you know.'
I stared at Dor not knowing what to say next. Then Tony came close to Dor and whispered out the side of his mouth. 'Here Dor, look at that.' He nodded his head out into the crowd.
'What?' Dor said, straining to look.
'Over there - that wog with that white bloke - I hate that, I fucking hate that.'
He turned away from her and started stacking tomatoes and serving a woman with a pushchair. Dor was still looking into the crowd when I saw Olive and Peter walking towards us. I turned my back and pretended to look at the cauliflowers. Dor started nudging me and giggling. 'Oh yeah, look Viv, over there.'
I didn't turn back. I could feel myself warming up. I closed my eyes. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I jumped.
'What's a matter with you?' Carol said, when I turned round. I looked into the crowd but couldn't see my sister. She hadn't seen me.
'Nothing,' I said.
Tony took the tea.
''Ere Viv,' Carol said, giving Tony some change. 'I think I just saw your sister.' She looked into the crowd and pointed. ''In't that your sister over there?'
'No,' I said, without looking.
Reviews of Never far from nowhere...
'Never far from nowhere makes a splendid second offering from Andrea Levy which more that fulfils the early promise of her debut novel, Every light in the house burnin.... An inspired coming-of-age novel with a mature grasp of generational conflict, pressure to conform, and the fraught process of discovering one's identity, Never far from nowhere should be read by anyone growing up in Britain today'
'Never far from nowhere is as much about the painful, messy reality of family life - too much envy, too little love - as it is about race and identity. In this lively, crisp, raw voice, young black Londoners may have found their Roddy Doyle'
Independent on Sunday
'The mark of Levy's writing is her open-mindedness, her powers of observation and a sort of constructive optimism...Fresh and original'
'A funny poignant insight into teenage life in the early 70s...Never far from nowhere will haunt you'
'The story is well told, does not dodge complexity and rings true as an account of the fear and confusion felt by first generation black English people twenty years ago. Above all Andrea Levy succeeds in showing how people respond to an identity imposed on them by others'
'Painfully perceptive and passionate, Never far from nowhere hits a raw nerve with its powerful concoction of poignancy and humour'
Passionate and angry
'Levy's raw sense of realism and depth of feeling infuses every line