I’ve lived in Brighton since I finished my studies at Oxford. My family comes from West London, where my parents still live. My father practices as a barrister, and has become something of a pillar in his community. He even served as an MP for a while, but in common with many in his party, he lost his seat at the last election.
My parents castigate me for what they see as my wasting my education. They put me through St Paul’s, one of the best independent schools in the country, before funding my stay at Oxford. “You should get yourself a proper job, Shilpa,” my mother is always telling me, “Not keep playing around with this silly comedy thing that you’re doing.”
She’s referring to my stand-up routine. This gives me a great buzz, if it doesn’t earn me enough to pay the rent. I subsidise what little I get from playing the circuit with a small income from teaching yoga. Maybe one day I will get a “proper job”, as my mother calls it, but for now I’m happy working at what I enjoy, and having the freedom to spend most days as I wish.
When I’m not teaching, my usual routine is to spend an hour in the morning practising my yoga. When the weather allows, I like to go down to the Pavilion Gardens, where I perform my contortions and stretches under the watchful gaze of the statue of the Prince Regent, which proudly stands in front of the exotic palace that was once his luxurious seaside retreat.
You meet all sorts in the park–Brighton has always been popular with day-trippers, but it’s also a great magnet for students wanting
to learn English, and the business types who pack into the various hotels and conference halls along the seafront.
One such recent visitor took particular interest in my deft movements one morning. This suited man watched me initially from a distance, taking his time before offering his opinions on my workout. “Nice legs!” he shouted. “Do that again–the one where you knot your leg behind your neck!”
I could see that he was chuckling to himself, obviously enjoying the spectacle of a young woman twisting herself into what I suppose he thought were suggestive poses. I carried on with my routine, unaffected by his lewd remarks.
The man seemed in no rush to move on. When I finished my stretches, I made for where he was standing, and curtly enquired whether he’d enjoyed watching my routine. I wasn’t bothered by what he might say, knowing that I was very capable of asserting myself and responding with a pointed comment or two if that were needed.
The man appeared a little abashed, but repeated his observation about my suggestive moves. “Take this as a compliment, babe,” he went on, his puerile smile not showing any sign of fading. “There’s nothing wrong with a beautiful woman strutting her stuff in public, if you want my opinion.”
“I don’t want your opinion!” I replied sternly, “And don’t call me “babe” either!”
I asked him what he was doing in the park, and he told me that he’d decided to take time away from a conference that he was attending, which he said was boring him. “It’s too bloody hot in that place,” he added, “Much better to be out here, watching you wiggling your backside!”
“You think you’re quite a smart arse, don’t you?” I continued. “Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that some of us ‘babes’ quite like sizing up guys like you from time to time?”
He seemed taken aback by my forthright approach, but this appeared to encourage him to want to pester me further. I said that, since I had a little free time, I was happy to chat with him for a while, and we walked across to sit down on a park bench on the other side of the pavilion.
“Tell me what you do,” I asked the man, whose name I learned was Shiraz.
“I run a building firm,” he replied. “Tough work, not for pretty girls like you.”
“Do you have any ‘pretty girls’ on your payroll?” I asked, adopting a sarcastic tone.
“Sure we do–one of them runs the payroll, others we employ to type letters, make coffees for clients, clean the directors’ cars, and the like. If they don’t make a fuss, they’ll be fine with me. If they try to be clever, they’ll soon be shown the door.”
I didn’t know whether he was being serious, but it didn’t take a genius to work out that this man was a sexist arsehole. He spoke about his three marriages as though he were telling the story of the Three Little Pigs. All of them had ended the same way when his wives found out that he’d had been unfaithful to them.
I told him about my past, and how I earned my living. He seemed surprised to discover that a young woman could survive on the comedy circuit, and even more that someone of my sex could actually be funny. He was dismissive of the better-known comediennes that I mentioned, claiming that they didn’t have the edge that he thought most men had. For guys, he professed, humour came as a natural talent.
“Maybe you’d like to come and see me tonight?” I offered. “I’m doing a gig at The Quadrant, a bar down near the clock tower in the centre of town.”
He claimed that he was too busy to honour me with his presence, making an excuse about his need to network with other
construction industry bigwigs at the conference. But I repeated my challenge, baiting him by suggesting that he was afraid that I might single him out to be embarrassed in front of a jeering crowd. “Well maybe,” he eventually conceded.
“You don’t seem to have a very high opinion of women,” I ventured, making the most obvious of observations. “No job sounds as though it is good enough for the women in your company–other than those that involve pushing papers, boiling kettles, and taking dictation. Maybe you should see how one or two of us might try out on site?”
Shiraz laughed, but collected himself before responding, “They stand no chance! Construction involves tough physical work, and women just aren’t made for that. Besides, they’d be constantly breaking down at all of the taunts the lads would throw at them.”
I replied that one of my friends was a surveyor, and that she was more than capable of batting back the ignorant snipes that used to greet her when she went on site. As for physical ability–well, rising from my seat, I challenged Shiraz to see if he could wrestle me to the ground.
“Oh no,” he protested, “I couldn’t hurt a lady!”
“You won’t get a chance to hurt me!” I teased, urging him to try to knock me down.
“You’re scared that I’ll make an idiot of you, aren’t you?” I joked. “Come on, strongman, I’m ready for you!”
My words must have touched his pride, since he responded by taking off his jacket, then came toward me to face the challenge.
We each stood our ground for a moment, exchanging steady stares that made known that both of us felt comfortable facing our opponent. Then, in an instant, I engaged him in a corner drop throw, propelling him into a back somersault that left him laying flat on the ground.
I then crouched behind him, bringing him into a chokehold, stopping short of sucking the air from him. “Not strong enough are we, eh? Just make sure that you don’t mess with me!”
I helped him to his feet again, and then we both resumed our places on the bench.
“You’re not bad for a girl!” he conceded.
“Vous commencez à savoir ce que je suis sur!”
“What did you say?” he responded.
“Sie beginnen zu wissen, was ich bin!”
“Say that again?” Shiraz demanded.
“Stai cominciando a sapere quello che sto!”
“I don’t get it!” He replied, admitting his ignorance, and seeming
to be increasingly frustrated with my happy game of poking fun at his disadvantage.
It means “You’re beginning to get the measure of me!” I eventually explained. “I spelled it out in French, German, and Italian, just so you could get the message!”
He seemed impressed that I was a linguist, as well as being accomplished in the martial arts. I went on to tell him about the two degrees that I’d earned at Oxford–my bachelors course in History and Politics, and my master’s in Literature and Arts. I described some of my achievements as one-time Vice President of the Student Union, and listed some of the trophies that I’d snapped up when I was a member of the University’s squash club.
Shiraz was unable to offer any triumphs to compare with my own. Even his appointment as Managing Director of his construction firm hadn’t come about through hard grafting or raw talent, but since his father had owned the business, and then passed on his day-to-day responsibilities to his son.
“The guy that owned this place thought that he was a bit of a superstar too,” I offered, aiming a nod in the direction of the pavilion. “All those fancy domes and turrets, each fashioned like
architectural gems from the Orient–these weren’t just fancy whims of an architect, but were meant to wow the punters. The lavish banquets, the music that played, and the stories that were told night after night–the prince expected everyone that he brought here to be impressed by what he’d created. But most of them ended up loathing him.”
I went on to sketch out the shady biography of the Prince Regent, making reference to his disagreements with his father, and his doomed relationship with the German princess, Caroline.
“He thought that he pulled all of the strings,” I continued, “But when he quickly fell out with his queen, his wily wife refused to agree to a divorce. They both had their affairs, squandered money, and tried various means to outwit each other. In the end, neither was a victor. Perhaps if they’d made an effort to recognise that each had something to give the other, things might not have turned out so dreadfully for them.”
My relating of this unglamorous period in British history caused Shiraz to reflect on his own dealings with his former wives and employees.
“Sometimes I’ve regretted the way that I treated my wives,” he admitted. “I used to see my arrogance as some sort of virtue, but it cost me dearly when my wives filed for divorce. After my third wiping out, I had to rethink my attitude.”
“What did you get out of treating your women the way that you did?” I asked.
Shiraz hesitated before responding, looking for a moment as though he was ready to spill a tear.
“That took me a long time to work out,” he lamented. “After my third divorce, I signed up with a therapist, who helped me understand what was prompting my behaviour. In truth, I never felt as though I’d achieved much when I was young. I struggled
with my schoolwork, and never received any praise from my parents.”
Shiraz paused to catch his breath. I could see from his downcast gaze that he was lost in a painful memory. I kept my distance from him, but offered what I believe were sympathetic comments and a willingness to hear his story.
“Did you come to see that your words might sometimes be more than just teasing?” I asked, keen to explore how far the therapy had taken him.
“Perhaps not as strongly as I might,” he confessed. “I can see that some of the people who work for me were badly hurt by how I treated them. Some even quit their jobs, claiming that what they saw as my bullying had turned them into nervous wrecks.”
“My chiding of women was never meant to hurt,” he went on. “I’ve always believed that I was not being serious when I engaged in a little ribbing. It’s just that for me, women have always been an easy target.”
At this point, several tears did begin to well up in Shiraz’s eyes. He seemed momentarily remorseful, but admitted that he had some distance to go before he was cured of his old habits.
Our conversation then turned to lighter matters, before I realised that I would need to leave Shiraz to continue his musing, as I had a yoga class to run within the next hour.
Before I left the park, I challenged Shiraz to another wrestling game. He chuckled at my offer, but said that he was still nursing his bruises following our last tomfoolery on the grass. I backed away from the bench, wishing him well and teasing him about his cowardice to not face up to me, then turned and broke into a determined trot back to my studio.