Timely, piercing yet incredibly heartfelt
- You People by Nikita Lalwani
You People is Nikita Lalwani's third novel, and like her two prior works, it is sure to be seen on prize lists in the coming year. The novel tells the intersecting stories of a cast of characters working at a south London pizzeria, each trying to navigate the uncertain times and build a secure lives for themselves, in a society that so often overlooks them. Written with genuine empathy and the space for each story to evolve, this is a timely novel and here you can read an exclusive extract
It was the summer of 2003 when Nia joined the restaurant, and that particular part of south-west London was just beginning to gear up for gentrification. You could see the bankers
male and female alike – dipping their toes in, walking past the burger joints and chicken shops with appraising gazes, bodies taut with the effort of remaining open-minded.
Tentatively making it down to the imposing residential squares they had heard about, and staring up at the red-brick and stucco mansion blocks and sliding timber sash windows. They would go up to the hushed communal gardens that lay at the centre of these squares, and lean on the railings, not worried by the locked gates that always caught her out.
Instead they seemed to be practising for a lifestyle that appeared to be entirely up to them. She saw them on her way to and from the
restaurant and marvelled at this idea radiating out from them, that the responsibility of shaping a life was all down to the choices you might make. They seemed full to bursting with choices.
She had loved the place instantly, in fact she loved the whole process – walking from the tube and turning down the small road, past the greasy spoon, the betting place, the Australian pub on the corner, till she was right there, standing at the panelled glass doors and looking up at ‘PIZZERIA VESUVIO’, each word hammered in gold and angled to form two sharp mountain slopes. They were warm days at the start of that summer, and these huge baroque capitals would be flashing with reflected sunlight against a vermilion background, whilst underneath you had all the offerings in a humble white font: ‘Caffè, Restaurant, Pizza, Pasta. Vesuvio: Your home from home!’
Inside, the space was laid out pretty traditionally: twenty small square tables on the ground floor with the till, counter and wine racks at the back, near the kitchen. Diaphanous white tablecloths, small accordions of folded paper printed with photos of diners and the splashy headline: ‘Welcome to the magic of Vesuvio!’ One candle per table, along with single stems in water – a pink rose or carnation usually. A spiral staircase at the front led up to a function room, with the bar at one end and leather sofas at the other – this was the area where Tuli entertained guests, unless it was hired out for a private party, but also where the staff mostly had their meals between shifts.
Some of the Sri Lankan cooks lived above this first floor in a flat that Nia had heard about, and she’d witness them disappearing at the end of the night through another door near the bar. She’d watch them go through a dark portal into relative privacy, one or two guys at a time, catch a glimpse of an impossibly steep flight of stairs, register the knitted warmth of their murmurs after the door was locked from the inside and they were no longer visible. There was something fascinating about the definitive way in which they sealed themselves off. They were different from her, in that they had a clear end to the day, some place that they wanted to go when work was done, even if it was just upstairs.
In contrast, she always lingered when her hours were through, unsure as to what she should do next. There was a perk for staff: on your day off you could come to the restaurant with a friend and both eat a meal for free – you knew not to choose the steak of course, and to stick to pizza or pasta, at most a glass or two of house wine, but it was still pretty generous. Nia was aware that she didn’t have anyone to bring with her on these days, but Ava would swing by with a different friend from a different country each week for lunch it seemed, before heading out to comb the sights and sounds of London. The cooks preferred to avail themselves of the promised meal at night – hanging out and chattering on crates in the kitchen as usual, directing those on duty to cook their favourites. Sometimes Tuli would send in a bottle of whisky for those who were off duty and everyone would be happy.
Nia was pretty sure that Tuli was a Catholic even though he wasn’t often at church; he was all bound up with Patrick, the priest from Laurier Square. They had a thing going on Fridays at closing where they gathered leftover sandwiches from the supermarkets and bundled them with a batch of pizzas from the restaurant, leaving by midnight to distribute the goods on the streets. One time she even found herself going to Tuli in a state of chaos, asking him to help convert her to Christianity. He sent her on her way, shaking his head in mock sorrow and ruffling her hair at the nonsense of it.
‘Are you mad?’ he said, laughing with an edge to it, the way you do when confronted with an insult of some sort. ‘Nia, what do you take me for? Bounty hunter, marking out my place in heaven type of thing? Scalps hanging from a satchel as I’m walking into the sunset? Really? What about your Hindu blood, can’t you mainline some more of that into your veins at least? When you come from so much, why would you look elsewhere?’
It made her smile. There was something undeniably funny about this, even though he did mean what he was saying. Something to do with ‘Hindu’ sounding so exotic, the way he pronounced it with his questioning twang. And that it was directed at someone who looked like Nia. ‘An affront’ was how her mother had described her relationship to her skin. She wasn’t far wrong – it was no secret that Nia wished for more of her father’s colouring. People around the restaurant mostly mistook her for Italian with her permanent bisque tan and dark hair. In fact, she was quite sure that was one of the reasons Tuli hired her.
‘Where are you from?’ he’d asked at that very first meeting, minutes after she’d swung through the door to ask for a job. ‘I grew up in Newport,’ she said. ‘Welsh mother, Indian father.
Mostly Welsh mother without Indian father.’ ‘Ah,’ he said, as though he understood everything necessary from that clutch of sentences. ‘Got it. Come.’ Pulling out a chair in front of the bar. ‘Please, do sit down.’
Nikita Lalwani was born in Rajasthan and raised in Cardiff. Her fiction has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and won the Desmond Elliott Prize. She was also nominated for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. She lives in London.