‘Change your thoughts and change your world,’ I whisper as I lie awake.
My bleary eyes fix on the red digits of the alarm clock, which reads 3.50am. I stretch my arm out and press the snooze button before the rambunctious blaring jars me out of my moments of comfort.
At 4am, I peel the duvet back and jump out of bed. l creep across the dim hall towards the bathroom, fingertips searching for the light switch. Then I shower, brush my teeth, and sip mouthwash until there is enough in my throat to make a hollow gurgling sound. I dress in my own smart style and incorporate breakfast into my new early bird routine; a bowl of Kellogg’s cornflakes with a hot cup of English tea; far from the usual fennel, cardamom and cloves.
Sukhi, a friend of my in-laws who works at Everest, insisted that she would take me to work. Her shift starts at 6am, and mine half an hour later. I lock the front door and wait patiently outside on my driveway.
Across an inky patch of sky, a velvet bird flies. It tweets its soft morning melody, but the sound is lost to an approaching van. Sukhi and her husband Satwant pull up. I get in and sit in the back on the freezing floor. Sukhi turns her head to me. Her dark hair is up in a bun with a curly strand falling on each side of her face. She says sorry about the cold.
They turn left onto Parkhall Rd and do another quick left onto Dudding Rd. Then they turn into Ednam Rd and park up beside a bus shelter where a mature lady called Mother is sat waiting. She slides the door open and climbs in slowly, like a tortoise. She gazes at me, as if she’s trying to read my soul with her tired eyes. It’s something I’ve seen in people who come from India to visit England for the very first time. Instead of asking me direct questions, Mother asks Sukhi in Punjabi about me.
After a twenty-minute drive, Satwant parks outside Everest Frozen Foods so we can get out, before driving off to open his shop. As we make our way across the large car park a smell of spoilage, bitter, and mouldy boiled potatoes invades my nostrils. I look up to see where it’s coming from and notice a thick round chimney with steam escaping from the top. As we approach the tail end of the car park, an earthy, starchy, oily scent lingers in the air.
Mother and I follow Sukhi into the canteen but Sukhi continues on and then returns with a petite girl called Karen who has responsibility for the overalls. She gives me a green and white checked overall and a matching cap and leads me into the new changing room, leaving me there. Everest Frozen Foods is housed in a brand-new L-shaped building with bright lighting and white walls so fresh that you can still smell the wet paint. There are toilet facilities and a very clean shower room, which remind me of the showers at school.
There is such stillness that I can hear my resting heartbeat as I change into my uniform. I hear the outside door of the canteen swing open and footsteps scurry across the room to the lockers. A key jingles until it unclicks. There is rummaging until the door swings open again. Another employee enters.
“Eeeloh” says a high-pitched voice.
“Eeeloh,” is given in answer.
That’s an unusual dialect, I think to myself. The door closes a fraction and then swings open again as a variety of regional accents fill the air.
‘This is going to be some challenge, but I’m sure I’ll be alright,’ I reassure myself. One by one the voices hush and for a moment there is a pause. Then a burst of loud chatter breaks in the air, filling the canteen like warbling birds. I take deep breaths, and stand firm on the ground.
So what if I can’t talk like them, not everyone is the same.
The door swings open again, and again, and again. Dialects as rich as an orchestra come from all directions. My heart races and I place my hands over my ears hoping to work out how to overcome this.
I feel anxiety, frustration and alienation pour over me. This is what they mean by a ‘culture shock’. I begin to envisage that my communication with them will only be minor, and that were I to ask a question, I would only be given one-word answers. My thoughts cry out, wanting to be with my parents and, in that split second, l wonder whether they experienced something similar when they first arrived in England. The voices are unbearable. I press my palms as hard as l possibly can against my ears.
I feel like a tiny seed, deep in the earth with a ton of heavy rubble on top.
The alarm bell rings. The sound now is like a swarm of bees buzzing their way to the nearest honeycomb. Then I hear light footsteps as a tall, slim lady with short golden hair approaches me with a big friendly grin. I return a smile without giving any hint of my turmoil.
‘Hello, you must be the new girl. Nice to meet you. Don’t worry about us, you’ll soon fit in. We don’t bite!’ she says.
My heart begins to sing.
Nirmal Orjally was born in Hertfordshire and moved to Wolverhampton on 4th July 1993. She works at a local school and also at Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. Nirmal is an active member of Blakenhall Writers Group as well as a member of Punjabi Women’s Writing Group. She has performed her work on stage at City voices, Literature Festival and The Big City Radio. Nirmal has also written a children’s novel, Tambi, as yet unpublished. She enjoys writing as it gives her a voice.