Mrs. Meanwell

A fairy tale about naivete and religious violence.

"Done," said Mrs. Meanwell, "you can move in straight away. What did you say your name was?"

"Here," said the Stranger, handing her his passport.

"I'm sure you're welcome, to be sure," said Mrs. Meanwell. "How do you pronounce this?" The Stranger looked confused. "Oh, I see, no English." (Louder) "I said NO ENGLISH!"

"No English," replied the Stranger. "Few words."

"Not to worry then," said Mrs. Meanwell. "We're just a big happy family here. What's so special about English, I always say. One of a thousand languages."

"Rules? House?" said the Stranger, slightly mispronouncing the words, but doing his best, for where he was from there were still strong extended families and social conventions.

"Rules of the house? Oh, no, we don't worry about them. We don't discriminate here. Leave you alone, we do. No rent due till you find a job. Breakfast is free, between seven and eight, and you'll be getting the forty-four pound Job Seekers Allowance."

Mrs. Meanwell escorted the Stranger to his room. It was a simple room, rather dingy, but secure from whirlwinds, hurricanes, monsoons, excessive droughts, stray animals, and fearsome tribesmen. Which might have been one of many possible reasons for the Stranger leaving his country in the first place. Oh, and the well-known facts that no rent was due till he found a job, that he would receive an allowance (formerly known as the dole) while he looked for a job, and that breakfast was free between seven and eight.

"Make yourself at home," said Mrs. Meanwell. "I expect you'd like a nice bath, seeing as how you come straight from the airport, like."

Falteringly the Stranger explained, "My country, no water. Use sand. Very clean."

"Sand? You need a sandpit?"

Mrs. Meanwell left the Stranger and went to speak with her live-in partner, Joe.

"The new fellow seems a decent chap. One problem, though. He needs a sandpit for bathing."

"A sandpit? Where do you suppose we can put a sandpit? He'll be asking for rubber ducks next. I've already had to convert the garden shed into a Buddhist shrine. The study is given over to a mosque and the living room into a meeting place for ancestor worshippers."

"Mmh, perhaps we should consult the professor."

The professor had digs in the house. He was not a real professor, it was just that he had a degree from the University of Essex (Note 1).

"I see your problem," said the professor, when Mrs. Meanwell explained the requirements of the new lodger. "But we can't discriminate. Remember what this country did to his forebears two hundred years ago. We went in there with guns and seized his mangoes. Thousands died."

"That's all very well, "replied Joe, "but this is England in 2005. We wash with soap and water. We shower, we bathe. We can't have people bathing in sand. Whatever next?"

The professor looked exasperated. "I'm getting this all the time, these sorts of comment. We've got to get beyond all these cultural hang-ups. The world has moved on. In the old days we assumed that everything in the West was superior and that God had given us the right to impose our own customs on other people. Today we respect other people's customs."

"But this isn't about customs, professor, it's about hygiene and civilised behaviour."

"Joe, I'm ashamed of you, I really I am. Who is to say that bathing in sand is any more or less acceptable than bathing in water. You have been acculturated to wash your face; he has been acculturated to walk out of a hut and pour sand over his head. What's the difference? Who's to say you are any more civilised than he is?"

"I think it's a potential threat to public health. Wait till the council hears about this."

"Go to the council by all means, but they'll back me. Half of them are from Herat and the other half from Kingston."

"Yes," muttered Joe, "and not a woman among them." He was a bit old-fashioned but had good instincts.

"But that's their culture, and who's to say they're not right? In any event they understand globalization and agree with me that our ossified Western cultures are old hat. If you don't build a sandpit in the garden now, they'll make you."

And thus it was agreed that the garden would be altered so that the Stranger could bathe in fresh sand, flown in once a week from the Bahamas. And not any sand would do. It had to be special runny sand of a particular colour. And the indigenous natives of England were to pay for this service. On no account should one appear racist.

However, the garden was small and contained some fine old English oaks. In order to accommodate the sandpit these had to be cut down. In many cases old oak trees are protected, but the professor maintained that the human rights of those fleeing oppression (or blood feuds caused by philandering husbands) came before plantlife, and that the trees should be removed.

When this was explained to the Stranger, through an interpreter hired by Mrs. Meanwell, the Stranger became agitated.

"He is an Animist," explained the interpreter, "he worships the spirits of the forest. Every Friday he must make a sacrifice of the heart of a twelve month old she-camel. This must be eaten with the boiled bark of a tree. He thus communes with the forest gods. He says you cannot destroy the trees. They are the dwelling places of his gods."

"Oh, "replied Mrs. Meanwell, "if this is about his religion, then of course the trees must be preserved."

"He can either have his sandpit or the trees. He can't have both," replied Joe." There is no room. In any case, if he strips the bark from the oaks they will die soon enough."

"All right," said Mrs. Meanwhile, giving in to the logic of it, "The trees will have to go. But we'll pay for the bark and import the one year old she-camel's hearts and the sand."

But the Stranger was deeply offended by the chopping down of the fine old oaks. The Spirits of field and flower, wind and rain, dwelt among the trees. Now they were homeless.

The Stranger brooded upon the savagery and depravity of the British. He drew forty- four pounds a week Job Seeker's Allowance but never found a job. Joe pointed out that this might be because he spoke no English. But Mrs. Meanwell and the professor would have none of it. Why should he be made to speak a foreign language if he didn't wish to?

Meanwhile the Stranger took his daily bath of sand, consumed his one year old she- camel's heart and his bark on a Friday and mostly kept to his small room, which overlooked a dreary suburban car park, strewn with litter. But the spirits of the air, the earth, and the forest answered not his prayers. Maybe they had despaired and returned to the simplicity of the old country, the dunes and the open skies?

In due course he left his room started to talk to other strangers in the boarding house. Like him, all were unemployed, all lived on a pittance in similar small rooms overlooking the dreary suburban car park, strewn with litter. They were all depressed, but even if they had taken anti-depressant drugs, they would have become re-depressed by the gangs of crew-cut yobs who came in drunk late at night with their tarty young girls with their panties showing above their diminutive skirts. They loathed talent-less pop music. They couldn't understand the young people and couldn't understand the songs (Note: this problem is not confined to immigrants with little English, but they were not to know that). Mrs. Meanwell's lodgings were tolerant, but at heart nobody cared a toss about anyone else.

Then in the mind of the Stranger new ideas grew. His old way of life, listening to the voices of the spirits in the forests and open spaces, was superior to all this dirt and hustle and futile bustle, was it not? These Englishmen and their American masters were raping and desecrating the environment of his home country, indeed of their own countries. They had even destroyed the fine old English oaks in the garden outside! They should be punished. This was clearly Truth, and naturally superior in every way to the beliefs of the indigenous locals. If Mrs. Meanwell and her compatriots were trying to wipe out the way of life of his people, then he should instill terror into their hearts until they withdrew from the holy places of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It was the duty of all Animists to be at one with nature and to atomize themselves by blowing themselves up so that nothing of their corporeal selves could be found and the little bits and pieces could return to nature in honour of the gods of the natural world.

This Western culture, thought the Stranger, is a culture in catastrophic decline. If he went on living under Mrs. Meanwell's roof he would die of ennui and lack of meaning in his life; on the other hand, if he returned home he would die of whirlwinds, hurricanes, monsoons, excessive droughts, stray animals and fearsome tribesmen. Not to mention being murdered by his former lover's husband.

In his own language the Stranger wrote down these thoughts and for the first time in history produced a holy Animist text. He claimed that his writings had been found under a bush on Hampstead Heath, outside a pub. He began to publicly promote himself as the new prophet and to preach death and destruction to the inmates of Mrs. Meanwell's boarding house.

In his holy book the Stranger referred to capitalism and Western culture as the Toofar (maybe because it all went too far). A good Animist should not take a job. To do so would be to make a contribution to the Western capitalist system that chops down forests for lumber, that destroys the habitats of animals to search for oil, and that increases the human population through medical advances, putting untold pressure on the environment. The West, he believed, has up-turned the age-old balance between nature and mankind, and in return for Reeboks is offering noise, ugliness, and the elimination of the old spirit gods.

"But," said others in Mrs. Meanwell's boarding house, "You have taken these people's hospitality. They have sheltered you and given you money and fresh sand from the Bahamas, not to mention the hearts of one year old she-camels. They have built you your sand-pit and have even cut down their old oak trees to please you. If you are so unhappy, why don't you go home and worship your old familiar gods?"

"I must attack the heart of the beast," replied the Stranger, through the interpreter, for learning English was Toofar. " It is you people here who greedily consume, who encourage monoculture, build roads and dam rivers; who foul the air and water and destroy hundreds of wild species every year. I cannot defend the spirit world alone in my own country."

Joe wanted to deport the Stranger. "He takes and gives nothing back. He whinges all day and then threatens to terrorize us in the name of pixies and elves. It's medieval. Toleration and free speech are all very fine, but he's a nutter and an extremist. Get rid of him! Put him on the first plane home!"

"Oh, dear," said the professor, "here we go again. You cannot deport people to countries where they might be tortured or killed. Equally you cannot deport people granted asylum, or citizenship. This country has a fine history of offering sanctuary to dissidents and there is no legislation that will allow us to interfere. So forget it."

"Even if he's planning to kill us?" asked Joe. "I think we should call the police."

"It would be racial profiling to report him to the police," replied the professor. "In any case the police are busy 'community policing', which means driving around in squad cars waving cheerily at everyone in a saree. The last thing they want to do is to upset the community (Note 2) by making an ethnic arrest. I think you must be getting paranoid, Joe," he replied. "He'll never foul his own nest."

The Stranger, however, had by now purchased some plastic explosives, freely available through the Toofar internet. On the day after the conversation reported above, he blew the lodging house to smithereens, taking with him Mrs. Meanwell, Joe, the professor, and other innocent folk. The Stranger is now in paradise. In due course his atoms will be re-cycled and he may become part of a sandpit in a suburban garden in London or a body part of a one year old she-camel. Who knows?

This is a distressing end to the story, but we can console ourselves with the fact that Mrs. Meanwell did mean well.

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Note 1: The University of Essex is best known for its Social Science courses and as the alma mater of many multiculturalists.

Note 2: The word "community" in Britain is a code word for any minority that isn't white and English. The leaders of these minorities have incomprehensibly allowed the expression to be used on a daily basis, thus setting them apart and subtly contributing to racism. As soon as the average Brit hears the word "community", he tunes out.