This is a collection of stories which are kind of writing themselves. They come into the shop, and then get stuck inside the shopkeeper’s head. And as the shopkeeper doesn’t have a very big head, this seemed the best way way of emptying them out again. That is to say, sharing them. No, they’re not true stories. They are, rather, a mish mash of the kaleidoscope of life experiences that pass through our emporium….
The red ones were meant to be the best, but Jordan had always liked the green ones. Although if he was honest this probably stemmed from his misguided attempts to buy popularity with food. If he could offer all the red ones to the Back Tree Crew, he had discovered, they would leave him alone. At least until lunchtime. And so he had cultivated a liking for the green ones, the ones that no-one else wanted. Today it was Star Mix. Tomorrow was the best: jelly baby day. He popped the last sticky planet into his mouth just as the bell rang, and slammed out of the toilet cubicle at a rate of knots.
It was PE next period, and he had contemplated hiding in the prop cupboard. But that would only mean more trouble in the long term. He was just fat enough for them to make fun of. If he was a bit fatter they’d have left him alone out of pity.
He didn’t mind that he was always the last to be chosen for team games. Nor was it important that he was also always last in races. But the constant verbal ribbing that went with it was intolerable. He would just hang his head in sorry shame and try to shut it all out. The one time that he had retaliated (by pushing the offender over and sitting on him – oh what a lovely sound all that squealing had been) he had been caught by the teacher and put in detention.
He had his PE kit on already, under his school clothes (anything to reduce the ridicule of having to change in front of his class mates) which meant that he was straight out on to the playing field. He had discovered that if he hung back against the gym doors he would occasionally get left out all together. He’d tried staying behind in the changing rooms, but that left him open to even greater unpredictable peril. Today looked like a running day, or worse: relay! Relay racing left him so vulnerable to poking and teasing on every quarter that he’d thought of wearing a hat saying ‘Hit me – I’m a fat spotty loser’. It couldn’t get any worse.
It took a sweaty hour before he was in tears. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault really: it was a big class and the guy couldn’t afford to carry lame dogs. Jordan had tried really really hard. He’d run harder than ever before: his knees, thighs, cheeks were burning mottled red, and he was wheezing like the neighbours’ stupid overweight pitbull. Everything hurt. And still it wasn’t good enough. “C’mon Jordan,” said Sir, without malice, “The athletic club’s waiting to use the tracks, you know.”
He looked up from where he’d buckled on to the damp grass: the whole of his form were looking at him. And most of them were laughing. Except those whose team he had let down; they weren’t laughing at all. It was only practice, but that didn’t make any difference to these guys: they’d failed because of him, and failure brought disrespect. And respect was the letter of the law in this area. Even to eight year olds.
He tried following the PE teacher back into the changing area, but found that someone was standing on his laces. It was Damien: three and a half feet short, but the most ferocious of all his classmates. Everyone was a little bit afraid of him; said he carried a knife, and that his brother was inside for murder.
“Oi Fats! Your lace is undone!” said the boy. “Best do it up – you wouldn’t want to go falling over now.”
As he bent to comply, a grass-smeared trainer rammed into his back, and he went sprawling into a muddy puddle. He braced for more, but mercifully heard the culprit and his acolytes running indoors.
He waited a few minutes before getting up slowly and creeping inside. The coast was clear so he changed quickly (no shower, no naked, not at school, never) and headed for the side door, out of the school, the long way home. He always took a different route, never the straightest: anything that would take him in a different direction from the other kids. He supposed that he was some degrees of safe at Thorpe’s; outside was a Jordan eating jungle. He was about to turn into the High Street when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Damien! And three of his mates.
“Hey Fats! We’re bored with your minging sweets. You’ll need to do better than that in future to amuse us. We’ve got a task for you.”
Jordan realised he was backed tightly against the wall, clutching his schoolbag in front of him like a shield. He said nothing, as there was nothing to say. He’d given up shouting for help a long time ago.
“There’s a shop on the next corner, see,” said his nemesis, who reeked of smoke. “Bastard won’t sell us any baccie. So you’re going to go in and take it for us. You go in, grab the stuff, and come out again, right? If you want an easy life, that’s what you do.”
Shit. Now they were asking him to steal. This was heavy. He knew the shop they were talking about as well: corner shop, kinda weird and scary.
“What you waiting for, you fuckin’ ginger ponce?” Damien’s face was inches from his now, so Jordan shut his eyes, and took a deep breath. He couldn’t wish them away, but he knew this would steady his nerves.
“’kay Damien. If’s what you want,” he mumbled. He opened his eyes and moved forward; as he did his tormentors parted to let him through. This was terrible, and he thought he might throw up.
He shuffled into the main road, and passed the shop, looking casually inside as he passed. It was not a regular tobacconist: hey, they sold books, and vases, and all sorts in there. The man behind the counter was talking to some customers, his back turned to the street. And the cigarettes were right behind him. This would be hard. He looked over his shoulder to see Damien and his pals watching from round the opposite corner. Two ladies came out of the shop, and the shopkeeper vanished towards the back wall… to pick up his phone. Here was his chance: the man was distracted, talking.
He did an about turn and pushed the shop door, which jingled terrifyingly. The man looked at him briefly, and then carried on talking. There was CCTV and all: Jordan was doomed. He’d be in the young offenders institute in no time. His life was over. He sniffed.
Keep moving, Jordan, he told himself. If you faff around too much the geezer will get suspicious.
He lunged towards the counter and grabbed the first tobacco that his hands came across, and then pushed off to race out again, his heart beating wildly. But the shopkeeper was faster, and slammed the door on his paunch and shoulder. A firm hand pulled him back into the shop, and he just dropped the tobacco in terror. For the second time in the space of quarter of an hour he found himself hoping that he wouldn’t wet himself. As it was his mother would be so ashamed of him, and his dad…well, his dad had already given him up as a lost cause.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing?” said the shopkeeper, a jolly looking man who seemed to be having trouble collating his facial features into a serious expression. He looked grandfather-old to Jordan, although was probably only in his fifties, and had twinkly eyes shining out from a mass of greying facial hair: beard, moustache, eyebrows. “You’re not old enough to smoke, and no-one’s ever old enough to steal,” he continued, “So what’s it about, fella?”
Jordan couldn’t help himself: he looked over his shoulder to see if he was being watched – but Damien and friends were nowhere to be seen. The shopkeeper picked up on this. “Dare, was it?” He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and propelled him towards the interior of the shop. “It’s alright – they can’t see you from outside. They’ll just assume that you’re being beaten senseless by my security team, before the police lock you up and throw away the key.”
The shopkeeper had given up trying to look ferocious, and although Jordan was certain he was still in very deep trouble, he had stopped hyperventilating. That had been a joke, right?
“Are the police coming?” he stuttered: he had to be sure.
“Only if you’ve got a crime to report,” replied the shopkeeper. “Do you think I should call them?”
“Well, yes,” said Jordan, in spite of himself. “I mean, I don’t want you to, but if I was you I would of. But you ‘aven’t, ‘ave you?”
“No. No, I haven’t. But that doesn’t mean that you are off the hook. What’s your name, young man?”
“Jordan,” said Jordan, “J for jelly wobbles, O for orang-utan – that’s ‘cos of me ginger cornbraids, you see mister – R for reject, D for dickhead, A for accident (that’s ‘cos ‘chelle says Mum didn’t mean to have me), N for no, not never, nohow.” He looked up at the shopkeeper, expecting laughter: playing the self-deprecating clown was a role that came instinctively to him, and humour had often been his only weapon.
But the shopkeeper looked pained. “Well it could also be J for Jason, O for Odysseus, R for Rostam, D for David, A for Achilles, and N for NEVER say NEVER,” he said, cryptically. “Where do you live Jordan? If it’s not too far away, why don’t we have a nice cup of tea and a chat, and then you should get cracking before your folks start to worry.”
While the shopkeeper vanished into a cubby hole and rattled mugs, sugar, and kettle, Jordan found himself answering all manner of questions. And relaxing. It was an odd shop alright, but now that he had time to look around there was some cool stuff. Drums, for starters. Books all over the place. And most interestingly, lots of food.
He told the shopkeeper about Mum working nights at the club, and about Dad’s garage, and about Michelle and Christian, his much-older half-siblings. His father was Jamaican, his mother English. They’d never married, were now very much separated, and Jordan often felt that his existence just irritated the pair of them, like a bit of grit in your shoe that makes you walk all funny but that you just can’t seem to get rid of. Not that his mother didn’t try hard: she did all the right motherly things, but there was this new boyfriend. He hesitated at this. This was new territory to Jordan, voicing his thoughts.
“Go on, Jordan, if you want to,” said his new friend, proffering some rather exquisite looking cakes.
“Brian’s alright,” he continued, fortified by sponge and icing, “Well, he’s alright to Mum. But he doesn’t like black people, I’m sure of that. And I know my skin’s white, but I just don’t look like Mum or ‘chelle. And then when I’m round at Dad’s no-one ever really believes that I’m his ‘cos I don’t look like him either. Dad’s got really cool dreads,” he added, smiling at the thought that he might be allowed to grow some too one day.
“So,” said the shopkeeper, “You’d better get going. But tell me about this dare, Jordan. You don’t smoke, do you?”
Jordan shook his head.
“So the tobacco was for someone else, who coerced you into it? Are you being bullied, child?”
Again Jordan said nothing, but looked into the little man’s twinkly eyes. This man was talking to him. Not at him, or above him, or below him. But to him. He didn’t like the subject matter of this particular conversation for sure, but astonishingly, Jordan had entered the corner shop to steal, and was leaving it having made a new friend.
The clock above the till said 5 o’clock: time to get home. Just about time enough to get chips on the way. Damien would be long gone, and the coast should be clear. “Er, thank you, mister,” he said, and unsure of what to do he held out his hand. The man shook it solemnly. “Goodbye, Jason Odysseus Rostam.”
The form teacher hadn’t yet arrived when he walked into the class room at school the next day, but there was an uncanny hush as he made his way to his desk. And then he realised there were an awful lot of eyes trained on him.
“So tell us, Fats: what happened?” said Joey Thomas, in an almost reverential tone. Curiously there was no sign of Damien, although Micky and Anthony, two of his accomplices, had gathered round with the rest of the class.
The penny dropped then: he had been nicked for shoplifting, and yet had somehow lived to tell the tale.
Sensing an opportunity, he cleared his throat: “Ah, well, you see…” but was interrupted by Mr. Tyler coming into the room and calling for attention. It would have to wait until break time, by which time maybe he could come up with something credible and yet creative.
When the bell rang we took himself off outside to the far side of the playground. It was by the main road, and also in sight of the staff room, and so he felt relatively safe there. He had just unwrapped the top of a Wispa bar, and was contemplating it lovingly, when the posse appeared.
“Come on, Jordan,” said Anthony, “Howd’ya get away?”
“Nearly didn’t,” he replied, taking a bite of the chocolate: it was comforting. “Dude’s a vampire, isn’t he? You totally don’t want to know what he’s got in the back of his shop – all these things in jars. Bits of animal, fingers, babies. I was proper scared, I was. Said he was hungry and that he was gonna bite my neck ‘n’all, but then I pointed out to him that as I’m so fat he could just have some blood anyway. Not like I’d miss it. So he stuck this thing in my arm and took all this blood out.” And he showed them the puncture marks where the neighbours’ dog had bitten him last night: realistic enough he figured. “Said I should go back once a week otherwise he’d come after all my school friends and my family.”
Judging by the circle of dumbstruck faces surrounding him, they all believed him. He nibbled off some more chocolate to hide his grin, and shook his head theatrically, as if with the burden of his unimaginable fete.
He was actually rather peeved now, as they were spoiling his enjoyment of the confection, so he folded his arms to let them know that the audience was finished.
Damien turned up after lunch and sat in the back row glaring at Jordan. But it was reading hour, and so there was nothing that the little squit could do to spoil Jordan’s new found role. And after school Jordan as good as sprinted out of the gates. For once he took a direct route, not home, but to the cornershop. He didn’t have a plan, he realised, and he didn’t even know what had drawn him back there (surely it wasn’t just the cakes?), but he just felt it was the right place to be.
The shopkeeper was actually behind the till poring over a book when he jangled the door, but didn’t speak ‘til Jordan was level with the counter.
“Hello David Achilles!” he boomed.
“Hello Sir,” he said, suddenly feeling a bit foolish. “I just came to say sorry. For yesterday, I mean. I’m really sorry I tried to steal from your shop.”
“Apology accepted,” said the shopkeeper, and went back to his reading. “Be with you in a mo,” he continued. “Just trying to find the bit about Phineus and the Harpies for you.”
But Jordan’s attention had been attracted to a pile of floury cubes piled on a tray on the deli counter. Actually, come to think of it, what was behind the glass was also pretty interesting: meats, and cheeses, and olives.
“Here you go fella. Have a browse of this,” and the shopkeeper pulled up a little step stool for Jordan to sit on.
“What sort of shop is this?” blurted Jordan.
“Hm, now, let’s see. Well, it’s a corner shop, and a curio shop, and a bazaar. I think I’ve just filled it with stuff that I like, really. Middle Eastern mostly. Now read, and then we’ll have some mint tea. And Turkish Delight.”
Feeling a bit daft, Jordan started to read. He read about Jason, this hero guy, and how he chases off these ugly smelly birds (hah! reminds him of Melissa Jones in Year 4) who are stopping a poor old blind geezer from eating. And how the blind man is so happy that he gives lots of useful information to Jason. Which helps him on his quest to find a golden hoodie or something. The story was actually a bit daft, he thought, but the description of the Harpies made him smile, and he felt really sorry for Phineus: fancy having all your favourite foods covered in bird poo.
He closed the book and went towards the back of the shop, where Mr. Shopkeeper had laid out some little glasses full of green liquid, and a plate of the white cubes he had seen earlier.
“What did you think of Jason?” his host asked.
“Was it a fairy story?” asked Jason, wrinkling his nose at the smell of the strange tea. “’Mean, s’not real, now is it?”
“Well, I don’t know. It could’ve been,” mused the shopkeeper. “Jason is legendary. That is to say that someone like him probably did exist once, but there were so many stories about him that the truth kind of got lost somewhere. What you have just read is one of many many many Greek legends. The original super heroes. Well, except that many of them were really quite daft and selfish. But they all had hidden strengths. I’ve always loved stories like this.”
“I like them too!” said Jordan, much as anything to please his friend. And for the same reason he sipped at the mint tea, which was ugh but just about drinkable. The sweets on the other hand were a revelation to him. Soft and fragrant; he couldn’t help thinking that they’d make a nice pillow. He had 50p at the bottom of his backpack he was sure, and so he solemnly asked the shopkeeper if he could buy some of the Turkish delights to take for his mother.
When he got home, Michelle was screaming abuse at Mum, and Mum was shouting back: something about a school trip. They barely looked up as he wandered through the lounge, and so he went to his room and shut the door to block out the noise. The sweets he had bought got put in a drawer for later – there was no way he wanted them to be shared with ‘Chelle. He picked up his X-Box joystick and started killing things idly, his mind elsewhere. When he heard the door slam (always ‘Chelle: how she could make a door closing sound sarcastic he had no idea), he went back into the living room to scour for the remote.
“What’s wrong, Jord? You look happy,” said Mum, sounding concerned. In a distracted kind of way. “There’s pie in the fridge and chips in the freezer and I’ll be back about 12 as usual love you bye,” she added without drawing breath, and then she was gone too.
Actually, he wasn’t hungry. Nor did he really want to watch telly. For a while he was just content to sit contemplating the pound shop triptychs on the wall and listening to the crackling silence of the flat. Which for once didn’t seem too menacing. Something has changed, he thought.
Trouble was, Damien didn’t believe in vampires. So trouble was indeed waiting for him when he got in the next morning. The quiet respect that he’d enjoyed the previous day was replaced by challenge and hassle the moment he entered the classroom. But he was prepared for it.
“Vampire, eh?” said Damien, jabbing the desk (an improvement – previously Jordan’s shoulder would have played the role of the desk), “You must think we’re all really stupid.”
A few of the class shuffled uneasily for some reason. “What really happened, Jordan?” asked Rachel. He hated Rachel. She was built to the same proportions as he was, and yet not only was she not teased, she was a bully to boot. But she was unfathomably and annoyingly friendly with Maisie, whom he thought to be the most beautiful thing he’d ever laid eyes on.
“Alright, I admit it,” said Jordan, holding his hands up in a ‘it’s a fair cop’ kind of way, “I ended up down the nick, didn’t I? In a cell. Man, I’m eight years old and I’ve got a criminal record. Case will take a while to come to court tho’.”
Damien looked at him in disgust. It would take a lot for him to beat this new development. Just getting nicked carried such kudos.
“Yeah, like we believe that ‘n’ all,” he spluttered. But it was obvious that everyone did. It was, after all, the only rational explanation.
That afternoon he went back to the cornershop. The owner was having a late lunch: flat bread, white cheese, spicy olives. Which was better than Cheese-strings and crackers, Jordan decided after his third mouthful.
This time he went and browsed through the books along the side walls, and was soon reading about Achilles, the reluctant and vengeful hero.
In the days and weeks that followed, he learned about Odysseus, Rostam, David. And Cu Chulainn, and Gilgamesh, and Heracles, and Rama, and Beowulf. Sometimes the shopkeeper was there, sometimes his wife (who was equally as smiley as her husband). Some days he stayed just ten minutes or so: others, if he knew that Mum was out anyway, he stopped there awhile, shared their tea, helped out a bit if he could. And when he went home, he’d draw pictures of the things that he’d read about. In bed at night he was a famous warrior of old, invincible, huge, flaming red hair, roaring, strong.
Damien was making a big show of ignoring him. In fact, so were quite of lot of his class, but that didn’t bother Jordan: it was so much better than his treatment at their hands before. He didn’t care: the summer hols were approaching, and Dad had agreed to help him find fencing classes. Well, he’d made it clear that he’d have preferred his son to do boxing – but he was so pleased, Jordan guessed, that any exercise at all had been suggested that he’d even given him £20 to go buy himself some sports gear. Fencing! Just fancy it: he could learn how to sack Camberwell, rout New Cross, conquer the Elephant and Castle.
On the last day of term they were let out early. A stream of noisy, hyper kids, vrooming off to six weeks of eagerly-anticipated boredom. Jordan went round to the cornershop; he said he’d help with fixing and pricing up some new pictures that had come in. Later he was sitting quietly on his pet stool towards the back of the shop, on this occasion with King Arthur and some houmous, when there was an awful commotion at the front. And…the unmistakable sound of his mother. Who was meant to be at Bluewater with Brian. Panic and confusion mingled with curiosity: why was she there-what was going on-was he in trouble again-what should he do? He could hear another voice now: someone called PC Barker. PC? As in police? He strained to hear what they were saying – there was so much stuff in the shop that it absorbed a lot of the noise – and immediately wished that he hadn’t.
“….molesting a child….serious offence….Jordan’s whereabouts…”
No, this is all wrong, he thought. And then there they all were, standing in front of him, squeezed in between the bongos and the backgammon boards: a row of very confused and cross looking people.
“As I was saying…” the shopkeeper was saying. He looked at Jordan with a very sorrowful expression. And Jordan couldn’t meet his gaze. Whatever was happening, this was all wrong.
The policeman had taken one look at Jordan, sitting there comfortably with books spread out all around him and lunch on the shelf next to him, and at the shopkeeper’s wife, who had emerged from the backroom, and closed his notebook. “I don’t think there’s much of a case to answer here, Ms. Soames,” he said, quietly.
“What you doing here, Mum?” said Jordan, accusingly. “This is Mr. Shopkeeper, my friend,” he continued, as if a formal introduction would eradicate what had apparently been a very bad beginning, “And this,” he said, pointing, “is my Mum.”
His mother looked bewildered. “But ‘Chelle said that Shaneen said that Davina said that Damien said that you had gotten with some bad company. And she followed you yesterday after school. I didn’t know that, well, that you came here to eat. I didn’t know what to think. You are my son,” she concluded, almost inaudibly.
“I come here to read, Mum. And to see my friend. The food’s good, but the books are better. I think we should go home,” he said finally, feeling very wretched.
Michelle and Shaneen and Davina! The interfering little bitches. Shaneen was ‘Chelle’s best friend, and Davina was Damien’s sister; both families lived opposite Boris Johnson Heights, in the apparently gossip infested Ken Livingstone block.
When they got home, without saying a word he went to his room, where he solemnly recovered the packet of Turkish Delight that he’d purchased and gave it to his Mum.
“Oh Jordan,” she said. She didn’t have any make-up on today, he noticed, and she looked both young and tired.
“I’ll make us some tea,” he offered, brightly, although inside he was still stinging. Things had somehow conspired to destroy the one friendship that he valued, and Mum was all troubled. She didn’t seem to know what to say when he brought the mugs in, and so he sat and told her about Rudaba, the mother of Rostam, and how when her baby was born it was so fat that she had the first ever caesarean section. “Just like me, Mum. I was too fat to come out normally, wasn’t I? And Zal (that’s his dad) and Rudaba were from different kingdoms as well: just like you and dad. She was beautiful too, like you; she had a mouth of, er,” he bit his lip trying to remember the words, “pomgrate blossom”. That made her burst out laughing.
And then, much later, when she’d cooked them a lovely bit of steak, and seeing as Brian was down the pub and ‘Chelle on a sleepover, he told her about Damien, and the shoplifting, and everything. And about the fencing. She wasn’t too happy about the latter at first, but he suspected that that was just ‘cos Dad had fixed it up for him, and not her.
Next day when he woke up, late of course because you have to get up late on the first day of the holidays, he nearly fell over a parcel on the floor by his bed. There was a note attached with his name at the top.
“Jord,” said Mum’s wispy handwriting, “Gone to Lakeside. Txt me if you want anything. Back 4. Went to see your friend this morning to thank him for helping you.
We thought He suggested that you might like these. x”
He opened the parcel, and inside was a new paperback translation of the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, the story of Rostam, and an old battered copy of the Iliad and the Odyssey. He hugged them close, and smiled.
September 6th: back to school. Jordan was exceedingly pleased that he hadn’t actually thrown up: it was always hard going back, and in previous years he had felt sick to the core with dread. A fear which spread up from the toes and made his tummy turn. This year it was just a routinely unpleasant thing to have to do, and he was up and dressed even before Mum knocked on his door.
It had been a good Summer, he thought, on his way to school. Brian had been given the boot, and he and Mum and Michelle had even had a week’s holiday in a caravan somewhere nice. And the fencing was the biz: he was hooked from the first, and had been going twice a week. The club was over near Canada Water, but it was a real easy bus journey. Then there was the cornershop: he didn’t go every day, but the door at least was always open for him.
His classmates looked at him a bit funny when he arrived, but then he remembered that he had changed a bit. He’d lost nearly two stone for starters, and well, he was just there, in the middle of things, rather than hiding in the periphery.
At breaktime Jordan was eating an apple over in the corner, when he heard a strangulated shout and looked up. Damien, Micky and another boy were crowded round one of the playground bins. Jordan could see a pair of cheap-shoe-clad legs waving around at shoulder height. On closer the inspection the shoes were revealed to contain Matty, a bespectacled, geeky, quiet boy from Year Six. Matty, whose head was currently in the bin. This would not do.
A fire was lit in the breast of the lion-hearted one, who was bigger than a mountain and faster than the wind. All who beheld his flaming hair and black burning eyes would quake with fear and swoon in front of him. He seized the satchel of burnished plastic, and whirled it above his head, as with a roar loud enough to rattle the distant estates, he bore down on the Divs who were about such foul deeds. White they turned, before fleeing with pitiful wails to the far corners of the kingdom. Never to trouble Jordan, son of the brave-locked spanner wielding Jackson and the lipstick-bedaubed kind-worded Karen, or his subjects, again.
Mahmoud and Sara, Part One: Autumn
The morning announced itself in headache form first, a thumping that he knew would only get worse if he moved. But as grey light started poking at the shabby unlined curtains, he dragged himself to a sitting position and lit a cigarette. He felt small and vulnerable in the bed without Magda there next to him: her plump prettiness and stoic smile had brought solidity to a life which he usually regarded as at best fluid. He often felt that he was walking through layers and layers of voile, like the curtains at Ma-Jun’s house, where everything seemed blurred and just out of reach. Summer in the mountains, the smell of saffron and smoked rice, the exquisite sweetness of melon juice with rose water, the sheer excitement of sleeping on the verandah in the heat: these things belonged to a different Mahmoud, he kept telling himself – but he knew that he would do anything to make them real again and see his grandmother one last time.
Dizzy from the illicit nicotine rush and reeling from the effects of one too many beers with Farhad the night before, he staggered to the sink and filled the kettle. As he waited for it to boil, he took a look around his room. Soon to be their room. Sara would be here in five hours. He should feel excited, or at least happy: not depressed and agitated. This room would never do for his bride: it barely did for him. Unbelievably, Magda had helped him to clean it before she left, and had ironed his airport suit, but even with the flowers and fruit and new bed linen he had bought yesterday it still looked like the seventh gateway to immigrant hell – a rented fleapit in a noisy, dilapidated boarding house.
His stomach was turning too much for breakfast, and so he settled for a second tea laden with nabat, the crystallised sugar used by Iranians as a remedy for dyspepsia: in Iran he had always been thought of as a lad with a warm constitution, but since coming to this country everything had been cold, cold, cold. He dressed quickly, and grabbing his car keys headed out of the door and down into the weak morning sunshine. He instinctively liked England, and refrained from the habitual moaning about the climate in which even the British indulged, but it seemed to him that the weather over the Old Kent Road was always yellowed and suppressed, choked with traffic fumes and the memory of a faded glory it had never actually enjoyed. Still, the fresher air cheered him, and he allowed himself an almost eager grin as he set off in his battered Toyota.
The Sunday morning traffic was light, and he made good progress as he headed West, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as he listened to a scratched and very worn Googoosh album on the stereo. Slowed to a crawl by the regulation jam on the A4, he cautiously twisted his rear view mirror to study his image: something he rarely did in anything other than the most circumspect manner. He had taken to shaving almost daily to keep the telltale grey speckles from creeping through in his beard: he was only thirty one, but he wanted to keep things that way. Like a lot of his compatriots Mahmoud felt cheated of several years by events out of his control: if the world didn’t exactly owe him, he reserved the right to manipulate his own time line to suit. He was a handsome chap, and he’d escaped the Iranian curse of a hooked nose; he was perhaps a little skinny, but that was what one had a wife for, no? WIFE. Right now his wife was on Iran Air Flight 711, and she would be landing in an hour. And tonight he would hold her in his arms again, the way that he had during their first months of marriage. For three years he had scrimped and saved and suffered, sending all his money back home, to his parents and to Sara, in the hope that she would, could, come and join him. Now she was on her way, and he was trying to shed himself of the sense of anti-climax that he had been feeling for the last forty eight hours. And the background persistent guilt that he was experiencing over Magda, although if he was honest, he was more than a little stung that she had found it so apparently easy to up and off.
Half past eleven, and he was swinging into the car park at Terminal Three, along with hundreds of his fellow countrymen it seemed. The thrice weekly procession of meeters, greeters and travellers was a sort of institution amongst London-living Persians, for they all lived within the ebb and flow of life in the diaspora and there were always comings and goings. He found it deeply comical to watch stilettoed, Dior-ed, stiff-coiffed women transform into chadhor-ed and almost respectful ladies in anticipation of their flight. And funny too to observe the same in reverse: bent over, shrouded compliance being progressively shed even as passengers disembark and proceed through customs, lipstick out, head scarves trailing. He had deliberately left off his tie: whilst not exactly banned in Iran it was regarded as a symbol of Western decadence, and he figured Sara would have enough strangeness to cope with. She was a good girl, Sara: she prayed, and fasted: he would have to cherish her, lead her gently into life in the UK. Had he changed? Did she, could she, still love him? He felt in many ways as if he had been switched off for three years, waiting for her to come and switch him back on again, suspended in foreign-ness, lost. But then there was this other Mahmoud, the one that went out sometimes, drank a bit, smoked, and had, very recently, slept and lived with another woman.
Twelve: the plane had landed. Mahmoud stood in the arrivals hall, feeling very small for the second time in one day, nursing a coffee which he had bought just so as to have something to do with his hands. Baggage in hall, noted the information screens above his head. Life about to get a lot more complicated, it may as well have said. What if passport control decided to question her? She had nothing to hide, and was travelling perfectly legitimately as the wife of a refugee, but tales of endless nitpicking by Customs were legion. Now there were Iranians emerging from the heavy swinging doors at ahead of him, tiny old ladies pushing unfeasible mountains of luggage, wide-eyed children, bleary-eyed adults in transit from Iran to the States. And suddenly there she was: Sara, curvaceous, raven haired, dark eyed, black clothed, his beautiful wife.
“Salaam, azizam.” Her voice always made him think of sherbet, sweet but shot through with a hint of something else. All those hours on international telephone calling cards, snatched conversations in between his pizza deliveries, the agonising late night sound of her sobbing crackling in the receiver. How they’d both yearned for this moment. Hadn’t they?
He was suddenly very grateful for the Iranian convention of public reticence, as his heart was pounding a beat of love, of remorse, and of terror. In his mind he swept her up twirled her round, laughing and crying all the while: in practice he smiled, put a twitchy arm around her waist, and began to steer both her and her baggage trolley towards the exit. He could feel her gazing at him, and sensed the well of questions bubbling up inside her, and began to brace himself. Awkward – why did this feel so awkward? Reaching the car, he stopped and twisted to look at her, and then they both smiled. She reached out a hand, and he took it and pulled her close. They were going to be fine, he was sure of it.
On the way back from Heathrow they chatted easily. Of her studies, recently completed at Hamadan, of his parents and her parents, and her sister’s new baby. She was a chatterbox, his Sara, and he was able to get away with the odd comment or grunt to indicate that he was paying attention. Every so often she would squeal and point at something that had caught her eye, although he was amused to think that she could have found anything of interest on the M4. As they neared Earls Court, it was Mahmoud who did more of the talking, pointing out shops and landmarks, gently trying to establish if she had any preconceived notions as to her new home. He should of course have remembered that the biggest culture shock of all would come from the sight of so many people, uncovered, moving freely, mingling, boys and girls, all together. Long flowing hair lifting in the autumn breeze. Brave legs bared against the seasonal hint of chill. Straps, arms, cleavage. Painted faces, nails, body art. A lingering public kiss outside the tube station, a jovial pat on the bottom for the girl swinging into her boyfriend’s car. Sara was now pressed fascinated against the window, staring at all this sudden western-ness. As they reached the embankment the silver streaming Thames caught her attention: it was an unprepossessing stretch of water, and he was amused by the way tourists and Londoners alike seemed drawn to it. To him it seemed to sing a soft sad song of gaining and losing.
“Sara-jun,” he said to her, breaking the reverie, “You must be hungry. We will eat at your restaurant: Sara Kebab!”
He turned right over Vauxhall Bridge and headed towards the Elephant and Castle, thinking wryly how exotic even the council estates of South London had looked when he first arrived. He pulled into a space near Sara Iran Food, a shabby looking café in a row of shabby looking shops. He knew it was good as he had visited it once before with Farhad: top kebabs, lovely bread – and no Magda memories hiding in the corner. He opened the passenger door for Sara, touching her hand tenderly as he helped her out: this had been one of their courting rituals, the casual but heartfelt stolen caress, and she recognised it as such and slipped her hand into his.
The restaurant was busy: Iranians loved to eat out, big family style, on a Sunday. But the harassed looking waitress found them a corner near the tanoor oven, and soon they had warm lavash bread, cheese and herbs set in front of them. Mahmoud ordered for them: chelow kebab, with saffron rice, and a jug of doogh – the fizzy salted yoghurt drink which seemed to go so peculiarly well with kebab. Sara gazed around the room, looking coyly at other young Iranian women, some covered and demure, others low cut and dyed blonde. The noise of chatter was almost overbearing, but as they ate their late lunch Mahmoud told her more about Iranian life in the UK, and his Iranian life in the UK. About the underrated art of pizza delivery, his circle of friends, the forthcoming Shadmehr Aghili concert to which he would take her. She in turn asked wifely questions that pleased him – what had he been eating, how did he do his washing – and others that did not: about whether he looked at English girls. A lock of silky dark hair fell across her face, and on reflex she reached to tuck it back inside her headscarf, but he stayed her hand; “It’s OK here,” he told her, “I don’t mind. Let it be your choice.”
On the way back to his lodgings, they stopped off at Super Gushet to collect some groceries. At least one of Sara’s suitcases was full of edible supplies and spices, and they needed very little, but he wanted her to see that there was a sort of home from home. Like the restaurant, the shop was busy with Iranian Sunday shoppers, and he could sense that his wife felt comfortable there. Whilst he picked up a newspaper and some pickles, she browsed the latest films and tapes from America, although he knew from experience that really she was eavesdropping on other conversations in the shop. The shopkeeper struck the right note between polite deference and friendliness as they paid, and Mahmoud noted with relief that with food inside her and their initial shyness behind them she was starting to relax.
He had made it clear all along that he and Sara would look for a flat together when she arrived. And he had warned her that his room was basic. But still he lingered by the door as she toured her new home, smelled the flowers, stroked the bedspread, inspected the shower cubicle in the corner. Finally she sat on the bed, and patted the mattress next to her. He shuffled over, all luggage and elbows, and perched next to her.
“It may not be a palace, Mahmoud. But I am home, here with you, and we will make a palace together.”
Mahmoud and Sara, Part Two: Winter
It is Winter. A statement, as well as the title of her favourite Shajarian CD, which even now is wailing mournfully on the kitchen table. Mahmoud is out with Farhad trying to pick up a second hand washing machine. She has opted to stay behind in the four-roomed flat which is their new dwelling. They do not have much to unpack, but still she wants to clean through and get on with it with an urgency which makes her smile: it is theirs, after all, at least for six months – they have signed for it, paid a deposit, it is home.
Sara should be happy, she knows. The new flat is bright, and it is situated on a corner which gives them good views over a small park. It is in Dulwich, about which she knows very little, except that it is sufficiently far from his old place for her to breathe a little more freely. The neighbours are a couple from Somalia, about which she also knows very little, but they are lovely people, and Awa, the wife, is friend material. Her English college is a short bus ride away, and although she had shown no aptitude for languages in Iran, she takes great pride in being top of the class here. This is all good, and when she rings her mother she fizzes with not-entirely-feigned enthusiasm for her new life with Mahmoud, the sights she is seeing, and the pleasant quirkiness of Englistan.
But she is harbouring a secret. Two, in fact. Deep in her belly something is growing, something which should be the greatest source of comfort and joy, and yet makes her feel a profound, churning, nauseating unease. Of course she wanted children, but she was cross that she had fallen pregnant so easily, so quickly. She has told no-one, for the act of acknowledging it to Mahmoud would be to make it more real than she could bear for now. It did not help that she knew that Iranian newly-weds had so much expectation heaped on them: making babies was almost important for a young bride as getting sticky golden tah-dik on rice. It also did not help that her beloved sister’s beloved baby had died two weeks ago. Cot death, they said. It happens, they said. But her sister, at 35 nearly ten years older than her, had longed for nothing more for as long as Sara could remember, and this makes her feel guilty for conceiving so effortlessly.
She moves to the sink to peel some potatoes: the boys would be back soon, so she would make kookoo for lunch, with fresh herbs and lavash bread. It was one of Mahmoud’s favourite dishes, and one that he had not eaten during the years of their separation, and so now he clamoured for it every other day.
The other secret should make her scream with rage and rave against the perpetrators, but strangely gives her a sense of knowledge, and thus power, and thus calmness. The calm at the centre of a storm. She had found it as she had been boxing their scant possessions ready to move. A photo, at the back of the wardrobe. Under his t-shirts. A picture of her husband with a laughing, fleshy, flashy blonde on his lap. Its discovery had shocked her to the tips of her toes and the roots of her hair: a tingle of horror which she could recreate even now just by thinking about it. For everything that she had done for the last three years had been founded on the knowledge that her man was a good, loyal man, and if the basis of that was false, she was left in a very dark, and lonely, place.
Still as she clatters over the stove she thinks of possible explanations for the photo: the blonde was a stranger who fell on to his lap, a waitress somewhere, someone else’s girlfriend. But if she was a nobody, why had he kept the photo?
The sound of a key in the door sends her scurrying to find her headscarf: the bitter irony of the fact that she now often leaves the house bare headed, and yet cannot appear thus in front of her husband’s oldest friend is not lost on her. The two men stagger in with the washing machine, which they plonk irritatingly in the middle of the carpet. It looks filthy, but Farhad, a plumber by trade, assures her that it is in good order and a real bargain to boot. Mahmoud reaches in and brings out a watermelon, the incongruity of which makes her laugh. Soon they are chattering over the omelette, and her darkness is temporarily dispelled. She has known Farhad since she was a little girl: he had introduced them, and had even been present when Mahmoud and his parents had gone khastegari, to ask for her hand in marriage. They had shared some good times, this trio.
Later that day, with dinner simmering on the stove, and the tiny television flickering in the corner, Mahmoud pulls her close on the couch, playfully patting her bottom. She pulls away, flustered. “Sara, what’s wrong? For the last week you have been distracted, distant. Are you ill? Is everything alright? Are you homesick?” He seems genuinely concerned, and she is feeling vulnerable, emotional and tired. So she tells him. Not all of it, but she lets him know that he is to be a father.
For a while they lose themselves in that special bond that exists between expectant parents: of unbearable tenderness, unutterable love, and excited speculation.
But later she stands in tears amid the alien shower jets, trying to wash away the confusion and divorce herself from the feelings of isolation and despair that keep encroaching. And fighting the inexplicable urge just to vanish.
Mahmoud and Sara, Part 3: Spring
Mahmoud walked round to open the car door for his wife. He found himself thinking that he had never seen her look so beautiful, or confident. A little dress over her almost visible bulge, and leggings, and big filmstar sunglasses. Her hair shone in the March sunshine: she had coloured it in some way, he had noted recently, but the overall effect was stunning so he’d refrained from mentioning it.
It was just before Nowrooz, a time when all Iranian thoughts turn lightly to things of the family, and spring, and new beginnings. Super Gushet was bustling: balloons swayed outside, keeping time with the frenetic bandari music playing inside. Iranians were flocking to buy the trappings for the New Year: the bits and bobs that made up the haftsin, or ceremonial spread, and an unfeasible quantity of sweetmeats. Sara had already vanished into the interior, swinging a basket, and exchanging greetings with the owner’s wife. It amused him the way the shopkeeper took customers under his wing, and, too, the way that many of the young Iranians (and he had to include himself in this) treated the place as a non-citizens’ advice bureau. He selected a pair of likely looking goldfish (one with streaks like Sara’s hair, and one with a bristly moustache like the one that she had just made him shave off), and joined her at the pastry counter where a harassed looking lad was boxing sweets as fast as she could point out the ones that she wanted. When they went up to the till much was made of what a big year it would be for them, and, just briefly, things got rather emotional. Nowrooz was a poignant observation for those living outside Iran, the time when homesickness was most likely to strike. He had wept that first year, in the refugee shelter, on his own.
And then they were outside, carrying bags and boxes and good wishes. She looked happy, he observed: the dark shadows that seemed to have haunted her in her first few months in England had lifted.
Back at the flat he swiftly released the fish into the little tank they had prepared, whilst Sara unpacked the food and other items. They had set up their New Year table near the window so that the flowers and wheatgrass they had planted would grow tall and strong: she now added some brightly painted eggs, and a bowl of shiny red apples. He set about making some tea while she fiddled around with the phone trying to get through to her mother and sister. They’d been trying to make do with mobiles, but with a baby on the way, he’d thought it better to have a landline installed. He took his tea down into the pocket-sized garden to have a smoke and enjoy the almost-spring air.
“Sara! It’s getting late,” he called, after she’d been chatting for nearly an hour. “Sala’am Beresoon, say hi from me.”
They were going to a Chahar Shanbeh Suri party at Crystal Palace, and had arranged to meet Farhad and Mehdi by the gates: he was worried about parking when they got there. She put the receiver down finally, and went into their little bedroom to change.
“Mahmoud, I’m so pleased we’re going tonight,” she said in the car. “It will feel almost like home. To think that Mama and Sepideh, and your parents too, that they’re all doing the same thing and thinking of us thinking of them…Well, it’s kind of exciting.” He had to admit he was looking forward to it too. There would be fireworks, and kebabs, and music, and, most importantly, fire. Ritual, cleansing, fire.
When they got there Farhad had already bought them tickets, and so they wandered through into the circle of flame-lit tents. It was packed to the extent that Mahmoud feared losing his wife, and so he tucked her arm firmly inside his as they meandered in and out of the stalls, eyeing up the CDs, pickles and handmade Nowrooz decorations on show. They bought baguettes filled with sliced tongue and pickled cucumbers, and made their way over to where an averagely talented young band was playing. He could feel Sara’s hips moving in time to the beat, and put his arms, sandwich and all, around her waist so that he could sway with her. The noise was deafening, but suddenly, in the heat from the nearby bonfire, in between the flickering light and the thick smokey darkness, he felt a silence, and a peace, and a completeness which he had not felt perhaps since boyhood.
Then just as quickly as it had arrived the moment was gone, and she was tugging his hand towards the area roped off for fire jumping, pointing ahead to where their friends were, over on the far side. Farhad was trying to explain the ritual, in his appalling English, to a couple of giggling girls: his body language was so terribly lascivious that Mahmoud suspected that was what had caused their mirth.
“We jump the fire for next year luck,” he told them, “Is one fire or three or five. And we steal from the fire,” he added, helpfully.
Sara had already set off across a row of little fires, chanting on the way. He was about to follow when he spotted a familiar blonde head bobbing around in the crowd ahead. His heart sank: Magda. And she was waving. But not at him thank goodness.
He must have rooted to the spot, as Sara had run round and was about to start leaping the flames again.
“Come on, lazy. This is what we’re here for,” she called. And then she added, closer up, “She’s with a Kurdish chap, you know. I wouldn’t let it worry you too much.”
He looked down into her eyes, and saw that she knew. That she had perhaps known all along. And he felt very stupid.
“Sara,” he began…
But she was off, leaping like a spring rabbit, laughing as she sang:
Sorkhi-ye to az man, zardi-ye man az to.
Your fiery redness is mine, my paleness is yours…
Mahmoud and Sara, Part 4: Summer
The baby is crying, but it is not the sort of night when they were going to enjoy much sleep anyway, Sara thinks. She starts to swing out of the bed, but Mahmoud is up first. “My pleasure,” he says, “I will miss even this while I am away.”
“And I will miss you too,” she says softly, to the pillows, after he has left the room with their daughter. She listens to the familiar sounds of the kettle going on, fridge noises, and the buzz of his voice as he talks soothingly to Maryam.
They have been blessed with a good baby who rarely cries, but the late summer has thrown up a wall of stifling humidity, and she is suffering from heat rash.
Sara drifts off to sleep again, and when she wakes Mahmoud is snoring gently in the chair next to the cot, next to their bed. It is 8am – time to get up. She has not finished his packing for him yet, and she wanted to pray. This was an act which she had not carried out for a long time, but since his announcement that he was going to Iran, and for reasons which were too poignant to explain, she had taken to performing basic morning namasz.
She showers quickly, leaving the door ajar in case Maryam wakes again, and towels herself dry. She looks at herself in the bathroom mirror: an onlooker would have taken her expression as one of satisfaction, but she is simply noting that all of her post-natal bulges have gone. Maryam herself is the only evidence that she has had a baby not two months before. Sara had determinedly shed all her extra kilos, and quite a few besides, so that now the woman looking back at her through the steamy glass was slender, and toned, and not entirely familiar.
Mahmoud’s mother had called the flat just a week ago, saying that both his father and his grandmother were in hospital, in different towns: whilst no-one had said as much, and although his father was certain to make a good recovery, it was clear that as a good son he had to go back, to visit Ma-Jun, and to do what he could to help. His ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in the UK had been granted during the summer, and his father had secured a waiver for his military service over there, and so there was nothing stopping him. Just two weeks, he had promised. Tempting though it was for her to go too, they really could not afford the air fare for all of them, and her passport was still with the Home Office.
And if she is totally honest, she is not quite ready to go back home. Not yet.
She wakes her husband tenderly, with a kiss to his forehead, and together they break fast. Maryam is now gurgling over her bottle. This, this routine, the flat, it will all be truly hard without him there, and so it is with solemnity that they don their airport clothes, he a dark suit bought newly for his trip, and she a long blue tunic over jeans.
It is nearly a year to the day since she arrived at Heathrow: what a very long journey it has been. Farhad pulls up outside in one of the pizza shop’s delivery vans: not the most stylish airport transfer, but she has not yet passed her driving test (nor is she likely to, according to Mahmoud). At least the presence of their clown-like friend will keep the mood light. In fact just the sight of her formally dressed husband sitting cross legged in amongst cold boxes and pizza packaging makes her laugh. She slips into the front seat with Maryam’s carry cot and listens to the boys’ cheeky chatter as they set off.
At the airport they queue silently to submit his gift-laden trio of luggage, Mahmoud rocking his daughter in his arms, gazing, transfixed. Sara has pulled a gold and turquoise scarf over her bleach blonde hair, and is fanning herself against the unaccustomed heat. Over nasty tea in the café, they talk of things they would do on his return, and his joint plans with Farhad to buy their own takeaway place.
And then suddenly he is gone, sucked in by the rush through passport control, and she is left with a slightly sodden hankie, a hungry baby, and a profound feeling of loss. That he will be back soon, she knows. That they will be fine, that everything will be fine, she has no doubt. But…
The shopkeeper nurses a cup of coffee and the unsettling feeling that the last customer was a tad sticky-fingered. Terrible feeling, that: wondering if something has been shop-lifted: anger and frustration injected into an otherwise innocent day. He shakes his head, and starts shuffling papers behind the till, orders, bills to pay, piles of trade magazines.
The door bell goes, and a slender, pretty blonde walks in, pushing a pram. She is wearing tight jeans, and high red heels, and a glittery, rather ugly t-shirt, but the thing that catches his eye is her long, painted nails.
With a jolt he realises it is Sara, the Dulwich pizza lad’s wife. Sara the demure, who was previously so shy. He had noticed that she had started to leave her headscarf off, but this was something else.
He asks after her husband even as he recalls that Mahmoud has gone to Iran. It would not do to query this new look, so instead, feeling foolish, he compliments her on those glorious, ridiculous nails. But he cannot quite bring himself to meet her eye.
She pays for her goods, smiling, and bounces out again, humming a strange tune, striding off into the autumn morning. He blinks, or at least assumes he must have done, as she just seems to disappear. In a flash of September sunlight. Obviously a trick of the light, he thinks. No-one just vanishes.
Another shop story coming soon…
© The Corner Shopkeeper 2010