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….
Ali turns the key in the lock, his hand shaking with cold-sweat excitement. He’s paid the deposit, he has a right to be here, his name is on the lease. It is just so big: 500 square feet or more. Needs a bit of work, for sure, but it is the beginning of the end of such a very long journey: inside he is quietly humming with happiness.
Soon his friends would be round with flasks of tea, with cakes, with their laughter and support. But just for now, in white-wash-windowed privacy, he walks to the middle of the empty store, spreads his ja-namasz in the dust, and kneels to pray. For without the help of Allah, both he and his dreams would surely have perished years and miles ago.
Bedraggled from running in the rain, smelling of the farmyard truck in which he’d been travelling through France, bleeding where the barbed wire had torn at his legs and hands. It was not an auspicious start to his relationship with his new homeland, not the way to make a good first impression. And his mobile wasn’t working, although he’d been assured that all he had to do was switch sim cards. His heart was pounding wildly: he was still inside the tunnel compound, and there was no sign of the other two who had crossed with him. He started to cross the railway tracks, heading for a dark corner where he was hoping he could break through. He’d just reached the far side when the beckoning shadows were flooded with light, and an amplified voice boomed out: “Move over to the side. Turn left and follow the tracks to the building on the right.” Just to make sure he understood, an official looking type was standing not ten yards from him, pointing.
Feeling pathetic, deflated, tearful almost, Ali complied, and was startled to see not only one of his two wagon jumping companions but a further dozen or so young lads all heading in the same direction. He shifted the rucksack on his back – his worldly possessions contained therein – and joined the solemn procession. They were searched gently at the door and their bags and pockets emptied. This is what Ali had in his rucksack:
1 shalwar kameez
1 threadbare towel
1 brand new fake Ralph Lauren shirt, starched
1 pair dirty socks
1 pair clean pants
½ French baguette, hard
1 empty water bottle
1 small pen knife
½ packet chewing gum
3 photos: his sisters, his father on a horse, and his mother with him when he was two
1 very small Koran
1 very old Walkman
His pockets contained his cousin’s phone number, his useless mobile, and his passport.
It didn’t seem a lot, laid out on the table: he was almost embarrassed. The icy tip of the cloud capped mountain that was his life. Images of the rest of it were never far away beneath the clouds: his mother making bread by the clay oven in the scullery, his dog, Rani, galloping alongside him as he roved the valley, the fireside murmuring of his father and friends deep into the night. He often wondered if all those things were still there, or if they had folded up, vanished in a ripple of dust behind him as he had walked away.
Finally they were shown into a room dotted with wooden chairs: it reminded Ali of his first classroom back in Meydan Shahr – sparse, intimidating and yet unavoidable. The brightness of the fluorescent lighting was like so many needles jabbing for his attention: he’d had his eyes pressed tight shut under the train to stop the nausea. But as his eyes adjusted, he saw that his fellow fallen comrades were in even more of a sorry state than he was. They were mostly Kurdish, he guessed, although there were three or four other Afghans, including a young teenage boy who was weeping openly at the back of the room.
A policeman entered the room: he was straight out of the old British comedy films Ali had seen – domed hat and no gun. A small, dark bristly man entered not one minute behind him and started shuffling papers on a table at the front.
“Ok, you can relax gentlemen. This is not a deportation centre. This is not even a prison. This is what passes for ‘Welcome to Britain’, if you like. We just want to know who you are and why you are here, and then we’ll set you on your way. If you help us, we’ll help you. And then we can all get home to watch the repeat of the match on satellite later,” said the police officer.
The smaller man was evidently Afghan himself, and the designated translator, as all of this information was soon relayed to them in Pashto, followed by Farsi. Which was just as well, as apart from ‘yes’, ‘no, and ‘thank you’, Ali’s knowledge of Ingleessi consisted of words he’d learnt from forbidden pop songs: love you baby, and feel me tonight, and up, up, up, hands up in the air, none of which he suspected were particularly useful. Their translator told them that they would be sent to a hostel in South London, where they could stay for up to a week, and that after that they would just have to wait and see.
One by one the new arrivals went up to the desk and gave their name, passport numbers (although some denied having a passport) and finger prints. Magically some biscuits and plastic beakers of foul strong tea arrived, which they snatched at eagerly.
After each one had been processed, they were herded on to a minibus. Ali could already feel weariness and relief taking hold. By the time they’d left the floodlit compound, he was asleep…
Seven days later, although it felt like a lot longer, he was sitting in his cousin’s shared, damp, crowded kitchen drinking green tea. It had been a bewildering, draining flurry of a week. But he was getting there – after two dawn trips to that refugee mecca, Lunar House in Croydon, and one to a malodorous solicitor on Rye Lane, he had a NASS (National Asylum Seeker Support) number, which was his meal ticket, and had been granted permission to lodge with Jawid in Peckham. He could not yet work officially, but for a very small wage he was to help at the No. 1 Fish Meat Shop next to where Jawid worked, cash in hand, no questions asked. But in truth, all he had wanted to do was to sleep. He had been walking for six months, and was enjoying the novelty of being able to sit without anywhere more pressing to go.
There were eight of them in the flat, all of them from the same valley, and most of them related in some way. Jawid was his closest relative in the UK – the son of his mother’s brother. He had been very kind, but there was a big age gap – Jawid was perhaps forty years old, and Ali just twenty two – and there were rumours that his cousin was a bit of a lad. It was Ali’s turn to cook that night, but the very act of thinking about preparing food, something so familiar, in such very unfamiliar surroundings, had unleashed a strong and unexpected wave of emotion, and he was feeling wretchedly, wretchedly homesick. He daren’t call his mother again for fear of breaking down on the phone: he’d call her tomorrow. He’d be fine by tomorrow, he was sure.
He would cook maush pulao, mung bean rice, with chicken. This was because it was his favourite, and also because it was the only thing he really knew how to prepare. He started picking through the beans, looking for stones, before washing the rice and putting it on to boil. He was just cutting onions for the chicken when a potent waft of fish and cheap deodorant announced the arrival of Mirwais. This latter was a jovial chap of roughly Ali’s age, and they got on well.
“Salaam Alek,” said Mirwais, “Tsengei?” as he rushed through to the shower. “Fine thanks,” said Ali, not meaning it and to no-one in particular. Few Afghans liked fish, and the fact that at least two of them worked in a fish mongers provided the material for many jokes and more than a little distress. The others arrived then, at ten minute intervals, most of them bearing cheap blue carriers of goods either donated by or purchased from the emporia where they worked. There was some sad looking lettuce and turnips from Jahangir, the greengrocer’s lad, bread, eggs, and jelabi from the cornershop, Super Dokan, washing-up liquid and bin bags from Siawash, who had just taken a concession selling international calling cards in the doorway of the butchers. A real co-operative they had going here.
Ali caught sight of his red eyes in the smeared mirror over the sink, and was grateful for cover provided by the onions: his flatmates would never know that he’d shed a quiet tear over their dinner. He vowed not to let it happen again. He hadn’t come all this way to make a second class attempt at things: he was going to give it his all. He looked peaky, he also noted: months of living on scraps and sleeping rough. His scar looked livid against his pallid skin (it was actually the result of falling out of a tree when he was six, but he revelled in creating stories about how he had acquired it).
Soon they were sitting on the floor in the living room around an improvised newspaper table cloth. His rice had turned out a bit soggy, but the flavour was good, and as the men had all been working for ten to twelve hours, their hunger overcame any need for culinary finesse. One of them poured Fanta into a mismatched row of beakers. Later there were the jelabi, and tea, and they passed around the qalyoun or water-pipe. The chatter was loud, the Afghan satellite broadcast on the television even louder, and Ali just let it all wash over him like an aural comfort blanket. These were good people, his people.
Later, as he spread his bedroll on the floor next to Mirwais, he gently sang a stanza from Rahman Baba:
A moth that never came
Close to the candle – flame –
A nightingale that missed the rose –
My brother, what a shame.
They laughed together then: Mirwais teased him, but not unkindly. They had all risked so much for so long that no further explanation was needed. But as the dead, chill autumn night air rattled at the windows, and a freight train rattled along the tracks nearby, he couldn’t help wondering what would be next. Where was the next station for him? Or was this it?
His arms were aching: he felt he couldn’t possibly hang on any longer. He’d been told the immigration officers might come round – but for this to happen in his first week at No. 1 was jolly unfortunate. He was, at least, in the country legally, unlike his poor colleague Mohammad, who had blanched white with fear. They were both hanging on to the window ledge outside the upstairs stock room: it was an easy drop down to the back yard below, but to give in now before they had been told the coast was clear was to risk detection and deportation. For him to be caught working before he had been given leave so to do was to jeopardise everything. Poor Hasseen: the Kashmiri boy had been out front when they came: he would be in deep trouble for sure.
Six of them had come in, swarmed the place, grim, dark clothed, flashing badges and barking orders. He’d been told what to do on his first day: all the local businesses had their own drill in place. Khaled, the boss, had shut the window behind them and made like he was praying up there, so that when the officers came busting in they were almost apologetic.
“It’s OK,” called Khaled, finally, from down below. “They’ve gone, I saw them drive off. Really – you can come down boys.”
Ali swung out from the wall and dropped nimbly into a pile of black rubbish sacks. His young frightened friend tumbled down on top of him. It actually hurt, but they laughed and hugged with relief.
“And Hasseen?” asked Ali.
“Did a runner. He’ll be OK. AND – they didn’t catch him working, so we won’t have to pay a fine,” replied Khaled, beaming with relief. The boss was probably only forty or so but looked a lot older, and Ali was starting to see why. If it wasn’t Immigration, it was Environmental Health or Trading Standards or the Street Wardens, all of them seemingly out to trip the unwary trader up, hinder him, justify their own bureaucratic existence. Khaled ran his business well: he was a good Muslim, and traded fairly, always giving a little bit extra to those in need. His shop was also very clean.
It was the end of the day, and so Ali went to fill the mop bucket to wash through. This country was not for the faint-hearted, he realised. And the thought amused him. His own country – formidable, mountainous, land-locked, proud – was famously forbidding and had defeated the hardiest of conquerors. And yet here was he, an Afghan, feeling browbeaten by gentle rolling England, for all its fair and hospitable reputation.
Later, after dinner at their lodgings, they burned esphand, wild rue, by way of thanksgiving for his escape. They had all had more than one such scrape, but it was important always to count one’s blessings, and never to take Allah’s kindness for granted. As the smoke licked around the assembled faces of his friends and the pungent, bitter sweet smell impregnated the room, Ali really did give thanks. He had friends and a roof over his head, unlike Mohammad, who would even now be trying to sleep on the cold, unforgiving floor at No. 1. Still it was good of Khaled to take pity on the boy, who would otherwise have been sleeping on the streets.
The boys have arrived and are bashing raucously on the door. Ali rushes to open it: there is an Episcopal church one side and an optician on the other, and he can’t have his new neighbours complaining about him before he has even opened his shop.
“Shut up and come in,” he tells them with mock sternness.
“Bah bah! What a huge place! Mashallah!” says Mirwais, although actually he has already seen it. The rest soon chime in with general appreciation. As the premises are completely empty there is little for them to see, but still with great solemnity he shows them the small toilet (one old soap, a dead mouse and a scourer), the stock room (two broken pallets, some boxes containing dried up cleaning products, and an old tyre), and the back yard (literally a yard, just enough space for a rubbish bin and a very thin person to take a cigarette break).
Tour over, they spread a plastic cloth on the floor, and out comes tea, noghl, the sugary almonds Afghans so love, and a box of cakes from Super Dokan. Jahangir has brought a tinny CD player, and soon they are listening to Preety Zeeta and chattering. About Jawid’s latest girlfriend, and Mirwais’ motorbike, and Ali’s solicitor. And about home and away, about people lost and people yet to be found.
Tomorrow he would come back in overalls, with tape measure and hammer and broom. But just for today, Ali is having a day off.
He yawned and pinched himself to stay awake. He really didn’t want to sleep through his stop again, and he had promised to go and help Mirwais pack up. Somewhere bubbling under the exhaustion should have been euphoria and relief: he had just received the news for which he had been waiting for three years, but at that moment, in the juddering cold of the carriage, all he could think of is the end of the day, iftar, and bed.
It was Ramadan, and although it was Winter and the daylight hours were mercifully short, he was still finding it really hard this year. The 6.30am start at the market didn’t help. And this morning he had had to rise at 4.30am to go to Croydon: any later and the queue was appalling.
BUT – after Ali had changed solicitor, after four visits to Lunar House, after twice being wrongfully detained by the police over questions of status, after one threatened deportation, and the Home Office twice having claimed to have lost his passport/application – he had a two year visa to remain in the UK. And if he behaved himself, and didn’t leave the country in the meantime, this would allow him to apply for indefinite leave to remain. He had status. He was no longer stateless, floating in limbo, between stations. He could work. He could make plans.
He’d quit No 1 a couple of months ago, chiefly because he was fed up with the smell of raw meat in his life – under his nails, under his skin – , but also because he had been working from 7am ‘til 7pm for three years and really, really needed a change. It had been nearly a year after he arrived in London before he had seen Trafalgar Square, for goodness’ sake. There was, as well, the fact that Mirwais had taken on a market stall in Brixton, and needed help to run it. But this morning’s development changed things. He could get a proper job, open a bank account, and get started.
Later, over an iftar of dates and soup and bread and cheese – he told his flatmates of his morning’s work. They had lived together for long enough now to react as one to good news, and there was much rejoicing. Jawid had moved out to his own bedsit, another of their number had gone to Pakistan to visit his brother, and two young relatives from Kabul had moved in – but nothing had really changed. The camaraderie, the support – it was in their genes, or at least, he liked to joke, in the terms of their lease.
It was Eid al Fitr, the end of Ramadan. Like his friends Ali had donned the traditional shalwar kameez, and also like his friends he had been grinning from the moment he woke up. Of course it hurt that he was away from his parents. The joy of celebrating an annual event with those whom you love, the bustle and thrall of familiar rituals, the mantle of comfort surrounding and binding those involved: these were amongst the most precious things a family could offer. But it was a feast day nonetheless. The area, albeit in South London, actually had a little festive buzz of its own: many of the Afghan/Pakistani businesses were shut, and the comically politically correct council had made an effort by putting on a special Eid food and music thing in the town square.
They went to the mosque first thing to give thanks, and then headed straight to Super Dokan, which was open and doing a roaring trade in patisserie. Whilst the others bought nuts and sultanas and senjed and figs and mulberries to make a festival mix, Ali served himself with pastries – he was, after all, now working there, if only part time: his first official paid employment in the UK. He made a point of talking to the English half of the owners in English (he was by far the best linguist of his group, thanks entirely to the bullying of his three doting elder sisters). And took proprietary pride when they gave him a healthy discount at the till.
He’d set himself the target of learning the shop ropes, learning more English, stashing away as many different skills as he could, biding his time, saving, waiting. His grandfather had had a shop in Shekhabad, a tool mongers: he remembered sitting on the rough counter surrounded by pots of nuts and bolts, the smell of grease and sawdust, the wind whistling through the main street on its way to the mountains, making all the coils of wire jangle in the process. How old had he been then? So it was in his blood he was sure. He was determined to get his own place.
They spent a merry day watching Bollywood DVDs, and eating, eating ‘til their bellies couldn’t take any more and they lolled, sleepy, on the cushions in the front room. For the evening they would order pizza from Mahmoud, the Iranian lad – guaranteed halal, and his prices were fair. Just as Ali rose to make tea, his mobile started singing an old Leila Forouhar number: the screen said number unavailable and so it had to be home. His heart always lurched when they rang: much as he loved to hear from his family, there was always that initial worry that something was wrong. But today of course they would be ringing to wish him Eid Mobarak. It didn’t seem that many eids ago that he was pestering Baba for his eid gift, laughing at his sisters in their starchy new clothes, picnicking with his aunts in the mountains.
“Salaam! How are you son?” his mother’s voice was uncharacteristically upbeat. “Eid Mobarak!”
“What’s wrong, Mum?” he replied.
“I ring to wish my only son a happy eid, and this is all the thanks I get?” Her voice hadn’t changed in the three, three and a half years that he’d been away, but because this was their only means of contact he was so very sensitive to her every inflection, nuance, the background noises of the house, the sounds between the words they spoke. He knew of the agony and sacrifice that had gone into the decision to send their son so far away (away from war ravaged towns, prospect-less valleys and the uncertainty of mountains) and for his part he always tried to sound upbeat. But there are some things that it is hard to hide.
“You sound too happy,” he replied, laughing as he knew that sounded ridiculous.
“Well, a mother should be happy when she finds the perfect bride for her son. An unmarried son is a terrible burden for a parent, you know.” She paused here, to let her words sink in. “Ensh’Allah you yourself will know the blessing of many sons, and then you will remember my words.”
“What you on about, Mum?” he said, taking a deep breath. “I’m in England. I’m a refugee. I can’t just pop back to get married, much as I’d like to. And I haven’t even seen this girl. Who is she? Why now?” and then, “Is she very beautiful?”
“She has skin like the snows of the Koh-i-Baba, lips like the seeds of a pomegranate, eyes like the great lake of Zorkul, and hair so dark and so shiny that the mountain gods bow down before her. She is also Gulnar’s sister.” His mother’s voice was very quiet at the end.
Gulnar! It had been many years since he had spoken her name, although she was always in his mind one way or another. They had been ten years old when she was taken. He had been playing in the mountains with his friends, his sisters, the neighbours – they were a group of around sixteen, a gang, who lived near each other at the top of the village. Hide and seek. It had been Gulnar’s turn to hide, he remembered – she was very good at it. He remembered the sweat trickling down his temples, and the buzz of nearby bees as the scene played out in slow motion. An eagle soared overhead, and back, as if wanting to join in the search.
They never did find her. They did hear the sound of hooves on the trail below. His sister, Afsaneh, claimed she heard Gulnar cry out. But it was the fluttering red scarf that Ali saw hanging from the last horse as it vanished into the dust that did it. No-one knew what the men were doing that far north: raids were rare, kidnappings almost unheard of. But then, Gulnar had been very special. They said she’d be better off dead, but he hoped that somehow, somewhere, she had made a good life for herself.
Her sister was perhaps six years younger than her: Gulbahar. Spring flower. Very shy, as he recalled: there are few stars brighter than the ones of those who vanish when young, and siblings left behind are often cast into deep shadow. Gulnar had been wild and careless; Gulbahar was demure. Even when other women cast aside their burkhas in favour of less cumbersome apparel, she had remained covered, unknown and unknowable.
What was his mother playing at here?
As if she knew what he had been thinking, she explained, “I just want to see you settled. You are a good catch, Ali. You live in a good place – your prospects are good. There are many who would like to give their daughter to you. But Gulbahar is the best of the bunch. And I think she is ready for a change. The Mullah will come to the house next week – it is all arranged.”
The afghani dropped then: his mother was planning a remote betrothal. Two wedding parties, thousands of miles apart. If they were lucky, they would have a webcam link: if not, it would just be a case of synchronising watches, hoping someone took some photos, and keeping their fingers crossed. The official bits would be carried out in Afghanistan, a certificate issued, and then it would be up to Ali to try to get his bride shipped over here. His stomach knotted with the thought of so much complication and responsibility. With irritation at his mother’s machinations. And just a teensy bit of excitement.
“No, Mother. No. I do not want it to be this way. I am sure Gulbahar is a lovely girl, but I should meet her parents first, I should be there. And I cannot come home right now: I will lose everything.”
“Sorry Ali, the line is breaking up…” lied his mother, and the line went dead. He was speechless.
As he turned round he realised that his friends had all fallen silent. And then there was uproar.
“Bah, bah – Ali! A wedding! We have a week to make a man of you!” As far as they were concerned this was a splendid way to celebrate Eid. The music was cranked up. He couldn’t help but smile as he joined in, twirling in time with the frenetic beats of the attan.
Siawash had done a very good job: his cousin was going to try to relay the proceedings from Ali’s family home in Meydan Shahr with a hand-held web cam. For his part he had set up a big screen in their front room. They had invited a few guests: other cousins and relatives from around London, and there was an impressive buffet spread on the table in the window.
Ali was still unsure, even though he had spoken with Gulbahar over the internet. Softly spoken, sensible, and he was prepared to believe she was as beautiful as her sister had been. His sisters had swayed him finally, saying that they couldn’t marry until he had (not strictly true), and that it would make their mother happy. But as the cameras relayed pictures of his home, the men squatting around in one room, the women chattering like starlings in the other, the kitchen heaving with lovingly prepared food – he decided to let go, go with the moment, enjoy.
He had been going to wear his fake Ralph Lauren shirt, but the boys would not have it. Instead he sported a gold shalwar kameez: he had to admit, it did look rather impressive. And in the time honoured tradition, his hands had been henna-ed to represent their union – at the right time in the proceedings he would press his hand to the webcam, the stage director had decided, and Gulbahar would do the same her end, the mingling of henna and pixels to represent the mingling of blood. This was a good day. His day. And when finally he was united with his bride in the flesh, he would make it up to her tenfold.
Later he was thanking the last guests for coming, and for their gifts, when his phone rang for the umpteenth time that day. This time it was his father. They spoke briefly of how well it had gone. His father reminisced about his own wedding day – a tale which increased in opulence every time Ali heard it (but that of course was part of its charm). And then he said quietly,
“Ali, you know your mother’s not well.”
Ali went cold with the impact of those words. Not least because he had had an underlying suspicion about the whole wedding and the way in which he had been steam-rollered.
“What’s wrong with her, Baba?” he asked.
“She has cancer, son. She hasn’t got long. The doctors say maybe a month, maybe less.”
“I’ll get on a plane tomorrow. I have money saved – I have nothing to spend it on over here – I’ll bring her here – we’ll get her the best doctors..” He was gibbering now, and he knew it. His father had been prepared for all of this, and headed him off quickly.
“No, Ali. You won’t. There are good doctors here. They have not made a mistake. This was her wish – to see you married. And that you stay right where you are and forge a life for you and your wife. For you to come now would cause her terrible stress – you will spoil it all. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told you at all, but I felt that you should know, just in these last few weeks. I’m sorry.” He trailed off.
Ali was shaking now, with helplessness. “I love you, Baba. I love all of you,” he managed, before hanging up. Jawid had come up behind him, and draped an avuncular arm around his shoulder. He obviously knew.
“I’m sorry, Ali. We’ve all been there. Long distance suffering. It is so much harder when you can’t be there with them. But there really is nothing you can do – you must simply be strong. For your mother’s sake. Bloody immigration system: it’s stifling us.”
Ali pushed out of the door into the night, tears streaking his face. Siawash made to follow him, but Jawid stopped him.
“Let him go. He needs time alone. He’ll be back when he’s ready.”
The next time Ali saw his bride she was wearing black. During the following months she was a blur, an oasis of wisdom when nothing else made sense, a patient ear at the end of the phone, a tireless helper within his family, a prop to his devastated father, a friend to his sisters. And he understood his mother’s choice. She was a fereshteh, an angel. As the weather warmed into Spring, and the blossoms came once again to the valley where he had grown up, Ali slowly fell in love with his Gulbahar. By the time scorching Summer arrived to help dry their tears, there was an ardour burning in his chest, a fierce resolve that come what may she would join him to live as his wife in England.
But the course of true love was not to be smoothed by the kind ministrations of the Home Office. Eventually Gulbahar took the coach to Islamabad (not so shy now, his blossom), where she more or less took up residence at the British Consulate. For his part Ali petitioned councillors, his MP, anyone who would listen. His bosses at Super Dokan had been nothing if not tolerant, and now joined him in his efforts. Letters were written, a file was built up, time passed. And then, a breakthrough. Someone in the machine had taken pity on them. There was an intervention. It would take a few more months of paper shuffling. But the grief and the horrors of the previous year were falling away, and he walked with his head held high.
He had found a studio flat above a shop in Rye Lane: it was in a very bad state, but the landlord had let him have it at a repairing rent. And then the shop came up for rent too. It was part of a fire-damaged property that they had been going to tear down. That they might still tear down. The owner was Pakistani, a former customer at No 1, and they got on well. Within two weeks he had signed the lease.
He would be ready for her when she came. His bride would arrive in style, and live in comfort.
As Ali is locking the door carefully (how good the jangle of keys in his pocket sounds), a young lad approaches. Judging by his appearance he is Khaysari, an Afghan of Mongol descent, a Shi’a. Many of the immigrant Afghan community displayed appalling snobbery, almost racism, towards their fellow countrymen, but if Ali has learned one thing since his arrival in London it is that there are no borders when it came to survival. So he greets the youth.
The youth mumbles, and smiles shyly by way of reply.
“Do you need anyone to help you? I am looking for work and a place to stay,” he says, his accent confirming his origins.
“Well now, let’s see,” says Ali, “Are you any good with a paint brush?” When the lad nods, he continues, “Well we’ll see you here at 8am tomorrow then.” And then as an afterthought, “What’s your name? Do you have family here?”
“I am Sohrab,” says his new charge. “I came yesterday. I am here alone.”
“Well, not any more, you’re not,” says Ali. “Until my wife arrives next month, you can stay with me. Now how’s your cooking?”
MEI: The Story of a Crossing
She can’t breathe and the pressure on her chest is threatening to get the better of her. Something white has impaled her legs, wrapped itself round them. Her hands have gone numb, through cramp, the enforced stillness. She cannot bear it anymore: with all her not very substantial might she heaves, but as fast as she pushes the bodies away from her, more fall on top. The sinewy something that has custody of her legs is now creeping up her back, and around her neck. But if she screams they will find her. It is so quiet: she cannot believe that there are no other survivors. The door at the back slams open, and sunlight streams in. This is it she thinks: we’re done for. Everything was in vain. Sweat pours into her eyes, as she turns her head
and sits up in bed. Hu has opened the blind, and is grinning at her cheekily, about six inches from her face. She reaches out and pulls the toddler on to the mattress with her, clutching him close as the tremors of her nightmare fade: not for the first time she can’t help wondering how much of it he remembers. He is just four, but has the wisdom of a grown man, and a sunny disposition that came from she knew not where.
At 38, Mei is at least a decade older than most of the others in the house. She enjoys a certain respect amongst her housemates: she and Hu have a room to themselves, albeit barely more than a mattress wide. And Hu is treated like a little prince, even by Chong. Fortune may not have smiled on Mei, but it had at least been passive, indulgent even, forgiving, and she knows better than to bemoan her lot. To have survived this far was nothing short of a miracle. They’d be alright. Hu would be alright. She’d be fine too, as long as she doesn’t spend too long thinking about those left behind.
Her watch says it is 7am. It strikes her as both odd and rather comforting to think that her watch has been everywhere that she has and has ticked on regardless. Onwards and onwards. She stretches and gets to her feet to rummage in their nasty battered red, white and blue tote bags for a change of clothing for Hu. They still sleep partially clothed, ready to run, ready for the next stage. Even though to all intents and purposes they’d arrived.
Three years for debt, three years for house, three years for pension. She’d been paying for nearly three years: a few more months and Xin and Dao Ming would be able to follow them. Maybe, just maybe, they’d be together again by the end of the year. For Chunjie, the Spring Festival.
She gets Hu into his smartest clothes – he is going to the refugee network nursery school again today, thanks to the woman who lives in the building next door. This simple act of engagement and kindness has filled her with a hum which she has not experienced since, oh, her first job after leaving Xiamen University. That sense of being part of something rather than having to skirt round it all, she knows now how valuable it is – it belongs to that strange class of treasures that you are not aware of possessing until you lose them.
In the poky kitchen she makes tea while Hu solemnly eats cereal: he had taken to Western food with surprising gusto, which had been a great relief to her. She slurps her sweetened brew, trying to avoid eye contact with the walls: they are covered in old lincrusta wallpaper, which is in turn coated in a thick yellow grease which never seems to go away. Like a horror film, she thinks – as much and as fast as you clean, the grease comes back. It didn’t help that there was no window, and so the very air seemed tinged with stale, caked-on fat.
“Come on, Tiger Man,” she says, ruffling his hair. She’d bought him a school bag of sorts from the factory shop on the Walworth Road, and he’d been clutching it carefully ever since, like a miniature Hong Kong banker.
They navigate the still broken stairway, littered with old copies of London Lite and the odd Sing Tao Daily, and the paint-bereft punched-in front door and make their way along the traffic-jammed High Street. The lodgings are above a neon-flashing mobile phone shop (Sim City: best phone London 4 YOU), sandwiched between two fried chicken outlets, Best Fried Chicken, and Better Fried Chicken (even with her limited English, Mei knows that this is funny). Their destination is the middle of one of the roughest council estates, one that echoes with the sound of ghostly banging doors and barking dogs, and she instinctively quickens her pace as they walk through it, causing Hu to run to keep up. The school itself is bright and welcoming: Mei cannot help but think how very nice it would be to stop off here, sit in a corner on one of the tiny chairs, lulled by the smell of playdoh and milk, and the sound of laughter and clapping hands.
Hu rushes off into the tiny play area: such a godsend, this. They even give him lunch. No questions asked. She will pick him up herself at 3.30.
She already has the day’s consignment in her camouflage khaki shoulder bag. The DVDs are flimsy, but she carries up to five hundred of them at a time (new releases at the front, adult material carefully stashed in the zippy bit at the back), and the weight soon adds up. Ten for £20.00 – £15.00 for her regular customers. A bargain in this bustling, prosperous city, but somewhere at the back of her mind it grated every time someone coughed up for their package of crackly, jerky films: in Fujiian, £20.00 was 250 yuan, nearly a week’s wages.
After two years she has built up quite a good clientele, and she has set routes: today is Thursday, and so she would head to East Street Market, which is the only place she is ever brave enough to try and vend in public. She can still run like a snow leopard – her childhood nickname after her pale skin and wild tomboy habits – when she feels endangered, and they haven’t caught her yet.
The trick is to keep moving, not just along the street, but from side to side. And to show no fear. Only the furtive get caught. A smile, head held high, decisive steps – these are enough to disconcert street wardens and even the casual mugger.
Trade is brisk today – she has some big new titles, and with Christmas coming people are splashing their cash a bit more. She doesn’t stop when she is working: she carries water with her, and doesn’t bother with food until she gets home. In fact, she switches off: the words good-quality, three-pound-just-three-pound, best-film-new-film come tumbling out all by themselves. Mei herself can usually be found at the Sea Garden: Gulangyu, a salt breeze blowing through her then long hair, sunlight dappled, carefree. An is usually somewhere in the picture, either chasing her through the Shuzhuang maze, or waiting for her by the dock with his little fishing boat and a picnic of shrimps and noodles… Fiction, she knows, but it keeps her smiling while she’s working. It has been ten years since the accident, but is still seems so fresh and so raw in her mind: she has to be careful that her idle day dreaming doesn’t stray back to that week, because that would just spoil things, set her back.
An was her fiancé. Like her, as the eldest child of his family he had been afforded the luxury of a university education, and like her he had chosen medicine. One day there had been a fight outside the faculty: an argument over a girl, not just any girl, but Xin, her younger sister. A couple of young fishermen had been bothering her, and An went to her rescue (of course he did). Two days later his boat was found listing in the bay: it had taken on a lot of water. There was blood on the transom, but of An there was no sign. It was recorded as an accident: they said that Kuan Yin’s white sea snake had come for him….
It is 2.45 already – she should go. Her life had been taken away when the bay swallowed An, and so now she lives for her sister, and for the twins. It would not do for her to be late.
She arrives at the nursery with ten minutes to spare, and so hangs back against the wall of a neighbouring garage. There are other mothers there, mostly with prams: Somalian, Afghan, Hispanic, clustered in little chattersome groups. She can follow what they say: during her two years here she has learnt enough English to understand it pretty well, but as usual she feels like she is looking at this strange Western society through a sheet of curiously undulating silk.
“Ma Mei!” calls Hu, using his pet name for her: – the doors have swung open and children of shapes, sizes and colours are romping out. She crosses the road to find her nephew, and bends to give him a quick hug. He rewards her with a page of crayon squiggles.
“He’ll break a few hearts, that lad of yours,” said one of the classroom assistants, appearing at her elbow, “Wouldn’t kiss Anya in the playground: quite the unattainable one, he is.” Mei starts: a bad habit, but she is so used to her tight corridor of existence that she is always shocked by the unscripted moments. She smiles back uncertainly, and quickly sets off before more conversation can ensue.
Two stops on the way home should make up her daily sales quota. She aimed to take £250 a day. She is one of Chong’s best, she knows that: she has an open face, and her maturity imbues her with an air of trustworthiness. She has been lucky with her dealings with the snakeheads: Chong is small fry in the Fuk Ching, the Young Fujiianese, but he has always been fair with her. She could have been stuck in one of the DVD factories: she has heard stories of workers falling ill because of the constant exposure to chemicals, and there are frequent raids. And she has heard other stories, the ones which stalk her dreams at night, of the ones that didn’t make it. She and Hu had been seven months in transit, and it had had appalling lows, but by all accounts there had only been one death: an old man who had been ill from the outset.
She goes into the Nigerian barbers, where they are ushered straight through to the back room: she spreads out a handful of the latest releases – never too many at a time, never more than you can pick up and run with – and both staff and customers crowd round her noisily. She is careful to observe who has picked up what – it is too easy to lose stock this way, by not concentrating – but soon she’s made five or six sales. Another £100.
Lastly she heads into the corner shop. It is almost a pleasure to visit, and she always leaves it ‘til last. Hu gets a lollipop from the woman behind the counter, while she heads towards the back of the shop to show the shopkeeper what she’s got. She’s developed something resembling a friendship with the shop woman over the last year or so, although the first time she’d gone in there she had been shown the door in no uncertain terms. It was a look she’d seen many times before, and since: judgmental, disdainful, closed. The second time she’d tried her luck, the woman was nowhere in sight, and the husband had been quite happy to browse her wares and purchase a few. The third and fourth visits, the couple had both been there, and Mei had been subjected to more of the wife’s almost tangible disapproval.
And then one day Mei had been running from some rival vendors: they were nasty youths, who would stop at nothing to secure new territory, and one of them had a knife. She might have stood her ground if it had not been for Hu, but she just couldn’t risk it. Instinctively she’d bolted into the corner shop, only to come up against the po-faced woman. The latter had somehow read the terror on Mei’s face, and wordlessly taken her into the office. They’d looked at each other. And smiled.
“Hey, you don’t have any Jet Li films, do you,” the woman had asked, with a twinkle. Mei had laughed then, she remembered. There are two things that pain her about her work more than anything else, and one is this cheapening of her culture, the illicit vending of bad quality martial arts movies. The other was the very existence of her ‘special collection’. Mei was a trained midwife, and the acts of procreation and creation were sacred to her.
Since then she had used the shop as a bolthole on several occasions, hiding from the police, or from thugs who were out to steal her take. Sweetly, like shy teenagers, they’d exchanged phone numbers (ring me – I’ll help – you’re not alone – any time). She’d had whole-broken conversations with the woman, who probably knew more about her than anyone else in the UK. They were both amused by the surreality of their relationship. She sensed that the shopkeeper, like her, had seen more of life than she’d perhaps planned. But it occurs to her for the first time today that she doesn’t even know the woman’s name.
Back at their lodgings there is a smell of frying. Wang’s useless girlfriend is trying to cook spring rolls in time to some tinny Cantopop, and the kitchen is in an even worse state than usual. She sends the girl packing, not unkindly, telling her to entertain Hu while she fixes dinner. There are twelve of them living in four rooms, not counting the kitchen as that barely qualifies as a room, or the tiny bathroom, as that is just a partitioned off part of one of the rooms. They mostly pulled together. Wang was great at keeping Hu occupied, not least because there was actually a television in his room.
Mei has always loved cooking, now more than ever as it is one of the few avenues of creativity left open to her. Soon she has a pot of steaming soup on the go, and is wrapping meatballs in swallow skin dough, ready to add to the dish. Buddha Jumps over the Wall it wasn’t, but her food had certainly attracted the favourable attention of the neighbours.
Xin had always hated cooking. Mei is never able to work her relationship with her sister out. Xin is, was, probably still is, flighty like a butterfly, feminine, crafty, manipulative, child-like. And she had run off to Shenzhen to be a san-pei girl, a prostitute. Mei should hate her. Truthfully, sometimes, in the wakeful hours before sleep takes hold of her, she feels such rage towards Xin that she barely recognises herself. And they would never know if the shame and shock had contributed towards their widowed mother’s death. But when the girl had come home sobbing, battered, pregnant, Mei had felt such a huge urge to protect her. There was nothing left to tie them to Xiamen, and so they had decided to jump ship, following in centuries of Fujiian footsteps, over the borders and far away. Away from the shame, the grief, the memories. Twins in China were a very sticky proposition anyway. Mei had gone ahead as she was the strong one, and after much agonising they had decided to split the twins for as long as it took. Dao Ming had been a sickly little girl, and so she and her mother would stay and grow strong, while Mei gathered funds to pay for their fare.
After a happy something-like-family dinner, she calls Xin. There is good news: her sister has enough money and has finally booked a passage with the same snakehead gang. They will be setting off within two weeks. The twins will be twinned again. Maybe Mei will sleep a bit better tonight.
Kuan Yin, the merciful, finder of the lost, spreads her arms across the bay, white glistening in the moonlight. Showing the way, offering safe passage. And the waters are calm. The white sea snake comes to the surface, bearing An on its back. Mei reaches out to take his hand, but she is losing her step, falling, going under the waves, drowning. There is a light and she kicks towards it, towards the shore. Strength flows through her body, to her fingertips, to her toes, through every fibre of her being. Now she is Chen Jinggu, the fighter, the mysterious, the childless. Whirling, warlike, invincible. She is wrestling the sea snake, winning, losing, winning: she can see An beckoning her from the far shore, but cannot reach him, daren’t turn her back on the serpent….
Mei wakes in a sweat, wishing she could for once have a dreamless sleep. Hu is snoring gently next to her, his head on her shoulder. It is Saturday and she is taking a rare day off to take him to see the Christmas lights. Generally she avoids the central parts, the tourist sights, as she cannot bear the duality of her situation. Few Londoners are really aware of the other London, the unreal city, the twilight dwelling of the illegal immigrant. To see sightseers, Chinese tourists in particular, photographing the very things which are at the root of her constant fear, is just an irony too far for her to bear.
She dozes for a while, but it is not long before Hu is awake, tugging at her eagerly, chattering about Father Christmas and goodness knows what else. He soon has them on the No. 12, trundling into town. She always sits at the front, near the driver. The back is the haunt of school kids and suspicious types, and that is where the inspectors always start. Not that she has anything to hide from them, but so engrained now is her fear of authority, any authority, that she simply avoids all possible contact.
They get off in Piccadilly Circus, and the next few hours are a whirl of three-foot-high, wide-eyed excitement. They meet Father Christmas finally at Hamleys, where Hu solemnly asks the big man to make sure that he gets his sister in time for Christmas. This leads to Mei being congratulated on her apparent pregnancy, more awkwardness for her, eyes downcast. On the outskirts of China Town they lunch on ho-fun noodles with beef, Hu staring and pointing, giggling, not used to being with so many of his countrymen. Mei is never entirely happy even in China Town: what should be her home from home in the diaspora is instead a source of anxiety and confusion, with the mostly Cantonese speaking residents and businessmen looking less than favourably on their illegal Fujiian brothers and sisters. Even though half of the restaurants in London depend on the snakeheads to provide them with staff.
Finally she takes him into the Trocadero: Wang’s fault, he’d been telling the boy how thrilling it is. Whilst hating every minute of it, she finds the cacophony and the heat and the darkness oddly comforting, like a sort of cyberpunk womb. Hu wants to rush from one machine to another, and she has to keep a tight grip on him so as not to lose him in the pressing, faceless, seemingly brain-washed crowds.
There is a sudden shout a little behind them. Mei’s instinct – to run away from all trouble – is already kicking in, when a man calls out.
“My wife! It’s our baby. I think the baby is coming… Please, somebody help, call an ambulance, it’s too early.”
She freezes to the spot. So it must be another Mei who turns, dragging Hu with her, and walks swiftly towards the commotion, where a man is cradling an ashen looking woman on the floor. There is blood on his hand, and he is incoherent with fright. They are not English – Eastern European maybe – and they are very young.
She flaps her arms to make the crowd move back a little, and crouches to examine the girl, who is conscious but feverish looking.
It is another Mei who starts issuing instructions, telling one woman to hold Hu’s hand, and a male bystander to take off his coat to use as a blanket.
“How many weeks is she?” she asks the worried father.
“Only 34,” he replies. “She had high blood pressure…” he adds, and then, “Her name is Sonya.”
“Well, why don’t you talk to Sonya,” says Mei, “Soothe her, hold her hand, tell her it will all be alright. It will all be alright,” she tells him, giving him what she hopes is a reassuring smile. It has been three years since she delivered her last baby.
Suddenly there is another figure squatting next to her, a man, taking the woman’s pulse. Sonya is having contractions, and they are quite close together. The man gets to work: he is clearly a doctor, and quickly, quietly, there in the dark-light-dark-light of Funland, they help Sonya give birth to a daughter. There is a round of applause when the infant wails its first breath. By the time the ambulance crew arrive with the centre’s own medics, the girl is starting to look a lot better, and the father is beaming.
Mei feels alive, triumphant, happy. She looks at her fellow midwife, and is surprised to see he is Chinese too. Even more surprised to note that he is wearing a suit, sleeves all rolled up, now mucky. Greying hair and glasses belie smiling, youthful eyes. He smiles. Good grief, she can feel herself start to blush. She starts to gather her things up, not noticing the cards spilling out of her bag, and looks around for a public toilet, where she can wash her hands. He turns to speak to the medics.
The workaday Mei regains control now. Back away, into the crowds, flee before they ask any questions, back to Peckham. Hu is looking less than impressed by all of this, but he is only ever petulant when he is tired, and so it is high time that she gets him home too.
In filthy loos she cleans up as best she can. It amazes her how this city, one of the capitals of the western world, tourist attraction bar none, has such appalling facilities. Do Londoners have no pride?
And then they are on the bus in the dusk, Hu struggling to keep his eyes open, and Mei struggling to believe how foolish she had been. What if someone had asked for her ID? How many times had Chong warned them?
Back in their lodgings she has a long shower, scrubbing hard as if to erase the memory of her dangerous spontaneity, and those sparkling, intelligent, deep, questioning, brown eyes.
She has bought fortune cookies and sweet sesame balls to share out, and so after dinner the atmosphere is jovial. The youngsters play cards, whilst Mei, unusually, watches television, watches news of a world she feels she has largely renounced.
At night she dreams of Gulangyu again. Of the sea swirling. Of things past that cannot be undone, and things that can turn again. Chen Jinggu, daughter of Kuan Yin, died protecting the Kingdom of Min from drought and fighting the white sea snake who had devoured her unborn child. But she was reborn as the Lady Linshui. Protector of the weak, shielder of the unborn.
It is three days later. Mei has been visiting customers in Deptford, and is on her way back to pick up Hu when her phone rings. It is the corner shopkeeper’s wife, saying she has found a new customer for Mei, could Mei stop by. This is odd, but the English are odd: helpful when you least expect it. So she agrees: she and Hu will be there within the hour.
When she enters the shop, her friend smiles at her. “You’re probably going to be really cross with me, Mei,” she says, and “Come Hu – let’s go find ice cream!”
Mei is starting to worry now.
“Nu Ho,” says a voice from behind the shelves, and the sparkle-eyed Chinese doctor appears in front of her. Speaking perfect Fuzhou, her native dialect. So many questions, so many fears, so many reasons why she should run again. But even snow leopards tire of running sometimes. So she puts her heavy camouflage bag down. Takes a deep breath. And smiles.
Another story coming soon.
Please let the corner shopkeeper know if you are enjoying these: that way he will know to keep writing them for you.
© The Corner Shopkeeper 2011