By Kate Wickers
Amidst the smell of old fat and raw meat that hangs heavy in the small kitchen with a rating of two out of five from the National Food Hygiene Scheme, Massoud turns to look at his eleven-year-old nephew. “Patience is perfection,” he says, the sentence rolling smoothly off his tongue.
Anis narrows his eyes. “When did you learn to talk like that, Uncle?” he asks, jutting out his dimpled chin.
“I watch a lot of TV,” Massoud admits, smiling at the boy. “It took me nine years to get refugee status from the British government. I had time on my hands.”
“And for me? Will it be as long you think?”
Massoud shrugs. “Not long, inshallah.” He turns the chicken over on the grill. “You like chips with that?” he calls to a man who’s sitting hunched over in the corner, yesterday’s copy of The Daily Herald in his pudgy blue-veined hands. Anis tries not to look at the glaring headline about asylum-seekers ripping off the benefit system and living in mansions.
The man doesn’t look up. “Yeah, why not?” comes the Cockney accent. “Give me a fucking treat, why don't you?"
At the pub next door, the carpet is sticky-wet from slopped beer spilt during Saturday night brawls. On the table, the edges of the cardboard beer coasters have been torn by idle hands of the previous drinkers. The flash from slot machines is pleasantly distracting. The pub is warm and Kasun and Ravi sit nursing two halves of a beer they can’t really afford.
“I don’t even know if it is my birthday today,” admits Ravi.
“But the month is correct?”
“Yes,” Ravi concedes. “My birthday is definitely this month and there is a one in the date—of that, I am sure.”
The men laugh and clink glasses. “Well, happy birthday just in case. Saudiya puramu! Cheers!”
They sit in silence, each lost in his own thoughts for a moment.
“Do you think of the sea?” Kasun finally asks.
“How sick you were!”
“The only fisherman in Sri Lanka who could not go in a boat. My father could not believe it. He said, ‘why has God given me this useless son who turns green when the waves rock us?’"
“That was before he knew you could work with numbers.”
“Yes,” Ravi says. “As soon as he knew I could fool the taxman I was his favorite again.”
“My mother must go to the job center,” Kasun announces.
“It is hard at her age.”
“It is hard at any age, but for her it is impossible.”
In number five in the Nelson Mandela Flats, Nurta looks at the teddy bear she’s been given. The lady has tucked it in beside her on the couch, this strange, short-furred animal with beady eyes and a down-turned mouth that is supposed to comfort her. She throws it on the floor. There are whispers next door between the lady and her aunt. She wonders where her cheerful cousin Deeqo has gone? To the park again? She wishes Deeqo had taken her along. Her aunt is crying because her sister, Nurta’s mother, is lost and Nurta won’t tell them anything. She can't.
In the flat next door, Anis idly Googles the word "Slough." What does it say about the town he has been told to call home? It is twenty miles from London. Its population is 140,000. It is the most ethnically diverse place outside of London in the UK. It has the highest proportion of religious adherents in England. It is home to the largest privately owned trading estate in Europe. Wikipedia doesn’t make it sound very exciting. There are worse places to end up, Anis thinks. He wishes he could make his new neighbor Nurta realize that. Maybe then she would speak again.
The lift in the building is broken again and Mrs. Rajapakse is not happy about the stairs. Her son, Kasun, must coax her down.
"We cannot miss the appointment," he barks in rapid Sinhala. He wishes his mother would make an effort to be a little more compliant.
"But what can the job center offer me?"
"It is a formality. We must attend.”
"If only your father was here."
Kasun sighs and grips his mother's hand. "Yes, but I am here."
One hour later when the bell rings, Mrs. Rajapakse and Kasun shuffle to the desk and sit down.
“Language is the key,” says the advisor. “You do understand that?”
Mrs. Rajapakse nods uncertainly. She feels prickly and hot and is thinking about the samosas she plans to make that afternoon. She can't be bothered with all this nonsense. Why can't they just leave her alone?
“If she doesn’t learn English her options are limited. They run courses here.”
A well-thumbed leaflet is handed over. The old lady stares at it blankly. She knows she looks younger than the old British ladies with their strange, short, curly hair, but she thinks she may be sixty-two on her next birthday.
In number twelve in Nelson Mandela Flats, Miss Tenzing shuts her eyes. It is three o’clock. How lazy she is to be in bed at this hour, she thinks. But she is so tired from the night shifts at the supermarket. Her baby will wake in just another hour to feed, but she cannot sleep. She is dream-walking through a broad ochre landscape tinged with gold, towards snow-capped mountains. They are framed by an eternal blue and the air is fresh and cool. There is her mother harvesting the alu. The older woman is bent so low over the potatoes, she imagines sharp pain twinges in her mother’s back. Prayer flags flutter on a restless wind. The yaks sniff the air searching for a hint of the early spring rain. A tear runs from each corner of Miss Tenzing’s eyes. The baby cries and cries and cries until there is a thump on her wall from the next-door neighbor and she is stirred to action.
The bus pulls into the futuristic station and shudders to a stop. Can things get any stranger? Aamir wonders. Four months and he’s travelled by truck, plane and bus to reach this great, white interior they call a terminus—his final destination, the place where he is told to call home. “Welcome to Slough. The bus terminates here,” a voice announces.
His mother doesn’t move.
“We must get off,” Aamir whispers, pulling at his mother’s sleeve. “Ammi, Ammi, are you listening? We are here.”
“You’ve been asleep.”
“I hope I still am,” she says sadly, stroking the hair away from his eyes.
“But you have the address?”
“Yes, of course. Number eight Nelson Mandela Flats. I have directions. Just five minutes they said. Take my hand Aamir.”
The poster of Sri Lanka at the bus shelter is beautiful and Mrs. Rajapakse wishes she could step right in to it. Although the words “Scene Like No Other: Experience It In Every Sense” are just scribbles and meaningless to her, she recognizes her homeland in a vista of green tea plantations, the elephants, the leopards and palm fringed beaches. Then she sees her husband taken in the night by masked men. She sees the terror on his face. She hears him talking of love as they drag him away. She is grateful to be safe in the UK and will never complain, but every minute of every hour she aches to be home. The bus pulls up. Her son has given her exact money. No need then to talk to the driver.
Deeqo is on the swing in the park, enjoying the sun on her face. “I love it here,” she grins, popping in gum and chewing enthusiastically. “I can't imagine living anywhere other than these flats."
“That’s great,” says the smiley lady-journalist from The Standard. “But I’m writing about the hardships you’ve faced while you’ve been here.”
Deeqo pauses. “The government here helped me. In Somalia they don’t.”
“But it must have been difficult,” the journalist insists.
“The British are wonderful people. Everything I have is because of this country."
“But what about when you first arrived? Asylum-seekers aren't treated well.”
“I was treated with kindness and respect,” Deeqo declares.
The journalist sighs. “From day one? No problems at all?"
For a moment Deeqo considers Nurta, her little mute cousin, and decides to keep her mouth shut.
I am learning English. This is what I have learned. The rain falls and the sky is low. There is much gray. There are some things I have learned are gray: concrete, breeze blocks, cement. I work now as a laborer and share a flat with two friends. Guess what my home is called? Nelson Mandela Flats! After our great brother. I hope this gets to you.
Anis finds Mrs. Ewalane’s shopping list on the second floor stairs. The writing is almost unreadable, but the words that he can make out are fun to say:
Pickled herrings with olives
He knocks loudly because he knows that Mrs. Ewalane is deaf. He can hear the radio tuned to the Polish station, Radio Orla. It is five minutes until she hears and opens the door on the chain.
Her wrinkly gray face creases in a grin. “Anis! Hello!”
“I found your shopping list.”
“Oh, you good boy! And you brought it to me.”
“Yes. It was on the stairs.”
“I didn’t realize I had lost it until I was in the shop and then it was too late.”
“To remember what I needed.”
She glances at the list and frowns. “The flour. I forgot the flour. The most important thing. I heard on the radio just yesterday that the English are very upset that we Poles don't like their flour! What do you think of that Anis?"
Anis shrugs and the old lady suddenly laughs and he can't help but smile even though he's not sure what the joke is.
In the job center Aamir and his mother watch the rain splash against the filthy windows but they don’t get any cleaner. The dirt is on the inside but you can still see the headquarters of Burger King on the other side of the road and its immense signage: Burger King—Home of the Whopper.
“I wouldn’t mind working there,” his mother says.
“What kind of job?” the job center worker asks, making notes.
“A cleaner perhaps.”
“Have you looked at the job pages in the Slough Express?”
“No, not this week, but I did look online.”
Aamir can tell that the job center lady is impressed. “You’re computer literate then?”
“Oh, yes. I can do all that.”
“And your English is good. What about writing? Can you write in English?”
“Oh, yes. I think I can remember. But it depends, of course, on what you are writing. A shopping list? Yes. A dissertation would be more difficult. It’s twenty years.”
“I completed my Ph.D.”
“Yes. I meant to say it is not Mrs. Rahimi. It is Dr. Rahimi.”
As Aamir reaches for his mother’s hand, he feels something stirring, something forgotten, buried beneath sadness and despair. It is a swell of pride.
The park is tended by burly men on community service, dressed in neon- yellow high-visibility jackets. They plant tulip bulbs in attractive circles as recompense for their wrongs to society—and a good job they do, too. Abdul stands nervously twitching his fingers in his trouser pockets, not wanting to make idle-talk with the other men, three British, one Polish. He’s glad of the jacket to hide the rips in his clothes, his frayed sleeves and sweat-stained underarms. He should never have stolen that food but he was hungry.
He doesn’t want to swap stories. “No English,” he mutters when the others ask him what he’s there for. He’s ashamed that it has come to this. Once he was a cook in a proper kitchen in a grand house. He wants to earn his living. He wants to eat well again. It was only a sandwich and some crisps. It was only £4.29. But he did not have the money. Thank God for the kindness of his good friend Hafiz, who gave him space on the floor of his flat. He wonders how Zabi, his other flatmate, is faring today.
"God, please have pity on him," he murmurs, as he carries a sack of bulbs towards the flowerbed.
All day Zabi stands at the door of the British Embassy. He is protesting. His father is ill and dying back in Kabul.
“Mehrabani! Please! Let me go home to see my father one last time,” he asks everyone from the secretaries to the ministers to the window cleaner who come and go all day. But no one listens. Rule: You cannot return to the country from which you have sought asylum. Not even to kiss your dying father goodbye.
“Excuse me. Do you know what time it is?” asks a man in a neon-yellow vest.
Anis is startled by the question. He’s seen these men working in the park on his way back from school every day for the past two weeks and he knows who they are.
He fumbles for his phone. “Three-thirty,” he says.
“Thank you. Your mother makes the sambuusa?”
Anis glances at the half eaten sambuusa in his hand. “My uncle. He works in a fried chicken shop. When he has time he likes to cook his own food. How do you know about sambuusa?”
“I have a Somali friend. They look good. Very crispy. A lovely golden color.”
“Here, take it.”
The man looks embarrassed for a second but then quickly takes it and pops it all in his mouth. Anis watches him chew and he takes a long time to swallow.
“The flavors are good, aren’t they?’
“It needs more hot green pepper, but yes it’s good. Thank you—”
Nurta doesn’t want to be bothered with more questions. She wants to eat the fish and chips that are wrapped in The Evening Star on the kitchen table.
“How many were travelling with you to begin with?” the social worker asks through the translator.
Nurta twists her neck as far as she can away from these strangers.
“If you don’t want to talk to us that’s fine, but can you show me how many with your fingers?”
Nurta’s not sure. Would that be okay, she wonders?
“Nurta, do you know what country you were in when your mother went missing?”
Nurta realizes she was almost tricked with the finger thing. She purses her small mouth firmly shut.
“We want to help. Anything you can tell us will help.”
It was dark. They had been travelling in the dark for maybe days—maybe weeks—in trucks. How could she know?
“How long had your mother been missing when you reached the Netherlands, Nurta?”
The kind and tall Dutch lady with white hair and red lipstick who had hugged her but not asked questions had patiently waited until Nurta had told her about her aunt in Slough. She had understood. A tear trickles down her face. She will not wipe it away. She misses the tall, yellow-haired lady. But she’s angry with Mother for leaving her and wonders if she is still with the man, who she had to kiss, to persuade him to drive them in his truck.
“Have you finished?” asks Anis, pointing at the bread-mopped plate.
“Yeah. It was shit though,” the Cockney says.
“Sorry about that, sir. Can I get you anything else?”
“Cup of tea. On the house, mind.”
“I’ll do that.”
Anis is always polite. He doesn’t want any trouble. Even though at times he wants to say, “Please don’t talk to me that way.” He knows that it is better to be quiet because he is not yet a British citizen with as many rights as that man. He does not yet have a voice.
Abdul does not want to brush his teeth. The taste of the sambuusa lingers, taking him back to his kitchen in Kabul. To a place where fiery herbs grow in gardens, where parrots fly. To a place where the sun is so scorching hot that the soldier's skin bleeds and never heals on the battlegrounds of a once beautiful city. To a place where Abdul was forced to leave a family and run scared towards European salvation. He closes his eyes. In his Afghan kitchen, he’s making a lamb korma stew, chopping the onions. He’s giddy with the aroma of ground cardamom and turmeric, stirring the veal broth stock that bubbles gently on the stove. Next he crushes the red pepper and grates the garden-fresh lemon. Then spinach is washed. Ah, the pine nuts! How could he forget? They must be roasted. And the bolani? Don’t worry. He’ll make it with pumpkin tonight.
In the mold-green flat in Slough tonight, he will not heat up a tin of chunky vegetable soup on the Baby Belling stovetop, but instead he will fry chicken breasts with cinnamon for his friends, adding the yogurt as it cooks because today, for the first time, he remembers what hope tastes like. He is glad Anis had not recognized him. Time enough to introduce himself as a new neighbor. Then he would say: “My name is Abdul. I am not a thief. I am a cook. And I will find my way back to my kitchen."
Kate is a British journalist and travel writer. Her work includes features for The Independent, The Sunday Telegraph, Financial Times, Family Traveller, Journeys, Rough Guides, Islands, Porthole and The Australian. She is studying for an MA in Creative Writing and lives in Windsor with her husband and three sons.