This is the first chapter of a novel entitled Hold Fast, which I was working on sporadically between 2007 and 2011…
Beneath the grey and pale blue sky the air hangs with that heavy scent of sea salt upon mud, its odour rising whenever the cold January wind blows hard upon the flats and back towards the shore. Gone are the huge flocks of waders that had landed to feast upon thousands of creatures left behind by the tide three hours ago; they lifted altogether as a mass of black and white across the horizon, swirling away just as the waters did. All that remain are the grey plovers whistling to one another, ‘Tee-oo-ee, tee-oo-ee.’
Resting for a moment atop a wispy clump of grey-green grass, each blade powdered white by the salt water that washes across this field twice a day, Sumayyah crouches down and inhales deeply, hoping to cure the stitch that pierces the hollow beneath her ribs. Her cheeks feel like leather now, numbed by the icy breeze, while the sensation in her legs is akin to one hundred poison-laden needles pricking her skin. She must recover for a minute, stilling herself while the clouds of perspiration jet past her lips, disappearing in an instant. Listening, she reminds herself why she does this: but for the distant wash of waves and the cries of circling knots, there is peace.
Glancing behind her, she studies the track which has brought her here, estimating the distance she has run, from the steep incline off the road, to the wooded slope downwards and the field below. Across the salt-marsh the pathway is faint, marked out only by its darker hue, trampled mostly by wild horses. It is at least a mile and possibly two. Returning to her feet, she wanders onwards more cautiously until the grass gives way to the rich tidal mud that contains the immense treasures that brings a thousand redshanks, godwits, knots and plovers back day after day. What brings her back day after day, she asks herself once more? Unlike her winged companions, she has no reason to return to the estuary, but still something keeps on drawing her back.
Quickly she strides forward, sinking her right foot into the soft, squelching mud, coating her camouflaged combat trousers brown to her knee; a second later she is racing forward. Her progress stifled by the suction grasping her shoes, she continues onwards running parallel to the estuary on her left and the salt marsh on her right, fighting nature just as yesterday and the day before, setting for herself a fair opponent. Checking her stopwatch as she returns to drier land just under ten minutes later she compares her time to yesterday’s and smiles when she sees that she has bettered it. Although her shins are now caked in mud and her feet resemble those of an elephant, she heads back across the field, jogging up the hill, satisfied with her progress once more.
In a few days time, she will have to leave this behind with her return to school, the dark mornings and evenings cutting her off from this landscape and confining her to less stimulating routes: cross-country around the playing fields pales against this magnificent course. Shedding the thick clay from her shoes as they smack the tarmac surface, she speeds up along the narrow lane between tall, ancient hedges on either side, hurrying on towards home.
Half an hour later, as she nears her parents’ elegant semi-detached house, its windows still framed in fairy lights and red tinsel, her jog has become a saunter. Straight away, as the last of the daylight drains from the sky, she notices that the front room is illuminated, revealing the silhouettes of guests through the net curtains. Hurrying now, she skirts around to the back door and lets herself in. Tiptoeing inside she stops for a moment in the centre of the kitchen and listens to the loud laughter emerging from the living room. A minute later she is standing in the hallway, lifting her dirty trouser legs clear of the expensive carpets, her fingers pinching the green fabric, listening to the conversations within.
‘If only the same could be said about our eldest daughter,’ laments her mother with deliberate words: ‘She is a law unto herself. She just won’t get on. It’s not that she isn’t intelligent.’
‘She’s at that age, isn’t she?’ offers her well-spoken friend.
‘She’s just bone-lazy. It’s as simple as that. All holiday she has been gallivanting around, wasting her time. I know she has course work to do, but she hasn’t even touched it. Her school bag is where she left it on the last day of term. It seems that whatever we say to her goes in one ear and comes right out the other.’
Sumayyah does not wait to hear how the conversation pans out: she charges upstairs instead, stamps across the landing and slams her bedroom door behind her.
‘What’s your problem?’ asks her brother a second later, pushing his head around the frame.
‘Nothing,’ she replies.
Ahmed mopes into her room, shaking his head from side to side as he surveys her decorations. ‘You really are losing it,’ he says, noticing the Union flag pinned to the back of her door. ‘Why can’t you just act normal? Why do you have to act like this? You know what people say about you, don’t you? Don’t you care what people say?’
Sumayyah insists she can read what he is thinking in that expression on his face as he scours her four walls. Facing the door, the wall above her bed displays a huge poster of a Harrier Jump Jet landing in the midst of a tropical forest in a far-off land. Above her study desk she has affixed a large group photograph of herself and her friends, taken last autumn after the Service of Remembrance. On the wall facing the window, there is a map of Great Britain, another photograph of her in her blue Air Cadets uniform and a Second World War reproduction poster titled with the words, ‘Your Country Needs You.’ Ahmed stares at his sister—his face blushing with embarrassment—and shakes his head at the sight of her.
‘Don’t you think what it’s like for me? I’m a laughing stock because of you. My sister’s a freak. Well thank you very much Sumayyah. Just get over this stupid nonsense. You’re driving everyone round the bend.’
‘What, because I believe in something? Is that a crime these days?’
‘You’re going to extremes. Mum and dad tolerate your ATC. So fine, leave it at that. Why do you have to put all this rubbish on your walls? Why do you have to dress like you do? Why don’t you do what mum and dad ask and get studying.’
‘Because it’s boring. And because I’m not interested in becoming a doctor, or a solicitor or an accountant or whatever it is they’ve decided for me today. I’m joining the RAF and I’m going to fly Harrier Jump Jets for a living.’
‘That’s not what mum says.’
‘I know what mum says. I’m a lazy, worthless loser. Do I care? Sorry, but I’ve decided what I’m going to do with my life. You can go in search of your fortune, but I’m going to serve my country.’
‘Oh here we go again! How many times do I have to tell you you’re a Paki. You’re not British and you never will be. Have you not noticed how all the neighbours call us “that lovely Pakistani family at number 12?” When will you get over yourself?’
‘You’re the one who needs to get over yourself. We’ve never even been to Pakistan. And if it wasn’t for you I would never have heard that word you insist on using over and over again. You’re the one with the chip on your shoulder, not me. So sorry, yes, I am British and I’m proud of it.’
Home: this is what sends her out onto the estuary day after day, she tells herself. The air carries the scent of cumin and turmeric, and the pungent smell of fried ghee and chicken breast, which wafts further around the house each time the kitchen door is opened and closed again, but it is the stench of tobacco that dominates in every room. Her father has been home for half an hour and already he is sucking on his fifth cigarette. He draws hard only to splutter hoarse curses at his aching throat a moment later. His lips are dark purple, his skin almost grey and Sumayyah can barely stand looking at him anymore. When he speaks, his sentences break and slur, his voice stuttering awkwardly. She does not know how much longer he can go on like this: he’s a double-glazing salesman, for crying out loud. She would not buy windows from him even if he promised her PVC-U heaven.
There’s no point talking to him now, she moans within, for he snaps at everybody, dismissing their questions and concern even before their words have dropped from their lips. He leaves the house at half-past six in the morning and returns late in the evening every day, telling himself that today will be the day when his prospective customers will sign on the dotted line. It never is, of course: he just returns home irritated, itching his scalp and spluttering more curses. Never do his children tell him that they love him, nor does he tell them the same, for there is no time, or time that is right. She will be glad to return to school in two days’ time and miss him past her bedtime.
A year ago she sat in the cockpit of a retired Hawker Siddely Harrier GR3. Squadron Leader Kendal was a fan of the Tornado, but even he had to admit he was dumbfounded when he saw it up close. Sumayyah will do her time finishing school according to her parents’ wishes, she tells herself constantly, but when her sentence is up she will move on: you do not sit in the cockpit of a Harrier Jump Jet and decide you want to be a solicitor. By the time her brother qualifies as a doctor, she whispers within, she will be flying the GR9; if her parents really will not support her in that, she will come to a compromise, joining the Royal Navy instead and take to flying the Shar.
She has to tell herself these things, for it is an escape from reality. Her brother is only two years older than her, but he acts like he is her father’s deputy. Her mother tells her friends that her husband is a busy executive, but Sumayyah just sees a man who is heading for a heart attack. Her sisters giggle and gossip in their childish Hinglish, and then there is her: another stereotype in the making. The day she returns home in her five-series BMW will be the day they embrace her, boasting to their friends that their daughter is now a lawyer and their son a doctor. She will have made it then and at last they will respect her. They have their dreams, she tells herself, and she has hers.
‘Promise me something Summayah,’ starts her father lethargically, ‘You will start studying hard this term, won’t you? You know what your mother says and she’s right. You don’t want to end up like your dad, selling rubbish to people who don’t want it. I know you think we’re being pretentious, but we’re not. It’s not about us, it’s about you. Life was hard for your granddad and it’s not exactly easy for me. Make sacrifices now and you’ll have a good life. You won’t have to struggle to make ends meet. I know accountancy didn’t appeal to you and law doesn’t much either, but you have to think about the future. Do you think selling double-glazing appealed to me? At least it pays the bills, Summayah.’
She looks back at him somewhat surprised, not because it is as if he has been reading her mind, but because this is the first time he has offered her more than a grunt since she broke up from school two weeks ago. ‘There are other careers than law and accounting,’ she replies, tugging on her ponytail again, ‘if you’d just let me follow my heart, I’d have a job for life, a decent salary, a pension and I’d even see the world. I can’t think of anything worse than sitting behind a desk for the rest of my life.’
Her father lights up another cigarette—his seventh now—inhales deeply and then blows a coiling cloud of grey smoke up into the air in front of him. ‘Given that I spend half my life sitting behind the steering wheel of an Audi and the other half crouched on the living room floor of complete strangers, I’d say a desk job sounds quite exciting. Do you think I enjoy coming home at half past eleven at night? Do you think I get a thrill out of convincing gullible couples that I have a special offer for them that ends at midnight, knowing full well that my generous thirty percent discount is a con? I went to see this couple at six thirty this evening and worked my butt off to get a deal. Half past nine we were on the verge of signing. Half an hour later they’d had second thoughts. They were a nice couple, I don’t blame them, but still, it’s not what I need. Do you envy me, Summayah? To be perfectly honest, there are a thousand jobs I’d rather be doing, but beggars, as they say, can’t be choosers. There aren’t a million opportunities for a Paki in Old Blighty. This much I’m sure you know.’
‘I know a lot more than you think I do. I’m not ashamed to call myself British and I’m not ashamed to serve my country and be someone. I don’t have to put myself down.’
Her father slouches back into his armchair and laughs. ‘That wasn’t a putdown, Summayah; everyone knows Paki means pure. It’s not my fault the racists are illiterate. You’ll wake up to the realities of life soon enough. Yes, we were proud of you when you carried the Union Jack in your posh white gloves and showy uniform on Remembrance Day, but don’t tell yourself you’ve made it. The earth didn’t move for you. You’re still what you are and this society will remind you what you are for the rest of your life. Call yourself British, fine, but I’m telling you, in the eyes of the Nick Griffins of this world, you’re still a Paki, and in the eyes of the person who will give you a job it’s the same, so you need to take the tried and tested path. Just study hard, Summayah, that’s all we’re asking you to do.’
‘Why is it that when I want to be a pilot you insist I’ll never be accepted, but you’re adamant that the only way for me to get anywhere is by studying law?’
‘Well of course I could tell you to do what you want, but when you’re standing in the job queue ten years from now, unable to get a job, unable to pay your bills, when you’ve realised that there aren’t as many jobs for us Pakis as you thought, when you’re facing the kind of discrimination the rest of us face, then you’ll realise that your mum and dad knew best and you’ll wish you listened to us. But I’m not telling you to do what you want. What you want will lead nowhere. Nowhere, Summayah. Nowhere at all.’
He leans forward and she thinks he is going to say something else, but he just pulls one more cigarette out of the packet, rolls it between his fingers for a moment and then lights it. As he drives another mouthful of smoke into the room, she decide to leave him. She does not know how long it will be before he decides to join her mother upstairs. He will sit here smoking for at least another half hour, as he always does, flicking through the television channels over and over again.
‘We’ll see,’ says Sumayyah as she rises to her feet and heads for the door. ‘We’ll see.’