1: Revelations

‘So does anyone actually know what’s wrong with dad?’

Chapter 1 of my winter writing project, Seeking the one.

For table of contents, copyright and explanatory notes see: folio.me.uk/books/seeking-the-one

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1: Revelations

Monday, 29 March 2021

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‘So does anyone actually know what’s wrong with dad?’

I can’t help spraying these words across the room on my way in. I can’t help flinging the door closed behind me either. ‘So he just blew up in my face for no reason again. Bit my head off.’

Isa looks up from the book he’s read a hundred times already and just sneers at me. ‘Like we didn’t already know,’ he barks back, ‘We heard everything.’

I don’t expect penetrating insight from my little brother. At twelve, he never has anything useful to contribute. No need, for he’s mastered the art of rolling his eyes at me, which he thinks makes him look extremely smart. How I love being belittled by a kid nearly six years younger than me. Of course, at fourteen, Maryam’s not much better. From her place in front of the family computer, perfecting her slides on covalent substances, she has already dismissed my fury with a shake of her head: ‘Well mum did say not to disturb him.’

So this is my life. Everyone treats me like I’m a fool these days. Maryam’s turning into mum, all timid and submissive, completely incapable of thinking for herself. She’s so gullible that she’s taken to tiptoeing around the house like a complete coward. No, it’s worse than that: she’s taken it upon herself to enforce these new rules of ours on their behalf. I can’t help losing my temper with her too. ‘Don’t you start,’ I snap back at her.

‘Mum told you to leave him alone,’ she says.

‘Like this is normal. When’s he going to come out? He’s can’t lock himself away forever.’

Instead of offering a thoughtful response, my sister gives me the silent treatment. She does this to me all the time, knowing full well it will wind me up way more than a full-blown argument.

‘Are we going to walk on eggshells in this house forever?’ I ask, but she just returns to cycling through the daft animations on her presentation. ‘Well, are we?’ No, I’m not going to get a response from her; these two are a lost cause. ‘Yeah, well I’m not. It’s getting too much. He needs to snap out of it.’

Naturally, Maryam’s response to that is to shake her head at me yet again. How predictable. And my brother? He just glances at me wearily and copies his sister, returning to his Alex Ryder adventure as quickly as he left it. They’re hopeless, these two. Dad’s been shut away in this bedroom for days now. Mum says he’s feeling a bit down. Fine; we all feel a bit down sometimes, but we don’t shut ourselves away for a week. He has a family here. Maybe we have needs too.

I find mum in the conservatory, pounding hard on the treadmill, the belt rumbling around so fast that the windows seem to vibrate all around her. I don’t need to see her face to know she’s upset; her hammering feet are evidence enough. From the door, I watch her intently for a while. Her shoulders and the back of her neck glisten with perspiration, her grey-black hair tied up in a bun. Her gaze is fixed on the woodland across the valley, far beyond the rooftop at the end of our garden. The more I watch her, the more her trainers seem to thud against the rubber track beneath her. Yes, she knows I’m here. Quietly, I shuffle forwards and come to a standstill at her side.

‘I told you to leave him alone,’ she howls without even looking at me, her eyes still fixed straight ahead.

Perching on the edge of the windowsill, I gaze at my mum’s face. It’s all twisted with a bitter rage, sweat dripping down her forehead. I can tell that her pace is too quick for her, causing her pain, but she keeps it up as if to emphasise her disquiet.

‘I only wanted to tell him about something that happened at college today,’ I tell her. ‘Nothing that warranted him going ballistic.’

‘You could’ve spoken to me.’

‘It was a man thing.’

‘About a girl?’ she asks, her eyes accidentally flitting towards me.

‘It doesn’t matter what it was about. Not something I’d discuss with you. Sometimes I need a dad. But where is he? He just stares aimlessly at nothing. I didn’t even say anything bad to him. I just said, “Dad.” Tried to get his attention, and he blew up in my face. Exploded.’

‘Which is why I expressly told you lot not to bother him,’ pants mum breathlessly. Mum has never mastered talking and walking at the same time, let alone sprinting like this.

‘But why?’ I demand. ‘What exactly is wrong with him?’

Mum jabs at the controls in front of her, reducing her speed a notch. ‘That, Ibrahim, is none of your business.’

‘Really? I’m his son. I deserve to know what’s happening. Is he ill? Has something happened? Has he lost his job?’

She jabs at the button again, slowing to a jog, the sweat dripping down over her eyebrows now. She blinks awkwardly, wiping her face dry with the back of her hand. ‘He’s just feeling down,’ she says at last.

‘But why?’ I ask. ‘Is it lockdown?’

‘That may have something to do with it.’

‘But it’s not like he’s the only one it’s affecting. We’re all going stir-crazy.’

Mum has slowed to a brisk walk now and has taken to measuring her pulse, her heavy breathing brought back under control. ‘Just be patient, Ibrahim,’ she says.

‘Like you, mum? How many years are you going to put up with this? It’s not fair on you.’

‘I chose this life, Ibrahim,’ she tells me, ‘so I accept everything it throws at me.’

‘You shouldn’t have to.’

‘Please, Ibrahim, leave it.’

‘You deserve better,’ I say.

‘Okay, enough,’ she shouts, flashing those bright white teeth at me.

‘You always get cross when I tell you the truth,’ I bawl back at her.

No, but she can yell louder than that. ‘Just… just leave me,’ she cries at the top of her voice. ‘Get out!’ she bellows furiously. ‘Go away!’

Yes, this is my life in this house. This is what it’s like every single day at the moment. I hate it. Seriously, I can’t stand it. I just want to run away, get out. Leaving my mum, I slam the glass door shut behind me. Then I slam the kitchen door shut too for good measure, shaking the whole house. Perhaps they will get the message if I slam every single door on my way out.  

‘Good one, bro,’ says Maryam, catching me in the hall. ‘So now you’ve upset both of them. Well done. Way to go.’

‘Shut up! You’re as bad as them. I hate this stupid family.’

At the front door, I kick my feet into my shoes, and yank it wide open.

‘Where are you going?’ she asks, following after me.

‘Grandad’s.’

‘We’re not allowed,’ she says. ‘Covid rules.’

‘Stuff the rules.’

‘It’s to protect them.’

‘I’ll stand in the garden if I have to,’ I tell her, pulling the door closed behind me. ‘This house is doing my head in. I’m out of here.’

It’s only a five-minute walk to my grandparents’ house. Four minutes to the end of our road, then a short saunter downhill from the corner to their tiny bungalow. This afternoon, though, my fierce pace, marching all the way, carries me there in half the time. I’m so tired of my parents’ perpetual fury, and now I’m angry too. It’s like it’s more contagious than that damn virus that’s destroyed my life.

Standing on their doorstep, I ring the doorbell, then step back onto their eroded concrete driveway. I’m not so stupid that I’d breathe all my germs into their faces. They’ve both had their jab, but I have a mask at the ready, just in case they insist. Whoever knew the kid who deserves only to be shouted at could be so responsible?  

‘Salams grandad,’ I mumble when he opens up, ‘are you up for a walk?’

When he sees me, his eyes open wide and a broad smile cracks on his face. ‘Oh, I thought you’d never ask,’ he grins, as if I’ve made his day. For a second he glances behind him, then back at me. ‘Just give me ten minutes and I’ll be out.’

‘Sure,’ I say, ‘I’ll wait out front.’

There’s a low stone wall at the end of the driveway, built of ancient brown blocks stained a mottled grey by the lichen granny couldn’t kill with last summer’s lethal concoction. This has become my favourite seat through lockdown. I’ve found that my perch, sitting there to watch the world go by, helps calm me down. Inhaling the cold, fresh evening air, I can feel my agitation melting away. Perhaps I will even be sane by the time the gentle retired academic re-emerges from his hallway.

He reappears ten minutes later, just as he said he would, clothed in full walking gear, his feet shod in thick woolly socks and hiking boots. He dresses this way every time, as if we’re about to head out on an eight hour trek in the hills. I’m not sure his flat cap really suits him, but he has kept that habit for more years than I’ve walked the earth, so I don’t dare offer a critique. In his right hand, he clasps a collapsible walking stick, which he deploys more for style than as a mobility aid. My grandad is nearly as energetic as his daughter, taking himself off for a walk twice daily. If only my dad would take a leaf out of his book.

‘So, how’s life treating you, Ibrahim?’ he asks me.

How to answer that? I’m certain it’s a rhetorical question to which I’m expected to reply, ‘Not too bad.’ But, in my opinion, you should never ask rhetorical questions of anyone you care about. Not that I’m bitter about the rhetorical questions I’m asked at home or anything. As long as dad’s alright, that’s all that matters.

Setting off down the hill, I glance at my grandad’s face. ‘College,’ I tell him, ‘That’s going great. Well as great as it can in the middle of a pandemic. It’s such a relief to be back. So glad to be back there. Well, apart from having to wear a facemask all the time. No, but so glad to be back with my friends. I was going crazy.’

‘I can imagine,’ he says, nodding.

‘But home: I don’t know. I feel like we’re falling apart. Dad: what can I say about him? It’s like he’s losing it. And mum? I feel like she just lets dad walk all over her. It’s like she’s scared. She won’t confront him. She can’t face the fact his behaviour’s just so… Strange. Abnormal. Out of order. Messed up. She just tells us to leave him alone, because she knows he’s going to explode any minute over the tiniest, most insignificant little thing. I’m so tired of it. These days, I just want to get out of that house. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I’d just leave home. I can’t wait to go to uni next year.’

My grandad looks back at me thoughtfully, but he says nothing at all. My grandad’s a thinker: he always has been. He never speaks without thinking long and hard first. It’s not that he’s ignoring me: inside I know all of his cogs are whirring away, splicing my thoughts into different processes he can carefully digest before stitching them back together again. 

‘Do you know what’s going on with my dad?’ I ask him. ‘I just can’t work it out. Is it a white thing? To be honest, he’s the only white guy I know these days. Is this just what they’re like under pressure?’

At the bottom of the hill, we cross the road and wander up beside the broken barbed wire fence towards the open field. I can see my grandad is contemplating his response, those cogs spinning into overdrive. Ping: here comes his wise retort.

‘You know, all these dreadful lockdowns have been difficult for us all. They just go on and on and on, and there seems to be no end in sight for weeks and weeks. Sometimes I wonder if it will ever end. So it’s only natural that our minds just seem to become preoccupied with the past. I know my mind has been busy with all I’ve done in life. I expect it’s the same for your father.’

‘I get that,’ I say, ‘but he’s taking it to extremes. He doesn’t come out of his room. He doesn’t speak to any of us. And when he does, it’s just to yell at us. I’m so tired of it.’

‘You need to be more generous to your father, Ibrahim.’

‘That’s what mum says too.’

‘And she’s right.’

The trampled pathway takes us straight through the dense hawthorn and sloe hedgerow, past the buds of white blossom emerging a month too early. It’s muddy underfoot here, but we straddle the deepest sludge, pressing our feet down on the grassy edges either side, intent on following the path along the western edge of the field at the bottom of the valley. The ground is flat here and easier on my grandad’s knees.

‘Consider this, Ibrahim: your father hasn’t been back to his hometown in over twenty years. If I had to hazard a guess as to what’s going through his mind, it would be that he’s thinking of his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in twenty-five years. That’s hard for any man.’

‘But that was his choice, right?’ I ask him. ‘I always assumed they had some falling out when he became Muslim.’

‘Don’t assume anything, Ibrahim. It was nothing like that at all.’

‘Marrying mum then?’

‘No, nothing of the sort.’

‘What then?’

The path isn’t wide enough for both of us here, so I let him wander ahead. He can’t help extending his walking stick at this point and using it to thrash at the long grass on our left and right. It makes no difference to us, but it seems to help him think. Momentarily, he comes to a halt and glances back at me. ‘Your dad’s mother had a very tough life,’ he tells me.

There must be something to follow this revelation, but my grandad just saunters on, all the way to the furthest corner. Even when we arrive there, he says nothing and instead begins to ascend the slope towards the woods. This hill is not challenging in the slightest, but our progress is stifled by thoughts within. We don’t measure speed in miles per hour, but by thoughts per metre. Our slow pace now can only mean that my grandad is engaged in thought so deep that his brain has given up sending commands down his spinal cord.

As we near the top, his legs finally seize altogether, locking firm. Coming to a halt beside him, I watch him delving into his pockets for his smartphone. He has one of those ridiculous phablet phones with a screen the size of a tennis court, and the interface set so large that it could be seen from space. He tries to unlock it with his face, but that doesn’t work, so he tries his fingerprint instead. For a moment, he jabs at the screen like it’s a calculator from the 1980s, then swipes this way and that, before jabbing a bit more.

‘Look at this,’ he says, holding his phone out in front of us, ‘My lockdown project.’ The contrast’s not great, so he moves it closer to my face. ‘I’ve been digitising all of the family photos. I’ve been driving your granny to distraction with the great rig I’ve set up on the dining room table. I think I’ve digitised about eight hundred photos so far.’

I can’t see what he sees at all. Watching me, he pulls it back towards him and swipes some more, straining his eyes to read the labels he’s assigned to each of his gazillion folders. His was the generation of filing cabinets; mine only knows the camera roll. ‘I’ll be sharing these albums with you when I’m done,’ he says, still searching. ‘Ah, there we are. That’s the one.’

He holds his phone up in front of me again. This time there is a photo on the screen, only it seems to be a photo of a photo: a very faded photograph, with torn and creased edges, and a dark thumbprint in the top-right corner. ‘You might recognise this,’ he tells me.

Taking his phone in my own hands, I gaze down at the screen. ‘Is that granny?’ I ask, not that I have to: that beautiful Indian woman is unmistakable.

‘Yep,’ he says, ‘And?’

‘My mum?’

‘Yes, at one day old.’

‘Wow.’

My grandad leans in closer to me, knocking my shoulder with his. He’s not a believer in the two-metre rule. ‘And the woman next to her?’ he asks.

‘No idea,’ I reply, shaking my head.

‘That’s your other granny. The baby? That’s your dad.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘Well you know they share the same birthday.’

‘Of course,’ I splutter, ‘but I didn’t think…’

‘Your mum and dad were born about an hour apart in the same hospital on the same night. They shared their earliest moments of life together on the same ward.’

‘That’s… awesome.’

‘It is a bit,’ he laughs. ‘Yes, but look closely at the photo. What do you notice?’

Learning in still closer, my grandad pushes his left hand under the phone, then pinches and zooms the image right beneath my eyes. I don’t know that a twelve megapixel camera is capable of salvaging an out-of-focus print captured forty-four years ago, but he’s intent on trying.

‘Um, I don’t know.’

‘What do you notice about your dad’s mother.’

‘Only… only that she seems very young.’

‘Spot on. She is. She’s a teenager. Looks scared, doesn’t she? My darling is smiling. But that little girl? She’s terrified. She’d just turned sixteen, and she’d just given birth to your dad. We had your mum at twenty-two. Six years difference.’

I take the screen in my hand again, studying the image carefully. ‘When was this?’ I ask.

‘Thursday, fifth of May, 1977. Well, the photo was probably taken on the Friday, maybe even Saturday.’

‘Wow, that’s like the olden days, seriously.’

‘So think about it, Ibrahim. By the time your dad was five, his mother was twenty. By the time he was fifteen, she was thirty.’

‘I guess that’s quite young.’

‘It is when you’re all alone, trying to raise a child.’

‘What about her… er, my…’ I can’t help scratching my nose as I pass the phone back to him. I don’t know why I do this whenever my words get stuck; I don’t think my brain is in there.  ‘I must have another grandad then, right?’

‘That’s a whole other subject.’

My grandad slips his phone back into the pocket of his coat and buttons it closed. At last, we’re on the move again and amble up to the top corner of the field, where he gestures left and right, inquiring whether to wander on along the top of the field or to head up into the woods to saunter between the dense grey trunks. I’m happy walking in what remains of the afternoon sun and simply press on along the same trampled path that brought us this far. A few steps on, I glance back to check he’s following after me.

‘Your dad’s mother: she really struggled. Life was extremely hard for her, and unfortunately their relationship just broke down. By the time she was thirty, I think she’d basically given up. She and her son just went separate ways. That was around twenty-five years ago.’

‘How old was my dad then?’

‘Just a bit younger than you are now.’

‘Wow. That’s…’

‘Yes, tough. It has to be hard for your father.’

The grass here is bathed in that vivid yellow radiance that pulls transitory contentment out of us, its warmth embracing us. It reminds me how unnatural it has been to be locked up inside for hours on end all year, getting on each other’s nerves. I have no idea why we inflicted that on ourselves. 

‘So you think that’s why he’s in that mood these days?’ I ask my grandad.

‘To be honest, it sounds like he has severe depression. I don’t think he means to shut you out. It’s just his way of dealing with the pain he carries inside.’

‘Does my mum know about this?’

‘Of course. She knows better than anyone.’

The path carries us back on ourselves, the track we trampled earlier down there at the bottom of the valley, winding through the swathes of yellowed grass and knapweed, which ripples like waves on the sea whenever a breeze blows past us. These disclosures are difficult to comprehend. He carries some kind of pain inside? My dad has never mentioned anything like this to any of us. He’s just your typical middle-aged white English bloke: a bit grumpy most days, forever the cynic and intolerant of even the slightest noise, but otherwise amiable, approachable and easily amused by farting jokes. I’ve never heard him speak of his own family or a life he had elsewhere before us. Prior to his weird new despondency, he was always a joker, liable to be found rolling around in stitches at a prank he played on us. I don’t recognise this new temper of his at all.

As we emerge from the passage through the third hedgerow on our way back, my grandad points uphill towards a bench with views over the town. He’s usually a brisk walker making repeated circuits of these fields, uninterested in stopping to rest, but this time hurries forth, as if he fears a passing crow might  bagsy his seat before we get there. Making himself comfortable, he slaps the rough timber beam beside him, begging me to join him. As I take my seat, I watch as he pulls his phone from his pocket and takes to tapping at the screen again. It seems he’s searching for something else to share with me. When he finds what he’s looking for, a smile appears on his face and he holds his phone up before me.

‘Take a look at this,’ he says, passing it on to me. ‘See if you recognise anyone.’

Grasping hold of the phone, I glance down at a primary school class photo, still in its grey cardboard frame, the year 1983 embossed in gold on the bottom panel. ‘Is that my dad?’ I ask, pointing at a little boy on the back row.

‘Yep,’ he says. ‘And next to him?’

I pinch and zoom in, and study the photo carefully. She’s not looking at the camera. She’s looking at my dad, with a great big grin on her face. ‘That’s mum.’

My grandad reaches across to the phone and swipes onto the next image. ‘What about this one?’ he asks.

Scrutinising the next photo, I find them on the second row this time, standing next to each other, beaming right into the camera. That one’s really cute. I can’t help swiping for the next one in the hope of finding that adorable, inseparable pair: the lovable Indian girl always standing on my dad’s right shoulder. My grandad’s captured a school photograph for every year from 1983 to 1994.

‘They’ve moved up to secondary school here?’ In 1988’s photo, they’re not looking at the camera at all, but gazing into each other’s eyes. ‘That one’s awesome,’ I say.

‘Yep,’ he smiles as I carry on swiping through.

‘I can’t see my dad in this one,’ I say, ‘1991. What happened there? I can see mum, but not dad.’ I swipe again. ‘Ah, here he is. 1992. So? Hmm, okay, what’s happening here?’ I show my grandad the phone. ‘Is that dad?’ I ask, but he just pulls the phone from my hands, closing the cover over the screen.

‘That’s enough for now,’ he tells me.

‘No, wait,’ I say, begging for it back, ‘was that my dad? He looks miserable. What happened there?’

‘Let’s not worry about that now.’

‘Please,’ I say, begging for it until my grandad finally relents and hands it back. ‘So here. There’s my dad on that end. Mum’s on the other end. They both look miserable.’ I swipe again. In the photo from 1993, she’s looking at my dad, but not with that fond gaze we saw in all of the earlier ones. No, she seems to be sneering at him with total contempt, and my dad looks broken. ‘What’s the story here?’ I ask. ‘What year is this?’

‘That would be their GCSE year. They’d be fifteen, turning sixteen.’

‘So it’s to do with his mum, right? He’s hit the age she was when she had him? So she’s dwelling on it, yeah? Is that it? So it’s like a cycle? A vicious circle?’

‘Something like that, Ibrahim,’ mutters my grandad, striving futilely to wrest the phone back from me.

‘But what’s the story with mum? Why’s she looking at him like that?’

‘That, Ibrahim, is a very long story.’ This time he manages to snatch the phone back from me. ‘But we should get back now.’ Beside me, he rises to his feet and sets off, pushing his phone back into his pocket. ‘Let’s get moving,’ he says.

My grandad’s more enthusiastic for the journey downhill than I am. I can’t help thinking that I really ought to know something about that very long story. Across the valley, I can see the back of our house, but I can’t make out if mum is still in the conservatory, hammering on the treadmill. I wonder if she sees us, rambling down the hill; I wonder if she saw us sitting there, glancing at his phone. It’s like I’ve just travelled back in time to witness the origins of my own existence. With dread, I worry that Marty McFly has a hand in the photo from 1993. Has he rewritten their past so I no longer exist?

‘What’s my gran’s name?’ I ask, running to catch up with him near the bottom of the slope. ‘Dad’s mum?’

‘Catherine.’

‘Johnson?’

‘No, Sanderson.’

‘Catherine Sanderson?’

‘Yes. Why do you ask?’

‘Just thinking how I should think of her. Granny Catherine? Or Grannie Sanderson? Grannie S?’

My grandad comes to a halt and glances back at me. ‘Perhaps it’s best not to think about it too deeply, Ibrahim. I have no idea what happened to her.’

‘Do you mean… is she…’

‘By rights she should still be alive. She would only be sixty. But…’

‘Go on.’

‘She became lost in drink and drugs, so I don’t dare think what became of her. It’s not a life that treats people well.’ He looks at me seriously. ‘Please don’t tell your dad that we’ve had this conversation. Nor your mum. Don’t mention his mother to him.’

‘Of course. I won’t.’

‘I only told you to help you understand what your father’s going through. Go easy on him, Ibrahim. I know it’s hard, but you must be patient.’

‘I’ll try,’ I say, shrugging.

‘Please do,’ he says. ‘Your dad’s a good man. Just give him time. It’ll pass.’

My grandad is a wise man I’ve always trusted to dispense good advice, but I can’t help thinking he doesn’t really know what’s going on in our house at the moment. We’re not the family we were a year ago, before we were all locked in together for months on end. Our trudge back up the hill is pretty much silent, for these thoughts occupy me now. It’s like we’ve become enemies to one another. Dad shouts at mum. Then he shouts at me, and I shout back, only for mum to shout at me, both for causing him to shout at me and for shouting back. Yes, and then Maryam sticks her nose in, just to emphasise the point. I don’t know if have it in me to be patient much longer.

Traipsing along the pavement uphill, I want to tell my grandad that we’re not okay. I want to tell him that behind closed doors we’re all falling apart. I want him to know that my mum is utterly miserable. I want to convince him to intervene, to sit with my parents to counsel them and offer them thoughtful guidance. I want to ask him to visit us regularly like he used to. I want to ask him to fix us. But instead, I just come to a halt on the path outside his bungalow and watch him saunter back down his driveway, past their little red hatchback.

‘Message me if you need anything,’ I call out as he reaches his door.

‘Will do,’ he replies. ‘Drop in again tomorrow. Let’s walk every day.’

Inshallah,’ I say, waving to him.

That’s it then: time to head for home, my furious march now a resigned stroll. Where I covered the distance in half the time earlier, now I will take my time, ambling lazily, spinning a five-minute walk out to ten minutes. There’s no urgency in my return journey at all; let me enjoy this temporary peace while it lasts. In truth, I’m just bracing myself for whatever is about to happen next. When I arrive back home, I ascend the garden steps slowly, searching the windows for sign of movement. I’m not looking for confrontation, but confrontation always seems to find me. Case in point: standing on the doorstep, I’m just about to push my key into the lock when the door swings wide open, revealing my mum standing there, just waiting.

‘Where’ve you been?’ she asks immediately, gaping at me.

‘For a walk,’ I mutter, only to push past her, kicking off my shoes to press on up the stairs.

‘Ibby,’ I hear her call out after me, but I ignore her.

In my room, I close my door firmly behind me and dive onto my bed. Lying on my back, holding my phone up above my face, I begin swiping down my anti-social feed, thinking I might find something moderately interesting or at least amusing. But no, it’s all dreary and mundane, nearly as boring as my life. This is when a thought occurs to me: I hit the search box and start tapping, ‘Cather…’

No, wait. I stop myself and promptly leap up from my bed. Sitting down at my desk, I open the lid of my laptop, launch Chrome and then open an incognito browser tab. Hurriedly, I type in that name I just learned: ‘Catherine Sanderson.’ I follow it with the name of my dad’s hometown and hit enter. The search page gives me four million results, retrieved in well under a second. A company page, a LinkedIn entry, multiple genealogy websites and a newspaper article. Most of the suggestions are tenuous though: I should have put her name in quote marks. I try that and get seventeen thousand results instead, but a fist hammering on my bedroom door curtails my exploration.

‘Ibby?’

Hearing her, I kill the tab and switch through to Teams. ‘I’m busy,’ I reply, but mum wanders in anyway.

Standing beside me, she briefly glances over my screen, but her eyes soon wander back through the window to survey the hills across the valley. ‘I’m sorry for having a go at you,’ she says, her right hand landing on my shoulder. Moments later, she’s pinching my neck, massaging away an ache. ‘You’re right really,’ she mumbles.

‘About?’

‘Me and your dad.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I love your dad so much, but…’

I glance up at her and see her eyes have flushed with tears. She releases my neck, steps backwards and collapse onto the edge of my bed, crying. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mum cry like this. Plonking myself down beside her, I wrap my arm around her, caressing her back.

‘Hey, mum,’ I say, but we just end up sitting in silence for the next five minutes.

‘We’ve always tried to hide it from you lot,’ she says finally, ‘but our life has been so hard. You were a good distraction for us. You, Maryam, Isa. We just threw ourselves into raising you, giving you a good life, investing in your future. To make sure you didn’t have a childhood like ours: like your dad’s. But bubbling away, underneath, there was always this tension.’

‘But dad was never like this. He was always smiling, joking around.’

‘Yes, on the surface…’ She stops. ‘He loves you, Ibby. You’re the light of his eyes. You always made him so happy. You all did. Yes, he was always happy with you lot. That was genuine.’

‘And around you, mum.’

‘Yeah,’ she says, but then I watch more tears dribble from the corners of her eyes.

‘Has something happened, mum?’ I ask, looking at her attentively. ‘Have you had a row?’ I can’t stand to see my mum crying like this. ‘You’re not splitting up?’ I add, only to watch her glance back at me as if horrified. Well, that’s a good sign at least. ‘It happened to my best friend,’ I tell her, ‘His mum and dad just got divorced. It’s really messed up. I can’t believe it.’

Shaking her head, mum manages a reassuring smile. ‘We’re not getting divorced,’ she says. ‘I love your dad.’ She thinks for a second and nods. ‘So much,’ she adds. ‘More than I could ever express,’ she says, her tears overflowing yet again.

Hearing her, I rise to get her a tissue, handing her a bunch of them. As she dries her face, I drop onto my desk chair, twisting around to face her. ‘This lockdown has been worse than the last one,’ I tell her. ‘I missed my mates so much. So glad to be back at college.’ I look at my mum. ‘Maybe it’s the same for dad. He used to go to his halaqa every week. It was good for him. Maybe he has withdrawal symptoms. Why didn’t he join them on Zoom?’

‘He says it’s not the same. You know how he hates tech.’

‘Hates it? It’s his job.’

‘That’s why. He has enough of it at work.’

‘Well, soon we’ll be free. We can have people over outside from today. You should arrange something. Invite ustadh.’

Inshallah,’ says mum, though I can tell she’s not convinced.

‘Is dad thinking about the past?’ I ask her.

‘Why do you ask that?’

I’m quiet for a little while. I know my grandad told me not to say anything, but I’m curious. ‘Just thinking, really,’ I say when I can keep it inside no longer.

‘About?’

‘How come I only have one set of grandparents? How come there’s only G and G Anand, but no G and G Johnson?’ I hope to see a glimmer of something revealing in her eyes. ‘Is that why dad’s so depressed? Did something happen between them?’

My mum gets up from my bed and wanders over to me. Standing beside me, her right hand lands back on my shoulder and she spins my chair back towards the window. ‘Best not to talk about that,’ she tells me, gazing out to that rolling landscape once more.

‘Why?’ I ask. ‘You know, I’d miss you if I didn’t see you for a week.’ I chuckle at the thought. ‘Yes, even though you drive me mad,’ I add, smiling at her. ‘Is that why dad’s so down? Is he thinking about his mum?’

‘Maybe,’ she whispers.

‘When did he last see her?’

My mum shrugs. ‘Maybe… maybe 1995. I guess.’

‘So that’s sixteen, no, twenty-six years ago.’

My mum nods her head, but says nothing.

‘Maybe he should get in touch,’ I suggest.

‘If he could, I’m sure he would,’ mutters mum.

‘Does he have regrets?’

‘Oh, he has a mountain of them. He rebukes himself for them perpetually. Not that he has any reason to.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because he did nothing wrong. Nothing worse than you’ve ever done, Ibby. Sure, we have our moments, but I still love you unconditionally. That’s the contract parents make with their kids. They drive you to distraction, but you make allowances, because we’ve seen you grow. We’ve been through the dirty nappies, the terrible twos, the teenage tantrums. We’ve seen you grow from a tiny defenceless baby into a confident young adult. Subhanullah, it’s humbling. The cycle of life. Incredible.’

‘Does it have anything to do with him converting to Islam?’ I ask. ‘Did they reject him?’

‘I don’t think they even know.’

‘Were they mad he married a Muslim girl?’

Mum smiles at me like I’m dumb. ‘You do know I’m a convert too, don’t you?’

‘You what?’

‘Of course,’ she says, laughing at me.

‘But granny and grandad?’

‘Them too.’

‘Really?’ I ask, perplexed. ‘But…’

‘My dad’s parents were Hindu. Mum’s were Christian. Your grandad was a lecturer at the university and came into contact with many, many international students. He explored all sorts of cultures and religions through the years. Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Sanatan dharma, Bhakti. All different branches of Catholicism. Bahaism. Judaism. He’s very open minded.’

‘Wow, I never knew.’

‘So my dad was first to become Muslim. That was around 1993, in the middle of our summer holidays actually. It wasn’t really a surprise though.’

‘Where did you go? Somewhere in the Middle East?’

‘No, on the Norfolk Broads, actually.’

‘Okay, right. That makes sense.’

‘In a canoe, while being chased by an aggressive swan, protective of its offspring.’

‘That makes even more sense,’ I mutter, rolling my eyes. ‘And granny? She followed on?’

‘Mum was a bit more reticent. She never really believed in the trinity, but she liked her Unitarian church. She’d found it around 1992. I think my mum and dad were in competition really, but there was no conflict. They respected each other’s beliefs.’ I watch my mum shrugging her shoulders. ‘I don’t really know when my mum became Muslim. She just drifted into it, really. The first time I became conscious of it was when Maryam was born. When she whispered the kalima in her ear. So fourteen years ago. Must’ve been 2007.’

I’m shocked by these confessions. ‘And you?’ I ask.

‘Me? I don’t know really,’ she says. ‘When my dad converted, it changed me. In a good way. It calmed me down. When I went into the sixth form to do my A-Levels, that’s when my dad’s faith started having a big impact on me. He was becoming very merciful, and that rubbed off on me. I could feel it changing me for the better. I think I believed in my heart quite early on, but I was holding out for something. I didn’t want anything to come in the way of that.’

‘What was it?’

I watch as my mum glances back at me and lets her reticent smile come into full bloom. ‘Your dad,’ she tells me.

‘You serious?’

‘As serious as serious be,’ she chortles. ‘But I think it was 1995 when I committed to it. When I truly said this is the life for me. On my eighteenth birthday, in fact.’

‘With dad?’

‘No. But I missed him. I truly missed him. I think it was that which made me utter my shahada that day. It was a Friday. Jummah. Auspicious, perhaps. I told my dad I wanted to become Muslim, and he took me down to his mosque and I just did it, right after Jummah prayer. All the sisters, they embraced me. And my best friend too.’

‘Where was dad?’   

Mum pauses here, gazing back outside. ‘Lost,’ she mutters finally.

‘Literally? Spiritually?’

‘Both,’ she says. ‘I’d lost him,’ she murmurs. Then she glances back at me, her face folding once more, tears flooding down her cheeks. ‘And I feel like I’m losing him again,’ she sobs.

Standing up, I immediately embrace her. ‘Don’t cry, mum,’ I say, but her tears cause my own to burst forth too.

‘I’m so scared, Ibby,’ she whispers in my ear. ‘I’m scared I’m going to lose him all over again.’


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Table of contents: folio.me.uk/books/seeking-the-one

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