‘Man, what’s wrong with you?’ cries Mo, thumping me so hard on my left bicep that I flinch away from him, retreating. ‘You look so damn depressed.’Chapter 4 of my winter writing project, Seeking the one.
4: The phone call
Thursday, 1 April 2021
‘Man, what’s wrong with you?’ cries Mo, thumping me so hard on my left bicep that I flinch away from him, retreating. ‘You look so damn depressed.’
Hanging in the common room, I know I should be feeling relaxed right now. I’ve just handed in my final essay, which I completed just after midnight and spent all morning checking. Really, I should be happy, rejoicing in the freedom to come. It’s the end of term and I’ve finished all my lessons for the day. Anyone but me would be chilling just now, but I’m not the mellow type: not these days anyway.
‘Nothing’s wrong with me at all,’ I groan, averting my eyes from him, ‘I’m fine.’
Mo just grins at me. ‘You should be buzzing, bro,’ he titters, whacking me again. ‘The word on the street is you and Ayşegül are hitting it off.’
I admit, the way Mo speaks has always wound me up. ‘The word on the street?’ I scoff, ‘Why do you talk like you’re a gangster? We’re country bumpkins, not inner city boys.’ In truth, we’re more Worzel Gummidge than Stormzy.
‘Typical Ibs, changes the subject,’ he cackles. ‘So is it true?’
‘Is what true?’
‘You and Ayşegül?’
‘Me and Ayşegül what?’
Here comes the next thump. ‘Won’t you stop being so elusive, Ibs?’ he cries, bruising my arm, ‘You know what I mean.’
‘Not really. We’re just nerds, exchanging notes.’
‘Love notes, I heard.’
‘Yeah right. I have my own sources.’
‘Garlic or chilli?’ I ask, swapping onto the chair opposite, fleeing his friendly blows.
‘Nice try, but no. Zarah’s filled me in,’ he sniggers, gaping at me. ‘So, when’s your first date?’
‘Like I’m going to date a hijabi girl. Are you crazy?’
‘I thought you’d like a girl like her.’
‘That’s not what I’m saying, you dweeb. I’m saying hijabi girls don’t do dating.’
‘Don’t they?’ he roars, cracking up, ‘News to me.’
‘This is why I hate talking to you. You’re so unserious.’
‘Trues that. I just go with the flow me.’ Mo is convulsing with belly laughs now. ‘You’re too serious, Ibi,’ he says, and takes to reading my face like it’s an open book. ‘So what’s eating you up?’ he asks.
‘I never said anything was. Juss family tings.’
‘Who’s talking gansta now?’ he laughs. ‘So what is it?’
‘Weird stuff. Don’t want to talk about it really.’
‘Saving it up for Ayşegül?’ he sniggers, ridiculing me. ‘That’s how it starts, Ibi boy.’
‘Stop calling me that.’
‘Changing the subject again,’ he laughs.
‘Yes, I am,’ I say, standing up and grabbing for my bag. ‘Give it a break. Seriously, I’m not in the mood.’
‘Back to the library?’ he asks, ‘Don’t know why you bother. You know exams are cancelled.’
‘They’re still going to assess you though.’
‘You’ll be fine. Straight As you.’
‘Let’s hope so.’
‘You still planning your great escape?’
‘Yep. Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburg or Exeter. Whichever is furthest from home.’
‘That bad, man?’
‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘that bad, seriously. Catch you later.’
Everyone says I take my studies too seriously, but they don’t know my life. Maybe if life at home was in any way normal, I’d join them, relax and take it easy. Maybe I’d play the fool too and just mess about, but I don’t want to be still hanging around here in six months’ time; I want to be out of here, free to be myself somewhere far away where no one can bother me. So, yes, the library calls.
Wandering off, my pace along the corridor and up the stairs is entirely deliberate. I’m not wasting my time; I know exactly where I’m going. These footsteps are just patient, knowing that they’re leading me somewhere better than this. This is just groundwork; these are just my foundations for something bigger and better I haven’t even imagined yet. This is the pain before the pleasure. These are the seeds I plant for a harvest later. Soon, just months from now, I’ll be somewhere I never have to hear anyone yelling at me ever again. Soon I’ll be free.
These thoughts occur to me over and over as I push on in and aim for my favourite desk. I’ve already seen that graceful girl sitting at the table we occupied yesterday, but of course I pretend not to notice her, consciously lowering my gaze, for she has company. I cannot stand her giggling companions who find me so utterly hilarious: they do my head in. I wish they’d just grow up and try to make it through a day without taunting me with their asinine scorn. No, but it’s hopeless, for they’re already nudging one another and pointing at the idiot in their midst.
‘Shut up.’ The voice is Ayşegül’s. It’s followed by the sound of chair legs scraping across the floor. ‘Ibrahim…’ Turning back, I see her hurrying after me. ‘Ib… wait. I need to talk to you.’ Stopping there, four pairs of eyes gawk up at me from the table, but it’s Ayşegül’s that grab my attention. ‘Salams,’ she smiles when I look at her properly.
‘Alaikum assalam,’ I reply automatically. I’ve always been taught to return salams, even if you don’t feel like it.
‘I’ve been looking for you all day,’ she says, leading me around a corner into the space I’d been aiming for anyway. ‘Where’ve you been?’
‘Around,’ I murmur.
‘You look even more down than you did yesterday,’ she tells me. ‘Have you got the blues or something?’
‘Yeah, just a bit,’ I shrug.
‘Well I’ve got some news to cheer you up. I heard from your gran.’
‘Serious,’ she says. ‘Come for a walk outside. I can’t breathe in these masks.’
Now Ayşegül is averting her eyes from those delirious friends of hers, ignoring them completely as she packs away her things. I wait for her by the door, then push through when I see her following on with her bag slung over her shoulder. She’s not wasting any time either; she doesn’t even say bye to them on her way out. We’re heading back down the stairs now, aiming for the lobby and the glass doors beyond. There is urgency in both our gaits now: mine, a yearning for good news, hers the fear of asphyxiation.
‘Phew, that’s better,’ she says, pulling the mask from her face as soon as we hit the pavement outside, ‘I was dying in there.’
‘Me too,’ I laugh, ripping mine off as well.
She’s leading the way now, up along the footpath past the entrance, following it around all the way into the garden at the back. ‘You know you forgot to give me your number yesterday,’ she says, drifting towards a picnic bench in the middle of the lawn.
‘Yeah, I realised,’ I mutter, watching as she takes a seat on the very edge of one of the benches.
‘A shame,’ she says, glancing up at me. ‘I wanted to call you. About your gran, obviously.’
‘So she called me.’
‘You spoke to her?’
‘I did,’ she smiles, ‘For like two hours solid.’
‘Yep. She called at about 8.30pm on Facebook Messenger.’
‘I didn’t even know you could do that.’
‘You can do that in all the apps. She said she didn’t like typing, so just decided to call.’
‘And?’ I ask, hovering around uneasily.
‘She asked a lot of questions at first. Asking who I am. Who you are. How I found her. A bit hostile, really.’
‘Yeah, that’d be right. I’d be the same.’
‘But, yeah, she was alright. She has quite a hard, rough accent. Couldn’t understand her all the time. And her line wasn’t great.’
‘What did you talk about?’ I ask, dropping onto the edge of the other bench at last, gazing diagonally across the table at her.
‘Mostly I just listened. She had lots to say.’
‘About my dad?’
‘About her life, mainly.’
‘Oh,’ I say, disappointed. ‘How did she sound?’
‘She sounded quite nice, really. She has quite a deep voice: a smoker’s voice. Yeah, and with her dialect, it’s a bit rough. But, no, she seemed okay. I honestly felt comfortable speaking to her. She quickly warmed to me.’
‘Well that wouldn’t be hard,’ I smile. ‘I did too.’
‘She asked about you. Wanted to know all about you.’
‘What did you say?’
‘Exactly what I think,’ she purrs, glancing back at me. ‘Polite. Intelligent. Caring. Honest.’ She pauses briefly, her eyes darting away. ‘Hansom,’ she adds, sneaking a furtive peek at my face, but she’ll only see my own eyes drop, embarrassed. ‘Oh, and shy,’ she says, ‘Modest. Self-effacing.’
‘Stop, too much.’
‘It’s true though,’ she says.
‘I’m none of those things.’
‘Oh well, it’s what I told your gran,’ she says, laughing. ‘And so, naturally, she wants to hear from you too.’
‘Did you give her my number?’
‘You haven’t even given it to me yet,’ she chuckles.
‘But that’s okay: I have hers. A landline and a mobile. You want to call her?’
‘Why not?’ she asks, holding her phone up in front of me, showing me the numbers.
Pulling mine out, I start typing in the digits. ‘Wait, maybe not,’ I say, ceasing, ambushed by second thoughts.
‘This is going to sound so stupid to you, but I have to explain everything. If they see this number on my phone, they’re going to interrogate me and demand to know every detail.’
‘Your parents check your phone?’
‘To make sure I’m not being groomed by ISIS terrorists to be browbeaten into running off to some messed up warzone that everyone else is fleeing to take part in their reckless jihad.’
‘Of course not, but my parents are absolutely paranoid.’ That’s putting it mildly. ‘They’re so over-protective. It does my head in. I can hardly move.’ Just thinking about it causes my chest to quake. ‘It’s like they just don’t trust me to exercise my own judgement. Like I didn’t learn anything from twelve years of Islamic studies. Everyone knows the only people joining those idiots are drug dealers and petty-criminals.’
‘And fifteen year-old girls,’ titters Ayşegül.
‘So maybe they’re right to be protective,’ she suggests.
‘Only if I was that kind of person, but I’m not. I hate all that stuff. I just want a quiet life and be left to my own devices. I don’t need them probing into everything I do.’
I’m not sure if Ayşegül’s silence means she’s embarrassed by my complaints, or if she’s just deep in thought. I don’t know her well enough to judge either way, but I’m just about to say sorry for whining when her voice abruptly supplants mine: ‘You could use my phone.’
‘Oh no, I couldn’t eat up your credit.’
‘I don’t mind,’ she says, passing it to me. ‘Here. Go ahead.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course,’ she says encouraging me with animated hand gestures, mimicking the act of making a phone call.
I’m reluctant, but her unbound enthusiasm is just too difficult to spurn. Slowly, I press call and push the phone to the side of my head. ‘She’s not answering,’ I mutter without really giving it a chance.
‘Let it ring,’ she tells me. ‘Don’t give up so easily.’
Her optimism would be infectious if I wasn’t so nervous. I believe the technical name for what I’m suffering just now is phone anxiety, also known as telephobia. On the other hand, it could be anthropophobia, atelophobia or syngenesophobia. Or it could just be the fear of speaking to a woman I only found out was related to me a few minutes ago, and who I only learnt existed at all on Monday. Yes, and that’s why I kill the call when she answers and immediately hand the phone back.
‘What happened?’ asks Ayşegül, perplexed.
‘I hung up.’
Hearing me, Ayşegül smiles at me affably. Anyone but her would be ridiculing me by now. Mo would have punched me and called me a dodo. Zahra would have jeered at me, calling me a five star halfwit. Shumaila would’ve pulled her hijab down over her eyes and roared with laughter. No, but Ayşegül just takes the phone in hand and redials.
‘Oh, hi,’ she says heartily, ‘Sorry for, er, the dropped call. I have your grandson with me. Like I said, he’s extremely shy, but, truly, he’s absolutely lovely. Let me hand you over to him.’
‘Here,’ she says, passing the phone back to me, ‘Say bismillah and relax. You’ve got this.’
This Ayşegül: she’s something special, but then I knew that already. ‘Hello?’ I murmur, down the line.
There’s no immediate response, but I can hear her breathing. I guess this is hard for her too. ‘Hello pet,’ comes her shaky voice at last. ‘Oh, it’s just like your lovely lady said. Your dad was so shy too. But don’t worry pet, I won’t bite.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I mutter.
‘There’s no need to be sorry, pet. I’m so, so touched that you reached out… that you reached out to find me. So, so touched. I can’t thank you enough.’ There’s a pause on her end. ‘No, I’ve been yearning for this moment for years.’ Another pause. ‘Are you still there pet?’
‘Yes, I’m here,’ I whisper, ‘I just… I just don’t really know what to say. I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting this.’
‘Of course,’ she replies. ‘Me neither. I wasn’t prepared for such a lovely surprise. It’s a shock for both of us, I suppose.’
I nod my head at that, forgetting I’m on the phone. ‘Can I visit you?’ I ask abruptly, though I have no idea where these words came from: I wasn’t planning this.
‘If you’d like to, but…’
‘Can I come tomorrow?’
‘Oh, I don’t know, well, I suppose…’
‘I’ll come,’ I say. ‘Don’t go to any trouble. Just…’
‘Slow down, dear,’ I hear her laugh.
‘I want to see you,’ I say, urgently, my palms all sweaty. ‘I’m sorry, I’m no good talking on the phone. I’ll visit you tomorrow.’
‘Well if you’re sure.’
‘Yes, thank you. Thank you. Bye.’
When I look back across the table, Ayşegül is gazing at me thoughtfully. ‘Short and sweet?’ she asks benevolently.
‘I said I’d visit.’
‘Did you get her address?’
‘Ugh, I forgot.’
‘Ring her back then.’
‘Can you?’ I plead coyly.
‘I’ll text her,’ she smiles, tapping out a message rapidly.
‘Thanks,’ I murmur. ‘Sorry.’
‘How did you find it?’
‘Nerve wracking. But… but she seems nice.’
Listening, Ayşegül nods and beams back at me. This exchange is also nerve wracking, but I can’t help thinking the same about her. I’ve never known anyone as patient as this, so willing to overlook my absurd anxieties. I can’t help making a heartfelt dua, my gaze falling between the dull slats in the table top. She is so refined, but I dare not dwell on her gracious elegance. My eyes have been trained well.
Ping! ‘The address,’ says Ayşegül abruptly, showing me her phone again.
‘Let me Google it,’ I say. Copying it across carefully, I put her postcode and mine into Google maps, and seek directions. ‘Oh bloody hell,’ I exclaim, irked.
‘It’s a three and a half hour drive.’
‘Oops,’ she says. Momentarily she adjust her headscarf, as if doing so will help rearrange her thoughts. ‘What about taking the train?’
‘Hmm, maybe.’ Yep, there’s a website for that: it’s not exactly intuitive, but I type in her town and mine, toggle every filter that seems relevant, specify my preferred arrival time and hit search. I have no idea whether it’s my internet connection or their website, but it seems to take ages to respond. Why do these sites always seem to timeout when you’re in a hurry? No, but here we go: ‘Five hours, thirty-seven minutes, with three changes. And, wallop, there go my savings.’
Ayşegül looks at me wistfully. ‘Second thoughts?’ she asks.
‘No. I have to do this. I’ll just set off early.’
‘Will you be okay?’
‘Well I’ve never driven that far before, but… But first time for everything, right?’
‘I suppose so.’
This is where Ayşegül pulls herself up off the bench, brushing the folds out of the fine flowing fabrics which envelop her, and gazes down at me. ‘Anything else I can do for you?’ she asks me, as if she considers her work complete.
‘No, you’ve done so much for me already,’ I tell her, smiling at last, ‘You’re amazing. I’m so glad I picked your brains.’
‘I’m glad you did too,’ she grins, nodding. ‘So I’ll leave you to it, yeah?’ she asks, pacing backwards away from me. ‘Salams Ibrahim,’ she says, ‘I hope it all works out for you, inshallah. I’ll keep you in my duas.’ And with that, she spins around and I watch her pace away with a confident skip in her step.
Perhaps I will just chill for a bit now; I feel a little more relaxed. Maybe I will put my feet up for a couple of hours, hanging out with Mo and co, to chat aimlessly about nothing at all. Let me laugh along to their dumb jokes I don’t even understand. Let me share an AirPod to listen to their beats. Yes, it’s the end of term: let me just act a little normal for once. It’s now or never. No, but I don’t; I just skip to my car and head home, missing the rush-hour traffic for once.
Check back on Friday for the next instalment, or check the table of contents: folio.me.uk/books/seeking-the-one
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