It’s up to me to lead fajr prayer these days. Dad… dad’s still locked in his room, refusing to come down.Chapter 5 of Seeking the one.
5: Good Friday
Friday, 2 April 2021
It’s up to me to lead fajr prayer these days. Dad… dad’s still locked in his room, refusing to come down. Moments ago, Isa stood at my side, his prayer mat just overlapping mine, mum and Maryam behind us, following my lead. Now we’re all kneeling on the carpet, whispering our hushed praise of the originator of all things. The hand on the wall clock in the living room has just slipped past six, its spinning cogs disturbing the silence with its monotonous percussion: tick, tick, tick, tick. Dawn will break in half an hour, the first light pushing through the fog hanging on the fields across the valley.
I don’t know why, but I feel the need to make a long dua today, my palms raised out before me. Not so much for world peace, but for peace in our home. Not so much for an end to tyranny everywhere, but for freedom and mercy amongst us. Though I veil their identity in flowery language, making the specific generic, this morning I can’t help praying for my parents. The One who knows my heart knows who I mean. I pray for safe travels too, though I wrap these sentiments in the journey of life. This morning, my earnest and heartfelt supplications are both personal and universal.
‘That was lovely, Ibby,’ says my mum, settling down beside me. She waits for Maryam and Isa to leave us, then glances at the side of my face. ‘Is everything alright?’ she asks.
‘You know it’s not,’ I sigh, peeping back at her. ‘But it’s Friday, so thought I’d make an effort. May Allah heal your broken heart, mum. And dad’s.’
When I say this, mum just looks straight ahead, taking in that countryside view of ours. The wispy mists this early in the morning have a special kind of beauty, the naked treetops just pushing through, bathed in that faint golden glow. I could see mum going for a run out there, concealed from the sleeping town, if only she hadn’t lost all courage to venture out alone. No, she’ll just kneel here until dawn, making those voiceless prayers of her own.
‘Back to bed?’ she asks me when I rise to my feet.
‘Not today,’ I say, folding my prayer mat in on itself. ‘I’ll have breakfast, then… Then I want to get off early.’
‘That’s my boy,’ she says. I’m glad she seems to have forgotten it’s a bank holiday today, for I still haven’t come up with a credible excuse for my premature departure from home. ‘I’ll make something for you,’ she says instead, following me to her feet. ‘Scrambled egg?’
‘Grilled tomato? Fried bread?’
‘The full works, if you’re offering.’
‘But no mushrooms, of course?’
‘You know me,’ I reply. ‘Thanks, mum.’
Mum’s face is so adorable when she’s in a good mood, those little dimples appearing either side of her modest smile. What’s the most diplomatic way to describe her? Dinky is the word that springs to mind, but I’m pretty sure that would land me a thump on my nose; perhaps slight is a better word. My cute mini mum, with those soft rounded cheeks and large brown eyes that never seem to grow old.
Watching her disappear into the kitchen, I head upstairs to get ready for my great expedition. A shower on a Friday is meant to bring great blessings, so I seek all I can get, standing under the warm jets until there’s no hot water left, smothering my body with half the bottle of refreshing shower gel, eradicating every pong, the fruity fragrance easing the last of my tiredness out of me. Though my mum reckons it will give me cancer, today calls for a generous haze of deodorant, coating my pores with the delicious scent of oud and musk. From my wardrobe, it will have to be my best clean clothes, usually reserved for Eid, smart enough to make a good impression on a stranger who might just turn out to be my best friend in the years to come.
Now I’ll descend the stairs once more, stopping at the window on the landing to watch the rising sun’s rays depositing their orange glow on the garden. It looks like it’s going to be beautiful today, barely a cloud in the sky.
‘So term’s finished,’ says my mum as I take my place the table. ‘What are your plans?’
I watch her pouring a mug of tea for me, splashing milk in on top. ‘For Easter? Just revision, coursework, the usual. Nothing very exciting.’
Smiling at me, mum pushes a plate of cooked breakfast in front of me. It’s a Full English, minus the bacon and fried blood; I get Turkey salami and vegan sausages. Mum has no idea, but this is exactly what I need this morning: the hash browns, baked beans and fried egg will keep me going all day. It’s so perfect that I eat up every crumb, soaking up every splash of sauce with the last of my bread, and leave my plate spotless. ‘Alhamdulilah,’ I whisper, rising to wash-up.
‘Anything else I can get you?’ she asks, stealing the plate from me before I get anywhere near the sink. I hate it when she does that; I could’ve easily done it myself. ‘More tea? Fruit?’
‘Oh no, I’m stuffed,’ I tell her, patting my belly. ‘But thanks. Jazak...’
‘Anything to make you happy, Ibby,’ she says buoyantly.
She’ll never know how much these words mean to me. This cheerful mood of hers makes such a change; maybe I should elongate my duas every day if this is the result. Their misery has been difficult to bear. She deserves a peck on her cheek for this new optimism.
‘I’m going to get going now, mum,’ I say, leaning in to plant a gentle kiss on her chestnut skin, but she’s taken aback by my affection.
‘It’s early still,’ she says, glimpsing at me dubiously, in a way that tells me she finds my unforeseen appreciation suspicious. It only takes one false move to blow it with mum, and it looks like I’m in checkmate already.
‘Just want to get a head start on the rush-hour,’ I tell her.
‘On a bank holiday?’ Now she’s sounding truly incredulous. ‘What’s the hurry, Ibby?’
‘I have stuff to sort out,’ I mutter.
‘Stuff? What kind of stuff?’
‘Please, mum, don’t push me.’
Up until that modest kiss, everything had been going so well, but now she’s examining every movement of my eyes with that penetrating gaze of hers which reaches all the way into my soul. ‘I know that answer, Ibby,’ she exhales wearily. ‘I’m glad you still can’t lie to your mum. That’s something, at least.’
My own eyes skip past her, desperate to escape her tractor-beam, which threatens to pull me in for relentless questioning. ‘Please mum, just… Just trust me. There’s something I need to sort out today. I can’t talk about it. Just… just trust me for a change. I’m about to turn eighteen. I’m grown up.’
‘I’m just looking out for you, Ibby.’
‘I’ll be off to uni in five months’ time. You can’t keep holding onto me. You have to let go.’
As I say this, my mum’s face screws up: those cute dimples are gone, lost amidst her sad frown. Briefly, she glances at me, her eyes exuding profound hurt, but then she pushes past me, knocking her shoulder against mine on her way, and pounces on my smartphone on the kitchen table. ‘Unlock it,’ she says, presenting it to me.
‘Why, mum? Just trust me.’
‘Trust me,’ she replies, glaring.
Grudgingly, I unlock it and leave it on the table for her, watching as she paces a step closer and begins swiping about. My eyes follow her fingers anxiously, but instead of tapping on WhatsApp to probe my contacts, she opens YouTube and begins tapping something into the search box: ‘yusuf wild world’. I have no idea what that means, but she seems to know what she’s looking for. With her forefinger, she scrolls down a list of thumbnails, then taps on the eighth one labelled a Zulu version. Briefly she scrubs on to the thirty-second mark, as if she knows this video like the back of her hand.
‘Listen,’ she says, leaving it to play.
Standing right beside her, I glance down at the screen. There’s some old bloke strumming an acoustic guitar, singing in Zulu and English. Nice tune: it brings back faint memories of a trip to London a decade ago, listening to dad’s nasheeds in the back. At least those ones were not as cringe-worthy as most of them. Mum seems to love it, mouthing along to the old man’s words, as if it’s her song.
‘I’ve also seen a lot of the world can do, Ibby,’ she tells me as soon as it ends, choking up. ‘It’s true: a lot of nice things turn bad out there.’ She picks up my phone and hands it back to me. ‘I… we…’ she stutters, ‘We just don’t want you to go through the things we did.’
‘Mum,’ I reply, though my words barely sound, ‘just… just let me go. I’m gonna be okay.’ I know she doesn’t want to let me go, her face still all a frown, but she nods at me anyway and sends me on my way, following me along the hall. Pushing my feet into my shoes, I pull the door open and turn back to her. ‘Tell dad I love him,’ I say.
‘We love you too, Ibby,’ she replies, oozing the kind of tears that should be reserved for a young man being sent off to war, who might never return home, not one heading to the library.
‘Love you, mum,’ I say, closing the door back behind me.
It’s only just getting light outside, and the chill in the air nearly gives me second thoughts, but I know I have to leave this early if I’m to return before anyone starts to worry. I have a clear plan: drive all the way up the M1, have a cuppa and a chat with my gran at ten, stay an hour or so, convince her to phone my dad and make amends, then jump back in my car and be back by four at the latest. I know that means a seven-hour drive with barely a break, but I know I can do this. As long as I can fill up my tank for the return journey, I’ll be fine.
From home, it takes me thirty minutes to reach the motorway, most of the roads sleepy and quiet on my way. I join the M1 just after seven and gradually take my speed up to a steady sixty in the inside lane. My beloved first car is a thirteen-year-old Fiesta, conveniently the colour of rust, presented to me by my dad on my seventeenth birthday. I could probably hit seventy in this little car at a push, but I haven’t yet found my groove. I’d rather take it steady than burn out my engine or go swerving off the road into a ditch. I’d rather keep my wits about me, than pretend to be a boy-racer for the day.
Oh, but this journey is long. I wasn’t expecting the monotony of it. Reaching Leicester just before nine, my right foot already feels numb, but I don’t feel like stopping. Mum’s breakfast has served me well, so I press on, flying past Loughborough, Nottingham, Chesterfield, Worksop and Sheffield, gaining confidence all the way, and come off the M1 just before ten. I know I’m behind schedule and will be pushing four hours by the time I arrive, but I don’t mind. I’m just happy that I haven’t been crushed into a mangled wreck, sandwiched between two articulated lorries.
It’s half-past ten by the time I reach mum and dad’s old town. I can’t say initial impressions are great: it feels rundown, grey, windswept and cold. There’s none of the beauty I left behind at six-thirty this morning; none of the hills either. My smartphone will have to take me the last leg of the journey, negotiating a maze of unfamiliar roads and speed bumps. I can’t imagine a world without satnav; without it I’d be lost. It’s nearly eleven when I pull up at the address I was given yesterday, a three storey, red-brick block of flats, each with a tiny balcony. This is it then. ‘Bismillah…’
Locking my car, I saunter over to the main entrance, put my face mask on and press the buzzer on the intercom, muttering ‘Bismillah’ for the second time.
There’s no response, but I can wait; I’ve travelled long enough this morning to know that patience is a virtue, as granny Anand would say. She could be in her bathroom, or on the phone, or otherwise engaged; I’ll give her five minutes then try again. I wait patiently, then press the buzzer again, then wait a bit more, then start to wonder if I have the wrong address. I check my phone, reconfirm that I have it right, wait a while longer, and a few more minutes just to be sure. No, but it seems hopeless and I give in, traipsing back to my car. I can’t help slamming my door behind me as I get in, angry and confused in equal measure. Now I just sit here in front of my steering wheel, staring coldly through the window, wondering what to do now: I’m at a total loss. I’ve driven two hundred miles this morning and she’s not even here.
Where’s that card Ayşegül gave me? Scrambling through my bag urgently, I find it right at the bottom, tucked into that scruffy paperback that follows me around but never gets read. Relieved, I open the messages app on my phone and begin to tap out my SOS: four texts in quick succession.
‘This is Ibrahim.’
‘But she’s not here.’
Now I sit staring at my phone, praying for a reply, hoping for some kind of miracle. No, but nothing: nothing arrives at all.
‘Confused,’ I add five minutes later, appending a sad emoji to the end.
‘Salams Ibrahim. I’ll call you. Give me 5 minutes.’
Of course I’ll wait patiently; what else can I do, sitting here with nowhere to go? I can just hear granny Anand whispering in my ear: patience, Ibby, patience, but I admit I’m agitated, too uncomfortable to sit still, glancing back at the time every thirty seconds. Naturally, I’m relieved when my phone rings a minute early.
‘Selamun alaikum,’ says Ayşegül as soon as I answer, ‘How are you?’
‘Not sure,’ I mutter. ‘I just spent four hours driving and she’s not here.’
There’s a pause on the line. ‘Yes, I know,’ she says. ‘She called me earlier. I wanted to call you, but didn’t have your number. I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry for what?’
‘She’s… she’s had second thoughts. She wanted to cancel.’
‘It’s too soon. She was apologetic.’ I’m silent: stunned to silence. ‘I’m really sorry, Ibrahim.’
‘Not your fault,’ I murmur, ‘My fault. Should’ve given you my number.’ Yes, my self-reproach is real. ‘I should’ve taken hers. Can you give it to me?’
‘I’m really sorry, Ibrahim, she said… she said, please don’t…’
‘She doesn’t want me to get in touch?’
‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
This is where I start to hyperventilate. I don’t mean to be rude, but I kill the call. I can’t believe this. I was so stupid to come on this journey. Ayşegül calls me back, but I decline it. I feel dizzy, pins and needs pricking me all over, as if to tell me I’ve been an utter fool. She sends me a text message. ‘Be strong,’ it says.
But instead of being strong, I shout out loud and thump my steering wheel over and over again, shaking my car. I feel like I’m going to explode. No, I don’t want to turn into my dad. I close my eyes instead and start to breathe deeply. Calm. Calm. Relax. Take it easy. I breathe in and out repeatedly until I begin to feel better. Gradually I feel myself coming back to my senses.
‘Don’t worry,’ I text back, ‘I’m fine.’
‘Good,’ she replies. ‘Duas.’
‘Can I call u?’
I dial her number and put the phone back to my ear: ‘Salams.’
‘Are you alright?’ she asks me.
‘I had a mini meltdown, but I’m okay now.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘Fill up my tank and go home, I guess. Might have a quick drive around the town, but… but it seems a bit of a dump. Might just turn right around and drive straight back. Not sure yet.’
‘Don’t let it get you down,’ she tells me, ‘you tried your best.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ I mutter, ‘I guess it just wasn’t to be.’ What else can I say? ‘Thanks anyway,’ I add. ‘I’ll catch you sometime. After the holidays, inshallah. Have a good one.’
‘And you,’ she says.
I feel happier closing the call this time. Maybe that’s a sign. I open Google maps again, set my return destination to my home postcode and fix my phone back into its cradle on my window. Yes, and then I jump out of my skin. There’s a woman standing next to my wing mirror, staring through the glass at me. I gaze back shyly and her eyes seem to enlarge, staring at me even more intently. Stepping closer to my window, she makes a winding gesture with her hand and I respond in kind, hitting the button to lower it.
I don’t say anything. I just nod, glancing up at her. It’s difficult to place it, but I can see something of my dad in her face. Is it her nose, or her eyes, or her forehead, or just her stoop? I’m not really sure, but she’s definitely his mum.
‘I’m…’ She smiles at me with a very broad grin. ‘Won’t you get out of the car and give me a hug,’ she says abruptly.
‘Gran?’ I ask.
‘Not sure I’m ready for you to call me that,’ she says, ‘but… but I’m ready for my hug.’ Getting out, I grab for my phone, slide it into my pocket, then futilely attempt to loop my face mask over my ears. ‘Leave that,’ she says, ‘I’d rather get Covid than miss your hansom face.’ Without warning, she throws her arms around me and holds me in a suffocating embrace. ‘Come,’ she says when she finally releases me, ‘let’s go inside.’
‘Are you sure? Covid rules, I mean.’
‘Stuff the rules,’ she says. ‘If I’m going to die I’m going to die, but at least I might die happy. Come.’
Pressing her key fob to the plate on the wall, she leads me on inside and takes me up a flight of concrete stairs to the first floor. At her front door, she fumbles through a set of keys, rattles one into the lock then pushes on in. ‘Scuse the mess,’ she says, taking me straight in. There’s barely a hall, just a three-way junction to a single bedroom, a bathroom and her living room.
Following on, I watch as she pulls two full height windows wide open onto her tiny French balcony, inviting the cool breeze to circulate all around us, giving the jungle of houseplants their first sense of freedom. Her living room is stuffed full with palms and ferns, a large weeping fig and a giant monstera, its shiny green leaves creeping up over a sprawling cat tower by the window, a collection of cacti and succulents peering down from her false mantelpiece. ‘Come, sit down,’ she says, clearing a chair of a pile of magazines and old newspapers. Briefly, she brushes the cat fur off the cushion and points down into it. ‘What can I get you?’ she asks me, her words ejected from her lips like a dry cough. ‘Can’t offer you booze, ‘fraid. Been dry twenty years. But tea, coffee, water? Squash?’
‘I don’t really mind,’ I shrug, breathing in the frigid air, ‘What are you having?’
‘Tea’s good. Thanks.’
Hearing me, the grey-haired woman wanders through into the annexe on the other end of the room, slipping through a curtain of glass and wooden beads to fill a kettle with water. Through there, I hear her rifling through her cupboards and drawers, releasing the sounds of anxiety and solicitude. Cups clatter down onto the worktop. A packet of biscuits splits open, exploding everywhere and rains down across the floor, causing quiet curses to float around the room. A teaspoon clinks around in a cup. The fridge door opens and closes. Tea has never before seemed so complicated.
‘I’m with her,’ I remember to text Ayşegül while I’m waiting.
‘Alhamdulilah,’ she replies just seconds later.
When the woman I want to call my gran returns, her hands are vibrating so fiercely that ripples appear on the top of the tea, sending splashes over the edge and onto the wooden tray, staining the napkins brown. Setting the tray down on a little table between us, she hands me my cup and offers me a broken biscuit. I’m sure she wouldn’t offer me one that she’d retrieved from the floor, but I decline anyway, pretending to be on a diet. Sitting on the chair opposite me, she seems less concerned by the fluff and cat fir than me, and seizes on a chocolate bourbon to dunk in her tea. She dunks twice, sucks on the softened biscuit, takes a sip, then sets her cup down on her armrest.
‘So let me get a good look at you then,’ she says, staring at me once more, leaning forward a little. ‘I recognise two people in your face,’ she says, ‘Am I right? My son, and a wonderful lady called Dhriti Anand. Am I right?’
‘She’s my granny,’ I smile.
‘Your mum must take after her then.’
‘Yes, all the old photos of my granny look just like my mum.’
‘My son always was infatuated with that young lady.’
‘She’s not so young anymore.’
Listening to me, my dad’s mother laughs out loud. ‘Never say that to a woman,’ she says. ‘That’s the first rule of a happy life.’ Briefly, she takes her cup in hand again and slurps up a mouthful of tea. I do the same, declining a biscuit for the second time when she nudges the plate, but she’s undeterred, dunking her own. ‘So your dad married… what was her name again?’
‘Yes, Anjana,’ she remembers, her head bobbling on her neck. ‘Ah, Anjana, Anjana. Such a sweetie. Just like her mother.’ The mere thought of it seems to delight her completely. ‘And do you have any siblings?’
‘A sister and a little brother,’ I say, ‘Maryam and Isa.’
‘Sweet. And how old are you?’
‘Unbelievable. The age my Ben was when… when we lost touch.’ I watch as a shadow crosses her face, that gentle smile of hers transforming into a doleful frown. ‘But… but today’s no day for mourning. Today… a celebration. Thanks so much for reaching out to me. Thanks so, so much.’
‘It’s okay. I want to…’
‘I’m sorry I got cold feet. Thank goodness that lovely lady of yours called me back. I had no idea you’d come so far to see me. Four hours she said. What a lovely young lady you have there. You must treasure her.’
She’s caught me unawares, mid slurp, and I nearly choke on my tea, coughing into my napkin. ‘Sorry,’ I splutter, ‘but, erm… she’s not my… er… girlfriend or anything.’
I feel I should explain that my eyes are moist because my tea went the wrong way and not because I’m upset, but she just waggles her head back at me. ‘Why on earth not?’ she demands, baffled, ‘You must snap her up before anyone else does.’
‘She’s just a friend from college,’ I mutter.
‘A very special friend, I’d say. Treasure her. Honestly. She’s positively lovely.’ She’s beaming at me as she says this. ‘Believe me, I’ve never been wrong about anyone I thought was special. Your granny Dhriti was one of them. The young lady who helped me turn my life around, another. And that young lady of yours. What’s her name?’
‘Yes. I’ve never met her, but I know. I knew the moment I spoke to her. When I feel comfortable with a person, then I know. Do you feel comfortable with her?’
‘Yes, I guess,’ I whisper.
‘Then take that as a sign. Never pass up on a good sign.’
It’s like this woman I’ve only just met has some kind of psychic connection, reading exactly what’s inscribed on my own heart. ‘Is that how you felt when… when you met… your… Your husband? My dad’s dad?’
‘That thug? No, there was never any love between us. And we were never married. He was just a bully. He bullied me, then he bullied your dad. Which is something I’ve always regretted. I don’t blame your dad for abandoning me, because I abandoned him first. Back then, when I just couldn’t cope, I just abandoned your dad with that man.’ The woman looks at me as if these are fresh wounds, not scars a quarter of a century old. ‘Of course it was a mistake, but I was in a very dark place then. I’d given up, and let myself come under the influence of people I thought were my friends, until…’ She gazes back at me with a weird blend of both amusement and anguish. ‘Do you know those jars of pickled cucumbers you get?’ she chuckles, ‘or those little pickled onions you get on a ploughman’s? I was just like that, permanently pickled, though not in sweet vinegar, but in drink and drugs. And nothing else mattered to me while I was pickled like that. No, not even my son. Oh, how I regret that now.’
This time we both take a mouthful of tea at exactly the same time. She’s on her third biscuit now, but doesn’t dunk this time; she just snaps it in two and feeds each piece into her mouth, washing them down with an extra slurp.
‘But you seem…’ I mutter, grasping for careful words unlikely to offend, ‘You seem well now.’
‘Thank God,’ she says, smiling. ‘Yes, I’ve been dry for twenty years.’
‘That’s amazing. How did you…’
‘For that, all credit goes to a very special lady who wandered into my life back then. A remarkable lady: one of the best we have. She runs a homeless shelter up in town. A soup kitchen, food bank, education, you name it. Think of a need and she’ll be there, plugging the gap. She really is one of a kind, so selfless and gentle.’
‘Were you homeless?’
‘I was many things, dear. But that young lady… my guardian angel… she came looking for me. I’ll never know why, but she searched all over to find me. I never heard this from her; I found out later from friends she also rescued. They used to speak of a young woman who’d come wandering into all the dosshouses and refuges, asking about me every week for six months solid. When she found me, she devoted herself to me. She worked with me so patiently, just like I say… like an angel sent to watch over me… That’s what she did: she put me back together again. For sure, she helped me turn my life around.’
‘Who was she? I mean, why…’
‘I must confess, even to this day, that’s a bit of mystery. Of course I have an idea… assumptions… beliefs of my own.’
‘She knew my dad?’
‘Yes, I’m certain of that. She did once… only once… let her guard down… when I asked her why she was being so kind to me. That day she said, “Because your son was so kind to me.”’
‘So they were friends?’
‘I assume so, but after that, she never spoke of it again. In the early days I mistook her for your mother. I thought she was my dear Dhriti’s daughter, Anjana. But of course she wasn’t. No, just some kind of angel who never, ever gave up on me.’
‘That’s… amazing,’ I say, my eyes wandering through the open window, past the tangle of houseplants and cat toys. ‘And a bit strange… So she’s some kind of social worker? Something like that?’
‘To me, no: a friend. A true friend. We’re friends to this day. She still regularly drops in to see me, to make sure I’m alright.’
‘Mistaken for my mum, because?’
‘In those early days… when I was off my head, perpetually on a high or a low… well, blame my racism then… or whatever it was…’
‘She’s Indian like my mum?’
‘That’s unimportant. To me, she could be from heaven above. She’s a true angel: I’ve spoken to so many who speak of this angel. But to me, she’s so much more than that: she’s such a dear friend too. Without her, I dread to think what would’ve become of me.’
Revelations like these seem to be coming thick and fast these days and I don’t know what to make them. The last of my tea finished, my eyes seek something else to hide behind. Just as I’m wondering at the sisal rope tower which dominates one side of the room, a ginger cat comes swaying through the living room door. For a second, it glances at me dismissively, purring a bitter lament that I’ve stolen its throne, then turns away, seeking comfort between my gran’s legs. I don’t think it likes me.
‘When I was looking for you… we found information about your business… Seva Social Enterprise. That’s another Indian connection, right?’
‘You might be right, Ibrahim, says my gran, reaching down to stroke the cat on the back of its head. ‘You’re a clever young man.’
‘Because of many things in my life, pet.’
‘You know, I only found out about you and my granny this week.’ Listening to me, the cat jumps up onto my gran’s chair, settles down in her lap and then watches me intently. ‘Only really found out about my mum and dad, for that matter.’
‘Your granny Dhriti always was my best friend. From the age of sixteen into my thirties, she was always there for me. Most of the ‘90s were tough, but that was my fault, not hers. Anyway, then my angel came my way and took her place. I suppose I’ve always felt I owed a lot to these two great Indian women, sent from above. Perhaps that’s why I chose that name. It seemed to be the perfect fit at the time.’
‘So you’re the filling in a roti sandwich then?’ I laugh.
‘Yes, I suppose I am,’ she chuckles.
‘So you don’t mind that your son married an Indian girl?’
‘Mind? Why would I mind? No, I’m delighted.’
‘I’d always assumed that was why we never knew anything about you. I assumed you disapproved of it and he chose my mum over you.’
My gran is stroking her cat affectionately now and the cat seems to respond in kind, smiling at her as if it’s in love. ‘Not at all,’ she says, ‘In fact, it was the opposite.’
‘The opposite? How?’
‘It wouldn’t be right for me to talk about that. It’s enough to know there were some difficult years back then.’
‘You mean when they fell out? I’ve seen their school photos. There were like seven years of them standing together, smiling, like they were best friends, and then this horrible one: mum scowling at dad, like she utterly hates him.’
‘Yes,’ she sighs, leaning forward to send the cat on its way, ‘it was just like that, and it broke my heart. I never forgave my son for that. He broke everything then.’
‘Something that should never happen to a kid.’
‘Anyway, that’s all in the past now,’ says my gran, shaking her head. ‘Your mum and dad were clearly reunited in the end. I’m so happy about that. That has made my day. It’s so lovely to see your face: to see both your mum and your dad in your face. How beautiful, wonderful. Truly. I’m delighted. Over the moon. Oh Anjana, she was such a sweetheart.’
‘She still is, really,’ I murmur, ‘but dad…’
‘How is he?’
‘My dad,’ I start, only to inexplicably burst into tears. I wasn’t planning this; I wasn’t going to show any emotion at all. I was going to be strong, presenting myself as the adult I want everyone to believe I am, but now I’ve revealed myself. No, I’m still just a hopeless little kid, so immature and utterly childish.
‘Ah, pet,’ she says.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, wiping my eyes dry with my sleeve. ‘It’s just, these days, he’s…’
‘I’ve always been so close to my dad. He’s always been my best friend. Sounds dumb, but it’s true. I’ve always been able to tell him anything.’ Yes it’s true: absolutely anything, with no fear or shame. ‘But these days, he’s just… lost it… completely. Either staring into space, or shouting his head off. So angry. And I just don’t know what’s wrong with him. I don’t know if he’s lost his job, or if something’s happened, or what…’
‘Hence you looking for me?’
‘Yes,’ I mutter, ‘I thought… maybe he’s missing you. That’s why I wanted to find you. Because… because I want my dad back. My best friend. I just want him back.’
‘Oh, pet, that’s so thoughtful of you,’ she says, smiling at me kindly. ‘I know this pandemic has been absolutely dreadful for all of us. The lockdowns. Telling you who you can and can’t see. I must admit, it’s got to me too. I’ve been sleepless at night, dwelling on the past, crying and crying.’
‘Maybe that’s what it is,’ I shrug. ‘My grandad said the same thing. But, no, this is something else. We’ve all had to put up with these restrictions, but we’re not all reacting the way he is. There’s something wrong with him.’
‘I’m afraid to say that anxiety is very common these days. I see it through work. I shudder to think what the bill for the mental health epidemic is going to be.’
‘But my dad isn’t normally like this, at all. He’s funny. A joker. Always calm, always smiling. I’ve never seen him like this at all. Before this happened, I don’t even remember a time he raised his voice or shouted. But now? We have to tiptoe around him, in case he explodes. I’m just so worried about him.’
‘You’re a good lad,’ says my gran, reaching for yet another chocolate bourbon.
‘I’m nothing special,’ I mutter. ‘It’s just that I want things back how they were. And I want to see my mum’s beautiful smile again. These days she’s always upset too, because of him. It’s like it’s pulling us apart.’ I gaze at my gran expectantly. ‘Maybe you can put him back together again, like that lady did for you.’
‘Oh pet, these things…’
‘Would you? Would you come back with me? Or speak to him? Speak to him on the phone. Or write to him? Would you help me mend my dad’s broken heart?’
There’s silence in the room now; even the cat has found it too awkward and has sauntered away, back through the flap in the front door. If only my gran would say something, instead of taking refuge in the plate of biscuits, munching through the last of them.
‘Sometimes…’ she says finally, ‘these things… they’re not as simple as that. You know, it may have nothing to do with me at all. He might not even want to see me. We didn’t part on good terms. He might be angry to hear from me. It might even make things worse. You must be careful, pet. It’s the same as with this pandemic: you have to properly diagnose the illness before you can design a cure. We don’t want to send him over the edge.’
‘He’s already over the edge.’
‘He’s alive and well, that’s the main thing,’ she says. ‘You must be careful, pet. You must be patient. I’d love to see my son. Honestly, I’d love to hug him like I hugged you. It’s my dream; it’s been my dream for twenty years. But we parted company on very bad terms. I let him down in the most unimaginable way possible, sending him into the arms of a tyrannical thug, and just abandoned him to his fate. That was inexcusable. When he needed me most, I threw him away. Because my only friend then was the bottle. I couldn’t see beyond one drink to the next and just left my dear son to the wolves. You don’t know if he’s missing me, or if he’s still cursing me. What I did to him was inexcusable. Truly inexcusable.’
I don’t know what to say now. This isn’t what I wanted to hear at all. I can’t even comprehend what she’s saying.
‘So what can I do?’ I ask.
‘Start by talking to him.’
‘I’ve tried. We all have. He won’t let any of us speak. Not even my mum. He’s pushing all of us away. That’s why I’m here. We’re desperate.’
‘I know, pet, but…’
‘What about that lady you mentioned. Would she be able to fix him too? Like she fixed you?’
‘I was a long-term project, pet,’ she says, smiling. ‘It took years to fix me. She found me in 1998. It was 2001 before I was dry. 2008 before I felt whole again. 2010 when I finally stood up on my own two feet.’
‘Maybe she can try,’ I suggest.
‘I can see you’ve got a great big heart…’
‘I drove two hundred miles this morning just for this,’ I tell her, frustrated. ‘I’ve never driven so far in one day before. I only just passed my test. It was my first real drive on the motorway. It was terrifying. But I did it. I did it for my dad. That’s why I’m here. Please, you have to help me. I can’t bear it anymore.’
Before me, my gran sits forward in her chair, her gaze locked on my face. I can tell she’s mulling over my plea. Perhaps she’s reluctant to answer my call, but surely she must. Surely she must yearn to be reunited with her son after all these years. Surely this separation cannot go on forever.
‘Okay, listen,’ she says in the end, ‘I’ll introduce you. But I can’t promise anything at all. She’s never been drawn on her relationship with your dad, and we’ve known each other for well over twenty years. But you’re right: she may have an idea for you. She’s dedicated her whole life to the broken, after all.’
‘That’s all I’m asking for. Just some help. That’s all.’
‘We’ll see what we can do, pet.’
Hearing this, I know I ought to smile back at her, but instead tears flood down my face. ‘I appreciate it,’ I croak awkwardly. ‘Thank you… so much’
‘Anything for you, my pet,’ she replies, rising once more.
Check back on Wednesday for the next instalment, or check the table of contents: folio.me.uk/books/seeking-the-one
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