6: Guardian angel

‘Come,’ says my gran, locking her car behind her. Leading me past the main entrance, she holds the door open for me. ‘Don’t be shy,’ she says, waving me through.

Chapter 6 of Seeking the one.

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6: Guardian angel

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The journey here was complicated, to say the least. Sitting beside my gran, looking on as she weaved down a series of short streets, turning corner after corner at high speed, I couldn’t help wondering whether this really was the optimal route to the community centre in the middle of town she had spoken of so enthusiastically. Surely she could have reached it just as easily via a main road, wide and straight, without those breakneck speeds. Coming to a halt, her maniacal driving ceasing, I felt queasy, my head spinning, my stomach turned over. Now we stand on a slab concrete carpark looking at a shabby brick building, part industrial unit, part dilapidated house.

‘Come,’ says my gran, locking her car behind her. Leading me past the main entrance, she holds the door open for me. ‘Don’t be shy,’ she says, waving me through.

As soon as we saunter in, I can tell we’ve arrived at the worst possible time with lunch in full swing. Ahead of me I find rows upon rows of tables, occupied by a huddle of men here, a group of women there, a whole family right across the hall, on the other side, shoulders hunched, supping soup. Wary of the long queue snaking from the door to a serving hatch, I hang back in the hope I’ll vanish into the wall. I don’t have the confidence of my gran, who pushes on across the hall, coming to a standstill beside a woman with grey-black hair, her eye sockets sunken in her face. Given the way her eyes seem to light up when she sees my gran, I can only assume this is her guardian angel.

From my vantage point by the door, I can already see there’s real love between these two women: I watch how the Indian woman’s hand curls around my gran’s arm as she speaks. Her eyes gaze into my gran’s eyes with such fondness that it nearly melts my own heart. I wonder what they’re saying. No, no need to wonder, for my gran’s crying now, fallen into that woman’s warm embrace, her head cradled in her hands.  

When her tears have dried, my gran seems to come alive again, speaking with animated gestures, smiling and frowning at the same time. This is where she glances back across the hall and begins to point, guiding her companion’s gaze towards me. And just like that, her eyes open wide, snapping onto mine. Somehow she seems to recognise me like an old friend, pacing over to me with swift, confident steps, as if it’s a great reunion. Arriving beside me, her right hand lands on my back, impelling me back through the doors and out into the carpark.

‘Ibrahim,’ puffs my gran, pushing out after us, ‘meet my guardian angel: Mrs Dhillon.’

I’m glad she’s brought us out here, for I was suffocating in there, the noise and the crowds perturbing me. I don’t wait to be invited to remove my facemask, but pull it off as soon as we’re clear of the doors. ‘Oh, I can see who you’re related to,’ she enthuses, pulling her own mask from her face to reveal a broad grin: ‘Anjana Anand’s your mum?’

‘Yep,’ I mutter, embarrassed.  

‘You have your mother’s eyes. But your face: it’s all your dad.’

‘You knew them?’

‘Two of my favourite people.’

‘How did you know them?’

Apparently there’s no answer to that question, for Mrs Dhillon just gazes at me with that smile of hers still fixed to her face. ‘Are you free now?’ she asks instead.

‘I guess so,’ I murmur.

‘Good,’ she says, ‘because I need a helper. If you can help me for an hour, I’ll tell you all about it. Deal?’ She doesn’t really wait for me to agree one way or the other. This woman’s my mum’s age and doesn’t seem the kind of person I could easily argue with. ‘May I borrow him?’ she asks my gran. ‘I promise to return him to you later. I’ll drop him back.’

‘He’s all yours,’ says my gran nodding. ‘See if you can help him out.’

‘What’s your name?’ she asks as my gran settles back in her car, waving goodbye.

‘Ibrahim… though everyone calls me Ibby.’

‘Coincidence,’ she smiles, reinstating her face mask, ‘I’ll introduce you to your namesake. We’ll have to call him Ibrahim M. I assume you’re Ibrahim J.’

‘J for Johnson, yep.’

‘Your dad kept the surname? I thought he might change it.’

‘He kept the lot: Ben Johnson.’

‘Wonderful. Never thought I’d hear that name again: Benjamin Johnsonji.’ Glancing at me, she pushes back inside. ‘Let’s get you kitted out.’

Following after her, she takes me beyond the serving hatch, around the corner and into the kitchen, where she insists I wash my hands with soap and hot water. When I’ve dried them, she hands me a more substantial facemask, a plastic visor and a pair of gloves. ‘Sorry for the fancy dress,’ she says, ‘but it’s for the best. Don’t want you getting ill, do we?’ When I’ve put them on she guides me over to the serving hatch. ‘Hey, Ibrahim,’ she says, her eyes beaming at the young man spilling ladles of soup into polystyrene bowls, ‘I’ve got you a helper. I always said we could do with two of you, so I’ve cloned you. Ibrahim, meet Ibrahim.’

‘Good to meet you, bro,’ he nods back at me. ‘Salams.’

I can hardly breathe in this new mask, but I have a job to do. Mrs Dhillon’s told me that I have the important job of making this long, long queue disappear. Ibrahim the first is entrusted with serving the soup; my job is to bestow a bread roll and piece of fruit on every tray and pass it on. Up until my arrival, Ibby M had been attempting all four tasks at once. So here I am, in some strange community centre in a strange town, standing next to a young guy manning a gigantic vat of steaming soup, handing trays of food to complete strangers, patiently shuffling past me.

‘Good one bro,’ says Ibby M, watching as I get into a rhythm, grabbing tray after tray from the pile. ‘I was struggling. The boss was helping me, but she has enough on her plate. The others called off sick, so it’s just us.’

‘Glad to help,’ I nod.

‘You local? Gonna join us regular?’

‘Wish I could, but I’m not from round here. Day trip.’

‘Shame,’ he says, ‘The boss needs all the help she can get. You’ve seen her.’

‘She’s ill?’

‘Yeah, that’s what I think. Her eyes, yeah?’

‘I don’t know her, so…’

‘I do, and I can see something’s not right, but she won’t say. She’ll just keep going. That’s why I keep going too, so she has someone to fall back on. I’m worried she’s just going to keel over one day and then we’ll all be stuffed.’

I don’t know how they manage, for my own feet are killing me and it’s only been three quarters of an hour. Over there, I can see Mrs Dhillon taking the time to sit with her guests, checking in on them and offering support. Right now she’s sitting with a group of Somali women. A minute ago she was with a gaunt white man with the word hate tattooed on the knuckles of his soup slurping hand. Dozens of men and women come and go all hour long, filling their stomachs then drifting out through the door again, melting away back into their own worlds.   

‘How are you two getting on?’ asks Mrs Dhillon, wandering back into the kitchen when only a few guests remain. Briefly she peers into the pan, nearly empty. ‘Thanks for your help, Ibby,’ she says, ‘You were a godsend today.’

‘Sure was,’ laughs my new friend, ‘can we keep him?’

‘I’ll try my best,’ she says, nodding. ‘So are you hungry?’

‘I’m fine, boss,’ he says, springing his gloves from his fingers, ‘and I have to get off now. I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘Thanks Ibrahim,’ she says, patting him on his back and sending him on his way. ‘What about you Ibn Benji?’ she asks, gazing at me, ‘Have you eaten?’

‘Not since breakfast. Just a cuppa with my gran.’

‘Then help yourself,’ she says, ladling the last of the soup into one more bowl, passing me two bread rolls. ‘Here,’ she says, presenting me with a tray and guiding me on to a table out there. ‘You can take all that gubbins off now,’ she says. ‘Breathe easy. Relax.’

‘You’re not having some?’ I ask, digging into the hearty golden soup which tastes just as delicious as it smells.

‘I’m okay,’ she says, taking a seat opposite me, scrutinising my face.

In return, I can’t help examining hers. Yes, her eye sockets look sunken in her face, the bags under her eyes purplish and grey. She doesn’t look well at all, but her large, wide eyes themselves seem to beam back at me affectionately. Her skin is a reddish brown, brighter than my mum’s, her nose thin with flared nostrils, her long black hair turning grey. She’s not as cute as my mum nor as beautiful as my granny, but she has a lovely smile, which makes me feel at ease.   

‘So this is a lovely surprise,’ she says suddenly. ‘I haven’t seen your parents for… well, it must be twenty-five years.’ She grins as she says this, showing me all of her teeth, a little wonky. ‘Your mum: I last saw her in ‘96. And your dad? I have fond memories of him. Yes, my seventeenth birthday: I think it was 1994.’

‘You were friends then?’

‘We were at school together. For a little while, anyway. I was just passing through, really, but those were incredible days. They changed my life. Changed the whole direction of my life completely.’

Pulling my roll apart, I dip a piece in my soup and swallow it down. ‘My gran says you rescued her,’ I tell her, ‘She says you fixed her.’

‘Not at all. She fixed herself. She’s a strong woman is your grandmother. She’s doing great work in the community.’

‘She says the same about you.’

Mrs Dhillon shrugs and shakes her head. ‘I suppose we all play our part, each in our own little way.’

‘My gran speaks very highly of you.’

‘She speaks highly of you too.’

‘We only just met.’

‘But you came looking for her. That was a brave thing to do. Your parents should be proud of you.’

‘They don’t even know I’m here,’ I mutter, guzzling down the last of my soup, cleaning my bowl with my final piece of bread. 

Across from me, the woman shifts a little, wincing. It looks to me like she’s in pain, though she’s disguising it with that smile of hers. ‘Yes, your grandmother mentioned that. She said you’re worried about your dad.’

‘Yeah,’ I mutter, ‘I am. He’s not himself. I don’t recognise him anymore.’

‘When did it start?’

‘The worst of it: about three weeks ago. The middle of March. He’s been blue for months, but it was nothing like this. It’s like he suddenly snapped.’

‘Does he work?’

‘Yeah, he works hard. Usually. He has a good job.’

‘What does he do?’

‘I’m not exactly sure. Something to do with computers. Don’t know the details.’

She’s gazing at me intently now. ‘Has he been signed-off sick?’ she asks.

‘Don’t know. Don’t know anything. Just know he’s not himself.’

‘And how’s that?’

‘Funny. Kind. Friendly. A good laugh.’

‘And now?’

‘Extremely angry. Explosive. Withdrawn. Miserable. Irritable. Impatient.’ I glimpse back at her sheepishly, looking for some kind of comprehension in her eyes. ‘I’ve tried to talk to him, but every time I do, he just blows up in my face.’

‘And how’s your mum dealing with it?’

‘She’s not dealing with it at all. She’s just tiptoeing around, scared to confront him about it, coz she knows he’ll blow his top any minute. Yeah, so she’s miserable too, crying all the time. She’s all jittery too. So that’s why I took things into my own hands. That’s what led me here.’ I can’t help shaking my head, thinking of them. ‘Yeah, but not even my gran thinks she can do anything to help. So I just don’t know what to do at all. I want to help my mum and dad, but I just don’t understand what’s wrong with them.’

Mrs Dhillon is quiet now; too quiet. I can see her gaze is beginning to drift away from me, over towards the window. Perhaps she’s contemplating how to respond. Perhaps I’ve bored her. Perhaps I should just let her rest, to recover from whatever afflicts her. ‘You knew my mum and dad,’ I say instead. ‘Do you know what could be wrong with them?’

At least my question pulls her eyes back to me. For a moment there’s a crack of a smile, but it’s followed by a shake of her head. ‘I haven’t seen your parents in a quarter of century. Life’s filled with all sorts of trials. It could be so many things. The pandemic’s put such a strain on everyone.’

‘Everyone keeps saying that…’

‘Because it’s true. I’ve seen a friend’s marriage collapse. I’ve seen people lose their jobs. I’ve seen people made homeless. I’ve seen people fall sick because they didn’t have the luxury to work from home, or couldn’t join a furlough scheme. The poor never had a choice whether to work or not. They just had to plod on, regardless. And the doctors and nurses on the frontline: they had it worse. My husband’s one of them, redeployed to a Covid ward. Now he’s back in mental health, dealing with the fallout. They’re burnt out, emotionally and physically. Social workers too. So yes, it’s true: this pandemic has ripped a hole in the lives of us all. Everyone’s going insane.’

‘And you think that’s what’s wrong with my mum and dad.’

‘I think it could be, but it could equally be something else entirely.’

‘Like what?’

‘Ibrahim,’ she says, a little too forcefully, ‘I no longer know your parents.’

This response of hers winds me up. ‘Now you’re backing out on your deal too,’ I moan bitterly. ‘You said that if I helped you for an hour, you’d tell me all about how you knew them.’

‘You’re right, I did.’

‘So?’

She seems to be mulling over her thoughts again, but still she says nothing at all. Honestly, adults are so unreliable. They say one thing, then do the complete opposite. Their promises are utterly worthless half the time; they just say things to placate you, without any intention of following through. They’re just actors, pretending they know what they’re doing, when really they haven’t got a clue.

‘Do you know what my gran told me about you earlier?’ I ask, irately. ‘She said you searched for her, and when you found her, you dedicated your life to her. That seems like a strange thing to do. Why would you dedicate your life to helping a complete stranger? Unless, of course, she wasn’t one.’

‘You’re right,’ she sputters back immediately, ‘She wasn’t. She was your dad’s mum.’

‘And what was my dad to you?’

‘A dear friend.’

‘Still doesn’t make sense.’

‘It makes sense to me. Your dad changed the focus of my life completely. Before I met him, I had my heart set on working in big business. I was going to work my way up to CEO and become a millionaire. But after I met your dad, I knew I had a higher calling. I realised I’d been put on this earth to serve. I realised that was my destiny.’

‘What did my dad do that was so special?’

‘Not everything can be spoken of, Ibrahim.’

‘That sounds…’

‘No, don’t say it, Ibrahim,’ she breaks in, silencing me. ‘It’s not like that. It wasn’t… it’s not…’ I have no idea what she’s trying to say; maybe she has no idea either. ‘Look,’ she says finally, ‘here’s an example: your dad once told me there was only one nice foster family in this town. That broke my heart. So I did all I could to make sure no other kid would ever say that again. If it wasn’t for your dad, I’d never even have considered fostering. But I’m so glad I did. It’s been so, so unbelievably tough, but it’s enriched my life in unimaginable ways.’ Across from me, she seems to glower at me resolutely. ‘Your dad was the one who brought me back down to earth. He was the one who showed me reality. He opened my eyes.’

‘No, but you dedicated your life to my gran. Why? My mum doing that: yeah, I could understand.’

‘It was just a decision I once made: a promise I made myself. And so I had to follow through. I promised myself I’d find her, so that’s what I did.’

‘But why?’

‘Because I owed that to your dad.’ She pauses, stuttering. ‘At least I felt I did. Whether that was real or not, I don’t know. But it’s what I felt all those years ago, so I acted on it. And I’m so glad I did, because your grandmother’s an amazing woman. Even if I was wrong all those years ago, I wouldn’t change my actions for the world.’

‘It still seems a bit…’

‘Strange? Yes, I suppose it was. But you know, we were young once too, and impulsive just like you.’ She’s smiling as she says this. ‘Didn’t you just jump in your car to meet an old lady you weren’t even sure was who you thought she was?’

‘Well, yeah, but she’s my gran. That’s different.’

‘Is it? You didn’t have to search for her. You could’ve just said, “My family’s so mean to me these days. Stuff it, I’m leaving.” You know, that’s what I did at your age. I hated the way my family treated me back then, so I just went off on my own, found my own companions and did my own thing. Being a teenager is tough. Becoming an adult? Even worse. So yes, you could’ve taken so many courses of action in response to your dad’s behaviour, but you chose to help him. That says a lot about you.’

‘What was wrong with your family?’

‘Oh, there’s too much to unpack there, and we don’t have time for that. Really it would take me all day and then some.’

‘It can’t be that complicated.’

‘Oh, you’d be surprised, Ibrahim. There was my dad’s business. He’d built it up from nothing through the 1980s. It was his pride and joy. He sat at the top table for a while, celebrated as this pillar of the community, known all over for his generosity. But then the recession of the early ‘90s happened and people just stopped buying white goods or, well, anything really. Everyone was squeezed then, and my dad just couldn’t compete with the likes of Comet and Currys, and his business never really recovered. Of course, I never understood any of this back then. But now? Well, I see the same thing happening all over. The high street’s dead: there’s nothing but charity shops and takeaways. Those with money spend online, and the rest… the rest live off the charity of strangers.’

‘So he brought the stresses of work home with him?’

‘There was that, but there were other things too. All kinds of pressures I couldn’t understand at the time.’

‘Like?’

‘There were the sibling rivalries. I’d got a place at private school, part scholarship, part my dad working his socks off. My siblings resented that, and rightfully so. And then there was the racism back then. I was insulated from the worst of it, but my family felt it hard.’

‘You mean, like, bullying?’

‘All sorts, Ibrahim. All different kinds of things: from namecalling to physical violence to discrimination.’

‘At least things are getting better now,’ I mutter, nodding.

‘I used to think that: fifteen years ago, maybe, but now it just seems to be getting ever worse. But then of course that’s entirely deliberate: it’s the Tory playbook. They use divide and conquer to neutralise the working class. Instead of uniting to improve their lot, they’re just obsessed with totally nonsensical identity politics.’

Now Mrs Dhillon is staring at me purposefully, her eyes even larger than they were before. ‘Want to know what the so-called cultures wars are all about?’ she asks me, ‘Who’s talking about it? Yep, billionaire media moguls. And what’s their interest? Defending the rights of the little people? Making sure kids go to sleep with a full stomach? Ensuring people buy local instead of sending their hard-earned cash to American conglomerates that pay no tax? Really? No, the culture wars are nothing but a cynical ploy to distract attention from the fact the richest economies on earth can’t or won’t provide basic necessities for the poor. There are no philanthropist entrepreneurs anymore, worried about the little people. No just little people trying their best despite all the odds. This is the Big Society for you: the wife of the local consultant psychiatrist cooking vats of butternut squash soup to keep the down-and-outs alive for another day. But as you see, we don’t play the culture wars here. We feed whoever comes to us, white or black, young or old, male or female.’

I’ve no idea how we got from what we were discussing to this. Briefly, she seems to sense I’m utterly perplexed and mutters half-hearted apologies. ‘You’ll have to forgive me for going off on tangents like this,’ she says, shrugging, ‘but I’m easily wound up these days.’

‘It’s okay,’ I say, ‘I don’t mind. It must be tough…’

‘It’s impossible. Our food banks are at breaking point. We get no help from anyone, but all the commentariat want to talk about is some culture war they made up in their own heads. There’s no culture war at the grassroots. The only culture war is between the haves and the have-nots. Between the stupendous multinationals and everyone else.’

I don’t really know what to say now. We were talking about her parents and mine a minute ago; now I’m just confused. I have no idea how we’re ever going to get back on track.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says, spying my reaction, ‘but, yes, it’s tough. It’s really tough. I’m worn out. Burnt out. I need a break, but I can’t take one.’

‘Maybe you should though,’ I suggest. ‘Ibrahim thinks you’re ill. Are you?’

‘I’m not in the best of health, no. I’ve seen better days. But if I go, these people will have no one. No one at all. Because that’s what’s happening all over. Charities are just folding. They’re not sustainable anymore. So more and more ends up being done with less and less, and by fewer and fewer. And all while the government hands out multimillion pound contracts to their friends. These people are so corrupt, but all people want to talk about? Brown people kneeling on a football pitch. Yes, so of course I go to sleep crying every night.’

‘Maybe you should take a break. You don’t look well at all.’

In front of me, Mrs Dhillon just shrugs. ‘You know, sometimes I think I should’ve just gone into business after all. I should’ve finished my degree. Done a masters. I could’ve. I had the brains. I could’ve been a lawyer or an accountant, or started my own business. I could’ve got myself the mansion I used to dream of. I would’ve bought myself an Aston Martin. I’d go to family weddings and boast about floating my company on the stock market. I could’ve done all of that. I had it in me. Who knows, I could even have got myself a one-hundred-million pound PPE contract and offered them fifty management consultants to source dodgy gowns from a t-shirt manufacturer in Turkey. Yes, I could’ve done all of that, and maybe I’d live a happy life of ease.’

‘Why didn’t you?’

For a moment, she’s silent and I watch her glance up through that window again. ‘Maybe because I was once in a state like your dad is in now,’ she mutters finally, her tired eyes still far away from me. ‘Because I too dwelled on all that had happened and wanted so desperately to make amends. Perhaps. Perhaps that’s all it was, Ibrahim: my response to my own all-consuming blues. I dropped out of uni then. I fell into a big hole myself. A deep, dark depression which lasted a whole year, until I had a revelation: I was going to find your dad’s mum.’

‘Were you in a relationship with my dad?’ I murmur.

‘No… no, I wasn’t. Your dad was always in love with your mum, Ibrahim. He was devoted to her. I witnessed that first hand.’

‘So what was your relationship with him?’

‘Complicated,’ she says.

‘Meaning?’

‘It’s just complicated,’ she says, glancing back at me at last. ‘My family, my brother, my dad. For all of that, I had to make amends. I had to try to make amends. Yes, so that’s what I tried to do. My whole life’s work has been an effort to make amends. It’s what eventually lifted me out of my own awful depression. Serving others. Helping the poor. Being there for people who’ve had lives like your dad had, back when I knew him. Your dad touched my soul, all those years ago, knowing him. Yes, I’ve cherished those few short weeks all my life. He was a friend. A real friend to me when I really needed it. So that’s why. That’s why I devoted myself to his mother.’

‘Did you love him?’ I ask, but this question only seems to bring more silence.

‘Not how I love my husband,’ she replies eventually, ‘But pyaar? How do I explain what pyaar is? It’s a different kind of love. Not a romantic love. Similar to the love I have for my children. You overlook their shortcomings. You accept them as a product of God. Your dad? I had a deep respect for him back then. But we were walking different paths. They crossed briefly, but our destinies were different. He married his soulmate, and I married mine. No, for sure, I never, ever loved your dad as I love my husband, but still, he sowed a seed in my mind, dyed a deep crimson. My dress, my clothes: truth and charity. But in here…’ Her forefinger hits her right temple. ‘The love of the One. Yes, your dad planted that seed.’

‘In what way?’

‘In ways… in ways I can’t really talk about, but… but I think… perhaps I can understand. Perhaps like me at uni, he’s dwelling on the past once more. Perhaps that’s why he’s imploded. I saw him implode once before. Way back. Way back when I knew him. And I know just what that’s like, because I’ve imploded too. Not then. A couple of years later. After the worst… a shock. It didn’t hit me straight away, but after about a month. I was in shock and I just imploded and fell apart. Yes, so perhaps he’s in shock too. A delayed shock like mine. But not just a month. Two decades? Maybe more.’

Mrs Dhillon looks at me seriously. It seems to me that her skin has flushed a shade darker, her eyes subdued. ‘Yes, it could well be that, but as I say: I don’t know your dad anymore. I’ve lived a whole life since then. My eldest daughter is at university now. I’ve raised four kids. I’ve built a home with my beloved. He may be consumed by the past, but equally it could just be the stress of work, of the pandemic, of raising teenagers.’

‘But if it is the past, what should I do?’

‘I suggest you don’t go there. You have a big heart, coming here, trying to fix your dad. But these things aren’t for kids. When you grow up, you’ll regret it. Leave it to your mum.’

‘But my mum’s hardly keeping it together herself.’

‘I understand, but, believe me… the past is a room it’s better not to enter. It’s better that door remains firmly closed. If he has prised it open, then yes: all that he found in there would’ve been enough to blow him to pieces.’

‘But why?’

‘Because your dad had a truly awful childhood, Ibrahim. He was brutalised by his own dad, by his friends and his enemies, and neglected by everyone who was supposed to care for him. He didn’t stand a chance.’

‘But he’s always been so happy with us,’ I tell her. I can’t even comprehend what she’s saying. ‘He was my best friend. Always joking about. So funny. What you’re telling me… It just doesn’t make any sense. I never knew this angry man until three weeks ago.’

Mrs Dhillon seems to be nodding ever so slightly, but I don’t know whether that’s a good sign or not. ‘As I say, Ibrahim, I haven’t seen your parents in twenty-five years. The only person who can help him is your mum. As for me? It’s better I stay out of it.’

‘But you helped my gran,’ I plead.

‘That was something completely different,’ she says. ‘Please, Ibrahim, be careful. Be careful about opening this box. You have a good heart, but good intentions can’t make bad decisions better. I learnt that the hard way. Sometimes they just make matters worse.’

‘My gran said the same thing.’

‘Because she knows the past better than anyone.’

‘So I just go home?’

‘I’m sorry, but you know the answer to that already. Just be patient with him, Ibrahim. It may blow over. And if not, get him professional help. Get him to visit his GP. Access some talking therapies. But please, Ibrahim, don’t go opening this box. Lock it. Nail it firmly shut again. And throw away the key.’

She’s gaping at me earnestly now, her encouraging gaze all but forgotten. ‘Do you understand?’ she asks me firmly when I fail to respond, her hard, determined stare causing me to nod unplanned. ‘I’m serious, Ibrahim,’ she says, ‘just leave it to your mother.’

‘Okay,’ I murmur, reluctantly.

‘Thank you,’ she replies, standing up with my tray in hand, acknowledging me with a tiny jerk of her head.

As I watch her pace away, back to the kitchen with those quick, deliberate steps of hers, it looks to me that she’s upset; momentarily, she seems to stop to wipe her eyes, hiding her face from me. But perhaps I’m mistaken: perhaps she’s simply worn out. She’s less the guardian angel my gran spoke of, more a frail servant giving so much of herself to others that there’s nothing left of her but her skeletal frame, destined only for the care of a hospice. Observing her, this is how she looks to me, and so I feel moved to make a dua for her health: may the One grant her complete shifah and lighten her load.

With that prayer, I feel inspired to return to my feet to help her with the last of her chores: to clear the tables, to sweep the floor, to bag the mountain of waste. ‘You know you shouldn’t use all these polystyrene plates and plastic cutlery,’ I tell her, seizing a dustbin bag from her, holding it open. ‘It’s very bad for the environment,’ I say, watching as she hurriedly dumps the empty bowls inside.

‘You’re right,’ she says, smiling at me, ‘but we don’t have much choice. We operate on a shoestring. Do you know how much paper plates cost? Or the bamboo ones all the middle-class ecowarriors want us to use?’

‘What about washing up?’ I ask her.

‘Covid has obliterated our volunteer base.’

‘A dishwasher?’

‘We can barely afford the electric bills as it is,’ she says, as if she’s pondered this question long and hard already. ‘But you’re right though, we all need to do our part. It’s just that it’s not practical for us right now.’

Tying the bag up, she leaves it by the door, and immediately hastens onto her next job, spraying the tables with disinfectant and wiping them clean. It’s as if this woman never stops. Even when I insist on taking over from her, she just wanders off to sweep the floor.

‘I could do with a helper like you, Ibby,’ she tells me, glancing over as she makes her final circuit of the room with her broom. ‘If you ever feel like taking a year out before uni, forget VSO in Africa and Asia. You’ve got the developing world right here. We need good guys like you.’

‘I’ll consider it,’ I smile back at her. ‘Anything to stay in your company.’

‘Aren’t you a cute one?’

‘You’re nice. I can see why my gran likes you.’

Mrs Dhillon just smiles when I say this and busies herself with yet more jobs in the kitchen, wiping surfaces clean and leaving everything in order. ‘Right,’ she says finally, lifting the large heavy pans in her arms, ‘let’s get going.’ Seeing her, I run to help her, begging to take them off her. On my second attempt she relents, sending me ahead while she turns out the lights and locks the doors after us. Naturally, her car is the grey Seat Alhambra parked close to the wall, a vehicle built for servants of the people. ‘Thanks so much,’ she says as I push the pans into the boot for her. ‘Ibrahim M was right about you: I must try to hold onto you somehow.’

It’s nice to feel appreciated for a change.

‘Right, let’s get you back to your gran,’ she says.


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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