7: Impulsive

Sitting beside her as we trundle down the road, taking a more sedate route back to my gran’s house, I feel so comfortable with this woman: it’s as if I’ve known her all my life.

Chapter 7 of Seeking the one.

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7: Impulsive

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Sitting beside her as we trundle down the road, taking a more sedate route back to my gran’s place, I feel so comfortable with this woman: it’s as if I’ve known her all my life. She’s not much like mum, but she could easily be a close family friend. Her head always covered outside the home, my mum is petite, forever seeking refuge under dad’s wings, pressing herself close to him. Mrs Dhillon seems so much taller, clothed in casual trousers and a dark blue fleece, her long hair left loose, its ends hanging over her shoulders. It’s not her appearance that enthrals me though, but her self-confidence, for my mum has completely lost hers.       

‘I miss your mum,’ she blurts out all of a sudden, just as these thoughts begin to preoccupy me. Drawing to a halt at a junction, she briefly glances at me, then pulls off again. ‘I said things to her the last time we met that I’ve regretted for years. That was… how many years ago now? Too many. For years I’ve yearned to say sorry. Back then, I was… how shall we say it? Very immature. Self-centred. Self-absorbed.’ She glimpses at me as she says this. ‘Maybe you can tell her I’m sorry, one day, when the time’s right.’

I hear her, but I don’t respond at all; what could I say? I just sit here, gazing out through the windows, taking in all the sights of this rundown town. I think I can see why my parents left. These streets are not attractive at all; it’s just grim.

‘Have you got time?’ she asks me abruptly.

‘For what?’

‘I’ll show you a couple of places that might mean something to your dad. They might help you understand him a bit better.’

At the next junction, she turns right onto a long straight road, two lanes of traffic hemmed in between a bus and cycle lane on either side. I’m surprised to find ourselves in a queue, the roads far too busy for a bank holiday; the town I left behind this morning sleeps on days like these.

‘This avenue coming up here,’ she says after the traffic lights, pointing on towards the first turning on the left, ‘that’s where I went to school.’

‘With my dad?’

‘That was before I knew him. My kids go here now. It’s a good school.’

‘Grammar school?’

‘Sadly, we don’t have those around here. Independent. Costs us an arm and a leg, but needs must.’

‘You’re not going to take me down there?’

‘These roads are all about my history, not yours. They mean a lot to me: my beloved dadaji lived down there too. But to you? No, I’ll take you to see your dad’s school in a minute.’ The road now clear, she takes us past a row of dingy terraces on one side and a large old cemetery on our right, heading west. ‘I confess I walked this route with your dad a few times, way back when,’ she mutters, surprising me.

‘Really? Why?’

‘Just friends. Wandering.’

That’s all I’ll get out of her, it seems. Her eyes are on the road ahead, merging into a dual carriageway over a railway line, then slowing down between yet more red brick terraces, seeking a turning somehow forgotten in the mists of time.

‘It’s been a while, but I think it’s this one,’ she says, nearly turning, ‘I’ll never forget the foam cushion shop on the corner: it’s been here forever.’ It turns out to be a one-way street, a no entry sign aborting her manoeuvre. ‘Hmm, I don’t remember that,’ she says, pulling off again, ‘but then I suppose we always were on foot. The next one then.’

‘Are we lost?’ I ask her five minutes later, sensing her disquiet as the avenue seems to last forever.

‘Don’t panic,’ she says, turning into a shorter street, ‘we’ll find it. It’s in here somewhere.’ I can’t help feeling sorry for her, for the maze of streets all seem to have become one-way in the wrong direction, and she seems to be completely flummoxed. She’s getting agitated, muttering complaints at every junction, the minutes passing by. ‘Don’t look,’ she tells me finally, turning the wrong way down the avenue we came to in the first place, just to nip across to the next narrow street off to the left. ‘You must never do that,’ she tells me, ‘but it was the only way.’

‘I didn’t see a thing,’ I smile as she slides into a parking space a third of the way along.

‘This house there,’ she says, pointing at the end of the terrace, ‘that’s where your dad lived with his mum. Looks better these days though.’

‘Better? Looks like it’s about to fall down.’

‘You should’ve seen it then,’ she says, glancing across at me and peering up. ‘The window frames were all rotten. Bricks were all black. And inside… the mould, the damp… the smell… it was bleak.’

‘You spent time with him then?’

‘For a few weeks. I got to know that house quite well.’

‘And my dad?’

‘For a short time.’

‘Why only a short time?’

Mrs Dhillon glimpses at me momentarily. ‘What was it your dad used to say? “Circumstance.” Does he still say that?’

‘I haven’t heard him.’

‘Well he used to say that all the time, whenever I asked him about the past. “Circumstance.” Nice way of deflecting any kind of question.’

‘So what was your circumstance?’ I ask, only to discover her gazing into the distance, subdued and quiet. It seems like this might be another of those questions that never get answered. Instead she just releases her handbrake and journeys on, turning left into yet another avenue which seems to carry us back on ourselves.

‘My circumstance?’ she mumbles finally, picking up speed. ‘I was impulsive back then. Got me into a lot of trouble. I did all sorts of very foolish things, which just got totally out of hand. Ultimately, I just messed everything up. Your dad was mad at me. All my friends were mad at me. You mum was mad at me. Oh, and my parents were mad at me too. In the end, they sent me away to live with relatives in London. It was meant to be a punishment, but it was the opposite for me. It helped me find myself again. My cousin and her parents… my mum’s sister and her husband… they touched my heart. Their faith, their culture, how they were… yes, it’s stayed with me for life. In a way, it was good I messed everything up, because that whole encounter opened my eyes to a better way of living.’

We’re back on the dual carriageway now, heading in the same direction as before, passing row upon row of detached houses. ‘What made my dad mad?’ I ask just as she swings around a roundabout, taking the third exit northwards.

‘I had good intentions,’ she says, ‘it’s just that my actions… there wasn’t much wisdom in them.’

‘You mean like me coming here today?’

Once more, there’s no reply to the questions I ask. ‘I’ll take you to see our old school,’ she says instead. ‘It’s not far from here.’

‘What about my mum’s house?’ I ask, ‘Do you know it?’

‘I know it’s around here, but I couldn’t tell you which one it was exactly.’

‘So you knew my dad better?’

‘I just had more need to visit your dad.’

‘That sounds…’ I begin, but she cuts me off.

‘Anjana wasn’t virtually homeless,’ she snaps, ‘But your dad… he’d been abandoned by everyone.’

‘What about his dad?’  

‘We don’t talk about that man. Even if I could, I wouldn’t show you where he lived. As it is, it’s all gone. They pulled that awful tower block down nearly twenty years ago now. What happened to your dad’s father, I was never moved to look into.’

‘Why?’

‘Because he should’ve been sent back to prison for everything he did to your dad. The violence your dad was subjected to at his hands… I’m glad you said your dad’s mostly been a happy man, because… because he had no reason to be happy then. I was always worried he’d grow up to be just like his dad.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘I wish I wasn’t, but unfortunately it’s true. That evil man brutalised your dad. I’m so, so pleased he was reunited with our Anjana. She would’ve been a good influence on him. She always was special, our Anjana. I’m glad. I’m so happy for them.’

Turning right, Mrs Dhillon carries us uphill to a bridge over a railway line and down the other side, past sprawling playing fields. I can’t make sense of this town at all; it’s a complete labyrinth to me, so complicated. It has none of the charm of our little market town in that steep sided valley down south.

‘I’m glad they got away from this godawful town,’ says Mrs Dhillon suddenly, as if she’s reading my mind. ‘Really, it sucks you down, sucks the life out of you. It can, anyway, if you let it.’

‘Is that how you feel?’

There’s no reply at first. ‘No, not really,’ she murmurs finally, turning off the main road. ‘No, it’s home and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. There are blessings here too: you just have to find them.’

If there are blessings here, I think I’ve already discovered the first of them, sitting here at my side. Her generosity seems to be endless, despite the noxious fatigue that so obviously besets her, her secrets unmasked by the bags under her eyes and her skin pulled taut. I can’t help making duas for her over and over as we circumnavigate a council housing estate, looping around four sides of an octagon. These old post-war buildings aren’t much to look at, but the wide open spaces lend this counterfeit village the apparition of serenity. I feel like I can almost breathe.

‘So this is the school I went to with your mum and dad,’ says Mrs Dhillon, parking on a side street opposite the front gates. ‘Come,’ she says, thumping her door closed, ‘let’s walk for a bit.’

Climbing out, I follow after her, across the road, curious of her long gaze. ‘My parents studied here?’

‘Well, it’s the location,’ she says, glancing back at me. ‘There’s not much of the old school left: it was decaying then. Thank God for that: it was an atrocious place in those days.’

‘It looks nice now though,’ I tell her, as we saunter down the drive into a large landscaped garden.    

‘Well nowadays they do love to build these gigantic, angular monstrosities that look like shopping centres. All the schools around here look like this now. Maybe it’s to prepare the kids for a lifetime working in online retail.’

‘You’re very cynical, Mrs Dhillon.’

‘No, I must say it’s very nice inside. Many of the foster kids that get placed with us go here. It’s an academy now, much better than it was, though that wouldn’t be hard. Back then, I don’t know what it was.’

‘You sound bitter about it.’

‘Well, the only good memories I have of it as it was are of your mum and dad, and a couple of friends. It was a shock to the system going there after five years at private school.’

‘That’s how I felt going to college after five years at grammar school. I have no idea why I decided to do that.’

‘Not your thing?’ she smiles, leading us down the path right across the lawn.

‘It’s not really them,’ I shrug, ‘just me. I don’t fit in. I’m just a nerd.’

‘Oh, I’ve been there, Ibrahim: I get you completely. You know, I only lasted here about six months. Started September ’93 and left March ’94. Best decision ever, though of course that decision wasn’t mine.’

‘That’s when you went down south, right?’

‘Yep. Friday I was at school, screwing absolutely everything up. Saturday, they locked me in my room all day long. Sunday morning, a tiring four-hour drive down the motorway. Monday morning, enrolled at college. I just threw myself into it then, making up for lost time.’

‘That must’ve been tough.’

‘It was an answer to a prayer, really, though I didn’t see that at the time. At the time, it just felt like my parents were throwing me away.’

‘That’s a bit how I feel,’ I mumble, nodding. ‘They’re so self-absorbed in their own problems that I wonder if they even know I’m there. They hardly notice me at all anymore. Except to shout at me, that is. I feel like running away nearly every day.’

We’re close to the main entrance now, peering through the tall glass windows into the atrium. The layout is just like my college. It’s nice, but I’m not really sure what I’m meant to be looking at if it was all rebuilt in 2008, when I was four. What does this place tell me about my parents, except that everything has changed in their absence? The truth is, I’m no longer gazing through the window; I’m secretly observing Mrs Dhillon in the reflection, studying every movement she makes.

‘You know, it’s hard being a teenager, Ibrahim, but it’s even harder being a parent. You’re only responsible for yourself, but your dad’s responsible for all of you.’

‘I get that, but I have needs too. There are things I need help with. Things I want to discuss. But they’re just stuck in their own world. It’s like I don’t exist at all. I’m just there to study, and nothing else. Stuck on a conveyor belt: school, college, degree, post-grad and then what? Into work, to repeat the process all over again for my own kids? To produce another clone of me, so completely miserable? Is that what it’s all about? Seriously?’

‘You know, parents only want the best for their kids. We just want to set you up for the best life chances possible. And parents like us? I suppose because we saw our parents really struggle, coming here with nothing: I suppose that’s why desi parents are so pushy. When we push you to get a profession, it’s not really about us, or about status. We just want you to be comfortable for life.’

‘My dad’s not desi though, is he?’

‘No, but he comes from a long line of wasters. His dad lived on the dole. His grandad, I’m not sure about, but he definitely wasn’t educated. If he did work at all, it would’ve been manual labour. He would’ve done the same kind of work as my dadaji. So your dad: he was just like us really. He aspired to something better for himself and his children.’

Glancing back at me, Mrs Dhillon guides me towards a bench on the edge of the garden, screened by a trellis weaved with the winter leaves of Japanese wisteria. When she sits down on one end, I drop onto the other. 

‘But, surely,’ I sigh, ‘there has to be more to life than work.’

‘Of course, but it’ll help you. It’ll make your life easier. You’ll have time to spend with your family. I hardly ever saw my dad, he was so busy. The truth is, that’s life for the working classes… for first-generation immigrants especially… you just work every minute God gives you, just to make ends meet, all while your family suffers. That’s why my dad sent me to private school: he recognised that long ago. I didn’t at the time, but I do now. And your parents? It seems they’ve come to the same conclusion. The truth is, your mum could’ve been a scholar like her father if it wasn’t for this school.’ As she says this, Mrs Dhillon stares at me intently. ‘The only way is up, Ibrahim,’ she says resolutely, ‘Don’t go imagining your dad had something better.’

Yes, everyone keep telling me this, but then there’s reality: the reality they don’t know about. Gazing across this courtyard, I wonder if there’s any point trying to explain. ‘I don’t know,’ I mutter in the end, ‘all my mates… at least they’re happy. Maybe they won’t get to uni, but at least they have a life. Me? All I do is study. Nothing else, nothing at all.’

‘But you’re safe, you’re well. Isn’t that the main thing?’

‘I don’t know. Honestly, I want to live a bit.’

‘There’ll be plenty of time for that, when you’re older.’

‘Now you’re sounding like my mum.’

‘Because your mum and I saw the same things. Yes, I only saw them for a few months back then, but that was enough. That’s why I’m a pushy mum too. That’s why we’ve set goals for all our kids. Because we want the best for them.’   

It seems I’m not going to win this argument. Adults are all the same, totally absorbed in the dunya despite all their claims to be these great spiritual people, caring only about the hereafter. No, it’s all about what you’re going to be, what you’re going to achieve in life. But me? I just want to be happy. I just want to live in peace, without people shouting at me all the time. Is that really such a big ask?

‘You know, Ibrahim, whatever you’re going through, it can be nothing like your dad did.’

I can’t help getting annoyed when she says this, because I’ve heard it all before. It’s the card they use to blackmail me every single day of my life. You’re not allowed to have a life, Ibby, because your dad had a terrible one before you. What they say doesn’t even make sense. Yes, so that’s why I forget my manners with my elders here.

‘Why’s everyone always saying this?’ I demand, shaking my head crossly. ‘How do you know? How do you know what I’m dealing with? You’re not there in my life, watching. You don’t see my dad blasting me for no reason at all. You don’t see my mum telling me off all the time. You don’t see my sister treating me like I’m a complete fool. You don’t hear my mates mocking me because I don’t have a girlfriend and never have. And you don’t see me being harassed every single day by these stupid, stupid girls, always, always laughing at me, non-stop without pause. I’m just so sick of this life of mine. Everyone treats me like I’m an idiot.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that Ibrahim, but…’

‘But what? It’s normal? It’s all okay?’

‘I wasn’t going to say it’s okay.’

‘Then what?’

‘You know, I’ve sat on both sides of that table. I went through years of pain with my family. Horrible stuff. My sisters, they were just mean to me, but my brother: that awful relationship culminated in him injuring me in a truly horrific way, which I’ve suffered with most of my life. As for school? I was doing fine until I was sixteen, but then I came here, to this place. That’s when I found myself on the other side of the table.’

‘The other side, how?’

‘Those stupid, giggling girls of yours? Yes, we were just the same: me, your mum and that little posse of ours. I shudder thinking about how nasty we were then. I suppose that’s partly why I ended up overcompensating and swinging so far back in the other direction.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The truth is, I bullied your dad relentlessly for three whole months after I arrived here. It was like a survival mechanism. I wanted to be popular. No, I just didn’t want to get my head flushed down the bog again, so I just did what I had to do to survive, and sadly that meant joining in with all that nonsense. I’ve always had such regrets about that. But then I tried to make amends by insisting on being his friend, but that just ended up making everything even worse than it was in the first place. It was such a mess. So you think you have problems? You seem well-rounded by comparison.’

‘I don’t know about that.’

‘Oh, I know. I was so naïve and immature back then. As for your dad? No, you’re definitely in a much better state than he was. Poor guy. He really didn’t stand a chance.’

Hearing these confessions seems to dilute my rage; at least, it feels like that. Beside me, Mrs Dhillon rises back to her feet and begs me to follow after her. 

‘So where was my mum through all this?’ I ask her, wandering at her side.

‘Oh, you don’t need to worry about any of that, Ibrahim,’ she tells me, showing me her smile. ‘It’s all in the past. I’m so glad he ended up with her. It was the best thing that could happen to him.’

‘Do you really mean that?’

When I ask this question, she stands completely still and gazes directly into my eyes. ‘Yes, Ibrahim,’ she tells me, ‘completely, sincerely, from the bottom of my heart.’ Nodding her head, her eyes remain fixed on me for nearly a minute. ‘It had to happen, anyway,’ she adds, glancing away at last.

We’re walking back towards her car now, this little tour of ours apparently complete. ‘As for how I behaved back then,’ she mutters, fiddling with her keys, ‘I like to think I’ve had more success with my children. They’re so much more mature and balanced than I ever was. They have none of the insecurities I had back then. But then they have had a childhood of me telling them never to bully or be mean to anyone, black or white, male or female, young or old. I have a great hope they’ll never behave the way we did.’

It’s interesting hearing her say this, because I can’t imagine Zahra or Rimsha ever looking back on these strange moments in college, wondering what it was all for and why they behaved that way. I guess I’ll never know, for who knows what’s going on in their lives? I don’t even know how we’re linked. Is it just because I’m Mo’s dumb halfcast mate, half desi, half gora, but neither of either?

‘You’re in deep thought, Ibrahim?’

‘I guess so,’ I murmur, arriving back at her car.

‘Too much to take in?’

‘Yeah, a bit,’ I shrug, opening the door. That’s when I notice my smartphone down in the footwell, lodged between the filthy rubber mat and the base of the centre console. It must’ve slipped out of my pocket on my way out. I can’t believe I didn’t notice I didn’t have it with me until now.

‘Are you alright?’ asks Mrs Dhillon, finding me scrolling anxiously down my screen.

‘I have like a hundred messages from my mum. She’s asking me where I am.’

‘So message her back.’

‘Are you like this with your kids, checking up on them all the time?’

‘Not all the time, but I like to know what they’re up to.’

I can’t help letting out a heavy sigh. ‘I can’t bear it. I feel like… like I can’t breathe.’ My phone buzzes again. ‘See.’

‘It just means she loves you,’ she says, her fingers pushed into my forearm.

‘Is it love? Or is she a control freak?’

‘It’s definitely love, Ibrahim. Just send her a message and she’ll be fine.’

‘You think so?’

‘I know so. It’s difficult for us to let go sometimes. I’m the same with our Jas. I’ve only just got used to her being away from home.’

Shaking the engine back to life, Mrs Dhillon drives to the end of the road, does a U-turn and drives back the other way, turning left at the corner.

‘How many kids do you have?’

‘Four of my own. Jasbir’s our eldest, just turned nineteen, away at uni. Amanpreet: he’s your age. You’d like him. Then we have Khush, doing his GCSEs this year. And last but not least, Tavleen. She’s twelve, soon to transform into a terrible teen like the rest of them. Joking of course… I couldn’t do without them.’

‘Wow, big family.’

‘This is small for us,’ she says, ‘We’ve just said goodbye to a lovely sibling pair… a brother and sister… lovely kids. Their grandparents agreed to take them. Seems to be the season for great reunions.’

‘How do you manage? There’s just three of us and we wind mum and dad up no end.’

‘I was one of four too. I guess it’s just a part of our culture. You do what you have to do.’ There goes my phone again, buzzing in my pocket. Pulling it out, I take another look. ‘Trouble?’ she asks.

‘Is it really that late already?’

‘Coming to three,’ she says, turning left at the end of the road, then immediately right across the island to take us the other way down the dual carriageway.

‘Bother. Didn’t realise. I’m going to have to get on my way.’ Glancing at her shyly, I wonder if I can ask the question that’s playing on my mind. ‘I don’t suppose you know if there’s a mosque on the way to my gran’s place,’ I mutter, embarrassed. ‘I need to do my prayer.’

‘You pray, Ibrahim?’

‘Yeah, try to.’

‘You missed jummah then.’

‘How come you know about that? Aren’t you Sikh?’

‘You don’t have to be Muslim to learn, or care.’ Glimpsing away from the road, she grins at me. ‘So…’

‘Well yeah, I did, but I’m travelling, so it’s okay. I’m joining my prayers anyway. It’s allowed.’

‘You do whatever you think’s right, Ibrahim.’

‘Yeah, I will. So… is there a mosque on the way?’

‘Well, there is… sort of on the way… but with Covid… I don’t know if it’ll be open.’

‘Oh…’

‘But I have a better idea: we’ll drop by my place. You can pray there. I have a prayer mat you can use. I’ll show you the qibla.’

‘You know about that too?’ I cough, perplexed.

Without warning, Mrs Dhillon weaves around another traffic island and takes us back on ourselves yet again, hurtling the opposite way down the road with the bridge over the railway line.

‘Don’t look so surprised, Ibrahim. To be Indian is to be shaped by syncretic faiths… to assimilate whatever good you find in the traditions of others. That was the way of those before us, all the way through history. The only people who can’t stand that are the pseudo-intellectuals who’ve digested too much European political philosophy. Oh, and politicians, of course. They love to believe fascism is part of our tradition.’

Merging onto the next dual carriageway at the traffic lights, Mrs Dhillon smiles at me, taking in my bewilderment. ‘Is that all something new to you?’ she asks.

‘It is a bit, yeah.’

‘It shouldn’t be. Your parents set me on this path. Your mum especially. Well, your mum the way your dad described it to me. My family wasn’t religious at all, so everything I knew, I got from books in the library. So, naturally, I had a very Eurocentric view of Sikhi, Sanatan dharma and Islam back then. It wasn’t really real. Your mum made me see that: your mum, through your dad, though I think she got it from your grandfather.’

‘Yeah, that’s probably true. I only found out this week that he’s a convert to Islam. Apparently he explored all the religions on his way.’

‘That sounds about right. I remember talking with your dad about it. He loved your mum’s father.’

‘He still does.’

Yes, that’s the truth: my dad and grandad get on so well together. Maybe that’s why he’s so depressed, spending so many months apart from him in this enforced isolation we’ve all been subjected to. When they’re together, his face lights up, either pondering something deep and profound with his father-in-law, or riving around in hysterics at something daft and mundane. They’re so close that I’m in awe of them.

‘So your parents converted to Islam too?’ she asks two minutes later, slowing down for the roundabout and taking the first exit.

‘Yeah, seems like it.’

‘I knew they would. It was obvious. Your mum was basically a Muslim when I knew her.’

‘She says her dad converted in 1993.’

‘That makes a lot of sense,’ she says, nodding.

‘It makes no sense to me. Mum says he converted in a canoe while being chased by an aggressive swan.’

Hearing me, Mrs Dhillon bursts into laughter and can’t seem to stop. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ she guffaws, choking, ‘that’s a pretty good story. Good one.’

‘But apparently it’s true,’ I say, watching her taking on another roundabout, all while trying to hold back her tears of joy. ‘That’s what my mum told me,’ I add, gazing out at the broad green verges either side of us. I feel like we’ve entered a completely different town, passing smart bungalows with neat front drives. These parts don’t feel run down at all; I quite like them, in fact.

‘That has to be one of the strangest conversion stories I’ve ever heard,’ she chuckles, ‘and, believe me, I’ve heard a lot.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, of course. It’s pretty common. I knew a girl at college whose entire family converted.’

‘To Islam?’

‘No, they were Muslim, but they became Sikh. It was for love. Marriage. But even in my own family… my middle sister, I’m not entirely sure, but I think she might be Christian now.’

‘Might be?’

‘Well, she’s never come out and said it, because, well, we don’t really get on. But I’ve seen what she’s put on Facebook, which makes me suspect that’s where she feels she belongs these days. But then, on the other hand, she might just be doing it to wind up her ex, after he left her to raise the kids alone with no child maintenance.’

‘Was he religious then?’

‘No, he was an alcoholic. Used to beat my sister up whenever he got drunk, which was pretty much all the time. I’m glad she got out of that marriage.’

‘And don’t you mind that she’s converted?’

‘Well, I don’t know that she has, but if she has, that’s really none of my business. As long as she’s happy, that’s all I really care about. Even if we don’t get on personally.’ 

‘That’s interesting…’

‘You’re very polite, Ibrahim,’ she smiles, rattling downhill, past spacious semi-detached houses with large front gardens. ‘Here’s one you’ll like: my cousin, Andeep… she’s a Muslim.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Yep. That was a surprise at the time though, since she was the most amazing Sikh I ever knew. That was the cousin I stayed with in London. She taught me so much about being a Sikh back then. Nearly everything I know, in fact.’

‘How did your family take that?’

‘Her parents… as far as I know, they’re fine. They seem to get on great. But then her parents were the most amazing people I ever knew too. My uncle: a real Sikh… in what it truly means to follow the path. But other people, outside the family? Yes, there’s a lot of blind hatred and contempt.’

I guess we’re in the suburbs now. There are some seriously nice houses along here. Nice cars parked in their driveways too. I wouldn’t mind living here. It’s definitely not the town I’ve spent most of the day in.

‘Day dreaming again, Ibrahim?’

‘I’m sorry… no, but I can imagine. That’s what I thought… the reason my dad didn’t have any relationship with his mum and dad… I always thought it was because he converted…’

‘It wouldn’t have helped, but… no, he had bigger problems. Marrying your mum? Well maybe. With his dad, yeah, that would’ve been like the end of the world. But his mum? No don’t worry about her. She’ll embrace the lot of you. She loved your granny: your mum’s mum.’

‘Yeah, my grandad told me about that.’

‘You know, when I first found her, she used to call me Anjana all the time. Not that I look anything like your mum, but she was in a bad state then. I didn’t take it personally. It just showed the impact your mum and granny had on her.’

‘That’s awesome.’

‘Truly. You know, it’s odd how lives can be so intertwined. Consider this: your dad’s mum loved your mum’s mum: they were best friends. And your mum and dad: well, they were best friends because they were always playing together, seeing each other whenever your grannies Dhriti and Catherine met. They were inseparable. That was until your dad met my brother, who made sure he broke absolutely everything. Yes, he broke your dad’s relationship with your mum, which broke the relationship between your dad’s mum and her best friend, which in turn broke the relationship between your dad and his own mum. I think that’s partly what sent her awry. But, of course, I’ve never told your granny any of this.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I fear she would disown me.’

‘Why would she?’

‘Because without my family, she would’ve been saved thirty years of heartache.’

‘You don’t know that.’

‘You speak wisely for a seventeen year-old,’ she smiles.

Of course I protest: ‘I’m nearly eighteen,’ I tell her.

‘Well if you knew how I behaved back then, you’d be really surprised. I was unbelievably immature. My own kids: I’m in awe of them.’

The road we’re on is very long, with wide grassy verges, the most beautiful detached houses set behind wrought iron gates on either side, but it’s not my surroundings that I’m in awe of. No, that’s all these revelations. Multi-millionaires must live all along this road, but there’s no wealth comparable to this humble woman at my side.

 ‘I can’t imagine that’s true,’ I tell her, recalling all I’ve seen today. ‘What you say about yourself, I mean. Maybe you’re a bit hard on yourself.’

‘More wisdom from a smart kid,’ she says, beaming back at me, ‘I was going to say the same thing to you. Don’t be too hard on yourself, Ibrahim. It looks like you’re doing great. If I was your mum, I’d be very proud of you, coming on a journey like this.’

‘Proud? No, my mum doesn’t believe in praise.’

‘I’m sure that’s not true. Maybe you’ll be surprised.’

‘Honestly, I don’t want any more surprises,’ I tell her, ‘This week has been full of them. I didn’t even know my mum was a convert until, like, Monday.’

‘They were always pretty much already there.’

‘Do you really think so?’

‘Definitely.’

It feels like we’re passing through a forest now, a canopy of trees coming into bud all around us. ‘And what about you?’ I ask her.

‘I’m content with what I have.’

‘Which is?’

‘I don’t know if what I believe in has a name. My beloved dadaji used to say that our path was the pursuit of truth above all else, so I’ve raised my kids on that.’

‘But that’s Sikhism, right?’

‘We call it Sikhi. I hate isms. Anyway, I don’t like to go around claiming that we’re Sikh. It’s not meant to be a badge of honour you wear. You know, I’m embarrassed at family weddings: the way my cousins and nieces and nephews behave. There’s none of the humility inherent in the path. Just bhangra and beer.’ She glances at me with a smile. ‘But maybe that’s just my family,’ she says. ‘Like I say, my uncle’s not like that at all. I learnt a lot from him and Andeep.’

‘You have a faith of action,’ I suggest.

‘I just do what I can do,’ she replies. ‘I work with people of all faiths and none. I see good people in every religion.’

‘And bad too?’

‘Yes, but I try not to judge. You never know what a person’s gone through,’ she says, turning off the long road at last. ‘We’ve fostered kids from every faith and none. Muslim kids. Christian kids. White, black, Asian. Some of these kids have seen terrible things, but it’s not my place to judge on their circumstances. You think Boris means it when he talks about levelling up? These people have just been forgotten. They’re the left-behind.’

Turning into a quiet lane on our right, she seems to be slowing down now. ‘You can’t really blame them for their situation,’ she tells me, ‘Austerity broke this town. Then they sold Brexit as the cure. Now the prescription is to double jab us with yet more austerity packaged under some other name, to make sure we never get back on our feet. This is the world we live in.’

She’s driving at snail’s pace now, as if she fears she’ll run out of road before she’s finished her train of thought.

‘Yes, so the older I get, the more I believe in the religion of my beloved dadaji… to throw away institutionalised religion in its entirety. It’s redundant. It can’t help the little people. Like my grandfather used to say: it’s just dressing up.’ She looks at me and laughs. ‘Sorry,’ she laughs, ‘yet another rant.’

‘I’m used to it with my mum and dad. They say the same thing, more or less. I must admit that for religious people, they’re pretty anti-religion.’

‘It’s not all bad. There are good people too,’ she says, creeping along, only to turn into a driveway on the corner. ‘At the grass roots: the people on the ground,’ she nods, parking, ‘Yes, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of good people doing good work. It’s just tough sometimes. Give me a cuppa with ordinary folk any time. But some big ceremony in Westminster Abbey, stuffed with the great and the good? No, they’re out of touch.’

Momentarily, she seems to be mulling over her final thoughts. ‘We have a community church up in town. I drop in to spend time with them every now and then. They know I have my way and they have theirs, but I respect what they’re doing. They’re filling a lot of needs. I remember one of their leaders reading out a bible passage about the pompous self-righteous ones who love to walk around in flowing robes and take all the best seats at banquets. You know, it’s true: so true. That’s how it is most of the time unfortunately, and that’s why I have no time for the religious crowd. My way: we’re just students of the path, seeking. It’s supposed to keep you grounded.’

Listening to herself, she smiles at me, as if to tell me not to take her seriously. ‘Anyway,’ she laughs, ‘you’ve been saved from another of my rants. Welcome to my humble abode.’

Humble isn’t quite the word I’d use: my house is humble, but this is a detached house, recently extended, with at least two extra bedrooms set above a double garage. I wouldn’t call it extravagant, but it dwarfs my house back home.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asks me, getting out.

‘Big house,’ I mutter.

‘True,’ she says, ‘but then we often have six kids in the house at any given time. Two have just left us, but social services could phone us anytime with another placement.’

‘Sounds good.’

‘I admit it. We have a nice house. I’m grateful for that. I used to be ambivalent about it, but I’ve grown out of that. I grew up in a tiny house where I shared one room with my two sisters. I had no personal space at all. So, you know, I’m totally fine giving my kids a room of their own each. So just relax, Ibrahim: you don’t need to think less of me because I live out in the suburbs.’

‘I never said…’

‘I sensed it, Ibrahim. You’re not the first to react that way. But I’m just giving my kids opportunities I never had. My charity starts at home.’

Following her around to the back of the car, I try my best to grab the pans from the boot, but she refuses to let me carry them for her, pushing me on ahead. Even at the front door, she won’t let me take them, setting them down on the doorstep instead.

‘Are you sure?’ I ask, as she invites me inside. ‘Covid rules and all that?’

‘Well I presume you didn’t come all this way with the virus. Don’t you have to get tested for college?’

‘Yep. Twice a week. But some people say the tests don’t work.’

‘They’re better than nothing. Anyway, you’re the least of our problems. I spend three hours every day mixing with the down-and-outs. I take all the precautions I can, but if you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it. One thing I’m certain of, if Covid does come into my house, it’s not going to be from you stopping for five minutes to pray.’

‘Well as long as long as you’re happy…’

‘Very,’ she says. ‘Don’t be too subservient to the hypocrites in power, Ibrahim. Just take your best precautions, then do what’s right. Not what’s expected of you.’ She laughs again. ‘Oh, let’s go in before I go off on another one. Come on.’

Timidly, I follow her into her house, kicking my shoes off at the door. In the hall, she stops at the bottom of the stairs. ‘Aman…’ she calls out at the top of her voice, ‘Aman!’ A minute later, a boy about my age appears on the landing and peers down. ‘Come down,’ she tells him, but he only comes half way. ‘Let me introduce Ibrahim,’ she says, ‘Can you guess…’

‘My long-lost brother?’ he quips.

‘He’s granny Catherine’s grandson.’

‘Are you serious?’ he asks, squinting, ‘I didn’t even know she had any living relatives.’

‘Nice surprise for me too,’ she grins, sending me up to him. ‘Look after him.’

‘Sure,’ he says, ‘Want to play Xbox?’

‘Er, actually,’ I stutter, glancing back at his mum, ‘I need…’

‘Show him the bathroom,’ she tells him, ‘make sure he has a clean towel. And give him auntie Andeep’s prayer mat.’

‘More surprises,’ he laughs. ‘Sure, whatever.’ Following after him, I watch as he disappears into the bathroom, spraying air freshener all over. ‘Go ahead,’ he says, pointing to the room next door. ‘I’ll be in here. No need to knock.’

In there, I make my wudu as quickly as I can. I’m so far behind schedule that I nearly cry. When I re-emerge, ambling into his room, I find he’s set a prayer mat out for me. I confess I’m a bit confused now, and so I start fiddling with my phone, searching desperately for the compass app to check the qibla. But of course it doesn’t work, demanding I draw a daft figure of eight in the air in front of me.

‘What’s wrong?’ asks Amanpreet, glancing at me.

‘Just trying to get my bearings,’ I shrug.

‘That’s definitely the right way. It’s the direction my auntie prays whenever she comes to stay. Assuming you’re Muslim, that is, and not, er… Jewish?’

‘Yeah. It’s fine. Thanks.’

I hate praying when I sense people are watching me; I feel self-conscious at the best of times. I wish he’d found me a cupboard to hide in or something, but no: let’s just get this over with so I can get on my way back home. Quickly I do my midday prayer, two rakats instead of four, then follow it with the mid-afternoon prayer, the same. There’s no time to make a heartfelt dua, I tell myself afterwards, folding the rug up as I return to my feet.

‘What was that?’ asks Amanpreet as soon as I turn around.

‘What do you mean?’

‘That’s not the way my auntie does it. She takes it super slow.’

‘You watch her, do you?’

‘I do actually. She’s so serene.’

‘And me?’

‘Yours was like Superman, saving the world. Too fast.’

‘Travelling prayer,’ I shrug, handing him the prayer mat. ‘It’s allowed, coz, yeah, I’m in a bit of a hurry.’

‘I prefer my auntie’s way,’ he tells me.

‘Yeah, well, next time maybe.’

Amanpreet just seems to stare at me now, neither smiling nor frowning. He has a nice big room of his own, painted blue, with views out over a gigantic back garden and what looks like a golf course beyond. ‘You’re a convert too?’ he asks finally.

‘No, my mum and dad,’ I whisper.

‘Don’t worry, that’s cool,’ he says, noting my apprehension.  ‘Just surprised. Your gran’s super nice, but she aint no Muesli. Thought maybe you were the turncoat. Irony, bro. Just joking. I’ve no problem with it. My mum’s best friend’s a Muz too. We’re used to you lot. Don’t know why we don’t build a mosque in the garden. Joking again, bro. Ignore me, just messing. It’s all cool.’

‘I’ve never been called a Muesli before,’ I smile.

‘Better than the names we get called, mate. Anyways, wanna play some Xbox?’

‘I’m sorry, I really have to go. I’m running late: seriously late.’

‘Five mins?’ he pleads, pushing a spare game controller into my hands. ‘What do you wanna play?’

‘I don’t really know,’ I sigh, checking the time again.

‘What do you play?’

‘I… I’m sorry… I’m really boring… I don’t have a console or anything…’

‘Strict parents, huh?’

‘Yeah, a bit,’ I mumble, embarrassed.

‘How about Forza Horizon? Can’t go wrong with that. No violence.’

‘Okay, I guess. But just five minutes. Then I have to go, really.’

I hate being me: I’m such a freak. I know nothing at all about popular culture. Games? I haven’t a clue. Music? Nope, stuck with my dad’s acoustic folk. But hey, at least he’s made some progress, moving on from those cringey a cappella nasheeds he insisted on a decade ago. I’ll take his Passenger, Pearls of Islam, Luke Sital-Singh and The Housemartins over some seriously corny Islamic R&B anytime. I still can’t get that awkward video of thobe-boy cruising in his Lambo out of my head; some things can never be unseen, no matter how hard you try.

So here I am, struggling with my game controller, trying to keep my Jaguar XJ13 on the road, without crashing into a tree. Amanpreet must think I’m utterly clueless, but he’s patient with me, giving me tips and advice. Yes, maybe I’m getting the hang of it: it’s just a matter of relaxing. Don’t panic, Ibby, just relax. The fact is, I could really get into this. Maybe I should buy myself a console for my eighteenth birthday. Maybe I should buy one for dad’s forty-fifth; maybe it’ll do him some good. Racing properly now, keeping my car on the road at last, I’m engrossed in this game, Amanpreet’s hilarious commentary on my driving style setting me at ease.

‘Glad you’re getting on so well,’ says Mrs Dhillon all of a sudden, pushing her head around the doorframe.

‘Can you believe it, mum?’ chuckles her son, barely gazing away from the screen, ‘His parents don’t let him play computer games.’

‘Well you know we tried that.’

‘Yep. But that was futile.’

I can sense Mrs Dhillon gazing down at me in my peripheral vision. ‘Ibrahim,’ she says, smiling, ‘come and have something to eat. Then we’ll get you back to your granny.’

‘Er, it’s okay,’ I begin, only to crash my car off the side of a cliff.

‘That’s a sign,’ laughs Amanpreet. ‘Let’s go.’

Checking the time again, it turns out my five minutes playing Xbox has somehow morphed into half an hour, which isn’t what I was planning at all. Following them downstairs, they lead me on into their kitchen and dining room, nearly the combined space of our entire ground floor back home. On a long table with chairs for eight, in a room with views over the garden, it looks like Mrs Dhillon has set out a feast, a great spread of dishes forming an island in the middle. Sitting down on one end, Amanpreet’s younger brother and sister beam back at me, greeting me respectfully like an honoured guest, and now their mum is loading my plate with a mound of rice and curry. 

‘I can never eat all of this,’ I tell her, as she piles on more.

‘Eat what you can,’ she says, smiling. Tucking in, I manage two or three mouthfuls before my phone rings again. ‘Aren’t you going to answer it?’ she asks when I ignore it.

‘No,’ I sigh wearily, ‘because I’m going to get an earful.’

‘Is it your mum?’

‘How did you guess?’

‘Call her back then,’ she says, watching me intently, but I don’t, for her cooking is too delicious to be abandoned halfway through, shovelling another mouthful past my lips instead. ‘Go on,’ she insists.  

‘I’ll message her,’ I mutter, setting my phone down beside my plate. ‘Salams mum,’ I tap out slowly. ‘Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.’

Ping! ‘Where are you?’

‘I’m safe.’

Ping! ‘That’s not what I asked!’

‘I’m going to be late.’

In response to my final message, my phone rings once more, but I don’t answer. I’d rather finish my meal undisturbed.

‘Man,’ laughs Amanpreet, ‘your parents are worse than mine.’

‘Aman!’

‘Only joking, mum.’

‘I better get going,’ I tell her, routed. ‘I’m sorry. This is really delicious. Wish I could stay, but…’

‘I’ll make you a takeaway. It won’t take long.’

‘Thanks,’ I mutter, ‘and thanks for making me so welcome. All of you. Aman, your mum, yeah: it’s been great.’

‘No probs,’ Amanpreet tells me. ‘Anytime. Drop in again.’

‘You know I would, definitely. Only, I’m not exactly local.’

‘Where do you live?’

‘About two-hundred miles south of here.’

‘Ibrahim!’ cries Mrs Dhillon, gaping at me sternly. ‘Tell me you’re joking.’

‘Sorry,’ I murmur, shrugging.

‘You drove all that way today?’

‘Yeah, I know: impulsive, like you say. I’ve kind of screwed up, haven’t I? I have a four-hour journey ahead of me. Won’t get back until nine now. So, yeah, they’re going to kill me.’

‘You’re eighteen, man,’ laughs Amanpreet, trying his best to encourage me, but failing completely. ‘Chillax,’ he says, ‘You wouldn’t kill me if I did that, would you mum?’

‘You know the answer to that,’ she says, raising her eyebrows. ‘Don’t worry,’ I tell him, ‘I’m used to it. This is just my life. We better go.’


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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