8: The long road

‘Are you sure you don’t want me to call your mum?’ asks Mrs Dhillon, parking her car next to mine. 

Chapter 8 of Seeking the one.

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8: The long road

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‘Are you sure you don’t want me to call your mum?’ asks Mrs Dhillon, parking her car next to mine. 

‘Thanks, but leave it,’ I mutter, glimpsing back at her, ‘I have too much explaining to do.’ 

‘I’m sure she’ll understand.’ 

‘I doubt it.’ 

Beside me, she twists in her seat to face me, and her left hand lands on my arm. ‘It’s tough being a teenager,’ she tells me, smiling, ‘I remember it well. But you do know your parents are only worried about you. It’s hard for them to let go.’ 

‘I know.’ 

‘I was the same with my eldest. Always checking up on her. I’ve only just learnt to let go, to let her be herself.’ 

‘I know why they’re like that,’ I shrug, ‘but it’s suffocating sometimes.’ Momentarily I glance out beyond the condensation on the windscreen. ‘I wish my mum was like you,’ I tell her.  

‘Oh, Ibrahim, I’m touched, but we’ve only just met. My kids will gladly tell you I’m the worst mum in the world. And tyrannical to boot. You just get special treatment because your parents are my two favourite people in the whole world.’ 

‘Do you mean that?’ 

‘After my husband, my kids, my parents…’ 

‘Your cousin, your uncle…’ 

‘No, but I’m fond of them. My memories of them… I’m so glad you came today. Thanks for being an impulsive teenager lacking all wisdom and common sense. Sometimes we need that in our lives.’  

Mrs Dhillon is such a tactile woman, her touch so gentle, her gaze attentive; sitting there, her fingers caressing my arm, I feel so grateful to her for devoting an afternoon of her time to me. ‘Thanks,’ I murmur, ‘I appreciate it.’ 

‘Yes,’ she says, laughing, ‘but if I’d known you’d driven two-hundred miles, I would’ve sent you packing.’ 

I just nod when she says this. I know she’s right: it was a pretty stupid thing to do. I was planning to be home about an hour ago. There’s no way in the world I can just step through a door from here to there, and find myself home. I can hardly face that drive now.   

‘Are you okay?’ she asks me, ‘You’re silent again.’ 

‘Yeah, fine,’ I say, ‘just thinking.’ 

‘Worried?’ 

‘Yeah, a bit. But… yeah, I better get going.’ I push my fingers into the door handle and pull it open. ‘Oh… but… can I get your number?’ I ask, glancing back at her. ‘In case I decide on the VSO thing.’ Smiling at me, she begs for my phone. ‘Here,’ I say, unlocking it. 

‘Oh look at you,’ she enthuses, gazing at my screen, ‘you’ve set your mum as your wallpaper. What a darling you are. And look at her: still so beautiful.’ When she’s finished typing her number in, she hands it back to me. ‘Take good care of yourself Ibrahim,’ she tells me. ‘And your parents.’ 

‘Thanks,’ I say, getting out. ‘I will.’ 

‘Text me when you get home,’ she calls out to me through her open window. ‘Tell me how it all goes.’ 

‘Sure,’ I reply, waving as she reverses out and drives away. Soon I’ll be doing the same, but I have one thing left to do, hurrying to follow a resident into gran’s building before the door swings closed, locking me out. Knocking on her door, I pray that she’s in, waiting patiently for her to respond.  

‘Oh hello pet,’ she says, peering out through the gap, a little surprised, ‘are you still here?’ 

‘Just about to set off for home… I just wanted to say…’ 

‘Do you want to come in?’ 

‘No, I won’t,’ I tell her, ‘I just wanted to say thanks. And bye.’ 

‘I don’t know that I did anything to be thankful for.’ 

‘Well thanks for letting me meet you. And for introducing me to Mrs Dhillon.’ 

As soon as I mention that name, my gran’s face fills with a great grin. Now I know why. ‘Oh she’s just lovely,’ she gushes, nodding, ‘I’m so glad you got along.’ 

‘I can see why you like her,’ I say, smiling. ‘Anyway, I was wondering… Can I stay in touch with you?’ 

‘Of course, pet. But just remember what we talked about. Take it easy with your dad.’ 

‘I will.’ 

‘Take it slowly.’ 

‘Of course.’ 

‘I’d love to see my son again. Seeing you: it’s given me hope. But please be careful. Don’t mention my name yet, pet.’ 

‘What about to my mum’s mum?’ 

‘Oh, Dhriti? I’d love to see her again. But… let’s wait. Seeing you: it’s enough for me for now.’ I don’t feel like responding when she says this, but I nod anyway. ‘Take care, pet,’ she says as she close the door to me. ‘Safe travels.’ 

So that’s it then: this is the end of the road. I expected more from this journey somehow. When I set off this morning, I had an idea in my mind I’d be able to persuade her to come home with me, to surprise my dad. At the very least, I thought she might commit to phoning him or writing him a letter. No, but instead I must just get back in my car and drive home, all that happened today a secret, never to be spoken of. Naturally, I feel pretty despondent right now. Returning to my car, I take my phone from my pocket and tap out a message: ‘Mum, I’m on my way. Love you.’ 

My heart sinks when she rings straight back. Momentarily I contemplate dismissing it again, but for some reason I can’t this time. ‘Ibby…’ she cries, nearly shouting, ‘Where are you?’  

‘I’m fine. Relax.’ 

‘That’s not what I asked.’ 

‘I know mum, but I can’t…’ 

‘Are you in some kind of trouble?’ 

‘Not at all,’ I mutter. 

‘Have you got involved with…’ 

‘Extremists? A gang? Drugs? No, none of the above. I’m still your extremely boring son.’ 

‘No need to be sarcastic. I’m worried about you.’ 

‘But I’m fine. I just got delayed. But I’m setting off now. I’ll be home by nine at the latest, inshallah.’ 

‘Nine? Where exactly are you?’ 

‘I’ll tell you about it later. I need to get going. Speak later, mum. Love you.’ As soon as I close my phone, she calls right back, but I dismiss it this time. She tries again and I do the same, but this time follow it with a text message. ‘Not in any kind of trouble. Just got delayed. Trust me.’ 

Her reply lands just as I’m setting my route for home. ‘Not in any kind of trouble? We’ll see.’ 

I start tapping out a curt response, but I don’t send it; I don’t want to start a text war with my mum that I have no hope of winning. My mum’s a seasoned warrior in that martial art. No, affixing my phone into its cradle, it’s time to set off for home. ‘Bismillah,’ I mutter, starting my engine, ‘we return, we repent.’   

Reversing out of my space, at least I have three causes for optimism. First, my engine started. Second, it’s a bank holiday so the roads should be clear all the way. Third, it’s still light: I have two and a half hours until sunset and should be back before it really gets dark. Turning out of the close, I’ll get on my way, fill up my tank and be home in no time at all. ‘Bismillah…’  

Ping! ‘Ibby. It’s getting late.’ 

Everything had been going great for the first two hours of my journey. I found a convenient petrol station easily, cleared the town quickly and merged into the motorway half an hour after that, relieved to be making such good progress. Yes, but that was an aeon ago now, for I have been stuck in this queue for three and a half hours, crawling along literally at a snail’s pace, no metaphors needed. According to my phone, in three and a half hours, I’ve traversed three miles. My ankles are numb, I’m desperate for the toilet, my skin has pulled tight and my whole body is convulsing with paraesthesia. I’ve swapped lanes four times, but whenever I did the lane I was in before just ploughed on without me. Twice I thought about pulling over into the hard shoulder to leap out in search of relief, but each time I nearly did so, an emergency vehicle went zooming past, sending me back into another tangle of gloom.    

Ping! ‘Where are you?’ 

Ping! ‘Ibby?’ 

Ping! ‘It’s late. Where are you?’ 

I’ve been ignoring her messages for ten minutes, but of course it’s futile. ‘Stuck in traffic,’ I tap back finally. 

Ping! ‘Enough lies!’ 

Honestly, I’m not surprised that she doesn’t believe me, but it still upsets me. Snapping my phone out of its cradle, I take a video of the traffic jam all around me, showing her the queue for miles ahead and for miles back behind me. ‘Believe me?’ I ask, sending it to her via WhatsApp.  

Of course she calls me back immediately. ‘What’s going on, Ibby?’ she demands, her voice warped by her agitation.  

‘I’ve been stuck in this queue for three hours,’ I sigh. ‘I don’t know what’s happening. I think there’s been an accident.’ 

‘Thank God it wasn’t you,’ she yells back. 

‘I’m sorry, mum.’ 

‘Where exactly are you?’  

‘I think I just passed a sign for Coventry.’ 

‘Coventry? What’ve you been up to?’ 

‘Please don’t tell dad,’ I murmur. 

‘Tell him what?’  

I don’t know if I can tell her this. I don’t know if I should either. I don’t know what to say, but the pain in my body is killing me and speaking seems to reduce the agony.  

‘Ibby?’ 

‘I’ve been with granny,’ I whisper.  

‘No you haven’t. I’ve spoken to her.’ 

‘I mean dad’s mum. I went to find her.’ Now she’s stunned to silence. ‘I met her.’ 

‘What?’ she mutters, her voice now high-pitched.  

‘I wanted to help dad. I thought he was missing her, so I tracked her down. I found her. Yeah, and so I went to see her.’ 

‘Are you pulling my leg?’ 

‘Not at all. But… but please don’t tell dad. I realise…’ 

‘What were you thinking, Ibby?’ 

‘Please mum, just…’ 

’Lucky for you, I haven’t told your dad you’re not home.’ 

‘Don’t say anything about it. Wait for me to get back. I’ll tell you all about it.’ 

‘Too right, you will.’  

‘She remembers you. And granny.’ 

‘What if that accident was you?’ 

‘I saw your old town. I saw where dad used to live.’ 

‘What if something had happened to you?’ 

‘She’s doing well, mashallah.’ 

‘You don’t know who you’re dealing with.’ 

‘She’s turned her life around.’ 

‘How could you be so stupid, Ibby?’ 

The moment she says this, I kill the call. She rings back, but I decline it. And again, but I do the same. She waits five minutes, then tries again. Finally, she messages me: ‘I’m sorry.’ 

‘I’m not stupid,’ I reply two minutes after that. ‘Was only thinking of dad. Nothing else. Just want him to get better.’ 

Ping! ‘We’ll talk when you get home. Mum.’ 

I feel like crying now. I’m stuck, unmoving, trapped. Lost. I have no power over my situation at all. I can’t make this queue move. I can’t turn around and go back. I can’t get out and walk. I can’t put back time. I can’t numb the excruciating pain in the base of my back, and I can hardly breathe. The only thing I can do is gaze up at a hundred-billion stars in the night sky above me and make some kind of supplication to the One who created all of that.  

It takes another hour for the traffic to start to move with anything other than a crawl, but it does look like the middle and outside lanes are loosening up. Perhaps I’ll have one last go at switching out of the inside lane. Yes, and, what? All of a sudden, with no warning, it’s moving fast. We pass a lorry with a big yellow arrow on the back in the outside lane, lights piercing the dark, and all of a sudden we’re free, with no sign of any problem at all. Cars and lorries all around me hurtle past at high speed, terrifying me. I don’t try to keep up, for I’m exhausted: I’ll take it steady. I just want to make it to the next service station alive, desperate to escape the sickness that now harangues me.  

‘I’m on my way,’ I text my mum after stopping for a break, washing down the last of Mrs Dhillon’s curry with an energy drink, ‘Inshallah, two hours left.’ 

Bismillah,’ she replies. ‘Take great care.’ 

I’m thankful that the remainder of the was trouble free. I left the motorway half an hour ago, merging first onto the dual carriageway and then off onto that winding road through the countryside, my lights on full beam. Five minutes ago, I felt so happy coming down the hill into town. Three minutes ago, I celebrated the drive along the base of the valley and back up hill, turning into our road. A minute ago I muttered praises as I slotted myself into a parking space outside our house. Now I’m wandering wearily down the garden steps to our front door, readying my key for the lock.    

 ‘Shhh,’ whispers my mum, pulling the door wide open before I even get near, her forefinger finger pushed to her lips. Closing the door behind us quietly, she waves me through the hall to the kitchen. For a second she gazes into my eyes, and then just when I think she’s going to embrace me, she shoves be violently with outstretched palms. ‘Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again,’ she spits into my ear crossly.  

‘Mum…’ 

‘I was worried sick.’ 

‘My intention…’ 

‘No, Ibby, enough.’ 

‘But mum…’ 

‘No,’ she says, shaking her head, ‘do your prayer and go to bed.’ 

So it is that the day ends as it started, with me kneeling on my prayer mat in the living room, making a long supplication. Moments ago I could feel my mum watching me as I made up my sunset prayer and followed it with Isha, but now she’s nowhere to be seen. Listening as her bedroom door closes upstairs, I decide to make another heartfelt dua for my parents. ‘Ya Rabi,’ I whisper, ‘reunite granny Catherine with her son, and with granny Dhriti. Ya Rab, make us whole again.’ 

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