Shawkat found it impossible to balance all four drinks; instead, he manacled two pints of cold beer before depositing them with a manly nod in front of Dominic and Charlie.
‘Nice one, Shortcut,’ said Dominic, gulping his new pint. There was no story behind the nickname; it was pure euphony.
‘Where’s Caz’s?’ demanded Charlie.
Quickly, Shawkat retrieved her white wine and his own yellow-green orange juice packed with ghostly ice cubes. Glancing at the mini-grandfather clock hanging between the spirit bottles, he noted that iftar was still 34 minutes away.
He watched Caz’s grey eyes shift between Dominic and Charlie as they swapped stag-do stories. Every so often, she reset the silver band corralling her wavy light-brown hair, or anxiously smoothed out her creased mauve dress. For the past fortnight, she had been interning at his Westminster office and today, Thursday, was her last before going to France with her parents. As the youngest on the team, Shawkat had been tasked with showing her the ropes – how to unblock the photocopier and refill the coffee machine, that kind of thing. Dominic and Charlie had noticed his solicitous behaviour, and so while interns were usually seen off with exaggerated praise and a cheap chocolate cake, for Caz they suggested a farewell drink. Shawkat felt awkward going to the pub in Ramzan, but figured it would be rude not to.
Sitting beside Caz on an uncomfortably narrow wooden bench, Shawkat kept his distance. He hadn’t consumed anything – no food, no water – since before daybreak, and his dry mouth was incubating an unpleasant smell. At the mosque they quoted the Prophet’s saying that a faster’s breath was sweeter than musk; but down the pub it would be nothing more than an unsociable stink. Unwilling to risk speaking, he sat in silence as Dominic and Charlie turned their attention on Caz.
‘You’ve enjoyed working with Shortcut, I take it?’ asked Charlie.
‘Hope he behaved himself,’ Dominic followed up. Shawkat pulled a face.
‘Actually, I thought there might be more to do,’ said Caz. ‘I did a lot of photocopying, which I should expect but…’ Shawkat made a sympathetic ‘mmm’ noise.
‘It’s nice we’re so near St James’s Park,’ she said more brightly. She came in from Basingstoke every morning and seemed excited to be in the capital. After searching her Instagram, Shawkat had seen she had posted artful selfies with the pelicans. In one you could glimpse a bearded man and his niqabi wife pushing their daughter in a pink pram. That reminded him: he needed to Google what time Friday prayers began the next day, so he could avoid the interminable khutbah. He looked at his watch: twenty minutes to go.
The guys muttered something about train times and wives and short leashes. Putting on his jacket, Dominic cocked his eyebrow; Charlie blew three pouty kisses.
Caz had finished her wine but seemed in no mood to end the evening.
‘Let me get this one,’ she said. Shawkat assumed an expression of mock outrage, almost snatching her wine glass. From the safety of the bar, he called out to ask if she wanted some snacks. She gave a double thumbs-up. His hunger, having pinched and abated throughout the day, was putting on a dramatic performance. Back at the table, he tore open two packets of roasted peanuts and salted crisps, displaying their contents like spoils of war. She grabbed a handful of nuts, not appearing to notice that he wasn’t eating – nor that his orange juice remained untouched.
At her parents’ flat in Toulouse, Caz would be seeing her sister for the first time in six months. They had quarrelled after she had missed Caz’s birthday party in Basingstoke because she wanted to stay in Madrid with her gap-year boyfriend. Or was it that Caz had missed her sister’s birthday party in Madrid because she was in Basingstoke? Dizzy and fatigued, Shawkat couldn’t keep track of her cosmopolitan travels.
Day three was always the hardest. By now you had used up your pre-Ramzan calorie reserves but your body still demanded tea and biscuits at the prescribed English times. To keep his concentration, Shawkat focused on Caz’s eyes – nodding when she needed assent, tutting when she had been wronged. As she finished one emphatic point – something to do with younger sisters always getting away with murder – he completed her rhetorical flourish with a knuckled drumroll.
‘Aw,’ she said fuzzily, ‘most guys aren’t such good listeners.’ She cupped her cheeks, elbows on the table, wrists kissing. ‘Tell me something about yourself.’
Outside the blueish dusk lingered. The clock behind the bar read 8.20, four minutes to go; but his watch said 8.24. Shawkat went with his watch, crunching down some nuts and gulping his now watery juice. Palpably, he felt his sugar and salt levels rebalancing.
‘Oh no Caz,’ he said, leaning over to adjust her silver hair band. ‘You carry on.’
Amina was very mature for her age, thank you very much. Now she was nine years old, she folded her hijab into a perfect triangle over her school shirt, and woke up for Fajr at the weekends. Today she was helping to make iftar for everyone and also sehri, which she was allowed to stay up for. Mummy even said that because this year she was fasting the whole month, she could make her own meat pies.
The pies were cooling on a metal rack in the kitchen. They had come out flaky and golden brown and smelt delicious. Having finished the cooking, Mummy was resting upstairs in her bedroom and no one was allowed to disturb her. She had warned Amina not to touch the pies before sunset. Her tummy gurgled loudly and she clenched to make it stop. Through the window the sun was setting over the pear trees. Amina tried to watch it move but it went too slowly.
After school, Mummy had called her straight into the kitchen, and she didn’t even have time to take off her hijab. Mummy rolled out a rectangle of cold dough. Amina knew it was cold because, while Mummy was sieving the rice and stirring the mince and onion in the small saucepan, she stuck her fingers in the dough before quickly trying to comb it smooth again.
Mummy saw her finger marks and got angry.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ she demanded, waving her dusty rolling pin. ‘Do you like making work for me?’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Amina, but not like she really meant it. Mummy had been boiling rice in the big saucepan and her face was wet, like when she put on creams at night. She re-rolled the dough, then sliced it sideways (once) and up and down (twice) to make six rectangles. The last rectangle she cut in half to make two smaller ones. These would be Amina’s pies.
‘Now watch me, properly.’ Mummy took a spoonful of mince-and-onion filling and put it on the big dough rectangles, dabbing the edges from a glass of cloudy water. Then she rolled up each one like a Swiss roll, except instead of red jam inside it was the mince and onion cooked together. She flattened out the top and bottom of the pies so they looked like the flared end of a school skirt. The sharp knife made three slits in their fat bellies.
‘Your turn,’ said Mummy.
Amina cracked her knuckles like Mummy did before driving. Slowly, she spooned the filling on to her small rectangles, sticking her tongue out for balance. Were they full enough? She was really hungry. She took a second spoonful for each mini pie. But when she tried to roll one up, the filling spilled out from the sides. And when she tried to seal it, the thin dough laddered like tights in winter.
‘Kutti!’ shouted Mummy, whacking Amina on the back of her legs with the rolling pin. ‘I have to start from scratch now!’ She threw the forlorn pies in the bin. Right then, Amina, wiping the flour off the back of her skirt, hated her mother. She hadn’t done it on purpose, like the time Salman wrote his name in lipstick on the wall, and got deservedly slapped. Her art teacher would always be nice when she made a mistake; Miss Formby would say ‘just do better next time.’ But Mummy always got angry in Ramzan. She felt a tear tickling her cheek, just out of reach of her tongue. She watched helplessly as Mummy rolled out a small rectangle of dough, and then filled, sealed and pricked two mini pies.
‘You do the basting,’ she said, in a softer voice. Amina dipped the brown brush into the egg yolk, painting the pies with sunshine.
Now the light had nearly faded and the cooked pies gleamed under the kitchen lights. Amina touched the pies – they were cool and hard. She used the sharp knife to prise them from the silver foil and presented them nicely on the blue serving dish. She put the two small ones on her Little Mermaid plate. Again her tummy grumbled and this time, instead of ignoring it, Amina felt like spoiling her fast – she didn’t care what Mummy wanted. But instead of eating one of her mini pies, she would be really clever and take one of the big ones right from the bottom. She devoured the whole thing in ten seconds, munching faster and faster, furiously wiping the stray pastry flakes sticking to her clothes. As she wiped her mouth with the end of her hijab, she looked up and saw in the dark window Daddy’s reflection standing in the doorway. He put his fingers to his lips and, in reply, so did she.
Jennifer checked her equipment: tubes, needles, swabs, tourniquets, blood bags, all in place. She adjusted the chair’s height and noted the time on the digital watch hanging from her top pocket. The headscarfed lady had told her to set up here in the annexe hut; the women, she assured her, would arrive after sunset. Jennifer had volunteered for the Ethnic Minority Phlebotomy Programme – her badge read EMPPact – because it was a good cause, and the overtime was handy. So far she had been to a black church in Wembley, a Gurdwara in Southall and now a mosque in Watford. Not that she had ever noticed, driving past on the way to the hospital, that it was a mosque: there weren’t minarets or a dome or anything like that. Instead, it was a collection of green corrugated iron huts shaped like long, semi-circular cakes, apparently left over from the war. The annexe hut was crowded with stacked blue chairs, shelves of Arabic books and wicker baskets filled with dark red rosary beads. To Jennifer, whose mum volunteered at St Thomas More’s in Pinner, it felt strangely familiar.
The Arabic singing ended and the next door huts creaked with collective movement. Jennifer was about to sip her cooling creamy tea when a middle-aged woman in an orange sari bounded up the steps while smoothing down her felt-tip-black hair. She introduced herself as Kaneez, and inquired if she was the first.
‘You are,’ said Jennifer in her reassuring nurse’s manner.
‘I wanted to make sure you hadn’t gone,’ said Kaneez, pulling her sparkly dupatta to reveal a chubby arm. Jennifer inwardly prepared herself for a troublesome vein.
‘Have you donated before?’
‘Oh many times. You know my blood type? O+.’ She proclaimed proudly. ‘That’s very good, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ she said, happy to humour the lady. ‘It’s very good.’ She ushered her into the chair and helped her complete the health-check form. It wasn’t ideal she had been fasting, she told her, but a carton of sugary water would make everything right. Kaneez drank it down in a few gulps.
‘Jen-ni-fer,’ Kaneez read slowly from the name-badge pinned to her blue scrubs, ‘Jennifer, you’re a doctor?’
‘Married?’ Pricking her donor’s thumb, she shook her head.
‘We don’t need men, do we?’
‘Just checking your haemoglobin. Might take a minute.’ She dropped the blood into a testing kit and measured the results on her app. Kaneez whistled as she waited. ‘All good to go,’ said Jennifer, ‘left arm or right?’
‘Right,’ she said certainly. ‘I started writing with my left but my teacher in Dubai, he trained me the right way.’
‘So we’ll take the blood from your left?’
‘No: my right is strong.’ Jennifer wanted to avoid the palaver of explaining her mistake; part of her thought it might be vaguely racist to do so.
‘How’s the fasting?’ she asked, pressing for a vein.
‘Early days. Ask me in two weeks and I’ll be collapsing.’ Jennifer didn’t need to prompt her to talk while she pushed in the needle. She learnt about Kaneez’s nephew who worked somewhere in central London; he would be joining them all for late-night sehri.
‘Oh really?’ said Jennifer, easing the blood into the thirsty tube. Kaneez shot a glance at the thick, bubbling liquid.
‘Oh no, I can’t look.’ As the blood bag filled up silently, she shielded her eyes as though from a horror movie.
‘All done,’ said Jennifer cheerfully, smartly taping a ball of cotton wool over the pinprick wound.
‘Alhamdulliah,’ said Kaneez, who began explaining that bloodletting originated with the Prophet, peace be upon him. ‘Even Olympic athletes are doing Hijama now.’ She threw her dupatta over her taped cotton ball, shaped like the sign for omega Jennifer always thought.
‘Where does all the blood go?’ asked Kaneez.
‘Hospitals use it for transfusions, during operations usually. We’re always keen to get more BME donors.’
‘Maulana says we must give blood only to Muslims, but I’m sorry to say that’s nonsense.’
‘Really?’ said Jennifer, pleased somehow that Kaneez had been so dismissive of the cleric.
‘If we give non-Muslims just one pint of our blood, they will have a bit of Islam in them!’
‘We don’t actually label the blood Muslim and non-Muslim…’
‘I know that,’ she replied sharply, making Jennifer regret her tone. ‘But Allah, He knows.’
Kaneez stood up awkwardly, using her good left hand for support, and rearranged her orange sari. Jennifer thanked her formally for the donation; it was so generous of her.
‘My good deed for the month,’ she replied, with a wink. ‘Now, where are those chai girls?’
‘White girls are trash.’
‘You seen what Hazel’s posted? With her arm round Tim?’
‘That’s so wrong. Where is that?’
‘Paradise. Between the station and Kebab World. It’s where they go on Thursdays.’
‘You think Tina’s seen it?’
‘She doesn’t follow her.’
‘That is mental.’
‘Come down here. Auntie Kaneez on the prowl.’
‘Why isn’t she praying with everyone else?’
‘She’s a bit of a weird one.’
‘My grandparents died before they could find her a match even though dad and Auntie Rubina tried. She stayed with us when I was a baby but mum said she always argued.’
‘I heard that’s a wig…’
‘Don’t cough like that!’
‘Sorry, sorry… this ciggie is really doing my throat in.’
‘Just give it a taste.’
‘My dad smoked a pipe. I’d sit on his knee, and he’d blow smoke in my face for a laugh. You’d get taken away for that now. Child abuse or something.’
‘Wouldn’t be that bad. At least I’d escape mum.’
‘Just write a story about Syria. Teachers would have to report you.’
‘I always liked the smell of tobacco.’
‘Don’t hog it all for yourself.’
‘You go for it. I’m on my Airwaves.’
‘Clever girl, mum will never know.’
‘It’s extra-strength. Gives you a real hit up your nose.’
‘Tina tried some real stuff with Tim once, just before they did it.’
‘Tina’s as easy as GCSE RE.’
‘She’s your friend!’
‘Who goes round telling everyone the morning after?’
‘Well, now Hazel’s after him.’
‘You told me Tim was buff.’
‘No. I said, if you like that kind of guy…’
‘…buff white boy…’
‘…who looks at us like we’re aliens anyway.’
‘I might take off my hijab at uni. Mum said she wouldn’t mind. Dad wouldn’t even notice.’
‘Really? My parents would go ape. Just don’t end up dressing like Hazel.’
‘Yeah, look what she’s wearing in the photo.’
‘“Showing her gully,” that’s what my nan says.’
‘I might message Tina. She does have the right to know.’
‘They have their own hashtag – #TeamTima – even if no one uses it except her.’
‘I don’t know. Hazel could be stirring.’
‘What would Tina say if she knew I knew Hazel had posted that photo, and I said nothing? It would be like the end of our friendship.’
‘Forward the photo. Message her now.’
‘But what if it’s nothing, and I’ve gone and put a spanner in it with Tim, and she thinks it’s because I’m jealous, and she never speaks to me again…’
‘…and then I’m the victim because, be honest, Tina only knows I exist because you’re mates.’
‘And then who would you have to copy your bracelets?’
‘I told you we saw the same advert.’
‘Actually, I like it on you. Let me look at it again. Yellow band could almost be gold.’
‘Aw, thank you.’
‘I’m messaging her: “Probably nothing, but thought you should see this… X.” What do you think?’
‘Just one X?’
‘Too many and she’ll think I’m in sympathy mode. Keep it neutral.’
‘Okay. My finger’s on the trigger…’
‘Go on, just send it!’
‘Has it gone yet?’
‘Two ticks! She’s online now. Must be messaging Tim.’
‘I reckon she’s ringing. This is a definite pick-up-your-phone-and-say-my-name-type situation.’
‘Say my name, say my name…’
‘…Say my name, say my name…’
‘Shh. They’ve just finishing namaaz. Take the samosa basket, I’ll bring the water jug. Make sure you serve the old ladies first but mind they don’t take any extra home. Otherwise not everyone gets one. And only take one when everyone’s eaten. Then we come back for the tea kettles.’
‘Do you have the jug?’
‘Have a quick sip. Then we need to get on.’
Sophia turned her phone shyly towards her husband. Her ovulation app had come alive with a beating red heart. Ali Reza caressed his wife’s shoulders. First, he told her, they should say their evening prayers and complete their Qur’an; they were behind schedule for the month.
‘I’ll bring up one of your cup-a-soups,’ he said.
‘Will your mum be okay?’ The meat pie aroma had spread to their bedroom, and she didn’t want her mother-in-law to feel snubbed.
‘It’s fine,’ he said, pulling on his blue shorts, ‘we’ll go down for sehri.’ He turned the brass door handle which, a few moments after he left the room, popped open leaving the door ajar. We need a proper lock, thought Sophia, retying her long black hair into a tight oval bun.
Since arriving from Orlando, Sophia had spent the year repeating her training as a primary school teacher. Life had been pretty stressful. After a tough day dealing with English kids who pretended not to understand her US accent, she would return home to help with the chores. She unloaded and loaded the dishwasher with her mother-in-law, always addressing her as Sasuji – a quaint term resurrected by Indian soaps. On Sunday mornings, she would mop the bathroom floors and every other weekend help Ali Reza and little Amina deep clean the fridge. She had hoped she would be able to practise her cooking but – apart from Thanksgiving, when she had insisted on preparing the halal turkey sourced from a Muslim farm near Oxford – the kitchen was out-of-bounds. ‘Oh no,’ Ali Reza’s mother would reply to her requests to relieve her of dinner-duty, ‘you must be so tired from those naughty kids.’ Sophia’s aspirational recipe books lay piled under her bed, the pages edged a grimy black.
She went to her clothes drawer to find something nice for Ali Reza. Putting aside the baby doll nightie his mother had given her for their wedding night – that was weird – she sorted through the sets of blue, grey and red underwear. Nothing inspired her. She flopped back on the bed. Looking down at the Minnie Mouse t-shirt she was wearing, the one her parents had bought for her at Disney, she felt homesick. The colours had faded in the wash: Minnie’s red-and-white polka-dot hair bow was now a light pink. She needed to ration how many times she wore it.
Ali Reza pushed open the door with his foot, balancing in his hands a plate of toast – white bread, burned black, just as his family liked it – on a bowl of soup wrapped in a blue tea towel.
‘Is it time?’ she asked.
‘It’s time,’ he said. She aligned two hardback recipe books on the bed, on which she balanced the watery soup and sooty toast.
After eating, Sophia put on her white namaaz-e-chador and Ali Reza his clean black trousers. He led her in prayer and then put the Qur’an on YouTube. As she listened to Sura al-Imran, her mind wandered, as it usually did when Qur’an was playing, to feelings she otherwise tried to supress. When it had finished, she asked her husband directly: ‘Does your mom like me?’
‘Why wouldn’t she?’
‘Sometimes I think she’s only nice because you’re the son who can do no wrong.’ Her voice got more Floridian when she was upset.
‘That’s not fair. I think my mum is pretty easy to get along with.’
‘Does she mind that I work?’
‘She always lays into girls who don’t have careers – ladies of leisure, she calls them.’ They were by now lying side by side, and Ali Reza had re-started his caressing routine.
‘Shut the door properly,’ she insisted. He did as he was told and came back to bed, but the brass handle soon betrayed him again.
‘Can’t you get that old thing fixed?’ She started to lose her composure. ‘Please!’
‘Alright, I just haven’t had time,’ said Ali Reza, surprised by her vehemence.
‘There’s no privacy here,’ she cried out, pouring into this small but legitimate complaint a thousand buried slights. Smartly, he looked for something to block the door: the unwashed bowl and plate were the nearest heavy objects. After arranging them, he cautiously returned to bed.
‘I like that t-shirt,’ he said. ‘It’s your signal to me – Minnie Mouse is ready.’ She giggled, though she wasn’t quite ready to give up her annoyance.
‘I spend hundreds of dollars on fancy bras, and all you like is this crappy t-shirt.’
‘You know what I’ll do,’ he said, softly kissing her fingertips, ‘I’ll message the handyman and get the handle replaced.’
‘Really?’ she said, physically relaxing at his reassurance.
‘And I’ll bring your recipe books down to the kitchen.’
‘I’m so glad I married you,’ she said, with the same brilliant smile she had given him on their wedding night.
Salman pushed through the green tarpaulin separating the living room from the incomplete extension. The newly-concreted floor breathed a hard coldness through his socks; a shivery wind rushed through the glassless patio doors. Salman pulled his school blazer tight, carefully fastening the single button hanging limply on strands of black thread. Dad said he wanted everything done by Ramzan, but the builders have been so slow. In the first week, the men had efficiently churned up half the garden, including a couple of the pear trees and the pond with the massive goldfish. Has anyone told Amina what we did with the goldfish? But after the first month their cheery English-speaking overseer Witold – who came in each morning with a new red-top paper that he would read slowly with his sandwiches—was around less often, and the pace of work slowed.
All the painting paraphernalia – the pots, brushes, rollers and palettes, all encrusted with magnolia drippings – was stashed in the corner. Nearby was a scrappy pile of Witold’s red-tops. Salman picked one up with an air of innocent curiosity. The lead story was about a German teacher seducing a schoolboy – Top Marks For Oral! There was a picture of the teacher at a party, probably taken from her Facebook, cocktail in hand, her plump face tracked with glitter. Who was that? It was just his mother, going upstairs for her pre-iftar nap. She would never come to this building site anyway – especially near Maghreb time. Jinn might be lurking! The pear trees rustled in the evening wind.
Salman’s conscience twinged. Surely I should take these dirty newspapers and throw them in the bin. Such things shouldn’t be in the house during Ramzan… But they belong to Witold. Maybe just leave them. Even as his surface thoughts tripped over each other, though, a more cunning and forceful part of himself – the part that had come sniffing for exactly what he had found – compelled him to lick a finger and turn to page three.
Angelika, twenty-one, was a student from Austria. She came here to learn English and find some hunky guys. She was wearing blue eyeshadow and a slightly crooked smile. Her blonde hair cascaded like, like a waterfall over her breasts, which were wrapped in a specially made bikini top printed with the Union Jack (left side) and the Austrian (right side) – thereby signalling to the red-top’s readers that Angelika was a homely girl who never forgot to ring her mum, but also welcomed any English lads wanting to try it on.
Salman glanced through to the garden where the sun was retreating inexorably. The other day, flicking through the ayatollah’s rulings on his father’s shelf, he had found that aside from eating, drinking, bloodletting, smoking and vomiting, another physical activity that would break your fast was ejaculating. This he found reassuring. Fasting means not doing normal things, and so self-pollution, as the ayatollah called it, was probably okay after dark.
Of course, Salman was no brute. He required the enthusiastic consent of the woman about whom he was fantasising. Angelika he imagined as his German teacher – so unlike his dumpy real one – who kept him after class for extra lessons. Fraulein Angelika, wir haben eine Katze und einen Hund. Der Hund frisst Brot. Die Katze trinkt milch. Impressed, she removed her blouse to reveal her bra with the two flags. Salman felt a riot starting in his head (it always began in his head), as he pulled out two handkerchiefs from his pocket.
Then he noticed the story on page two.
|Muslims Demand Ritual Slaughter By Paul Gallagher Muslim parents in Manchester are demanding children be given burgers made with ritually slaughtered halal meat. Burnt Edge Academy, which has seen a recent influx of refugees, has just announced the change in policy. Said one parent, ‘What’s wrong with English burgers? Why don’t their kids eat our meat?’ In 2017, Manchester was the scene of a sickening Islamic suicide bomb attack on a show by Ariana Grande (right) that killed 22 innocents. The city has also seen more Muslim butchers on the high street, while traditional English meat-sellers close down. A school spokeswoman said it was ‘normal’ for halal meat to be served at lunchtimes.|
As he finished reading, Salman felt the pages become incredibly hot in his hands. Not stopping to even glance at Angelika, he closed the paper and put it exactly where he had found it. Feels like kryptonite. Right then he realised how dark it had become. Wiping his sweaty hands with his handkerchiefs, he tiptoed back to the carpeted living room from where he could see the lights from the kitchen blazing.
Good job Faz sent me the link, beard feels well lush. You see guys with these beautiful long beards and you think it’s dead easy. But it’s hard, man. Doesn’t always come out straight and smooth. It’s curly and scratchy, like pubes on your chin. That was Faz’s. Always chatting shit, even though he’s done proper fusha, knows maghazi back to front. Few drops of zaytoun oil, Asda own brand, mix with hot water. Dip, squeeze, drip. Dip and squeeze and drip. Like stroking a sleeping cat. Cut a piece out of his mantle not to wake her. Prophet’s law. Lore. Keeping up appearances. Musk and miswak. Turn to eleven o’clock. White guy, red tie. What’s he looking at? Bare chinny. Like he doesn’t even need to shave. I was the first in my class. Wore tracksuit bottoms in PE to cover my hairy legs. All dad said? Now your sins count, my boy. KiramanKatibayn, the honourable recorders, weighing on my shoulders. Don’t avoid eye-contact man, that’s rude. I can read your thoughts. Big beard, black t-shirt, combats. Flicker of fear. Faz’s essay, The Other Boot. Repeating history repeating. See the patterns. Taraf al-Gharb. Square’s packed. Big screen. Tosca. Sounds like an Italian salad. Dudes in deckchairs, wrapped in silk, champagne from rainbow cups. Could not make this shit up. Why not incest? Search horny sister. Ah, here’s my guy? Grey plinth. Swipe to camera. General Sir Charles James Napier. Shiny fucker. Long hair. Massive sword. Google his best quotes. Slowly: The human mind is never better disposed to gratitude and attachment than when softened by fear. Clever guy. I have Sindh. Funny, too. Butchered and raped with a smile on his face. The jolly crusaders. Probably a pub name. Learn from the worst. Not fanatics. Like Tony Soprano says: soldiers don’t go to Hell. Big Ben tolls for thee. Mother of all parliaments. Mother of all. His last speech was shared again on Telegram. Bad-ass Saddam. First name only. Like Stalin or Beyoncé. Or Clive. Loot’s an Urdu word, did you know? A Wikipedia away. Lootis? Bum-bandits. Can’t even speak your own language, says Faz. Look what they did to you. Still do. Will. Peek behind the black door where it all went down. Durand, Sykes-Picot, weapons of mass. See those sleeping babies? Sweet but dead. Assad’s gas. No one gives a. Moves a man to tears. Wets my beard. Deleted the video but Faz keeps sending it. Nightmare before Fajr. Hey, was he at Cromwell Grammar? Shabs? Something Sh. Handling a white girl. Fit as. Fit ass. Go on my son. After dark it all comes out. Especially this month. Doesn’t clock me with the beard. Sixth form? Yeah, it’s him. Deputy head boy. Giving head boy. On stage he was singing hymns. Onward Christian Soldiers. Scraps from the feast. Rule Britannia. Where’s that coming? Britannia rules the. Lads on tour. Bri-tain, never never shall be. Sure about that? Miss a fast and free one. Easy as. Read hadith. Possessed by my right hand. Make me toast and suck my. Winston! The big man. The daddy. Face like an arse. Our empire beyond the seas will carry on the struggle. Pity Bengalis are starving. Empty pot-bellies. Selfie with the fat bastard? Smile, Winnie. Flash it a bit. Just a glint. And there – posted. This had better be my most liked. Faz won’t. Like but not like. Analogue Avenger. Never sends emails. Shared account, save it in drafts. Knows his stuff. Dr Ghuraba. Desert life. Milk and dates. Mosque serves Jordan Valley for iftar. Ignorance is bris. Must remember to tweet that. Over there. Policeman’s giving me evils. Black guy. House slave doing his master’s bidding. His master’s tools. Kill Bill? Chasing in the final over. No reviews. Umpire’s decision is final. Finger of tawheed. Remember Banu Qurayza. The poet’s mockery. Fucked men of Malik and Nabit, You obey a stranger. Yeah, but blessed are the strangers. And you’re about to get fucked.
Just jogging. Innocent jogger. Knifed up. Asda, £14.99 for five. No, I don’t have a loyalty card.
Look at me bare-chin. Make your tie proper bloody red. Boom! ‘Tis but a flesh wound. Tourists typing. Hope they settle on a hashtag.
Keep walking. Nah, nah, nah Shabs, run away. No brown on brown.
I said salaam.
Won’t you salaam a fellow Cromwell boy? Stop shouting mate, I can’t hear you. Don’t have time for a stop and chat. Curb your.
Call that a… This is a…
Wa-aleikum. On your way. Keyser Söze spared one to tell the tale.
Clear black light. Return of the Salaf. Badr’s 313.
What you chatting, bruv?
Ramzan’s more blessed, innit.
The table was laid; the rice reheated; the curry on the cooker steamed alongside the masala chai. All Rubina had left to do was wait.
‘Where are they?’ she asked, as her husband Saif laid the table.
‘Patience,’ he said. ‘In this month of all months.’ He enjoyed playing the benevolent patriarch.
‘For iftar, you go where you want,’ she said, addressing her absent children, ‘but we must all be here for sehri.’
Sophia and Ali Reza came down in their pyjamas. Rubina kissed her daughter-in-law on both cheeks. She had just been boasting to her sister Kaneez, who had come round after mosque, that she was very American in her politeness. Yes, Kaneez had replied, much better than the girls born here, breaking their fasts with cigarettes. Still, Rubina replied, she wished Sophia would rinse the plates properly before loading the dishwasher.
Amina ran straight into the kitchen and into her father’s arms.
‘Sweetie, would you like some toast?’ Rubina asked. Her daughter ignored her. ‘Or one of your special pies?’ But Amina had moved on to Sophia, who began re-plaiting her hair.
Ali Reza was scrolling through the news. ‘Someone’s gone on a stabbing spree,’ he said.
‘Where?’ asked Rubina instantly.
‘Call your brother now,’ she ordered, at the same time picking up her phone.
‘Only one of us should call,’ he said. She threw the phone down and switched on the television; but there was nothing on Sky.
‘It’s all over Twitter,’ said Ali Reza, ‘but sometimes people lie, for kicks.’
‘I’m sure it’s nothing,’ said Saif.
‘I’m allowed to panic!’ asserted Rubina, as Kaneez took her hand in solidarity. Ali Reza put his phone on speaker, and they all heard it reach Shawkat’s impersonal voicemail. Collectively they sent WhatsApp messages, plastered his Facebook, rang his work – but still there was no answer. Sheepishly, Salman crept into the kitchen and pawed a cold meat pie. His mother knocked it from his hand: didn’t he know his brother was missing?
‘How would I know?’ he said, feeling an obscure dread that this was all his fault.
Right then, Shawkat’s key rasped in the lock; before he had even stepped in from the dark, though, he faced a barrage of angry, relieved questions. Rubina led him to the head of the table, motioning to Kaneez to bring chai. Shawkat spoke slowly. ‘I’m fine. The guy let me go. He said he knew me, but I don’t think so.’ No, the police hadn’t been in touch.
‘Let them call you,’ said his father. ‘We don’t want complications.’ Shawkat told them he hadn’t answered his phone because he had been looking after his friend – a colleague – who had been with him. ‘She’s our intern. I felt responsible.’
‘Family comes first,’ chided Saif.
‘Don’t tell him off now,’ said Rubina, instinctively checking his chest and arms for damage.
So far the news had spoken only of injuries, not deaths. The attacker had been shot by police and was now under the surgeon’s knife. Kaneez wondered what his blood type was.
‘Why are people so angry in Ramzan?’ asked Amina, looking sadly at her mother.
‘Turn it off,’ said Rubina, regaining her composure. ‘We’ll need our strength tomorrow.’ One by one the family sat down together, and they ate and drank until the white thread of dawn became distinct from the black.