Every Saturday morning, before the shops opened, mom set up a table outside the Woolworths on the high street. My sister and I covered it with pamphlets and booklets. Around us, the bin men cleared the street of broken bottles and half-eaten kebabs. We propped up a poster board behind us, pinned up pictures of blistered and blackened faces, scarred backs and burnt chests. The gruesome collage evidence on behalf of the victims of torture back home. Mom wore her socialist red headscarf and leaned on her walking stick, straightening her crooked back as best as she could. My sister, beaming a toothy gap, hung a collection jar on a rope around her neck. We always made sure the jar had something in it before we left the flat. After setting up, I went and sat on the steps of the office block on the corner. People just gave less when there was an acne-faced brown boy hanging about. Whatever the conditions, we were there every Saturday. Rain or shine. And no matter how bad mom’s feet or back ached. Better the beating rain then the granite-like anger of my father.
The early morning foot traffic was people going to work. No time for us. The blotchy dark-haired woman who managed the Woolworths gave us a look before holding up her nose and going in. She’d already moved us as far away from the front as she could. Now that mom and my sister Nadine were out from the protection of the building’s overhang, there was nothing much stopping the morning rain. Nadine had her yellow raincoat’s hood tied tight around her face. Mom only had a flimsy plastic sheet she held with one hand over her head.
A middle-aged man, tall and slender, muttered and shook his head as he went past.
“Ain’t right making your child beg on the street in this weather.”
This was mom’s opening. Her eyebrows arched and mouth gaped, tutting to herself. She nodded along to his admonishment and teetered around the table, using the walking stick as a prop.
“You’re right, you’re right. But what can we do? How can we enjoy the comforts of this great country, all the great freedoms we have, when we know what evil the mullahs are doing to our brothers and sisters? Our nieces and nephews. And the orphans, homeless, begging in the streets. What hope do they have? Not much without good people like you.”
Nadine was at his feet then, collection jar raised. Her face contorted, rain water or tears flooding down her cheeks. Her thick eyebrows furrowed, eyes glimmering. Yet, there in the curling corner of her lips: the promise of joy. If only you were so kind as to give just a little. Aren’t we lucky to have met you?
Sometimes, despite Nadine’s hopeful face, they still walked away. This guy wasn’t so heartless. He dropped a few coins in and patted Nadine’s shoulder before walking off. Only one in ten or so would feel obliged. Still, on even the wettest, coldest day, mom would catch an eye here and there. She’d fix her gaze on the wives eagerly clutching their weekly fix of gossip mags. Flatter the schoolgirls munching on their bags of Pick ’n’ Mix. Smile exotically at the war veteran patting his packet of pipe tobacco.
As the rain slowed down and a car honked at the motorcycle cutting in, mom rubbed her calf, gently rotating her ankles, one foot at a time. I never knew how she could stand on them for so long. I’d seen the soles. Blackened dead skin, dotted with round burn marks. Deep gashes tracing the whip lines. Her small toes, crushed in pliers, never had healed right. They had shattered her tibia in the right leg. There was just metal holding the fibula together. It was a miracle she could stand they said. Thank Allah, they said. Fuck that, I said.
In spite of the cane, she was still a handsome woman. One of her admirers stopped by the table after noon. A portly guy with a chequered flat cap, sporting a wool-lined tanned jacket, a decade or two out of style. No doubt stopping by between pub and betting shop.
“Alright, love,” he said. “Any joy today?”
“Not so good, Charlie. You have anything for us?”
“Maybe, maybe. I fancy one in the two-thirty. ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. Gotta be for me, right? I’ll be sure to keep you in mind if it comes in.”
“You know, Charlie, gambling is a sin. The Quran says it is an abomination, the handiwork of Satan.”
“Right, right.” Charlie’s eyes rolled. He went out of his way to pass mom closely, sniffing at her rose blossom perfume. “Each to their own, right, love?”
His grimy fingers tapped his cap as he passed me on the step. He smelled of stale ale and chip fat. I scowled at mom when he was gone.
“Haddi, don’t make faces. You scare away customers.”
The Old Bill stopped by. The male officer, PC Ass-Dimple Chin, ruffled through our pamphlets. Didn’t even make eye contact. Beside him was the community officer, Jenny, her wispy blond hair tied back. Her cheeks puffed out like a robin’s chest. She was out of breath, like she’d just given chase to some rascal. Given them a good beating with her truncheon too, I smirked to myself. The belly fat hanging over her belt said otherwise. Her chest was packed tight in an ill-fitting navy jumper. I used to think about Jenny when I sat alone in the dark recess of the stairs in our block of flats.
Jenny held out a polystyrene cup of pale tea. She always brought one round for mom. Mom thanked her and took a few sips before putting it down. I knew she wouldn’t touch it again.
“How’s you, Mrs Mah-moody?” Jenny asked.
“Leg is sore like hot pokers. How’s your diet?”
Jenny’s face went crimson and PC Ass-Dimple Chin gave a snort before taking a few steps away.
“Avoiding Greggs today, Jenny?” Mom went on. “They say smoking suppresses the appetite. You wouldn’t have to worry so much,” mom was relentless, poking Jenny’s bulge, “if you got yourself a nice husband.”
“Oh, who’d have me!” Jenny laughed but her eyes were dull. “Right must be off. Stay well, Mrs Mah-moody.”
When the sun came out from behind the dreary clouds, Nadine yanked at mom’s sleeve.
“I’m hungry, mommy.”
“We have fessin jun waiting at home.”
“But I’m hungry now!”
“Quiet, bacheh. Do you want to be fat like Auntie Najmeh?”
Nadine put the collection jar on the table and came to me sobbing. I put my arm around her, holding her face to my shoulder.
“Don’t cry,” I said, sneaking her a party-sized Milky Way I’d been saving. I rubbed her back and tried not to think about the tightening knot in my own gut.
It was past three o’clock and the late shoppers were darting about, mingling with some old drunks turfed out by landlords to make room for the free spending football fans. The greasy lushes sipped on brown-bagged cans of Tennent’s lager, a muzzled greyhound snoozing at their feet. They spoke in grunts, whistled working men’s melodies and blew stinking purplish clouds.
About that time, Charlie stopped by again, stinking of spilled beer.
His face was flush, proclaiming, “Had a good run of the horses, Mrs M!” He slipped mom a note into the pocket of her coat, pushing his hand against her leg.
“Thank you, Charlie.” Mom shooed him away with a fixed smile. “Now go away and stop being a pest.”
The streets thinned out and the few about were too rushed to give even the courtesy of politely ignoring us. Their arms flapping as they barked, “No time!”
About four o’clock, Nadine slumped into my arms. The shadows of the buildings fell on us solemnly. Half the staff of Woolworths were taking a long smoke break, clustering near our table. I rested Nadine on the step and went to relieve mom. It took a while for her to notice I was standing next to her. I could hear shallow asthmatic rasps as I squeezed her arm.
“Come on,” I said, “might as well have a sit. Not much doing now.”
She looked at me ponderously before kissing my head. Sitting down on the step, she scooped Nadine’s head in under her arm. Stretching out her leg timidly, she tested the muscles with a tremoring hand. Her face frozen in self-control, with only the occasional twitch of the jaw precipitating the tight flashes of pain.
I turned away and rearranged the material on the table. The books had abstract titles, far removed from life in the damp north of England. The pamphlets screamed of injustice and hinted at horrors nobody here wanted to think about. They had the luxury.
By five o’clock there was a pink hue to the clouds over the sooty concrete buildings. One of the old drunks was pissing into a giant plant pot in the middle of the street. The breeze brought over a tart, fermented odour. Mom was back, standing at the table again. We watched the man zip up and rearrange his grotty coat.
A security guard came out from the Natwest and walked over to the bums’ bench. Words were spoken, then the guard snarled into his walkie talkie without unclipping it from his jacket. The lushes made universally recognisable gestures and ugly guttural sounds before getting up to leave. One turned back as they walked down the street and gave another two-finger salute. There was gravelly cackles and jeers as they rounded the corner. The security guard satisfied with his work, went back to the bank’s archway, only stopping to take a brief look at us. His black moustache bristled as he mouthed something and then more audibly “pakis” before disappearing up the steps. I couldn’t see mom’s face but I felt Nadine grip my arm like a gentle restraint.
The shops were closing and the streets slowly filled with young couples. A stocky barrel-chested man with a pig-snouted blond girlfriend wandered close to our table. She whispered something to him, loud enough for mom to hear. The girl’s hand, up ‘till then perched in the tight pocket by the man’s arse, whipped at the table. Strewing pamphlets and scattering some of the books to the ground. The two of them bellowed like seal pups, bending over in delight. I heard mom swear at the girl in Farsi. But only when they were far enough away.
“English girls are vicious, spiteful whores,” she told me, not for the first time.
As we picked up the books and rearranged the pamphlets, we had unexpected help. A boy, surely not much older than me, bent down and picked up the book named, ‘A Socialist Future: Islam and Marx.’ His matte black hair was parted in a teacher’s style and he wore his thin-rimmed glasses tight on the bridge of his nose.
“Sorry about them,” he said. “We’re not all like that.” His eyes skittered quickly past the pamphlets. “Oh,” he pointed at the small map on the poster board, “I’ve always wanted to visit. What a beautiful country. What wonderful people. So, I’ve heard at least. Do you miss it?”
Mom smoothed out her scarf and softened her expression. Before she could speak, I interceded, “Nah, we love it here. Who would want to be anywhere else.”
“Oh,” he was apologetic. “Of course, you miss it,” he talked to mom, ignoring me. “What a stupid thing to ask.”
Nadine had slipped in between us, taking a good look at the boy. “Don’t be so harsh, Haddi.” Mom rapped the back of my head for good measure. I slunk back to the step.
“Yes, we miss it. But here is our home now,” mom explained. “What is your name? Where do you go to school?”
“I’m not at…. I’m a fresher. At university.” Mom waited. “Oh. I’m Tom.” His outstretched hand, expecting a shake, limped away when he saw mom pick out a book with a white cover and thick black font proclaiming, ‘An end to injustice: God and the egalitarian society’.
“Please take this to read. Keep seeking the truth, Tom.”
He fumbled about and gave her a fiver in exchange. As he left, mom turned towards the roundabout at the end of the street. Her hand gripped the table as her knuckles turned white. She wrapped her jacket tightly as the wind bit and faced me, “Where is your father?”
We didn’t have to wait long before father’s grime-covered white minivan pulled up. We packed up and Nadine handed him the collection jar. Mom sat up front and I slid open the side door. Nadine and I perched on some plastic crates in the back. Father wasted no more time, spluttering the van’s engine back to life.
At the traffic lights, father turned to Nadine, “Have you been good, little pea?”
He shook the collection jar. “Bad day then,” his voice heavy as he looked at mom. “You must try harder, Parvi.”
“Yes, agha,” she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.