He Seems To Me

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he seems to me

“I’m sick of having to say nothing every time your mother makes some stupid comment about me. I hate her and I hate you for letting her do it to me. And no, I wouldn’t care if she died!”

The movement in Sarah’s angry hands and face had attracted little interest, but her voice had stilled everyone in the restaurant. Her shout was all the more shocking for the silence that surrounded it. While Sarah could hear neither the noise she had made, nor the space that she had created in the chaotic clatter and chatter of Pizza Express, she could all too easily see the effects of her outburst. Every eye around seemed to be on the two of them, waiting to see what would follow. And as soon as she had said it, she realised that she really did care. In front of her, Alison sat completely still for a moment, just staring at her. Looking at Sarah as if she were a stranger who she’d never met before – and whom she didn’t ever want to meet again. Then Alison’s stare turned into furious tears as she quickly picked up her bag, pulled out her purse and shoved a twenty pound note onto the table. The chair moved with an angry screech as Alison stood up.

Sarah’s open hand went to her chin and out to Alison. Please. Again, her hand to her chin and then her hands came to rest on each other before falling to the table. Please sit down. Her fist circled her chest and then came up to her face. I’m sorry. That was stupid. By this stage, Alison was pulling her jacket on and looking away to the street. As she turned, shaking her head, Alison’s open hand came up to cover her face. I’m ashamed. Alison walked out.

All eyes turned back to their conversations. Sarah stayed where she was, looking at the half-eaten pizza in front of her. Her hands and mouth worked mechanically until the pizza disappeared. A woman’s hands removed plates, glasses and cutlery. Looking at no one, Sarah put a matching note on the table and left.

The air outside was a cold slap across her face. It brought her to her senses, and she realised that Sunday’s last tube train had already left Warren Street. Alison was probably halfway home, probably wondering what on earth they had in common, probably… Sarah’s walk quickened and then turned into a run. A bus wouldn’t get her home as quickly, but she had to sort things out soon. Her run took on a panic as she imagined Alison deciding that enough was enough. The street on a Sunday night was nowhere near as crowded as on other nights, but she still managed to bump into two or three people as she ran. She saw the angry shouts and the reproach in their faces as she turned, still running, to apologise. The run turned into a sprint, and either the cold or her remorse made a watery blur of the street before her.

She came round the corner to see two figures at the bus stop. A sickening mixture of relief and dread brought her to a halt just short of the stop. Alison was there. She must have missed the train as well. But this was too soon: Sarah hadn’t yet worked out what to say, or how to say it. And as she looked harder, beyond Alison to the man who sat on the edge of his rucksack, she saw that they were talking. Judging by the look on the man’s face and the way he leant into the conversation, they were getting on well. He was about their age, she thought: thirty-ish. He had short, dark hair, strong, expressive hands and a quirky face that was alight with a smile.

Without speaking to Alison, Sarah walked past the two of them to the far corner of the bus shelter, crouched against its side and slowly began to recover from her sprint. Sick and breathless, she could only sit and watch the stranger work his magic on Alison. He sat with his head turned away from her and towards Alison. Now, instead of sorting out the unforgivable scene she’d caused in the restaurant, Sarah would have to wait and worry in silence. And from her one-sided view of this conversation, all she could see was Alison speaking and the laughter that threatened to fill her face.

Sarah’s legs shook, the movement pulsing through her heaving body. Her lungs cried out for rest and air. She could feel the contents of her stomach fighting up into her chest and she struggled against the urge to retch. In front of her stretched the Euston Road and the eastern night sky. And against the orange and black backdrop were Alison and this man. He was called Ben, she’d gathered. She saw Alison repeat the name back to him. From behind his back, Sarah saw the muscles on Ben’s jaw move as he talked, and every now and then his head would incline to listen.

Sarah had missed Ben’s faltering introduction and would now miss his full flow. “Anyway, what I was trying to say was this,” he shouted, against the sound of the traffic. “Have you ever felt a sort of panic when you get close, really close to what you want and what you might miss?” His words fought against the roar of tyres. “Because I had that feeling just now.”

Alison had noticed Sarah: her eyes flicked between the two of them and pointedly settled back on Ben with a smile. Sarah was looking down at the pavement as Alison replied. “Sorry, that just sounds weird. What are you talking about?”

“The bus, I mean. Just before you came along. I walked round that corner and saw the bus and realised that I was going to miss it when it was only yards away, and that running was too late. You only start to worry and run when you’re almost in range. And it was the same on the plane, earlier today. This sounds so stupid, but looking down at the ground as we landed, all I could think was that we’d never make it and that I should take in as much as I could of the view before it all went. You do think it’s stupid, don’t you? I can see. Or is it because a complete stranger has just started telling you what a neurotic idiot he is?”

“A bit of both.”

Alison’s brief response was all that Sarah caught of this exchange. Alison appeared to be fighting the urge to laugh at what this man was saying. It wasn’t unusual for Alison to talk to strangers, but this felt different. Was Alison making a point?

Ben managed both a grin and a grimace. “And I couldn’t even run for the bloody thing – you must have seen me passing you. My left leg doesn’t work as well as my right. So my run is more of a hop, a skip and a jump, and with this thing on my back it’s as painful as it is comical.”

Sarah saw his head bow down towards his rucksack, taking Alison’s eyes with him. Alison’s glance then snapped up towards Sarah and stayed there. Another long, angry stare. So nothing had changed since the restaurant.

Ben’s head followed Alison’s glare and traced it back to her eyes. “You two know each other?” Alison’s head turned away towards an approaching bus. It had the wrong number on its front. Gazing into the distance, her face grew irritated and impatient. Turning back, she said yes and smiled politely.

Something more than the exertion of catching up with Alison now made Sarah’s heart work harder in her chest. What had Alison agreed to?

“Your friend says even less than you do.” Ben was still soldiering on with his line of conversation. Alison turned again to look at the trickle of oncoming traffic, her face now looking even more desperate to escape from this bus stop. She turned back to look coldly at Sarah and with a forced friendliness towards Ben.

“Sarah’s deaf.”

Ben nodded his interest at what Alison had said and began to talk. “That’s fascinating. So are you – ? No that’s stupid. You’re talking to me. Well, that must make it interesting – sorry, I’m coming across as an even bigger idiot.”

“Yes, now you mention it.”

Sarah knew that they were talking about her: she’d seen Alison’s short replies. But she couldn’t bring herself to stand, to join in, to make a noise. Either the effort of running, or the awkwardness that she now felt, left her dumbstruck.

Ben, apparently emboldened rather than abashed by her blunt reply, tried another approach. “Tell you what, I’ll prattle on until the bus arrives and you can decide – on the basis of whatever I manage to get in edgeways – whether I’m an axe murderer or a nice guy. Sorry. That’s stupid for a start. Forget the axe. The police have.” His voice trailed away. It seemed as if his own line of conversation and failing attempts at humour had been a more effective dampener than anything Alison could have said.

Alison mustered another strained smile and looked down to scratch away an encrusted smear on her jacket. Another bus driver slowed, saw that no one was flagging him down, and drove past.

Sarah couldn’t work out from Alison’s face alone what they were talking about. Ben had said quite a bit, but Alison had stayed silent. What was going on? She felt a hot fire of shame and anger run across the skin of her face, neck and chest. Frustrated tears blurred her view of the conversation and a heavy pulse drummed inside her head, but still she could say nothing.

Ben’s voice displayed an enthusiasm in his subject. “I’m a television producer – still quite new. I’m just finishing my first really serious project, a series about forensic science. Not that original, but it’s not been looked at from this angle before. Well, I’ve managed to persuade the commissioning editors at Channel 4 that it’s new. Am I boring you?”

Without knowing the question that Alison was answering, Sarah saw yes in her eyes. But with another quick glance towards Sarah, Alison shook her head. She was still listening, so Ben went on. “I got into this line of work after college years ago, starting with freelance DTP work – sorry, that’s desktop publishing. Mostly menial but they gave me a chance to work as assistant to an experienced producer. I worked all hours, kept my mouth shut and my ears open and learnt. And waited. I got blooded on some shorts – video diaries – that raised my profile. But then I made the mistake of mixing work and love.”

Ben’s voice died. Alison’s eyes seemed to say stop now but her head nodded encouragement. “Go on,” she said. Now Sarah felt as though she were dying. Alison was slipping away and there was nothing she could do. The cold sweat clinging to her chest and arms seemed suddenly colder still. The shaking that had subsided in her legs now ran through her whole body. Still she could say nothing.

Ben continued. “I’d been working with a director who’d quickly become more than that. We’d sparked off each other professionally and we sort of slipped in together. ‘I’ turned into ‘we’ and then I couldn’t imagine being anything else. Then ‘you’ forced its way in. ‘You always … you never … you should … you shouldn’t’ and two months ago it was back to ‘me, myself, I’. So that’s me. That’s why I’m Nigel No Friends at midnight in Euston Road. What about you? What about Sarah?”

He fumbled to pull out a piece of paper and a biro from his pocket. “Look, this isn’t the time or the place to be getting to know someone, but I’d really like to try again. In daylight.” As he scribbled, Alison glanced over at Sarah. Sarah just sat and looked back. With her attention once again on Ben, Alison’s eyes widened and her head shook, but he continued to write, his head bent over his task. “Here. This is my address and here’s my mobile number.”

Sarah’s mind pulled together what she’d seen and leapt to what it must mean. This was the end: if not with him, it would be with someone else. Alison had been married before, so why shouldn’t she want something more solid and sensible again? That’s what her mother would want. That’s what would be better for work. And perhaps it would be better for Sarah. She’d be alright. She’d lived alone for long enough and she could rely on her Deaf friends. They’d never been too keen on Alison. More than once they’d said, what do you have in common with her anyway? But turning to look into the glass of the shelter, Sarah saw her own reflected face and Alison’s shaking head. Very different, but a pair all the same. They belonged together, whatever they said or did. It didn’t make sense any other way.

As Alison turned again to look along the Euston Road, Sarah followed her gaze and together they noticed the approaching bus. Still two sets of lights away but the right number this time. Sarah, finally sensing that she had nothing to lose, jumped to her feet. She wouldn’t let it end in this stupid place, with this ridiculous drama. With her hands and face, she spoke to Alison, calmly but insistently. Time and again, her fist circled on her chest. Sorry. I’m sorry. I’ve been so stupid. Please don’t leave me. And for the final time, Sarah’s open hand moved down from her mouth and into a thumbs up. Please.

Alison looked hard at her with questioning eyes. The silence seemed to last for minutes. Then she looked at Ben and back at Sarah and laughed. Her laugh lit up her face. “Oh Sarah, you daft muppet!” Using her forefinger, Alison pointed at Sarah then towards herself and finally down at the ground in front of her. Come here.

As the doors of the bus opened, so did Ben’s eyes. He didn’t move, he couldn’t speak. The paper blew from his fingers, away towards Great Portland Street. While Alison and Sarah walked towards the driver, embarrassment ran like a bushfire across his face and realisation stared out of his eyes. He’d missed the point and was about to miss the bus. Behind the closing doors, the signs needed no interpretation. Ben watched Sarah’s hand move from frantic apology to Alison’s shoulder and saw Alison’s fingers stilling Sarah’s lips. They turned and stared back at him. Sarah waved. Goodbye.

The roar of the Euston Road engulfed the words that Ben shouted at the disappearing bus. No one heard. No one was listening.

A short story that I wrote in 2007. It uses Sappho’s poem, O Fainetai Moi, as a starting point and draws on my experiences of misunderstandings and late-night bus stops in London.

1980

He smiled at me. That’s the thing I remember most clearly. And the pain and the blood.

It was a Saturday afternoon. We can’t have had rugby that day because I was out in my school uniform. It must have been Saturday because the town was rammed with boys our age, after a fight. Or that’s the way it seemed as we walked through the shopping centre, trying to look nowhere in particular but noticing the groups of white kids and black kids. None of them wore the navy blue and white that marked us out.

No one I knew had ever actually had any trouble with these boys. And for all I knew, the opposing lines were more likely to attack each other. But it felt dangerous. Once inside the department store, I became braver, knocked a cigarette out of the pack and placed it to my lips. No one here to see me or stop me. I sat for a while with my friends, passing the time with a cup of tea and a game of brag. Then it was time to get back.

I wanted something special to wear that weekend. A sharp suit with narrow lapels, narrow legs. There was a charity shop on the way back to the boarding house, so I slipped in among the rows of clothes. I hadn’t really noticed anyone else in the shop; they were just other bodies. But as I browsed a rail near the front door, I felt a figure standing next to me. I turned to look at him. He was about my age, my height, white, with closely cropped brown hair. I was able to recall this much when the police interviewed me later that day.

And he smiled at me. I hadn’t expected that, nor had I anticipated the hands on my shoulders. For a moment, he seemed friendly. I have little or no recollection of how his forehead came into contact with my nose, but it was quick and sharply painful. I’d had my nose broken before, in fights. This was different. Pain pulsed through my cheekbones and blood gushed onto the floor. I had expected the two elderly ladies who converged on me to help me; instead, they pushed me to the open door and out of their shop. It was the blood, I suppose.

My attacker had gone. Two police officers were helping me to staunch the blood and clean myself up. They told me that they’d take me to the hospital. That was reassuring because I knew the break was a serious one. While everything was numb, the view from each of my eyes was now different: my nose was skewed to one side. I was shaking. I felt colder than the day.

“Before we take you to the hospital, we’d just like to take some details about the attacker,” one of the officers said. I told them all I could remember. They said nothing for a moment. Then one of them replied, “You’re sure about that? You said he had short, brown hair. Could he have been black?  Take your time.”

Fifteen years later

“Hello,” he said, sniggering. His eyes were empty; this was the drink talking. The room was dark, though light leaked in around the crowd of men at the open door. Roused from sleep, I sat up and clutched the bedding to my naked body.

This was my weekend away. My stag weekend, on my terms. We’d walked, we’d talked, we’d eaten and we’d drunk. It was late, I’d had my fill and I had made my excuses before climbing the stairs to my hotel room. This wasn’t what my best man wanted. He wanted me blind drunk, a figure of fun for the group. He’d made this clear before I’d gone up. But I’d had enough of binge drinking when younger and had no wish to be humiliated.

The figure towering over my bed was my fiancée’s cousin. A group of my friends, family and colleagues stood beside him, complicit. I looked from the vacant eyes and stupid smile to his hands. In one, he had a razor; in the other, there was a can of shaving cream. It was now obvious what they wanted to do. Time slipped back to when I was 10, stripped and scared in a darkened room at my boarding house. Then it was 12 and 13 year-olds tormenting me; now this was grown-up.

Back in the present, I remained calm and said, “Go to bed.” The figures looked at one another, smiling. “We just want a bit of fun,” replied my fiancée’s cousin. “Leave me alone,” I said. Putting down the shaving cream, he pulled at the bottom of my bedding. It came away, revealing my legs. “Just go to bed,” I repeated. He said nothing in reply, but pulled the bedding further off me. My crotch was now exposed.

By far the most sober person in the room, I knew I had to be adult about this. “Don’t do that,” I said, as clearly as I could. “Or what?” he asked, the drunken smile still visible. “Or I’ll have to hurt you,” I replied. He either didn’t believe me or didn’t care, because he bent forward and brought the razor down to my groin.

Without hesitating, I swung my right fist into his face. Hard, to make him stop. He fell back, clutching his nose. Then, with a roar, he tried to throw himself onto me. The others held him as he lurched at me, shouting, “I’m going to kill you!” There was another bed beside mine: I held the sheet to myself and jumped onto it. He tried to follow but was now pinned down. The lights came on: there was blood everywhere and my bed had collapsed. They left the room, their arms around him. My room-mate helped me clear up.

The next morning, the stag party gathered in the hotel dining room for breakfast. No one said anything. As we sat and drank tea, he walked in. His nose was at an angle and his face was bruised. He looked at me and smiled. “Hell of a night, that was,” he said, then sat down beside me and ordered a coffee.

Brothers

I assume that they were brothers. They sat beside each other in the church hall, biding their time while their mother waited to give blood.

I was to one side, close enough to see what was going on; but at an angle, so I could take in the whole scene. I can only imagine that their mother, lost in the columns of her magazine, was either oblivious or blind to what was going on.

The boys were, I’d estimate, around 10 and 13 years old. They were intent on their games, eyes fixed to the screens while their thumbs fidgeted on the glassy surface. Their seats were uncomfortably close, it seemed, as one boy nudged the other. The other said nothing, in fact did nothing for a minute. And then he silently turned to his brother and punched him on the arm. Not a light, reproving punch, a warning blow. This was punishingly hard. Saying nothing, he returned to his game. His brother didn’t look up; indeed, he seemed even more focused on his game. Then, without warning, he twisted round and hit his brother’s arm. Hard, at least as hard as the blow he’d received. His hand returned to the smart phone and his attention to the game.  Once again, neither brother said a word. Just looked down at their games and absorbed the pain and pent-up fury.

This bout continued for the ten minutes that they spent together in the waiting room. Neither speaking; neither, except for a furrowing of the brow and a twitch of the jaw, betraying any sign that the other had hurt him.

I’d love to know if the mother’s article was so engrossing as to render her sons’ silent combat invisible; or if she’d seen it too often to say a word.

For the benefit of Mr Pink

There, in the circle of boys, I was alone with him. His eyes stared intently at me, waiting for my reaction to the fist that had just smashed into my nose. A slight grin betrayed his excitement. Some six inches shorter than me, he was enjoying this fight. Taking down the lanky boy. Blooding himself. 

I lunged back at him but missed my target. His smiling face dodged my fist. He was almost dancing now. The other boys cheered, jeered. There were only two ways out of this circle: tearful humiliation or a bloody, sweating fight to exhaustion. 

I’d seen enough of both. Our prep school boarding house routinely hosted fights like these, on hot Sunday afternoons when masters were somewhere else and boys were bored. The best fights were those where both combatants were well matched, their faces red with exertion, splattered with blood from their noses and lips, slowly slugging it out to a grudging stalemate.

I’d been humiliated often enough. Tallest in my year but not yet strong, I was an easy target. Too often I’d had to retire to the solitude of my bed, one in a dormitory of twenty, sobbing into my pillow. But not today.

Knowing my fists alone were of little use, I launched myself at him. We locked arms, knocked heads. My ear was suddenly hot as it rubbed against his scalp. With one arm, I grappled for a good grip, some way to keep him close enough and underneath me. With the other, I tried to jab punches at anything vulnerable: the side of his head, his groin, his stomach. He was doing to the same, though beneath me. His fist made contact, his shoulder pushed up at me, his fingers gripped at soft flesh somewhere. We were hardly standing, our legs locked in an effort to floor each other. Then we were on our bare knees, still in each other’s arms as we fought for an advantage. Somehow we struggled back to our feet.

And then I found myself with a leg free and his body bent in front of me, held there by my free arm. Without a thought, I drove my knee into his face. Once, then again and again. He stopped fighting. I felt his arms loosen. I’d hurt him badly.

He was crying, his face a mess of blood and snot as we disengaged. I helped him to his feet. The smiles around us had gone. I can’t remember what replaced them. All I remember is the relief, the sense of triumph; not over this boy who, on another day would have played games with me, but with my real enemy, the inner voice that told me that I was too weak ever to win.

That was forty years ago, in a different age, when boarding schools overlooked savagery. The lasting feeling I have is, perhaps strangely, one of joy. To have experienced the fear and pain of a fight and found respect, from my peers, for the boy beside me and for myself. There were a lot of things that I’d like to forget; this isn’t one of them.

Partitions

I have been hugely moved by a programme on BBC Radio 4, addressing the legacy of partition of India and Pakistan seventy years ago. So much so that I have listened to it twice today. You can hear it on iPlayer here, should you wish.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b090wg29

I recommend it.

Why does it matter? Firstly, because it is a momentous part of the history of many British citizens and yet most people in Britain know very little about it. Secondly because many in the generation most directly affected have felt reluctant to discuss it. And thirdly, because of the human stories it contains.

The last affected me most. A woman recounts holding her dying mother, now weighing little more than a child, and asking her what she wanted when she died. She wanted her ashes to return to Lahore, her home for the first seventeen years of her life. And she wanted this song playing at her funeral.

It is a ghazal, a classical Urdu poem that represents the culture of the Mughal Dynasty. The song was written by Maulana Hasrat Mohani, an activist in the Indian Independence Movement, one of the founders of the Communist Party of India, and a noted poet of the Urdu language. He chose to live in India rather than move to Pakistan after independence, to represent Muslims who remained.

The song is performed by Ghulam Ali, one of the best ghazal singers of his era. His unique style in singing ghazals blends Hindustani classical music with Urdu poetry. While he has performed in India on numerous occasions, Ghulam Ali has said that he won’t perform in India in the future. He said that he does not want to be used for political mileage.

So what? Why should this concern me? Apart from the reasons I have listed, this story, this ghazal, this music affects me because I lived as a child in Lahore, home of so many histories. And, while I doubt I will ever be able to return, something of me is still there, on a hot, starlit rooftop, listening to music like this.

Here are the lyrics, in English, Hindi and Urdu. Savour them as I have.

Chupke chupke raat din

I still remember shedding tears quietly and silently, all night and day

I still remember those days of love

I still remember shedding tears quietly and silently, all night and day

The pulling of the corner of my curtain suddenly

And the hiding of your face with the veil, I remember

I still remember those days of love

I still remember shedding tears quietly and silently, all night and dayIn the sunny afternoons for calling me

Coming into the house bare foot, I still remember

I still remember those days of love

I still remember shedding tears quietly and silently, all night and day

 

चुपके चुपके रात दिन आँसु बहाना याद है

हमको अब तक आशिकी का वो जमाना याद है

चुपके चुपके रात दिन आँसु बहाना याद है

खेंच लेना वो मेरा पर्दे का कोना दफ्फतन

और दुपट्टे से तेरा वो मुँह छुपाना याद है

हमको अब तक आशिकी का वो जमाना याद है

चुपके चुपके रात दिन आँसु बहाना याद है

दोपहर की धूप में मेरे बुलाने के लिये

वो तेरा कोठे पे नंगे पांव आना याद है

हमको अब तक आशिकी का वो जमाना याद है

चुपके चुपके रात दिन आँसु बहाना याद है

 

‎چپکے چپکے رات دن آنسو بہانا یاد ہے
‎ہم کو اب تک عاشقی کا وہ زمانہ یاد ہے

‎با ہزاراں اضطراب و صد ہزاراں اشتیاق
‎تجھ سے وہ پہلے پہل دل کا لگانا یاد ہے

‎بار بار اُٹھنا اسی جانب نگاہ ِ شوق کا
‎اور ترا غرفے سے وُہ آنکھیں لڑانا یاد ہے

‎تجھ سے کچھ ملتے ہی وہ بے باک ہو جانا مرا
‎اور ترا دانتوں میں وہ انگلی دبانا یاد ہے

‎کھینچ لینا وہ مرا پردے کا کونا دفعتاً
‎اور دوپٹے سے ترا وہ منہ چھپانا یاد ہے

‎جان کرسونا تجھے وہ قصد ِ پا بوسی مرا
‎اور ترا ٹھکرا کے سر، وہ مسکرانا یاد ہے

‎تجھ کو جب تنہا کبھی پانا تو ازراہِ لحاظ
‎حال ِ دل باتوں ہی باتوں میں جتانا یاد ہے

‎جب سوا میرے تمہارا کوئی دیوانہ نہ تھا
‎سچ کہو کچھ تم کو بھی وہ کارخانا یاد ہے

‎غیر کی نظروں سے بچ کر سب کی مرضی کے خلاف
‎وہ ترا چوری چھپے راتوں کو آنا یاد ہے

‎آ گیا گر وصل کی شب بھی کہیں ذکر ِ فراق
‎وہ ترا رو رو کے مجھ کو بھی رُلانا یاد ہے

‎دوپہر کی دھوپ میں میرے بُلانے کے لیے
‎وہ ترا کوٹھے پہ ننگے پاؤں آنا یاد ہے

‎آج تک نظروں میں ہے وہ صحبتِ راز و نیاز
‎اپنا جانا یاد ہے،تیرا بلانا یاد ہے

‎میٹھی میٹھی چھیڑ کر باتیں نرالی پیار کی
‎ذکر دشمن کا وہ باتوں میں اڑانا یاد ہے

‎دیکھنا مجھ کو جو برگشتہ تو سو سو ناز سے
‎جب منا لینا تو پھر خود روٹھ جانا یاد ہے

‎چوری چوری ہم سے تم آ کر ملے تھے جس جگہ
‎مدتیں گزریں،پر اب تک وہ ٹھکانہ یاد ہے

‎شوق میں مہندی کے وہ بے دست و پا ہونا ترا
‎اور مِرا وہ چھیڑنا، گُدگدانا یاد ہے

‎با وجودِ ادعائے اتّقا حسرت مجھے
‎آج تک عہدِ ہوس کا وہ فسانا یاد ہے

Speaking and Listening

They are sitting opposite me on the train. He has a soft Scots accent; hers is European, though I can’t tell where it is from. They’re reading a copy of Metro. He points to the article about the man who was beaten senseless before he was ejected from a plane. I can’t stop myself. “Have you seen the video?” They hadn’t; nor can they understand how it could happen.

So we start talking. First, about America and its paradoxical love of ‘freedom’ and ferocious observance of rules. I quickly drift into talking about Angie Thomas and the book I’m reading, The Hate U Give, about staying with my mum and dad in Washington DC and seeing, first hand, the day-to-day segregation that still exists. I mention that we – I – cannot conceive of being put into the situation of a young African American, scared of every encounter with a police officer, scared that they might die.

“Yes, we are lucky that we don’t have to put up with that,” the woman replies. I summon the courage to ask, “Where are you from?” “It’s complicated,” she says, “I’m very international.” I’ve already told her that I’m a diplomat’s brat, so I press on. She’s from Ukraine, though her family were Austrian Jews who’d fled from Poland. She’s lived in Zambia and, for many years, in Portugal. Before she retired, she worked with small groups of recently arrived immigrant children, helping to settle them into English schools. 

We talk about children. I describe the little Romanian boy, seven years old, who stood speechless and staring at the floor of his North London classroom while his Hungarian teacher screamed, “Why are you late?” at him time and again. How he’d been silent, without language, in September but had tugged on my sleeve in December to say, “I can speak English now” and to invite me to his house for Christmas.  I tell her about the three Polish girls in my Year 6 class: one fluent in English, one with a smattering of the language and the third, a tall, angry girl, subject to routine sexist and racist insults but unable to respond except with her strong fists.

She tells me about David, an Eastern European child of a similar age, who had appeared to ignore his teacher’s instructions and had been sent to the Head for his disobedience. “His name was Davv-eed,” she told me, “not Day-vid. The teacher couldn’t be bothered to learn how to say his name, so when she shouted out to him in a line, he didn’t recognise the word she used. I had to take him back into his classroom and teach his teacher how to say his name. The trouble is that they have no idea what it is like to have no language.” She describes how she staged a conversation with two Polish children in a class of English-speaking pupils. The three of them spoke only Polish: she asked them questions and they answered. Turning to the bemused English speakers, she said, “This is what it is like to come into a class with no English.” Though I can barely remember it, I recall being without Urdu in my Lahore classroom. 

Her name is Barbara.  I find this out because she describes how Russians call her Var-va-ra.  They are going to the Russian revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy. We talk about the upheavals of the twentieth century, how children today need to know how different it was. He is old enough to remember learning about the six and three minute warnings before nuclear attacks, finding out about the death of George VI at school. She mentions that her mother remembers when Stalin died. “A man was carrying a newspaper announcing his death, but he had it wrapped inside another magazine, in case anyone got the wrong idea about him.” She describes how she taught children about grammes and kilogrammes by showing them how little a bread, sugar or butter ration might have been. He mentions that he remembers rations as a child; Barbara laughs and adds that her mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, would kiss the bread before she ate it. That casual aside silences me.

We have an opportunity to learn from each other.  We have a duty to speak to and listen to each other.  If we don’t, young people will continue to be shot before they have a chance to explain themselves; children will grow up angry and speechless; and another generation of the elderly will raise their bread to silent lips.

Warren Street

This was an unexpected encounter, though I have a habit of talking to strangers.

He walked over from Warren Street station. I’d just finished my Big Mac and was ready to leave. The seats on the street were empty apart from mine.  He sat down next to me and made his large frame comfortable.

A tall man in his fifties, heavy-set. Shaven headed. Black leather boots, white-laced up to his knees, tight bleached jeans, a shiny green bomber jacket. I wanted to look away, to get away. He frightened me.

Then I glanced at the badges, the patches on his jacket.  A rainbow flag, an anti-racist slogan. I relaxed but it was still time to move on.  So I stood up and walked off towards my next appointment.  And then I stopped.  Why had I been scared? Why did I feel different now?  I walked back to him.

“Hello,” I said.  “I just wanted to say that a few minutes ago I was scared even to look at you because forty years ago a skinhead plastered my nose across my face with a head butt.” A ‘but’ hung in the air, waiting to be said. He smiled and replied, “But I’m a gay skinhead.”

Apart from his kind, smiling eyes, what struck me was the softness of his accent, the calm in his voice.  He started to tell me about the different kinds of skinhead, gay and straight, British and from other countries, how they all met up and had a grudging fraternal respect for one another. He’d been a city lawyer before he became too ill to work. Now his skinhead identity was full-time. He talked dismissively about the skinheads who’d turn up at clubs with their identities in their rucksacks.  He felt that he was authentic.  He felt that being yourself, being true to yourself was important.

Somewhere along the way through the story of his life, he told me about coming out in Ireland.  His mother and father had thrown him out and had never spoken to him again. Only his oldest sister had contacted him after he’d left; she had travelled to see him. “That meant so much.  She gets it.” His mother didn’t, even though she went out of her way to help a couple of gay men who lived locally.  Not her son. “The night of my mother’s funeral, someone threatened my life. Told me I’d brought shame on my family. Held a knife to me and threatened to push it right in.”  He gestured to his heart.  “I came straight back to England.” Then, on Millennium eve, he stood on one of central London’s bridges, watching the new year arrive along the Thames.  “And no one said Happy New Year. Not a single person.” He decided he didn’t want to be alone.

Soon after, he met his husband. “I met him seventeen years ago. He had the most gorgeous arse.” They shared the same interests and it just seemed right. “And then he told me he was HIV positive. I was devastated.  I spoke to my friends. They said I should listen to my heart and listen to my head and follow whichever seemed best. As you can guess, I listened to my heart. Back then, being HIV positive seemed hopeless.  His partner had died, riddled with cancer.” He smiled. “But I fed him back to health.  He was eating junk; now he’s been healthy for all these years.” The smile dropped a little. “They’ve found cancer.  He’s had a biopsy. He doesn’t want treatment because it’ll weaken his immune system. If he dies, it’ll break my heart,” he said. “It’ll break my heart.”

He had to go; I wanted the conversation to carry on indefinitely. “I have an appointment at the hospital,” he told me. He pulled out a small, slim case, opened it, then took out and lit a cigarette.

Just then, a stranger walked over from the station and stood beside us. “Excuse me,” he said, “but do I know you from somewhere?” The skinhead laughed, “Two meetings in one day.” The stranger had a long thick beard. His lower lip was tattooed and pierced. The sides of his head were shaved and tattooed. His ears were pierced in various places. He smiled. They went through all the different sites and scenes they might have shared – rubber, BDSM, Manchester, London pubs. “What do you do?” the skinhead asked. The stranger said he was a nurse, working in the community. Together, they narrowed it down to one place and one interest and accepted the likelihood that they had indeed met before. “What’s your name?” asked the skinhead. “Jeremy,” the stranger replied, “and what’s yours?” “I’m James,” said my companion.

I stood; James stood. I reached out my hand to shake his; he opened his arms to me and we hugged, a long, hard hug. “Goodbye. I hope I’ll see you again.”

Never again. Again and again.

I have been prompted to write this by Brendan O’Neill’s editorial in Spiked. O’Neill argues that the Shoah should not be used as an analogy for every state-sponsored act of mass murder; that Hitler should not be the go-to analogy for every murderous or authoritarian leader; and that the unique and particular aim of the Final Solution should not be obscured by the deaths and suffering of others alongside Jews.

As my fingers type and I re-read my paraphrase of O’Neill’s editorial, I realise how unable I am to hold these arguments in my head. As a student of history, I have read and – from the safe and vicarious distance of the TV screen – watched accounts of almost inconceivable acts of inhumanity over millennia.  The effect is numbing.

A DAY IN DECEMBER

I don’t mean that my sensibility is dulled by my attempts to make sense of these atrocities. Let me use an analogy.

In December 2000, I fell from a ladder. I felt something break, with significant force. As I attempted to stand, I noticed that my left kneecap was half way up my thigh. I tried to push it back but failed. No wonder, as the tendon that attached my quadriceps to my lower leg had snapped. 

If you try to imagine what it feels like to have four quivering muscles, freed of their attachment to bone, suddenly clenched in a tight knot at the top of your leg, you are likely to do one or more of three things. Firstly, you may shudder and say, “I can’t imagine how that felt.” Secondly, you might shrug and say, “At least it wasn’t any worse” or that it’s only like many similar injuries you’ve heard of. Thirdly, you could compare it to a trauma of your own and say that, actually, you can imagine how it felt. But here is the particular. Here is my unique experience: immediately after the patellar tendon snapped, my leg went numb.

For me, in that situation, my body’s reaction to severe pain was to shut it out. My consciousness of the situation was also dulled. I was able to lie on the ground and cheerily chat to my neighbour while waiting for the ambulance. And my memory of the trauma has dimmed, even though I repeated the injury twice more.

So what? For me, recounting my experience does three things. Firstly, it helps me to better understand how my body and brain deal with extremely unpleasant sensations. Secondly, it shows me how quickly I lapse into analogy. And thirdly, it suggests to me that only by looking at the uniqueness of an event, a person or an experience can I hope to make sense of it.

WHY WE NEED ANALOGY

If I may now generalise from my own experience, it seems that humans have the ability to zoom out from the particular to our sense of ‘the universal’, to what is similar and to what is comparable. It allows us to give meaning to whatever we sense or recall. It may also enable us to empathise with someone whose experience we have not shared.  And it becomes possible to exercise judgement about these experiences.  All are necessary because they allow us to respond rationally, to feel appropriately and to learn. 

Let me offer another analogy. Eight years ago, the car I was driving was hit by another car at around 40 miles an hour. My car was stationary, in the middle of the road, as I prepared to make a right turn. I saw the other car approaching in my rear view mirror and I responded. 

Firstly, I judged its speed and likely impact. By comparing its approach with other cars I had seen racing towards me in the past, I was able to determine that this was going to hit us with considerable but survivable force. I knew that I had no time to take evasive action.

Secondly, I decided how to respond. Having been shunted before, having heard of others’ experiences and having discussed what to do in situations like these, I said nothing to my twelve year-old daughter, who was sitting beside me. I reasoned that her chances of an injury would be reduced if she didn’t tense up before the impact. I weighed that up against the shock she would experience when the car hit us and decided that the physical risk was greater than any mental harm. 

Thirdly, after our car had been forced along and off the road by the impact, after I had checked that my daughter was physically fine, I left the car and responded to the driver of the other car. The front of his car was smashed in, far more significantly than the back of ours. His airbags had gone off.  A boy, younger than my daughter, was crying hysterically in his car. He was very emotional as he approached me. Imagining the guilt he would be feeling, the pain and shock he would have experienced on impact and the concern he would have for the boy, I put my hands up and said, “We’re okay. Go and look after your son.”

All of this was within a minute; my first response probably took no more than a second. Not only could I rationalise, judge and empathise; I could do it at alarming speed.

We can do this because humans are amazing. We take in everything, make sense of it and make use of it. We couldn’t do that if we didn’t recapitulate and reorder these experiences in our own terms. Each time we do this, we reorder every other recorded experience, so that the next experience is seen (if this isn’t too reductive a metaphor) with new eyes. 

Or perhaps not. What I describe may only be the case in laboratory conditions, where one doesn’t refuse to learn from experience, one doesn’t negate the feelings of others, one doesn’t exercise flawed judgement. Which, of course, one does. I do. We cannot escape from the subjective (any more than I can recount my car crash objectively). But I would argue that this is matter of quality: however faulty our judgement, we still make sense, and use, of experience.

In short, everything is analogised. 

WHY THE PARTICULAR IS MORE POWERFUL

The danger of relying on our ability to make sense of everything is that we miss meaning. Returning to Brendan O’Neill’s argument, if we try to compare everyone’s suffering, every act of unspeakable evil, every authoritarian leader, to one nationality, one ideology, one man, we risk negating both sides of the analogy: each loses its unique power.

Firstly, numbers matter. “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”  I see validity in this statement; I do not need it to be incorrectly attributed to Josef Stalin (though it is interesting that people need a hook onto which to hang such an ugly observation). I cannot conceive of, say, the systematic starvation or mass execution of everyone in Chorleywood (all 11,286 of us), let alone hundreds of thousands or millions. Looking at the structure of my arguments, you will gather that I think in threes: after that, individual numbers seem to lose significance.

Secondly, meaning matters. Over history, each huge act of inhumanity has had its unique set of causes, even if the consequences may be similar and even if parallels may be drawn. In trying to understand why one of these acts occurred and to learn how not to repeat the act, there is a danger that we simply assimilate what we see, hear or read, in accordance with a set of preconceived ideas about such acts. History only repeats itself in our limited narratives; in fact, history is an endless set of unique sequels. All too often, those sequels feature a long-harboured grudge or suspicion from another time.

Thirdly, we matter. Each of us. That is perhaps the only universal truth in all of this. Faced with another human being, unless your view is distorted by prejudice, your sensibilities numbed by generalisation, your feelings overwhelmed by emotions not directly attributable to this person, you are likely to respond humanely.  In general, before we act inhumanly, we have to dehumanise the subject of our action.

So when I try to conceive of the Shoah, of what happened to innocent people in one specific period of history, I resort to the particular, as generalisation and imagination fail me. The film, Shoah, was a starting point, as it allowed the survivors to speak for themselves. Inviting Judy Benton into my class helped me better understand how a daughter responded to her humiliation at school, her parents’ arrest and deportation and to the risk to her own life. Listening to Zigi Shipper speak at a holocaust memorial event taught me how a man deals with his boyhood experiences of incarceration, forced labour, starvation, cruelty and ubiquitous death. 

Although it is the site of an act perpetrated against people who were not Jewish, a visit to Oradour-sur-Glâne showed me the impact on individual lives of one reprisal among tens of thousands. That wasn’t simply an act by a nation, according to an ideology or under the orders of a dictator; it was a series of acts by individual human beings who had lost sight of the humanity of their victims. Or, as I told my eight year-old daughter at the time, “This wasn’t just about the Germans or the Nazis. This was people forgetting that we need to love each other.”

Judge not lest you be judged? No: love one another

We cannot avoid making judgements. Returning to my car crash, things could have been different. I might have misjudged the speed of the oncoming car and the force of the impact, which might have caused us to career into opposing traffic. My daughter’s shock on impact might have caused her more distress than it did. The other driver might have seen the accident differently and come at me with a tyre iron or a lawsuit. There are times when we have to exercise judgement and we may not always get it right.

What I take from all this is that we need to treat each situation, each ideology, each authoritarian leader as unique. If we generalise or apply lessons from other situations, we should tread carefully, in case we misinterpret what we see.  And if we find ourselves called upon to judge and  respond to others, love and respect for the individual are probably good starting points.

In short, Trump is not Hitler (and Muslims aren’t terrorists).