Robin Lawless (Pseudonym)
Word Count: 4450
Zakir, who was fourteen years old, had to pinch himself. Propped up by dirt- and odour-free pillows, he was transfixed by a piece of apparatus secured to the wall. It was nothing like TVs he was used to – big, clumsy affairs with grainy pictures. This one was so sleek, you wondered where its innards were and how it could ever conjure up the cricketers currently on the screen.
The timing was perfect: it was the start of the Cricket World Cup, a fact that had totally escaped Zakir’s notice. However, when you’ve been on the road for eighteen months, living from hand to mouth, diary entries are the last thing on your mind. The sport might be Zakir’s all-time favourite pastime but it had been confined to the backburner for an eternity now, eclipsed by a stark reality no youngster should be exposed to – a prison term in Iran, refrigerated lorries, death… No wonder he and Arif, nomads of necessity, had lost all sense of time.
And here the two of them were, at Forging Futures, a holding centre for young homeless people. It was hard to believe they were living, for however long it lasted, in accommodation like this. A room each, a bed with clean sheets and the magnet of that TV!
Zakir swiftly banished thoughts of his previous existence, the one of makeshift cardboard beds in draughty farm outhouses and cobbled-together wood and plastic shelters, often aggravated by extreme weather conditions. A life plagued with fear and uncertainty, that had been his world as recently as three weeks ago.
But, despite everything, Zakir, who was of medium height and exuded a wiry strength, was a positive soul, thankful for every scrap of kindness that came his way. Soon, wearing the treasured green hoodie Forging Futures had given him, he would join Arif for breakfast in the communal kitchen and tuck into the hot buttered toast he dreamed about every night. And then he would go for another lesson at that special school.
The school, a pupil referral unit, was small. What it lacked in size, however, it made up for in drama. In his first lesson, Zakir had been only too aware of fireworks around him - shouting, doors banging, missiles smashing against walls. He’d been able to blot it out, but it had seemed extreme. Had the young people here been given a raw deal, too? Had they, like him, suffered at the hands of the world?
Zakir, himself, had no grounds for complaint, however. His educational provision was the Rousseauian ideal: one-to-one. So, as well as a room to himself at Forging Futures, here he had his own personal tutor, John. He couldn’t ask for more.
Looking back, that first lesson had been uncharted territory for Zakir. He’d been set weird and wonderful tasks, like rating random things such as cricket (a no-brainer!), taking part in a mutual dictation and betting on words being spelt correctly or not.
Today, with the aid of maps and guidebooks, John concretised Zakir’s new world for him. As well as Stockley, Manchester and Birmingham, he introduced him to Wales (tantalisingly close) and Scotland, too. Whenever mountains featured, John said: ‘Like Afghanistan.’ And it was true. These mountains, devoid of habitation and with few trees did resemble the high ground of his homeland. He was both buoyed by this realisation and momentarily unsettled. What if, Inshallah, he didn’t clear all the Home Office hurdles and wouldn’t be free to roam there?
After the lesson, as John was escorting Zakir to the exit, two boys Zakir’s age came crashing round a corner. At each other’s throats, the tall, well-built one with short blonde hair, clearly had the upper hand, though. Packed with venom, he bawled at his adversary: ‘How dare you fuckin’ call me Mam an alky!’ Quickly ushering Zakir out, John waded in to separate the hotheads.
On Sunday, Zakir took part in a ramble on Digby Marshes, organized by the school. Hoodie-clad, he didn’t look out of place. All bar one, the assembled youths wore the same nondescript uniform of hoodies, tracksuit bottoms and trainers. Some, hoods up, even sported redundant baseball caps. The one bucking the trend wore a T-shirt and jeans; Zakir recognised him as one of the belligerents from the other day
‘You’re Zack, aren’t ya?’ the boy approached him.
‘Zakir,’ Zakir corrected him.
‘I’m Ben,’ Ben took Zakir through a convoluted introduction routine. ‘I knew a kid called Zack once. Zakir, though, what nationality ‘s that?’
’Right,’ Ben said, giving a thumbs up sign. ‘That’s a cool name, man!’
‘You got family here?’
‘That’s a shame.’
‘And your family?’
‘There’s just me Mam, really. Ya caught me stickin’ up for ‘er the other day, didn’t ya?’
‘Unfortunately, me Dad left the two of us, when I was little.’
‘Don’t be. Ya don’t miss what ya didn’t know in the first place.’
‘What’s your friend’s name?’
‘How’s ‘e getting’ on?’
‘OK, but English is hard for him.’
‘He didn’t always go to school. He liked Skateistan better.’
‘What the ‘ell’s that?’
‘A place in Kabul for skateboarding. An Australian man started it. Under the Taliban, there was no fun.’
‘So, Arif bunked off school to skateboard. Awesome.’
Just then, a large bird, with a kink in its neck and trailing long legs, flew overhead.
That’s an ‘eron, Zack. There’s loads of birds ‘ere and I’m gonna teach ya all their names.’
One evening, Zakir and Arif were in the kitchen making a curry. They sometimes joined forces with Kamal, a friendly Iranian boy. Once, he’d used saffron in a dish and Zakir had wondered how on earth he’d got hold of that. Tonight, however, they’d invited two English boys to share with them: “Cuppa”, who was a bit simple (he was always offering to make tea for visitors), and Henry, his self-appointed minder.
While they were prepping, Zakir asked Arif if he wanted any help with his homework.
‘Yeah,’ Arif answered. ‘It’s really hard.’
‘What’s it about?’
‘C-count…able and uncountable…’
‘Nouns. That’s not too bad, Arif.’ Zakir dug out some props: bananas and a packet of rice. Taking the fruit first, he said: ‘Here we have a banana, OK? And we can use numbers with it. Look: one, two, three bananas. So, banana is a countable noun. Now here, (pouring some rice into a cup) we have some rice. This time, however, we can’t use numbers. We can’t say two rices, three rices. So, rice isn’t a countable noun.’
‘Just a minute,’ Zakir poured out another cup of rice. ‘But we can say two cups of rice.’
‘You’re a really good teacher, Zakir. You know that?’
‘Maybe I get it from father.’ There was a catch in Zakir’s voice. He moved swiftly on: ‘But I can’t skateboard, can I?’
‘Yes, when you know how. (Pause.) Do you know that boy called Ben?’
‘The big one like me?’
‘Yes. Well, I told him about Skateistan and he says there’s a good place here and he can get skateboards for us.’
‘Right. Have you finished chopping the onions?’
‘Pass me the turmeric, then.’
Forty minutes later, Cuppa and Henry arrived in the kitchen.
‘Sorry we’re late,’ Henry said. ‘That bastard Wayne was windin’ Cuppa up again.’
‘Why?’ Zakir asked. ‘Cuppa is gentle.’
‘He’s a bully, innit.’
‘Hungry?’ Arif asked. ‘Sit down both.’ He got some glasses. ‘Water?’
‘Nah,’ Henry replied, producing two bottles of beer. ‘We don’t need glasses neither.’
In the meantime, Cuppa, in a world of his own, had been sniffing the contents of the pans. ‘Ooh,’ he crooned. ‘That smells sooo goood!’
The skateboarding park wasn’t too busy that afternoon, which suited Zakir down to the ground. Of course, he would give it his best shot, but it wasn’t cricket now, was it? Cricket was about focus, determination, controlling your aggression – grown-up things. It wasn’t carefree and sexy, like skateboarding.
Ben and Arif, however, were in their element, raring to go. Arif wore his pasted-on smile as usual, but it was accompanied by a faint frown: apart from the New York Yankees cap he’d got from an American soldier, he looked seriously uncool. Ben, with his baggy jeans, scruffy T-shirt and Converse canvas trainers, stole the show.
Initially, Arif managed to curb his enthusiasm and devote some time to coaching Zakir. But once Ben had taken over this role, he was off, deftly executing all his tricks: kickflips, heelflips, toeflips… There was no stopping him. He was like Action Man on speed.
Then, as he came off the jump ramp, landing like a pro, three chavs encircled him, unleashing a barrage of taunts:
‘Fuck off, Paki!’
‘We don’t want no scroungers round ‘ere!’
‘Eng – ger – land! Eng – ger – land!’
Suddenly aware of a commotion, Zakir swung round, wondering what was happening. Ben had registered the goading, too, and his mouth curled up with distaste.
Instantly appraising the situation, Ben frantically signalled to Arif to disengage himself from the trio and come over to him pronto. Then he outlined his plan to Zakir.
‘Tell Arif,’ he urged, ‘we’re gonna take that kid in the brown T-shirt from behind, grab an arm each and drive ‘im straight into that wall. Then, we’ll do the others.’
As soon as Arif got the message, he and Ben went into action. The first lad didn’t know what had hit him and ended up in a heap, moaning: ‘What the fuck ya doing?’ The second one proved trickier. But, after some skilful manoeuvring, they eventually forced him to take the jump ramp at an oblique angle and sent him flying. The look of horror on his face said it all. The last tormentor, knowing what was good for him, had long since scarpered.
Overtly in a lot of pain, the two remaining hecklers picked themselves up, patting themselves gingerly. Then, when they’d retrieved their skateboards, Ben flew at them again with a parting verbal shot: ‘Now clear off, ya wimpy lowlifes!’
After he’d re-joined Arif and Zakir, Ben asked them, a grin on his face: ‘Are ya sure you wanna live in this country?’
That night, there’d been no comforting thoughts of toast and hoodies as a prelude to sleep. In their place, the mantra had taken over again - Tehran, Istanbul, Athens, Rome, Paris, London; Tehran… - melding with the cacophony of ancient lorries bumping along rocky roads to nowhere.
Zakir had thought the recurring nightmare was a thing of the past, but it had come back with a vengeance, leaving him drained and confused. At breakfast, he had no appetite and kept snapping at Arif. And, piling on the agony, the dream had reignited thoughts about his father (the victim of a Taliban bomb). Later, in the privacy of his room, he would have to call his mother to see how she and his siblings were coping without their husband and father.
Mid-morning, Zakir had a lesson with John at the PRU that might take his mind off things. And, later, he was meeting Ben, who was always a tonic. What a stroke of luck it had been, that Ben had befriended him. They were planning a visit to Canning Chase soon, where, according to Ben, they would see lots of deer and possibly the rare nightjar, a nocturnal relative of the cuckoo. Just recalling Ben’s enthusiasm was a mood-changer.
After a productive lesson with John, Zakir met Ben at his home, which was in one of those uniform terraced houses you saw all over the place. Inside, Zakir was struck by the number of black and white photographs and what appeared to be political posters on the walls.
In the dining room, Ben spread the Ordnance Survey map they’d bought out on the table. It was of Canning Chase and included parts of Strafford and the ex-mining towns of Canning and Rigley.
‘‘ere it is,’ Ben said. ’Just south of Rigley.’
‘Here is what?’ Zakir asked.
‘The Iron Age fort I wanted to check out.’
‘What is a fort?’
‘A kind of ancient castle. They sited ‘em on the tops of ‘ills and constructed earth walls and ditches around ‘em.’
‘Can I see the map, please?’
‘Yes, I thought it. Do you see those brown lines?’
‘John told me they are called contour lines. If you look here where is the fort – the lines are very close. That means it is steep.’
‘Oh, yeah. Gotcha. Like I said: they’re ‘ill -top forts.’
‘So, how old is it?’
‘Dunno, exactly. Me Mam says it’s before the Romans, and she’s good on stuff like this. And I remember from school, before I got thrown out, that is, that the Romans were ‘ere from about 50 to 400 AD. That’s from the birth of Jesus, right? So, Iron Age people were around ‘undreds of years before that.’
‘Really? That is old. Muhammed, you know, was born about 500 years after Jesus.’
‘As late as that?’
Zakir was getting worried about Arif. That angry-looking boy, Wayne, seemed to be a bit too interested in him, often taking him aside, talking about who knows what. Unlike Zakir, Arif smoked whenever he could lay his hands on a cigarette and Wayne had been supplying him with roll-ups. By coincidence, Wayne collected cigarette butts to glean tobacco from them, just as Arif had done back home. But Wayne had refined the operation: Henry said he got younger kids, who seemed to be under his spell, to harvest the stubs for him. He also said Wayne was a piece of work. Zakir thought, with his lack of schooling and gullible nature, Arif was an easy target for the likes of Wayne.
At the PRU, Zakir voiced his fears to Ben. And, it turned out, he’d had every right to be concerned. Ben knew about Wayne: his mother was a confidante of Wayne’s grandmother.
‘Up to a point, you have to feel sorry for ‘im,’ Ben said. ‘Is mam disappeared when he was young and he was left to the mercies of ‘is dad, who abused ‘im physically and sexually. So far so bad. When that came to light, ‘e was taken from the family ‘ome and ended up in the care of ‘is grannie. Now, accordin’ to me Mam, she’s a good sort and did all she could for ‘im. But Wayne was an ‘andful and she couldn’t cope, so ‘e finally landed at Forgin’ Futures.’
‘That doesn’t sound good,’ Zakir said
‘No, you’re right there. What’s more, ‘e does drugs. M-CAT - poor man’s cocaine. Now that’s not cheap. So ‘ow does he pay for it?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Rhetorical question, Zack. ‘E’s a rent boy. Know what that is?
Zakir shook his head.
‘E’s a male prostitute.’
‘Yeah. Saw ‘im with someone once, behind the station – not a pretty sight!’
Zakir was aglow for days after the bike ride to Canning Chase. He’d been chief map reader to Ben’s local historian. Ably tutored by John, he was now fully au fait with the secret language of these guides: the different types of track; the lie of the land; and all the symbols for different places. The churches with their towers and spires made him smile: they had nothing in common with the domes and minarets of mosques. On the map, the night before the outing, he’d highlighted the routes to Castle Ring, the German Military Cemetery and also the fern-covered slopes where the nightjars were.
The following day, spotting the fort had been dead easy. The flat, bald summit of the hill it occupied looked as if it had been stamped on by a bad-tempered god. The huge mound emerged from wood- and heathland surrounding it. Scrambling to the top, Zakir had clocked how the defensive ditches echoed the contour lines on the map. His command of geography was growing by the day.
On reaching the summit, the two boys had given their imaginations free rein. In their heads, drawing on Ben’s research, they’d peopled the whole area with Iron Age farmers and warriors and recreated the roundhouses they inhabited. For ten minutes, too, they’d played silly buggers attacking and defending the camp.
Later, the cemetery, with its serried ranks of gravestones, had sobered them up, of course. And, finally, at about ten o’clock, they’d been treated to the bizarre churring of the nightjars filling the air, like amplified mechanical sewing machines. On a whim, Zakir had drunk some of Ben’s beer, which had probably added to the eeriness of the performance.
By that time, the boys had decided to spend the night on the Chase. After informing Forging Futures and Ben’s mum, they’d improvised beds of heather and bracken, had some more beer and slept surprisingly well.
By the time Zakir saw Ben again, at his home, the warm glow had been well and truly extinguished. He looked as miserable as sin. Ben had never seen him so low. Was it the cricket? Surely not. Afghanistan was always going to be a long shot and, anyway, Zakir was backing England now. Ben went into the kitchen to make some tea.
Then, when Ben re-joined his friend, the floodgates opened. Zakir had just had his substantive interview and it had been an ordeal. For a minor, he punched above his weight and was fully abreast of his country’s woes. He also knew he had a robust case for claiming asylum. In an aggressive interview situation, however, this hadn’t counted for much. Once again, the Home Office functionary had raked over everything he’d declared in previous interviews and written statements, including the nightmare trek. Was she expecting him to trip up somewhere? Hoping for that outcome, even?
When Zakir broached the subject of his father, he began to sob and Ben put his arm around his shoulders.
After a while, Zakir resumed his story, telling Ben about the departure from his homeland. How his mother had almost broken down and his four younger siblings had looked on dolefully, uncomprehending. However, as his mother had explained, leaving Afghanistan had been imperative: he and Arif had been targeted as suicide bombers. In a scramble against time, the family (chiefly his rich bachelor uncle) had scraped together the traffickers’ extortionate fee.
Just then, Ben’s mother, who was a robust woman with a no-nonsense air about her, looked in, a glass of Prosecco in her hand, saying: ‘It’s very quiet in here?’ Ben immediately went over to her and explained: ‘It’s all right, Mam. Honestly. Just some heavy stuff going down.’
Wayne had his pink T-shirt on, so Ben knew where he was heading. Wayne wasn’t a strong-looking kid, but he wielded a certain power. Nothing Ben couldn’t handle, though. He caught him mid-stride.
‘How’s your new friend, Wayne’?
‘What d’ya mean?’ Wayne scowled.
‘What’s it to you?’
‘Quite a lot, actually. He was Zakir’s trekking partner and Zakir’s a mate of mine.’
‘What you on about?’
‘You ‘aven’t got a clue, ‘ave ya?’. How’d they get ‘ere, d’ya think? Zakir and Arif?’
Ben scoffed, continuing: ‘They walked, they stowed away on lorries, they jumped trains and it took ‘em almost two years.’
‘Yeah?’ How’d you know all this?’
‘Me Mam follows the news. That 24-hour BBC news channel’s on all the time.’
‘So, what’s all this gotta do with me?’
‘Well, Arif’s a big lad, innit?’
‘Are you thinkin’ of usin’ ‘im in some way? As protection maybe?’
‘I don’t get ya.’
‘I think ya do. What happens if somethin’ goes wrong when you’re servicin’ some geezer behind the station or ya need ‘im for one of your scams. A bit of brawn always comes in handy, dun’t it?’
‘I think you oughtta butt outta my business.’
‘Naw. No way! Like I said, ‘im and Zack didn’t make that bloody journey for nothing. They’re here to get asylum and a better life. And I don’t want the likes of you jeopardising that. D’you ‘ear me?’
‘Fuck, mate. Ya don’t ‘alf go on.’
‘Maybe. But if I catch ya sounding Arif out again, I’ll beat the crap outta ya!’
Zakir and Ben were sitting on some rocks near the summit of Snowdon, recovering from the exertions of their climb. They were in Rhyl on a short camping break with the school.
That morning, leaving the campsite early, the friends had spurned the narrow gauge, single-track train, preferring the challenge of one of several walking routes. Again, Ben had entrusted Zakir with the task of map reading. Along the way, he’d pointed out birds, while Zakir had explained the terrain – how the ridge or arete they’d been on and the pyramidal peak of Snowdon itself were the products of glacial erosion.
Snowdon, for all its grandeur, was still on the tourist trail, though, and Zakir, like a true pioneer, wanted to discover the untamed parts of Wales. The beauty was that the country wasn’t that far away. And there was a university, up here in North Wales, at Bangor. Well, he could dream, couldn’t he?
Breaking Zakir’s train of thought, Ben asked:
‘What’s that water over there, Zack?’
‘It’s the Irish Sea,’ Zakir answered.
‘And the land?’
‘What! No kiddin’? Didn’t know ya could see Ireland from Wales.’
‘Yes. When it is good weather like today.’
‘I’ve got Irish blood in me, ya know. Northern Irish blood.’
‘Yeah, on me Mam’s side. She was born there, but the family left when she was a babby. She worries a lot about Ireland. Come to think of it, she worries a lot about the world. I reckon that’s why she drinks so much. (Pause.) Accordin’ to ‘er, though, it ain’t a religious problem there, like most people think. It’s a colonial one, whatever that means.’
‘I am not sure.’
‘Anyway, she went over to Belfast a few times durin’ the troubles. Said it was wild. A lot of the pubs only let familiar faces in, ‘cos that way they knew what they were dealin’ with. And then there were bombs goin’ off all the time. Once – get this- she was in a bookshop and a bomb exploded nearby. Scared shitless, she looked around. And you know what? Everyone had their noses back in a book, as if nothin’ ‘ad happened.’
‘And that was in the UK?’
‘Yeah. I bet, with the soldiers and the terrorists – the UDA, IRA and all that lot – it used to be a bit like Kabul.’
A day or so after the trip, Ben was in the front room watching a quiz programme on television. When his mum burst in, he was trying to dredge up obscure football teams that had once graced the premier league with their presence.
‘Turn that off, Ben!’ she barked.
‘Why? Think I’ve got a pointless answer here,’ Ben complained.
‘This is more important.’
‘It’d better be.’
‘You know the heavy stuff Zakir told you about?
‘Well, there could be a lot more down the line. I’ve been doing some research. OK, listen up. When unaccompanied lads like Zakir and Arif land here, the local authority is obliged to look after them – provide them with education, foster parents and whatnot.’
‘That’s good, though, innit?
‘Yeah, but there’s a cut-off point. They lead charmed lives until they’re eighteen and then, overnight, they’re chucked in at the deep end. Less than half get asylum. They do have rights to appeal but soon exhaust them. And, if they’re sent back, some of them are so desperate, they try to re-migrate. Can you imagine that?’
‘Bloody hell! That’s evil!’
‘Tell me about it!’
‘But Zakir’s dad was killed, and the Taliban were after ‘im and Arif!’
‘I know. More than enough reason to be granted asylum. Anyway, there’s more. Education plays its part. Some of these kids actually get to university.’
‘So, Zakir’ll be OK, won’t he?’
‘There’s no guarantee, but I should think so.’
‘That leaves Arif, then.’
‘The guy with the permanent smile on his face.’
‘Well, for the time being. But as I said….’
‘So, what happens when these guys get deported?’
‘You don’t want to know. They can have language problems – not fluent in English and with rusty Pashtu by then. They may be seen as lapsed Muslims and, worst of all, they’re made economic scapegoats: some fathers have sold the family house to finance that mind-boggling journey!’
‘What? That’s crazy shit!’
‘You can say that again.’
‘So, what are we gonna do about it, Mam?’
‘Dunno. With the Tories in power and that witch as home secretary, it won’t be easy doing anything, that’s for sure. Think I’ll try a couple more sites. There’s the United Nations University one and something called the Refugee Support Network.’
Then, two pivotal decisions were made from on high: Zakir and Arif were going to foster families in Lockfield, some thirty miles away, and Ben was returning to mainstream education. So, how would these arrangements affect the parties concerned? As expected, Arif’s smile just got broader. For his part, Zakir was circumspect: he was exchanging an unofficial family he knew and trusted for one that might be fine or not. Similarly, Ben was ambivalent. He’d been given a new start, but distance might put a strain on his relationship with Zakir. And Mrs Harris? Well, as Ben said, she worried about everyone. She would support Ben to the hilt in school, especially in history. And, as for Zakir and Arif, she’d already embarked on what would become a consuming project, to which end she’d made a life-changing decision: she was giving up booze.
On the eve of their departure, there was a leaving do for Zakir and Arif, held in the function room at Forging Futures. Mrs Harris and John provided most of the food and drink, although Zakir and Arif gave it an Afghan twist. Henry and Cuppa provided party accessories and Kamal played CDs of Iranian music. At the end of the evening, Mrs Harris and John made farewell speeches, which were accompanied by table-thumping and whoops. But, unsurprisingly, the fun and good cheer were tinged with sadness.
The following morning, after prolonged hugs and handshaking, Zakir and Arif got in the waiting taxi and entered upon the next chapter of their lives.
When the taxi had disappeared from view, Mrs Harris turned to Ben and said: ‘I just hope to God, when all this has run its course, that Zakir and Arif’s ordeal hasn’t been in vain.’
Word Count: 4450