Seconds before Hamid Islam switched the television off in his bedroom, white supremacist Mick Spencer, leader of the British Socialist Party who’d recently won a seat in the European Parliament, had finished his speech on BBC’s Question Time in front of a live studio audience. His boorishly predictable platform – how immigration to England should be banned altogether. “The local white population in England had grown weary of so many foreigners stealing their jobs as well as the disease of Islamic radicalism.” Mick Spencer sat cosily throughout the entire show, looking as though he’d won the political debate… basking in glory. He looked to be in his element, hungry for brilliance and fame. He even smiled at the audience. The show’s host, David Crowley wore a leery expression, his left eyebrow raised. Perhaps he dreaded what the front pages of national newspapers could say in the morning, BBC Goes Downhill with Mick Spencer! or worse, Is the BBC Institutionally Racist? He turned to his right to the Deputy Prime Minister to ask his opinion on the matter. The Deputy Prime Minister sipped his glass of water, he seemed taut, tense, then he put the glass of water back on the table and opened his mouth to make some glib defensive remark.
At that precise point, Hamid switched the television off.
He’d had enough of their banter. Though he had moved from Pakistan to Bradford four years ago to live with his aunt and uncle in their mansion across from Lister Park to study Social Sciences at Sheffield, he did not think British politics was any different from the politics in Pakistan. They were both corrupt.
He took his shirt off, flexed his muscular arms and stared at himself in the mirror. Going to the gym for four days a week as well as practising kickboxing had paid off. His abdomen was flatter, harder, like a washboard, though the upper part of his legs needed more work. It was a minor gripe; perfection wasn’t the easiest thing to attain, but he liked to think he was on his way there. Hamid looked at his body from the side. His green eyes reflected back at him. His mother in Lahore had always told him his eyes were his best feature. No one else in the family was born with green eyes. “Perhaps it’s God’s way of showing you’re born to be someone great”, she’d said both to him and to guests who’d visit the house. Nonetheless, he no longer remembered the person he used to be when he lived in Pakistan.
Hamid’s iPhone signalled. His heart skipped a beat. Apprehensively, he’d been waiting for three hours for a reply and finally he’d received one – a reply from Tobias, a dentist he’d met on a gay internet dating site. Since graduating three months ago and returning to the Karim’s house, his days were marked with wakeful nights and spells of lustful longing. He really liked the look of Tobias with his ash-coloured hair and blue eyes. They’d been chatting online for a few weeks and Hamid didn’t realise at first how much he could enjoy building a relationship with someone in a chatroom. He’d also been taken aback by Tobias’s direct response. The man too looked forward to meeting him. They could go for a drink together he’d written. Hamid typed a message, shot it across, and Tobias replied straight away saying next Tuesday would be wonderful for them to meet. He would confirm the exact time and place later.
Hamid dropped his phone on the bed and staring at the mirror, focused on his eyes. What had his mother really seen in them?
The following day, discussions arising from the previous night’s Question Time brewed around the breakfast table. “The racist pig, calling himself British,” Hamid’s uncle, Dr. Abdul Karim, a urologist at St. Luke’s Hospital was furious. His uncle turned up the volume on BBC News 24. All the major news channels were discussing Mick Spencer and the way he’d said the word foreigner repeatedly on the broadcast as though it were something vile. Dr. Karim’s face hardened at the sight of Spencer while clips of Question Time replayed. The news flashed to angry protesters outside the BBC’s London headquarters, a substantial number of whom were employees. “How could the BBC allow for this to happen,” one elderly lady said to the camera. “This is a disgrace, a total shambles.” Then the scene cut quickly to the Deputy Prime Minister surrounded by bodyguards or sycophants, cameras flashing as he hurriedly climbed into his slick black limo and left the rigmarole. Mick Spencer came back on screen to say he’d fight for the rights of England, for its citizens who deserved justice. His party would continue to rally around the country, with a visit to Bradford in the pipeline in two weeks.
“Look at him, the baboon,” Dr. Karim said. ”A man with no brain, that’s what he is, absolutely deluded, the phony bastard!”
Whilst he ate his toast, he noticed lines of sweat over his uncle’s face. Dr. Karim jogged every day for an hour in Lister Park. He’d rise early at six every morning, and Hamid found his uncle as tall and elegant as the mansion itself. His tanned skin glowed along his ribbed chest – he’d recently returned from a medical conference in Milan. He never went abroad with his family, always choosing to go on his own. Dr. Karim had a full head of short sleek hair and hardly any wrinkles. Hamid’s aunty, Halima, his mother’s eldest sister, wearing a headscarf, handed a towel to her husband so he could dry himself, then she went into the kitchen to prepare his breakfast. The housemaid, Simi Dutta, a dusky Bengali with no family of her own, helped Mrs. Karim clean and prepare everything around the house. “Simi! Please take Dr. Karim his warm milk, hurry!” Mrs. Karim shouted from the kitchen. Hamid heard his aunt clattering pots and pans together. She had to hurry because Dr. Karim needed to have breakfast in half an hour, hop into the shower, perform his morning supplications in the prayer room, then depart for the hospital. He did not appreciate being made to wait. A trickle of sweat dripped down his uncle’s chin and for a man in his fifties, Hamid thought Dr. Karim very youthful. He was handsome and appeared fifteen years younger than his actual age. Simi scuttled into the dining-room and gave Dr. Karim his glass of milk. Hamid noticed the way his uncle’s gaze fell over Simi’s waistline and she giggled nervously as she handed him his milk. He winked at her and clearing his throat, Dr. Karim dryly said, “Thank you, Simi.” She avoided looking at Hamid. She appeared anywhere between fifteen to thirty years of age, tiny and slim – she also wore a scarf. Simi walked past Hamid smelling of coconut oil. Mrs. Karim brought in another plate of toast with marmalade and Dr. Karim’s muesli and adjusted the headscarf that she was never without. Hamid took another piece of toast. He studied, as if from a distance, the way his uncle ate, the way he sat. He took a bite from his toast at the time his uncle did, and put the toast on his plate the way his uncle did too. His aunt stood by her husband until he finished eating, and only then would she leave with the dirty plates.
“What a joke!” Dr. Karim announced, lowering the volume of the television. He aimed the remote control like a dart and flung it onto the padded chair across from him. He finished his glass of milk then said, “You know Hamid, I’m very proud to be British. If it wasn’t for this country, I’d have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a penny to my name. I’ve believed this since the day I arrived to this country on a scholarship to Cambridge in the seventies. Everything I have, everything you see in this house … all the money, the status, my job, is because of what this country has given me. I don’t know where I’d be without it. I couldn’t ask for more. I’m more English than that racist pig, Mick Spencer!” Pieces of nut from the muesli flew out of his mouth, and Mrs. Karim remained silent throughout. She seemed to be digesting her husband’s words. Dr. Karim’s legs jigged up and down whilst he sat. He then reached over to Hamid and flicked his hair about with his hand.
“What is this, Hamid? Why don’t you cut your hair? It’s too long. You’re not a hippy student anymore,” and his uncle chortled, despite sounding serious.
“You should stop teasing him,” Mrs. Karim said, handing over a flannel to her husband for him to wipe his hands and mouth. She smiled at Hamid. “I think he looks nice with long hair.”
“I’m only saying,” Dr. Karim asserted in an ironic tone, “you’re not going to get a job or even an interview with long, oily hair. He’s had long hair since the day he went to Sheffield and I doubt that he ever cut it there.”
Salma, the Karim’s only child, the apple of her father’s eye sauntered in. Dr. Karim doted on his daughter, lavishing her with many gifts. Salma rubbed her sleepy face. She had fair skin like her mother and a beautiful face. Salma kissed her mother on the cheek then her father and sat down on a stool opposite Dr. Karim. She frowned at Hamid.
“Simi, please will you make an omelette, Salma has come down,” Mrs. Karim shouted.
“You look tired, Salma,” Dr. Karim said. He lifted Salma’s chin up and examined her face, as though estimating her purity, as though thinking to himself, how much did his little girl’s purity weigh in kilos? “I know you have your A’ Level exams next year, but you must not ignore your health. The Aziz’s are coming to see you next week.”
“Please, baba,” Salma said, sullen-faced. For the past five months, all the Karim’s spoke of was arranging their daughter’s wedding. They saw it as their parental duty to get Samla married off to a well to do family. In the last couple of months, various suitors had come to the house to visit.
Hamid saw the way they were left speechless by the sheer grandness of the mansion, but none of them were good enough for Dr. Karim.
Hamid felt sorry for Salma. She must have deplored this, though she never said so. Dr. Karim worried that his daughter would go through life unmarried, and as long as he had life, he’d do anything to prevent this from happening.
“I’ve got a good feeling about the Aziz’s, Salma,” Dr. Karim said. “Mr. Aziz works with me at the hospital and their son is studying law. He’ll be a perfect match for you. When you’ve done your exams next year, that will be a good time for the wedding. When they come to see you, please make sure you wear the red dress and gold bangles I bought for you.”
Salma shrugged. “Yes, baba,” she said in a low voice, and Mrs. Karim quietly went to the kitchen for Salma’s omelette and brought it to her. She ate half the omelet then left the table followed by her mother after Dr. Karim went to have a shower. Sitting by himself for the moment, Hamid felt the security of the house, but beneath that something else lingered which agitated. His mind went back to the day Dr. Karim had brought him there. On a family visit to Pakistan, Dr Karim had spotted the potential in him. Impressed with his level of spoken English, he spoke to his parents and persuaded them to allow him to bring Hamid as a student to England. “You have it in you to be someone great,” Dr. Karim said to him, “and in England, you’ll be able to achieve this easily.” On his first day at the Karim’s, Hamid imagined he’d have a place of his own one day like his uncle’s. The Karim’s house with its’ spacious rooms and high ceilings was a world apart from his parent’s cramped bungalow they shared with his grandparents from his father’s side, whom his mother slaved after day and night.
“Look! Crumbs everywhere!” Simi exclaimed, disturbing him. She started to clean the room. “Can’t you eat sensibly like Dr. Karim? I’m forever cleaning your mess.”
“Sorry,” Hamid said. He jumped off his stool. He saw his uncle drive away outside in his Mercedes. His iPhone buzzed with a text message from Tobias saying they should meet at the Stone Trough Pub on Harrogate Road in Rawdon. A week would be too long a wait. Was Tobias seeing other guys as well? He sent a reply back and his aunt asked behind him, “Is that a girl on your phone?”
His heart leaped forward.
“You don’t have to be shy with me if you’ve got a girlfriend,” his aunt said smiling.
Hamid quickly put the phone in the breast pocket of his shirt. For a minute he thought about the world outside, the city of Bradford and how he’d have to contain his desires within it.
“It’s no one, aunty Halima,” and he gazed at his aunt with a sense of what life would be like for him. He considered telling her where he’d be next week, but refrained from doing so out of fear of the terror it might unleash.
“I don’t mean to pry,” Mrs Karim said. She gave him a motherly look. “Here, I came to give you this,” and she handed him a manila envelope, a letter from his mother. He ripped it open and skimmed through his mother’s gushing words then hastily folded the paper.
“What did your mother write?”
“The usual stuff. She received the money I sent her.”
“That’s good. You must write back to her immediately.”
He reached into his trouser pocket to take out a fifty pound note. He gave it to his aunt as rent money. “No, Hamid, I can’t take this from you,” Mrs. Karim said, pushing his hand away. “You mustn’t insult me this way, you’re like a son to me. Tell you what, send this money to your parents, they need it more than I do. And in your letter make sure you tell your mother I’ll send her some money too.” Hamid couldn’t help but think that the only reason his parents agreed to allow him to come to England was so that he’d transfer money to them each month. “You silly boy,” Mrs. Karim said. “I don’t want you to give me money.”
“Thank you aunty Halima.”
“I’m going to the prayer room. Do you remember the first day you were here Hamid? You looked so lost but now take a look at you. No one would believe me if I said you were my nephew from Pakistan. It’s as though you were born in this country.” She kissed him on the cheek.
His aunt left to read her prayer and Simi poked her head in, glowered at him and turned away. He wondered when Tobias would text or call next. His lust resurfaced and pricked at him. For the rest of the day, different thoughts of Tobias would soak through his mind in various colours. He looked at the wall. The wall lights were always left on and their smoky yellow hue cast a sinister shadow across the room.
A week later and today was the day the Aziz’s were coming to see Salma. Mrs. Karim rose at six in the morning then woke Simi from bed, and together they prepared several dishes to feed the guests. The house was redolent with the aroma of various spices, cumin and fried onions. Rather than be indifferent, Simi asked Hamid what he fancied for breakfast. Perhaps, after all, she’d begun to warm to him. She even made him a cup of tea.
“I will to be there aunty Halima,” he’d said of the Aziz’s arrival. And though he momentarily indulged in the excitement of meeting Tobias, the weight of his secret pressed on his chest. He made up the excuse of a job interview in York to avoid being in the house, and suddenly the future seemed brighter than he’d expected. Hamid dressed smartly. The week leading up to the date had been one of the slowest he’d ever experienced.
“It will be so terrible without you here,” Mrs. Karim said. then she walked off into the kitchen to help Simi. He did not know what use he’d be, sat amongst people who came to view Salma. Salma for the past few days kept herself to herself in her bedroom, only joining the family for dinner, and he knew he should have said something to her. She did not meet any-one’s gaze in the house and only answered her father in simple, laconic sentences. Dr. Karim took this as shyness, which he stressed was an admirable quality in a future bride, making her more attractive for the groom’s family. No one would want a brash, independent-minded girl.
His uncle had left the house for his morning jog. Hamid saw him disappear into Lister Park. He looked back at the house on his way out, and despite the rest of Bradford consumed with decay, the Karim’s mansion, in all its splendour, stood in sharp contrast to the city. Even if the rest of the city fell to pieces, the mansion would still be standing. Hamid had never been on a date before and he suddenly stopped. The swarthy street to his left twisted towards Lister Park. A group of Pakistani boys were pestering a girl as she stood by a bus-stop. One of them said, “What the hell you lookin’ at?” in a heavily accented voice and Hamid walked away.
He caught his bus near Bradford Boys Grammar School into town then a second one to Rawdon. He got off the bus on Harrogate Road outside the pub where Tobias said he would be waiting outside. He didn’t see him. His desires floated to the surface through his speculations of what Tobias’s aftershave would smell of.
A tap on his shoulder. “Hamid?”
Hamid stammered, “Oh, I thought I was late and you’d gone.”
“Actually, I’m the one who’s late. Traffic’s a killer at this time of the day. I couldn’t find a parking space.”
Tobias hugged Hamid. He felt strangely uneasy. If someone saw them, they’d surely presume they were close friends who hadn’t seen each other for a long time. Still, Tobias’s embrace made him feel good about himself. He wouldn’t have minded being hugged for a minute or two longer.
“Come on, let’s get a drink,” Tobias said.
Inside the pub, Hamid grabbed a table in a far corner whilst Tobias ordered the drinks. He said he’d have a Coke. He joked, “I don’t mean to be childish but I don’t drink alcohol”, and Tobias replied, “Oh, I see…” and he smiled. Hamid’s cheeks turned crimson, he wished he could splash cold water over his face. The pub was virtually empty. Hamid’s gaze travelled up and down Tobias’s body. Tobias had told him in an email he was a swimmer… he certainly had the athletic body of a swimmer.
“Here’s your Coke,” Tobias said, and the sound of his voice, the way he pronounced his words in such clear English made Hamid blush. Watching Tobias drink his glass of rosé wine aroused him. Tobias’s face, his chiseled features, reminded him of the head of a Greek statute he’d seen in the British Museum in London.
Would it be risky to touch his face? The longing to touch him had preoccupied his mind since the day they made arrangements for their date.
“You seem quite shy,” Tobias said.
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, for one thing, you haven’t touched your drink, and secondly, your hands are under the table.”
“I’ve heard worse,” he replied, forcibly. “My uncle thinks I’ll make a magnanimous Englishman one day.”
Tobias laughed, and Hamid felt he’d done something right by amusing him.
“You’re uncle sounds like an ambitious man.”
Hamid enjoyed going on to talk about himself – it was nice to be listened to. Tobias finished his drink, then said, “I could do with one more,” and he got himself another glass of wine with a pack of roasted peanuts to share. Hamid drank only half his Coke. He saw Tobias flipping on his mobile phone. He nearly extended his hand towards him, then regretted not doing so. He wished they were somewhere not so public. He asked, though he feared the answer, “Do you need to be somewhere?”
“Yes, I have to go and check on my dad,” and Tobias glanced away to send a message on his phone. Hamid hesitated, not asking Tobias what was the matter with his father. In that very moment he thought, what if he was lying to him, what if he stormed out of the pub? Tobias rolled his eyes, or at least he imagined he did. Here they were, already drifting apart. There was a tinge of eroticism in that.
“Sorry about this,” Tobias said, switching his phone off. Hamid stared at his neck, his Adam’s apple. “I’ve had a nice time.”
“So have I,” Hamid said, trying to smile.
“If you’ll excuse me, I need to use the gents.”
“All right, I’ll wait.” He quickly realised he sounded desperate when he said that. After five minutes, he began to think Tobias had slipped out through the back, a lucky escape. His iPhone beeped. “Get yourself over here in the men’s toilet. Tobias xx”, and he looked around. The pub was still empty. There were four cubicles in the bathroom and the one on the end had the door shut. His heart beat hard in his chest, his toes tingled. He knocked on the door, the door opened slightly, and Tobias whispered, “Get in will you.” He pulled him inside, locked the door, their bodies pressed together in a confined space. It was comical, even dull the way they fumbled, groped, in haste to disrobe one another, along with the gleam of the toilet next to them.
He’d fantasised they could go somewhere where he could freely caress Tobias as much as he wanted to, but at the bottom of his eyes loomed the image of the Karim’s house.
His elbow banged against the wall and he glimpsed around, feeling cramped in the tiny cubicle. He breathed rapidly. How could desire flourish in such confined space he wondered? Tobias squeezed Hamid’s hips and forced a kiss on his mouth and the side of his neck. Feeling unprepared, even taken back, he went with the flow. He clung onto Tobias, kissing him as hard as he could. Tobias pulled back and chuckled, seeing Hamid with his eyes closed tight, his lips curled up, ready to kiss again.
“You’re cute,” Tobias said.
“I want to do that again.”
Tobias looked away from Hamid for a few seconds then drew close to him. They kissed for longer. He felt for the first time that he actually belonged to someone.
All the lights burned in the Karim’s mansion.
“It’s a shame you weren’t here with us earlier,” Mrs. Karim said lamentably as soon as he walked through the front door in the evening and learned from his aunt that Salma had successfully been fixed with the Aziz’s son. The wedding date was scheduled for next spring. Hamid hesitated. He said nothing. The taste of Tobias’s lips remained on his lips and what they’d done earlier simmered inside. He sensed his aunt’s anxiousness about Salma’s wedding next year, the arrangements she’d have to make regardless of it being months away.
Eventually he said, “That’s wonderful news aunty Halima. I’m very happy for you.”
“I know you are. I knew Allah would answer my prayers. You should have seen Salma, she looked like an angel. Your uncle couldn’t stop singing your praises to the Aziz family. They’re eager to meet you.”
Hamid tried to appear flattered, grateful, but he kept a little distant. Something about the house seemed different to him.
“I’ve saved you some food in the kitchen. Go and eat it. Simi will give it to you. I’m going to read my prayers. By the way, how was your interview?”
“Huh? It was fine.”
“That’s good. I know you’ll go on to do big things in life.”
Hamid blushed. Making his way to the kitchen he heard his uncle’s laughter and saw him with Simi in the kitchen. Simi pulled her scarf back over her bare chest, stepped away from Dr. Karim, then turned round so her back faced Hamid. Dr. Karim cleared his throat and leaned against the kitchen unit. His uncle stared at him circumspectly for a few seconds, a film of sweat on his forehead.
“What do we have here then? Dr. Karim said. “Where have you been hiding you hippy boy?”
“Sorry I wasn’t here uncle Karim. Aunty Halima told me the good news.”
“I know what your goings on are. We’ll find a girl for you soon, don’t worry.” Then he left and on his way out he shook Hamid’s hair saying, “cut all this hippy hair off.”
Simi started to wash a pile of dishes.
“Simi, aunty Halima said she kept some food for me?”
She didn’t answer. Her back was still facing him. Her bangles clinked as she vigorously rinsed the dishes in the sink. Simi sighed.
“Simi, I don’t know what I’ve ever done to offend you but please don’t forget that this is my family, this is my aunt and uncle, not yours. You only work here, don’t forget that.”
Simi lifted her head up and didn’t move for a moment. She then turned off the tap and took a plate of rice with chicken out of a drawer. “Here,” she said. “Mrs. Karim kept this for you.”
After he’d eaten, he went upstairs to get changed, turned into the bathroom but swiftly turned back. He had caught Salma as she sat on the toilet.
“Don’t you ever bother to knock?” Salma said gloomily.
Quietly, he shut the bathroom door. “I’m so sorry Salma, I had no idea you were in.” Had she been crying? He’d seen her face, the smeary makeup under her eyes. He heard Salma sneeze, sniffle, then just silence followed by the flush of the toilet.
“Salma, are you OK in there?”
“Go away. Don’t you have anyone else to annoy?”
“I’m here if you want to talk.”
She flushed the toilet again and silence followed.
“Hamid, you still there?” Salma asked faintly.
“You can come in if you want.”
She stood near the mirror wiping her makeup off.
“Can you believe it, it took me three hours to get myself made up today and put this makeup on, and now it’s taken me all of ten minutes to wipe this junk off…”
“I think you look beautiful,” he said, feeling silly saying such a thing, but he felt a responsibility, a protectiveness towards Salma.
If only he could think of something comical to say to her, make her laugh the way he had done the first time she saw him in the house when he came to live with the Karim’s and she’d snickered cruelly because his clothes didn’t match his shoes. Salma continued wiping her face with tissues.
“You missed the circus,” she said. “I just sat there like a piece of meat on a supermarket shelf. I’m surprised I wasn’t groped to check how much fat I have on my body.”
“I really think you’re beautiful, Salma,” he said. “In fact, even I’d marry you if I had the chance.”
Finally, she laughed at that, a quiet little laugh. She shrugged then stared. “Where were you anyway?” she said. “Up to mischief I bet. Can’t say I blame you though, wish I could do the same. Warily, he looked up. She smelled Tobias on him, he thought… traces of Tobias’s minty aftershave and passion. “Nowhere, really,” he replied. As he turned to leave Salma asked, “Why do you worship my father?”
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in this country.”
“I’m sure if you really wanted to be in this country, you would have found another way…”
Salma stayed in the bathroom. Simi walked out of Salma’s bedroom. Hamid wondered at this, then thought perhaps she had been cleaning.
“Yes? What is it?” the old man in the wheelchair with hooded eyes said to Hamid. He only had one leg. His right leg had been amputated and it resembled a fat sausage. He turned his nose up at Hamid.
“Sorry, I think I’ve come to the wrong house…” and the old man scowled, then Hamid heard, “Hey, you, come on in!” Tobias stood behind his father with a playful look on his face.
“Oh,” he said, looking down at Tobias’s father.
“Dad, this is Hamid, the friend I was telling you about.” Tobias winked. Hearing him say, friend, sounded odd. Is that what they were?
“I’d better move back to let you in,” Tobias’s father said, in a deep, gruff Yorkshire voice. He reversed his wheelchair back and Tobias hugged him but they did not kiss. Ten days had passed since their first date. Tobias had invited Hamid for dinner and he led him into his father’s terrace house in Yeadon. The small house with its low-ceiling and flowery wallpaper bore no resemblance to the grandness of the Karim’s mansion.
“I didn’t know you lived at home with your father,” Hamid whispered.
“Yes, my dad’s diabetic. He used to be in the army. He lost his leg five years ago. I’ve been caring for him since.”
In a daze, he stared at Tobias’s father, Charlie. The old man had positioned his wheelchair next to the television and Hamid sat down on the sofa.
“I’ll go and get you a drink,” Tobias said.
Hamid smiled politely.
“What did you say your name was?” Tobias’s father asked, without looking at him, his gaze fixed on the news.
“Right… and where are you from? I can’t tell from your accent.”
“No, no, I meant where are you from originally?”
“Oh, I see, Pakistan.”
“I don’t think we have many people from where you say you’re from living in my area,” the old man replied with derision. Hamid stared at his amputated leg, imagining without it, the old man would crawl like a baby on the floor.
“Tobias doesn’t often bring friends home. He’s only brought two other male friends of his before.”
“I see,” Hamid replied with a clipped voice, unintentionally, and Tobias brought him a glass of pineapple juice and a lemonade for his father. After a prolonged silence, Tobias’s father stared at Hamid, piercingly as though he was an unusual creature, then he turned to the television again. Mick Spencer’s face appeared on the screen in front of Bradford Town Hall. The camera shot made him appear taller than he was as he stood on a platform to address the crowd. People thronged round him as he gave his speech on preserving the integrity of the white British population, and how immigrants should go back to their own countries. Police officers on horseback circled round the seething crowd.
“If people listened to him, they’d realise what he says make sense,” Tobias’s father said. “We used to feel proud to say we were English, but now you can’t say that, people think you’re a bad person if you do.”
“Dad…” Tobias said with a sigh, as if unsurprised by his father’s comments.
“What’s for dinner?” the old man asked, and Tobias relayed they’d be having lasagna with steamed green vegetables. His father retorted, “That’s not food,” but Hamid noticed the old man ate every morsel off his plate later. They sat together in the living-room, eating off plastic trays on their laps which Hamid found awkward. The tray kept tilting, making him worry his food would spill on the carpet. He thought about his aunt cooking various spicy dishes right now, laying them out on the table. Tobias’s father watched Hamid eat with a knife and fork and when they’d finished, he said uneasily, “Tobias, make sure you wash everything properly.” The old man no longer looked at him and simply faced the television.
“You could give me a hand,” Tobias said to Hamid.
Together they went into the kitchen. Tobias rinsed the plates while Hamid dried them with a towel.
“I don’t think your father likes me.”
“He’s just a stubborn man and a little jealous of me. He’s harmless.”
He wanted to kiss Tobias, he nudged his elbow against his, but refrained from doing so in case his father wheeled in. Tobias leaned in and kissed him.
Tobias queried, “It’s not what you expected is it?”
“Oh, no, it’s really nice,” he replied, irrespective of feeling embarrassed by the smallness of it. “It’s cosy.”
Tobias drew back to put the dishes away in the cupboard then went back to his father to inject him with his insulin. “Wait in the kitchen,” he said. “Dad doesn’t like someone else being in the same room when I give him his injection.” The silence he’d been left with remained with him – as long as it was awkward. Tobias came back into the kitchen. “He’ll fall asleep now,” Tobias said. “He always does after he’s eaten.”
“Really…” Hamid said, his voice low. The light in the kitchen gleamed then faded as if an indication of love that had been found then lost.
“Now, come here you,” Tobias said. He took him upstairs to his bedroom where they took off their clothes but unable to get aroused, Hamid just lay next to Tobias on his single bed. He could only think of Tobias’ father downstairs… had the old man gone to sleep? How could desire be explored or bloom in a single room, on a single bed? Shouldn’t a dentist have enough money to afford a place of his own with a bigger bed?
He got up from the bed and put his clothes on.
“Get back in,” Tobias urged.
“I think I should leave.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“I’m not stupid.”
“I said, I’m not stupid.” Hamid stared at Tobias.
“Sorry. Look, let me come with you at least. I’d like to walk you home. If you’re worried about anyone seeing us, I’ll promise I’ll say we’re just friends.” And Hamid agreed to the offer.
They spoke not a word on the bus journey into Bradford. Sitting together like strangers, Hamid noticed he was one of the few non-whites on the bus. He hadn’t paid attention to this before, but he noticed it now for the first time. Not knowing how to take this in left him with a slight unease, a chill. They got off the bus outside the Boy’s Grammar School and just when he thought Tobias would turn away, he proposed, “Let me walk you to your house, Hamid. Nothing will happen,” and here they were, neither of them able to refer to their homes as a place they owned themselves. “I don’t visit Bradford that often,” Tobias went on. “It’s not what it used to be.” He didn’t understand what Tobias meant by that remark. He knew the city as it was, a mini-England, with every shade of colour.
Hamid said, “We can cut through the park.”
They strolled through Lister Park. Hamid erased the prospect of sex behind the bushes out of his mind and staring at Tobias, he found him gazing in the direction of the bushes to their left also. Perhaps together in the gloom, they could have explored the park together and revelled in being lost for once. They did not hold hands, though it had crossed his mind. Desire did not occur in any embrace, but in the minor physical rift between them. In the dark, he traced the curve of Tobias’s shoulders, the bulge of his thighs. His face appeared featureless to him, his mouth no longer a mouth, but a thin line.
“Hamid, you can visit my house whenever you want to. My dad wouldn’t say anything.”
“That’s nice to know.”
Tobias shrugged and Hamid’s eyes attuned to the Karim’s home so tantalisingly close. He always counted the number of steps it took him to reach the house from Lister Park, and the figure was always the same. At the bottom of the driveway, he said, “This is me, thanks for the walk.”
Tobias paused then said, “That’s one magnificent house. How many of you live there?”
“Four of us,” he said, omitting Simi from the figure.
“It’s beautiful. Your uncle has definitely done well for himself.”
“I guess he has.”
“Well, then…” Tobias blinked up at the building which stood upon a slope, as proud as a beacon. Maybe he was counting the number of windows the mansion had. Nonetheless, he recognised the way Tobias focused on the Karim’s mansion, as though by gazing at it, he became transported to another place. Then Hamid kissed him. He didn’t know what made him to do it, but Tobias did not resist. The sense of falling for him was as palpable as it had ever been. Suddenly, Tobias pushed Hamid back and froze.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“There’s someone there,” Tobias hissed.
Tobias walked away. Once inside Hamid noticed the chandelier in the hallway, recalling it was the first thing he had laid eyes upon when he came to live with the Karim’s. His aunt sat weeping under the staircase.. She covered her mouth with her headscarf, shaking her head. She did not look up at him.
“Aunty Halima, what’s wrong?”
Mrs. Karim shook her head, taking in a laboured breath.
“Go away… just go away. Please go, Hamid.”
Anxiously, he glanced around. “Aunty Halima, I didn’t mean to do anything to hurt you.” He reached out to her but Mrs. Karim winced, and she flicked his hand away.
“There’s nothing you can do… nothing.”
A door slammed shut upstairs with a booming sound. He stood back. He saw his uncle and another man holding Salma at each end, hauling her down the staircase. Hamid’s palms turned cold. Salma had been so badly beaten her face and feet were swollen blue-black. He felt the ground floor sink to a slant, and Dr. Karim started to shout at the other man to hold Salma’s leg tight. She flailed like a struggling fish. They’d gagged her mouth; her eyes were completely vacant.
“Aunty Halima, what’s going on?”
“Go away,” she said, then she turned her head to the side and continued to cry.
Dr. Karim and the other man managed to carry Salma down the stairs, round the back of the house, down into the cellar. “Uncle Karim,” he said, but Dr. Karim didn’t hear Hamid. It was as if he wasn’t in the house. He was about to follow them to the cellar but Simi came out of the kitchen and stood in front of him.
Pale-faced, he asked, “What’s going on, Simi? What are they doing?”
“She was about to run away with someone. Dr. Karim found letters from a boy in her room.”
That night he’d seen Simi coming out of Salma’s room. “That was you,” he said.
“You found her letters.”
Simi did not reply but turned on Hamid,
“I knew what the likes of you were about. And tonight what you were doing outside makes me sick.”
“I belong to this family.”
“You’ve got no claim on this family.”
“You’re out of your mind,” he said, and he tried to sidestep away from her to go to the cellar but she stood firmly in front of him.
“You’ve done nothing but pollute this house with your sickness.”
Hamid turned round, “Aunty Halima…”
“Simi, tell him he can go away” Mrs Karim said. And he watched as his aunt disappeared upstairs, silence enveloping the entire mansion.
Juned Subhan is a graduate from the University of Glasgow. He has been published in numerous journals, including the North American Review, Louisiana Literature, Bryant Literary Review and the Joyce Carol Oates Review.