Shireen loved to look at her husband. His charming fluffy hair, that he slicked down for work but let free when going to see friends. His warm beige skin that flushed more easily than her’s, even though she was only a few shades darker. His cheeks were reddened from the crisp October air but it took love or fear to tint her face pink. She would bend her head to swing her hair over her heated ears, and Halim would always know. Know that she wanted him or wanted to leave. She even loved his smooth oboe-like voice with the sexy Algerian accent he’d been determined to keep, even after living in London for ten years.
What he was talking about, that was a different matter. He was distracting her from their favourite walk up to the marvels of Crystal Palace station, with its glass roof and metal frames, using her discomfort in crowds to keep her by his side. She wouldn’t abandon the chicken biriyani she had worked over for two days either. Many of their friends from the mosque didn’t celebrate Islamic New Year, but Halim’s family believed they should all be together on the day that marked the beginning of Islam as a community.
“Shireen, have you looked at the leaflet? I brought it with me for us to read together on the way.”
“I will, I will. I just don’t think this is a good time. Today is going to be stressful enough. Have I made enough rice? You know how much your brother likes my biriyani.” Last time, Tariq, her brother-in-law, had four helpings. A proper compliment. “And I’ve been really tired this month.” The mirror always showed her eyes circled with shadows but her face looked puffy this morning.
“My love, I can read you the leaflet. You listen so well. It makes me happy.” He was using his ‘important information’ face but the crinkle around his eyes betrayed him.
“Out loud on the train?” Shireen grew warmer from walking up the hill. This was the challenging part of the path, just before the slope to the station. “And you’re behavior managing me, Halim? Like one of your teenagers, when they finish their homework!”
“Can I help it if I’m good at my job? You like that, it’s one of the reasons social services would grab us with both hands. We could fill our home with children.”
“They might not take us, I work in a shop and we only have a little flat four stories up. We should trust in Allah, and what he has in store for us. We don’t have to change everything.”
“You’re the manager! We have a spare room, there’s a lift and a view over the gardens. And we’re close to the park, with the farm and the dinosaurs, perfect for children.”
Halim resounded like a trumpet and he had started to wave around the arm not laden with foodstuffs for 14 people. Shireen feared for her beautiful glistening rice. Even if she hadn’t made enough, her in-laws should still get to taste it.
“We need that room for when my mother comes over. Now that my brother is studying here, she will definitely want to stay.”
“Two years and she hasn’t made it. She thinks England smells funny, too many trees. And wouldn’t she stay with him in Sheffield?”
Shireen waved at him to stop. She had a catch in her side and needed to breathe. She gulped in the fresh air, smoky from the train tracks and earthy from wet bark. The lavender wafted from her new scarf, the one she’d bought at her Oxfam shop. She didn’t usually bring things home, the manager shouldn’t take advantage, but this donation was different. A lady brought in a silky-soft hand-knitted grey scarf with tiny purple sequins, and a bag with brightly-coloured much-creased clothes, about the right size for a four year old girl. Her daughter had started primary school, so they were going shopping for more grown-up clothing. Shireen had held the scarf until a sequin cut into her hand. It made a red mark for the whole day. It didn’t feel right to sell it to someone else. Not when she might have bled on it.
People always told her about their children, or asked if if she had any. “You’re so good with children,” they would say, “do you have any of your own?” The new volunteer had asked her this yesterday, after she had given a crying toddler one of their price-stickers to distract him. Shireen wanted to say, I have three brothers, I’ve had a lot of practice. It’s like cooking, I wasn’t born to it. And, how often do you sleep with your boyfriend? But of course, she didn’t. Her inside voice had teeth but it didn’t solve anything if you made a fuss. She’d tried to turn up the corners of her mouth, swung her hair over her ears and murmured something about when the time was right and Halim’s job with Centrepoint keeping him very busy, and then had redone the shelf she was organizing three times. Arranging a shelf was like finishing a puzzle, but you were the one that made all the pieces fit. And if they couldn’t see your eyes when they were talking at you, you could change the subject without embarrassment.
They finally achieved the station entrance. Halim whispered, “This will be continued,” and went to the machine to buy their tickets. Shireen tried to find their train on the noticeboard. All the boards were blank. People were gathering around the ticket barriers, and a soft, polite voice was repeating something in between people’s interjections. More people were being drawn towards the words, like pigeons spotting bread. The voice started to vibrate like a cello, as if holding unshed tears. She shifted towards a small gap she could just fit into. She turned sideways, shimmied a little and popped out at the front of the flock. A nicely-rounded, tall man in a uniform, with fluffy hair and mahogany-dark skin was standing by the barriers. His forehead was shining in the lights or with the effort of speaking gently when the press of interrupters was growing.
“I’m sorry, I can only repeat again. All trains from this station are cancelled until further notice. There are replacement buses at the stop outside and your tickets will be valid. We have not been informed as to what has caused this situation but it has also effected our communications.”
“But a bus will take hours. I’m supposed to be at Victoria by 1 o’clock,” said a short dark-haired woman with a pushchair. A man with ruddy cheeks and tight jeans and a blond teenage boy nodded in support.
A man with a thin mustache and amber skin joined in, “Yeah, and why didn’t we know about this before we got here? And when will it be fixed? We’re going to a surprise birthday party and we’ll miss the surprise.'”
“We have not been informed as to what has occurred so it is not possible to know when it will be resolved. There is possibly an electrical issue, but this will not effect the buses. Please continue your journey from the stop outside.”
Three people moved away but their places were filled instantly. There were no visible signs of pushing but the space around the station worker was growing smaller.
A man with reddish hair holding a guitar case said, “I’m going to lose my gig if I’m not in Balham in forty minutes. You have to tell us something. You sound like a robot. This is ruining people’s lives!”
The guard closed his eyes briefly. His eyelashes looked wet. Shireen wanted to say, “Don’t feel bad, its ok.” But of course, she didn’t. He looked up toward the roof and took a long breath. “I can only suggest you make contact and explain your situation. I can find out more information but you must all disperse. Please make your way outside”. His voice had not raised in volume but there was a resonance Shireen recognized as distress.
Two people turned away. The crowd that remained made themselves bigger, fluffing out their feathers. There was an undercurrent of resentful flutters. “This isn’t good enough.” “The trains are useless.” “Why won’t they tell us anything?”
Shireen felt the first jostle at her back. She swung her hair over her heated ears. The man with the guitar case was now holding it upright, like a weapon. His knuckles were white. She was vibrating with the rhythm of suppressed feelings, and it was starting to crescendo. Even pigeons could overwhelm you, they had those beaks and claws.
A wavery voice said “Thank you, sir. You’re doing a very difficult job. I just wanted to say thank you. Please keep up the good work.”
When the station-worker worker looked straight at her, she realized it was her voice. Her inside lion had emerged. This was how it felt to want to hold your head up, and she didn’t break contact. She smelt biriyani and knew Halim was coming back but she couldn’t look away. “Thank you, miss,” the man said, and they smiled at each other. “I’m going to check in the office now. I hope you finish your journey successfully.”
The pressure lessened, the crowd drifted away—remembering they were not pigeons and they didn’t need their claws.
She stared at the space the guard left for a moment and turned to where Halim would be. Halim who liked crunching into whole apples, but always sliced them for her so she could check for the bad bits. He was standing alone on the concourse with his ‘important information’ face.
“My love, what happened with the people. Are you okay?” Shireen nodded slowly. “Did you hear about the trains. No going to Sutton for us, I think. I’ll phone Tariq. We can freeze the rice, right?”
Shireen opened her mouth to agree but paused. Her inside lion said, you owe him this much. And he’ll only keep asking.
“I can’t look at the leaflet. I don’t deserve it.” Halim’s eyes widened. He was going to be heart-broken but it was better than being lied to.
“I had the hysterectomy. I lost our little girl. She’d be five now. I can’t replace her and I’m not worth it.” Her eyelashes were wet and the tears pooled above her lip.
“Oh, my love. You had to have the operation or I would have lost both of you. It shouldn’t have happened to you . . . to us. I think about her everyday, too. We won’t lose her.” Halim brushed her cheek, and then kissed her on the corner of her mouth. “But we can save another child from the bad things that have happened to them, things that weren’t their fault.” He took her hand.
“Let’s go home.”
The air was still crisp, but smelt piney. They passed a line of people climbing onto a bus. The walk down the hill was always easier. Halim was still holding her hand and the biriyani. He stopped and put the bag down.
“I have been carrying this for two hours. I think the chicken is reproducing.”
“I can help you with that, if you’d like. You could give me that leaflet, its probably weighing you down.”
Halim looked her in the eyes. Shireen kept her head high, enjoying the stretch in her neck. A warm feeling spread up her back, like the slide of a velveted paw. Her tears had dried but the mist of them was now soothing, a less painful memory and not a shameful thing. He reached into his pocket. They were smiling at each other as she took the brightly-coloured, much-folded paper. The two children on the front looked relaxed and expectant. It was easy to hold, like a promise or a kiss.
Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She lurks in libraries and her local independent bookshop, Bookseller Crow. Her stories are published and forthcoming in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, the Word Factory website, Dodging the Rain, Rigorous, Pocket Change, Haverthorn and Riggwelter. She tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer