Zainab Kizilbash Agha works in the public sector trying to improve how governments spend money the choices they make. She has worked with governments in Pakistan, Namibia, Ghana and now works in the UK. For therapy she colours with her two children and writes nonsense.
A Good Deed
She sat down next to a lady who was probably in her sixties, with varicose-veined-muscular-thighs sneaking out of a blue skirt. The lady did not look up as the girl sat down but acknowledged the girl’s presence by moving the Primark bag resting at her feet to her lap and gripping it tighter. The girl did not look at the lady either but adjusted the scarf on her head, her fingers pushing imaginary errant hair back into submission. Her fingers and the palm of her hand had mehndi on them. The design was not intricate, just fanciful loops as if the hand drawing them had been tracing out unlived dreams.
It was unusual to find an empty seat in an underground train in London, but it was early afternoon and the train had only just left Waterloo, one stop away from Westminster. The farther east you went from Westminster, the less likely you were to find a seat. Also the farther east you went from Westminster, the less likely you were to live, for each stop eastward from that station represented one year of life expectancy lost at birth. It was not the train line’s fault of course, its only purpose being to thread together extremes of the city.
Nadia did not notice the girl enter the train. She had been too busy looking through the window at the couple kissing on the platform. It was the kiss she had always wanted from John, slightly drunk at the end of a platform, with a poster in the background announcing the latest exhibition at Tate Modern. The kind of kiss that would mean she truly belonged to him. Belonged to herself. Belonged to this city. Belonged.
But John wasn’t that type. He was not prone to public displays of affection. Or any displays of emotion. At the beginning of it all she hadn’t cared. Maybe she hadn’t even noticed. For Nadia (as she had finally admitted to herself not that long ago) had liked John-the-idea more than John-the-person. What she hadn’t admitted (yet) was that he too had probably liked the idea of Nadia (brown, exotic, adventurous) more than the person she actually was (white, safe, and predictable).
Funny she saw that kiss today. The same day she had received an email from John telling her he was now married. Or maybe she saw the kiss because she got the email. He, a nurse, had gone to Zimbabwe for the Voluntary Services Overseas only three months ago after they had broken up. He had met his wife in the hospital there. She was an anesthetist. Her name was Sethi. That was all he had told Nadia. The rest of the email was about the wedding, a small intimate ceremony near the banks of the Zambezi.
She didn’t know how to reply. She had been meaning to write an email to him for weeks now, but the lines she had so carefully crafted during the last week remained in her drafts folder and now would never be sent after his email from the morning, which had squashed any hopes for a John-and-Nadia tomorrow. She was glad she had a new job to distract her from thinking about him. It was her third day working as a counselor at a refuge centre for Asian women in Canning Town.
As the train sped away from Waterloo, Nadia’s thoughts turned away from imagining John and his guests taking a sunset cruise through the Victoria Falls after the wedding to the train carriage. It was then she noticed the girl sitting opposite her, crying.
The crying was slow and muffled into a tissue. But for the other passengers the girl could very well have been wailing loudly. There was shuffling of bottoms and rustling of free Metro newspapers, but the girl, obviously unaware of the city-train code for serious protest, continued to cry into her crumbling tissue. Nadia noticed the mehndi, the sandals, the tightly drawn coat over the shalwar kameez and felt a strong sadness wash over her. For some reason, maybe because of all the training she had received for her new role or maybe because she was trying to stop herself from thinking about John, she went and sat next to the girl.
‘Are you OK?’ Nadia asked.
The girl stopped crying. ‘Yes,’ she said.
And then, after a minute or so, said, ‘No.’
The lady with the Primark bag got up and went down to sit at the far end of the carriage.
‘What is your name?’ Nadia asked.
‘Mariam,’ the girl replied and started crying again.
‘Mariam. I am not sure why you are crying but if you need help I know of places that can help. I work for one. It’s a few stops away. Canning Town.’
‘What kind of place?’ Mariam asked, looking Nadia in her eyes for the first time. Nadia saw Mariam and was surprised to find she was beautiful. Not the London-kind-of-beautiful but the way Nadia’s mother would define beauty: fair skin and green eyes.
‘It’s a refuge for women. Asian women. Some women are there because they were in bad relationships. Others because they didn’t want to enter relationships that they knew would turn bad. I haven’t worked there for very long,’ Nadia stopped. ‘But from what I can see,’ she continued, ‘it does some good work.’
‘Oh,’ said Mariam.
They both fell silent. Then, Nadia pressed on.
‘There are lots of young girls there too, girls who have gotten into trouble. Are you in any kind of trouble Mariam?’ she asked.
‘Trouble,’ Mariam said the word slowly, rolling the consonants and vowels with her tongue before pushing them out.
‘No, I am not in any trouble. I…I have just had to take a decision. A decision which means I have to say goodbye’.
Nadia could hear all the passengers silently shouting, ‘THIS IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!’ around her, but she ignored it. Today she felt like crossing the invisible borders people in big cities draw between what-is-my-problem and what-is-not-my-concern. Today she wanted to step into the messiness of this girl’s emotions. Today she felt like caring. Today she wanted to help.
She tried hard to think back to her training course from a few weeks ago. This case seemed to have all the signs of a forced marriage or was it something worse? She decided to take the pressure off Mariam and talk a little bit about herself. But she had to be careful in what she said.
‘I was born in Pakistan. I have lived in London since I was 12. In Putney. My father came to London to work for an oil company and never went back. When I finished university, I took the gap year and went to a small village in Pakistan to volunteer at schools run by a local charity. There I…I missed… home. It is hard being so different for a long period of time so I came back to the city where I was born.’
Mariam did not react and Nadia was a little disappointed.
Mariam remained silent for a few seconds, then turned sideways to Nadia, ‘Do you believe in love? Do you think you can do anything for love?’
Nadia smiled, ‘Yes. I believe in love. I wish…I wish I had fought more for it in my life.’
Mariam smiled for the first time, a gap-toothed smile, and said, ‘I love David.’ Suddenly she looked a little less beautiful.
‘David?’ said Nadia a little surprised.
‘Yes, David. Daoud. My family doesn’t understand. They want me to get engaged to my cousin. He is nice, my cousin is, but you know he is my cousin. I don’t want cross-eyed kids, you know? My father locked me up in my room when I said that. I escaped through the window.’
‘So I was right,’ thought Nadia. “This is a forced marriage situation.”
‘Where did you meet David?’ asked Nadia.
‘Through my friend Abdul at school. He is alright, Abdul. Used to be in all kinds of crap, drugs and stealing. Then he met David. Now even Abdul goes to the mosque. I tell my parents but they still don’t like David. Say he is older and is influencing me. I reckon they don’t like him because he is not in my family. They only ever meet family.’
‘Perhaps. But it is always difficult to accept what is different, unknown. It is easy enough when you go looking for it on purpose, on holidays. It is more difficult when the unknown comes to you. Sometimes it might be right there sitting in your living room,’ said Nadia, an image of John’s jar of marmite in her fridge wafted through her thoughts. Suddenly she felt very hungry. She hoped Mariam would come with her to Canning Town for breakfast.
Mariam did not reply. Instead she looked long and hard at Nadia’s knee high boots and asked, ‘Do your parents think you are too English?’
Nadia smiled, thinking of her mother’s collection of feathered hats and her father’s familiarity with the local pub, something she didn’t think she could share with Mariam.
‘It is difficult balancing where you come from and where you are born. We all draw different lines.’
‘Oh’ was the only thing Mariam said in return. Suddenly she looked at her watch and panicked.
‘I can’t do this. I have to go back. I need to go back. My family will be so worried. My mother and my sister. Oh my sister…” and with that Mariam stood up, just as the train sped up towards London Bridge.
Nadia pulled her down sharply. ‘Of course you can, Mariam. Your parents love you and you love them. But it doesn’t mean you should follow the life they have cut out for you. It is not fair on you. And it is not fair on your cousin either.’
Nadia felt as if she knew why she was on this train right now and why she had received the email from John and why she had seen that kiss. She may not have fought for a future with John but she was going to fight to get this girl her future. She produced a fresh tissue and calmly asked where Mariam and her family lived.
‘Tooting,’ Mariam replied, and then asked Nadia, ‘Do you believe in God?’
Nadia was surprised by the question. ‘Yes,’ she said.
‘I wonder whether he will be angry with me,’ she said, “for making my family unhappy?’
‘I think God more than anyone understands the beauty of love. And he knows that love means making sacrifices, if only in the short term.’
Nadia’s answer seemed to make Mariam very happy. ‘Yes that’s what David says. That love, true love means making sacrifices.’
‘Look Mariam. My office is in Canning Town. Would you like to come with me? Maybe we can discuss some choices and options.’
‘Oh no! It’s quite alright. And I won’t be able to go all the way to Canning Town. I am getting off at Canary Wharf.’
‘Canary Wharf?’ wondered Nadia. Somehow she couldn’t think of Mariam clattering through the hub of global finance.
‘Yes, that is where I am meeting David.’
‘Oh. Then take my number at least. If you need anything, just call.” Nadia hastily scrawled the number of the refuge at the back of a Waitrose receipt.
‘OK. I will.’ Mariam shoved the paper into her coat pocket. She got up and pushed her fingers at the imaginary errant hair again. In doing so, she also seemed to push back all the emotions she had let out into the train back into herself. She suddenly seemed guarded.
Nadia was pleased. She knew this was a sign that she would be good at her job.
The next station was Canary Wharf.
Mariam turned to Nadia and said, ‘Thank you. Thank you so much. If it wasn’t for you I would have gone back. But you made me…stay.’
With that Mariam hugged Nadia and jumped off.
The tube door closed. There were a lot of people on the station but Nadia could see Mariam run to a man on the platform and kiss him on the lips. The image of Mariam in her shalwar kameez dissolving into David surprised her. She laughed
‘So you are just as stereotypical,’ she thought aloud.
She only got a glimpse of David. Daoud. He seemed a stunner.
‘Good for Mariam,’ she thought and felt happier than she had been in a few weeks. She hoped that Mariam would call.
She got out at Canning Town and made her way slowly to the office stopping on the way to get an almond croissant and an orange juice.
As she entered the office, she saw Lydia staring at a flickering television screen, her mouth gaping looking like Edward Munch’s Scream come to life.
‘What is it?’ Nadia asked.
‘Another 7/7. Canary Wharf. Man-and-woman team,’ Lydia replied in two-word sentences as Nadia turned towards the screen.
She saw grainy CCTV images of a girl and a man. A 16-year-old smiling nervously as if on a first date while the man’s hand purposefully reached into her backpack before the screen went blank.
They watched the same scene repeated a few times until Lydia looked up at Nadia.
‘Nadia you OK? Maybe you should sit down,’ she said.
‘I am OK,’ Nadia mumbled and a second later, vomited out the croissant and frothy orange juice onto the floor.