Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Wheels on the Bus


I wonder if they’re taught the rules in school or is it one of those talks that your parents (and by ‘your’ I mean the parents in movies because face it, Pakistani parents never have ‘talks’ with you...) have with you when you’re 10 years old – is there a book that is handed out for free in shopping malls and grocery store, and if so, how come I didn’t get it?

Maybe the Brits are just born with an instinct for proper bus behavior, just something that runs in their blood so that they don’t even have to think twice about falling into their place in the queues at bus stops and giving up their seats to the elderly, making their way down the moving bus so that when it finally pulls to their stop they don’t make the rest of the passengers wait and just hop out – a polite ‘thank you’ to the bus driver who bats it right back, ‘cheers!’.

I’ve read those Facebook posts about racist people on the bus or at the underground/subway but so far the most kindness I’ve seen is on the bus (and of course it has to do with the fact that we’re in Nottingham; I mean in London this driver barreled right past us at 11 pm in the night even though there was not one but two Pakistani guys trying to wave it down!). 

People just naturally fall into lines at bus stops here, which is actually kind of weird because that means nobody really sits down on the helpful benches under the helpful shades and at rush hours these lines can snake down and around the curbs (also people don’t really crush into each other here, the concept of personal space is quite prevalent). 

The bus driver welcomes everyone with a hello love or at least a nod when they step on.  Almost everyone acknowledges the bus driver with a thanks as they step off and the bus driver acknowledges everyone, even if this means that he or she has to say ‘thank you, bye, cheers, have a good one love, see you later, bye, thanks’ ten times in a row.  And I always wonder, don’t you get bored of saying it so many times all day long?

I see a lot of old people on the bus.  And I admit that I had a preconceived notion that the wrinkly white-haired elderly were going to be more inclined to say something racist or just give off negative vibes but funnily enough, it’s always been the older people who have struck up conversation with me on the bus – ‘I reckon it’s a bad accident if it’s causing so much traffic’ or something similarly sweet and nondescript.  Or just smiling at me or maybe popping open the seat because I’m weighed down by my penguin-parka and four bags of groceries. 

You also hear all sorts of stories on the bus and life plays out in cute moments like the four-year-old who kept jumping up and down the back seats and then after his mum asked him nicely to settle down, he waited a few seconds before asking for attention: “Mau-mee?”
“Yes?”
“I love you.”
I mean, that’s pretty cute. Especially in that sweet accent.  Little kids talking in British accents is the best because it just seems so funny that people that tiny are speaking so properly.

Then there were these two other toddlers sitting on the seats at the bus stop (finally! Someone uses the benches!) and they demonstrated what persistence is – arguing about something with just two phrases, “Oh no it isn’t!” and “Oh yes it is!” and they said that for about seven minutes with varying degrees of emphasis and cuteness till finally their bus came and they toddled off with their mum.

People here often give up their seats for someone else and I spot random acts of kindness frequently. 

It can be quite busy in the mornings with all seats taken and then an inside bus-queue which is quite uncomfortable actually because now there is no personal space and every little shift means you’re nudging someone’s shoulder or poking their legs with your bags. 
One morning I walked all the way to the back of the bus – the two guys in front of me in the queue outside had found seats and I had spotted one but this other guy wearing headphones was sitting next to it with his bag on the empty seat.  I thought if I stood suggestively near enough he would pick up his bag but that didn’t happen for the first 15 seconds.  Of course if I was back in Pakistan I would’ve just asked him to but here… yeah, no, haven’t you heard of all those racists shouting ‘bloody Paki!’ on the bus stories?

A disadvantage of being a brown person visiting the Western world is the uncertainty and lack of confidence, the persistent effort to simply stay in the background so as not to ruffle any white feathers.

And then, one of the men who had gotten on with me leaned forward with a loud: “Excuse me mate, can you move your bag?” and the headphone guy was startled into politeness, “oh yeah, sorry!” and I settled down into the seat with a blushing thank you.  I did get a bit damsely in my heart. My knight in a shining winter coat, if you may.  

When it comes to kindness to strangers, the biggest barrier for me isn’t that I’m not a kind person and I simply don’t notice when someone else might need help – it’s more the awkwardness or mild fear of being rejected or met with an icy ‘no thank you’.  The truly kind people, I guess, are the ones who don’t care about that.  In which case I am not a truly kind person because I spend too much time seesawing between “I should help” and “I can’t I’m too shy and I don’t like saying things to new people even if its small talk or I like your headband kind” (seriously, I went to the salon here and spent so much time feeling uncomfortable about the fact that all the ladies were chatting to their respective hairdresser and I wasn’t, debating whether I was coming across as rude, and then agonizing over the right thing to say so that she would A. understand my accent and B. be able to respond easily following the laws of small talk.  It took about fifteen minutes but I think I finally settled on “Have you had a long day then?” and it did lead to some minutes of very satisfying insignificant but nice conversation).

And so if I see a lady weighed down with six bags, I’ll first think: “Oh I should ask if she needs help” and then immediately be besot with the thought that what if she doesn’t trust me and thinks I’ll run away with her bags and so forth.  I go through the same thing in Pakistan but there I’m more likely to go up and strike conversation, offer help with a bag or a baby.  It’s the same idea, I guess, here in England any rejection or ‘no thank you’ would always be underlined with a ‘is it because you don’t trust a South-Asian looking female’?

Sometimes I wish I was either a truly kind person or a total douche bag, because then I 
wouldn’t be slipping into this pool of uncertainty (that you don’t need to analyze to realize is idiotic and unnecessary) every time I see a young parent struggling to get their pram down the stairs or over a curb!

I’d be like the man in a scruffy hat who saw a small toy on the floor of the bus and the lady with a small kid exiting the bus right in front of him and simply picked it up and followed her to give it to the kid – not the female who looks at the toy then at the parent and child, and thinks, but what if it doesn’t belong to that kid? What if she thinks I’m creepy? What if she thinks it’s disgusting that I gave a toy that was on the floor of a bus to her precious toddler (and if you think about it, that is kind of unhygienic…)?


Maybe when I’ve spent some more time on the bus I’ll get comfortable with the notion of kindness to strangers (in particular, British strangers), and hopefully not let a stray drunken comment or two about Indian food and foreign bastards bruise my slowly emerging belief that most people here are pretty nice…

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Nostalgia

It could be a song or perhaps a photograph, or maybe someone else’s story. 

But it’s usually out of the blue and it grabs at me like a strong hard tug on my arm.  Kind of cool how a thought can have such a physical impact.  And so it may be that my eyes glaze over during a Zumba class because that song reminds me of a friend who deleted all Avril Lavigne tracks from my laptop and had a playlist titled ‘Aisha’s playlist’ on her computer, which she would put on for me while I lay on her bed and she sat by her desk, letting me angst out my blues.

Or it could be a random photograph of the university library that some random stranger has posted on Facebook, and it pulls me like a rolling whirling black hole into memories of blue sneakers (that I would sneak out of Mariam’s cupboard and probably wore more than she did – and the gray t-shirt which she just ended up giving to me), and the feel of the concrete sidewalk against the soles of my feet, the sidewalk that I walked 200,563 times at all times of the day and night, in all moods ranging from happy to sad to raving mad.

Sometimes I shake my head and snap out of it, or if I’m honest, I shrug off the reverie most of the time because it’s almost too painful to think of how life was from 2005 to 2009 – friends, love, laughter, adventure, learning and a litany of other things that made me who I am today.  I guess it’s painful because it’s so definitely over and it’s never coming back.  And so I kind of smack the nostalgia out before it can overwhelm me with its bittersweet mist.

Today, for some reason, I want to just throw caution to the gloomy clouds outside and go for it.  A dip in the past.  I already spent around 9 to 10 hours watching Netflix yesterday, in bed, of course, is there any other way to watch endless episodes of a TV show?

The first two years our dorm rooms were tiny.  But it may have been one half of a small box, it was more mine than any room back in my house in Karachi had ever been.  And so, from the bed sheets neatly stretched out to the frames and the way the books were piled on my desk, and the creative freedom I exercised on my wall (it was so definitely mine, even if I paid fines for it at the end of each year), it was liberating.

Starting anew is never easy but when you’re 17, 18, you still have the energy and the optimism and well, mostly the energy, to power through the awkward small talk and so you use the same flashcards of questions which you take out of your pocket every time there’s five minutes with a stranger and read them off one by one.  And everyone else is kind of doing the same thing so it makes it easier I guess.

And then of course, there were always the wacky ones.  The ones who would tell you a story about how they juggled their goldfish from the sink to a bottle to the floor in the first ten minutes of your meeting, or offer to grab breakfast after Psychology class, or tell you that your eyebrows need a bit of a trim.  And I guess those are the ones you remember the most – those and the really ordinary tales of hey do you want a cup of tea so you don’t die studying for your exam? or I really don’t like onions in my paratha roll and of course, do you think there is going to be a quiz in class today? And I guess you remember these because these are the ones you’ll stick to for the rest of your life (hopefully).

What I miss the most? I’m not sure.

Waking up to a quiet Sunday morning in winter when the campus is still asleep, slightly shivering under a blanket of fog and walking around with a cup of tea before settling down on a bench under a sturdy tree.  Just sitting on the grass, starting a reading and then stopping every ten minutes because someone walks by and sits down to talk, leaning back with your arms behind you, palms digging into the ground, grass imprints on your hands, legs stretched out, just lounging for hours. 

Cryptic messages, too lazy to type the vowels and spell it all out, to meet up for bland Chinese chicken and rice at PDC, sharing the excitement and alerting all your better mates about the crispy potato wedges (what were they called … argh my memory!) that would show up like a special treat every month or so.

Just lounging for hours.

Polishing the morning breakfast routine down to the way we placed butter wedged behind the paper cup of hot tea to melt it so, and taking our trays out to the khopchas, our window ledges of comfort and camaraderie, and yes, sitting there for hours.
The gift of time, the gift of no bills, no job, no grown-up conscience, no constant reminder of mortality, no idea of permanence, no fear of permanence, no wish or anxiety about stability, the gift of invincibility, the gift of loving being in a fast car with the windows down and your hair whipping the person sitting next to you’s face.

Just sitting around on the curbside for hours, making lists and itineraries and plans, or remember the games of Rapid Recall (why did the boys always win when the girls were obviously smarter and better at drawing and remembering things?) or Pictionary (why did Urooj’s lizard look like a leaf? Or was it a leaf that looked like a lizard? And the firework people that Essam made and I think I still have fading away on some piece of paper in some memorabilia box) or when we would lock ourselves up in our rooms singing songs in the dark or watching episodes of FRIENDS or YouTube videos of funny babies?

Just kidding around for hours.  Remember the prank calls to the US? 

Remember attending guest lectures and crushing on professors and judging others for crushing on professors because obviously, ours was an intellectual love, why else would you pine after a tall bald guy in wrinkled shalwar kameez? Remember idealism and hope and love and passion?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t believe or hope anymore but oh it was just a different kind, just edged in a different kind of glow and intensity.

What do I miss the most?

Remember when it would rain and we would lose our shit? Remember badminton matches in the sports complex and outside on the curb and that one friend who would always show off with dives to the ground and skids on his knees?

Or the one time when we got up from PDC after dinner and decided to explore the under-construction building near the faculty apartments, stumbling in the pitch darkness and almost making it inside when a ghost with a blue light flashed it in our faces and we all kind of just yelled and ran away? Did we leave someone in the front to explain to the guard what we were doing there?

Remember exploring a new city and falling in love with its old mosques and gardens and cute cafes and restaurants and its beautiful range of weather?

Remember eating cold cereal for sehri in a dim dorm room, remember lounging in the common room, remember sitting in the balcony overlooking the faculty apartments? Remember iftaaris where we combined our powers to marry samosas with rolls and Tang? Remember instant noodles and owning three pieces of cutlery?

See, four years is a long time.  The ‘remember when’ would go on and on for pages and it would be dark outside and then light again by the time my memory comes up blank about life in LUMS.

And I guess that’s a good thing, because sometimes I get scared that I will forget about all the amazing times I had there, and the thought of forgetting those days is definitely more terrifying than remembering them.

And yeah, we didn’t know back then that some years later we would be sitting on opposite ends of the world and surviving through something called Whatsapp, but then I wonder if we knew that we would be closer and even better friends (maybe even married!)?
So of course.  I don’t have hours and hours, weeks and months of hanging out and sitting on gravel sipping tea from paper cups, and yes, the bills will keep coming and I had better continue employment, and figuring out what to cook tomorrow, and yeah, people are growing up and old and sick and there used to be a time when you had a whole generation to look after you and reprimand you and tell you what you should do but now, well. Not quite, and you’re on your own, which is good I guess but sometimes it makes you want to hide under the blankets in the far corner of your bed.

Okay, wait, I lost my train of thought – the string of grays became too long.  I guess what I’m saying is I wouldn’t change it for anything.  Because if you think about it, those four years of life were full to the brim – there wasn’t space for anything else, anything more.  Ad what more can you ask for? It was the transience of that time that made it so special.

So.  It’s okay.  We’ll be alright, I’m pretty sure.


And I’m going to continue hoping that the sun comes out soon, if not today, then tomorrow for sure.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Winter is Coming

Actually, for a Karachiite, winter is already here, with temperatures tipsily tipping into the negatives late at night.  I mean, when you feel the need to wear two bottoms, you know it is cold. 

This is always the season when I tell people that we need to invent a nose-warmer because scarves and hats and earmuffs are not enough and for some reason my nose always gets really cold.  It feels as if I have an ice cube stuck to my face.  And the standard response is usually, look it up, it’s probably already been invented, and my dreams of a patented nose-patch are easily crushed and swept away till next winter.

I realized it was time to stop watching Suits endlessly and turn to writing because the leaves are dying, and I hadn’t even typed up my gushing tribute to Autumn/Fall.  I was surprised when the trees started changing color and all of a sudden the palettes had changed from green to yellows and reds.  (Mainly because it felt cold and I thought it was already winter.)

But, the permanent goose bumps and sniffles were a back story to the breathtaking landscape that would run past in the windows of the bus to the city.  God really is the coolest artist – it really seemed to be a careful piece of art with the green trees giving way to a bright yellow, darkening to a burnt orange, russet and then the fiery red that would suffuse the crispy leaves in radiance.  Nothing arbitrary about it – the colors perfectly fading one into the other like a meticulously crafted shade card.  There is something special about trees in so many colors – I mean, flowers are pretty too and Spring is nice when blue and pink and orange and purple all sprout up from the ground.  But when the trees change from their everyday green to russet or red, there is something more majestic about it. 

I find leaves kinder than flowers somehow.  There is something more thoughtful about the transformation. 

It’s time for a makeover, they murmur, stretching and shaking out last night’s sleep as the wind yawns through the branches, should we go with red or a bonfire orange, they whisper, maybe start with a bright yellow, almost the color of the young green when the sun strikes them early morning… and then we’ll take it from there…

And every night when the world is asleep, the tiny painter fairies and artsy elves come, starting from the edges of the trees, and the edges of the leaves – and so we see the magic, leaves that are bordered red, yellow in between and the green still there at the heart … and then just like that, one day the painters go on a frenzy and we wake up to entire trees drenched in bright reds and romantic oranges.

And as the breeze blows, one leaf touches the other, spreading the color, the love, the orange and the red, like a line of children with ink-stained hands holding hands.
Do you think it’s time, they ask a couple of weeks into Autumn, let’s see, and a leaf, one, two, three, flutters to the ground, landing on auburn hair or a child’s hat, startling, surprising, making someone smile as they look up and get distracted from their worrying thoughts of missed buses and overspent budgets, and think, hey, that looks really pretty.
And the leaves sigh and sacrifice themselves, falling in bunches to the ground, carpeting bumpy sidewalks and dirt-lined paths so that little kids in pink boots can run through them and we can walk across the crackling yellow, crunching little bursts of happiness on cold days.

So it’s been a lovely Autumn, and I am sad to see it go.  Already the trees are looking bare, with just clumps of bright leaves left, and the branches thin and stiff, like pouty teenagers just standing there.  The days have become short – the sun is too cold to come out before 7:30 am and too damned lazy to stay up for that long.  By the time its 5pm its dark and you want to be back in your cosy home eating dinner because it feels like 8.

The good thing is I started work so now I have diversified from cleaning the house and haunting the library to actually going in to office.  It’s a pretty cool organisation and I’m all set to learn lots of new stuff and hopefully manage to benefit my employers too.

The bad thing is that it is as awful to wake up at 7:15 am as I remember it.  Except now the world outside of our gigantic furnace-like comforter is cold.  And more often than not, it is cloudy and the sky is being cruel and sending down a fine misty spray on our faces, it’s to wake you up, it seems to say with an evil smile.

But the gooder thing is that it’s part-time so I work three days a week and am supposed to have a long weekend, which feels good (if I can ignore the list of household chores assigned by myself). 

So I guess we can end on the brighter note – here’s to having jobs not (just) because you get to be productive and have an opportunity to contribute to the world, but mainly because now you can really value and enjoy your days off.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

To Make or Not To Make (friends/coffee)

It could be the fire alarm that has been jangling my nerves for the last 30 minutes, even though there is obviously no fire raging (had there been one, the entire building would be ablaze by now).  Or it could be that my hair has been falling like the leaves will fall two weeks from now, or that I have to sweep the house almost every day because of all that fallen hair (enough to make 75 bird nests I think).  It could be the dry skin or the dishes that incessantly sneak into the sink every time I turn my head around.

It could be that I just want someone to make some daal chawal and put on Downton Abbey for me.  In any case, it just happens that I’m going to be blue for a few hours (before I decide to get out of bed and just vacuum the entire 400 square feet of our apartment).

I’m generally an introvert (no way, really!).  I enjoy solitude and I start getting antsy if I’ve been chatting on the phone for more than 30 minutes.  I mean, one of my favorite things to do in the world is to read, which is a solitary hobby by definition.  So when we moved to Nottingham where my avenues for socializing were going to be limited, I was prepared. 

And it has been quite lovely so far.  Every now and then I get an itch to have a conversation with a woman (considering my only two companions in this city are guys – husband, cousin, thank you both, you’re priceless but still) but other than that, it’s sweet.  It is only scattered moments like running into a neighbor staring at the psychotic alarm clock and having a two minute conversation to realize oh, hey, that’s not so bad.  Talking to another human being, that is.

The trouble with moving to a new place (and especially if you’re not the one starting university or work) is that it takes a lot of effort to make new friends.  And when you’re 29 years old (I am so dreading the day I have to start using 30-year-old …!) you have less motivation to go through the earlier awkward small talk phases of friendship. 

Blessed as I am, I have a few really good friends and yeah, they’re kind of all over the place (as if God just rolled a bunch of dice on the globe and beamed as a few landed up in North America, one in Canada, some in the UAE and the one that keeps rolling on and on in Europe… ) but in this digital age it’s not so bad.  I mean you can send them pictures of coffee cups that you would have loved to share with ‘em and flaming red trees that some of them would sigh over and the others roll their eyes at (and both reactions are delightful to you).  

When I was younger I reveled in the idea of ‘being different’… being unique, not fitting in, the idea of loneliness was romantic.  But as we grow up, I guess we realize how much better it is when we find people who share our likes and dislikes.  There are few delights greater than shrieking ‘me too!’ over something small like polka-dotted mugs or vintage notebooks.  And then, when you find a small group of people from this wild jungle of humanity that makes you feel like you belong, that doesn’t make you wrinkle your nose or roll your eyes or think “really, you want to spend that much money on a hat/bag/shoes?”, it feels great. 

When you have your comfortable circle of buddies, you’re less likely to judge others because hey, to each their own.  Whatever makes you happy, as long as I have someone to go to bookshops and make detailed itineraries to see the world with. 

The best part about old friends is how there are no pretenses.  There’s something black stuck in your teeth; I think next time you shouldn’t cut your own hair; are you really going to go out in your PJs okay then so am I

And you accept their faults and they accept yours and occasionally you make a video montage of all the imperfections together with a suitable soundtrack.

You’re really slow/OCDed/controlling/scatterbrained/ALWAYS LATE!

And you can call at any time and just hearing their voice makes you feel grounded.  And you can be misfits together – I said something awkward to my boss again … I really do not want to go to another shaadi today … wait, are there going to be PEOPLE there?

Once you find that, it is really hard to look for replacements.  Strike up conversation with a stranger in the hopes that they too will think the current music on the radio is trash?  Uhhh.  Or just wait a few hours till the time zones make it possible to call someone who already knows I straighten the cushions every time I get up from the sofa…

I mean I did it during my college and then again in the US.  Initial agonizing ‘hi, what’s your name, where are you from’, progressing to talk about the weather and the courses, awkward pauses, making plans and then realizing they’re kind of ummm  and you’d rather be in bed …
But at the end of the few months’ social trying, you can make some actual friends.  People who make you smile whenever you think of them, honest-to-goodness sweethearts that will share their closets and their food and trips to the park and try out all the vegetarian new cafes with you even if they’re not vegetarians. 

And those are for life.

The trouble is, the more of them you have, the less inclined you are to look for others in the new phases of your life.  And so that’s why I’m still in bed.  And not likely to look up book clubs or local societies for gems that might click into place perfectly.

The argument is similar to having to get up in the morning from your cozy bed to make a cup of coffee.  The bed is super warm and it is cold outside the blanket world and it just seems stupendously difficult especially when you’re not getting paid to do it … once you battle through the laziness and actually make that cup of coffee, it is (usually) worth it.  Of course, if someone made that cup of coffee and brought it to you while you stayed in bed… now that. That would be pretty awesome.


Monday, October 24, 2016

Life in the Library



There is a blond toddler in a polka-dot dress standing in front of the elevator doors, making funny faces at her reflection.

Yesterday, a mother walked out of the elevator not bothering to look at her two-year-old who still stood inside with a cheeky grin on his face and my eyes widened as the door closed on the chubster.  By now, the mother had glanced behind and calling out his name (was it Alex?) she came back and repeatedly pressed the button.  It took a few seconds but the door opened again and there was the imp still smiling in the elevator.
The mother did not scold or grab the child’s arm; just muttered something I couldn’t hear and walked away again – this time the boy decided to follow after a moment of hesitation.

Although our house is right by the intersection, which means that often it feels like I’m next to a radio that somebody keeps changing the channels on, flitting from rap to pop to pop again, and the car noises right out of an auto-show – the three buildings adjacent to our home are: post office, funeral services and library.  Just in that order.

And almost every day, I give my life in Nottingham a semblance of routine by walking over, getting a 60 pence coffee from the machine downstairs and settling on the first floor at a table to work or write or search for jobs.

As much as I love books, I don’t always enjoy libraries.  They’re almost always too cold, too dim, too quiet and full of nervous students.

This one is nothing like that – the skylights and wide windows make it a bright place to be, even if it is cloudy outside.  Every Thursday morning the librarians are singing nursery rhymes and shaking some tinkly instruments.  Almost every other day, a group of teenagers gets told off for something or the other. 
The other day, this young girl flopped down on one of the couches with two of her friends.  She put her feet up on the small coffee table in front of her and pitched her chair back, her languid confidence and no-shit attitude making me more envious than disapproving.  They talked loudly for a while and then I’m not sure what it was, but one of the elderly librarians came up and shooed them away.  They walked off slowly, lazily, mimicking her scolding as they sauntered off.

Teenagers in groups seem to be doing everything but reading in the library –
For example this trio of 13 or so-year-olds in front of me.  Give you three guesses what they are up to – talking to each other; working on a puzzle; fiddling on their smart phones?

The library has a desk of computers that is almost always occupied by older people.  They do use Facebook quite a bit.  But generally, I think they are here looking for jobs.  I know because I eavesdrop on their conversations to become more knowledgeable.

And there is Wifi for anyone who wants to bring their own laptop and work at a nice Beech desk.

The best news is – it is free for all residents! All you need to do is sign up.  And you have access to the warm space and all these books and resources here.
Ah, developed countries.  Do they realize how cool these resources are?
It is really a community space.  People know each other’s names, the librarians help out to make photocopies or take out print outs, there is a space for artists to showcase their work for free, book readings and children’s story times makes it such a nice bright bustling center.

Once I’ve applied to a few jobs or reviewed scripts for my old job, I set about discreetly observing people and making up stories about them.

Here are a few short ones to share –
*
Belinda, with her short brown hair and large thick glasses, was collecting a lot of books.  She piled them on a table in front of me after an apologetic ‘are these bothering you?’, which I brushed aside with my sweetest smile and an ‘of course not!’.  From self-help guides to David Bowie’s life, it felt like she had a deep thirst for knowing something about everything.
The pile of books grew bigger.
“Do you want me to help you carry those downstairs?” I asked and she thanked me breathily, “oh I’m just finding some more and then maybe I’ll put some back, I’ll ask you when I’m ready!”
Sure thing, learned lady.

A few minutes later, the pile was only bigger.  I suppose she had decided not to cut down anyways.
I helped her carry some 27 books downstairs.
“You’ve got some intense reading to do this weekend,” I smiled at her and she blushed, “oh, yes, yes, I really enjoy reading …”

Belinda had a small square bag with wheels that she now piled the books into and with a stubby wave, she was off.
She crossed the road and stood by the bus stop, wondering if she had managed to get an even number of red books and an odd number of blue books like she was supposed to.  I guess I’ll just have to hope for the best, she told herself just as the bus rolled to a stop in front of her.
“Thank you, love,” the driver smiled at her as she tapped her card and then went to sit down, clutching her trolley tightly.

Belinda lived in a small one-bedroom apartment not too far from the library.  As she opened the door she heard the mews of her cats.
“Hello Lucy, hello Kramer,” she greeted the tabby cats that rubbed against her shoes as soon as she walked in.

The living room was dark save for the orange halos cast by her old lamps. 

She scuffed off her shoes and wheeled her bag into the center of the carpet where a few books already lay on the floor in three piles: red, blue and black.
Belinda started taking the newly issued ones out and putting them in their designated places.  Once the correct number of books had been collected in each stack, she smiled happily.

Getting up from the floor, she slowly made her way to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
“Don’t worry my dears,” she told Lucy and Kramer who were following her. “I’ll build you your home after my cup of tea.  Imagine that.  A lovely little house made of books.  Isn’t that just like a fairytale?”

*
The woman in the red sweatshirt was there before me every day of the week.  She sat with her books on data analysis and management spread out around her laptop, next to her notes neatly scribbled and underlined in a pile by her thermos.  She sipped her drink from the thermos in its small cap and every now and then, she would get a coffee from the machine downstairs. 

I wondered about the orange pram that stood next to her.  Where is her child?

Nadya, who was in her late 30s, moved from Warsaw to Nottingham after her marriage dissolved two years ago.  She chose that particular city in England because her favorite aunt lived here.  She was her favorite because she agreed with everything Nadya said, and at this stage of her life, Nadya needed that more than anything.  Someone who nodded at her and patted her arm comfortingly.

Although she had studied art in college, Nadya decided a change of fields was in order.  I think data management will lead to better paying jobs, she had said and Aunt Missy had smiled and said, Yes dear.  I do think you’re right.

While Nadya prepared for her certification exam, she took on babysitting jobs because she needed to make some money to pay for food and such.  So she went around the neighborhood with her special walnut cake and introduced herself.  She had a worn out, trustworthy face and soon she had built up a clientele.

When Nadya started babysitting, she realized it was much easier to take care of families where there was an older sibling.  In such homes, she would have a serious conversation with the older child and stress the importance of ‘helping’ her.  This gave her time to spread out her books and get some work done.

And then Nadya had a better idea.

She visited a neighborhood two miles away, in Stapleford.  She would take Greta with her, the 9-year-old girl who lived two houses down and often skipped school to hang out with Nadya.  There, Nadya would study while Greta took care of the babies.  Pretty soon, Nadya felt comfortable enough to walk over to the community library and study in complete peace, managing her time efficiently to get all her studying done and then going back home just before the parents came.

“Time to go,” Nadya looked at her watch and got up to leave.  She packed away her books into the baby’s pram and with a quick smile, she went back to relieve Greta, tuck the baby in and get 40 quid from the grateful parents.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Let’s Try Not to Buy


I know why it doesn’t rain in Karachi that much – it’s because all the rainclouds are in England. 

I have yet to see a sky without clouds.  Even if the sun is out, giant fluffy white clouds are lounging about nearby, often closing in and darkening to send down a short spray of rain, just for fun, and then moving apart as if they had nothing to do with the shower.  There’s never a definite warm sunny day.  The rainclouds are always a head-turn away.

The weather is erratic.  But I do feel like it’s a special, magical moment when there is a quick spurt of rain while the sun continues to shine, and the rainbow that’s always there if you just take a moment to look for it.

It feels nice, kind of a peacemaking gesture from the gods, as if to say, we know it’s cold and overcast and it can get kinda gloomy, so here you go, a translucent arch of colours to brighten your day.I just have to remind myself to stop the grumbling for a minute and look up.

Thank goodness we bought umbrellas.  The £3 umbrellas are probably our best buys yet – that and the £60 washing machine we got from the pirate family.

The same washing machine that we installed with a minor flaw – ‘F-04’ the machine blinked at the end of its trial round.  Maybe that is code for end cycle in British English, I told myself stupidly and tried to open the door.  Locked tight.  And so I pressed the cancel button which is also inexplicably the ‘start’ button (I mean come on, that is one sadistic manufacturer) and started another cycle.
The button confusion explains one extra cycle but there is really no explanation for the next three cycles that started.  Just multiply stupidity and frustration by two because Fahad and I both intruded and somehow at 2 am, I woke to the sound of insistent beeping.  I went outside to find Fahad staring at a machine now full of soapy water sloshing in the drum.  ‘F-04’ means the water isn’t draining properly, Google told us the obvious.

The next morning we told the washing machine repair man we’ll check with him later when he told us it would cost – can you guess?  £60 to fix it, it’s really not a big deal! And then because we were going to London for the weekend we had to at least empty out the drum. Let’s just end the story on a positive note – the kitchen floor (where the washing machine lives) was given an incredibly good wash and mop.

It turned out the drain pipe has a small cork that you have to remove, kind of like the seal on a ketchup bottle you should peel off before you can squeeze the sauce out.  Anyways, that’s sorted out now and if you’re interested, it can take approximately seven hours to wash and semi-dry two people’s two-week laundry.

These days I am trying to figure out the balance between student life and but-we’re-so-much-older now life.  The see-saw is teetering more to the student side right now – the mirror we got still lies leaning against the wall rather than hung up by a nail that will definitely damage the rental walls, and the posters are not in frames but put up with blue tac.  I have long winding conversations with myself on but really, what do we really need?
The wise men and women have all said it – material things do not make us happy.  In fact, they make life cluttered and complicated.  If you have just five shirts, three sweaters, two jeans and two pairs of shoes – trust me, you’ll get dressed so much quicker. The fewer things you have, I realized when we moved into our apartment, the fewer things you need to store them in.

It’ll be an interesting experiment to find out how long we can survive with one saucepan and one frying pan, I had told myself when I was packing for England.  Well, not even a week because I bought one larger nonstick pot while picking up the essential red, yellow, brown spices from the Paki store. BUT after that, I have been surviving on three cooking utensils.
And we only have a four-unit cutlery set.
In a world without dishwashers, this is a blessing undisguised.  Since we only have a few dishes, we (and by we I mean I) can’t let them pile up in the basin because then we wouldn’t have anything to eat in.  So it is a win-win situation.

So far for two people we needed one narrow cupboard, a side-table drawer and a in-need-of-another-coat-of-paint desk to store all our belongings.  And the few straggling bags and leftover PJs simply hang over doorknobs and on top of a giant suitcase that we cannot seem to stuff into any corner.

With less stuff, it’s easier to restore order.  You cannot imagine the satisfaction I get from straightening the two brightly spiraled coasters on our bedroom window ledge and then staring at the perfectly angled clock, two perfume bottles, an orange picture frame and the two now correctly-positioned coasters: everything is in its rightful place and it is a beautiful peaceful sight.

You could say I have a problem and I would agree, but then everyone has a problem.  I would snidely point out that leaving a trail of dirty clothes in your wake and dropping ketchup all over your shirt is also a problem and we can stick to which is worse.

At the end of the day, sitting on my bed, if my pink postcard rests right in the middle of two stacks of books, it helps to remind me to draw a deep breath in.

The trick, of course, is to see how long one can lead an uncluttered life.  Because anyone who has moved homes (or even dorms!), knows that things have a habit of collecting.  We don’t realize just how much stuff we accumulate till we start to pack it all into cardboard, or maybe suitcases that have a 23 kg limit. 

It is smart to remind oneself to think before you buy (especially what with all these apps and online bargains and it’s so easy to pay, especially when you haven’t activated the SMS service your bank has…!).  Ask yourself: but do you need it? How badly do you want it? How often will you use it? And really, where will you keep it?


As for the little potted plants I pass by every day– I do have a place for them.  On the wide window ledge in the lounge, just above our ratty £5 sofa.  I mean, it’ll really liven the place up.  And I won’t have to pack them when we move – I’ll just leave ‘em for Steve, our next door neighbor (he thinks we’re the people who leave our trash bags on TOP of the apartment garbage bins but it really isn’t). 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Thank You, Cheers

I wanted to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich so I buttered the small frying pan (that I had brought all the way from Pakistan), and added the thick slices of bread and cheese – it was then that my eyes fell on the lid to a saucepan (the travelling companion to the frying pan) and a light bulb clicked above my head: the cheese will melt better if I cover the pan.  It will be grand.

So I popped the lid on the frying pan and it slid a little lower than it should have but it wasn’t a big deal.

Till I tried to lift it.  And try and pry as I could, the lid did not budge.  The bulb flickered and fused.

A broken knob and bent fork later, Fahad decided to step in.  Man to pan. 

He exited the apartment and a few minutes later, remerged, a huge grin on his face and the lid pried loose from its unsuitable marriage to the pan.  The edges of the pan were scraped and the scratches on its nonstick sides are not for the seriously OCDed, but I wasn’t complaining.  And of course the lid doesn’t have its black knob anymore. 
I can only imagine how my husband looked bent over next to the road, banging the frying pan on the sidewalk in the cool British evening. 

In other announcements – we have moved into our apartment.  It is located on Church Street and it used to be a tavern.  But rest assured, it looks nothing like a pub from the inside.  The reception has the world’s heaviest door that I need to lean with all my body weight to open, and our flat is on the ground floor.  Which means spying activities for me in the day and for others at night (so I must keep the blinds shut).

And there are plenty of sounds, even in a quiet town in Nottinghamshire – car enthusiasts zooming by with strange loud car sounds, R&B at 11:30 pm, loud renditions of Twinkle Twinkle Litte Star by a mother-son duo (yes, it was very cute) and the sputtering of heavy bikes that are peculiarly popular here.  In the morning I brush my hair by the window, looking at old couples wheeling their walkers slowly, cars stopping to let people cross the road and people always, always raising their hand in a thank you.

Which leads us to how polite everybody is in England. 

And the frequent use of the word ‘cheers’ in everyday conversation!  How did I not know this is how British people talk? My faith in popular media has been struck a blow.  I mean, we all know everything about the fish and chips and football and beer and Hyde Park and how the London Eye is really not worth the money because it is essentially an arthritic Ferris wheel … but I had no idea that people talk like this here:
“Orright then, thank you,”
“Cheers!”

“Sure, cheers mate.”

“See you later.”
“Cheers.”

It’s used as a ‘thank you’, ‘you’re welcome’ and ‘bye’.  For some reason I am very tickled by this.  I haven’t been able to incorporate it into my conversation though.  Not yet.
People have better manners on the road here than we do at the dinner table back in Pakistan.  Huge buses come to a screeching halt if you so much as put a toe out onto the pedestrian crossing.  And the other day, when Fahad and I were standing by the road to cross (there was no pedestrian crossing nearby in that suburban neighborhood) and cars zipped by one after the other, this jeep stopped a couple of yards away and flashed its headlights at us.
“It wants to mow us down!” my brain screamed till I realized this is the signal that they’re letting you cross.  Pardon my Karachi-bred mind for thinking that was the car’s version of a bull pawing the ground before it charged.

Of course, as a brown visitor in the country, we try to be as polite if not more so than everybody else.  Which means that we’re always saying either “excuse me, sorry” or “pardon me” or “thank you” while walking down grocery store aisles or skirting corners along the road.

And of course I miss home, and I miss Karachi.  I miss the brazen ownership that one can only experience in one’s own country – (and yes, I know it is a privilege for the majority in-power class but laying that aside for now), the comfort that makes us almost rude, because after all, this is mine, I can do what I want with it.

I like Nottingham.  It is big enough to have multiple kinds of cinemas and parks and there are festivals popping up now and then, but not crazy like London (which I still found to be less crazy and cleaner than New York).  Walking around in the city center you can hear different languages – Spanish, Arabic, English and snippets of Punjabi or Urdu/Hindi.  Just a minor digression – it is refreshing how the British college students do not use the word like in their conversations (except perhaps to say “I like your sweater”).  I did not realize this till the time we were sitting in the bus and there were two girls sitting behind us discussing some other girl’s boyfriend situation.  And as I eavesdropped automatically, I couldn’t place what was so familiar about the way they talked and how come I understood what they were saying so easily (because trust me, I have trouble understanding the British accent – “sorry, pardon me, what was that?”).  And then I realized! Aha! American accents! And the entire conversation was peppered with like, so then I was like did you really think that through, like don’t you know he already has a girlfriend, like come on…

Yes, Nottingham.  It’s nice.  Indian food seems to be the most popular, with Chinese next and Mexican third.  But more common than even fish and chips seems to be fried chicken.  And there is so much Halal food here! So I’m enjoying the diversity.  And I love walking around.  Especially now that we have moved out of our AirBnb where only one bus service went, at intervals of 40-50 minutes.  Every now and then I miss having a car – like yesterday when I walked to the Laundromat that was so much closer when I had walked there without a 2 kilo load of dirty clothes. My arms still ache but that says more about my fitness than anything else.

The adventures in Nottingham so far involve waiting for the bus, getting on the wrong bus, missing our stop and ending up five blocks further than we had planned, exploring the underground cave city that dates back to the 1600s, sitting in the sunlight in sweaters while little kids shrieked and ran through the fountains in T-shirts and eating creamy vanilla cones in a beautiful country park where the fields rolled away into the distance.
Anyways, there’s work to do now.  More later.

Cheers.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Scaly Surroundings: Part II

Fred woke up with a start.  He thought he smelt something strange – a burning cigarette, his brain identified once it had yawned awake. 

Marie slept hidden under the blanket with her knees pulled up and pointed towards him.
He was thirsty. The water bottle was unsurprisingly empty on the desk.
Fred was happy Marie was too asleep to say I told you so.  He got out of bed and as he walked by the window, he smelled the cigarette smoke again.  The air was still enough outside for smells to hang heavily suspended in the same spot.

He fumbled with the switches on each floor so he could see where he was going.  He ignored the skeleton who was still hanging out by the window in his room with damp shirts and vests.  Downstairs, the TV was glowing blue.  There was no other sound except for the muted mutter of whatever show was on.  Fred glanced at his watch and saw that it was almost 4 am. What in the world…

He opened the tap and filled his bottle. He had decided not to turn on the light in the kitchen because there was enough moonlight streaming in.  He saw the boxes of cigarettes right on the kitchen counter and realized someone must have gone outside for a smoke right by their window.  A moving shadow got his eye outside the window and Fred’s manly heart missed a beat like someonetripping over a misshapen curbside.  He peered out and realized it was just a cat; a very fat, black cat with glistening eyes slowly making its way into the backyard.

Fred turned around, half expecting Anthony to be standing right behind him, quietly observing, a sharp silver blade in his hand.
Stop it, stop it brain, Fred muttered, breathing out when he saw there was nobody there behind him. Of course because this isn’t some stupid horror film.

And now I need to pee. At least the bathroom is on my way.

Fred pulled at the string in the bathroom to turn on the light and stopped short halfway to the toilet.

It looked as if an operation had gone horribly wrong - the scene of a man turning into a scaly monster and throwing up all over the toilet seat because it couldn’t have been a pleasant experience.  Flecks of skin and other unidentifiable specks, white, red, brown, scattered the floor and the toilet seat.  There were two small stains above the toilet, dark red, like dried blood.  For a minute Fred wanted to turn right around and forget his bladder even existed.  But realizing that if Marie came in here she would pass out, and he didn’t want her to pass out on this skinscaped floor, he pulled up his sleeves, grabbed enough anti-bacterial wipes to cover his hand and cleaned up just enough that somebody wouldn’t throw up if they came in.
I’m glad boys can pee standing up, was his last thought as he washed his hands with boiling water and climbed back up to the room.

***
Marie felt something move in the dark and her eyes fluttered open, still half asleep, as a shape moved up from the foot of the bed, crawling towards her.
“Hey-?”
“Sorry, sorry,” Fred muttered, bumping his head on the low ceiling.
Marie leaned over to the side-table and turned on the lamp. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah,” he said in his evasive tone.
“Hey! What’s the matter? Where’d you go?” Marie poked his arm as he settled into the covers next to her.
“Well. Something weird happened-”

Bewilderment followed by disgust followed by a very strong feeling of uneasiness set in once Fred told her the story.

And then right after -

“Alright, let’s go to sleep.” And before Marie could nag or fret or talk more, Fred was breathing deeply, an almost but not quite snoring to indicate the veracity of his sleep.
Decidedly upset, Marie turned and twisted in bed and then picked up her phone to let the soothing bright lights of social media distract her.  A few minutes later, she clicked the lamp shut and pulled the blankets tighter around her.

It wasn’t much later when she heard the click of the door.
Somebody is trying to come in…
Marie tried to keep her breath steady but her heart pumped harder and faster, trying to escape its cage.  She heard the muted patter of feet walking gently on carpet, and desperately, she tried to nudge Fred but her limbs wouldn’t move.
Her eyes were shut but she could still see the dark shape leaning over her.
“Hello,” someone whispered, and he was smiling widely because she could see the white glisten of his teeth in the blackness above her.
Marie tried to scream her husband’s name but her voice was gone.  Her body was frozen and her screams echoed silently, flailing, failing.

The nightmare paled for a few seconds and then repeated, the sound of footsteps on the carpet, the darkness of a person standing above her over the bed, and then the shape faded into blackness.

Marie tried to catch her breath, still asleep but lucid enough to know it had been a dream. She was finally able to move and she moved closer to Fred.  

***

“I did not sleep well,” Marie stood by the window, rearranging their travel paraphernalia on the desk.
“Yeah, me neither.”
“Do you think we should move out earlier?”
“To where? It would be difficult to find a place right now. I mean, it is just one more night you know.”
Marie nodded, scrunching her nose. “I guess.”
The house was quiet as they walked down the steps and out the kitchen door.  Marie saw a small pot, meant for plants but full to the brim with spent cigarettes.  As she pointed it out to Fred, he nodded. “Explains a bit.”

Later that day, after a hearty breakfast of eggs, toast, beans and grilled mushrooms and a cup of strong black coffee, the couple decided it wasn’t an ideal situation, but it wasn’t as sinister as they were making it out to be.
“I mean, look at these reviews.  A couple of them mention Anthony being ill, but nothing else. Everybody who has stayed there has avowed the hosts’ niceness. Except maybe these two reviews. But anyways! We can ask him to get the bathroom cleaned if it isn’t already done by the time we get home.” And with that mature approach, Marie pulled out her list of Fun Things to Do in a New City.
Fred ordered another cup of coffee.

***

Anthony stood by his window, looking out at the couple as they walked down his street towards the bus stop.

He felt a loneliness spread inside.

His partner, a steward for a budget airline, had left for a three day trip to Barcelona and Anthony hated being alone. 

It was this same loneliness that kept him up all night.  And it was the same sadness that had made him go into their room last night.  He had just stood there by the door, not doing anything but listening to the sound of their sleep, their deep breathing calmed him. 

Maybe just for a while.

The street outside was empty.

Anthony moved away from the window, opened his door and slowly trudged up the stairs to the loft.  He opened the door to their room and paused for a while.  Then he went to sit on the sofa, flakes of dried skin disappearing into the carpet, floating slowly to settle on the red fabric of the sofa.


I think I’ll just wait here.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Scaly Surroundings: Part I

The bright pink trolley bag rumbled over the pebbled sidewalk like an empty stomach as Fred and his wife Marie made their way to the house they had booked over a website for two nights.  The house had had decent reviews but as Marie followed Fred to the door, she felt a shadow pass over her head.  She looked up to see if it was a cloud but for once, the English sky was bright and sunny.

Fred knocked on the door but there was no answer.  He pressed the bell but there was no sound.  They called on their host’s number but nobody picked up. 
“How annoying,” muttered Marie, pressing the bell again, which suddenly came off the wall and into her palm. No wonder there was no sound.
The couple decided to go get lunch in the nearby town center and wait for the host to respond.

About an hour later, just as Marie was pointing out the pasta sauce on Fred’s chin for him to wipe off, they received a polite message from their host. Apologies. Please come now, I am home.

And so they found themselves in front of the door again.  There was a thirty-second pause after they knocked and then suddenly, a face appeared in the window.  A man with dark eyes and a French beard gestured to come around from the back.

There was a small garden in the backyard and a faint disagreeable smell that Marie could not put her finger (or nose) on.  The backdoor opened and a tall pale man greeted them, “Hello, I’m Anthony.”
His voice was soft and wheezy as if he had trouble breathing and the skin on his face, neck and hands was peeling, dry and flaky.  Even the skin on his eyelids hung loose and dry, giving him a strange sad sleepy look.  He extended his hand and Marie shook it quickly, trying not to cringe at the touch.  If it was contagious then he wouldn’t have offered his hand …
The man with the French beard stood a little further away. “That’s Marvin,” Anthony said and Marvin waved quickly.
“Come, I’ll show you to your room.”

The room was on the top floor, a sort of loft with an arched ceiling that cut close over the bed.  It was clean and the window was open, letting in some fresh air.  There was a cabinet with pink, black and white plastic hangers for them to hang their clothes on, and a sofa with white flecks that Marie hoped was dust and lint and not shreds of skin.
“There’s a bathroom on the first floor,” Anthony whispered in his breathless voice.  He showed them the large bathroom that they were to share with the hosts: a linen shelf with fresh towels, a washing machine, bath tub and shower, the toilet and a green potted plant stood with room to spare.  Anthony gave them their key and they decided to go out to explore the town.

***

“He looks pretty sick,” mused Fred. “What do you think he has, AIDS?”
“I don’t think its AIDS!” Marie gave her husband a light whack on the shoulder. “Maybe it’s just a bad case of eczema.”
“He sure seemed to have trouble breathing…”
“You don’t think it’s contagious, is it?” Marie twittered nervously. “We’re not going to wake up in the morning with our skin coming off?”
“No,” Fred pulled at his shirt collar. “I sure hope not.”
Marie took the opportunity to take a bite from his beef chili burrito. “Hey, this is good.”

***

They returned home with the same sinking feeling that comes and snuggles in the pit of your stomach at the end of vacations and really good TV shows.  But they were too tired to continue wandering the streets and besides, their room seemed quite comfortable.
The only light was the blue glow of TV from the living room on the ground floor.  Everything else was dark with not even a lamp turned on and Fred had to turn on his phone’s torch so they wouldn’t trip over their feet – or something else – up the stairs.

Marie fumbled for a switch on the next floor (where the bathroom was) and nearly shrieked – the room to one of the doors was open.  It seemed like they dried their laundry in that nearly empty room.  Hung laundry to dry and talked with the skeleton there to kill time …
“It is a skeleton!” Marie pinched Fred’s arm, her eyes wide and her voice a fretful whisper.
“Well it isn’t a real one!” her husband rubbed his arm. “It’s one of those that doctors keep in their offices or something!”
“Except I don’t think either of them are doctors.”
“Come on, come on, up to the room.”
“I wish there was a lock on the door.”
“You know they’re too frail to come barging into our room and attack us, Marie.”
“I guess that’s some consolation,” Marie leaned against the wall to take off her shoes.  Her eyes fell on the empty water bottle on the desk by the window.  “Oh darnit, we don’t have any water in the room. Honey would you get some from the kitchen?”
“But I’m scared of our hosts,” Fred blinked at his wife.
“Lazy ass.” Marie pointed out accurately.


The bed was tucked away from the door into an alcove.  You had to be careful not to sit up too suddenly or you could hit your head on the ceiling.
They changed into their PJs and got into bed, Fred feeling very happy about the TV in the room.  Within minutes of a reality show called True Crime that showcased real murders reenacted with terrible actors, he was snoring.  Marie extracted the remote from his fingers and switched it off.