by JULIE GREENAN
I'd had a negative Covid test at last so I left the flat to walk up to the library. A sunny, warm, early autumn afternoon. Someone called me and crossed the road towards me. A brown-faced man with features that had known adversity. A brown, tweedy jacket. A man caring about his appearance but with little to spend on clothes. Someone who'd come from another land.
Could he trouble me to ask if I knew where there's a hostel in the area? He wants to find his friend and all he knows is that his friend is in a hostel somewhere around here. He spoke with him on the phone the other day but now he can't contact him. I could say 'sorry, I don't know'. And just walk away. We see a youngish man who looks capable, walking towards us. So I ask him and he says there's a hostel along Clayton Road. I phone the hostel but they can't tell us if the man's friend is there, due to confidentiality.
'Well, let's just walk around there. At least then you'll know where it is.' Clayton Road is a long road and I take us to the wrong end. Another encounter with a helpful stranger in the process of locking up his shop. He points us to the other end of Clayton Road so back we go 'I am Nur'. 'I'm Julie'.
His hand goes to his heart. 'I'm sorry to take up your time'. 'It's nothing, truly. I have all day and have nothing else I need to do'. And the fact that this is true, gives me such pleasure. Empty time, to respond.
I tentatively ask him about himself. He's from Afghanistan, came to England about four years ago. His wife and family are still back in his own country and he's trying to get them here.
'I walked to England from Afghanistan. In a group, with a guide'. '
What did you do for food?'
'We took three days' food. And once, when we were very hungry, we sent the younger men to find food. They came back with green chillis; that was all they could find. We ate them.' He pauses.
So hungry, they ate those raw green chillis. 'I got to Calais'.
Knowing something about the conditions there, the desperation - I flinch.
'I got under the canopy of a container lorry. It was freezing. That is how I got to England'.
I want to ask more. I try to sense if I can ask. So I just wait. He speaks English elegantly. He worked for NGOs back home so he used Engish internationally. He can drive but, now disabled, he can't use the steering wheel. He shows me his reduced wrist and hand. He doesn't have the use of it and it's his right hand. He didn't say what had happened to cause it. At the hostel there are two gardeners and I sense we can tell them our story. They say there's an area at the back of the building where the residents smoke and chat. They used to use the front, but the people in the flats opposite complained. It's a huge house with a drive, trees and the flats opposite are a long way off.
We ring the bell and ask the question again. She's really sorry but they can't say if the person is there or not. If it was urgent, we'd need to contact the police and they'd get in touch with the hostel. As I turn to Nur to relay this, at the mention of police, he flinches and shakes his head. Is he a refugee with leave to remain? What he's told me about his housing sounds legal, legitimate. No need to fear the police? But, even so... 'Do you have a family, nice Julie? How old are you?'
I answer the first question. Why don't I want to tell him my age? Maybe I'm afraid he'll say he thought I was older because of my hair colour. It's almost white now and I'm self-conscious about it. 'I don't have children, no. I have sisters and a brother. Nephews and nieces. And some very good friends'. 'And you have husband?'
'No. I'm alone'.
'You don't have husband? Or family? In my country, it is life, to gather together and cook and eat and talk. It is joy, pleasure of life'. So it is. His sudden energy, his talk of the food of his country enlivens us both. I say I've been to Syria. Is the food similar?
But that's probably like an Afghani thinking French and Spanish food are similar because they're both European countries. 'You must miss your family very much, and your country'.
'How do you spend your time?'
'It is difficult. There is nothing I can do. The people where I live are nice, so I talk to them sometimes'.
'Your English is very good. Perhaps if you went to a class you might meet more people. Maybe from your country?' 'But I don't… 'I know. You don't need the class. Maybe though, it could be a distraction and might lead to other things. And you could probably help others whose English isn't as good as yours'.
He rallies and becomes more animated as we talk about how it feels to be able to help other people, especially with language. He is able to help people at medical appointments, at the hospital etc.
'Are you able to read? Can you concentrate to do that at all, Nur?'
'No. Because I am so anxious, worrying about my family….'
Making a decision to stride confidently down the side of the building with Nur following me, I realise we've been spotted as the emergency door springs open.
'Excuse me, where are you going?'
'Err - just to the back of the building'.
'You are not allowed'.
Turns out this is the member of staff I spoke to on the phone. He goes off to ask someone else, but I suspect it's a bit of a ploy to give the impression they're trying to help. I know we're at a dead end, for now.
'Why are they so formal?' says Nur. 'I don't understand why they can't tell us'.
'Because they're protecting the residents. They have the right to have their identity protected'.
'But why do they need this?'
'It could be that they have had difficulties with someone, maybe even in their home country, and someone could be trying to fnd them to harm them'.
We walk again, away from the hostel, along the road. 'But nice Julie, you are alone?' 'Yes'.
And my heart aches, imagining that family together, eating at maybe a special occasion, plates of saffron rice and spiced lamb with dates, sweetmeats and fruit juices.
But he is far from them. In a foreign land. Alone, cut off. He belongs - they belong - to each other; they are real, but far, far away. He does not know when he will see them again or if he will ever see them again. But he does not allow himself to imagine that. He has only hope. Sometimes not even that.
And I - I am in my homeland. I speak the language like a native. I know how to work things, systems. I have contacts, help. I know how to get information and advice. In these ways, I am rich, privileged. I have good friends. People to turn to.
But alone. Cut off from a family of my own. Without a loving partner. Someone who looks for my affection, my passing touch.
'Maybe your friend doesn't have any credit on his phone, Nur. Maybe if you keep trying to ring him, he will answer'. 'Yes'.
He is grateful. He holds his heart and again apologises for taking up my time.
'I'm just so sorry we haven't been able to find him, Nur'. We shake hands. He walks across the road, making for the metro station. Does he know what a gift he has been to me? The chance to care, to help - try to help - to show that there are people who want to give. The blessing of Nur - 'the Light' - that sunny afternoon.
................................................ 'Nur' is a gender-neutral name of Arabic origin that means "light." Also commonly spelled Noor or Nor, it is a popular name among boys and girls alike.