By Helen Waldron
Big moon faces with smiley red mouths beamed down from the walls at them. Preschool art following clear instructions. All the heads had been drawn round the same sized biscuit tin. A swathe of hair on the left and on the right. Most of the eyes were blue and unnerving.
This was the community centre where they served hot food and distributed groceries. It was the third time Fathik had volunteered there, but Klaus kept telling him what to do.
“Just keep them moving, or they’ll get restless. And keep things clean. No spills. Get a cloth and disinfectant. It all gets out of hand otherwise.”
Make eye contact, thought Fathik, maybe even smile. People don’t smile much here. Maybe they don’t need to. Fathik had read somewhere that smiles were not always good. There were nineteen different types of smile and only six of them meant pleasure. The others meant embarrassment, coercion, even pain and shock. In Syria he had grown up surrounded by smiles, he had bathed in the approbation of his mother and sisters. Did that mean they were embarrassed and coerced? Did the unsmilingness of Germans mean they were satisfied with their lives? He raised the lid of his aluminium food server and the warm, fecund steam rose up, flushing his face and moistening the dark hair round his temples. Did it matter? It might to someone in this queue.
He had once stood in queues like this himself.
When he was ten years old his parents had paid another family to take him with them to Germany. At the time he couldn’t understand why he was being banished. His smile had diminished as the distance between him and his mother and sisters had grown. Smiles are like yawns, just mirrors of other people’s actions. By the time he arrived he had turned into a watchful, silent boy.
Looking back, of course, he had been privileged. The other family had treated him fairly. He already knew the meaning of the second word on the “REFUGEES WELCOME” signs that hung all around him. Every day a stream of kind strangers arrived to occupy him. They took him on the bus to the park, taught him to sing German songs, encouraged him to paint pictures of his smiling family standing in front of the house they no longer had, enrolled him in a football team and equipped him with free membership and kit. “The Germans are fair”, said his father down the phone. “You are safe now”. Fathik remembered the seriousness of the people, their slow way of speaking and their looking in his face for clues. He stared back at them, bewildered, not afraid. He had no idea what they were saying at first, but their tone told him they were being kind.
He was trying to repay the kindness now and had enlisted his sisters’ help. At this very moment two of them were sitting in the back room, sorting the food donations into bags and resisting Klaus’ attempts to organise them.
“Right, Sahar and Amal, would you like to stand at the door and give out the bags? Remember, it’s really important that no one takes more than one.”
Sahar sank her eyes to the table. Amal smiled and after a slight pause suggested a ticketing system instead. She and Sahar could quickly write the date and a number on slips of paper. They would pass out wads for Klaus to distribute if he had no objections.
Looking bemused, yet impressed by their efficiency, Klaus returned to the main room, which was gearing up to be a canteen for an hour or so.
Renate on hot foods guided a stack of plates nearer to her spaghetti, then stood to attention with Fathik behind their gleaming counter. She had sensed Klaus approaching and without turning round she batted him away with one hand. (“He’s not in charge, you know,” she fretted. “He just thinks he is.”) The final touches were complete. Together they waited for their cue to prise off the lids that were keeping the heat in, and to pick up their equipment of ladles and plates. Ready to serve.
Klaus strode over to the door and unlocked it. Even as he did so, a fist banged against it. Hurry up.
“Bloody hell,” he cursed. “Who was that?”
There was always the panic that the food would run out, that it would be swiped away from under their noses, that someone else had got behind the locked door. Punctuality made people nervous. It was like at the underground, where the trains ran every three minutes, but you ran up the stairs to the platform all the same. No matter how much time you had allowed yourself, someone would start running and then you’d join in, furious at the people emerging from the platform in your way. Sometimes there wasn’t a train there at all, it was just the noises from the underground, but you had to run. It was something instinctive. It was impossible not to.
“It’s fair enough when you think every meal could be their last,” sighed Renate watching them all flood in and up to the counter.
“It’s spaghetti today,” she added brightly to them. “And we have our vegetarian option. It’s lentils.”
A tall, elderly man with watery blue eyes shuffled over to Fathik. Yes, lentils, please, said his split- second glance upwards.
Innocent eyes, as if he didn’t know quite what he was doing here. Pale skinned, white haired, dressed in black.
I know you, thought Fathik, as Klaus went after him and gave him a ticket.
Not many people wanted Fathik’s lentils, and Renate’s meat sauce was soon running low. There was a grumble of resentment as she tipped up her aluminium container and scraped the last of it together.
“I don’t want that muck.”
“Don’t give him so much.”
“I was before him.”
“Who was that man?” Fathik asked Renate.
“Who?” she answered preoccupied. There were so many. Some of them were standing very close to her.
And then, as quickly as it had started, the rush was over. A few people stayed for the warmth and the sit down, more seeped out again. Klaus wandered over and rolled his eyes, will they ever go? Fathik picked up the empty container and walked past the blue eyed man. Twice. To the kitchen and back. The second time the man looked up, caught Fathik’s gaze on him, and gave him a warm smile.
“Alles klar? Alright?” he said with an accent.
“Oh, him,” said Renate, who was wiping down the serving counter. “That’s John. He was an English teacher. I’ve heard he’s got qualifications past his eyeballs. Nice bloke.”
And Fathik remembered the turquoise cushions made of foam. You could build with them. He remembered the peace and the warmth. Fathik liked building dens, dens within dens, a refuge within a refuge. John didn’t mind. He built himself an armchair once and sat in it.
And then, alongside the turquoise cushions, random snapshots of his nights in the dormitory floated upwards in his mind. They always did when he least expected it. Wide-eyed Hassan silently gazing at him from across the room, the shuddering form of Tariq, who cried all the time and soiled his mattress, Saad grinning mirthlessly while fondling the rusty tin that nobody ever saw the contents of. Fathik wished it would stop. Gradually, in twos and threes his family had made the perilous journey to Europe. He would never be alone again. But it was like trying to burn old newspapers only to find recognisable fragments still lying there in the grate the next morning. There were fragments of sounds too. Crying down his phone when he woke up in the night to ask his family when they were coming. It was night in both places. They must have kept their phones near their beds, because they always answered at once, their sad voices always telling him happy things. The shock never completely went away.
In the daytime he sat and puzzled over the first word on the signs hanging outside his dormitory window. “REFUGEES WELCOME.” The second word was easy and he pronounced it with such confidence that somebody asked him if he wanted to learn English. Fathik nodded and said, “English, English, yes”. Back home in Damascus he had English lessons at school and a private tutor in the afternoon. “You will need to speak English when you take over my business”, his father had told him. The sound of the language was a link to home.
No one was free to teach one small boy, until John offered to do it.
“We have a teacher for you,” they smiled. “He’s a very kind man.”
They were all kind, but John had a certain status in the camp. Even at that age Fathik could tell. He fitted everyone’s idea of an Englishman, with his black suit and diffident smile. People always smiled when John was there.
The English gentleman, John. Of course.
He sat upright amongst the debris of the spilt food and eating utensils that his table mates had not cleared away. Fathik swiftly returned with his bucket and cloth.
“You won’t remember me,” he started, “But you taught me English. I was just a little boy and I didn’t speak any German. I was only ten years old. It was in the Rotterdamstrasse camp”.
The words were spilling out of him like a child.
“Thank you”, he finished. “My name’s Fathik.”
John smiled and reached across to take the hand Fathik extended. Was that a flash of panic in his blue eyes?
“I do remember you,” he said uncertainly. “You were a clever little boy.”
Everyone was volunteering to teach English to refugees, but they all needed German much more urgently. John hadn’t realised that. That was what came of living in Germany but reading the English press every morning.
It was the only teaching he did in a refugee camp. Just one determined little boy, who had turned so incredibly into this confident man.
Despite having taught so many people in so many places, the memory unfurled itself neatly to him. It was clear, logical and chronological, like the lesson plans and reports he once took a pride in writing. An unsmiling, dry-eyed little boy who used to build a den of cushions and lie down in it during his “lessons”.
It was in the nature of John’s paid work to fill in reams of forms: needs analysis, lesson contents, monthly reports, while in reality his clients only renewed their contracts if they came out of their lesson feeling happier. Despite all the standardisation, teaching English knew no boundaries. You had to set your own limits (not easy!). More often, in lieu of any sensible job description, you simply helped where you could.
This boy didn’t need English, he needed peace and quiet. Occasionally John would ask a question, never really expecting an answer, assuming the boy had fallen asleep. But a small voice would always emerge in answer from the den.
“As bright as a button,” John smiled, his white beard making his lips seem redder. His teeth were long and yellowish.
“What are you doing now? Still here, obviously.”
“Yes, and I have all my family here.” Fathik gestured expansively behind him, then realised his sisters were out of sight in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher, using nicknames for everyone, so only he knew who they were gossiping about. He opened his manicured hands upwards on the table and relaxed. Life is so plentiful.
“We are all safe. Are your family in Germany too?”
John just smiled, this time at his own thoughts, and another wave of recognition came over Fathik. He remembered this inward smile like he remembered the turquoise cushions. He could hear the smile in John’s voice as he read to him. How comforting it was to know that some people were so full of happiness that just looking inwards could make them smile. After leaving Syria and his family, Fathik’s mind had been filled with sights and worries that had made him doubt he could ever be happy again. For 60 minutes a week he was reassured by John.
They had a steel container all to themselves. John arrived with books under his arm. Their silent ritual was to start off by building themselves a structure of cushions, first independently, and then gradually daring to help each other. Fathik was better at building than John and knew how to construct a chair where the cushions wouldn’t slip apart and leave the English gentlemen sliding gradually to the floor. John sat in his foam enclosure and read aloud to him. Sometimes he reminisced as he explained some of the situations in the stories. Together they had created a safe space for them both.
I didn’t have any children’s books, I normally taught adults, so I went to the children’s section of the big library in town and borrowed some German ones. I made up my own stories. The little boy never tried to look. It was difficult at first and then it got easier and easier. Sometimes if they were translations from the English I used to translate them back. It took me back to my own childhood. John smiled.
“Mine aren’t so far away,” he conceded. Except mine are all dead or unknown to me nowadays. How can I explain to someone who cannot go home, that I simply didn’t bother to?
He smiled a lot, but still looked sad, thought Fathik.
“So your home’s here?”
“Ah, home,” John’s blue eyes took in Fathik’s eager expression. What should he say to this man? It was a long time since anyone had shown so much interest in him.
“We language teachers are linguists and travellers.”
This is more like it. This is how I remember he used to talk. Fathik’s dark curls shone with chestnut reflections, his eyes were flecked with golden, he was dressed in a purple tee shirt, below which his impressive arm muscles bulged as he rested his forearms on the table.
He exuded confidence. If I have changed just one life, John thought, pleased for the man this boy had become.
But before he could go on, more thoughts came loose from the wrinkles of his mind. Undesirable thoughts, age, infirmity, loneliness, the fears he had suppressed for years. If I could live my time again, John thought, I wouldn’t go living in one country while my head lived in another. I would open my eyes to reality and find work that paid a living wage. I wouldn’t come to food banks. I’d have sorted myself out.
But actually, if he was honest, he wasn’t so sure how he could have done it differently.
Thoughts were dislodging more thoughts. They were flying out in all directions to obscure his view like a tall pile of exam papers rudely pushed off a desktop.
Fathik sat bewildered, waiting, as John stared ahead of him, no longer smiling.
I shouldn’t have approached him, thought Fathik. (“Rule Number One”, says Klaus. “Don’t ask questions. Some of them will get distressed and some of them will never stop talking.”)
Fathik began to feel like a 10 year old boy again. Once again people were speaking a language he didn’t understand, but this time it was John, his trusted friend.
“Germans are kind. You are safe here”, said his late father.
John was respected and respectable, yet dependent on a soup kitchen. He had worked for free and was living in poverty now.
Fathik had done well for himself. So well that he could afford to take time off and offer his services here at lunchtime.
He tried not to look into John’s blue eyes.
The chasms of pain in them reminded him of his father’s.
Fathik’s father had never managed to come to terms with his own personal loss. He had done the right thing and saved his family, but had left his business, reputation and self-respect behind in Syria. Until the day he died he had walked around in Germany, a wrinkled old foreigner, eccentric to the locals, with his hopes buried under the rubble in Syria.
Fathik was careful to keep a neutral tone, but John was struggling.
He could sense the younger man’s compassion and it made him uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to having the focus turned on him. He was John the English teacher, hiding in plain view. A slightly unapproachable aesthete inside a brittle shell.
He clattered his cutlery and plate together and pushed his chair back.
Across the table Fathik jumped up too (“Let me!”) and added John’s plate to the other discarded utensils from the table. He noticed how John was still taller than him, but was delicate and spindly, like a paper cutout of a man, arms out, legs apart, taking up more space than he merited, scribbled on, not coloured in.
John’s long white fingers were twirling the ticket entitling him to a bag full of groceries. He held it up and waved it to emphasise his parting words.
“Don’t be here long. Get yourself a good job. Promise me that.”
Another flash of his long, yellow teeth.
Fathik nodded earnestly. It was the least he could do.
They moved away in opposite directions. Fathik went to separate the cutlery from the plates at the kitchen door. When he turned round again John had taken his food parcel and gone.
Renate was remonstrating with a shouting man who had tipped up the contents of his bag at her feet. Fathik, short but stocky, strode over to intervene before it turned nastier. Behind them big moon faces with smiley red mouths beamed down with unnerving blue eyes. Fathik wondered whether some children also painted dark skin, angry faces and frightened old men, and whether these pictures ever got hung up.