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Taxi Harold - Longish Short Story

Taxi Harold

The gold cufflinks have a single diamond set into the centre. The soft flowing creases of the suit have a relaxed ease which can only come from bespoke tailoring. The grey-white hair has been preened and groomed this morning already, perhaps by a valet?

“To Hammersmith my man.” He points with his cane in the direction of the road ahead. The deep voice has the velvet undertones which age often brings to a man's throat.

Then a laugh. An easy mirthful laugh which must come often to this voice.

“I see you are Harold too.”


The taxi driver – our Harold nods his head. He is not generally a talker. Strange in this profession, but the weariness of the years hangs heavy on his shoulders – our Harold's shoulders.

He does enjoy the driving, yes, but the competition now, and the stresses of each day make this more of a job than it ever used to be.

He used to, our Harold, be up with the lark. With a leap and a bound, be dressed and pressed, ready to face each day with a song in his heart. Chattering away the hours with the rides made them melt into the mists of time – the hours.

Now each hour comes in a heavy block of sixty minutes. Huge, lumpen things which must be chipped away.

The Harold laughs again. Melodic. He is in harmony, casual ease.

“I'm Harry now of course.”

Harold takes another look in the rear-view, his face makes a face, not his eyes – years of practice.

Two thirds jealousy, a pinch of contempt, a roll of the eyebrows.

Our Harold starts to feel the shabbiness of his cab. The torn seat cover he knows is by that Harold's right leg. The grimy glass of the partition. His own grey-white hair starts to feel thick and greasy to itself. It cringes and tries to look very hard as if it is not past due a cut.

“You know Harold, I hope I can call you Harold, we could be brothers, you and I. The prince and the pauper!”

Taxi-Harold frowns. His back stiffens. He glances at the face again. Laughter lines in a real sun-tan. Green eyes, not unlike his own.

“With I the pauper of course, and you the prince - riding free- King of the road!”

Too late, too patronising Harry.

“I have to go where the fares want. It’s not really freedom.”

This guy is too irritating with his 'my man' and his gold topped cane. Who on earth carries a cane anyway?

The Valkyries ride forth. Harry takes the call. Low voiced agitation. He is impatient and sounds pressured by the caller. So it isn't all rosy in Harry's world.

Harold feels bad about feeling smug. He is a nice man after all. Everything is not quite so rosy in his own world either. His back twinges when he turns to look at the passengers. His knee is starting to feel slightly dodgy.

Money worries? Of course. Who doesn't? He feels it in his arms when he opens the bills. Don't know why, he has a thing. It’s an arm thing. He knows most people have a stomach thing, but for him its arms. Wobbly feeling like leaden weights in the pits of his arms. No, not his armpits, oh never mind.

“No, a few more minutes... Maybe half an hour...Yes...I don't know... yes,  no I know it's him.”

It has been much worse lately. A few months when he has only just made ends meet...a couple of trips to a pawn shop, nothing too serious – there's nothing like the lies we tell ourselves.

Harry hangs up. There is silence for a while as he stares broodily out of the window.

“I'm a rich man you know Harold.” he says slowly. The two pairs of eyes lock momentarily in the mirror. One pair is open with the honesty of the revelation, one wary.

“You probably can't begin to imagine.”

“Well you're lucky.” Harold says gruffly.

Another laugh, less mirthful.

“Yes, some might say I'm lucky.” But his mouth turns down. He looks for all the world like a sullen school boy who has been told that he can't go on the school trip. Some of the sparkle is certainly gone. He has slumped.

“You have no idea what it’s like. I've got an image to maintain, all those companies to run.”

“Sounds like torture.” Sarcasm.

“Don't get me wrong there are perks! Seats in the Royal box, private jets, five star luxury and more, but it gets tiring you know. We are no spring chickens are we?”


“No, it's more than that, you got kids?”

“Yes, two girls.” There's a photo of a smiley family group on the dashboard. Harold is at the centre of happier times.

“Of course,” Harry says, looking at the photo. “Yeah, me too. But I never see mine. Kitty maybe once a month when she wants a top up, Mags hardly ever. Never even seen the grand kids once – paid for all their schools though.”

“Can't get rid of mine,” says our Harold.

“Kate lives with us with her little Georgie, don't know what we'd do without that little scamp. Peggy is just down the road a bit. Her lot are in and out all day.”

“Tch,” deep sigh. “So you really are the lucky one eh?”

“Wouldn't mind a bit more cash, you know? But can't complain really.”

“How would you like to be the richest man on the planet?” Harry says gazing wistfully at the passing buildings.

Harold thinks to himself: “Oh gawd, I hope he isn't going to offer me money. What's that TV show called? 'Secret' something?”

There is silence for while. Harold has told this man more than he has ever told any other single passenger. But it feels good having something better, you know? It's not all about gold and diamonds is it? I'll see your gold cufflinks and raise you one happy family photo.

So his shirt has plastic buttons, so he has worn the same jacket all week, so what?... Richest man on the planet, yeah, right.

Harold tries to sneak a look for hidden cameras. Harry is waving that cane around a bit too much. Hope there is not a little spycam in there.

Suddenly Harry notices where they are.

“You know, I grew up somewhere around here,” he says. But the mood is darker again. The sun has gone behind a cloud. The world is greyer.

“It was called Pimlico I think.”

“Still is!” says Harold irritably. Let's just get to Hammersmith already.

“What? Oh yes.” Harry seems genuinely stalled for a minute, then regains his composure immediately.

“Still!”  He says cheerfully, “Mustn’t dwell in the past right?” He taps the back of Harold's seat in a friendly way he thinks.

“The rotten apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Harold thinks to himself with a sudden wry smile.

What's going on? Harold is a nice man! Just something about this customer he does not like. Something in him makes him feel repelled.

There should be more of a connection if they grew up in the same area, but...and he doesn't remember any other Harolds around at the time he was growing up.

Harry's eyes have the misty far-away look of those who are remembering the past.

“I used to start each day at six in the morning, come rain or snow or shine,” he says, mostly to himself it seems.

“Take my bag of papers from Mr. Patel,“ he laughs again. “It was bigger than I was!”

Harold shrugs, there were lots of Mr. Patels in those days.

“I remember there was always a gang of boys who hung around by the station. What was that big lad called? Billy?”

“Barry,” Harold says almost without thinking.

That's right. Barry! Oh, I was afraid of them. Specially him. He was so big.” Another laugh.

Oh yes, Harold remembers Barry Wilkins' gang. The tough boys who chain-smoked and thought they were so cool with their quiffs and drainpipes. The road in front of him disappears for a second as he sees himself turning the corner and coming nose to knee with the 'gang' standing closer than usual. That horrible sinking feeling as his guts poured out through his socks. Barge through them, bag of papers above his head, or turn back the way he had come?

His heart is thumping even now as he remembers countless hours trying to come up with ways to make life bearable while still having the 'gang' in his life. But the light turns green and he is back in the present day.

They mostly left him alone. He was too young for them to bother with. But they didn't even need to speak, it was so terrifying just to see them there that he almost always ran the other way.

Each man sinks into reverie for a few minutes.

Harold is thinking, “He must have grown up on Sheffield Street. That was the posh end. Didn't know anyone from there.”

Harry continues, his eyes still in the past,

“I remember once, they were really out to get me.”

“Same for a lot of us kids in the area,” Harold mutters under his breath.

Harry says, “Back home from school, running all the way, to my house with the green door, satchel on the banister and in to see me Mam.”

Harold starts. He glances in his rear view mirror to find that Harry is staring keenly at him.

Harry continues relentlessly.

“Mam would be doing the washing in the corner of the kitchen. Ruth would be sitting in a tin bath by the fire.” Harry's eyes twinkle in the mirror.

“'Ere, what's going on?” Harold says. A joke's a joke. This is taking it a bit far.

“Oh God, I really hope this is not some TV show,” Harold thinks to himself.
“He's not going to be my long-lost brother from Australia is he?”

Only yesterday Harold has seen a programme in which a 66 year old woman finds out for the first time that she has a twin sister. No thanks,

“Do I know you?” he asks at last. He really doesn't want to know.

Harold,” Harry says smiling. “Don't you remember? Once it got round school that you tripped up Lesley Wilkins in assembly?”

Harold nods. Clear as if it was yesterday. Sitting up straight as you can in assembly, cross-legged on the floor. That way they pick you to leave first. Lesley trips up and turns round to glare at him. He never even done anything.

Of course as soon as Barry hears about this, he tells his whole gang to get him after school.

Oh the day spent in dripping agony, staring as the clock ticks closer and closer to four pm.

“How do you know about that? I don't remember another Harold in school.”

Harold!?” Harry is smiling insanely in the mirror at him.

“Stop it, stop saying me name like that.” He pulls up at the side of the road.

Just as well:

“I'm you.” Harry says.


The ground does not shatter. The earth does not grind to a halt - because Harold does not believe him.

“Of course you are mate, now hop it!”

Harry insists: “I'm you Harold... I'm rich and I'm you – from a parallel world.”

“Stop saying that!” Harold is fed up of the joke. Some fake TV show with some fake trendy TV types sniggering at his reaction in a van round the corner.

“Get out of my cab.”

“Wait, no.” Desperate. “Look, I can prove it. Don't you remember that day?” Harry speaks quickly now to get all his words out.

“You went another way home to try to avoid them, But Billy Henshaw told them.” He is panting heavily. “They were waiting, don't you remember?”

Yes, all the pictures are in Harold's mind as Harry describes them: The boys waiting for him at the end of his street. He had not even done anything, but now he was in for a beating.

“You stood up to them didn't you?” Harry is speaking softly so that he does not break the delicate thread which now links both men to their past.

“I got the beating of my life,” Harold says throatily. “It wasn't for nothing I done. I hit back as hard as I could, but me Mam had to come and stop the fight. She picked me out from the middle of them and carried me home.” He looks down, ashamed.

There is a pause, then:

I ran away Harold,” Harry says.

“No-one knew about that fight, cos there never was one. No-one to call me 'Mummy's Girl' in the playground. No black eye. I saw them and just ran...went the other way round. That's when we split off into different realities. My scientists have pin-pointed it to that exact day.

Since then, we have been on different paths. I did not get bullied at school. I did not lose my confidence.” His voice trails away. “I made it rich. Made millions in the rag trade.”

Silence as Harold takes this all in.

“So what? Why are you telling me all this? Why do you think I'm going to believe anything you say, you lunatic?”

“I want to swap places,” Harry says sheepishly.

Harold has nothing to say to this.

“I've been watching you. In my universe. I am the richest man in the country. No, really! I have all the best technology and the best minds at my disposal.”

Harold has his hand on the radio. If this crazy fool gets dangerous then he can call for help straight away.

“I know,” Harry says not meeting Harold's eyes now. “I know about your problems. You have what, a month? two? before the bailiffs come?”

Harold's indignation deflates like a slow leak.

“I know about the insurance policy and those pills you've been hiding in your drawer – I'm sorry Harold.”

“So?” Harold says, “Who do you think you are?”

“I've told you Harold, I'm you.” Harry says earnestly. “Call me your guardian angel if you like. I have bought some cash with me, not much, just a few millions. You say the word, and I can call my men to zap you into a life of luxury – just like that!” He snaps his fingers.

“But I couldn't leave Jean and the girls...” Harold says.

“Come on,” says Harry, “What were the pills for? you've been thinking of leaving them for a while now haven't you? I'm giving you a better option that's all.”

There is uncertainty in Harold's eyes.

“What about you? Just gonna leave your family like that?”

Harry lowers his gaze again. “Jeanette ran off years ago. Dunno why she was with me in the first place, and the girls, well, you know what they say. I'm a bank balance to them, not much more, they probably wouldn't even notice.”

“I don't want you near my family,” Harold says quietly.

“I won't go anywhere near them if you like,” says the silky-smooth Harry from the universe next door. “It'll be just as if you've disappeared, and then an 'anonymous' donation.” He holds up finger speech marks, “of a few hundred thousand in an envelope through the door. They'll be looked after.” His eyes are pleading in the mirror.

“But why? What's in it for you?”

“It's all got too much for me Harold. I just want a simple life – maybe driving a taxi. I told you, I’ve been watching, I know all about you.”

“But I couldn't run companies...”

“Don't run yourself down. I've done it!”


“Anyway, that's not what you'd have to do. It's all sorted. You would be the figurehead Harold, that’s all. Enjoying the high life. Summer in Monaco, Winters in Aspen.”

“Yes, but...”

“Or if you don't like to ski, I've a little place in the South of France, or Florida. Just imagine it Harold. Anything you ever wanted.” Harry waves his arms in a grand gesture. “Servants at your beck and call.”


“You would never want for anything, ever again.”

Harold is stuck.

“I must tell you something Harold.” Harry says cutting in through his thoughts. “There are only a few minutes left. They've ripped a hole through, or made a corridor or something, I wasn't really listening, but in a few minutes I'll be pulled back through to my side. Unless you want to go instead.”

Harold is thinking. What a choice. Even if he had ten thousand years he would not be able to decide what to do, but he only has a few minutes. If he says 'yes', then he will be a rich and pampered man. Just like winning the lottery really. If it’s 'no', then carry on as he is now. Scraping by. Scratching a living.

Yes, but Jean and the girls. He could never leave them. Could he?

“Actually,” Harry says softly as if he has been listening in, “You would all be much better off if you said ‘yes’ wouldn't you?”

“Could I come back?” Harold asks suddenly.

“What?” Harry is thrown by the suddenness. “Er, sure you could. I'm here aren't I? My top men know all about this. You just have to tell them you wish to return.”

“OK then.”


“Yes.” Harold has decided. “What do we do now?”

“It's the back seat.” Harry says. He pats the thin cloth with his gloved hand.

 “They've made this into the 'door'. In a few minutes, I press this button when it lights up, and whoever is sitting here will be zapped back through.” He has pulled out a large button from his coat pocket. It looks like one of those press lights which you stick into the back of your wardrobe. It is red and for some strange reason it has the words ‘Press Here’ printed onto the front.

“You just have to come and sit here and wait. That's all.”

It seems ridiculous to Harold. There's not enough rehearsal. There should have been an invitation card last week, some time to prepare. This, it’s just too hurried. Would you go to your wedding with a day's notice? Would you try to fly a plane you've only seen a picture of?

Both Harold and Harry get out of the cab. Harry takes a deep breath of the new air. He looks as if he has been released from a straitjacket. His restrictive life that holds him in is already starting to fly off him like little birds of confinement leaving his body.

There is a bit of fumbling confusion as the men nearly bump into each other. The same height, weight and colouring. They do not look like twins, too similar for that. They are two different people played by the same actor in a film.

“Er, I think we should swap jackets,” Harry says.

Harold shrugs and takes off his old black coat with the plastic buttons and receives the luxurious cashmere camel overcoat. It fits perfectly, comfortably like the tailored garment that it is. He puts his hands deep into the pockets. There are some keys, something which feels like a mobile, some change. He takes a coin out and peers closely at it – looks just like an ordinary ten pence piece.

If nothing else has happened today, a mad old fool has given him his wonderful coat and about two pounds thirty seven pence in loose change.

Harry has taken what he wants out of his old coat’s pockets and is now trying to fit things into Harold’s black coat. Mostly looks like papers and the button of course.

Harold shrugs again. He climbs into the back seat of his own cab. His arms are tingling like crazy. The little weights have turned into Mexican jumping beans and are doing little dances. He shivers and rolls his shoulders, trying to settle his nerves. A large part of his brain is telling him that this is a hoax. This man is a conman who wants to steal his taxi, or worse.

Nevertheless, he closes his eyes and waits. His breath is a fine mist between the worlds, not daring to go in or out. Inside his closed lids he starts to see blues. Different colours of the colour blue. Teal, Indigo, Azure, Cerulean. Harold is a taxi driver, he does not really know the names; they all look ‘blue’. Swirling hazily around each other but then growing in brightness and intensity.

These are joined by greens, then pinks, oranges, reds.

He opens his eyes and the colours are still there, but through them, faintly, he can see Harry grinning wildly at him from the front seat of the taxi cab waving the crazy button. It has not quite lit up yet, but has started a dim glimmer.

He can feel himself being pulled gently away. It starts in his arms first, a little tug. Is this one moment the reason he has felt every feeling in his arms throughout his whole life? Did his body have a memory of what would eventually happen to him and try to warn him in some way?

Harry is now nothing but a faint blur. He is waving a white rectangle at him now. It must be the  'envelope' for Jean. Good.

He is saying: “I'll look after them Harold.” But it sounds distorted like a slowed down 78 record.

Suddenly, it seems to Harold as if there are two Harrys in the front of the cab. Another one has appeared in the front seat.

What's going on? The new Harry looks shocked, while the old Harry's smile turns slowly into a gasp of surprise as he notices him for the first time.

Harry number two is grabbing for the zapper button. He turns it over in his hands and flicks a large switch at the back to the OFF position.

The feeling in Harold’s arms stops suddenly and all the colours disappear all at once. He is back in his own reality.

“’Ere,” he manages to say. “What’s going on?”

“This man is a crook,” says Harrytwo.

“No I’m not,” says Harryone snatching his button back.

“He was going to send you off to his universe and live your life here driving a taxi.” Harrytwo.

“Yes, I know,” says Harold a little impatiently. “He’s spent the last twenty minutes trying to talk me into it!”

“Well what’s he offered?” says Harrytwo. “I’ll double it.” He takes a white envelope from his coat pocket and waves it at Harold. “There’s hundreds of thousands in here for Jean,” he says.

The two Harrys stare at each other hotly.

“This moment has taken me twenty years to create,” Harryone says. “You have just ruined it.”
Harrytwo has his own little zapper button. He waves it in Harryone’s face. “What do you think I’ve been doing for twenty years chopping liver?”

The two men get out of the cab and start a weak tussle. Each one fighting for the right to stay and drive Harold’s cab, they try to grab each other’s zapper buttons.

Harold watches for a while, bemused. No-one has fought over him like this before. He is not sure what to do.

After a while, he climbs back into the driving seat. They haven’t noticed. He very gently and carefully nudges the ignition. His good old taxi cab purrs into life.

He edges the car a little way forward. He is not running away. No, of course not. But if these ‘hims’ keep fighting nearby, they are in danger of hurting themselves on his car. He wouldn’t want that on his conscience.

He glances down and what he sees makes him accelerate away at top speed. Behind him, a multicoloured glow suddenly means that the fighting Harrys have zapped themselves somewhere else. And beside him on the seat are two white envelopes.

©2012 A. B. Syed

I really hope that you enjoyed the story!

Five Cheese and Pickles...

Five Cheese and Pickles and the End of the World

Ten to twelve. Patrick wiped the counter for the fifth time. His breath was rapid. In his chest, his heart beat out the rhythm of his agitation. Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-come on!
He saw the coat before the door opened. Always the same sensible brown-coated shoulder pushing the glass as the soft white hand turned the handle.
Patrick had no idea how soft that hand was really. He sighed.
“Five cheese and pickles today please Pat.” Don't look, no eye contact.
Without looking, even once, Patrick took in the pretty features, the large brown eyes, the soft brown curls.
“Chilly out today Bob?” Patrick was a picture of the professional sandwich maker: swift, decisive and to the point.
“It is a bit, Pat, thanks.” Cheese and pickles in hand, she was out of the door. This warm exchange was what brought Patrick to work every day. Every day for six months? Could it really be that long that 'Just call me Bob,' had been coming into his shop?
Back in her office, Roberta removed her brown coat and squared her sensible shoulders. Her heart was beating fast. Today. She had nearly said something to him today.
There was no-one else there. Why oh why did she have to say five cheese and pickle? It was just what came out of her mouth. She looked at the little pile of white and brown stripes sitting on her desk, separated by the grease proof paper. He always did such perfect folds. She sighed.
It had been nearly six months now since she noticed those big blue eyes and sturdy chin. Six months of sandwiches. She flung up her arms and threw herself down into the swivel chair turning her back on the guilty cheese and pickle.


“People everywhere are waiting for the end of the world to happen on Friday. Precisely eleven minutes past eleven on the 21st of December, is the exact time predicted by the Mayan calendar for the end of the world.” The newsreader twitched happily as he read out the news. Patricia flicked the remote at his smug face. Why did newsreaders always seem happiest when they were reading out the worst news?
She twirled her shoulder length blond hair around her index finger – a habit she had since she was a child. If it wasn't one thing it was another. First all her bills had arrived on the same day, and now the world was going to end. Robert was being a pain too.
She looked over at the table, at the neat pile of envelopes which was patiently waiting for her attention. Some of them had thick red lines around them.
Why did bills always have to be so smug?


Ten to twelve. Roberta smoothed her brown curls carefully. She adjusted her sensible brown coat. Maybe it was the coat. She looked down at it doubtfully. Was it too sensible? Did he think she was boring? Was that it? It was just that she had been going into that shop now for six months. Six months is a long time. And Pat had not even so much as asked her out. There was a connection. She was so sure about that, but...Just in case, one hand subconsciously undid the top button.
She pushed the door open and let the warmth wash over her. Everything was so perfect. The smell of bread was so... so, homely. The cheerful interior was yellow and the bread and buns made things even more enticing. He was there, wiping the counter, she gulped as usual.
Coming here was a kind of torture, but a few months ago, she had gone away for a few days and missed her daily trip to see Pat, er... to buy sandwiches. And she had! She had missed it so much that she had pined for him like a teenager. It was ridiculous. That brief second of eye contact everyday was just what she needed.
“Just the one, er,” Try to think of something exciting! “Humus and vegetable please, Pat.”
“Oh,” he smiled. His eyes sparkly. “Those are nice.”
“And a cheese and pickle.” Why did I say that?
“OK,” he laughed this time. It was deep and full of music.
He took out a pen from somewhere and wrote onto the paper packages. His handwriting was so neat! Every letter the same size.
As he wrote, Roberta stared at his hand, transfixed. His fingers were strong and sure with manicured finger nails. Good hands were so attractive. Imperceptibly, she felt herself drawing closer to that hand.
“Did you hear about the apocalypse?” he said, without looking at her.
“Oh yes.” It was her turn to laugh.
“We only have two days left until the end of the world.” He picked up the packets of sandwiches and handed them to her, staring deep into her eyes. His bright blue eyes seemed to be like marbles, staring straight at her. His thumb brushed hers as she took the sandwiches and a chain reaction went straight from her hand to stir up the butterflies in her stomach.


What would it take? He had begged, pleaded. He had bought her the biggest diamond ring in the shop. Nothing he could do would make Patricia take any notice. Robert was at his wits’ end. The feeling he had for her, that deep, unrelenting longing was driving him to do more and more stupid things.
He had just written ‘hot air balloon’ on a piece of paper. OK, so even he could now see that maybe that was not a great idea. But how could he convince her that he loved her?
She said he was shallow. Shallow? Would a man who was shallow try to look up whether there were any pink show ponies in the country to carry his message of love to his beloved? He could afford it. Sky writing? Yes. He had tried that. She had not bothered to look out of the window.
He arranged to have a message written on the score board at Wimbledon. She did not like tennis.
Trip to the Alps? She had told him she didn’t have a passport. Robert did not know anyone who didn’t have a passport and it had never even occurred to him to ask her first!

“But that’s just why! Don’t you see?” Patricia was on the phone to Roberta for the twentieth time that week. It was just after the ‘Tickets-to-the-Alps” fiasco.
“He wants to marry you and no, I don’t see.” Roberta replied tetchily. “I thought you were madly in love with him?”
“Yes, but...”
“But nothing, you like him, he likes you, I just don’t see why you are waiting,” Roberta said. “Doesn’t it make sense just to get on with things?”
“What, like you and Mr. Sandwich you mean?” Patricia teased.
“That’s different.”
You like him and he likes you,” Patricia mimicked.
“You know, it’s not the same at all!” Roberta said. Her curls always betrayed how she felt and if Patricia could see her know, she would know that Roberta’s curls hung limply around her face.
“He just does not live in the same world as me, that’s all. I can’t go out with someone who can drop everything and fly half way round the world.”
“The Alps is hardly...!”
“You know what I mean, I have to work, I have to pay bills,”
“OK, but if you became Mrs. Robert, then you would not have that problem would you?”
“I just can’t.”
“So, the end of the world: What did the Mayans know that we didn’t? Will it actually happen tomorrow?”
Patrick clicked the radio off. He was a shy man. What can you do? A hundred times it had been on the tip of his tongue to say something nice to Roberta, something nice about her hair, or her clothes. A hundred times he had meant to say, ‘Fancy a drink later?’ or ‘Come out with me tonight.’ But, when you’re shy, you’re shy. And probably, you overcompensate. So now, here, today, there was a cheese and pickle and there was him. It was not just any old cheese and pickle.
Ten to twelve. The bell above the door ‘pinged’. Patrick prepared himself to look her straight in the eye today. After all, the world might end tomorrow. It was now or never.
It was not Roberta but a man. Deflated - Patrick had been steeling himself for this encounter and the energy left him.
The guy was normal enough. Very well dressed. He examined the rows of possible lunches on display, veered towards the warmed brie and chicken salad, but then seemed to think better of it.
Patrick was always fascinated by the way people chose their sandwiches for lunch. Some hardly even noticed what they were buying, happy with the same thing every day. While for others it was an agonising decision, trying to make exactly the right choice to match their day.
The customer was scanning the board behind Patrick.
“Cheese and pickle?” he said as if the words were strange in his mouth.
The door bell pinged and Patrick’s tense energy whooshed back with a rush.
“I’ve got your cheese and pickle ready.” Patrick said, hopefully and a little too loudly before looking up. But again, it was someone else. Ouch.
“Thanks,” the man said and reached out and took the packet. He plonked £2.50 down on the counter and left without saying another word.
“No!” It was Patrick. “Not that one.” But it was too late.

Robert took the sandwich and left. If she wanted plain and simple, then that is what she would get. He could buy a cheese and pickle sandwich just like everybody else. He was not sure which pickle it would be, but right now, you know what? He didn’t care. He had eaten a very nice amla pickle on holiday in India last year, it could be that. Never mind.
Right now, he was going to go straight over to Patricia’s and show her this sandwich. He could be as plain as the next man if he wanted.

“Hello, is this, er, Patricia?”
“We found this phone in his pocket and yours was the only number in it.”
“I’m calling from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, your friend, er Robert, has been in an accident. Run over, crossing the road. This was the only thing on him. I’m so sorry to call you like this, but don’t worry, he’s fine, just a broken leg. It could have been a lot worse.”
Patricia could not think. What?
“Yes, that’s right, is he a relative?”

“He gave me this.” Patricia was still in shock, although a drink was warming her shivering hands.
Roberta looked at her in disbelief. She had received a call to pick Patricia up from the hospital, and had been completely relieved to see that everything was fine. It was Robert who was hurt, although she could get very little information out of her friend.
The sandwich lay on the table between them.
“He said it would make me see, but then he sort of passed out or something.”
But it looked like a normal, yes - Roberta almost laughed out loud - a normal cheese and pickle sandwich. And she thought she recognised the careful folds of the grease-proof paper.
Patricia wiped her eyes for the seventh time.
“It says ‘Will you marry me Pat?’ in it.”
“What?” Roberta really did laugh this time.
“Have a look, it’s another proposal.” Patricia said glumly. “I’m really going to have to go through with it aren’t I? He’s serious.”
Gingerly Roberta pushed a little of the paper aside and looked at the small white square of paper which had become embedded into the soggy, squashed bread. It had neat writing on it. Every letter was practically the same size.
It read, ‘Will you marry me, Pat.”
A tiny candle of hope began to flicker right at the back of Roberta’s mind.
Her jaw, which had been hanging open, slowly began to close as she started to put two and two together and make a hundred, million, gazillion happy little songbirds chatter around her ears.
“He was run over on Duke Street?” she said.
“Yes,” Patricia started to describe how Robert had just left that sandwich shop and was crossing the road when a cyclist had crashed into him.
But Roberta heard none of this. She jumped up and ran out of her flat. It was not far, but more than the exercise made her breathless. What time was it? Was the shop even open? She had no idea. But as she drew near, she could see the warm lights still burning.
She came to the glass door and hesitated. What if?
But as she paused, behind the counter, Patrick looked up. And their eyes met.
That was it.
She pushed the door open.

“Yes!” she said.

Chapter from my new book

As far as shalwar suits went, this one was understated. It was a bright green long shirt with hurt-your-eyes pink sleeves and matching embroidery, embellished with sequins in tasteful swirly patterns. The baggy trousers were pink and gathered together at the bottom with green and also covered in embroidery, and there was a long, thin, almost transparent, scarf thing which went along with the colour scheme for a while, but then just gave up and burst into exuberant patterns of the wildest colours at the ends.

It was the most beautiful thing Mina had seen in her life.

It was even more beautiful than the pink pretend-pearl necklace that  Nani had sent her last year for her birthday. The necklace had been too good to wear anywhere. She only ever went to school and back and you couldn’t wear something like that to the shops. So sadly, she kept it in pride of place hanging on a nail which had been hammered into the wall in her bedroom, right beside her door.

Last year, Nani had been a dim presence who lived far away and only spoke a few garbled words in a complicated foreign language to her on the phone. But now, here she was, beaming at Mina and holding up these amazing clothes for her to try on.

"Go on, Bitta," Mum said, giving her a little push towards Nani. "Go and try them on."

Nani smiled and held the clothes out closer. Her smile was a true one. Mina had never seen anyone smile the way Nani did. Her eyes shone and all the crinkles in her face joined in. You did not really see her teeth, but her mouth beamed. Even her hair seemed to smile.

Well that was silly, Mina thought, but it was true.

When some people smiled, they held something back. The smile got stuck somewhere and so only a part of it made it up to their eyes, or maybe just their mouths, but when Nani did it, her whole smile filled her face, peeking out to look at the world.

That’s what Mina thought about Nani – and she had only known her for two hours and thirty five minutes now, ever since they brought her back from the airport. She was a little old lady wrapped all over in a white sheet, as if she had dressed herself up like a parcel especially to come and meet her grand daughter for the first time.

She said something to her daughter now, Mina’s mother, in that silly gobbledy gooky language and Nani’s smile erupted into a laugh. Even Mum, who never usually smiled, joined in. They both laughed.

Mina took the clothes and ran upstairs, without even caring about not banging on the steps so as not to disturb the neighbours.

But a few minutes later she was back, clutching the trousers around herself, her eyes scrunched together to keep the tears in,  but with some of her long black hair stuck to her face as if it had not worked.

"They don’t fit!" she wailed in the way that only eight year old girls can.

Mum was in the kitchen by now making one of the endless cups of sweet tea that Nani seemed to need.

"Beta, come over here." Nani patted the sofa beside her. Her voice was thin and high when she spoke English. Her own language came out deep and confident. 

She gently pulled her over and made her hold up the kameez around her middle. Then she showed Mina how to tie the long stringy belt which came with the baggy trousers. 

"See?" she said, eyes twinkling like diamonds, face crinkling up like a little brown Yoda. "It does fit you doesn’t it?"

Mina ran back up to look in the long mirror in Mum and Dad’s bedroom. It was amazing. How did Nani know her size? She twirled round and round, examining herself from every angle. Wait till Jane sees it, she thought. She will be so jealous!

They had a lovely tea with Nani sitting at the head of the table. She had brought things with her in that small grey suitcase of hers. There were eight mangoes! Giant yellow and green fruit which had the sweetest sticky yellow pulp inside. A small pile of pine nuts – little dusty brown things like thick rice which had to be meticulously cracked to reveal the creamy beige nut inside. Mina cracked open five or six at a time and then pushed the whole lot into her mouth, chewing happily. And of course, Mum had cooked samosas and bhajis and Dad had bought jalebis and gulab jamun and all sorts of other delights. After an hour, they sat back happily, all the conversation spent and all the food gone. Mina’s brother, Tariq patted his stomach and Mum frowned at him.

"Ee, that were lovely," he said. Dad frowned at him.

"Go and get some milk for the chai," he said. "You too Mina. I’ll give you some change for chocolates too."

Chai and chocolates! No meal at their house was ever complete without a cup of steaming, spicy tea made with cardamoms and All Spice. Mum ground down fennel and cloves herself and kept everything in a jar ready.

"I couldn’t eat another thing!" Mina said as Tariq pulled his coat on.

"I could!" Tariq said.

"That’s because you eat like a pig!"

"Mina!" Mum said. "Don’t use that word in this house!" She looked sheepishly over at Nani just in case she had heard anything.

"Why not, Mama?" Mina asked innocently.

"Because it is dirty. We don’t say that word." Mina’s mum glanced over at her own mother again with a worried look on her face as she shoved both children out of the room. 

"Just go and get the milk," she whispered through teeth half-clenched.

"Come on, Mina," Tariq said. "Get yer coat on." But there was absolutely no way Mina was going to wear a coat over her sparkly new clothes.

"Suit yersen," Tariq said.

"Stop it, Tariq," Mina said, pushing him out of the front door. "Just talk normal."

"This isnormal!" he replied. "This is how Andy talks. Its howeveryone talks!" He spread his arms as if he were a fighter jet and sped down the road, firing at the cars and frightening Mrs. Hudson’s cat, who jumped onto her fence and turned and stared at him from a safe distance with saucer eyes peeled in case he did anything else.

"What chocolate are you going to get?" Mina said trying to walk on the kerb without falling off.

"I don’t know, we’ll have to see how much money is left from the milk," he said absently. That cat was going to get it if he could find any small pebbles. 

They continued their slow walk down the road in the afternoon sunshine, Mina peering down at her new sequins and holding the scarf out to let it float along behind her. It was really comfortable wearing these clothes. At the first step outside the house she had almost run back inside because it felt like she wasn’t wearing anything. The clothes did not touch all of her skin like jeans did and t-shirts. They were only tied at the waist and gathered at the ankles. It literally felt as if there was nothing covering her. And anyway, the material was so thin that when it did brush her body, it did not make that much difference.

They walked past Jane’s house. 

"Do you like my new clothes?" Mina said, extra loudly to Tariq, hoping that Jane was looking out of the window. It would even be OK if it was Jane’s mum because she would notice these dazzling new clothes and run and get Jane so that she could see how stunning Mina looked.

She stared hopefully at the empty windows of Jane’s house. Jane was her cool friend at school. Jane was so cool that none of the windows in her house had any curtains. Mina always admired that family who could wander around in their rooms without worrying about people looking in on them –even at night.

"Yes, you wally. I already told you didn’t I? What you asking me again for?"

"What?" Mina was admiring her reflection in the curtain-less windows of Jane’s house.

"Comeon!" Tariq grabbed her hand and pulled her away. "Jane can see your clothes another time. Nani’s waiting."

"OK, OK, keep your hair on." She let him pull her down the road for a while and then dramatically pulled her arm free.

There was a shout from somewhere which sounded like ‘backi’. Mina whirled round, being careful to swirl the scarf-thing out behind her - maybe someone from Jane’s house had seen her after all, but there was no-one looking out of those windows.

Tariq was pulling her again.

"Oi, Paki!"

She searched the windows up and down the road and finally saw someone’s head appear for a second in the upstairs window of a house nearby but duck down quickly as soon as he saw her looking.

They were far enough along the road that she did not know anyone who lived in this part of the neighbourhood. 

The head appeared again for a second. A billiard-ball with the short blonde fuzz of a crew cut, pokey little hollow eyes and a wide, gap-toothed grin looking for all the world like Jack Skellington from the Nightmare Before Christmas. 

She stared as hard as she could at the window with her hands on her hips, almost willing it to reappear.

"I like your pyjamas, Paki!" he said in a mockingly sing-song voice without looking out again.

Mina started to feel the blood rising up her face. She always blushed from the neck upwards, as if even her embarrassment was embarrassed to show itself in one go.

"I saw you!" she shouted.

"Mina!" Tariq hissed. 

But she was intent on justice. "Come down here and say that!" she yelled.

Tariq grabbed her arm firmly this time and pulled her hard, almost toppling her sideways out of her firm stance. "Come on, its not worth it."

A tiny pebble came whizzing out of the empty window and landed near her feet.

"Comeon!" Mina let herself be led away again, but kept her head turned towards the window to make sure billiard-ball knew that she wasn’t scared.

As they finally approached the newsagents, she heard footsteps from behind. Someone raced passed her so quickly that she almost jumped backwards against the newsagent’s sign. But as he ran,billiard-ball threw something right at her so hard it winded her. 

The cold started seeping through her thin clothes immediately. The smell was like earthworms. She looked down and saw that the front of her kameez had been spattered with mud.

The boy ran off across the road and stood staring at her, one hand brown and dripping. 

"Oi, Paki, you’re looking a  bit browned off!" He stood, grinning, baring those gapped teeth.

Mina was too mad to say anything. Her face was stony as her anger escaped from her nose in short, sharp breaths like a little bull in a beautifully embroidered green and shocking pink outfit. Tariq pulled her into the shop in silence. Two hot tears raced each other down both cheeks at once.

"Did you know who that was?" she managed when they were nearly home. They were the first words she could bring herself to say.

"Yeah, its some kid from school." Tariq said. "I think he’s in Mrs. Foreman’s class."

"Why did he call me that?" She stamped her foot hard. "Why did he do this?"

"It’s just how they are," Tariq said. "Dad said, you’ve just got to ignore ‘em, Mina. They’re..." He searched for the worst word he could think of. "...pigs."

"But my clothes..." Mina stared down at her amazing new clothes. It was the first time she had ever had anything as pretty as this to wear. It was too much to bear. She burst into tears. Burning hot teardrops forced their way down her face and landed onto her kameez, spreading out quickly on the green material like little grey drops of blood.

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