In Pursuit of Redemption
By S A TAMEEZ
He hauled his suitcase behind him as he as he trudged into the waiting lounge in Terminal Three, Heathrow Airport, United Kingdom. Flustered. Legs throbbing. His back felt broken from the agonising nine-hour flight from Allama Iqbal International Airport, Pakistan.
Rafiq fell into the seat. Despite being exhausted from hours of sitting and bursting to visit the restroom, his legs could bear his weight no longer. The cold was unsympathetic to his aching muscles. It made him wonder why the above vents were blowing out cool air in winter. Surely, turning the heating up to maximum was a better choice. He ought to find the guy in charge of controlling the temperature and slap some sense into him. But looking around, he seemed to be the only one bothered by the bitter chill.
There was a young couple sat close by, whispering to each other and giggling like silly children. A man in a black suit sat next to them, bashing away at his keyboard and occasioning cursing under his breath. Small clusters of people scattered around chatting away, some greeting, some saying goodbye – tears of joy and tears of sadness.
Rafiq tried to keep his legs tucked under the seat to avoid tripping up the children running around, playing and screaming. And although they were the loudest noise in the area; louder than the two gossiping women stood nearby, louder than clattering footsteps and louder than that annoying crackle from the airport’s PA system, they were the most bearable. On any typical day screaming children would have driven him close to suicide but not today – not today.
He glanced at his Omega wristwatch – a watch handed down to him from his father just before he passed away. The only good memory he had of him.
“Damn it!” he muttered to himself. That will explain the pains and dizziness. He hadn’t eaten in a good few hours; partially because he despised aeroplane food but mainly because he became very nervous when flying. Not eating for a prolonged time was probably not a good thing for a Type-Two-Diabetic. Especially as he had completely lost track of when he last took his insulin. Come to think of it, where on earth was his insulin? He couldn’t remember whether he had even packed it.
His vision became blurry. He fought to get to his feet. He remembered seeing a vending machine as he walked in. If he could just get to it, he could grab a chocolate bar or a fizzy drink – any overload of sugar would do. One of the children running around brushed passed him and nearly sent him tumbling, but his balance remained, just about. He used the back of the row of seats to hold on to as he dragged himself along and frantically searched for the vending machine. The room was now spinning, and the lights were stinging his eyes. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He wrestled to stop himself from losing consciousness. He had to keep moving. The thought of shouting for help crossed his mind but he didn’t do it – not that he couldn’t do it – he just wouldn’t do it. Asking for help was just something he didn’t do – even if he was dying, which for a moment, he felt he was.
“Uncle…” A voice emerged, “Are you OK?”
Rafiq blinked a few times and then squinted to see the young brown-skinned man stood in front of him. Rafiq didn’t recognise him but instantly noticed the look of sympathy he had on his face – a look that for some reason, he loathed. He was a slender man and couldn’t have been a day over twenty-five. Black-framed glasses sat on snug on the top of his arched nose, and he was draped in a long beige coat.
“I’m fine.” Rafiq lied. “Now, please… get out of my way.”
The man didn’t move. Instead, he just smiled. “Uncle, you don’t look fine. Let me help you. Are you here alone? Is there anyone I can call to help you?”
“No! And like I said I am f—” Rafiq stopped mid-sentence, crashed into the seat and gasped for air.
The man quickly sat next to him, he placed the back of his hand on Rafiq’s forehead, presumably to check his temperature. He then removed a small torch from him his pocket and shone it into Rafiq’s eyes.
“What’s your name?” The man asked.
“I… I need sugar,” Rafiq demanded, struggling to keep his eyes open.
“Ah, you’re diabetic.” The man said. He rummaged through his bag and removed an orange Lucozade bottle. “Here, drink this. Don’t worry; I haven’t swigged from it – it’s still sealed.” Rafiq could just about make out what the man was saying. He snatched the bottle out of the man’s hand and used the little energy he had left to turn the cap and guzzle half its contents. The bubbles bursting on his tongue were overwhelming, and the cold liquid gushing down his throat and into his empty insides caused him a sudden stomach cramp. It was only after he belched that he felt a little relief. He peered at the bottle with contempt. Sugar! Can’t live with it and can’t live without it! A bittersweet irony! He lay his head back and drifted off for a few minutes.
He woke with the despairing urge to go to the toilet. His eyes were now more focused, and muscle pains had subsided. He looked around and saw the signs for the toilet. It didn’t seem far, but he feared he wouldn’t make it. He got to his feet.
“Hi uncle.” That familiar voice emerged. “How are you feeling now?” The man came striding towards him with his hand out, presumably for a proper introduction. Rafiq was immediately irritated by the man’s fluffy hair that bounced on his head as he approached.
Rafiq handed him the handle of the suitcase, “Here, hold this until I get back from the toilet.” He abruptly ordered.
“Erm, sure.” The man said with that same annoying sympathetic smile. Rafiq shook his head, pushed passed him and then waddled towards the restroom, quietly muttering curses the entire way. He could imagine that anyone observing him thought he was a madman, but he didn’t care. They should all just mind their own business.
He made it to the toilet. The feeling of relief was indescribable.
On his return, he had really hoped the silly man with that ridiculously bouncy hair and infuriating smile had vanished. And that his suitcase was just left next to the seat he was planning to sit on while he figured out how he was going to call a taxi without a cell phone or any UK currency for the payphone. But to his disappointment, the man was still there. Still smiling. Rafiq growled as he approached him.
Again, the man put out his hand, and again Rafiq ignored it. Instead, Rafiq seised the handle of his suitcase and plumped himself into the seat.
The man sat next to him, silently for a moment and then said, “Abbas, my name is Abbas.”
“That’s nice. Now, Abbas, if you could just leave me alone…”
“I… erm, found this – it was on the seat you were sat on. Is it yours?” Rafiq peered at the photo in his Abbas’ hand. A photo of a young woman in traditional Pakistani clothing and two boys stood next to her. A photo that made Rafiq want to melt into the ground.
“Give me that!” Rafiq barked and grabbed the photo. “Do you kids not have anything better to do than to annoy a man simply about his business?!” Abbas didn’t respond.
Rafiq tried not to look at the photo; he just folded it and stuffed into his inside blazer pocket. A few minutes went by, and the young man stayed sitting next to Rafiq.
“I didn’t need your help.” Rafiq finally spoke.
“I know.” The man responded.
“And you’re incredibly annoying. You know that?”
“I have been told that.” Abbas grinned.
“How much do I owe you for the drink?”
“Please, you don’t need to—”
“How much?!” Rafiq snapped. “I don’t take things for free and you… you shouldn’t be giving things for free. Moron. Haven’t your parents taught you anything?” Rafiq paused for a moment and then asked, “Where are you from?”
“I am from South London.”
“No, you idiot. Where are you from, from?”
“Oh, my parents are from Karachi, in Pakistan. That’s where I just came back from.”
“Parents are from!” Rafiq muttered under his breath. “That’s the problem with you kids these days, you’ve forgotten your roots. You are from where your parents are from!” Rafiq could feel his blood boiling. “What? You think you’re from here?” Rafiq broke into laughter, “Don’t fool yourself. You might be living here now but you don’t belong here. And sooner or later you’ll be forced back.” He shook his head, “You probably go back home once every ten years for a holiday. Had a good holiday?”
“Actually, I went to Pakistan to bury my father.”
Rafiq was stunned into silence. He wasn’t expecting that – like a sudden blow to the back of the head. He realised that he had been giving this young man a tough time after he had just gone through the trauma of losing his father. But what could he say now? What, that he was sorry for the man’s loss? How could he be sorry? He didn’t know this man or his father – plus, he didn’t do “Sorry”.
“Well, we all have to go some time.” Was the closest Rafiq managed to sympathy. “You don’t seem to be overly distressed about the loss. Did you not get on or something?” Rafiq asked, not that he cared.
“We were very close, like best friends, actually. He… erm… he got Cancer and was in agony for many months. He would often tell me that the pain was unbearable. I couldn’t imagine what he was going through. I think death for him was a relief from all the suffering. So, I am not sad. I know that he is in a better place and I chose not to mourn his death, I would rather celebrate his life. He was my hero.”
“Seems like quite the guy,” Rafiq remarked cynically.
“You sort of remind me of my father.”
“Please don’t!” Rafiq snapped, “You don’t know me… I don’t know you. The passing of your father is probably very tragic and traumatising for you. But I am not your father or your uncle or anything to do with you. I am sure there is an imam or a chaplain or whatever you kids are into these days, around here for you to go and pour your heart to but not here – not me. So, as I have requested many times, leave me in peace!”
Abbas’ smile dropped but not quite into a frown.
“Well, it was nice meeting you, uncle. I will leave you, but I’m not sure I am leaving you in peace. Anyway, all the best.” He began raising his arm but then stopped, probably remembering the last two times he was left hanging.
He was right, Rafiq thought. Rafiq was as far from peace as heaven was from hell. And those words were like a dagger piercing his cold heart. His shoulders slumped, and he felt defeated – well, his ego did anyway.
“Abbas!” Rafiq called as Abbas walked away. He turned around. “If you have a moment, come and sit.” Without hesitation, he marched back and sat down.
“We all have some time,” Abbas said, “Especially us, here.”
“What do you mean?”
“The snow. It has caused chaos on the runways and the roads. Most taxi companies are refusing to send out their drivers – roads are too dangerous. We’re sort of stuck.”
“But… that’s ridiculous! I need to see some people. I need to go now!”
“People in the photo?” Abbas asked.
Rafiq nodded. Hating the fact that Abbas had put two and two together. That was the thing about this generation, they were just too bloody smart for their own good.
“Are they your family?”
Rafiq had the urge to scream at him. Tell him to shut up and mind his own business. But he didn’t. Instead, he just nodded. He removed the photo from his pocket and unfolded it. He stared at it for a moment silently. Then pointed at the woman, “That’s my wife, Sidra and those are my two sons – Adam and Idrees. Adam is probably a lot older than you now and Idrees, probably a little younger.”
Abbas smiled, “They seem lovely.” He gazed at the photo.
“Thirty years…” Rafiq paused for a moment and then spoke again, “I haven’t seen them in thirty years.” He could feel his bottom lip quiver as the painful fact came out of his mouth. He had thought about it countless times but never had he spoken about it, especially to another soul.
He could see the expression of shock on Abbas’ face. And why wouldn’t he be shocked? He seemed like a good lad. A respectful, obedient son, straight-A student, probably a doctor, judging by the way he shone the torch in his eyes earlier. Most likely an upholding citizen that got involved in community events, helped charities and obsessed over caring for the environment.
Rafiq knew his type. The smart, Goody two shoes that everyone wanted to punch in the face.
“What happened?” Abbas finally asked. A question that Rafiq didn’t want to answer but for some strange reason felt compelled to do so.
“I met Sidra while studying English in Oxford. We were in the same class. She was wonderful. Ambitious, confident, courageous, funny… all the things I didn’t want in a woman. Yet, she had me mesmerised. Drawn to her like a bee is drawn to a flower.
We were both from Pakistan, but she had been in the UK for a while, and I was fresh off the boat. She knew the ropes, and I sort of became reliant on her. Although I never told her, I was in awe of her – she was everything I was not.
I spoke to my parents about Sidra, and she spoke to hers about me. At first, they didn’t approve but eventually, they accepted it and lo and behold, we were married.
We had Adam immediately after graduating, and the pressure was on. Get a job, get a house – get sorted. She planned to stay and build a life here in the UK, my intentions were always to go back home. But we didn’t fight about that. I went home frequently to see my mother, father, brothers and sisters. My parents were well off, so I didn’t have to worry about supporting them like many of my friends had to. Not that I would have been able to anyway. We were just about making ends meet here. And not that I told my family that. That would have been disastrous! I was the dark horse in the family, you see. The one that didn’t join the successful family Air-con business – the boy that went rogue. In pursuit of happiness.
I found it, happiness, I mean. But it was temporary. I loved my wife, and I loved my two children. But love wasn’t enough – especially not in this case. I had a narrow mind; I realise that now. I was opinionated, egotistical and unbearably stubborn.”
Rafiq paused when he noticed Abbas’ smile grow.
“What?” Rafiq asked.
“Sorry, it’s just that I wouldn’t have guessed the opinionated, egotistical and unbearably stubborn part.”
“Sorry, please, go on…”
“I was set in my ways.” Rafiq continued, “Very set in my ways. My friends called me “The Ice Man” I didn’t mind as it resembled my cold character accurately. The name caught on, and even my wife would call me it, particularly when we did start arguing. Oh God, the arguing.” Rafiq fell silent – burying his face in his hands.
Abbas didn’t prompt any further, and Rafiq was glad as he needed a few moments to compose himself.
“I wanted Adam to get married to his cousin in Pakistan,” Rafiq continued, “It was customary, and although I didn’t follow the unshakable trend myself by choosing to marry Sidra, who was not from within my clan, I wanted what was best for my children. My sister and I had already spoken about my eldest son marrying her eldest daughter. In my mind, it as set in stone. Sidra, however, couldn’t bear the thought. She hated the Pakistani culture, and I felt as though it was law and order. We became like two whirlwinds clashing.
Something had to give and eventually an inevitable day arrived. The day I detonated. The day that I could take it no more. I said some horrible, vile things that no man should ever say to his wife – things I didn’t mean, things I can never take back. And then I told her I never wanted to see her or the children again. Which was, of course, untrue. Yet, at the time, I felt there was no other alternative. It was my way or the highway. So, I packed my bags and booked a one-way ticket to Pakistan. Home.
She begged me to stay, but still not willing to meet my demands. So, I refused. If I couldn’t have it my way, the right way, then I would have no part of it. In a rage, I left.”
Rafiq could see Abbas’ eyes filling.
“And just to prove how stupid and stubborn I really am, it took me thirty years to realise that had been a fool and to build up the courage to come back.”
Abbas stared at the ground as if thinking of something to say.
“I mean… that is, wow.” Abbas finally spoke. “But… but at least you did build up the courage, I mean thirty-years is a long time to hold a grudge – but at least you came back. That counts for something. Right?”
“I’m not sure what it counts for. I am a feeble old man. Time has been cruel to me; he pointed to the wrinkles on his face. And I am very ill, dying in fact.”
He paused for a moment and massaged his temples. “I know that I don’t deserve redemption, God knows, I don’t deserve anything. But I really need to see them. Even if it is just once. I need to make peace with them.”
“I understand,” Abbas said.
“Good. So, I need you to call me a taxi, and I need to get to High Wycombe.”
“OK sure. But we must wait. The weather is crazy and dangerous.”
“Look, time is something that I don’t have. I need to get to High Wycombe now.”
“Taxi companies are not running. They’re saying the roads are terrible.”
“I don’t care about the roads or the taxi company. Call around now.”
“Fine. But no one’s going to come.”
“Just do it!”
Abbas began ringing around and most of the companies, as he had predicted, didn’t answer and the one or two that did, refused to take the job.
“Keep trying,” Rafiq commanded.
To Abbas’ astonishment and disappointment, a company finally agreed to come.
“Uncle, are you sure you want to do this? It’s incredibly dangerous.”
“It will be here in ten minutes you said?” Rafiq asked.
“OK, that gives me enough time to visit the toilet again. Diabetes, makes me want to go all the time.”
“Yes, that’s why you must keep up your liquids to stop yourself from getting dehydrated.” Abbas handed him a bottle of mineral water.
“I am a paramedic, actually.”
“Your father must have been very proud of you,” Rafiq said. “I know I would be if you were my son.” Rafiq put out his hand. Abbas froze in shock. He then grinned and then shook Rafiq’s hand.”
“I pray you find what you seek,” Abbas said.
Rafiq nodded and then walked away.
This visit to the toilet was quick. The Lucozade had kept him alive. He wasn’t sure how long for but hopefully long enough.
He tottered outside in the blistering cold, swaying from the snowy gust. Brilliant white flakes descended from the heavens. The glistening blanket covered everything in sight. Snow sat on leafless trees artistically. It looked beautiful, like a picture on a postcard. But as beautiful as it was, was how daunting it was.
Like a Mountain Laurel – stunning yet deadly.
Snow filled his shoes as he trudged through a thick layer of fluffy white carpet. He could see headlights in the distance. It must be the taxi, he said to himself. He stood and waited as the vehicle came at snail’s pace. He was freezing. He could no longer feel his toes. He had the urge to curse but refrained from uttering any profanities.
The loud diesel engine roared as the black Mercedes pulled up in front of him with wheels spinning.
“Taxi to High Wycombe?” The driver called from the half-opened window.
“What the hell took you so long?”
“Sorry, let me get your bags.”
“No, you stay in the car, you wasted enough of my time already. Just open the boot.” The driver didn’t argue and pressed the button. The boot flung open. Rafiq wrestled to get the suitcase in the trunk. But it was in and before long, they were on the snow-filled road skidding and sliding towards the M40 motorway.
The car’s blowers were on max, Rafiq could feel the heat. It felt great but did nothing for his toes, which were like popsicles. The seats were leather, and there was a little heat radiating from them, which felt nice. Did wonders for his aching back.
“They obviously didn’t realise how bad it was going to be,” the driver said. “They should have put salt down last night. Idiots. And to think this,” he pointed to the road ahead, “this is what we pay road tax for! Criminals!”
Rafiq didn’t respond. He was done talking. He hoped the driver would eventually give up and be quiet. This didn’t happen. So, he listened to the driver complain about the roads, the weather, the government, finance, society and pretty much everything in between. Rafiq stayed silent trying not to pay any attention to what he was saying. His mind was solely on the mission. He began imagining what his wife looked like now, after thirty years. Her hair was probably white, maybe a few wrinkles. Wonder if she still wore traditional Pakistani clothes. Would she recognise him? He didn’t look anything like he looked like back then. His face was now painted with creases. His hair had disappeared, except the grey fur around the sides and back. It looked like he had an upside-down bowl on his head. A shiny bowl. He was six-foot-tall, but you couldn’t tell as he was now bent with age.
He thought about what he would say to here. What would he say to her? What do you say to someone that you loved and then abandoned, for a lifetime, for her to raise two children alone?
“What the hell?” the driver said, tearing Rafiq’s attention away from asking himself questions that he had no way of articulating. The car began to slow down until it came to a halt.
“What’s going on?” Rafiq asked.
“Look at all these cars. They’ve all stopped. The roads must be really bad.”
“Can’t you get around them?” Rafiq could feel the desperation in his own voice.
“No chance.” The driver shook his head, “Look at it.”
“How far are we out?” Rafiq asked.
“No, Buckingham Palace. Of course, Wycombe!”
“Not far, less than a mile.”
“Fine. I’ll walk from here.”
“Are you bloody insane?”
“Yes! I’m bloody insane!” It suddenly struck him that he had no money to pay for the taxi journey, not UK currency anyway.
“How much do I owe you?” Rafiq asked.
“Nothing. It was paid for over the phone.”
Rafiq’s mind went back to Abbas. Too good for his own good that boy! Rafiq thought.
“Fine. Open the boot.”
“Listen, I understand that you need to get to Wycombe, but this is stupid. It’s way too dangerous!”
“Thanks for your concern. Now open the damn boot!”
“Suit yourself! It’s your funeral!”
“I’ll be sure to send you an invite. Boot, now!”
The driver huffed and pressed the button.
Within moments, Rafiq was walking along the motorway, towing the suitcase along. The stunning crystal snow had lost its appeal, and he battled against the sharp bitter wind. It slashed through him like a stiletto. There was a quiet thump. It emerged from up ahead. Snow had fallen off a sign. Wycombe, half a mile, it read.
He wasn’t far. Half a mile was nothing. He used to walk more than that every day in Pakistan. He had been doing that for the past seven years, ever since the doctors confirmed he had diabetes. But he wasn’t in Pakistan. A place that seeing the snow was like seeing a McDonalds in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
His legs were pleading with him to stop. Just a little further, he said to himself. Just a little further.
His ears felt like they had turned to ice and were ready to break off. He began to cough as the cold burst into his lungs. Breathing was painful but not impossible. Just a little further, he continued to remind himself.
He could no longer heave the suitcase. His arms gave up, so he abandoned it – a decision he didn’t make lightly. The snow made it impossible to see in the distance. He had no idea how close he was. He began to slow. The cold was relentless in cutting through him. But he had to keep going. He looked at his watch; it had stopped ticking. He figured he had been walking for an hour. Couldn’t be much further now, he thought.
His foot suddenly slipped, and he lost balance. He slid uncontrollably and then tumbled off the motorway and into a ditch. Thud. The wind was knocked out of him, and incredible pain surged through him.
He had broken his leg, he was sure of it. The fall must have also done something to his back as he felt paralysed. He could, however, move his arms, so he used them like paddles to try to row out of the ditch, but he couldn’t. He was stuck. He thought of screaming for help, but it would be no use as no one would be able to hear him.
He knew full well that in a battle between man and nature, nature always prevailed. It was here before man and will remain after.
He reached into his pocket and removed the photo of his wife and children. He unfolded it and stared at it, smiling. “So close, yet so far,” he said to himself. The cliché, you die the way you lived, sprung to his mind. He lived like The Ice Man, so, it was only inevitable he would die as, The Ice Man.
“Forgive me.” He uttered and held the photo against his chest. He closed his eyes, visualising his wife and children until he drifted off.