I knew this day was coming. I had prepared for it. But now that it was here, I was at a loss for words.
‘You’ve brought shame on us, Mandy,’ dad hissed as soon as I walked into the living room.
As ever, he had a can of beer in hand and was enveloped in a Golden Virginia smoke-cloud.
Jack aimed a finger between my eyes and smiled cheerfully, saying, ‘Before I go to Iraq, I’ll put a bullet in that boyfriend of yours.’
I looked over at mum for support, but she just lowered her eyes and brushed invisible specks of dust off her long black skirt.
My stomach knotted, and I felt tears burning in my eyes.
I had always told myself that on this day I would say: it’s my life, my choice who I love. And I would tell them that I didn’t believe in their God anymore. And I would tell them that I hated their hate-filled lives. And I had told myself, Amanda Townsend, you will shed no tears. So much for that!
‘You know nothing about him, Jack.’ I said, clenching my teeth.
‘He’s a Muslim,’ Dad said. ‘That’s enough.’
‘They want to make England a Muslamic country,’ Jack announced.
‘That’s news to me,’ I smiled at this half-wit for a brother.
‘They’re going to make you wear mijabs,’ Jack added.
Christ, can’t you even get your racism right, I thought.
‘Are they, Jack?’ I couldn’t resist a little suggestion for self-improvement. ‘If you’d learned to read and write more than your name, you might have been able to find yourself a real job.’
‘He’s doing his bit for Queen and country,’ Dad snapped.
Mum looked at me with pleading eyes and implored, ‘Go on, pet, make it up with your brother.’
Jack and I glared at each other, each waiting for the other to blink first.
‘I may not be any good with fancy words,’ Jack said, ‘but no Muslim’s getting their hands on me little sis.’
‘I’m me own woman, Jack,’ I said. ‘Besides, you’re only just older than me.’
‘Two hours is two hours,’ Mum laughed.
Ignoring Mum, I asked Jack, ‘So you going to call out the army, then?’
‘Might do,’ he replied. shrugging his shoulders.
‘Me knight in shining armour, eh?’ I sniggered. ‘Going save me on a Sherman tank, then?’
Dad stood up and said, ‘We’re having a family drink and then going out together for Jack.’
‘Come on, sis,’ Jack said, ‘It’s me last night.’
At least there’s some good news, I thought, and then felt sorry because he was leaving and I would miss him.
‘OK, soldier boy, you have nothing up there, but you’re still me brother,’ I said, tapping his head. Mum and dad looked at each other and beamed a proud parental smile.
All of a sudden, I became aware of the smell of my clothes. They smelt of Asda, where I work. I sighed with the thought, well Mandy, think how lucky you are to have met Khalil. I felt all warm inside as I remembered him coming to my checkout, everyday, with just one bottle of milk. I knew something inside me liked him doing this, but why I liked him I didn’t know. One day, after I had had enough of the canteen chatter of my not-so-secret milk bottle lover, I asked Khalil, ‘You like milk then?’
‘No,’ he had replied, ‘I like coming to your till.’
I almost fell off my chair. I hadn’t expected this as an answer. And then one of the girls made an announcement on the P.A. system, ‘Could customers purchasing just one bottle of milk a day please refrain from going to counter 15.’ Counter 15 being mine. Khalil didn’t have a clue what was happening.
All the cashiers laughed. All my colleagues’ eyes were on me. And I was blushing to the other side of heaven.
An irate customer, a muscular lady with flaming blond hair and sharp blue eyes, who was immediately behind Khalil, said to him, ‘I haven’t got all day you know. Why don’t you ask her out?’
Khalil turned around and asked the lady, ‘Out where?’
It was the second time in a few seconds that I nearly fell of my seat. Before the lady could say anything more to Khalil, I said, ‘I finish work at six.’
‘I start work at eight,’ he replied.
And those became the most precious two hours of my life; spent with a curly-haired poet with dark dreamy eyes, which seemed to cut right through me when they met mine.
‘You love him, really, don’t you pet?’ Mum’s words chased Khalil’s memory out of my head. Mum was smiling at Jack.
‘No,’ I laughed. For a moment I thought she had read my mind, ‘I hate him.’
‘I hate you too,’ Jack muttered.
I left the living to get changed.
As I was walking up the stairs, I heard them talking about Khalil. It was the same old, same old. So many good English lads and look what she picks! What could she possibly find in someone like him? I wanted to shout at them today and tell them, in Khalil’s words, Love cannot be found, it finds you. But I kept quiet and ran upstairs, thinking, there’s no point Mandy, just forget them.
After a few drinks at home, we went out to The George and Dragon. As soon as Jack walked into the pub, everyone started clapping and cheering.
The pub was well past its heyday. The tables wobbled, and most of the chairs creaked and pinched your behind when you sat on them. The cushioned seating in the alcoves that ran around the walls of the pub had long since stiffened, or had been ripped out in places. A large portrait of Queen Victoria hung from the wall above the bar. All around the pub, on either side of the bar, were fading black and white framed photographs of British soldiers posing in faraway lands.
A special table in an alcove had been reserved for us. It had two bottles of Champagne on it. Jack opened a bottle with a loud pop, spraying cheering faces.
The pub was full of Jack look-alikes. Some of them had seen me with my lover. I could feel the burning venom of their thoughts.
‘Chill, sis,’ Jack said, pouring champagne into a glass and pushing it to me.
‘You know I don’t like crowds,’ I protested. ‘Especially this bunch of EDLers; this bunch of racists.’
‘Loosen up, lassie,’ dad said, tickling my nose with his tobacco-stained joiner’s finger.
And then, as ever, dad’s teddy bear face, with its missing front teeth, took all my bitterness away.
‘Come on, Mandy, join the party,’ Mum said, snuggling up to me, her worn out, night shift eyes suddenly coming to life.
I sighed heavily. We clinked glasses, drank, and I lost track of time.
Someone started singing Rule Britannia. The whole pub joined in.
‘Sing, sis,’ Jack said, grabbing my arm.
‘Let me go, you barmy git,’ I complained.
Jack sang, whilst I struggled to be free of him.
After the singing stopped, the pub resonated to the chant of Jack, Jack, Jack!
Jack stood up. Someone passed him a cordless microphone. He raised his fist in the air and said, ‘The Muslamic Infidels, they’re trying to get their laws in our country. I mean you got the Iraqi Law they’ve put in London. They’re trying to put their law on us, we won’t stand for it.’
The pub roared, Jack, Jack, Jack!
Jack continued, ‘No Sharamic law. No muslims in our country telling us what to do. We don’t tell em how to run their country, no we don’t do that, and no Allah headbanger tells us how to run England. And when I get to Iraq, I’m going to say, Up the Khyber of Arabs. Yeh!’
Jack sat down to cheering and whistling.
I couldn’t help hugging my brother, and said to him, ‘You just can’t get anything right, can you?’
Someone sent a pint beer for Jack. He downed it in a few gulps and burped, saying, ‘Love you, little sis.’
‘I’m hungry,’ I said, pinching my nose in disgust.
‘Let’s hurry for a curry,’ Jack burped again, this time blowing his bad breath at me.
I covered my nose with my hands.
Dad laughed and said, ‘I could eat a horse and chase the jockey.’
‘I could murder an onion bhaji,’ Mum added.
‘Let’s go to The Indian,’ dad suggested.
A shiver ran down my spine at the mention of ‘The Indian’, and I said, ‘I fancy The Lebanese.’
‘I hate that humus thing, it doesn’t have a kick like a curry,’ dad said. ‘Don’t half make me bloat.’
‘But it don’t half blow you away, ‘ Jack snorted.
Mum curled her nose up, and said, ‘Let’s do King Curry,’
Jack said. ‘Champion.’
‘Can’t beat The Indian,’ dad insisted.
‘It’s Pakistani,’ I said.
‘What is?’ Mum asked, getting up to leave.
‘The Indian,’ I replied. ‘It’s not Indian, it’s Pakistani; it’s just called The Indian. Let’s do what Jack wants.’
‘The Indian’s a Pakistani?’ Mum asked, all puzzled.
What a shower for a family, I thought, as we left the pub
On the way to East Boarhead, I walked quietly, as mum, dad and Jack sang Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more, whilst instinctively avoiding the broken pavement stones. They continued singing, oblivious to car alarms, police sirens, or the barking of the dogs in the alleys along the way. Passing some freshly painted graffiti, Sharia Free Boarhead, EDL, they sang even louder.
The closer we got to The Indian, the more fearful I became.
When they stopped singing, I said to dad, ‘I fancy a Chinese.’
Dad ignored me and carried on walking, arm in arm with mum. Jack was on the other side of dad, towering over him.
I stopped and shouted, ‘I’m not eating in The Indian!’
Jack turned around and slurred, ‘Does your Muslim work there, sis?’
‘Have you been spying on me, you bastard?’
Jack was about to say something when he slipped off the pavement and fell into the path of an oncoming van. It screeched to a halt. The driver leaned out of the window and shouted, ‘You trying to kill yourself, or what?’
Jack shoved his middle finger up at the driver, who returned the gesture and drove off.
I ran to my brother, calling, ‘All right, Jack!?’
Jack stood up, lifted me off the ground and swung me in a full circle.
As he put me down, mum nodded towards us and said to dad, ‘You could do that to me once in a while.’
‘How can I? You’re bacon butty fit, lass,’ dad said.
Mum burst into tears and sat down on the pavement, saying, ‘You think I’m fat and ugly, don’t you?’
Jack protested, ‘Can’t you two fight after we’ve had a curry, like?’
Dad bent down, kissed mum on the lips and said, ‘But I still love you.’
You’re so corny, dad, I thought.
Mum stood up, looking years younger.
‘Me and your mum are popping into the Huntsmen for a quick ‘un. Order us a Chicken Tikka Masala,’ dad said, walking towards a pub next to The Indian.
As if you ever have anything else, I thought.
Jack stepped towards The Indian.
‘If I go there, will you promise to behave, Jack?’ I asked, nodding to The Indian.
‘Cross my heart and hope to die,’ Jack laughed.
With a headbanger for a brother, bad idea, Amanda Townsend, I thought, but followed him into the restaurant anyway. We sat down at a table which, like all the others, had a new white plastic tablecloth, a folded red napkin, and a plastic rose in an empty wine bottle. Our table was next to a window. Whilst Jack fidgeted about for something in his pocket, I stared outside at a bus shelter, with its smashed glass side panels, and thought, love you Boarhead.
An Asian man, dressed in traditional Asian clothes, was sat at a table near to us. He had finished his meal and a waiter was clearing his table. I looked nervously around, and then sighed with relief, thinking, at least Khalil works in the kitchen.
The Asian customer pointed to the loudspeaker hanging above him under a multi-coloured globe, and said something in his language to the waiter.
‘Speak in English,’ Jack shouted over to the Asian man.
‘Leave it Jack,’ I pleaded. ‘You said you’d behave.’
The volume of the music was turned louder. The word Allah, being repeated by the singer, rang through the restaurant.
Jack slammed his hand on the table and shouted, ‘Turn that Paki crap off, now!’
‘It’s my music and it’s beautiful, ‘ the Asian customer said.
Jack stood up, pulled the rose out of the bottle, grabbed it by the neck, smashed it on the side of a table, and rushed at the Asian man and stabbed him in the face with the jagged edge. The man fell back screaming.
I went after Jack, beseeching him to stop. He pushed me away. I stumbled backwards into the kitchen swing doors. As they opened, I saw Khalil. He was chopping onions with a kitchen knife. He ran towards me, knife in hand, and stopped me falling.
‘Thank you, my love,’ I said to Khalil, ‘now go, please go.’
Pushing tables out of his way, Jack charged towards me, bottle in hand, swearing, ‘That’s the bastard, isn’t it?’
A terrifying rage burned in his eyes.
I begged, ‘Stop, Jack, Stop.’
Jack went past me and shoved the bottle into my lover’s neck. Khalil fell bleeding across some tables, still holding the knife. Jack rushed at him and tried to hit him again.
‘No, Jack,’ I shouted. I ran and jumped on my brother’s back, and bit him on the shoulder. He shook his shoulders and I fell off. Just then, Jack went down on one knee, placed his big hand on Khalil’s throat and raised the bottle to strike him, but instead of hitting Khalil, he stood up holding his stomach, cursing, ‘The bastard’s stabbed me.’
‘Oh God, someone please call an ambulance,’ I cried.
Jack slumped onto a chair, one hand on his stomach, blood oozing out of his fingers. I grabbed some tissues and pressed on his wound.
A short while later, police officers rushed into the restaurant. Paramedics followed, and before I knew what was happening Jack was on his way to the hospital.
I went to the hospital in a police car with my lover, who cried, ‘I don’t know what happened.’
As soon as I reached the hospital, a nurse called out, ‘Anyone with Jack Townsend?’
‘He’s my brother,’ I replied.
‘Come with me,’ the nurse said.
I kissed Khalil on the cheek and followed the nurse.
‘Is the doctor a Muslim?’ I asked.
‘He’s a doctor,’ the nurse replied without turning to look at me.
‘I am Doctor Kapil Shah,’ a doctor said to me as soon as I got into the emergency room. Nodding towards Jack, the doctor added, ‘he’s lost a lot of blood.’
‘Let the doctor help you, Jack,’ I pleaded, getting closer to him.
Jack lifted himself up, shook his head and then slumped back. He held my hand and kissed it, saying, ‘You could have any man.’
Caressing his cold hand, I replied, ‘His name is Khalil Masih. He’s Christian…’
In a last laboured breath, before closing his eyes for ever, Jack whispered, ‘Save me.’
Tariq Mehmood’s Song of Gulzarina is a highly involving novel which looks at the life of Saleem Khan, who migrates from Pakistan to Bradford in the 1960s full of expectation and ends up contemplating suicide bombing in 21stcentury Manchester – Lindsey German, Counterfire
Mehmood’s novel is polemical and full of black humour. … Terror, both state-sponsored and the work of violent extremists, exists and has to be confronted. This is one of the most textured novels I have read about such violence. — Claire Chambers, Huffington Post
Saleem’s mission, then, can be simultaneously understood as a broken man’s final attempt to violently confront the systems that have failed him, and a regretful man’s hopeful attempt at redemption for his shortcomings by orchestrating his own end. – Abeera Khan, Kohl Journal for Body and Gender Research
You may not realize it while reading, but at the end you are gripped.. . and left wondering, “what the hell just hit me?” – Lema Abeng-Nsah, Dunia, The Reader’s Magazine
Tariq Mehmood has written a powerful tale and his voice in the current political climate is important. Through a strong sense of the spoken word, an under-heard narrative gains momentum. This book is pure entertainment but it is also a cautionary tale. A question embedded in a Song. What happens when people are ignored and suppressed for too long? Where does that energy go? It is the reader’s gain that this particular writer has put his own spark into Song of Gulzarina. —J Rose, Muscat Tales
Political novels that are entertaining as well as thought provoking are a real rarity, but Tariq Mehmood has managed the trick here.- Melvn Burgess. Novelist
The author says he took 10 years to write this and I read it in under two days … I just couldn’t put it down….Now that I’ve put it down I’m troubled by it and will want to pick it up and read again. – Yvonne Ridley, Writer