A saga of everyday life in the Big L and a wry look at contemporary culture
By Tony Carden
The doorbell rang. Ahmed emerged from the living room to see Fatima opening it. A man stood silhouetted against the light.
‘Hello. I’m Daniel Welham. I’m from CAP—Christians Against Poverty, the charity. Your husband came to see me yesterday and I said I’d call.’ He passed over a bag of groceries. ‘These are for you.’
Fatima took them and opened the bag.
‘I hope they are all right. I made sure everything in it is Halal. We have an Iman on the team and he seemed to think they were OK.’
‘This is very generous of you.’ She turned to see her husband looking at them. ‘Ahmed, there’s someone to see you.’
‘Wasn’t expecting anybody, like.’
‘I’m just following up on our chat yesterday.’
‘I didna think…’ He gestured towards the living room. ‘Come in.’ He looked at Fatima. ‘Get us a cuppa tea, luv.’
‘Do you want sugar?’
‘No thank you, Mrs Ibrahim. Just milk.’ He went into the living room. Ahmed followed him.
‘Erh.’ Ahmed removed an old copy of the Metro from an armchair. ‘Make yourself comfortable.’
Daniel sat himself down. Ahmed sat opposite.
‘Where’s the kids?’
‘They’re outside. What with the weather, like, they’re playing with their mates.’
‘That’s nice. Yes, the weather has been good hasn’t it?’
Fatima entered with a couple of mugs and deposited them on the coffee table. She started to leave.
Daniel got up. ‘It might help if you stayed to hear what we talk about.’
Fatima gave Ahmed an anxious look. He nodded. She sat down next to him.
Daniel sat down again, reached over and picked up a mug. He took a sip of the tea. ‘Just as I like it.’
‘Dyah think you can really help us, like?’
‘I believe so. We help over twenty thousand people a year to get debt free. That’s the aim for you. To get you out of debt.’
‘Well, like, that’d be grand.’
‘We will need to work with your creditors on repayment. Do you have a list of what you owe?’
Ahmed gave his wife a searching look. ‘Nah.’
‘I mean, do you know how much you owe and to whom?’
‘Well, it’s like this, you see. I’ve got friends and family to loan me a bit, like.’
‘But d you do have any commercial loans as well?’
‘Yeah, got ‘em. There’s two of ‘em.’ Ahmed got up and wandered out of the room into the bedroom. He rummaged in a shoe box and found the lenders’ statements. He returned to the living room and handed them over. ‘’ere yah are.’
Daniel took them and examined them carefully before placing the statements on the coffee table. ‘According to the statements, you owe sixteen hundred and fifty-two pounds to FastCash. The good news is, I think we can get them to strike a deal on repayment.’ He paused. ‘What about your family and friends? How much have you borrowed off them?’
Ahmed looked at Fatima. ‘You’d better see about the kids.’
She got up and left, closing the door behind her.
‘Didna want her to hear about it. It’s wouldn’t help.’
‘I understand.’ There was a silence. ‘Now, look, if we’re to help you, we need all the numbers. We’re not judgemental or anything. I’ve been a befriender for three years now and dealt with eight cases personally. Two of which, I’m pleased to say, are nearly debt free. I assure you, it can be done. It just requires organising a budget and talking things over with the lenders.’
Ahmed got up and wandered over to the window. He looked out. He couldn’t see his kids in the yard. Nor could he see Fatima. He turned back and resumed his seat.
‘It’s fifteen hundred like.’
Daniel remained silent but got out his mobile and tapped in some numbers. Eventually, he looked up. ‘I make it you owe three thousand, two hundred and fifty-two pounds from what you say and have given me. Is that everything?’
‘Well, the car hire. I might owe ‘em somemit.’
‘Do you know what it might be?’
‘’Bout a hundred and fifty, I think. Could be a bit more.’
‘Well, we’ll need to know.’ He paused and rubbed his chin. ‘What’s your income?’
‘I’m on benefits like. Can’t work on account of my neck, see. So’s I get summit for kids and wife; a bit for me.’
Daniel gestured at the room. ‘No mortgage?’
‘Rent it from council.’
‘Are you up-to-date on the rent?’
‘Slipped a bit, ain’t I? Money’s been tight.’
‘When did you last pay?’
‘Not sure. They’ve not said nutting about it.’
‘We’ll need to find out what the situation is there.’
‘Yah can do summit, can’t you?’
‘The first step is to tally up what you owe. After that, we’ll talk to the lenders and the council and try to reach agreement on how much you repay them every month.’
‘But I can’t live on what I’m getting on benefits. There’s the kids, wife and ‘lectric to pay.’
‘I know. The idea is to work out a budget of essentials and see how much is left and then we can see what you can pay back each month.’ He picked up the account statements. ‘What we don’t want is for the loan to keep on growing. Do you know how much the interest charge is on this? It’s usury.’
The doorbell rang. There was a noise in the hall. Voices.
‘Fatima?’ Ahmed got to his feet. ‘Gotta see what’s ‘appening.’ He headed for the door.
Omar was at the front door gesticulating wildly at Fatima.
‘Whatcha doing here?’
‘Ahmed.’ He then spotted Daniel. ‘Is he troubling you?’
‘He’s here about the debts.’ Omar made towards him. Ahmed restrained him. ‘It’s not like that. He’s ‘ere to ‘elp.’
Omar relaxed and nodded towards Daniel. ‘You Citizens’ Advice?’
‘No. I’m from a charity called CAP. We help people in debt.’
‘What’s he doing here, Ahmed? He’s a leech.’
‘No. Omar, he’s fine. I met ‘im through the Advice people.’
Omar waved his hands in the air. ‘All you want is money.’ He pointed at the door. ‘Get out.’
‘Omar, no, he ain’t bad.’
‘Ahmed. I think I’d better leave.’ He shouldered past Omar who was blocking the exit.
‘Don’t come back.’
Fatima closed the front door.
‘Shit, Omar, the guy was only trying to ‘elp.’
* * *
Mary gazed over the peaks that rose up around her. Overhead, a burning sun blazed in a cloudless blue sky. Then her eye spotted it. A peak in the far distance was surrounded by a billowy white mass that looked like cotton wool. And I thought it was a perfect day.
‘Wait a minute, Mary.’
She turned to see Des labouring up the slope about a hundred yards downhill. He grudged up, his walking sticks working like the front legs of a praying mantis. You’re not as fit as you make out, are you?
He puffed up to her. ‘That was some climb. Do we need to go as fast as that always?’
‘We agreed we’d hike to the Höhbalmen today.’
‘But I had no idea it would be such a scramble.’
‘But we’ve done this kind of trail before. Last year’s big walk went up higher than this.’
‘Maybe. But this one’s bloody killing me. Next year we bloody get in training before we do this.’ He mopped his brow. ‘I can’t believe how hot it is.’ He pulled a flask out of his backpack and took a sip. He offered it to her. ‘Want some?’
‘No thanks.’ You’ve probably put spittle in it.
‘Let’s take five.’ He gestured at a convenient patch of grass.
Mary went over and sat down. Des followed her and stretched himself out on the ground. Mary’s attention was drawn to the small cloud. It had grown and was now hiding the distant peak and the one beside it. A distant but ever-increasing shadow. Brexit Day, 29th March 2019, popped into her mind. My distant but growing dark cloud. She sighed. Well, at least Bernard is now starting to make some positive noises about The Plan. But only after I’d got the Austrians on side. Jeez that man’s a pain.
Des’ mobile rang. He sat up, fiddling with his pocket before extracting it. He tapped at the screen. I thought you’d switched that stupid thing off!
‘Tom, what did you want? It had better be urgent.’ There was a pause as he listened. ‘Sure, sure. Tell ‘em we’ll do it but it’s a big favour. Make sure they understand that.’ He tapped his phone again and returned it to his pocket.
‘I thought we’d agreed to leave our work behind.’
‘Ah!’ Des struggled to his feet. ‘I’ve got the business to look after. Besides, you’re on the line to London every day.’
‘But that’s different. I’ve a government to run.’ He eyed her accusingly. Well, I do. I can’t trust anyone to do the right thing. It’s as if I’ve got to hold their hands over every little detail. They’ll screw up without me to keep them in line.
‘How so?’ He stomped off. Come back. We’re meant to be enjoying a break, Des!
She rushed after him.
Their path took them through the high meadow. In the distance, another couple were coming the other way along the trail. The man with her raised a hand in greeting as they got near. The woman scowled.
They passed behind them.
‘Err, Mary, wasn’t that Angela Merkel?’
‘Yes. So what?’
‘Didn’t you want to stop and talk to her?’
‘Des, we’re both on vacation.’ She flipped a gesture with her right hand. ‘Besides, we see each other all the time.’
They hiked on. The Swiss Alps spread out before them, the majestic peaks covered in snow between stretches of sheer cliff and outcrops that exposed the naked rock. Lower down, the colours shifted to greens, at first the colour of grass then the darker shades of pines. Here and there a mountain road cut through the wilderness.
Mary’s phone rang. Blast. I thought I’d put that on silent. She ignored it.
‘Aren’t you going to answer it?’ Why should I?
No. I’m on holiday, remember.’
The phone went silent. Good. They’ve given up. There was a ping.
‘I don’t care.’
‘You should at least read the message to see if it’s urgent.’
‘Just because you can’t stop with your business.’ Oh well, it won’t change things if I peek. She took out her phone. The missed call had come from Andrew. She flicked to the message. Mary, I tried to call you. The latest poll of Tory members has seen a jump to 45% of members wanting you out now! We must talk! She stuffed the phone back in her pocket.
‘A telemarketer, then?’
‘Shut up, Des, it’s not funny.’ Gods! If the party thinks like that what does the electorate think? She gazed at the expanding mass of cloud that now encompassed half the sky. That looks nasty. She pointed at the now dark clouds. ‘The weather’s changing.’
‘Let’s get back to the hotel then.’
They turned about and headed back down the slope. They were pursued by the clouds. The sun was swallowed up. The blue sky all but vanished, except in the distance.
They walked rapidly down towards the treeline.
Mary felt a drop of rain on her cheek. We’re going to get drenched. She stopped and took off her backpack to retrieve her waterproof. The rain intensified. This was meant to be a good day. ‘Bloody country. Can’t even get the weather forecast right.’
‘Do you mean England or Switzerland?’
‘Des. Can you just stop it. I’m not in the mood for jokes.’
It now started to rain heavily. There was a flash, followed about ten seconds later by a rumble.
To be continued…
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.