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Ibrahim & Reenie
By David Llewellyn
Poetry Wales Press Ltd.Copyright © 2016 David Llewellyn
All rights reserved.
Until that day, Ibrahim had never seen a pheasant – living or dead. He knew what a pheasant was, had seen innumerable pheasants shotgunned out of grey English skies on TV, but had never seen one, as it were, in the flesh. And its flesh was almost all he could see, spilling out from a tyre-tracked mess of feathers in the middle of the road. The pheasant was the fifth dead creature he had passed, following two hedgehogs, a rabbit and a fox, a dead animal for every two miles walked, and it seemed to him that this road was where all things came when they had outlived their purpose, when they were useless or dead.
At the roadside he had seen a plastic toy car, its bright colours dulled and smudged by dirt; cans and bottles and empty cartons blossoming like garish weeds; three shopping trolleys; a wheelchair with the name of a familiar hospital stencilled onto it in white; the severed, bald, and eyeless head of a doll; and a bunch of fresh flowers, still swaddled in cellophane and placed with mournful deliberation. Now that summer was over, the roadside ferns were beginning to brown and the hedgerows were spattered with angry red berries.
He walked slowly, in some pain, but leaning forward as if braced against a stiff gale. The traffic cut past him in slicing waves – never more than three cars at a time; loud snatches of music blaring from open windows, plastic bags and buckled tin cans and clouds of dust caught up in their wake.
The motorway was near, but it could have been a hundred miles away, because Ibrahim was walking from Cardiff to London, a journey of one hundred and sixty miles, give or take, and he was using the older roads.
He had woken earlier than was usual for a Tuesday, after a night of broken sleep. He ate a light breakfast, packed his things into a rucksack, urinated three times in less than fifteen minutes – the last time coaxing out only a few embarrassed drops – and had left his dusty, mildewed flat four hours earlier. But by late afternoon and the moment when he saw the ovoid puddle of feathers and guts that was once a pheasant, he had covered just ten miles.
It would have been easier to drive or catch a train, but there was never any chance of that. Instead, he walked, resting every half mile or so to take the weight off a leg augmented with titanium pins and rods, but those rest breaks were short, cut brief by his determination and his refusal to admit that he had made a mistake, that he should turn around and go home, that he should reply to his sister's letter and tell her he couldn't come, and ignore every letter she sent from then on. If anything, it was the pain that drove him; that bass note deep inside his leg. The kind of pain that was at once agonising and reassuring, because he would not turn around and he would not give up and the pain could only end when he stopped walking.
Besides, he had spent days planning this journey. What clothes to wear, what food to take. Poring over maps and using the computers in his local library to study online journey planners. Calculating how many miles he should walk each day, and penning Xs on the map to mark each night's resting place. Quickly he began to think of that crooked old road – its arch cresting in the elbow of the Severn Estuary – not as a road but as a cliff-face, with Cardiff as the base camp and London its summit. When resting he drank water and ate chocolate, the Freddo bars he bought – so he told himself – for their cheapness, and not because they were chocolate frogs that reminded him of after-school treats.
Ibrahim was a serious man. Twenty-four years old, but mirthless; his expression many years estranged from a smile or even a grin. Though he lived in one city, and was walking to another, he was ill-suited to the density of other people, as if that place between cities was where he belonged. Some people are made lonely and desperate by distance and isolation, while others thrive and find their peace in it. Ibrahim was the latter. Since leaving the outer edge of Cardiff and the last clusters of newly built show homes, he'd passed only a handful of other people: truck drivers congregating around a layby burger van, and a sweating, red-faced jogger with an iPod strapped to his arm.
If the next hundred and fifty miles were like this, he reasoned, the journey should be easy. Traffic he could handle. It was the idea of people and transport, being surrounded by people and being inside any mode of transport, that filled him with dread.
Here's to a hundred and fifty miles of open, empty roads and no people.
But this prayer, this hope, was smashed and ground into the earth when he reached the grass verge between the road and the car park of a chain hotel, and saw the old woman in the deckchair, and the orange tent, and the little table, and the camp stove, and the kettle, and the supermarket trolley crammed full of boxes and bags.
He stopped walking, blinking at the scene before him as if each blink might straighten things out, help it make some kind of sense, but it was no use. She was still there.
There was something marmoreal about her, she and her deckchair carved from the same block and abandoned at the roadside. A permanent memorial to every bag-lady who'd ever lived. Her frame, all but lost beneath a thick all-weather coat, was shrunken, almost no-necked, her chin in her chest, but when he drew nearer she sat upright and craned around to look at him.
He took another step towards her.
'What's wrong with your leg?' she asked. 'You're limping.'
He reached down and massaged the calf of his right leg, wincing as if suddenly reminded of the pain and the cause of it. 'It was an accident,' he said. 'It hurts sometimes.'
Placing her mug on the table, she studied him for a moment, and pointed to her tent. 'If you go in there, I've got another deckchair,' she said. 'Never know when you'll have company. Sit yourself down. You look like you could do with a rest.'
He heard a familiar twang in her accent, an unmistakable trace of East London. Gratefully he nodded, then walked over to her tent and leaned inside. In the filtered, muddy light he saw a deckchair, a sleeping bag and pillow on a thin foam mattress, and in one corner of the tent an ornate, gilded cage housing a tiny grey and yellow bird. The bird shuffled along the bars of its cage, inching towards him using its scaly grey feet and its beak, tilted its head and whistled.
'Don't mind Solomon,' said the old woman. 'He just wants feeding.'
He heaved the chair out from the tent, wrenched it open, and set it down on the other side of the old woman's table.
'Fancy a cuppa?' she asked him. 'I've only just boiled the kettle. I've got tea or coffee.' Then, a minute or so later, passing him his coffee: 'Sorry it's not real milk and sugar. Only got long life and sweeteners, see?'
He thanked her anyway, taking the mug and for a moment holding it in both hands, enjoying the almost painful heat. It was late summer, but already there was a coldness to the air, the incoming creep of autumn. For a week or more, the inner-city evenings had been scented with more bonfires than barbecues.
'I'm Reenie, by the way,' said the old woman. 'Well. My name's Irene. But everyone calls me Reenie.'
'Ibrahim? That's the same as Abraham, isn't it?'
'Yeah,' said Reenie. 'My dad's name was Avram. That's the same as Abraham. Called himself Albert, though. Thought Avram was a bit old-fashioned, I think. You don't get many Avrams or Abrahams or even Alberts nowadays. But Ibrahim ... I bet that's a popular name. I mean with ...' She paused, biting at her lower lip as if struggling to seize on a word, the right word. 'Where you from?'
'No, I mean originally.'
'No, love, I mean your family. Where's your family from?'
'Oh. Pakistan. Originally.'
'Right. That's what I meant. I bet Ibrahim's a popular name with people from Pakistan.' And she drew those last three words out, as if avoiding other words altogether.
'Yeah, it is,' said Ibrahim. 'And your dad's name was Avram, you said?'
'How's that spelt?'
He felt something in his chest, like the slamming of a door caught in a draft. A heart palpitation? At his age? 'Avram what?' He asked, his mouth drying up.
'Lieberman,' said Reenie. 'He's not famous or anything. Why'd you ask?'
'Nothing.' He avoided her gaze and felt a sudden lurch in his stomach. 'Just wondering.' He smiled at her. 'I've never met anyone called Reenie before.'
'No,' she laughed. 'Probably not. Not so many Irenes about nowadays, I reckon. And Reenie's just a nickname. So. Have you walked all the way from Cardiff?'
'Yeah. It's taken me all day. With my leg, you know.'
'And where you going? Newport? 'Cause, you know, the buses aren't that expensive, and the train'll get you there in ten minutes.'
'No. I'm going to London.'
She said nothing, instead offering an expression he couldn't read, a quizzical combination of frown and smile, and a moment's silence passed between them.
'Well, love,' she said, at last. 'You really should think about getting the train or the coach or something. London's about a hundred and fifty miles that way.' And she pointed over her shoulder with a hooked thumb.
'No,' he said. 'I can't get the train. Or the coach. And I don't drive.' He sipped his coffee, hoping she had run out of questions, and stopped himself from wincing at the sickly taste of UHT milk, more overpowering than the charcoal bitterness of her cheap instant coffee. 'How about you?' he asked. 'Where are you going?'
'Me? Oh, I live here. Can't you tell?'
'You ... live here?'
She laughed. 'No, love. I'm pulling your leg. I'm just resting here for a bit. But it's like they say, wherever I lay my hat ...'
'What does that mean?'
'It's a saying. Wherever I lay my hat's my home. Not that I've got an hat. I've got an umbrella, but no hat.'
'And the trolley? What's with the shopping trolley?'
'I'm borrowing it,' said Reenie. 'Well. You put a pound in, you get a trolley. And they've got so many of the bloody things; I didn't think they'd miss one of them.'
'But why do you need it?'
'For my things. I needed somewhere for the tent, somewhere for my chairs, somewhere for my camp stove and my kettle and my clothes. Somewhere for Solomon. Course ... he gets the back seat. The front end bounces about a bit when I'm pushing it. He'd shake all his feathers out if I put him up front.'
'But isn't that stealing? If you just take the trolley home with you, I mean?'
She leaned forward, her chair's rusted springs squeaking beneath her, and frowned theatrically, as if she already had the answer to his question and knew it before he asked.
'Well, the way I see it is they've got branches all over the country. When I don't need it any more I'll take it to another supermarket and get my pound back. Like I said, I'm not stealing it. I'm borrowing it.'
He laughed, or rather he smiled and huffed through his nose, but then his attention was caught by the police car slaloming its way across the car park, towards them.
'Hello,' said Reenie. 'You in trouble with the law, or something?'
He shook his head. 'No. Are you?'
'Not recently, no.'
The police car reached the foot of their embankment in seconds, and two officers – a man and a woman – climbed out and walked towards them. Ibrahim was almost certain he saw the moment when they both studied the terrain, wondering where best to place themselves to assert their authority, and failing when they ended up one higher than the other and both lower than the pair sitting in deckchairs.
'Hello,' said the policewoman, giving each of them in turn a cheery, disarming smile. 'You okay?'
'We're fine, love,' said Reenie, answering quickly, as if she had expected both the arrival of the police, and the question, for some time.
'Right. You see we've had a call from somebody at the hotel. They were a little concerned. They said you're walking to London. Is that correct?'
Ibrahim looked from Reenie to the policewoman, his mouth opening and closing. How could anyone in the hotel know he was walking to London?
'Yes, love,' said Reenie. 'Is there a problem?'
The policeman, clearly anxious at standing lower on the verge than his colleague and having to look up at Ibrahim and Reenie, climbed a few steps higher. 'There's no problem, no,' he said, talking to Reenie but staring at Ibrahim. 'It's just they said you've been here a few days, and they were worried about you. Where've you come from? Are you homeless?'
'I'm not homeless. I've got a tent,' said Reenie. 'And I've come from Cardiff, but I'm going to London.'
'Well, you see, London's very far away.' The policeman emphasised the last three words as if talking to a child or a foreigner. 'It's too far to walk.'
'I'm not doing it in a day,' said Reenie, sitting up straight. 'I'm taking my time. There's no law against walking to London.'
'No, there isn't. But you've got a lot of things with you. That trolley for one thing, and your tent. Have you got any family in Cardiff? Does anyone know you're out here?'
'I've got no family,' said Reenie, her voice a little quieter. 'No husband, no kids. I'm doing this on my own.'
'And, uh, how about your friend, here?' The policeman looked again at Ibrahim.
'We only just met,' said Reenie. 'But he's walking to London, too.'
'You're also walking to London?' The policeman asked.
Ibrahim nodded but said nothing.
'And could I take your name?'
Reenie leaned further forward in her chair. Another squeak of springs.
'I'm sorry, young man,' she said. 'But you didn't take my name, so why are you taking his?'
'It's okay, really,' said the policewoman, rejoining the conversation as if to steer it away from raised voices. 'We're just concerned for your welfare, Mrs ...'
'You can call me Reenie. I've been a widow eight years now, so it's a bit late to be calling me Mrs anything.'
'Very well. Reenie. We're just a little concerned for your welfare. London's very far away, and you have a lot of things with you. Besides, you're right next to the road here, which isn't safe.'
'Well, I wasn't planning on staying here,' said Reenie. 'I'm just having a bit of a rest.'
'In that case,' said the policeman. 'I think it's probably best we call social services. If you don't have anyone back in Cardiff who we can call, I mean.'
'You don't need to do that,' said Ibrahim, speaking for the first time since their arrival. 'We'll be moving along soon, and I'll be with her.'
'Is that true?' asked the policeman.
'It is now,' said Reenie.
'But you said the two of you only just met.'
'And we did. But if this young man doesn't mind taking it in turns to push my trolley, I won't say no.'
Reenie and Ibrahim exchanged a glance, and smiled as if this had been their plan all along. Turning away from them, the police officers had a moment's conference consisting largely of whispers and shrugs.
'Okay,' said the policeman, when they had come to their decision. 'If you two agree to move on, today, we'll leave you to it. But I still think it's a bad idea. Walking to London. You should try getting back to Cardiff, or finding somewhere to stay in Newport. There are homeless shelters. We can get you the details, or ...'
'And like I said, I'm not homeless,' said Reenie. 'I've got a tent.'
The policeman nodded and, after a baffled pause, he and his colleague returned to their car and drove back across the car park, pulling up in front of the hotel.
'That'll be the cow I spoke to earlier,' said Reenie. 'Hotel manager. Snooty bint. Came marching out of the hotel. Told me I was on private property. Silly mare didn't know what she was talking about. I said to her, I said, "That car park might be private property but this bit of grass here isn't, so you can sling your hook." She wasn't happy about that. Must have called the police.'
'Right,' said Ibrahim. 'So maybe we should pack up and move on, yeah?'
'We?' Reenie laughed. 'Who's this "we", then?'
'Me and you. I thought I was helping you push the trolley.'
Excerpted from Ibrahim & Reenie by David Llewellyn. Copyright © 2016 David Llewellyn. Excerpted by permission of Poetry Wales Press Ltd..
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