I think integrity, empathy and optimism are three of the most important qualities a human can have. However, I understand that not everyone upholds these qualities and that I myself do not always practice what I preach. Every day I learn more about myself and the weird world we inhabit.
A couple of years ago, I went to see Black Sabbath at a festival in London’s Hyde Park, and I had the best time a boy can have. I spent nine hours in a big field with other Heritage Rock enthusiasts clinging onto a band and era that predates my birth by more than 20 years.
Unfortunately, my seemingly infinite joy was tainted when I found myself without my iPhone by the time the band had finished their set.
Two things crossed my drunken mind: Either my phone slipped out of my pocket while I was enraptured and bellowing myself hoarse to “Paranoid,” or there was a thief in amongst the 55,000 bedroom-rock stars, worldly stoners and aging headbangers. The latter seemed hard to believe. I thought to myself, “They’re metalheads, for god’s sake.” They’re one of the world’s biggest unions of social outcasts. Their love of heavy music and dark clothing, plus their rebellion against personal hygiene, found a comfortable home in this subculture. Pickpocketing might’ve been expected if I’d gone to a more mainstream event like V Fest, I thought, but a Black Sabbath gig?
I left the site disgruntled and, unable to locate my mates, I made my way home. I was ready to catch this crook red-handed as he tried to rinse my minutes, change my passwords and adopt my identity, so I used my housemate’s phone to ring mine when I got to my house. If there was no answer, or if it was turned off, I planned to call O2 to cancel my sim-card and block the phone. If somebody answered, my plan was to demand they meet me and return the phone, which I’d back up with a fictional threat about triangulating their whereabouts and that they should expect the police on their doorstep in the morning.
So I dialed the number. After several long seconds, a deep emotionless male voice answered, “Hello, this is Magic.”
I verbally scrambled to deliver my spiel, but the mystery man took control of the conversation. “I’ve got your phone, you can get it tomorrow,” he said in a broken-English accent. I dubiously thanked him and jotted down his own phone number on a piece of paper as he robotically reeled it off.
Then there was silence. He was gone.
The next day, bleary-eyed and hindered by a hangover, I had to open the pub where I worked, and on my break I used their landline to call the number I’d been given. Magic answered immediately, and in the same eerie monotone drawl, he gave me his home address and told me to come around 8 p.m. to collect my phone. My attempts to thank him were met with silence, and once again our chat came to an abrupt end.
I lived in Tottenham at the time, and the address he’d given me was somewhere in South Greenford, which is nearly 20 miles away on the opposite side of London. It’s somewhere I’d never been or even heard of, but I found it on a map so I told myself it must exist. Despite his aversion to any sort of friendly small talk when we chatted earlier, I naively convinced myself to trust this guy and take a risk. I also didn’t have insurance on my phone nor the money to buy a new one. After work I hopped on numerous trains and buses that got unsettlingly emptier the further I ventured out of the city. I had to fight my urges to just give up and head home until I eventually found myself at Greenford station. I left the station armed with nothing but a travelcard, a four-pack of gratitude beers I’d bought for Magic and a DIY map that I’d copied from Google and scrawled onto the back of a gig flyer.
After an hour of meandering through deserted suburban neighborhoods, rotating my map and growing ever-conscious of the disappearing light, I stumbled upon the street and scoped out the house. It looked empty. Every house did. There was no car in the driveway, no movement inside. Something about the situation didn’t feel right. I felt unusually vulnerable and alone. Since I’d gotten off the train, I’d only seen two people: an old man with a dog and a distant jogger. In the thick silence that surrounded me, I pined for some sort of activity. Anything. Some kids playing. Somebody washing a car. A witness.
As I cautiously stood outside the house, it dawned on me that nobody knew where I was. I hadn’t told any friends or colleagues or family members that I’d gone on this quest of reclamation into the depths of the unknown. I also realized that I didn’t have a plan if something went wrong. If this meetup was something more sinister, I couldn’t phone anyone, I barely knew where I was, it was getting late and the skies were minutes away from blackening. A sudden fearful nausea rushed through my entire body as I approached the door, and part of me hoped that nobody was home.
I knocked again and wearily waited.
After a short while, a middle-aged Arab woman opened the door with a tall, muscular teenager by her side. I nervously asked if there was somebody called Magic at this address, and if so, I said, he might have my mobile phone. She stood dead-still and looked me up and down, perplexed. After a few tense weird moments, she apprehensively explained that she and her three sons live downstairs and that a Polish man lived upstairs in their spare room, but he wasn’t home, and they didn’t know him very well. She said she didn’t know when, but she thought he would return at some point that night. I thanked her, introduced myself and said I’d get in touch with him and return another night. She asked if I was local, and I told her I wasn’t, but I didn’t mind the journey another day.
That’s when Nadia stepped out of the house in her slippers and dressing gown and grabbed my arm: “You’re not a serial killer, are you?” she asked, staring into my eyes intensely.
Confused, I laughed anxiously and told her I wasn’t. “Are you?” I asked back, shooting a glance to the teenager that was standing, arms folded, in a vest and shorts in the doorway.
She timidly smiled and said she wasn’t. She then went on to invite me into the house to wait. I was taken aback by the invite, and I kindly refused, saying “Thank you anyway, but I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
After some persuasion from Nadia, I took a step back and, as I looked down the road into the streetlight-less suburban strangeness, something changed my mind. An inexplicable momentary glitch in my rationale made me decide to accept the offer to enter this woman’s family home. As she led me inside, I apologetically explained that I’d stay for half an hour, and if Magic hadn’t returned by then, I’d leave.
I was ushered to the garden where Zade (the towering teenager from the doorway) and I sat on deckchairs and talked. Meanwhile, Nadia did house chores and her two younger sons, Laif and Saif, watched TV and played in the living room. Zade and I established that the number I’d been given by Magic was the same number he had for their lodger, so I was at least in the right place, even if it didn’t feel entirely right for me to be there.
After some time, my conversation with Zade got deep, and he opened up about education, money, his ambitions and their homeland of Iraq. When it came to it, however, he mainly wanted to talk about martial arts. As a training MMA fighter, he showed me videos on his phone of him competing, and he even stood up to demonstrate some routines on a punching bag that hung outside their back door. I sat politely and watched, my earlier feelings of weariness occasionally bubbling back up inside of me. Laif and Saif joined us outside and showed me bits of school work and art they’d done, occasionally giving me high-fives and sitting on my lap, boyishly fighting for my attention.
Hours passed as we sat in the yard talking on what was a rare, warm British summer night, and as it got to around 11 p.m., Nadia came out of the kitchen to ask if I’d like to stay for supper. She explained that they were a Muslim family on Ramadan and that they were hungry because they hadn’t eaten since 6 a.m. I naturally declined, thanking them for their hospitality and taking this as a sign that I’d obviously outstayed my welcome.
When I started to get up to leave, Nadia rushed to me and said softly, “Please Jak, we’d like you to eat with us.”
The rational part of my brain screamed for me to escape while I could, be finished with this odd evening and get back to my life. However, something bigger inside of me took over. An unknown force made me nod my head, and the words “Okay, I’ll stay” fell out of my mouth. I’m unsure whether it was an ingrained, unwavering politeness I’d learned as a child, or a careless curiosity that drove me, but I followed her to the kitchen table and slipped my shoes off. The younger boys let out yelps of excitement and ran into the kitchen to bring some plates and cutlery.
“We weren’t really expecting guests,” Nadia shouted through from the kitchen, “so I made the family something very traditional. I hope you don’t mind.”
I gratefully told her that I really didn’t and that when it comes to food I’m not picky. Not knowing much about Iraqi cuisine, I expected some sort of rice dish or tagine of sorts. As I sat courteously waiting, the boys came and joined the table, giggling at me and exchanging whispers. An ignorable panic emerged within me when I overheard the boys talking about their father. A sudden image came to my mind of a massive, angry Muslim man returning home to find me sitting with his wife and eating his supper.
Suddenly, Nadia appeared from the kitchen smiling and holding a large silver serving tray. She laid it on the table, and on it were two decapitated sheep heads on a bed of what looked like pancakes. There were glasses full of an off-white yoghurt-looking substance to accompany it. Big, black eyeballs bulged out of the severed heads, and their tongues sagged out of their mouths, protruding out between rows of yellow, human-like teeth.
Thirsty and speechless, I grabbed a glass of the liquid and took a big gulp. It didn’t taste like anything I’d had before. The liquid was thick, milky and salty, and I tried to mask a slight wince that came across my face as I swallowed. After I’d gotten used to the flavor, though, it was actually quite enjoyable, like a warm Iraqi yakult.
Nadia then asked me if I could crack the sheep’s skulls to get to the brains, which seemed like a sort of man-of-the-house turkey-carving duty. So, as instructed, I cradled the heads one-by-one and pulled them apart down the middle of the cranium, exposing their brains. The hostess then dived-in and started serving us some brains, along with some chopped-up tongue, some flesh from the faces and an eyeball each.
What I was eating was a dish called pacha, and the bread it was served with had been soaked in the broth that the heads were boiled in. The brains were mushy, the tongue was tough and the eyeballs were gooey and popped when I bit into them. However, all-in-all it was a tasty meal, the face meat being essentially just mutton. During our banquet, we talked about Islam and the time of Ramadan, and Nadia explained that, at this time, Muslims are taught to be even more caring and mindful than usual. Zade and she talked of the difficulties they’d originally faced when moving to the U.K., but their untiring optimism was refreshing and ever-present throughout the conversation.
As our feast came to an end and the clock approached midnight, I’d forgotten why I was even there in the first place. I was now at ease and enjoying the company. All of a sudden, at that moment of relaxed detachment, I heard the front door swing open. Silence fell over the dining room, and from where I was sitting, I could see a shadowy figure stumble slowly up the dimly lit corridor and towards the stairs.
“H-hello? Magic?” I stuttered, pushing through my internal fear, “…It’s Jak.”
The figure heard me, stopped still and proceeded to walk past the stairs and slowly towards us. A gargantuan middle-aged man with a shaved head and a beard appeared at the entrance to the dining room and stared at me coldly. “I…I’m here about the phone?” I blurted out.
Upon hearing that, he snapped out of his confused glare and let out an unexpected uproarious laugh. He walked towards me smiling, and as I stood up, he threw his arms around me. I disappeared in his huge arms as he gave me a bear hug that somehow instantly made my dread and doubt evaporate. A special, hearty hug that perhaps only 6’6″ Polish metalheads know how to do. A woman followed behind him laughing, and she hugged me, too.
“I told him you’d be here!” she said, explaining she was his girlfriend. “We were at the pub and totally forgot you were coming!” Magic, or Machek as he corrected me, then led me upstairs, unlocked his bedroom—which was covered in Slayer and Black Sabbath posters—and handed me my phone, explaining he’d found it on the floor at the gig. When we went back downstairs and I presented him the “thank you” beers I’d brought, he immediately opened one each for himself, his girlfriend and me, and we toasted. We sat with the family, and I inquired about the situation, to which Nadia explained that her reason for getting Machek in as a lodger was that she needed some extra cash, being a single parent whose ex was scarcely around.
After some time, I checked the train schedule on my phone, and it became time for me to make my move homewards. Machek and Zade insisted they walk me to the train station, Machek grabbing a couple of beers from the fridge for the walk, and Zade hopping onto his BMX. Leaving the house, Laif and Saif hugged my legs and tried to give me presents, asking when I’d return to eat with them again.
Looking back, it feels like I accidently took on the role of makeshift father figure for the hours I was there. By offering Zade some life advice as he wades through his tumultuous teenage years and by simply giving the younger boys some attention and hearing about their day at school, I got a tiny insight into the different roles that Nadia, and others like her, have to adopt as a single parent and how difficult it must be. We headed out into the night, and I thanked Nadia profusely for her warmth and hospitality. I waved as she stood at the door and watched us three disappear into the night, Zade riding his bike slowly next to Machek and I as we walked and talked about music.
When we got to the station, I said my final goodbyes. Machek hugged me and said he’d probably see me at a gig sometime, and I shook Zade’s hand and wished him luck.
As I sat on the train and looked around at Greenford station where I’d previously been six hours ago, it seemed different somehow. It was as if a muddied film had been lifted from my vision, and I could now see the world in all its true, vivid beauty. As the train set off and I hurtled back towards the faceless anonymous city of London, I closed my eyes and smiled to myself. They say that every act of kindness creates an endless ripple, and I now know this to be true. I’ve been floating on the rippling waves of these people’s kindness ever since that day and making sure I send out some of my own.
Follow Jak on Twitter @Jak_TH.