As the December wind whistled through the dry leaves of the Amaltas tree in their back yard, she tossed in her secret blend of spices. "Ammi-jaan, Faruq and Imran will be coming home with me after special class. Can you make your special biriyani please?”. His teenage words rung fresh in her ears, as the aroma of the spices made her eyes water. She wondered why. After all, she’d been making this biriyani for years and not once had her eyes filled up. ‘Why today?’ she wondered, as she mixed the spices with long, amber grains of the basmati rice. Her little boy was growing up fast. She looked at the haphazard drawing of the car, that Khalid had drawn on one of the pages of his notebook. She still remembered the excitement in his eyes, as he explained each part of the model to her, completely oblivious to the fact that she didn’t understand anything he was saying. She’d never been to school. But she knew it was important to him. So she'd carefully torn out the sheet and pasted it on the cleanest wall of the otherwise sooty kitchen.
Wiping her moist eyes, she smiled as the Imam called out the ‘Salat-az-zuhr’. ‘Allah, please take care of my son. May all his dreams come true!’ she whispered, inadvertently reciting the prayer with the Imam.
A few miles away, as the rickety Land Cruiser pulled away, fourteen year old Khalid lay by the road side, his eyes wide open, his bullet ridden body devoid of all life. Back home, as his mother lovingly added the final touches to the biriyani, the flame of the gas - stove suddenly went out.
Truth be told, I had written this piece the previous Sunday. Two days later, when I heard the news of the Peshawar attack, I was in shock. Not just because of the brutality and the massacre of those innocent souls, but also because to me, it seemed like something I had written as fiction had actually come true. And for some inexplicable reason, my conscience was guilt-ridden. As if somehow, my words literally came true. And that somehow, in some minuscule way, I was responsible too. (Have you ever felt that way?)
I'd almost decided to delete this piece from my draft folder, where it was constantly haunting me. But then I decided to publish it anyway. Not just a dedication to the hundreds of innocent dreams and ambitions being quashed every day. But also to serve as a reminder to me. To bring up my son to be a more tolerant and better human being. And for the thousands of dreams that were crushed to pulp by those cowards hiding under the shroud of misplaced and misconstrued faith.
P.S. The original ending was this, but I changed it because the coincidence was far too creepy for me.
Seven-year old Isla Bowd let out a big yawn - one that caused her eyes to water. She hated early mornings. It was bad enough when she had to do it every day for school. But she’d not anticipated having to do it during her holidays too. "If only we could have stayed back for a few more days at Aunt Lilian's beautiful home!" she thought. Unfortunately, her mother needed to get the 0930 Southern Express back home as she was due to start her mid-day shift at the new hospital today. Isla tightly wrapped her petite fingers around her mother’s hands as they tried to navigate their way through the congested Underground station. It was right in the middle of rush hour on a Thursday morning and in true London fashion, both locals and tourists were rushing through the station hoping to catch the 0849 Piccadilly service towards Heathrow Airport, oblivious to everything and everyone around them.
As the doors to the rear carriage of the Piccadilly train opened, Isla felt herself being almost lifted off the platform and pushed into the swarming carriage which was packed tighter than sardines in a can. As she struggled to regain her footing, her mother slowly pulled her away from the doors and into the centre of the train where there was a bit more room to breathe. Isla looked up at her mother who had started counting the number of stops to their destination. Wiping the sweat off her forehead with her free hand, Isla looked around the carriage. It was filled with people from every imaginable walk of life. She smiled as she caught the eye of a young woman with a tiny baby clutched close to her chest. The baby was fast asleep with a smile of contentment on his face. As she turned to call her mother, a loud repeated beeping noise diverted her attention towards the doors that were now starting to shut. To her horror, she saw a man running at breakneck speed towards the now partially shut doors. She closed her eyes and clutched her mother’s arm tightly as she heard a loud thud from near the door. A few seconds later, as the driver read out a message requesting passengers to not block the entrance or exit, Isla slowly opened one of her eyes and glanced towards the door. The man sat on the floor, panting profusely like he’d just run a marathon. As she caught his eye he grinned like a little boy, his steel blue eyes twinkling through the oversized spectacles he was sporting. She smiled back as the train started to gather speed. Suddenly there was a loud bang, followed by a blinding white light. And then everything went dark.
Alex Horne knew he was behind schedule. It was his first day on his new job and he was going to be extremely late. “Great way to start things off!” he thought as he hastily got dressed. He took a moment to admire himself in the mirror. At 34, Alex knew things were finally starting to look up for him. Abandoned at birth, he had grown up in an orphanage in Haywards Heath, West Sussex. The orphanage was run by the local parish and most of his education had been driven by the church-led school a few miles down the road. Whilst the rest of his friends embraced the religious enlightenment whole heartedly, Alex struggled with the concept of blind faith. Driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, Alex found solace in books and newspapers from the local library, each of which helped in shaping his outlook towards the world and ultimately led him to question the basis of all that the Church had taught them. Eventually this had led to a run in with Father Andrews who had him labelled as a heretic and banished him from school. With no other option, Alex had started to work as a delivery boy for a modest local newspaper by day and pursued community education by night. The more he learnt about the real world, the more he realised that blind faith and luck was never an alternative to hard work and determination. As for prayer, he had never quite taken to it at all.
As he tied his shoe laces, Alex threw a quick glance towards the bed where his girlfriend of six years, Kristen Cairn was fast asleep, her gentle snores disturbing the peace of an otherwise quiet morning. She’d been up all night finalising her thesis that had to be submitted the following week. He smiled as he thought of how they’d managed to hit it off. Some of his friends had called him lucky for having found her. But he knew how hard he’d worked to get her to say yes to his incessant dinner date requests. A light beep from his Casio watch reminded him that it was 8am. He was going to be really late, he thought once again as he quickly planted a kiss on Kristen’s cheek and rushed out of the door throwing his jacket over his shoulder.
Alex rushed down the escalator at Kings Cross station trying to avoid the stares and rants of his co-travellers as he jumped over a suitcase. He had to get the train that was on the platform now. As he slid around the corner which led to the southbound platform of the Piccadilly line, he heard the familiar repeated beeping that signified that the door was about to shut. Determined to get there, he ran at full speed towards the closing doors. As he leapt into the last compartment of the train, he desperately tried to avoid crashing into the bearded teenager with his Islamic skull cap standing by the corner. Somehow at the last minute, he managed to swerve and ended up hitting the floor of the train with a loud thud. With a cheeky grin on his face, Alex tried to stand up. He was thankful his spectacles were still intact. He caught the eye of a little girl who was staring at him as if he’d just appeared out of thin air. He flashed her a smile which was returned in kind. All of a sudden, there was an ear-splitting blast. As a blinding white light took over the entire carriage, he felt as if time had stopped. The little girl he had been smiling at was suspended mid-air, along with a few other passengers. As he blinked twice in quick succession to clear his vision, everything went black.
The first sound Alex heard when he regained consciousness was the continual shrill ringing in his ears. It sounded like someone was consistently clanging metal cymbals against his head. He tried to open his eyes but they felt like they were sealed shut. He couldn’t breathe and felt like someone was sitting on him and trying to suffocate him at the same time. He couldn’t move any part of his body. He managed to open his mouth to scream out loud but no sound would come. “Or maybe I just can’t hear my own voice over the racket of this metal clanging in my ears” he thought as he continued to try opening his eyes.
As suddenly as it had gone, his hearing reappeared. It was as if his ears had suddenly popped. Slowly the sounds started to filter through and it seemed like it was utter pandemonium. He could hear people groaning, screaming and shouting. And then sobbing. He heard sounds of people sifting through what sounded like stones and metal. He could smell the coppery-rusted smell of blood and the stench of burning flesh. As he lay there befuddled, Alex started to feel his body come back to him. He was alive. And it hurt. He realised that he was lying on his back. He managed to move his left hand and tried to run it over his face. His fingers touched something wet and squishy. It took him a few moments to realise that it was his right cheek, or whatever was left of it rather. He was surprised that he could still not feel any pain from the wound. He had no idea how long he’d been out for or what had caused him to black out. Alex just wanted to scream out for help. But still his throat refused to respond.
After what seemed like an eternity, Alex sensed the presence of people around him. He felt someone lift the heavy object that had been on his chest. Alex took a deep breath and felt the putrid air fill his lungs. It smelled of soot, rust, burnt meat and seared hair. The rancid smell made him want to retch and he felt bile start to rise in the back of his throat. “Don’t try to move!” said a voice near his ear. The first calming sound that he’d heard since he'd lost consciousness. He felt the person try to lift his body, but apart from moving him a few inches, the owner of the calm voice was unable to do lift him completely. As his body hit the floor, he felt the first pangs of pain start to catch hold of him. It started near right cheek and sped quickly through the length of his body, coming to rest at his left knee where it exploded into a world of agony. He screamed. It was almost as if his brain had flicked a button to ensure he felt the pain. Still unable to open his eyes, he wept silently as he succumbed to it. For the first time in his life, he really prayed. To put him out of his misery.
Through the window inside the St.James Cathedral, Father Daniel surveyed the group of survivors, relations and friends of victims and general well-wishers. They were slowly shuffling along the line waiting their turn to place the flowers on the memorial stone which had been erected outside the church for the victims of 7/7. The congregation was wrought with emotion - some feeling fortunate at having survived, the others distraught at having lost a loved one. “…and it’s all because of someone’s faith; or lack of it!” he thought as he slowly turned around to place his Bible on the stand behind him. A series of thuds on the tiled church floor alerted him to someone’s presence. He watched as a man in a long flowing trench coat and wide-brimmed hat slowly hobbled up the aisle. The thud occurred every time he put his left foot out to take a step. It was nearly sunset and the only light was from rows of lit candles on either side of the aisle.
As the man came closer, Father Daniel noticed that his left eye sported an eye patch. The man's steel blue right eye glanced over the priest as if to denote his acknowledgement. A long, deep flesh wound disfigured the right side of his cheek and his right arm was heavily bandaged. Ignoring the priest’s surprised face, the man staggered up the pair of steps that led him right past Father Daniel and up into the altar. The priest watched on curiously as the man removed his hat, exposing a subterranean scar that ran all the way from the nape of his neck and disappeared into the area covered by the coat. The man gently whispered something that Father Daniel interpreted as an indication of gratitude and made the sign of the cross while softly reciting the trinitarian formula - "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.
As he slowly put his hat back on, Alex Horne fixed his gaze on the crucified figure of the son of God and thought, “Maybe faith isn’t such a bad thing after all.."
[This post is written for the Project 365 program at We Post Daily aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was "Describe a memory or encounter in which you considered your faith, religion, spirituality — or lack of — for the first time" This post is a work of fiction based on the London Underground bombings of 7th July 2005. All the characters that I've included are fictitious and any resemblance to people dead or alive is purely coincidental.]