‘Be careful with that plate,’ Mariam warned him.
George grasped the large, blue plate carefully, and wiped it with the threadbare towel.
‘Not much left now,’ she told him. ‘Finished soon. It’s a shame we couldn’t fix that dishwasher. You never got the hang of washing-up, did you George?’
‘No,’ he shook his head. ‘Nor cooking.’
‘I could go back to Hamzi’s shop. He’d be willing to try fixing it again.’
‘How many times has he looked at that dishwasher, George? It’s pointless. No, we’ve got to face it. It’s wrecked. Anyway, we can’t afford to pay him. So, let’s just use it to dry things in.’
‘Yes…’ George sounded uncertain.
‘Never mind. We’ve still got a cooker and a fridge that work.’
‘I’ll go shopping tomorrow.’ There was a tension in George’s voice as he spoke.
‘Good. I’ll write you a list of what we need. But is worth it? Last time, all you came back with was rice and an old tin of tomatoes.’
‘I’ll try that new shop. When I looked in last week, the people running it seemed… good. They said they were expecting a delivery soon. They thought they might even have some fruit in the next few days. You could come?’
‘No, not yet. No. Not after last time. It’s not safe for me.’
‘It’s not so bad now. The really bad ones have…’
‘No, George. It’d be a mistake. Don’t you remember? They were looking for me. Or for anyone in a hijab.’
‘They could’ve broken my arm: those bruises! They took weeks to go.’
‘Suppose…’ George began cautiously, ‘Suppose you went out without wearing your…’ He stopped and indicated with his hand her head covering. ‘After all,’ he continued, ‘you said it’s not…’
‘George! I’ll decide what I wear on my head, okay? It’s my decision… Not yours, and certainly not those thugs… But don’t worry: I’m not going to imprison myself in this little flat for the rest of my life. I won’t let them do that to me. That’s not going to be my future, no… I went out on that march, remember? But… No, not shopping, not yet.’
George dried another chipped blue plate.
‘Do you need the computer tonight?’ asked Mariam. ‘No? Okay, I’ll get the sewing machine out. The woman upstairs has a dress she wants me to do.’
‘Go ahead. I’ll be reading.’
‘War and Peace? How many times have you read that?’
‘Do you mean: how many times have I tried to read it? Or how many times have I actually read it?’
They both laughed. Then George sighed.
‘We used to have a television that worked. Remember?’
‘And you used to have a job…’
‘And you used to have a stall at the market…’
‘And there’d even be elections, sometimes…’
They both laughed.
‘Yes, telly could be nice, some evenings,’ continued Mariam. ‘But it changed very quickly, didn’t it? All those government regulations. And then those awful public safety broadcasts. Every hour, then every half hour. And then the clampdown on the web-sites. Now it’s so hard to find out about anything.’
‘I think it’s got a bit better recently. No, really, it has. That big march made a difference. You can feel it.’
George and Mariam had joined the demonstration in the market-place: it was the first time that George had done anything like it. He’d wondered who on earth would be brave enough to do this, but when he got there, the answer was suddenly obvious: people like them.
At first, they’d been scared. Mariam had clutched onto his arm, her eyes running up and down the rows of curious onlookers, the windows in the buildings, the helicopters buzzing over them, the black-clad policemen, temporarily stunned by the size and vehemence of the protest… They had nothing to lose, George and Mariam had agreed on that. As the march progressed, they joined in the chants and protest slogans. After a few minutes, George had shouted like he’d never shouted in his life. It had felt good: they both thought that they were finally hitting back at the people who’d caused such misery. George had felt a new sense of belonging, which puzzled him for days afterwards as he tried to work out what the march had achieved, if anything.
He finished drying the plate, then looked at Mariam.
‘People in the café are beginning to talk about things they’ve heard or seen. Like they used to. They’re not so scared anymore. Maybe I’ll try a web-search tomorrow, see if there’s any trace of something changing.’
‘On that old computer? I doubt you’ll find much.’