By Michael Logan
Too late to run, Abdullahi thinks, as he watches a middle-aged businessman in a crumpled grey suit sift through a selection of ready-made sauces, drop two jars into his basket and hurry away.
He adjusts his wraparound sunglasses, wipes sweat from his hairless skull and picks up his gun. He takes careful aim and squeezes the trigger. A dull thump echoes up the supermarket aisle and a ragged hole appears between the businessman’s shoulder blades. He crumples to the floor, twitching as he dies. A halo of blood expands around the body to lap against the box of Alpen that tumbled from his basket. As Abdullahi rejoices at the death of the man who bumped into him and walked on with no apology, two teenage girls with tottering beehives and thick eye make-up approach.
“Alright mate. Where’s the hairspray?” one of them says. Abdullahi blinks and the image or righteous vengeance dissolves. He glares at the businessman, scandalously still alive and now hovering in the pickles section, and back at the girls. Pale flesh erupts from the yawning gulf between their short tops and even shorter skirts.
“You do not need hairspray,” he says. “You need proper clothes. Aisle two for jumpers and long skirts.”
“Cheeky fucking sod,” the second girl says. They stalk off and Abdullahi inspects the small white sticker – 10p – that hangs limp from the end of his pricing gun. He removes it and slaps it onto a bashed tin of peas.
Oh, the shame, he thinks. Five months ago, I was Chief of Police. Those religious lunatics, they have done this to me.
He glowers at the next item, a tub of strawberries about to pass its sell-by date. This one is for you, Lutfi, and for your stinking principles. Abdullahi pulls the trigger and imagines clots of brain splattering against the wall of a dank basement room. And this is for you, Korfa, with your bushy Islamic beard and your rule-of-law. He pulls the trigger again. Korfa’s knee explodes and shards of bone ricochet off into the gloomy depths of a cell.
Three reduced items later, Korfa is quadriplegic, his proud beard stained with blood, and begging for the release of death. Abdullahi snorts and waves his gun. But even the expensive tint of his Police sunglasses cannot keep out the glaring reality of the supermarket’s overhead lights. Abdullahi stands at the end of Aisle Nine in front of the damaged goods display and hangs his head.
These extremists, they do not understand a man must make a little money from his position, he thinks. There is nothing against that in the Qur’an.
How Abdullahi longs for the days before the holy fools rode in. When the roadblocks in his slice of the city brought in a steady stream of cash from the cars, trucks and beat-up old buses that plied those routes. When his men could pluck the sons of rich families from the streets and hold them for a juicy ransom. When he could sit on the patio of his villa overlooking the mosques and markets of the city, breathing in the salt ocean air and sipping sweet tea as the little people scuttled around below him.
Now he is one of those little people, a refugee from his own land. The only view from the window of his cramped fourth-floor flat in Leicester is of a playground, where teenagers gather at night to drink, smoke and create business for the abortion clinics. His countrymen, shovelled into the same housing estate with no thought for status or clan, turn away from him, knowing no knife will take root in their exposed backs. Time and again they paint Murderer on his door in the dead of night. Sometimes he hears them – their furtive steps and the scratch of their brushes – and has to bite down on the pillow to muffle his screams.
And his wife, his beautiful Faruka, all she does is complain: this flat is too small; the children have nowhere to play; this building stinks of urine and chips. It drives him crazy, but what can he do? She is right. That is no way for a princess to live. Her almond eyes and soft skin do not belong amidst such squalor. Abdullahi is under no illusions. Faruka did not marry him for his looks. Squat is the kindest thing that can be said for his body shape and he is not one of those lucky few who suit being bald. His head is lumpy like an old potato and his cheeks are pockmarked with acne scars that his beard, scraggly compared to the luxuriant glory of the Islamists’ facial hair, only partially cover. His sweat – which flows freely and often – smells like goat. But power and wealth made such things easy to overlook.
Now when he returns dirty and tired from work he pauses before the door, afraid of what he will find, or not find, when he enters. The sound of sizzling oil and the laughter of his children have greeted him each night so far. But each day that passes he finds it harder to put his key in the lock. And the work, how he loathes it. That bastard Ismael, he has a comfortable office job, thanks to a fake degree printed up at the ministry the day before the Islamic forces rolled into the city. The ink was still wet when the plane landed at Heathrow. Abdullahi has skills that will never be certified. But they are not the kind of skills they need in this country—or at least not the kind of skills they admit they need.
Ismael can talk for hours about his job: his 1500-pounds take-home pay, plus bonuses and child benefit. Abdullahi works for eight pounds per hour, before tax. Ismael has a company car with air conditioning, electric mirrors and leather seats. Abdullahi takes public transport each day, rattling along on ripped seats that spew out foam and clenching his fists when baseball-capped youths call him Osama and tell him to go back to Pakistan.
In the supermarket, the shelves empty as fast as he can fill them. When he stacks a tin of own-brand beans, spaghetti hoops, or tomato soup, a ravenous old woman materialises to snatch it away. Or a filthy student, wearing a badge condemning whichever war is currently fashionable to hate, nudges past Abdullahi to pick through the array of peasant food. If he were in charge, the badge would be ripped off and its pin used to puncture the student’s eyeball.
But Abdullahi is not in charge, so he bends over the stack of tins and sets to work. He pulls the trigger again and again, and his enemies – the pigs who forced him to flee to this living hell – drop one by one.
A tap on the shoulder wakes Abdullahi from his murderous reverie. He raises his gun and turns, ready to thump the barrel down onto the neck of the underling who dared to sneak up on him. His supervisor, all spots and gangly limbs, stands before him. Abdullahi lowers his arm. “Abdul, how many times have I told you to take those sunglasses off?” Mr. Thomson asks. Abdullahi touches his sunglasses. “I cannot take them off.”
“Why not?” Abdullahi wants to tell him that these sunglasses are worth what he now earns in a month; that he ripped them from the terror-slackened face of an enemy seconds before one of his men pulled the trigger; that you must never let others see your eyes and read therein your intentions. But in this country, you cannot discuss such things. These British like to stand in the light and pretend they cannot hear the rustling in the shadows. “I have an eye problem.” The supervisor sighs. He looks at the box of chocolates in Abdullahi’s hands and glances at the other items on the shelf.
“You’ve priced everything at 10p. You’re supposed to look at the list and put the right price on each thing.”
Abdullahi shrugs. “You tell me to reduce them. I reduce them.”
“Whatever. That’s not why I’m here. We’ve had complaints about your attitude. Again.” “What do you mean?” “If a customer asks you a question, you answer it. You don’t criticize their morals. You can’t do that here.” Abdullahi knows he should stay silent, but no man says the “can’t” word to him. At least, no man who wants to keep his testicles unattached to a car battery.
“You don’t speak to me like that. I am an important man,” he shouts, waving his hands in his supervisor’s face. “In my country, I would have the soles of your feet beaten with hosepipe for such insolence.”
Mr. Thomson slides off his glasses and rubs the indentations on either side of his nose. “Well, you’re in my country now. Here, we don’t beat the soles of feet. We have something much worse.”
He pauses and a chill saps Abdullahi’s anger.
Perhaps I was wrong about this country, he thinks. Maybe they are just better at hiding their backrooms and bodies because they must pretend there is democracy.
“We have written warnings,” Mr. Thomson continues, the faint hint of a smile on his lips. “And you’re on one. Come to my office.”
The supervisor begins to walk away, but Abdullahi does not follow. A written warning? Better the threat of beheading. That he could understand. Abdullahi knows at that moment he could stay in this country for the rest of his life and always feel like a stranger.
Mr. Thomson stops and looks over his shoulder. “Do you want to keep your job?”
Abdullahi would like nothing more than to stick his fingers in the brat’s nostrils and drag him around the supermarket, maybe dunk his head in the offal nestling in the butchers’ bins. His fingers curl into hooks. But to indulge the desire could mean deportation, and another type of hook would be waiting for him back home. An urge to beat his head on the floor until his vision blackens seizes Abdullahi, but all he does is shuffle behind Mr. Thomson to the office, the pricing gun hanging loose from his fingers.
The young man parks himself behind a large wooden desk. It is not as grand as Abdullahi’s was. His was made of solid oak and imported from the United States at great cost. This one looks flimsy, probably from IKEA. You would need to hit a man’s head against it at least five times before his skull cracked, and maybe the table would give way first. But ultimately it does not matter how strong the desk is. All that matters is who is sitting behind it.
Abdullahi stands on the wrong side of the desk on a cheap polyester carpet and does not know what to do with his hands.
“Look, Abdul. You’re only here as a favour to my uncle’s friend in the Foreign Office,” Mr. Thomson says. “If it wasn’t for that, you wouldn’t have lasted two days.” He taps his index finger on the desk. “But there’s a limit to my patience. Now, I’m going to make this simple. Take off the sunglasses, or you’re fired.”
Mr. Thomson crosses his arms. The only sound in the room is the tap of his shoes, buffed to a black gleam, against the frame of the desk. Abdullahi’s own shoes are scuffed and spotted with stains. He only bought them two months ago, but they are ruined already. He does not have enough money to buy a new pair – the last of his pay packet has gone on food for the children and a bracelet for Faruka.
Things are bad now, he thinks, of that there is no doubt. But with no money at all to buy Faruka little treats?
Abdullahi pictures a vacant bed, a gaping void on the sideboard where an array of perfumes and creams once stood, a bin bag full of empty ravioli tins he himself would have reduced. His arm is heavy as he pulls off the sunglasses and tucks them into the top pocket of his overalls. He squints as his naked eyes bear the full force of the fluorescent office lights.
“OK. Now we’re getting somewhere,” Mr. Thomson says. “Wait there until I get this warning ready.” He uncrosses his arms and begins tapping away on his laptop. Abdullahi looks at a letter opener lying on the desk.
The blade is not sharp, but it will do, he thinks. If I am fast enough and determined enough, I can grab it and jam it into my heart.
Buried within his muscles, he feels the potential to end his shame. His hand even begins to move. But it stops after a few inches. It is shaking. He jams it into his pocket and waits in silence for his warning. Then his mobile begins to shrill in his pocket. Abdullahi remains still. Only Faruka ever calls him and he cannot bear to hear her voice right now.
After five rings, Mr. Thomson looks up. “Go stand in the corridor and answer that, for God’s sake. I’ll be a few minutes anyway.”
Abdullahi steps outside and looks at the caller ID. It is not Faruka. “Mr Mohamed?” a plummy London-accented voice says when he answers. “Yes.”
“Excellent. This is John Perkins from the Minister for Africa’s office. Are you free to talk?”
The keyboard clacks away in the background. “Yes, I am free.”
“We would like you to come down to London for a little meeting.”
They are going to deport you, a voice whispers in Abdullahi’s head. He has to resist the urge to dash the phone against the wall, run full-tilt down the corridor and lose himself somewhere in the backstreets of Leicester. “What is it about, this meeting?”
“Britain has been good to you, Mr. Mohamed. We took you in and found you a job, did we not? I think we both know what would have happened to you if we hadn’t.”
The printer chooses that moment to whine and begin spitting out the written warning. Abdullahi looks at the leg of the sunglasses poking out of his overalls and then through the open door to Mr. Thomson, who is crossing the room to pick up the sheet of paper.
“Yes,” he says quietly. “Britain has been good to me.”
“Well, now may be your chance to be good to Britain. Some of us are a little worried about the way your country has been going since the Islamists seized power.”
Abdullahi cannot help himself. “Those infernal Islamists!” he shouts. “I will kill them all.” Mr. Thomson looks over and shakes his head.
“Quite,” says Mr. Perkins. “It sounds like you share our concerns for your people. Conditions must be awful for them under such a repressive regime.”
“Yes, they suffer. They cannot play football. They cannot listen to music. Even satellite television is not working anymore,” Abdullahi says, shaking his head at the horror of it all.
There is a beat of silence on the other end of the line. “Yes, well, as I said, it must be awful. But help may be at hand. We believe your country is becoming a breeding ground for terrorism under these extremists. So we are getting together with a few other concerned governments to support … how, should I put this … an effort to deal with the undesirable element. Not directly, of course. You know how these things work.”
Abdullahi knows something is going on, but he can see only a faint outline of the picture Mr. Perkins is trying to paint.
These British never say exactly what they mean, he thinks. They dance and circle and hint and hope that eventually you will understand what they are saying.
“What do you want?”
“We want to help remove the Islamists. And once they are gone, we are going to need people who have experience of power to run the country. Upon whom we can count on to help combat the terror threat. To restore order. Do you get my drift?”
Now the picture snaps into focus. Abdullahi feels a slight breeze on his gums. It takes him a few seconds to realise he is smiling.
“I want to be Chief of Police,” he says. “We were thinking more head of the National Security Agency,” Mr. Perkins says. “Is that acceptable?”
Abdullahi leans his head into the office. Thomson is at his workstation reading over the warning.
“Will I have a big desk?” Abdullahi asks.
Once again there is a pause. “If you wish. It is entirely up to you. As I said, we will just be providing the funding and a little bit of backroom support.”
Abdullahi imagines himself behind an oak desk twice, no, three times as big as his old one. His Cuban heels are propped upon the polished wood, next to a gold-plated sign with his name on it. He is wearing a crisp blue uniform with epaulettes almost as large as the teenagers’ beehives. Two guards stand behind him, automatic weapons at the ready.
His smile turns into a crooked-toothed grin. “That is very acceptable. I will help stop those bad men for you.”
“Wonderful. We’ll send somebody to pick you up at 9am on Monday morning, and we can discuss the details. We are looking forward to working with you.”
“I too am looking forward to working with you.” Abdullahi pockets his phone and looks up at the ceiling. The fluorescent strip flickers and pulses. He takes the sunglasses from his pocket and slips them on. His pupils relax and expand as the world is once more bathed in shadow. Abdullahi stares the light down until he is sure it is defeated and steps into the office.
“Good timing,” says Thomson, who is still looking down at his precious document. “I’ve just finished reading over the warning. All you need to do is …”
Thomson’s voice tails off as Abdullahi walks around the desk and stands next to him. “I told you I was an important man,” Abdullahi says.
Abdullahi raises the pricing gun that has been hanging forgotten from his fingers. Soon he will once more feel the reassuring heft of a real weapon in his palm, but there is still some use left in this poor imitation. Thomson’s hands are only halfway to his face by the time Abdullahi has put the gun to the spotty forehead and pulled the trigger. The last sticker Abdullahi will ever fire in anger is transferred with a click.
Something squeaks, although whether it is the seat straining as Thomson cowers away or Thomson himself, Abdullahi neither knows nor cares.
“If this was my country, that would be real bullet,” Abdullahi says, slapping the gun down onto the desk. He jabs the sticker with a stubby finger. The squeak definitely comes from Thomson this time. “If you ever come to my country, it will be real bullet. And my name is not Abdul. It is General Abdullahi Sharif Mohamed. You remember it well. You will hear it on television.”
He marches out of the office, leaving the door, and Thomson’s lower lip, flapping in his wake. As he emerges onto the shop floor, he spies the muttering businessman bent over the freezer cabinets. Abdullahi does not hesitate. He grabs the bastard’s legs, jams his shoulder against the bony buttocks and heaves upward. The businessman tips headfirst into the frozen pizzas.
Abdullahi strides on, ignoring the bleating behind him, and stops in Aisle Nine. He plunges his arm into the depths of the shelf he filled earlier that morning and sweeps his arm across, sending dozens of tins cascading to the floor in a metallic fountain. Shoppers look up like startled goats. A security guard pokes his head round the corner, but Abdullahi simply has to shake an admonishing finger and the head disappears.
The shoppers back away as Abdullahi begins to stamp on the cans. He does not rush or target indiscriminately: he takes them one at a time, grunting with each piston action of his right leg until the aluminium gives way. Watery tomato sauce drizzles out of the cans, first trickling along the channels between the tiles then overflowing and merging into a sticky puddle. Abdullahi only stops when his calf muscle begins to ache and sweat stings his eyes. He stands in the deserted aisle and surveys the broken and battered cans.
“Korfa, Lutfi, my other friends. I am coming home,” he whispers. Abdullahi rips off his overall, straightens his sunglasses and swaggers down Aisle Nine for the final time, leaving a trail of red footprints in his wake.