The Muslims are up on deck again. Three of them, huddled around a table – an older couple in more traditional dress and a young woman in western clothes. What with the sleet and fog they’re all but unidentifiable under coats and hats, but I’ve noticed them before in the forward lounge – the mother in her head scarf, the father with his beard, and the daughter, dark, olive-skinned with long blue-black hair and striking olive-green eyes. Today I caught the father’s eye and I smiled at him and he smiled back, tentatively at first, then warmly.
I’ve always had a thing about foreigners, well, ever since my first year at college. We like to think of ourselves as very cosmopolitan in jolly old Be-right-on, but we don’t really do ethnic minorities, or, at least, they’re not very conspicuous. Takeaways and corner shops – that’s about it. I met my first foreigners en mass at the college – mostly Europeans but also a few Indians and Pakistanis, a Japanese girl, a Mexican chap, a couple of Brazilians, a Nigerian or two and one bloke from Russia who was very strange. Plus a heck of a lot of Aussies and Kiwis but they’re not really foreign are they.
I have this prejudice about foreigners, or some of them anyway. I always tend to assume they’ll be nicer than English people. Whereas, walking into a bar full of my compatriots, I would avoid eye contact, keep a straight face and make sure I had a book with me, if I come across an African, or hear people talking Spanish I can’t help but smile and nod. I know it’s a weird generalisation but I’m rarely disappointed. Whereas if I nod and smile at a bunch of English lads they’ll wonder what I’m looking at and probably assume I’m gay, with the Latinos at college they called me over and bought me drinks. I thought at first maybe it wasn’t a very representative sample, them being abroad, and therefore perhaps a more outgoing type of people, but then I went travelling and found they were all like that – at least in the Mediterranean, and in Scotland and Ireland as well for that matter (but not in Wales for some reason. They were more English than the English). I also thought maybe it was something to do with my expectations of my fellow countrymen. Maybe I’m more cautious. Maybe it’s me that looks shifty, but then I’m not exactly Mr Personality abroad. I never had to be. It was just easier. They fed me, gave me lifts, the women flirted with me. They even took me out for the evening.
I admit it’s also easier to find something to talk about – you know – where are you from? What are you here to do? Or the reverse if I’m over there. So when Mr Sadeghi smiled back I just had to go over and say hi and introduce myself. I asked what they were doing sitting out here in the rain. Mr Sadeghi said they liked it but his women folk didn’t look so sure. The younger woman turned to me and gave me a radiant smile from under her sou’wester. ‘Take a seat’ she yelled up at me through the wind and she budged up to let me in. I looked doubtfully at the view and the banks of wet cold weather rolling across it, then down at the wet bench. I didn’t like to say no so I tucked my waterproofs under my bum and sat.
‘My wife Amireh...’ he said, patting her arm ‘...and my daughter Shamim. Amireh was from Granada in Spain, originally’ he told me. I said I’d seen the Alhambra and my wife had been Spanish too and he really liked that. ‘We are from Iran now, since the revolution.’ I didn’t know what to say to that. I’d read a lot about what happened there of course, with the Ayatollah and so forth.
‘What were you doing in England?’ I say. ‘You know, when you died’ I hope he doesn’t think I’m implying they weren’t welcome. His face shows no untoward reaction.
‘Visiting Shamim. She’s at university, in London’ he says.
I turn to her. It’s a complicated manoeuvre, with all the folds of waterproof between us. ‘What were you studying?’ I shout at her. The weather really is appalling. What the hell are we doing out here?
‘I’m going to be a journalist’ she yells back. I had stupidly assumed she was the dutiful daughter, more or less forced to stay with her parents, but apparently not. I ask her about living in London and she tells me about the clubs she goes to and the bands she’s seen. ‘I don’t drink though’ she adds, possibly for her father’s benefit. He looks very proud of her.
‘I don’t want her to come home’ he says. ‘There is no future for a modern woman.’
‘I want to work for Al Jazeera’ she says and her father shakes his head in mock despair.
‘Bit late for that now’ I say.
‘Maybe next time’ she says, grinning cheekily at her father. He feigns a scowl for her. She leans in toward me and pretends to whisper ‘He can’t stand it that the Hindus were right about all this.’
‘Not really’ says her mother, reprovingly. Shamim gives her an indulgent, slightly mocking smile and pats her hand.
It occurs to me that I don’t feel comfortable talking about religion with these people. I’m afraid of offending them in a way I wouldn’t be with Olly or Keith or even Vincent. But there’s been so much going on in the Middle East for as long as I can remember – Libya, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Beirut, Palestine of course. It seems ridiculous now but I never had the chance to talk to some actual Muslims before. On the other hand I don’t even know if they’re particularly interested. It’s probably like them asking me what’s happening in Serbia at the moment. Still, they are Muslims. I’d like to ask them about that some time if I can think of a way to do it tactfully. I’ll leave it for perhaps another time. I do want to ask how come they all arrived here together.
‘M25’ says Mr Sadeghi, sadly and needn’t elaborate. Then he rises a little. ‘It really is bloody horrible out here. Shall we go in?’ he says.
‘At last’ says his wife, gathering her things. She seems to have some knitting with her. Shamim smiles and roles her eyes at me. We all get up and go down to the forward lounge for some warmth and dryness.