"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

Devils Will Come

Devils Will Come

    The horror. Thirty-four dead. Broken with the press of it we pray and give ourselves to quiet, the dread unspoken. We hope that the night will cleanse. Wrong. Silence shattered as guns burst through, rip us from oblivion to terror and through the dark are jagged pointing prodding blinding lights and shouting and confusion and chaos; someone please help us, is this real, and the cold grip takes and grows, and I am shaking and cannot think and I too am shouting, shouting for Saqiba though I see her in flashes and she is beyond shouting, and they drag us and bundle us and take the children from their beds and we rush to huddle and we grip each other, and we don’t know what or why, desperate frightened unknowing, and the house is pulled apart, all the things we have, all the things bought, all the things given, pulled and opened and searched, and on and on it goes with black boots coming and going until somehow the assault calms but the questions come and on and on and on they ask, questions and more questions about who and where and when and again about who and where and when, and again, endless repeated questions until they tell us our son is one of the thirty-four, and they tell us our son is dead, and they tell us our son is the bomber, and then we know. And I ask why. All we did was love him.

    That long yesterday we watched and listened, shocked and appalled and clueless and afraid. Where in town? And when? And who might be about at that hour? Twelve dead, they said at first. Then sixteen. Then twenty-two. Then twenty-nine. The dead grew by the bulletin, grew to thirty-four. And we prayed. Peace and blessings be upon them. We phoned all we know. Was everybody okay? Where’s the boy? He wouldn’t be in that part of the town anyway, praise and thanks, but why isn’t he answering his phone? Phoned the university, but it was chaos as they buckled under the panic of worried families. They said they’d check and phone back. They didn’t. At ten in the evening we reported him missing. 

    Best you step back from the window, they tell me. Best you don’t look. But I look through the garden and I look through the railings and I look beyond where a crowd is gathered. Reporters are there, I see their cameras and their television things. And others are there, locals I guess, the curious, and the angry, their shouts carry through. And neighbours are there, I see their faces, but these are different faces, familiar yes, but changed. And I see the horror.

    You must have noticed something about his behaviour, the police ask. I tell them I didn’t. Or a change in mood? No, I tell them. Or any new friends? Or new places he went to? No, I say, I haven’t noticed any of those things. And he said nothing? Nothing. He didn’t speak, they ask, of politics or religion? No. We never talk about religion. Never? Never. And about war? No. About Pakistan? Yes, we talk about Pakistan, but not in that way. And his extended family? His grandparents? His aunts and uncles? No, I tell them. Politics and religion are not big things to us. Are you sure it is him? I ask. Could there be a mistake? Maybe he was just there, accidentally, innocent. Maybe he was just caught up in the explosion. Maybe . . .  And that’s when they show me the video.

    I watch. I listen. I see my son. I hear my son. I know it’s him. But it’s someone I have never seen or heard. How can that be? I try to make some sense of it, try to hear some reason, some excuse. But there is none. It’s just a noise about the truth of Islam versus falsehoods. What Islam? And what falsehoods? Is love and family a falsehood? Is making a way in the world? Is doing the best one can? Is giving one’s family every chance? Is loving one’s neighbour? Oh, my boy, how can that be? And the things he says about my father’s homeland. What has Pakistan done for Muslims? He asks. Only its reason for existence, I’d say. But that isn’t enough. Death to Pakistan, he threatens. What does that even mean? And England, he warns, is filled with filth and corruption. England? I ask, this England that has given us everything. There will be a backlash, he says, for the targeting and suppression of Muslims. What suppression? I am as free as my neighbour. I am as free as my neighbour’s neighbour. At least, I was. The hideous atrocities of England on Muslims, this boy in the video says, will only result in a humiliation. Islam will conquer England. The Shari’ah is coming. One day, he says, the black flag of Islam will fly over Downing Street. Madness, that’s what it is. But that is the way of it. I fight a just cause, the boy says. I fight for a life without humiliation, I fight for Shari’ah. Brothers of England, sisters, embrace yourselves in inshallah. But take prudence, for surely the devils will come.

     And there is nothing I can say for here is the truth of it. Kafirs, he calls us. I didn’t know he knew such words. 

    It is six the next morning when they take us away. Let’s give it a couple of days, they say. Feelings are running hot, people are angry. We go. But after four days they say it will be better to move. And I know we can never go back. But that is the way of it.

    A wonder lived next door to us. Her name was Lily. She and the boy spent their childhood together in the gardens of the avenue. The boy was small, dark, and clumsy; he kept tripping and running into things. He was an excited whippet with no guile. The girl was tall with vigour and grace, and with magic. She would appear, disappear, and then appear somewhere else without the journey noted or viewed. Lily attacked life with a kind of devotion, a head of blonde curls rushing here and there. And she gave laughter, and she gave love. And she gave them as easy as British autumn gives rain. Lily was the garden of England shot out of a cannon in a dress and trainers. 

    I dreamed that my son and Lily might get together in a love marriage. I wished for that day. Teenage Lily cut her hair short and spiky and she dressed in all sorts of crazy clothes. But she was still as sweet as gulab jamun. And she hadn’t slowed; still the rushing here and there, asking me, when she saw me, how I was and how were the Balochs of Huddington? She called us that, the Balochs of Huddington, like we were gentry or noble or lords. I loved that. 

    Seventeen years is all Lily got, is all he gave her. She was a student promoter for the diversity festival in town and such diversity is not guided by the prophet. And so they must die. And they did. There is something in the boy’s video that cuts. I listen again to his rage against alcohol and gambling and homosexuality and adultery and women uncovered and loose. That word loose?

    One year has passed. Everything that was pure is gone. Today, there is a service and in reaching out, and in trying to make some good of it, they ask me to go. I have no choice. He took that from me. But that is the way of it and it is part and parcel of the reckoning. So I carry my disgrace and I go, and I listen. One by one, each gives an account. Please don’t ask me why, I want to tell them. Though, no one asks. Afterwards I meet a young man who lives with part of my son in his chest. His left leg and both arms were torn from his body and a fragment of my son’s thigh bone embedded itself into his sternum. What are we to say to each other? I have thought about such, looked for words to say, but found none. I say nothing. He too can’t speak, the moment is too much. But he looks on me with a great softness. He leans forward in his chair. I think he wants to touch me, but can’t. He doesn’t have any arms. My son tore them away.

    Saqiba’s grief has grown to defence and excuse and blame. She has stepped to the boy’s guard. He was led to it, she says. And the behaviour and corruption of the British is a provocation. I thought I had reached the limit of pain. I was wrong. I thought we were British

    And so today, after the service, I make my way to the men who I am told recruited and motivated my son. We meet in a café. Why did you select that place and that time, I ask them. One says nothing; he sits and looks away, and eats potato chips from a napkin-lined basket. The other denies everything as he sips a cola through a straw. Why would you attack England? I ask. He denies this too, but mentions that the holy Quran teaches that where we put our feet, we shall rule that land. One day, he says, the black flag of Islam will fly over Downing Street. I tell him he is deluded. I watch them both, the look they carry. It is self-unquestioning. It is ignorance. It is stupidity unknowing. It is thinking without reason, without heart, and without love. It is evil made flesh. I leave them. But as I go the silent one calls. Brother, he says, it was your son who chose the time and place. I cry as I make for the taxi. Not enough to try and kill England, and everything it offers, and everything it gives. Not enough to kill those beautiful people. No he had to make that killing even worse, if such horror is possible. And it is. But that is the way of it.

    And now, on my return to the train station, I ask the driver to take me through our old avenue. And I see the whippet and the angel rushing here and there. I don’t hear the poison of the video. I don’t see the broken bodies of the bomb, or my son the bomber, the killer, or our lost future, or the grief and shock, or the crowd at the gate, or the shame. I see the life of June fetes, and games of cricket and squash, and making pickles and chutney in the pantry. I see the boy and girl playing catch-catch through the gardens. I see the angel child. I hear the laughter in her greetings. I feel the kisses on my cheeks. And how are the Balochs of Huddington? Amongst the oaks and birches and willows, I see my boy and Lily the neighbour’s daughter. And so again, once more, I ask why. All we did was love him.

Mark Mulholland was born and raised in Dundalk, Ireland and when he was young he used his school lunch breaks to visit a second-hand book store. He got a part-time job and with his small earnings bought books by their cover or title or by some indefinable inclination and along with Deighton, Puzo, and MacLean he was reading everything from Camus to Hemingway to Steinbeck to Rossetti to Dickinson to Kavanagh to McGahern long before he knew who these writers were. The whole world was to be found in that book store, he says, and everything a boy needed to learn could be learned there. Mark left schooling at sixteen and stuck with the second-hand book stores. He has been educated in this way ever since. He lives in rural France.

Cover photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

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