I stop at the lights, left foot on the clutch, right on the brake. Two weeks without driving and everything feels all out of sorts. The car keeps pulling to the left and there’s this smell, like burnt hair, coming out of the air conditioner. I have a long drive, mindless miles on the motorway and out of the way until I get to where I’m supposed to be at stupid o’clock in the morning.
Thump. Cars touching at slow speed make the strangest sounds, not creaks, not smashes… thumps. Thump, followed by the realisation that whatever just happened, someone else was involved. I look in my rear view, a dull brown car that’s too big, too close. The other driver stares at me. What happened? Did I take my foot off the brake? He gets out, swinging open his door and slamming it. He spreads out his hands and fingers. I think about getting out but then the lights turn green, we should move. I start driving and motion left… he doesn’t seem that impressed. He gets in his car, following, but not as close. He shows me that he can use his fingers to gesture too, I’m lucky he knows how to steer with his knees. I pull in to park, small town supermarket selling everything from rice cakes to rain coats and mostly empty at before stupid o’clock. He comes in, shaking his head. I get out. Do I say sorry? I am not sure what happened… he’d just hit me, hadn’t he? I’m sure he did, my brake was on.
“Did you not see me? Or…” His voice is soft, it buzzes with that dreary monotone that is usually reserved for forced singing. He looks a little at me and the ground. He bares his teeth, sways slightly, like a teenager who has come home late and a little drunk. Did I not see? I look at him. Tall, thin, dark hair, dark eyes, fair skin. He has a crumpled shirt and a worn tie. I see him. I wait. “Do you speak… are you even English?” he says, exasperated. I stare at him, I don’t know how to answer. What?! He’s asking me if I’m even English? No. He’s saying I’m not white.
“I am… I am British… what has my race got to do with any of this?” I speak in an accent I reserve for work, one that I would use if I met the Queen. I’m not white. I grew up in Scotland. I went to school in London. I’ve lived in Bristol, Cardiff and Belfast. I work in an office just outside Portsmouth. I sound like I’m from all those places.
“Brit-ish…” he says, chewing the word like it was sour. “Yeah… that says it all really… try not to kill anyone, okay, will you do that? Just try not to kill anyone.”
I should shout. English? What is English? What ‘says it all’? What do you want me to say? Yes, I’m brown, BROWN, it means that I eat spicy things and smell like it. I speak funny, English being far too difficult a language to master. I claim benefits while working in a job that would have been given to a white person who was better qualified than I, but they had an ‘ethnic’ quota. I live in a house that I keep three generations of my family inside who speak no English. I worship strange things that encourage me to hate all others. I look in disgust upon the society I live in but take all the good bits freely. I hate women and want to keep them covered and in chains… above all else, I can’t drive! Is that what you meant by ‘says it all really’? Is it?
I want to say that. To rant at him until my ears turn red. Scream at him, grab the back of his head and…and that’s all a lie. I want to feel, to be angry but I’m not, just numb. It’s like someone tells you that the reason they don’t like you is because green is the colour of grass. It’s stupid, it doesn’t make any sense.
“What does my race have to do with this…?” I ask, as he turns his back. I am less outraged citizen and more whining child, hurt but seeking approval. My voice trails away as he does.
The rest of the journey seems shorter than normal, all twists and turns are gone. It’s only a few seconds until I’m there, another car park. There’s a barricade that stops people pulling in, not that anyone would go there by accident. There is a guard; if you show him a card, he raises the barrier and lets you in, it’s his job. I hold up my card… a piece of plastic with my photo on it, my right to free passage. He doesn’t move. He’s new, white, bald with rosy pink cheeks. He raises his arms with flat palms. I wind my window down and he steps closer,
“You’ve got to come right up to us, sir, I can’t see the photo unless you come up close.” Fat cheeks… he has fat cheeks. I was as close as the last car… pig! Racist!
“Yes, so sorry, you not see me? I not speak the English, I not know, I so sorry, where I park now? Here? Thank you, thank you, thousand thank yous… shukran habibi!” I spit the words. Stupid, small-minded, animal, they’re all the same. The barrier rises and I drive as he gives me a smug, patronising smile.
“Ahlan Wa Sahlan.” You are welcome, he says. You are welcome.
Hashim Hassan works in an office in London, he takes the train each morning and each night. Well apart from weekends…