My Cousin From Iraq

I have a friend who won’t travel by Tube. “If I see a Middle Eastern man, I start to get nervous, and if he has a backpack, forget it, I’m convinced I’m going to die,” she told me. “I know it’s completely unfair, but I just can’t manage the anxiety.”
Last Monday, a man from the Middle East treated me with such kindness and generosity that, several days later, my eyes still well up when I think about it.
After a month of agonizing (“I should really be cutting activities rather than adding them- do I really want to tie up another weekday- will the kids like it”), I had finally made the decision to enrol our two kids, 9 and 6, in swimming lessons at a pool about a fifteen minutes’ drive from our home. The leisure centre required payment onsite, so when my husband came home that evening, I got into the car and headed for the pool. I chose a parking spot next to a small kerb, went in, paid, and came back out. I had reversed mostly out of the parking space and had just turned the wheel fully to continue my exit when I heard a loud bang, followed by a thunk. I tried to continue driving, but the car protested loudly. I stopped the car, put on the hazard lights, and got out to inspect the damage. The front right tire had been punctured. I got back into the car, thinking I should be able to at least pull back into the parking spot so I wouldn’t be blocking traffic, but the car made it clear that it was going nowhere. I spotted the woman who had taken my payment for swim school smoking outside the building.
“Excuse me—I have a flat tire, and I was just wondering if maybe somebody could help me push the car back into the parking space so it wouldn’t be in the way?”
“What’s that? Something’s wrong with your car?”
“Yes, I have a puncture,” I confirmed, remembering to use the correct British term. “I want to try to get the car out of the way, but I’ll need some help.”
“Oh right, OK, I’ll send some people out.”
Dusk had fallen. It was close to 8. I was angry at myself for having probably damaged the tire by driving over the small kerb next to the parking spot, although I had been driving very slowly. I have been an insecure driver since my very first informal driving lessons on a dirt road in the country, when I insisted on slowing to a near stop every time there was a bird on the road in front of the car. “Just keep going,” my mom would say, “they’ll fly away.” “But what if they don’t?” “They will,” she would reply, with increasing frustration. “If I were a better driver,” I thought to myself, “this probably wouldn’t have happened.” But mostly I was panic-stricken by the possible price tag of needing our car towed. In a misguided effort to save money, my husband had been dragging his heels about signing us up for roadside assistance. During the winter, our battery had started to die. One cold and snowy afternoon at a Tesco Extra, the car had refused to start. I had asked six different people for a jump start before finding one who was willing to help me. When my husband came home from his business trip later that week, I had told him again that we needed to sign up for breakdown recovery. I added “Green Flag” to the to-do list on the fridge. Somehow the call was never made, so now I stood there in the leisure centre parking lot wondering just how awful the bill was going to be.
I called my husband’s mobile number. No answer. I tried the home phone. No answer. I knew he was putting the kids to bed, but I was at a loss and could only think straight enough to know I needed to talk to him. I kept trying, pressing redial over and over.
A man got out of his car in the next row of parking spaces. “You OK? Your car break down?”
“Yeah, I have a puncture.”
“You have the jack?”
“Yes… but I don’t know how to use it.”
“You have a spare?”
“Yes… there’s one somewhere…”
“Let me see.”
I opened the trunk, which was full of reusable canvas shopping bags, collapsible chairs, and other random items.
“Where’s your spanner? You have a spanner?”
“Umm… yes…” I started rummaging in the mesh pocket on the left-hand side of the trunk. The man tried the mesh pocket on the right.
“Here it is. And here the jack. I fix it for you.”
“Wow, that’s so kind of you, thank you,” I said, thinking maybe it would be all right and it wouldn’t be horrifically expensive after all.
My husband finally answered the phone. “What’s up?”
“I have a flat. A very kind man is trying to fix it for me, but I need to know what to do if it doesn’t work.”
“How did that happen?”
“Well, I guess it’s from backing out of the parking spot, I must have gone over the little kerb, but I was going really slowly, so I don’t really understand it.”
“Damn. We didn’t need this right now.”
“I know. I’m really sorry. Hopefully this man will be able to fix it and I can drive it to the garage, but what garage should I go to?”
“I don’t know. Who’s helping you?”
“A guy in the parking lot.”
Meanwhile the man had been hard at work. He had the car jacked up and was about to remove the wheel. “You have the locks?”
“The locks?”
“For the wheel. Maybe your glove compartment? Look like this,” he added, holding one up.
“I’ve got to go,” I said to my husband, “But I need to know what to do if this doesn’t work out.”
“Yes. I’ll get on it and get back to you.”
I opened the glove compartment and rooted around. “These?”
“Yes. Give them to me.”
Suddenly five smiling people wearing red fitness centre polo shirts bounced into sight. One of them asked chirpily, “Did you need a hand?”
“Well, I did, but I think this man may have it under control… but we may need help pushing it out of the way?” I added, half-asking the man who was helping me. I would find out later that his name was Munir.
“No. Look, suspension is broken. See this? That’s what punctured your tire,” Munir said, pointing to a sharp piece of metal sticking out into the wheel area. “Can’t put on the spare. You have to call roadside assistance.”
My heart sank. I started running the “I should never drive again” tape in my mind. I had been hoping that in addition to paying for the kids’ many afterschool activities, I would be able to buy a new phone with a working “5” key with the birthday money I had recently been given. Now that money would all have to go towards the cost of a tow truck and car repairs.
“Well, thanks for coming out, but it looks like I’ll need roadside assistance,” I said to the fitness centre staff. They all offered their condolences and started heading back inside, grateful for the brief diversion.
“You know the number for roadside assistance? You know what garage you need to go to?” asked Munir.
“No, I have no idea, I’ll have to call my husband again,” I said forlornly. “Here, take this,” I said, holding out a £10 note, the only note I had in my wallet. “You’ve been really helpful.”
“No, no. No worries. You have membership with roadside assistance?”
“No, but that’s the way it goes, I’ll just have to call them anyway.”
I dialled my husband’s mobile. Munir went back to his car. I told my husband Munir’s verdict and asked him to text me the number for roadside assistance and the address of the garage the car should go to. I assumed Munir had left, but he reappeared a few moments later with a small traffic warning symbol. “You have one of these?”
“Umm, no, we never quite got around to getting anything like that.”
“I set it up for you. You call roadside assistance?”
“No, I just asked for the number from my husband, I haven’t called yet.”
“Wait a minute before you call. I know someone who does recovery.”
“Really?”
“Yes, I call him, I see if he can help you. Where the garage you need to go to?”
“It’s a bit out of town, in an industrial area.”
Munir stepped to the side. He spoke in a Middle Eastern language to someone on the phone. He hung up and turned back to me, shaking his head. “No, he can’t do it, it’s too far away.”
“Well, thanks so much for trying, that was really nice of you. These things happen.”
“You know what? Let me call roadside assistance. I say you’re my family.”
“Oh, that’s so kind, but I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble.”
“It’s no trouble. I have to have it, I have no choice, and I never use it. You my family, they do it for free. Could work.”
The thought of saving what would probably equal the cost of the swimming lessons I’d just signed the kids up for and then some was a huge relief.
“If you’re sure, that would be really wonderful. I could be your cousin?”
“Yes, you my cousin. But when they come, you stay quiet, you let me do the talking.”
“I can do that.”
“OK. I call them, you lock the car, you come with me to my office, right over there. You wait there for recovery.”
I realized I was actually shivering. I hadn’t dressed to be standing outside, and the adrenaline coursing through my system was taking its toll.
“If you’re sure that’s OK, that would be lovely.”
“Fine.”
Munir called the roadside assistance company as he put the warning triangle together and placed it several feet from my car. He gave them the license plate number and told them what was wrong with the car. It was just past eight o’clock.
“They say they send someone by half ten. I just get my son, then we go across the street together.”
Munir went and opened the back door of his car. A young boy got out and waved shyly. “This is Ammar.”
“Hi Ammar, I’m Beth,” I said.
“Hi. Your car is broken?”
“Yes, and your dad has been helping me out.”
“Come here Ammar,” Munir said. “You see this? This is the problem. This made the hole in the tire.”
“I see.”
“That’s the suspension. The suspension is broken. Now we go have a cup of tea.”
We crossed the busy road, and walked past some storefronts, until we came to a minicab company. “This my office,” said Munir, and in we went.
A man with short dark hair was sitting in the outer office watching TV. We nodded to each other in greeting. Ammar flopped onto one of the three well-worn grey leather sofas and took out a piece of paper to play with.
“I go fix tea,” said Munir. “How many sugar?”
“No sugar, just milk. Thank you so much.”
I couldn’t stop shivering and knew that tea would do me a world of good. I looked around. There were informational signs and posters from the TCO, home-printed signs about time sheets and parking regulations, and several signs in Arabic. The newspapers on the table were all in Arabic. There was a large, somewhat ornate chessboard sitting closed on top of the sofa across from me. There were blinds hanging in back of the sofa against the outside wall, so all that could be seen from the footpath outside was the door. An enormous black gorilla was causing havoc at a dinner party on the small TV screen high up in the corner. The driver with the short hair was settled back in the sofa, half-watching the gorilla’s antics.
Munir brought out the tea in a small white styrofoam cup.
“Thank you so much,” I said, and gratefully took a sip. My body began to relax immediately.
Munir stood by the doorway and looked across the street at the parking lot where my car hazard lights were flashing. “You have address for garage now?”
“Yes, my husband texted it to me. Should I text it to you, so that you can tell them when they come?”
“Yes. I give you my number.”
“Hold on… What name should I put it under?”
“Munir.”
“I’m Beth. How do you spell Munir?”
Munir spelled his first name for me and gave me his number, and I sent him the garage address. We waited. Ammar played animatedly with his piece of paper.
“Is that a mobile phone?” I asked Ammar.
“No,” he said, grinning.
“A remote control?”
“No.” He pressed imaginary buttons and hid behind the door between the lobby and the small office itself.
“So what year are you at school?” I asked when he reappeared.
“Year One.”
“Do you like school?”
“No, I hate it.”
“What? You don’t hate it,” Munir exclaimed, turning away from the outside door. “You asking me this whole week, ‘Daddy, when school starting again?’ I keep telling you, ‘Three more days, two more days.’ You like school.”
“No, I don’t like it.”
“Hmph,” said Munir, and returned his attention to the parking lot.
I smiled at Ammar. “But do you have some friends at school?”
“Yeah, I have Tyler, and Jody, and Adesh. Tyler’s my best friend.”
“Oh, that’s good. Will Tyler be in your class when school starts again?”
“Yeah, all my friends will be in my class. Wait a minute,” said Ammar furtively, and he took a call on his folded piece of paper.
The man with the short hair stood up and went to the doorway. He spoke to Munir for a few minutes in a language I didn’t understand, then he stepped outside.
I began to worry. Would this work? Would Munir get into trouble? Would I? Ammar began to play less with his paper and began to lie more on the sofas. I looked at my watch; it was past nine. I was keeping Ammar up way past his bedtime.
“Are you sure this is OK? I don’t want your son to get too tired…”
“Is fine. Here they are. Ammar, you stay here. Let’s go,” Munir said to me.
As we left the office hurriedly I tried one more time. “Are you sure you’re willing to do this? I really don’t want to cause you any problems.”
“Is no problem. Just let me talk to them.”
“Can you at least take this?” I pleaded, holding out my £10 note again.
“No,” he said emphatically. “No money.”
We crossed the street and Munir approached the roadside assistance driver.
“Why no tow truck?”
“They always send someone out first to see if it can be fixed without the tow truck.”
“It can’t be fixed, I told them on phone, it’s the suspension. They should send tow truck. I told them what problem was.”
“This is how they do it. Is this the problem right here?” the driver asked, pointing to the right front wheel well.
“Yeah.”
“Let’s put the spare on and push it out of the way.”
“Can’t do that, that wreck the spare. Look here.” Munir pointed to the sharp metal. “Need tow truck.”
“Yeah, OK. Where’s it going?”
Munir took out his phone. He showed the driver the address I had texted him.
“OK, well, they’ll be here within two hours.”
Two hours. 11:30. A wave of worry swept over me—how would I keep it together for that long, and how could I be responsible for keeping a six-year old up that late two days before the new school year started? The shivering returned. Soon my teeth would be chattering as well. I felt light-headed.
The driver left. “When we get back to office, I take my son home, I be back in twenty minutes,” Munir said.
“That’s very good,” I agreed.
The man with the short hair had come back, and another man was sitting with him. The second man had a long black beard and looked jovial. They were speaking to each other in what I assumed was the same language Munir had spoken to the short-haired man in. They both smiled at me when I came in.
“Car trouble?” the bearded man inquired.
“Yes, my suspension, I was driving over a very small kerb,” I said sheepishly. “Munir has been very kindly helping me out.”
Both men grinned.
“Come on Ammar, we going now,” Munir announced.
“Oh– I’m sorry, but is there possibly a bathroom I could use before you go?”
“Yes, of course, it’s just back there,” Munir said. He pointed to the door to the office. “ I show you.” He opened the door and indicated a door at the end of the six-foot hallway.
At that point I thought to myself, “OK, honey, now you’re going to have to hope for the best.” The bathroom was not visible from the door to the street, as it was hidden by the door to the office. I was walking into the furthest part of the cab company, and there would be three men I didn’t know at all between me and the rest of the world. I have seen enough movies and heard enough stories to know that it was not the ideal situation, but I also knew that Munir had already shown great kindness, and I knew that there was no way I would be able to get through the rest of the evening without taking the chance. I went in to what was clearly a lavatory used exclusively by men and realized there was no lock on the door. I would have liked a lock.
When I came out all the men had returned to the front lobby. I was glad to return to my seat next to the outside door. “I see you in twenty minutes,” Munir said.
“Thank you so much. Goodbye Ammar, it was lovely to meet you. I hope school goes well this year.”
“You know how this movie ends? The gorilla dies.” Ammar did a dramatic interpretation of the giant gorilla in his death throes.
“Come on Ammar,” Munir said, holding the door open.
“Bye Ammar,” I said again.
“Yeah, bye.”
The short-haired man and the bearded man began to have a conversation that I guessed had something to do with driving directions as I could make out the names of streets every so often. We all half-watched the TV, high up in the far corner of the lobby. The gorilla was now wreaking havoc on the streets of a major city much to the distress of a beautiful blonde woman who clearly adored him. I wondered absent-mindedly if the movie was a faithful remake of “King Kong.” Having never seen “King Kong,” it was difficult to know. After awhile, another driver came in. As with all the men who had been in the office that night, he appeared to be originally from the Middle East. He looked somewhat taken aback to see me, but recovered quickly and nodded gruffly in my direction. He greeted the two other men, then went back into the office. The bearded man and the short-haired man stood up. “Munir will be back soon,” said the bearded man.
“OK.”
They left. As soon as they left, the man in the office changed the TV channel. He surfed through various options before settling on a movie where a very fit man was shooting lots of people. Blood was splattering all over the set. After a certain amount of killing, there was a close-up of an assault vehicle and details of its specifications. My head began to spin slightly. I was well aware that the man in the office could have lots of reasons to dislike me. I knew my mind wasn’t functioning quite as it should because of my panic at the probable cost of the car repairs and my anxiety that Munir’s plan wouldn’t work and we would need to pay for the tow truck as well. So thinking rationally about the sagacity of remaining in the lobby was not an option. I called my husband. I have the advantage of being bilingual myself—my husband is Swedish and I have lived in Sweden for long enough to have learnt the language, so I opted for Swedish so that the man in the office wouldn’t understand me.
“Hi,” my husband said. “What’s the story?”
“Hej. Well, the tow truck is meant to come at 11:30, but Munir has left to take his son home, which is a good thing, because his son was really tired, but now I’m here with this guy who doesn’t seem too friendly and who is watching some sort of super soldier movie with lots of violence.”
“Ah.”
“So I don’t know if I should go over to the car? Munir told me just to wait here, and it’s very cold now.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine where you are.”
“How did bedtime go? Sorry for calling in the middle of it.”
“That’s OK. They got to bed. I don’t know what you should do about the key. There might be a key drop box, but if there’s not, I guess take it with you and I’ll have to go back in the morning with it.”
“Weren’t you supposed to have a meeting in the morning?”
“Looks like I’ll have to reschedule.”
“Sorry… but you think I’ll be OK staying here?”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“And do you think it’s really a good idea to pretend to be Munir’s cousin?”
“If he’s offered, go for it. If it works, it will save us a couple hundred pounds. If it doesn’t, oh well, you tried. Just let him do the talking.”
“Right. I will keep my mouth firmly shut.”
“Text me when you leave the garage.”
“Will do. Bye.”
“Bye.”
I glanced back up at the TV. There now seemed to be some sort of hostage situation in the program where the main character, the ultra-soldier, was taking a barefoot woman in a very thin dress and an eight-year old boy into what looked like a large warehouse where there was already one person bleeding to death on the floor. I looked out the lobby door onto the footpath. It was a busy street, that was in my favour, and hopefully Munir would be back soon. I busied myself with my phone and hoped for the best.
After another ten minutes or so Munir reappeared. I relaxed into the sofa. “Did you get Ammar to bed? I’m really sorry to have made him miss his bedtime.”
“Oh, he’s fine, he like to be with Daddy, exciting.”
Munir took up his position by the outside door. The man who had been in the office came out and started talking to Munir quietly in English. “And so… I’ll stay until my notice is up.”
“Yeah, a month.”
“Yeah… and then…” He turned so I could no longer hear him. They talked for a few more minutes and then the man walked out the door.
Time passed. A few other drivers came and went. Finally Munir spotted the tow truck. “They’re here, let’s go,” he announced.
We crossed the street again—there was much less traffic now—and stood by my forlorn Vauxhall.
“How he going to get in?” Munir wondered, looking at the size of the tow truck and the size of the parking lot. But the driver managed it. My heart began to beat faster as I considered the possible outcomes of the next several minutes.
“This it?” asked the driver.
“Yeah. Suspension broken, look. I don’t know why they don’t send tow truck first, I tell them suspension broken on phone.”
“That’s just protocol. Where’s it going?”
Munir gave him the street address of the garage. I attempted to look cousin-like and kept my mouth firmly shut.
“Yeah, OK, we need to get that wheel on a trolley. You got the jack?”
“Yes.” Munir unlocked the car, opened the trunk, and got the jack out of the creased Sainsbury’s bag-for-life without hesitation. I was grateful that I had been so paralyzed earlier that he had been the one to put it away, as it made it look like he was quite familiar with the car.
The tow truck driver, who was a burly man with glasses, probably in his forties, jacked the car back up again, then slipped the trolley under the wheel rim. No one said a word, but we all understood that what needed to happen next was that the car would need to be pushed towards the lowered ramp of the tow truck.
“Give me the keys?” the driver asked Munir, who handed them over. The driver started the car and controlled the steering, and Munir and I went to the back and began to push. It was strangely satisfying to feel the car roll forwards under our power. After about ten feet, the driver stopped.
“Got to get a different angle,” he muttered. Munir nodded, and I remained quiet. The driver raised the bed, repositioned the tow truck, and lowered the bed again. “Let’s give it another go.”
We retook our previous positions and rolled the car forwards again. “That’ll do,” the driver announced. He and Munir then worked together silently to hook the trolley up to a pulley on the tow truck. When it was attached, the driver began to press a button that controlled the pulley. Munir kept reaching down to adjust something with the trolley, and I found myself hoping fervently that he would not get his hand somehow caught in the machinery. After several minutes the car was successfully on the bed of the tow truck. “So where’s this garage again?” the driver asked, glancing quickly at me, then looking back at Munir. Munir told him the street address, then got out his phone to check the post code. They discussed the best route to take there, and who would follow whom. The driver drove slowly out of the parking lot.
I followed Munir one last time across the dual carriageway between the leisure centre and his minicab office. There was very little traffic now. Munir’s car was parked outside the office. It was shiny and black. When I tried to get into the passenger seat, I found that I could only open the door a bit without the door touching the high kerb, so I contorted myself in with extreme caution, to avoid scratching the perfectly-finished door. I began to worry that the tow truck driver would notice the dichotomy between my scratched and unwashed Vauxhall with the “Elvis on Board” warning sign stuck in the rear window and Munir’s BMW in excellent condition. But I guessed that the tow truck driver had already figured out that I was not a member of Munir’s immediate family, and was so far letting that detail slide. I would know for sure at the garage.
“So what you going to do with the keys? You think there’s a drop box there?” Munir asked as we drove onto a major thoroughfare.
“I don’t know. If there’s not, I’ll take them and my husband will go out tomorrow morning.”
“You take out everything valuable before we leave.”
“There isn’t really anything valuable, just some folding chairs and lots of carrier bags.”
“I drive you home afterwards.”
“Oh, you’ve been so very kind, you really don’t have to do that. You can just drop me back at your office and I can take a bus from there.”
“Is no problem. Very late at night now, better I take you home. Where you live?”
“Richmond.”
“Yeah, that take me ten minutes, very fast this time of night.”
“If you’re sure, that would be wonderful.”
We left the larger road and headed into a dark industrial area. Munir checked his sat nav. “This the way?”
“I really don’t know, I’ve never been here before, but it looks like what my husband described.”
A sign for the Vauxhall garage appeared. Munir pulled in. The tow truck was already there and the driver was standing outside the cab. “Where do you want me to leave it?” he asked.
Munir looked at me. I shrugged my shoulders. “Right there is fine,” he told the driver.
The driver began setting up the bed of the tow truck to lower the car. “We go look for key box,” Munir said to me. We walked quickly back towards the front of the building. No drop box. “You take the keys, your husband have to come out tomorrow.”
“That seems like the best idea.”
We returned to the parking lot, which was empty except for our vehicles. The tow truck driver was having some difficulty with the trolley that the front right wheel was on. Munir went forwards and helped him, again endangering his hands. When the car was finally down, the driver jacked up the car with his own jack. I found it curious that he hadn’t used that one from the start. “What do you want me to rest it on? The spare?”
“Yeah, that’s good,” said Munir, and went to get the spare out of the trunk, where it was resting on top of a striped picnic blanket. He rolled the spare to the driver, together they positioned it under the wheel well, and the driver slowly lowered my car onto it. The driver raised the tow truck bed.
“That’s it then, I just have to get your signature.”
“Yeah, all right,” Munir said, and walked with him towards the cab of the tow truck. I watched anxiously. The driver took out a small handheld signature device of the sort one signs for deliveries. They conferred for a couple minutes, and I strained to hear, but they were out of earshot. Then Munir took the pen and signed in the box. I exhaled. Munir walked back towards me.
“Good luck with your car,” the driver called out in our direction. He sounded a bit sarcastic, but I was beyond grateful to him for allowing me to be part of Munir’s family for the evening. I suddenly felt very tired.
We got back into Munir’s car, and I gave him my postcode. I texted my husband to let him know that we had been spared the cost of the tow truck and that I was on my way home. It was nearly midnight. He texted me back and asked me to find out what Munir’s whole name was so that we could give him a cheque.
We drove along the dark streets of the industrial estate. “So Ammar doesn’t like school?” I asked.
Munir laughed. “I don’t know where that come from. He loves school. We were in the Philipines over the holidays—his mama is from the Philipines—and he ask me every day, ‘When school starting?’”
“Oh, that’s good. Was it a good visit to the Philipines? That must be quite a journey.”
“Yes, lovely visit. Is very far away, eight hours’ time difference.”
“Wow. So where are you originally from?”
“From Northern Iraq.”
Iraq. Yep, the US has killed lots of people there. A wave of guilt swept over me at the mere thought of what my people might have done to his people, followed rapidly by a wave of amazement that Munir had just spent more than four hours helping me given my very obvious American accent.
“And when did you move here?”
“1998. Long time ago.”
I tried desperately to place 1998 in history—had a Gulf war just started then? Who had been President then? But I am a person who has to stop and think before I remember how old I am, so I quickly gave up. Whether or not there had been an official war on at that point, it was safe to say that our home countries had likely been at odds.
“So I’ve got your first name, but what’s your surname? In case I want to send you a card or something?”
“No, no. No cards.”
“Please,” I pleaded, with my mobile at the ready to add Munir’s surname to his contact details.
“No.”
I sighed. We drove through the glow of the streetlights. The level crossing gates were up. “Take the second right after the level crossing,” I said.
“This road?”
“Yes. We’re just down there… that’s our house. You can just pull up over here. Thank you so, so much Munir. I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate your help.”
“That’s OK. Hope nobody has taken things from your car when your husband goes there tomorrow.”
“I’m sure it will be fine, I don’t think anyone will want our folding chairs. Thanks again,” I said, closing the car door. After I opened our front door, I turned to wave. Munir waved back, then his black car purred quietly off into the night.
My husband was waiting up for me. “Munir wouldn’t give me his surname,” I told him.
“I’m betting anyone with that sort of BMW doesn’t really need a cheque from us, but it would have been good to thank him properly. Glad you made it home safely.”
“I’m really sorry about the car.”
“I guess the suspension’s time had come. Please avoid driving over kerbs in the future though.”
“Believe me, I’ll do my best. I just can’t believe I was so lucky tonight. We absolutely must get roadside assistance cover now though.”
“We will.”
“Good.”
*
The following day I went into town and bought a gift card to WH Smith, the high street stationery store. That evening, I spent a couple hours making a large batch of chocolate chip cookies. The kids, who got a cookie each to test, gave the cookies the seal of approval. The next day it was time for the kids’ first swimming lesson. Our car was still at the garage, so we took the bus to get there, which was a relief as I wanted nothing to do with that parking lot. I brought the big bag of cookies and a card I had written out for Munir with the gift card inside.
“Before we go to the swimming lesson, we need to go across the street for a minute,” I told the kids. “Munir, the man who helped me with our car, works over there. We’re giving him these cookies and a card to say thank you.”
“Where does he work?” my son asked.
“At that minicab company there, the one with the green sign.”
“I’ll press the button,” my daughter volunteered, pushing the button at the crosswalk. “I think he’ll like the cookies.”
“I hope so. Here it is,” I said. I opened the door to the front lobby of the minicab company. It was full to the brim with drivers. I felt a lesser version of the feeling of conspicuous whiteness that I sometimes had when taking the A train to or from Harlem during my year in New York City. I hoped the kids felt it too. Several of the drivers smiled at us. It seemed likely that they knew I was the woman whose car had broken down. “Is Munir here?” I asked.
“Yes, he just in the office, through that door,” one of the drivers volunteered.
“Thanks,” I said, and walked through the office door, with the kids trailing behind. Munir was standing between two other men, behind the high counter.
“Hi Beth,” he said. “Your car all fixed now?”
“No, it’s still in the garage. We came by bus for the kids’ swimming lesson. I brought these for you,” I said, placing the heavy bag of cookies on the counter. “And this is a card. I wish I could do more to thank you.”
“No worries, sweetheart.”
“Thank you so much. Kids, can you say goodbye?”
“Bye,” the kids both said. My daughter had to stand on her tiptoes to see over the counter.
“Bye-bye,” said Munir, grinning at the kids.
*
I called my friend who doesn’t travel by Tube a couple days later.
“So this guy, from Northern Iraq, spent over four hours with me, saved me the cost of a tow truck, and drove me home from the Vauxhall garage. He absolutely refused to accept any money. Can you believe that? I made him cookies and gave him a gift card.”
“That’s fantastic. I bet your husband has signed you up for roadside assistance now.”
“He has. I told him I would absolutely not get into the car until that was set up.”
“It’s one of those things, you hope you won’t need it, but sometimes you do.”
We hung up. I thought to myself, the next time my friend sees a man from the Middle East on the bus, will she get off a few stops early, or will she think of my cousin from Iraq?
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