He is falling in lots of ways, but to his amazement none of them seem to hurt. Nothing hurts anymore, nothing can, nothing ever will again, not since the strange, surreal day nearly two years ago when the bomb went off, and the building came down, and his mother said, 'Oh', and died.
Ahmed remembers it vividly, but always at a distance. It is like he is watching it on a super high definition television. The picture and sound are like crystal, but there is nothing more, nothing to touch. No sensation of being there, no sense that it is happening to him. The smoke looks like nothing, like someone is blowing leaves, and his mother seems puzzled by the spreading wetness on her hijab, and she is saying, 'Oh,' and then she is gone.
Everything since then - his father's decision to leave, the struggle to get out of Syria as the country slowly imploded, the days in boats and trucks and drab, drear camps stretching to weeks to months to more than a year - everything since then seems like a mistake, somehow. It is happening to someone else, not to Ahmed. Soon, someone will realize there has been a mistake. Soon, they will come, the people who are in charge of such things, and they will take Ahmed away from this strange city, and back to his home - which he loves - and his mother will be there and then he will be able to hurt again, to weep for the impossible, awful dream that had mistakenly swept him up. But not until then.
He is falling out of love with his father, who gave up his country and the memory of his wife, who gave up everything to live with a brother he hates in a small flat in West London, and the shop below where he plans to sell kebabs to people who don't give a shit about any of that. He is falling behind at school, and he is falling off roofs, off of fire escapes, off of a bridge one time in Hounslow at midnight, because he is convinced that he can reach down far enough to finish the picture he is painting, spraying in green and yellow and chrome to glitter over the canal in the moonlight forever. His friends say they have him tight, but when the police come, they drop him, and Ahmed falls fifteen feet into the filthy water.
'Things will be better,' his father promises every night, so often that Ahmed loses count. 'You will see. We will open the restaurant, and we will make money. This is just the start. You will see.'
But all Ahmed sees is a million buildings of brick and stone and cold concrete, the endless miles of alien London stretching so far into the distance that there is no possible way out.
Ahmed doesn't say much at school. The boys and girls are brown and white and black and every shade in between. Their parents come from Poland or Nigeria or Iraq or Tooting, but really they all belong to the city, they all belong to London, and Ahmed belongs to somewhere else, a place that doesn't exist anymore. His home is a ghost that haunts his dreams; only when Ahmed wakes, in place of his dreams there is just a huge blackness, vast and thick and empty. He doesn't feel anything when the teachers speak or when the other children taunt him. He does have friends though, or almost-friends; that is because of what comes out of him at night. He is respected for that.
'We need to make sure there is room for at least five tables,' his father tells him one Saturday. 'That is what we had, the first place in Damascus. It wasn't big, but it was just big enough.'
Back in his old life - in his real life - Ahmed's family had been wealthy. They had restaurants - not one, but three! - and many people worked for them. His father was a chef. He knew how to do clever things with food, many clever and wonderful things. People had hired him for important functions, people had called him a genius and an artist. Now Ahmed's father was trying to sell kebabs to Friday night drunks.
Ahmed nods and tells his father, 'Yes,' but only because that is simpler than saying what he really thinks. He used to dream about being like his father, but now he doesn't dream of being anything. Now Ahmed only ever feels alive at night.
Sometimes Ahmed goes out with Riz or Enzo or with the tall, black boy who won't tell anyone his real name. Sometimes he goes out on his own. Most of the time he doesn't care, though part of him likes having an audience. It's funny, he was never interested in art when he was little, and he is certainly indifferent to such things at school. Painting and sculpture and illustrations in expensive books and expensive museums leave him as cold and empty as music, or literature, or anything else, anything at all. People, girls, smells, flowers, his father, his uncle, the memory of his mother, even: it is all dead to him, all dry and dead and meaningless. But when he is abroad at night, his gloves on tight and the rucksack on his back rattling with the weight of cans, a crack of light opens up. It is tiny, it is an infinitesimal speck in the centre of his soul; but it is real. It is real, and it breathes, and he pries it open with hot molten gold and grass and sand, spraying out the colours of his home and his mother, painting windows into his other life, his real life, which he has lost forever.
He thinks of it as his dark flower, this strange gift that was given to him by the same hand that took everything else. It is a small thing, it is a consolation prize. It is all he has.
But the city is alive. It belongs to everyone, to everyone except Ahmed. And the windows he paints into the world that should have been are swallowed up again almost as quickly as he can make them. His friends try to tell him that there is something beautiful in this, too. They say that nothing in life is for keeps, not anything, certainly not art.
"That isn't good enough," Ahmed tells them. He can't explain what he feels. He can't say that his painting is the one patch of dry land in a world consumed by furious water. So he turns his back and waits for them to leave.
But when the others have gone, Ahmed realises the black boy has remained.
"I don't make a habit of prying into other's business," says the boy. "But it does not do to live only through art. Art is not life."
Ahmed starts to sneer, because the words sound so formal. Why should a boy be using words like that? But those eyes...they are not the eyes of a boy. They are old, very old.
Instead, he shakes his head. He wants to talk about his home. He wants to talk about the bright past that is lost, about the golden gardens, the sunsets, about the feeling of his mother's hand in his. He wants to explain that he doesn't have a life, not anymore. He doesn't have a life. Art is all there is left.
He wants to say all this, but he can't.
"I don't belong here," is what comes out, as if that explains it all.
"Neither do I," says the tall black boy with the ancient eyes. "But then, who does? We are all just visiting, one way or another. Before long, we will be somewhere else. I'm only here because I was told I should take a holiday."
The words infuriate Ahmed. What does this boy know of belonging?
"This will never be my home!"
He shouts the words, and feels foolish.
The black boy just smiles at him, showing rows of perfect white teeth. He stretches his back, sighing, and sways forward gracefully.
"You take your home with you," says the tall boy. "The good parts, and the bad. We are all refugees from our past. I know that as well as you."
"And what broken past are you fleeing?" asks Ahmed.
The tall black boy doesn't tell him.
Instead he sighs again, and tells him of a hidden, forgotten place where his art might rest undisturbed, at least for a time.
"How do you know about this?" Ahmed wants to know. "And why tell me?"
The tall boy shrugs, a curiously feline movement.
"Oh, I have lots of little friends," he says. "They sniff out all the secrets. And as to why I tell you of it - that is my business. Like my name - it is my own."
Ahmed follows the instructions, and finds it: a stretch of tracks three miles outside of Ealing where the old trains go to die. There are fences and gates and security cameras and barbed wire. But Ahmed learns the way. He has to. He has to find somewhere that his art can live.
He screams paint onto the cold, rusted metal, and slowly pictures start to come to life.
* * *
The counters are smashed and blood is pouring down his father's face.
Ahmed is on the floor. He is trying to get up, trying to struggle to his feet so he can shout and scream at the men who have done this to them. But Ahmed's father is holding him down, and he won't let him up. There are three men, all white. Two have tattoos on their faces, a red cross on a white background. They all have shaved heads and big arms and big, meaty bellies where too much beer has run their muscles to fat.
'Stay down,' the man who smashed the counter tells Ahmed. 'Stay down, you Muslim fuck. Stay down, like a good dog. Stay down.'
Ahmed is furious, not just with the men who have come into their home and bloodied his father's face. He is furious at his father, too. For once, the ice in him has melted, for once Ahmed can feel something burning through his veins. It is so wonderful to feel alive again, that he doesn't care if the fire that has ignited him is hate and not joy or wonder or love. Ahmed can feel hate, and it feels good; and his father pins him down and won't let him lose himself in his beautiful hatred.
One of the men is poking around in the broken counter. There are chunks of lamb and slices of chicken and the whole world smells of bloody meat. Another is peeling slabs of thick kebab meat and throwing them to the floor, throwing them at Ahmed and his father. Every time one of the slices of bloody, undercooked meet hits home, the man with the tattoo laughs.
Ahmed struggles and struggles but his father does not let go, even when Ahmed screams words he should not know, even when he bites his father's hand until blood fills his mouth. At last, the men leave, and all that is left are tears and the warmth of his father's body as his arms go limp and they roll away from each other. There is broken glass underneath him, and Ahmed is expecting the sharpness of the glass to become meaningless again, for the wetness of the tears and the redness of his father's blood to recede once more into stultifying oblivion. But it does not. Instead, the pain and the fear and the rage swell, becoming so huge that it is spilling out of him, so big that it is impossible to contain.
The sensation of life is so strong now, so clear and overwhelming. Ahmed does not want it anymore. It is too much. It will fill him up and boil over and he will be lost. He has to find a way to shut it down again, to contain it.
'It's okay,' his father tries to tell him, but the words come from a long way away.
So Ahmed goes to the only place he can go, to the one place where before he had felt alive in a world of shadows. His feelings have been trapped behind a gate of ice, and now they are free. In the one sane speck of a mind that is suddenly broiling in an ocean of emotions, he holds on to one hope. He hopes desperately that if he gets there, if he can get back to the picture he made in her honour, maybe then he will be able to force it all back inside.
He flees through the sodium stained night of the city, unaware of the traffic and the people, unaware of his father's cries or his footsteps as he limps along after.
* * *
By the time he reaches the tracks, Ahmed can't run any more. His lungs are on fire and his legs are made of fire and the whole world can burn for all he cares. He must get to her. She will make things right. He is aware of his father trailing him, but he doesn't turn when he is called, doesn't look over his shoulder even once.
But when he gets to the yard, all the old carriages are gone. They are gone. The tracks are empty, there are patches of rust where the carriages stood and paint stains on the ground.
She is gone. The last part of his mother is gone, the beautiful pictures of her face that he had painted in secret, when all the other beautiful things he brought into the world were taken away. He had thought that these last pictures, at least, in this last secret place still belonged to him, but no. They have been taken, too.
Ahmed crumples like a puppet with slit strings, a wet heap, undone and nerveless and so, so broken.
And at last, at long last, the tears come.
He is alone.
He is alone.
But he is not alone.
His father is there, strong arms around him, holding him tight, pulling him in.
'No,' his father tells him, tells him with his arms and his body and the warmth of his skin. 'Come back, my son. Come back.'
Slowly, Ahmed comes back to the world.
His father is crying, too. And all at once, Ahmed sees it. He sees that his father loves his mother still, that he never stopped loving her, that neither of them were capable of forgetting her any more than they were of forgetting the land that was their home, and which is now gone.
These things would live on, projected forever in an inner cascade of memory and light. And they would live on in art, too, in the manner of all lost lands and lost loves, re-imagined and re-projected again and again in paintings and in music and - yes - even in the magic of food, by generation after generation, long after those who lost these things were gone, too.
Daylight is just breaking over the city, orange and lilac flooding the streets and filling the morning faces, when Ahmed and his father return to the broken door of their little restaurant. There is blood mixed in with the shattered glass, but the two men smile as they set to work, making things right for the day to come.
And that evening, when the place is cleaned and the smell of beautiful food drifts out into the London night, Ahmed stands next to his father in their restaurant, and makes small, perfect meals, and does not mind when they are taken away by strangers, never to be seen again.