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London Plane: a short story

In 2012, Freedom from Torture ran a short story competition. This is the winner: Jocelyn Watson’s ‘London Plane’, which explores the isolation, memories, and hopes of a young asylum seeker in London

March 25, 2013
7 min read

Sycamore, poplar, oak; it has taken me weeks to remember their names but I can now. London Plane is the tree I like best with its spiky round brown nuts dangling from its branches; it reminds me where I am and who I am.

*

Repeat, repeat, repeat. They refuse to understand. But I have no choice. The questions they ask me. I look at their faces and though they think I can’t see, I can. How many times? I can’t count. England; I thought it would be different here, but just like Karachi; always the same look; they don’t believe me.

*

The first week I was in London, I only went out to the shop to buy milk, dhal, rice and bananas. When I came home, I sat by the window, looking out at the small park, surrounded by tall trees with emerald green grass in the centre and watched the rain and cried; how I cried.

*

I don’t know why and how that morning, in my second week, I was able to walk out the door and instead of turning left, I went right, and right again into the park. There was no call to pray; just birds singing. Perhaps that helped me. When I got into the park there was no one there. I walked past the trees: strong, thick, brown, red, grey almost black; chopped branches; knotted, chipped, flaking bark; jade green leaves and tiny flowers at their bases: white, yellow, purple. As I looked across I became frightened. Someone was walking towards me. But then I saw it was an English woman with two small dogs, fluffy and white as though they had just had a bath.

‘Good morning,’ she said and before I could open my mouth she and her dogs were gone.

*

The next morning I wasn’t sure; all I could see were heavy, grey clouds raining down. By seven o’clock I decided it was too late; there would be too many people.

*

On the third morning the sky reminded me of the bright blue dupattas Razia and I wore at St Joseph’s before Senior Fikree confiscated them. Thinking of those crazy times in Karachi I smiled, as I walked out of the house. When I entered the park it was light but earlier than before so the woman and her dogs hadn’t come yet. There was no one there so I walked slowly round the park looking at the trees, tapping them as though I knew them which I didn’t then. As soon as I saw someone enter the park I walked quickly home.

*

On my fourth day the singing was joyful, as though the birds were teasing me. That was how I learnt to go out. I kept my head down if there were any men there but I didn’t mind to say good morning to the women.

*

By my third week I was less frightened and sleeping better. My new friends woke me at six and they welcomed me like the St Patrick’s Cathedral choir.

*

Every day I see women’s faces: old, young, brown, red, dark, light just like the barks of the trees; English, Chinese, Turkish, African.

One morning a young woman stopped me and said, ‘isn’t this just wonderful.’

I didn’t understand why she stopped me. But it was true; for seven days it had been raining.

‘Yes.’

‘We’ve been waiting for this for so long it’s like waiting to eat the food you’ve been cooking. Your lips, your mouth, your stomach are ready but you just have to wait.’

She made me laugh.

‘I’m from Newcastle and my mate told me it’s raining cats and dogs there.’

I laughed so loud I think she thought I was stupid.

‘So sorry,’ I said quickly; I wasn’t making fun of her. ‘In Pakistan it’s too hot now.’

‘That’s the trouble, too hot or too cold. We’re never satisfied but today is lovely.’

She was right; it was a golden day.

‘Shall we walk a bit?’

‘Oh.’ I didn’t know what to say.

We walked and she talked. She likes talking; taller than I am with long, wavy, black hair like me, big bright eyes and a round face. I just listened. She asked me if I knew about trees.

‘In Karachi we don’t have such large trees. There are kathal, faalsa and cheeko but they are small.’

‘I don’t know about that lot but what about all these?’ she said, pointing to the proud, old trees round the park.

‘No.’

‘That’s a horse chestnut, a poplar, a cherry tree, a sycamore…’

‘So many names.’

‘Tell you what? I’ll teach you a tree a day. What d’you think?’

‘Okay.’

*

So each day we meet. Besides the trees I’m learning about Newcastle and La Sagesse, the school she went to, and she is learning about St Joseph’s and Karachi.

*

She taught me about the flowers as small as a paisa: white cow parsley, purple thistle, yellow buttercups. By the time the summer days came, I began to look forward to walking with Rachel. I wasn’t frightened and told her. She didn’t ask me any questions. She told me about her family, her job working in the park café, her boyfriend, her girlfriends, and her dreams of travelling. I told her about the police, the torture, the rape; how I came to England alone knowing no one, how they wanted me to tell them over and over again what happened and how each time it pained me; and now that I was safe, Mama can continue her work without fear.

‘Your mother sounds a brave woman.’

‘I miss her.’

‘It must be hard.’

‘Very hard. She spoke to Senior Fikree, my old headmistress and she got me out.’

Over the months I told Rachel everything.

*

‘Smell this.’

‘It’s sweet.’

‘Lavender…The summer’s ending soon.’

‘Is that very bad?’

‘Does it snow in Karachi?’

‘No, never.’

‘Then you’re in for a treat.’

Red Pepper would like to thank Jocelyn Watson and Freedom from Torture for allowing us to reprint this story. Illustrations by Cressida Knapp


Freedom from Torture is the only national organisation in the UK dedicated solely to the rehabilitation of torture survivors. Its focus is on supporting people bearing the physical and psychological scars of torture to rebuild their lives.

Staff and volunteers of Freedom from Torture ensure survivors of torture and organised violence have access to rehabilitation services that meet their complex and diverse needs. Operating from five treatment centres around the UK, the organisation provides care, treatment and protection of torture survivors enabling them to rebuild their lives. It also contributes to worldwide efforts to stop torture, provide advocacy for survivors’ rights and campaign for torture prevention. www.freedomfromtorture.org

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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