He had the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen in a child. It was my first impression, those deeply sad eyes.
Let’s call him Saeed, although that’s not his name.
It’s not unusual, in this part of town, for Asian families to move in. Some of them are Sikhs. The men sport turbans and the women jangle their bracelets, happily explaining that one of their names is Kaur, which means princess.
Others are Hindus, wearing lovely saris, with red bindis on their foreheads.
Saeed was part of a Muslim family, one of many in our neighbourhood. But unlike the others, his family was very unhappy. Domestic violence resulted in Saeed’s dad being removed from the family when he was just ten years old.
This wasn’t quite the successful outcome most of the neighbours had hoped for. Saeed’s mum, let’s call her Adab, didn’t speak English (although she was fluent in five Asian languages). She also had significant health problems. As her husband was her cousin, her family rejected her for allowing the police to intervene.
During their childhood, I regularly took Saeed and his little sister out for the day, to try to give them some sense of family, and of the outside world. Two of my friends often joined us.
We had a lot of fun together, although we did get strange looks from people who seemed to think it odd that three white women were out with two Muslim children.
Very soon, Adab asked to join us, and we made a jolly group on our excursions. Being sensitive to Muslim food requirements, I would pack hampers of vegetarian food, only to find them pointing to the pizza hut. We gained so much from this, my friends and I. The Black Country Museum was a favourite and we went several times.
On one occasion, as we were sitting eating ice creams, and I was reflecting on their sad start to life, Saeed solemnly stared at me and said: “Jane, if I found a twenty pound note on the floor, I would give it to you.” I really had to struggle not to let him see the tears springing from my eyes. He was offering me everything he had; he who had had so little.
I have happy memories of scary rides at Alton Towers, visits to the science museum and walks in the countryside.
The years rolled on, and he outgrew the excursions. Acting as the man of the house in some ways made him harder, and yet in other ways more vulnerable.
At 16 years old he was found to be supplying drugs to his friends. As he awaited trial I looked at him carefully. Shabby, worn jeans, trainers with holes in, dejected downcast eyes. He certainly didn’t seem to have profited much from his dealing. He was sent to jail for two years (they don’t call it jail these days, but the effect is the same). He was removed from his family home, and sentenced to mix with tough and streetwise children. On the day he went to court he looked thin, defeated and depressed.
Over the next several months, I wrote to him often and his replies were heartbreaking. He missed his mum and sister so much. One of my friends took them to visit him, but Adab was so overwhelmed at each visit that she just sat there sobbing.
When his release date came at last we welcomed home a different boy. Enter Saeed, who has now gained about three stones and has muscles in his spit. He is now completely protective of his sister and mum, and is nothing like the terrified boy who desperately and unsuccessfully tried to stop his dad beating his mum.
More years have passed. You might see a gang of young men around town now, and in the middle, the obvious leader, will be Saeed. He is clearly respected by his peer group, and is full of confidence. No one will mess with him now.
Getting a job has been a bit difficult, but he’s still looking out for one.
Last week, as I was walking up the road using my elbow crutches, with an old friend of mine, Saeed and his group of mates came rushing down the road. As soon as he saw me he broke into a broad smile. “How are you, Jane. Hope you aren’t in too much pain. Can I help in any way? Mow your lawn? Shopping?” His friends, who moments earlier had seemed intimidating, all gathered round, expressing regret at my disability. Then they thundered on down the street.
My friend turned to me. “What a lovely young chap”, she said. “Who is he?”
I looked after him as he retreated, and smiled. “Oh, he’s just a boy I know.”