The Chicken House


At Four Eyes Chicken House, Mr Singh tied the bird’s feet with string.

‘Your first chicken, boy,’ the old man said, pausing to push his silver glasses over his head. ‘This is nice fat chicken. Get the knife. Chop, chop.’

The butcher’s apprentice stood in the centre of the room dressed in wellingtons and a stiff coat that crunched when he moved. The boy looked around, found the knife on a marble block and stepped forward. He could hear Mr Singh’s breathing, thick and liquid as soup. Mr Singh had asthma. He claimed he had missed a thousand breaths and died a thousand times. For this reason he wore an inhaler round his neck. A brown one with a black ribbon that was frayed and torn.

Mr Singh clutched the bird’s veined feet. He dangled the chicken upside down. Hamza stepped back, repulsed and afraid the blood would splatter. In his hand the knife was heavy and in the blade he saw the reflection of his own face and the green hose that swung on an iron hook behind. ‘Quickly,’ Mr Singh was calling to him. ‘Cut its throat! We haven’t got all day.’

Hamza listened to the deafening sound of two hundred chickens clucking in the next room. He had seen them this morning. Pecking one another in crammed cages. Eyes clogged with dust.  The knife was level with his nose. He gripped the wooden handle so tight it dug into his palm.  Mr Singh was talking to the bird as if it was a baby. His wrinkled hands were scratched from too many encounters with chicken feet, but Mr Singh didn’t care because he sold the feet for two pounds a box. Mr Singh nodded at Hamza.  Then the old man said a prayer.  ‘I can’t!’ Hamza cried out, dropping the knife onto the block. ‘Please, you do it.’ Mr Singh laughed, took the knife and slashed the bird’s throat with one blow. Hamza stared at the old man’s hands. ‘Don’t expect any bloody pay!’ he told Hamza. ‘You are a bloody coward.’

Hours later Hamza could still smell blood and chicken guts. In Old Street his father was complaining, his eyes bulging white against his dark skin. His voice filled the house like steam, seeping under the closed doors. ‘I sold nothing today. Not one bloody customer.  I swear we are cursed.’

Hamza opened his mouth to speak.

‘You been to the chicken house today?’ his father was saying over and over. ‘You holding down this job? At least it is halal chicken house. You been a good apprentice for Mr Singh.’

Hamza heard his mother crying upstairs. ‘Water works,’ his father repeated. ‘We will be flooded if this goes on. Monsoon.’

His father prodded his own chest for effect. He laughed so hard the veins throbbed at the side of his bald head. ‘You know what I mean, Hamza. Bloody women.  It’s enough to send you mad.’

His father disappeared into the pink sitting room. Hamza hovered in the hallway. His father’s voice filtered through the doorway and then the sound of laughter. ‘Hamza, the chicken house is on the news! Quick. Mr Singh is on the news. All the chickens have gone. Every last one! Bloody animal rights. This town is full of scandal. First child grooming and now they are stealing the bloody chickens.’ His father coughed away a small laugh, one of those laughs that meant the world had somehow gone crazy and he was the only sane person left. Hamza listened from the hall but before he could turn to mount the stairs a rush of air hit his face, the door to the living room swung open and his father ran towards the stairs.

‘Javeria! What you doing up there?’

Hamza blocked his father’s path.

‘Move, boy.’ A large hand pressed against his shoulder. A fierce shove and for the first time ever Hamza pushed back. His father swayed in shock and surged forward.  No one expected it. Hamza’s mother, a timid woman with a glass eye, appeared at the top of the stairs. ‘Leave my son alone!’ she shrieked. She stumbled down the stairs and tore at her husband’s sleeve. Hamza saw his father raise his hand towards the little woman, who now twisted and cowered like a frightened animal. It was time. From his jacket Hamza pulled out a knife. It was Mr Singh’s best knife. He lunged at his father, the chicken knife between them. His father fell. Blood poured from his stomach. He flipped over like a wet fish, struggling for air.

‘He stabbed me, Javeria. He stabbed me. My own son.’

When the ambulance came Hamza wasn’t sure if his father would live or die. He smiled. All he could think about was his mother and the two hundred chickens he had freed.

© Michelle Flatley 2016

The Nine Lives Of Lotto Loveday

elephant trick


In 1914, while the world was at war, Lotto Loveday stole an elephant. The elephant, Katerin, had been loaned to a farmer in the north to plough his land and pull his heavy cart. Twenty year old Lotto, a labourer from the south, struck up a curious friendship with the elephant. On seeing him the elephant would call and raise one foot. Then Lotto would climb on her back and Katerin would race through the fields. Sometimes she tilted her giant body so he would slide off. When Lotto rolled on the black earth, the elephant would gently slap his cheek with her trunk, a sign for him to play the game all over again.

‘Clever elephant,’ he would say, wrapping his skinny arms round her broad neck. He was sure of it. He could never love a woman as much as he loved Katerin.

Sometimes Lotto whistled and Katerin walked on two legs. Lotto cheered and clapped and danced with the elephant until she collapsed in a tired heap. ‘Star of the Chantilly Circus, she was.’ Edgar Frayne rested his palm on Katerin’s back. The old man was covered in muck and his white hair clung to his temple.  ‘People from far and wide once came to see her.’

‘She was?’ Lotto frowned in disbelief.

‘She’s an old girl now,’ the farmer mumbled. His blue eyes sparked. ‘But she’s more powerful than ten horses; that’s for sure.’ He rubbed the elephant’s head with his knotted hands. ‘Taken her a while to trust me, though. Looky here.’ He paused and pointed at an array of silver lines that criss crossed on the elephant’s flank. ‘I think that circus treated her bad. Between you and me I ain’t letting her go back.’

Lotto patted Katerin gently and whispered: ‘Ain’t no one here going to hurt you.’ Then the labourer kissed the elephant’s ear with such tenderness that even the old farmer drew a breath.

‘You ever been to a circus?’ The farmer spat out a stick.

Lotto thought about it and shook his head. ‘No, Sir. I’ve seen the posters and that.’

‘Come inside, Lad. It’s getting cold. I’ll get us some broth and tell you about the greatest show on earth.’

Lotto closed the stable door and followed the old man up to the farmhouse on the hill. Although it was Spring there was a sprinkling of snow on the hills beyond. ’That’s the north for you,’ old Frayne said, as they walked, like he’d read the labourer’s mind. ‘Many have died out here. This weather can kill, you know. You need some meat on them skinny bones.’ He prodded Lotto in the chest. The labourer’s shirt was undone. The old man winced and tutted. ‘What were they feeding you down there in the big city? Air?’

Inside the rickety house the fire was spitting high, ashes escaping like blackbirds. Edgar sat on a tapestry chair embroidered with maidens and men. He instructed Lotto to leave his boots by the door because that was Mrs Frayne’s rules. Although his wife had died of a terrible fever, there was evidence of Mrs Frayne everywhere. A knitted shawl hung from a brass hook and a line of little shoes showed her to have been a tiny woman. Edgar handed Lotto a tin cup of steaming soup. The soup was stinging hot and a blast of pepper made Lotto cough.

‘Aye, the circus is a grand place. A spectacle for the eyes.’ Edgar slurped his soup. ‘You got family down in the big city?’

‘No, Sir.’

Lotto called the old man ‘Sir’ because he’d taken him in with no questions asked and had shaken his hand at their first meeting. That meant something. To shake his hand like he was equal. He’d even got his own room in return for a few jobs. It was nothing special. A ramshackle place with a wooden bed that was too short. Beneath the boards the mice jostled and peeped at him through the cracks. Their bodies writhed like slugs through the gaps and then seemed to fill with air and expand out again. Sometimes he threw them bread crumbs just to watch them perform the swelling trick.

In the night when Katerin made strange wailing noises Lotto would abandon his room, take a blanket and sleep next to the elephant on a heap of straw. Katerin was afraid of the great north wind. With every storm the tin roof of the stable lifted and clanged like a drum and Katerin would shake and stamp her feet in terror until the labourer came. Knowing he was there the elephant was silent again. Time after time the farmer found the labourer asleep in the stable, his hair pricked with hay.  ‘Leave her, Lad’ he would say. ‘Come inside.’ But Lotto told the old man he had slept in worse places.

Frayne liked to play cards. He called the lad ‘gypsy’ because Lotto had a head of black curly hair, big brown eyes and lashes like a girl. Also, he was a wanderer. And he knew a card trick or two. Together they drank whisky in the firelight. ‘The lonely moors is no place for a young lad,’ Edgar Frayne would say over and over again as they played poker. His eyes were red from drinking.

‘And it’s no place for an old man,’ Lotto replied, and every time he said it the old man laughed wildly.

‘At least we’re free from the war here, or it feels that way. Just us against the elements, eh, gypsy boy?’

One stormy night Lotto Loveday performed his biggest trick yet. The old man awoke to find his labourer, his money and the giant elephant had disappeared.

© Michelle Flatley 2015





Buy A Book This Christmas And Help A Refugee.


This week I am releasing a book to raise funds for the charity Refugee Action. This is why…

Paper boats are often abandoned on the tables of the classroom where I teach a hundred refugees every week. These paper shapes are a poignant reminder of the journeys many refugees make to Europe.

The lasting effects of these journeys and war are plain to see. Panic attacks, a fear of loud noise and breaking down in tears are common among both men and women. Many refugees suffer from depression, feel isolated, and struggle to cope. This is compounded by the fact that few refugees speak English. Then there is the realization that although they have reached England the journey is not over and the battle to remain in England has only just begun.

Between June 2014 and June 2015, 41% of asylum seekers were granted leave to remain in the UK. More than half of all applications were refused. The asylum system is complex, frustrating and difficult to fathom, more so if English is your second language.

Another worrying issue for asylum seekers and refugees is the media’s focus on Syrian refugees. With this comes the feeling that the rest of the world’s refugees have been forgotten and that somehow the stories of others are less important. It is for this reason that I wrote Throwing Stones At God, the story of a young refugee boy from Eritrea.

Charities like Refugee Action, and many others, recognize the challenges faced by those arriving in the UK, and are dedicated to helping refugees rebuild their lives. For more information about the work of Refugee Action go to their website.

About The Book:

Throwing Stones At God is the story of ten-year-old Emmanuel Tesfaye, a refugee from Eritrea. Emmanuel, his Ma and his sister board a rubber boat hoping to get to England. But when his family is lost at sea, Emmanuel is unable to speak and his diary becomes his only voice. Will Emmanuel get to England?

You can buy Emmanuel’s story here. 100% of profits from this book will go to Refugee Action. 

Many thanks to Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, and especially Gemma Masingiri, for supporting this project.





All Men Are Eight Faces High



Our father named us after the colour red, red because he was a painter, red because of our fiery hair and red because my mother died in a bloody bed.

We tainted the pure canvas of his life, my sisters and I. Three girls, born minutes apart, he wanted a boy. He wanted a boy to assist him in his workshop, a sacred boy with a skill of hand who could be trained to become a grand master, a Florentine master, celebrated as Giotto.

Disappointed, he painted us forever red with the names Cinabrese, Sinoper and Porphyry. From the moment we could sit up, we held a brush in our tiny hands. In my father’s workshop we mixed paint and the eggs we collected from the skinny hens in town. We were skilled as women in their kitchens, whipping paint until it was thick as butter. These eggs were different from those in the villages, their yolks weak and whitened, chosen to convey a golden lemon yellow.

Although we sat in the churches and prayed, it was painting that we worshipped. And our bible was The Craftsman’s Handbook, by Cennini, a respected painter from Tuscany. At night my father devoured every word of Il Libro dell’Arte, believing that this book was the true word of God and that it would lead him to the path of greatness. It was then my father also discovered that the sixteenth century workshops of Florence were no place for women and that my sisters and I should be banned. Women, the handbook told him, were bad for your hand and would cause your brush to waver and stray. We were just girls. But convinced we would destroy his reputation and tint the minds of men, my father put us in the cellar, where we could do no harm.

Guided by a pure desire to paint we worked by candlelight my sisters and I, drawing, begging for pigments to mix and wood to paint upon. In harsh winters we listened to the water that trickled down the damp cellar walls and to the muffled voices in the workshop above. Our father allowed us to cultivate our craft out of sight. He brought us warped wood, the remains of glue. With a sharpened goose quill I drew a man. ‘All men are eight faces high,’ my father said, measuring the figure I had drawn with his eyes and the length of his hand. ‘But women are irregular. And animals…’

I thought about what my father said and when he spoke to my sisters I counted how many faces I could make from the shoes on his feet to the tip of his head. Seven. I tried again. I could only conclude that my father was shorter than he should have been and that the death of my mother had stolen the rest of him away.

By the age of sixteen our father had taught us much. Without protest my sisters gave up their art and married rich men who didn’t want painters for wives. I was alone in the cellar, with only The Craftsman’s Handbook to guide me. Carefully, I measured the suitors who came to woo me. None of them were eight faces tall. Whilst they tried to master me in love, I studied their faces so that I could master them in drawing. One man with a scarlet cloak threaded in gold, let me draw his hands thinking that would make me his. I loved his hands, but that was all.

When my father saw the drawings he frowned and returned a sorry smile to me.

‘Cinabrese,’ he said, wiping the tears from his eyes, ‘God has gifted you with a skill of hand that is so great, a skill that many of my men would die for. Yet, I can do nothing, my dearest daughter. You are born of the wrong body, of the wrong mind.’

‘No,’ father, I replied. ‘God chose me to do this. I beg you. Let me back in the workshop.’

My father surveyed me with his watery eyes and shook his heavy head. ‘But Cinabrese, your body is that of a young woman.’ It is your destiny to marry, just as your sisters have done.

In haste I took the knife, held my red hair up and sawed jagged the clump in my hand. ‘Forgive me, father. Bring me some men’s clothes. As God is my judge, I have to paint. I am a painter, before I am a woman.’ Terrified, I might do myself some harm, my father reluctantly did as I said and smeared some burnt sienna around my eyes. He painted my beauty out, smudged my eyes near black. My hair he cut close to my head and daubed it with a rich hematite. Gauze, I wrapped around my bare breasts until my body was square and flat and all the woman in me was no longer there to see. ‘I just want to be a painter,’ I said, as he crafted me into the image of a boy.

There was no dissuading me from my course in life. My father opened his lips in one last vain attempt to alter my mind and I pressed my finger to them. ‘Let no man stop me,’ I implored, ‘for I would rather die if I could not paint.’

To be a painter is a kind of exaltation. I read that in The Craftsman’s Handbook, although, of course, it was never written for a woman, or a girl such as I. In my father’s workshop the carpenters barely paused as I passed. My father had painted me a handsome boy. For a time I sat as the young men bared their arms and their souls. No one can see the energy that flows through paint, but it carried me somewhere up high, somewhere close to God and the angels in the sky. I was there with the men, one and the same.

My father’s chief apprentice took me under his wing. Mordant was his name, a tawny man with a hooked nose and deep shadows beneath his eyes. There was something of a pirate in that man, something that made me long for foreign lands and foreign seas. At once he recognised the way I could fashion a hand. The panel was prepared, ready for me to draw. He set me to work and slapped my back, so hard I coughed. ‘Coughing like a girl,’ he exclaimed! I coughed some more, a low deep growl retrieved from the back of my throat. ‘Yes, Sir,’ I replied, in a voice that I did not recognise as my own. With a pointed mineva brush I reinforced the willow sketch with ink, just as Cennini instructed in his handbook.

Mordant studied my own hands and then the hands of Our Lady. He marvelled at the fact I knew Cennini’s handbook so well. He wondered from which workshop I came, was convinced I had been trained in a famous school. He watched me scratch patterns into the wood for gilding and then punch holes for a diadem and brocade. In the same words as Cennini he said, ‘Doing a panel is a gentleman’s job, for you may do anything you want to with velvets on your back.’ I smiled to myself because I wore no velvet, nor was I a gentleman. I wondered about the little book for painters and craftsmen. Surely the world was full of craftswomen too.

The painter, Mordant, folded his broad arms and stepped back, pleased with the spectacle before him. I heard him speak, his voice travelling through the air. ‘The Virgin Mary has hands so delicate, so white and pure.’ He nodded his head in approval and I saw his lips quiver into a smile. But he was also looking at my head and raised his hand to touch a strand of hair that had escaped my father’s brush. ‘Curious you have a strand of red hair, boy,’ he said, ‘and the rest of your hair is matted black as coal.’ I played the village idiot and looked him blankly in the eye.

Through the night we breathed life into the paint, Mordant leading us with his artful eye. The triptych was so large it took twenty five men, with twenty five brushes to paint a cerulean sky. Enthusiasm, Reverence, Obedience and Constancy were our guides. The Craftsman’s Handbook lay open on the oak table, a pewter jug and crucifix beside it. I leafed through the pages. I pondered over the artists’ book.  It said a true painter should submit themselves to the direction of a master for instruction as early as he can; and must not leave the master until he has to. I watched Mordant, a leader in his profession, embellishing a gown with the finest brush, his quest for perfection etched on his frowning brow. He had removed the tunic that covered his back because the summer sun was now rising and the workshop lent us little air. And it was then something changed within me. I knew I could never leave him. It was the first time I had noticed. He was eight faces high.

Whilst Mordant’s back was turned, I took a stick and sketched him as he worked. I surveyed him until I knew the line of every muscle, the angle of his neck, the curve of his spine. He ignored me, of course, was thinking of profit and reputation, although later he threw me an apple as a reward. I did not eat it, the perfect green apple. I could not. I laid it down beside my bed. I observed the perfect apple. So perfect, no drawing of mine could replicate its simple beauty.

He called me his boy and I followed him like a stray village dog, all the time wanting to be owned. Painters preserved the world in pictures, he told me. Painters filled a face with light and his words shaded my cheeks a scarlet red. He did not know the effect he had upon me. He did not know that his words caused my lips to tremble and my hand to shake. So affected was I that my art began to suffer and I did also. It is a strange feeling when a girl suddenly worships another man and that man is not her father.

That I should have been able to spend so much time with the painter Mordant was only possible because my father had taken to his bed. For some days he had been unable to eat. He was already a frail man. Wiry white hair was a legacy of my mother’s parting. Now he could only sip water and my sister Sinoper sat at his bedside, lighting candles and praying that he would be well again. The physicians who came sprinkled him with oils to rid the smell that had consumed his flesh. Together we held his hand, told him stories of times when we were young. It was a black disease, they said, a disease that people spoke of in whispered tongues.

My father was not afraid. ‘You must paint, Cinabrese. Promise me. God gave you a gift. You must use it.’

I promised him that I would always be a painter. In the dim light my father gradually floated away and so did his words. ‘All men are eight faces high.’

When Mordant came, I was at my father’s side, my face smeared in paint, my hair cut crooked, a blue dress enhancing my female frame. Recognising me to be my father’s daughter he made the sign of the cross and said this to me: ‘Is this some kind of black magic, Cinabrese? Is this some kind of trickery? A woman who can paint? The handbook says no woman should be in the workshop. No wonder your father has been cursed.’

Through salty tears I called after him. ‘Mordant. Do not run away from me. I am still a painter. Still, the same painter.’

But Mordant the great painter had gone and taken my love with him. The man who was eight faces high erased himself from my life, but not from my memory.

Cennini writes that the perfectly proportioned man is eight faces high. A woman does not have any set proportions. Her proportions are of no regard. The handsome man must be swarthy and the woman must be fair. It is true to say that I can paint a woman with ivory skin but I am no such fair maiden. My hair runs wild like red rivers and my skin is mottled with brown. Speckled like the shells of bird eggs. Women have been burnt for less.

I have appointed a man to run my father’s workshop. His name is known far and wide. Beneath the vaulted roof in the convent of Our Sisters we women practise our quiet art. The nuns don’t mind my makeshift school.  The Craftsman’s Handbook is buried with my father. I have recorded the names of the women who have given themselves up to art, rather than a man. Their names are contained in this chronicle, painted in red ink so they will not be forgotten. Few people know there are many shades of red. I tell my students that an artist must capture and paint the truth, replicate what they and only God can see. In Florence few people know that my name is Cinabrese. And that my profession is that of a painter. I have measured myself. I am eight faces high. As tall as any man.


© Michelle Flatley 2015

A Little Revolution

When it comes to forbidden books customers are easy to find. There are men who like a touch of the erotic and others who feed on politics. Don’t misunderstand me, for a bookseller such as I, this is a good thing. Human nature is a belligerent beast and the more a regime bans books the stronger the desire to own them. For some obtaining illegal books is a quest. In Iran there are collectors who would die for a book. Tell a man he can’t have something and, of course, he will want it even more. Let’s face it, when you can’t bed the woman with jewels in her eyes you still dream of having her. But believe me when I tell you, selling books is a dangerous occupation and is only for the brave.

It started on a Tuesday. We were happy, Hamid and I, eating Persian shirini, the two of us flicking pastry crumbs at each other like small boys. The bookshop was quiet and while Hamid chased the local cats away I retreated to the cellar. Some consider a cellar to be a dark gloomy little place but ours was lit by the power of imagination and filled with big ideas. In this tiny space we stored illegal and controversial books.

Glad to escape the thick heat of Enqelab Street, I sat on a carved wooden box and began to read. Stacked high like towers were the many Bibles that would be sold to young Iranians, a group of dissidents disillusioned with the regime, their own religion and the old ways of being. In the half-light of the cellar we held our Bible sessions every Saturday, not Sunday, singing hymns, reading aloud.  We were anxious on those days. One member of our group had already been imprisoned for abandoning Islam and proclaiming her love for God.

They were difficult times. You could feel it.  In the shadows Christians were being born and in the city the mood was dark and quiet. There was unrest, a rising new generation of activists and Hamid and I hoped the day would come when there would be freedom, a democracy, and the regime would be toppled by its own people. ‘Freedom,’ said Hamid, defiantly, ‘Books are our freedom. Young people will read our books and know the truth. First it will be a quiet fight, then we will be heard. You see, my friend, it will happen.’ We were proud. At the centre of it all was our little bookshop and although we never spoke of it, we feared the day when word would spread too far and our secret would be out.

When that day came Hamid went quietly, not telling the militia that I was down below. I will never forget the thud of books slamming on walls and the ringing of the till smashing on the floor. Emerging from the cellar clutching a book by Salman Rushdie, I saw the shop destroyed and my friend was gone. Torn pages floated from the shelves, the corpses of books were strewn on the floor and damaged spines bore the footprints of the militia. Through the dusty streets of Tehran I wept and sobbed for my friend, eventually reaching my uncle’s house where I was given money and sent to a man with a truck.

The journey to England was difficult and long and there were others, women, children and men who lay in lines beneath a plastic sheet, toes touching. Through it all I clung to my book. In my own country a copy of The Satanic Verses is a rare and precious prize and in the dark of the truck I removed a torch from my pocket and read a little.

Elbows knocking, we shared and breathed the same dirty air. They whispered to one another, the families, but then after many hours the whispering ceased because the girl next to me, a skinny child aged six, stopped breathing and her body turned stiff and cold. Freedom became torture and the mother wailed and wondered why they had left at all. Maybe life wasn’t been that bad before, she said, clambering over me to embrace the child with ebony hair. The child’s father didn’t look sad. His face was stripped bare and his voice flat. ‘I spit on a regime that plays God,’ he said.

On a sunny day we found ourselves in London, a civilised city full of lost men. In the blinding light we fell with bloodied knees, heads raised like worshippers at church. Bewildered officials wanted to know about the book. The book, now tatty and worn, had one red corner curled like a tongue.  Together I, Sami Banan, and my book had travelled 3,000 miles from Enqelab Street in Tehran, a street name that means revolution in my own language, but if I had been part of a revolution I’m not sure if I had lost or won.

Although my English is fair and I’m the product of a university education I couldn’t   make them understand. The border agency breathed impossible questions and put me on a train to a place with an unfamiliar name. On the train I jerked and floated away. The girl opposite was also reading, a book by Marquez. Nice hair and pale skin, a top streaked like grey marble. A chain dangled on her chest and emphasised the length of her beautiful neck.  I have always liked a woman’s neck, the way it dips and curves beneath a delicate jaw. I watched her. I dreamed awake and when she smiled my cheeks turned red. In a clumsy effort to hide my thoughts I looked around. So many people were reading and I was suddenly happy to be in a world where books were free as the birds.

Outside it was almost dark and although it wasn’t cold, I shivered. There was something about carriage C, something that made me feel uneasy. I can only describe it as a terrible tension, a looming atmosphere.  I considered moving to another carriage, another seat away from the girl. I wanted to be rid of her and to touch her at the same time. There was a sense of heaviness in the air but I dismissed it and pushed the thoughts away. I told myself it was the damned English weather; it can cause depression in the happiest man, and then Hamid was on my mind again. I didn’t know if my friend was dead, or alive. Better to be dead. Better to be dead than tortured. Thank God there was no wife or children for they too would suffer because of a book.

Perhaps the girl sensed something was wrong.  A shadow spread across her face and I was considering what I might say when I saw a flash. This was quickly followed by a rattle and a distant boom. Lightning, I told myself. Yellow and orange light flickered and then was gone. The girl saw it too, her face shone bright and her eyes sparked like fireworks. Then came the sound of screeching metal, the train juddered and the lights dimmed. Again the lights glowed and faded out. A fierce crack and I felt the ground rumble beneath like an earthquake. Women screamed. The floor lifted. In the dark something hit my head, a trickle of blood wound round my eye and tipped from my nose. Clinging to my seat I pushed the book beneath my shirt. The train crunched and halted. Clawing in the blackness, I knew the table had vanished and so had the girl.

‘Where are you?’ I called. ‘Where are you?’

‘Here! Here! Help me! God help us!’ Cries came from all directions. I gripped the velvet seat. It was no good because the carriage tilted again and took me with it. Aware that my legs were higher than my body I reached deep inside my trouser pocket and pulled out the little torch.  A flying suitcase smacked my jaw, its contents exploding in the air. Books in the aisle, so many books, crystals of glass, tables wrenched from the floor, plastic cups, laptop screens glowed and tinkled in the dark. People were fighting to get through a window at the end. Twisted metal growled and moved as the train carcass turned in on us. Struggling to stand, I pulled a sheet of jagged metal with my bare hands, felt it puncture my skin. Confused, I clambered over the debris and rubbed the grit from my eyes.

Past the metal skeletons of remaining seats, I stumbled. Tables uprooted like trees in a storm; my canvas pumps were torn and shredded, a swollen toe poked through. The smell of diesel was strong and flipped my stomach sick. Blood was smeared on the floor, only then I realised it wasn’t the floor at all. Upside down, I knew the train was upside down. I thought of the moment when the train stopped, how my body had continued to move, thrust forward, my back twisting, my legs flying out until they locked with cramp. I stood still for a few seconds frozen with shock and then carried on. My torch found an arm, but there was no sign of the body it belonged to. This part of the train was folded in and forced to crawl through a tunnel of collapsed walls I could taste metal and blood.

Wrapped around a seat like a sari was the body of a young woman but her eyes were the empty eyes of the dead. I recognised her. The woman with brown tortoiseshell glasses had moved her case to let me pass. She was reading The Da Vinci Code. I remembered it because that was another book hidden underground.

From behind came a voice and I saw the trembling silhouette of a man.

‘You need to get out mate,’ he said. ‘You need to come with us. The whole lot might cave in.’

I moved the torch slowly and watched the tiny ball of light roll around the dark walls like a lazy eye. ‘I have to find someone,’ I stammered.

‘I’ll get help,’ the man called to me, staggering from side to side. ‘I’ll get help.’

I made my way back along carriage C. At the far end the collapsed carriage formed a metal tent and sitting in this horrific triangle was the girl. Blonde hair tangled and soaked with blood, she was crying and her eyes rapidly blinked in the light. ‘I can’t move,’ she said. ‘My leg.’

Unable to stand, I crawled forward on my belly, tiny shards of glass needling my palms. The space was small and the metal creaked and bowed.

‘Go,’ she said, her eyes closing. ‘‘Just leave me.’

Shining the torch over the girl I could see her hand pressed hard on her thigh and a metal pole had entered her leg. Every now and then she winced with the pain.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked, catching my breath. I pulled the light away and tried not to react. It was best the girl didn’t see. The skin on her leg was missing, revealing a well of blood.

Her voice was barely audible. ‘Ayesha.’

‘We need to wait,’ I said, ‘wait for help.’

‘You don’t have to stay.’

Carefully I lodged the torch between the metal debris and attempted to sit up. I could hear the distant cries of people, metal screeching and grinding. By now I felt as though I might be sick. I blocked it out. Crouched down, I remembered the book. It was still under my shirt pressed against my chest. I could feel the hard edges welded to my skin. I pulled and peeled the book free. ‘My name is Sami.’

The air was thick with dust and the girl choked and coughed. Then her head lolled forward as if it weighed too much for her body and her eyes seemed sleepy. Tentatively I prodded her face. Eyes snapped open. We listened to metal clanging and the deafening sound of walls crashing down. ‘I’m a student,’ she said, her voice shaking. It was a strange thing to say but I didn’t mind because we were both crazy with fright. The roof bowed down until it almost touched our heads. Placing one hand on the metal arc I watched the space grow smaller and smaller, metal plates closing in, our bodies shrinking and bent. Realising that no man can bear the weight of a train, only the world, I let my hand fall to my knee, but all the time my eyes were fixed on that metal sheet above. With every sound I was convinced it was the end for me and the girl with the slender neck.

‘You will be fine’ I said, softly, trying to reassure her. ‘People will come for us.’

The girl shuddered. ‘I had a bad feeling about this train today.’

‘Me too. I nearly got off.’

‘Thank God, you didn’t.’

‘Thank God,’ I answered, laughing a little, trying to lift her mood.

Her eyes were full of water, a circle of blue, heavy eyelids drooping milky white.

‘Are we in a tunnel, the train, is it in a tunnel?’

‘I don’t know… I think so.’ I tapped the book with my finger.

‘What’s the book?’ she asked, her eyes fixed on the cover.

The Satanic Verses. Not just a book. In my country this is so much more, a symbol, a sign. Freedom.’ I sighed and repeated it again. ‘Freedom is everything.’

With a small look that lasted just seconds I could see she was wary of me and my grand speech. Her expression suggested disbelief and despair. She couldn’t conceal it. I’m not sure she liked me much and I was convinced my words and my honesty annoyed her. But I couldn’t help myself. I’m an open man and have never been shy of saying what I feel. Us Iranians are well known for being romantic, dramatic, prone to exaggerated gestures, and every Iranian I have ever met has always enjoyed the telling of a good story. Not looking at me, realising I was trying to read her, she descended into polite small talk. ‘Where are you from?’

‘Tehran.’ I wondered if she knew anything about geography. ‘You know where it is?’

If she knew the place she didn’t say. ‘How long have you been here?’

‘Five days.’ I laughed hysterically. ‘Five days and someone decides a free life is not for me, after all.’

I shone the torch on her face. Her lips were blue as ink. ‘We should turn this off and save the light. You won’t be afraid, or go to sleep?’

‘No,’ she promised, blinking. ‘I won’t go to sleep.’

‘Let’s talk’ I said, flicking the torch off. She didn’t reply and so I continued on. ‘I have been known to send my own mother to sleep through talking and believe me that is a difficult thing for a man to admit.’

The girl tried to move, adjust her position. She shifted slightly, but the pole fastened her to the body of the train and she returned to the same pose, her head falling on my shoulder. In the dark she fumbled for my arm and from her breathing I knew she was in terrible pain.

‘Do you think we’ll get out?’ she whispered. ’Really, I mean, honestly.’

‘I don’t know.’ I hesitated and then quickly reassured her like it is the duty of men to do. ‘We’ll get you out. You’ll see.’

‘You go,’ she repeated, ‘while you can. I’m not afraid. Please, leave me. Let me go to sleep.’

Exasperated, I shouted: ‘You can’t give up!’ I wanted to tell her about the girl in the truck, but words seemed too small and instead I coughed the dust from my mouth.  Every night I dream of the girl in the truck. In my dream she is beside me, cold with death, and her hair keeps growing, trailing down past her feet, over my feet, wrapping around me so tight I can hardly breathe. I know where this dream comes from. I read it somewhere, a story about a girl in a burial crypt. Two hundred years she was there. They dug her out, uncovered a skull with gleaming copper hair. Hair grows one centimetre a month after death. I read that too. The girl in the crypt had hair twenty metres long.

A noticeable silence spread and she withdrew from me, not physically, but I could feel her slipping away there in the quiet. Unable to bear her indifference to me I grew uncomfortable and infuriated. She veiled herself in a way that made her impenetrable and in total despair I screamed out in a voice as jagged as tin: ‘Say something! For God’s sake, say something!’ I shook her hard, wanting a reaction. Whether she responded with hate, contempt, even if she thought I was insane, I didn’t care, as long as her reaction told me we were both still alive.  In desperation I clasped her face and her neck with both hands, sliding my fingers over the ridge of her collar bone down to her chest. Touching her lasted just moments for she threw her head back, the wall behind shuddered and the metal howled. ‘Sorry.’ I wailed like a small boy. ‘Sorry. Sorry.’

In the darkness confused sounds erupted from her mouth.

‘Where am I?’ Her body jolted and an arm shot out and struck my chest. ‘Oh my God!’

‘Give me your hand,’ I instructed her. ‘Where’s your hand?’

She grabbed my fingers and gripped so hard I could feel a nail jab my palm. ‘I’m running, running away,’ she said. ‘I have a bag and there is nothing in it except a book, some money and a set of keys to my mother’s house. I didn’t even pack. Not properly.’

‘Who are you running from?’ My words were sliced by a falling piece of metal that rang through the carriage like a death bell. I looked down the aisle and switched on the little torch. Jagged metal swayed and danced. Thick dust particles sparkled like confetti and floated in our stinging eyes. ‘I can’t see,’ I said, ‘even with the light.’

Ayesha’s voice appeared again, as if from nowhere, travelling like waves, in and out.

‘What time is it? What’s the time? I’ve lost my phone.’

Green light tinged the metal walls jade and brown, colours bled. Here the world resembled a slow, dirty puddle, swimming with oil. At the edge of it all was me and the girl looking in, our reflections distorted and trembling.  The smell of stagnant water hit my throat and I gagged.

‘My mother will be looking for me. I ran away. I’m running away. She’ll be looking for me.’ She looked up and her mouth was open.  The roof of metal touched our heads. ‘We can’t move,’ she announced. ‘We both know we are trapped.’

‘Trapped? Trapped?’ I repeated myself over and over, not believing it. ‘This is a word we use in Iran. We aren’t trapped. No one in England is trapped.’

In that metal tomb we fell silent, not knowing what to say or do. Like a mechanical doll her head rocked forward and back, metal pounding like a drum. Suddenly she stopped. Gripping her stomach tight she said: ‘My baby will die. I know my baby will die.’

Soft and round, a perfect dome of moon white, her belly bulged beneath a torn top.

‘I ran away and now this is my punishment, to die on a train. I never told my mother. Religious, Catholic, you know.’

I stared at her stomach as if she was the virgin herself. ‘I’m a Christian.’ I was relieved to say it. I said it again and again. ‘In my country you don’t tell anyone you are a Christian. ’

The girl didn’t care for religion. She circled her belly with her fingers. ‘I’m not sure any God can hear you down here,’ she blurted.

I couldn’t think straight. My head was polluted with dust and oil, contaminated with muddled thoughts.  ‘You need to tell your mother.’

‘I can’t. No one wants their parents to think them evil. Do you tell your mother everything?’

To see my mother, that’s what I wanted at that moment, to go back and explain. I plotted the past out in my head, like a graph of events, highs and lows. Habibeh is my mother’s name. My mother is a short, slight woman with sad eyes, generous in nature, inclined to forgive the worst of men. My mother has always chided me for being a curious child. Once she found me reading a book hidden in the kitchen store. I had expected to find recipes, not poems of love and war. There was no obvious punishment, the book was returned to the same shelf and my mother returned to her work. Jet black hair, thick as rope, she wore a plait down her back and I never once saw her hair loose and free.

When the authorities questioned her she would think about the small boy who read her secret book. And then there were my three brothers, all younger than me. I feared what would happen to them, especially my little brother Navid, a chubby boy of ten, who I often walked to school. He wouldn’t understand.  My father, Morteza Banan, a proud and fierce man, would be mourning the loss of a son, talking about the old days in his usual way, asking himself why I had abandoned it all for a book. A famous architect in Tehran, he had spent years constructing the perfect home. He didn’t know he had a Christian for a son.

Curiosity had driven me through life, my mother was right, and now I was curious about the girl.

‘What about the father of your baby?’

‘Married – I don’t know why I’m telling you this. None of it matters now.’

She moved her arm slightly and I think she was afraid of me, afraid she’d be buried alive with a mental man from Iran. Metal sighed and spilled a storm of glitter dust. ‘My back is hurting. Everything is hurting.’

‘Let me read to you,’ I said. ‘Let me read the book.’

‘I don’t know if I want to listen to a book.’ She put a finger to her mouth, sucked it and then bit a crescent of nail.

‘We have to help each other, yes? The main thing is we stay awake.’

Her face rippled with pain. Fists clenched, she contained the agony in her hands until her knuckles popped white. Then she breathed hard and clutched her leg again. ‘Fine, read your damned book.’

I read to her until my voice was weak and there was no sound.

‘You have a strange view of life Sami Banan.’ Her voice echoed and bounced. ‘Your country, is it different to here?’

Metal sang its song of gwa gwa pwa pwa and we listened to the tuneless music. ‘In Iran girls cannot sing and dance in the street.’ Ayesha laughed in disbelief.  I continued, offended by her response. She seemed to think I was a madman. ‘Listen to me,’ I announced, above the din of crying metal, ‘Everything I’m telling you is the truth.’

‘Then I never want to go there,’ she declared, looking past me as if I wasn’t there.

I saw her eyes. They were glazed over, almost black. Dragging across my face was a tangled mass of the girl’s hair and my own. I pushed the hair away. Mine was thick with dirt and soot, spiked like the oily feathers of a shiny crow. I continued to read aloud and paused momentarily, distracted by the black thumb prints in my book.

‘If I’m born again I want to be a fish,’ she said, stretching her fingers. ‘Yes, that would be good, to be under the sea where it is calm and blue. What about you, Sami?’

‘Sami Banan, the bookseller from Enqelab Street in Tehran. That’s all I want to be. But I would do things differently.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s no good. Think of something else.’

‘If you are a fish someone may catch you. A bird is free.’ After a while I said: ‘A dove, that’s what I’d be. In my country that bird means something.’

She ignored me and I sensed she hated me for choosing something so predictable. ‘So in the story the jet has crashed. Keep reading. You have a voice like an actor.’

‘I’m a bookseller, not an actor,’ I retorted.

‘What books did you sell?’

‘Every book.’ I hesitated. ‘And illegal books. The authorities took my friend away. We were selling Bibles.’ I paused. ‘It was a little revolution. I suppose it was a quiet revolution.’

‘What about your wife, your family?’

‘I couldn’t marry. If you are against the regime you don’t marry, or your wife, your children will suffer.’ With one hand pressed to her cheek I noticed how young she seemed. Like many people in my country I have seen too much and history is stamped on my face. I look older than my twenty six years.

‘Sami, do you want children one day?’

‘Sure,’ I said, clasping her hand. ‘How is your leg?’

‘I can’t feel it. The pain’s gone. That’s bad, right?’

‘I don’t know.’ I squeezed her hand hard. I was afraid, afraid she’d die and then I would be alone.

‘Don’t close your eyes,’ I begged. ‘First I have to tell you something. I was reading in the cellar when they came for Hamid that day. I ran away. After all our talk of revolution, I ran. Like a traitor, I ran…’

No response. It wasn’t what I expected. She never said a word. She never spoke of forgiving. Instead she coughed blood and dirt and swept a hand across her delicate cheek. Sweat slowly dripped from her chin and she shook so violently, I knew she was having a fit. All I could do was stroke her head and hold her still until the fever passed.

Minutes later she announced, ‘Sami, I do want to keep it. I do want to keep my baby.’ She paused. ‘When my baby is born I will call it Sami, after you. Sami can be for a girl, or a boy. I will say a man called Sami saved me with his ragged book.’

We waited for someone to come and when no one came we waited for death to carry us away. For a moment I thought I saw the faces of Hamid and my mother in the metal sheets that rattled above. The tired torch eye dimmed.  ‘This torch won’t last much longer.’

‘I’m frightened, Sami, frightened that I’ll never see my mother again, frightened that I’ll never touch my baby.’

‘I’m afraid too.’

Around us the train seemed to be breathing and moving slow as a rattling old man. Strange noises echoed and glided over us.

‘Tell me the name of the book again, Sami. I’m going to buy this book.’

‘I need to sleep,’ I murmured, placing one hand on the girl’s soft belly and closing my eyes.

‘I will read,’ she insisted, taking the book from my lap, and at first she read dispassionately with no emotion in her words and her eyes were cold. But then her voice became loud and strong. ‘Don’t go to sleep Sami Banan. Stay with me. Don’t go to sleep. Don’t go to sleep.’

‘I won’t,’ I promised. ‘I won’t.’

The light was warm and bright on my face and there were flashes of green and blue. ‘Ayesha?’ I called her name but the voice that returned to me was that of a man. I shouted her name again and this time there was the sound of heavy footsteps.

‘You were very lucky,’ said a voice from above. My eyes opened and closed again.

‘Where am I? Heaven or Hell?’

‘Hospital,’ said the voice.

My bruised body lurched forward until I was sitting. Cold air rushed over my bare chest and I realised I was alive.  ‘Where’s Ayesha? I need to find her. Where is she?’

The doctor looked blank and shook his head. ‘You need to rest. In your book it says Sami Banan. Is that your name?’

I nodded. ‘The girl that was with me, did she make it? The girl in carriage C. I remember Ayesha, Ayesha.’

‘You have been calling this name. No one of that name was on the train.’

I lay down and imagined the face of Ayesha.

‘Do you remember what happened, Sami?’

‘I was on the train. A crash. With Ayesha.’

‘Two hours in the rubble,’ said the doctor. ‘No one knows how you survived. Just a scratch on your head and some bruising, a few cuts.’

‘What about the girl?’ I repeated. ‘Where is she? What about the girl?’

‘You hit your head. They only found you in that section of train.’

The doctor reached across the narrow bed. ‘And this book. This book was in your hand and a tiny torch. The newspapers are calling you the book man. Under a ton of rubble they found you and this book.’

For five years I never travelled by train. On the bus I was more nervous than most and often I walked miles to the London bookshop where I worked. While most people spent their lives waiting for something to happen, I was one of few people in life who prayed that nothing would happen. I wanted life to be constant, calm and unchanging.

‘I have tried everything,’ I told my manager, one Tuesday in June. ‘Believe me. Fancy book displays. I built a pyramid of books, even a house of books to attract customers. Today I will build a big bloody castle of books and if no one comes I will quit and save you the job of sacking me.’

Every day was the same. First the manager complained about the lack of sales and then I would tell her I was waiting to be sacked. Although it never happened, I was prepared for the inevitable loss of my job and the manager liked it that way.  People want you to be grateful, or desperate, and I was more grateful than most.

‘I need a seascape of blue books,’ said the manager, an elderly woman with a creased face like tissue. ‘Take every blue, green and white book and turn that window into a sea of books, a boat, maybe a fish, anything to do with the sea. Just make sure it stands out.’

Three hours later I completed the display and the window in the Revolution bookshop was dominated by a giant fish standing on a tail of books. At midday there was just one visitor, a girl with a knitted rucksack swinging on her back.

Sipping forgotten cold tea I continued to tidy the counter, not really seeing the girl, wondering what could be done to save the shop.

‘I’ll take this, please.’

One book! That was it. One book sold in a morning.  I didn’t look at the girl before me. Why should I?  In my head I was calculating profits and numbers.

‘Salman Rushdie. I’ve heard this is good. ‘

That familiar book cover stared up at me. ‘Yes,’ I replied, sliding the novel into a patterned paper bag. ‘The Satanic Verses, I know it well.’

After some time I looked at her but only because she lingered too long. ‘I thought I’d read it on the train,’ she said, slipping the rucksack down her arm. A confused jangle of keys rang out as she pushed the packet inside. She hauled the bag over her shoulder, flashing the round of her stomach. ‘Which way is Kings Cross?’

‘Kings Cross?’

‘The train station…’ She searched my face and waited for an answer.

‘Where are you going?’

The girl didn’t reply. She seemed puzzled, disorientated.

Yellow hair wound round her ears and her weeping eyes.

‘Where are you going?’ I repeated.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I’m lost. I don’t know. I’m not sure why I came here.’ She glanced away. ‘Your window reminded me of my village, my family.’ She checked her watch. ‘I’m having a bad day. I should go, or I’ll miss my train.’

Something about the girl’s voice disturbed me. I remembered being on a train five years before with a girl the same age, a girl with long yellow hair.

‘Let me get you a drink,’ I pleaded.

The girl couldn’t explain it. She knew nothing of revolutions, big or small. She stayed, pulling her hair up into a tight knot, revealing her long and elegant neck.

© Michelle Flatley 2015

Shaun Tan, The Arrival

Why you should ‘read’ a book with no words. The Arrival Cover I have spent my whole life leaving places, cities, towns and countries, so perhaps that is why I am drawn to stories that explore notions of belonging. My father was in the army and as a child I moved house more than twenty times. I don’t remember the place where I was born. I am rootless. I don’t come from anywhere. I come from everywhere. One of the most powerful stories I have ever experienced about what it’s like to be a stranger in a ‘foreign’ land is Shaun Tan’s, The Arrival. I use the word ‘experienced’ because Tan’s book is a silent graphic novel. There are no words and the story is conveyed entirely through pictures.

The Arrival is full of alien landscapes, strange creatures and unfamiliar objects. Tan’s book is extraordinary and Tan portrays a frightening and sinister world where people are unable to communicate with words. Pictures, signs and gestures dominate. It is an emotional narrative that follows the journey of a migrant who has left his wife and child behind and seeks a new life in a bewildering country where airships fill the sky and everyone is a refugee. A book with no words is an ambitious undertaking, but Tan’s work is testament to the power of pictures to evoke an emotional response.

The first time I saw this book was a defining moment for me. In Tan’s book there is an illustration of a flying ship, in a strange city dominated by a foreign script. Suddenly, I remembered being seven years old, waking up on a boat. My mother told me we were going to Germany. My father had already left and was stationed in another foreign place and would be joining us later. We arrived. The other children were speaking German. Fear swallowed me up. Always I was an outsider. Always we were leaving. Always we were arriving somewhere new and strange. My father was away for months and we listened to the messages he sent us on the radio. Shortly after reading the book, I was offered two jobs. One was teaching English to immigrants and one was teaching English in a prison. I took the job teaching immigrants. I taught women from many different countries. I recognised their fear, their struggles to belong in a foreign place.

Tan’s book is a special one, not least because the illustrations are remarkable in their detail. It is an imaginative feat of storytelling that will make you question the significance of words. The Arrival is a book that allows the reader, the viewer, to fill in the gaps. Everyone can identify with the fear of being alone, finding somewhere strange and not belonging. If you’ve never experienced a book without words, this is one that will startle and delight.


Me Mama say I can stop me wrigglin’ cos de man wid de hammer is needin’ me to be dead meat still. Dat ting dat makes de music is goin’ on de big ship west and I is goin’ wid it. Well, in it, says de man wid de gap and de crack in his teef, and he liftin’ de top off de piano and pointin’ inside.

Me Mama say I is de star of de show and she’s a cryin’ and a kissin’ cos she gettin’ her wish. De man is grinnin’ big and talkin’ ‘bout illegals. Me Mama smilin’ but is sad behind de eye.

Me Mama say I can have a little tinkle on de music maker and I is a pressin’ dem black and white here keys while she payin’ de man.

Me Mama say she like dis music I’m playin’. Is a place to put your feet and I’m a jumpin’ on dem feet parts when de man gettin’ a storm face. I practicin’ me statue, just like me Mama tell me. Holdin’ me brefs and me Mama lookin’ pleased.

Me Mama say she come findin’ me one day, dat dis ting called piano is hidin’ me safe from dem shootin’ guns and men’s blood bombs.  I’m lookin’ round dis place for some music box for lockin’ me Mama in, but is only one. De man on his knees tappin’ silver nails.

Me Mama say, time now, sweet Harmony, lay quiet in de wooden bed.

© Michelle Flatley