Doctor Howarth leaned back in his seat, straightened his tie and told me I had a few black spots on my right lung. He was about half my age so I ignored him and played with my wife’s butterfly hair clip. Fareeda had been dead for five years and had warned me about Turner Brothers for a lot longer. I didn’t listen and now had asbestosis, according to the gloomiest man in the whole infirmary.
I pictured Fareeda sitting a few feet away from me with her hair flowing down the back of the chair. I would have reached over and tied her hair, caressing the strands between my fingers. It was the least I could do. She had been sweeping the wet, yellow leaves off our doorstep on that cruel morning. I had been yards away, watching the listless sun peep through the gasworks to create an enticing glow on her forehead. Seconds later, her body was lying on the pavement, her eyes at peace and her mouth kissing leaves. Her heart had stopped. The ambulance came but she was dead by the time we arrived at the infirmary. I only remembered taking home the hair clip: the rest was a blur.
Dr Howarth told me not to worry as mine wasn’t an advanced case and the pleural plaques, whatever they were, were quite localised. He waffled on about medication and finally asked if I had any questions. Thousands, but all the mill bosses were probably dead by now. He rose from his chair and offered his hand across the table.
‘Good luck, Mr Shah,’ he said.
‘Er, Shah’s my first name.’
I left the room and ambled down the corridor, unaware the hair clip had snapped in my hand. I walked out into the car park and couldn’t remember where I’d parked my Proton. It took me at least 10 minutes to find. I got in and drove home but my mouth was so dry I felt I was suffocating. I had hidden all this from Nadia, my daughter, but it was time to come clean about the rough breathing patterns, the wearing of gloves in bed and the occasional need for a coat while sitting in the living room. I dreaded the conversation because I knew how she would react. She would be adamant that I had no choice but to move in with her family in Edmund Street. She had wanted me to do precisely that since Fareeda died but I had resisted. I didn’t feel it was genuine after Fareeda’s passing because the house in Edmund Street was full – there was my son-in-law Salim, my 22-year-old grandson Wasim and my 14-year-old granddaughter Elisha – put simply, there was no room for me. But now there were two things in Nadia’s favour: the first being that I was ill (and she would say, lonely) and secondly that Wasim had gone to Kashmir in 2005 to help out with the devastating earthquake and had not returned. There was now a spare bedroom. But why should I leave ‘Mucky’ Maple Street as she called it? I liked the gasworks, the soldier-like assurance of the red-brick chimneys and the tight back alleyways. I had warmed to them after 39 years of comfort and liked the people too, even when my neighbour’s rowdy son, Danny Langley, used the back alley as his personal play area for his provocative group of friends. If it was good enough for my wife to die here then it was good enough for me. But Nadia did have point: how many more slightly burnt naans, cold beans and undercooked gherkins could I consume from the same sea blue plate while watching North West Tonight on my old Hitachi 28 inch? Until I was fit and well, of course, but Dr Howarth’s brutal verdict suggested I was far from that.
I phoned her as soon as I got home and she came over immediately. I thought I was under strain but her saggy, shredded eyes, made me feel like an amateur. She had a bunch of ghastly, bright-coloured clothes under her arm which she threw onto my dark brown settee and then followed that up by throwing her blue folder on top of them. She was a mature student doing a Fashion and Textile Retailing degree and my house was regularly cluttered up with her oddball designs, university handouts and bits and bob of stationery. But in the last few months, she had visited less frequently and I missed her tender smile and magical cooking. I put this down to the fact that she was in the third year of her degree in Huddersfield and was simply too busy.
Nadia made me bitter melon and mince meat for dinner and then filled up a steel bowl of hot water for my twice daily steam inhalation. I had dreadful trouble with my sinuses – my throat was jammed with mucus and the left ear popped regularly – but it was something I had got used to along with the fluctuating smells of stale onion soup, cigarette ash and burning rubber. She walked in after doing the dishes. She started doing her studies on the settee while I lowered my head above the steaming bowl of water. She took pictures of the strange-looking clothes with a mobile phone and I instantly remembered the photos I took of her arm in arm with Fareeda on lazy Sundays at HollingworthLake. She used to wear a little orange sunhat, which was carefully pushed right back to show off her metronomic fringe and smooth forehead. Even then, at the age of ten or so, she had a sense of style and distinctiveness. I now looked at her and couldn’t wait to be in her graduation photo. I wanted to see her make a career of it after all those years of secondary citizenship to that layabout husband Salim. I felt much more hopeful than I did after seeing Dr Howarth.
‘We’ve finally got a diagnosis,’ I said, raising my sweaty face from the bowl.
‘What a surprise,’ she said, picking up the white mini-skirt. ‘So it wasn’t a panic attack.’
‘Asbestosis…19 years after my last shift at that fucking factory.’
Nadia looked at the image in her phone and flung her shawl over her shoulder. She put the white mini-skirt down, got up and walked towards me. She picked up the hand towel off my shoulder and gently wiped my damp face. She sighed and moved her face closer to mine until our heads were touching.
‘I’m putting this house on the market tomorrow,’ she said. ‘You’re coming to live with us in Edmund Street.’
A Ukranian family bought the two-bed terrace for a generous £73,000 after only three weeks on the market. Saskia and Andrei were the second set of people to view the house but I was lying down in my bedroom when they came. I forgot to rinse out my mouth after I’d inhaled my morning medication and I was sure I’d picked up a painful mouth infection because my ulcers were never that big. So I stayed in bed while the letterbox rattled and, after a few minutes, the sound petered out. Nadia later had to apologise to Keystone estate agents for the botched viewing but it was rearranged (with Nadia at home to show Saskia and Andrei around the home) and a deal was done. I was relieved the mini-soap opera of selling a home was over – so many phone calls and thick pieces of paper to consider – but leaving a house I’d occupied for more than half of my life was still going to be a wrench, even though a buying price of £125 in 1967 had now turned into a tidy profit.
Nadia had organised a removal company to clear the house and I couldn’t bear to look it at it now. She had the vacuum cleaner on downstairs and the noise was unbearable. So I walked into our cold, empty bedroom and opened the door of the only fitted shelf. Fareeda’s bright red jewellery box was still there packed full of luxurious gold necklaces, earrings and broaches. I picked it up and felt the gorgeous red felt in my hands. She hadn’t worn or touched the jewellery since our wedding day 42 years ago. Nor had I. We married relatively late, in community terms, because my father sent me off to work in a textile mill in Faisalabad to provide food for the family and I didn’t return to my small village in Kashmir until I was in my late twenties. He had always had his eye on Fareeda for me but she was four years older – and there was talk in the village that there was something wrong with her because she was still unmarried into her thirties. But the ceremony finally took place when she was 33 and I was so happy that I had a wife – and a prospective family – before I took the intimidating journey to England a year later. That gave me immense strength. The only regret I had later was that Fareeda could not bear me one more child, partly because of her age, but more because she developed type one diabetes in her third year in England. I wanted more children but the constant injections, fatigue and general monitoring of her condition meant she lost interest in going into hospital again, perhaps for another caesarean. But, at least, I still had the jewellery box. I opened it up and looked down at the snake-like, spaghetti junction of items. I hadn’t known there was so many. I picked up her necklace and felt it between my fingers. Father told me brides never looked up because they were weighed down by so much jewellery – but Fareeda did. As we finally sat down side by side to carry out our marriage vows, she touched her necklace and glanced up at me. It was a wonderful, shocking moment but no-one else noticed it. That was what I liked about Fareeda. She was poised and self-assured in awkward moments and tense situations. She would know exactly what to do now.
I walked down the corridor to the bathroom and placed the jewellery box on the edge of the sink. I looked into the mirror and lowered my head to look at my shock of white M-shaped hair. It was stupid but the only word I could think of was Mesothelioma. I had to snap out of it. I rushed out of the bathroom and headed downstairs towards Nadia. She didn’t notice me so I stopped halfway down the stairs and looked at her. She looked so radiant and stylish in her thick red pullover and jet-black trousers. There was a lot of Fareeda in her. I walked down into living room and stopped by her side. She kicked a button on the vacuum cleaner to make it stop. She looked up at me and shook her head.
‘See Daddy, that’s why you need to come with me,’ she said, stepping forward. ‘Come on, raise your arms.’
I realised I had put my grey jumper on back to front. It was easily done. There was no tag on either side so it was difficult to tell at times. I wasn’t embarrassed: it was an easy mistake to make. I put my arms up in the air and Nadia took off my jumper. I felt incredibly cold and exposed in my flimsy short-sleeved shirt but Nadia’s soft breath warmed me up like no amount of clothing ever could. She pulled the jumper over my head the right way and then patted it down with her hands. She hesitated a moment and then looked up into my eyes.
‘All your stuff’s in the Proton now,’ she said. ‘You get going, I’ve just got make some final calls to make sure everything’s shut down.’
She gave me a quick hug and I walked towards the front door. I was going ask her about Wasim but thought better of it. She had her hands full and it would probably spoil the cordial atmosphere anyway. I stopped by the door and suddenly remembered that I’d left the jewellery box balancing on the sink. I told Nadia and she said she’d get it. I was annoyed that, after the jumper episode, I’d forgotten something else so soon. I was relieved that Nadia was the only person here to experience it. I stepped out of the front door and a gust of wind nearly blew me across the street. My Proton was parked a few yards away halfway up the pavement, almost touching Mr Pitkethley’s front door. I took short steps in my cherry brown slip-on shoes and savoured every last stride. I got in and looked over my shoulder at the brown boxes and carrier bags in the back seat. Apart from the clothes and other necessities, the other items felt worthless: the Mukesh and Roger Whitaker cassettes; the unread biographies of Dickie Bird and Gamal Abdul Nasser; the VHS recordings of Love Thy Neighbour and Roses Matches; the World of Sport annuals and the 30-year album of Hollingworth Lake photos. I felt I couldn’t enjoy them any more because the pleasure was draining away from life. My narrowing, murmuring chest was denying me a long, wholesome breath and my cul-de-sac throat rarely listened to instructions. I hoped Dr Howarth’s medication would ease the symptoms, particularly my night time coughing benders, but I was sceptical.
I drove carefully away from Maple Street for the last time. I looked in the rear-view mirror and could still see the exact spot where Fareeda had fallen. It would never leave me. I turned left into Manchester Road and drove past the high, hulking College Bank flats known as the Seven Sisters. These greyish brown, multi-storey concrete blocks dominated the town centre skyline and I still couldn’t forget the five months I spent in Underwood block when I first arrived in Rochdale in 1967. I paid four pounds and one shilling for a one-bed flat and had to cook a very basic meal of bread and lentil curry after my first shift at Turner Brothers. On the odd occasion, I had to get my food from the chippies on Spotland Road because I ran out of lentils but the stench of vinegar was too strong and made me sneeze repeatedly. I was thankful that Fareeda finally arrived from Kashmir six months later. She got me healthy again.
I drove up Spotland Road and missed the turning to get to Edmund Street. I had visited Nadia many, many times before but somehow drove too far down the road and ended up near the Carter’s Rest. I pulled into Holmes Street and knew what had happened: my mind had wandered to the derelict Turners Brothers site which was further down the road, beyond Spotland Bridge and up Rooley Moor Road. It did not exist anymore but I could not escape its towering presence. The biggest asbestos factory in the world had given me money, work and prestige but it was now haunting and intimidating me with its toxic legacy. I had not been there since I left in 1988 I did not dare go as far down as Spotland Bridge because I knew I would be sucked into the giant, charismatic site which had employed about 3,000 people at its powerful, freewheeling best. It was now being primed for housing and there was a campaign against any development on the site because of pollution. I had read an article about it in the Observer. I did not want to know any more or become involved in the campaign. It was simple fear on my part, nothing else. I did not want to read about any asbestosis or mesothelioma sufferers. It brought back memories of my 21 years of service and the repeated evidence that these kind of illnesses can raise their ugly heads 20, 30 or 40 years later. In my calculation, it had been 19 years since I’d left and almost 40 years since my first shift at the factory. I did not want to read, hear or see anything more about it. Even the Observer report had made me dizzy and light-headed and I hadn’t been diagnosed at that stage. Now, it would be a total blackout. The strain of trying to get compensation would make me seriously ill. I was sure of it.
I tried to put these thoughts out of my head so I stopped the car and tried to take a few deep breaths. But it was no good because I still couldn’t understand how I’d got ill. We were told we did not need face masks because we were in the rubber department helping make motorway signs and brake pads. The real protection was given to workers in the textile and spinning departments along with blue overalls and steel toe-capped boots. I remembered my blue overalls were flimsier – they had no arms – but there was a certain logic to it because, in our department, asbestos fibres weren’t escaping and fizzing up into the atmosphere. We were working with solid pipes and small pieces of metal and, besides, even some of those for whom masks were necessary took a liberal attitude to having their faces covered, particularly the work-shy Charlie Hassett who took great pleasure in doing the opposite of what was requested. So was the whole factory polluted? Or did I catch it from another worker in the canteen during our merciful hour-long breaks. And to think, I was one of the few workers who always clocked in to work about half an hour before the start time – at 6pm or 6am for 12-hour shifts – but what good did that do me now? I walked all the way from Maple Street with my tartan drawstring back over my shoulder and gave that company the best years of my life. They had now taken something from me. With silence and stealth, they reached in with their giant, grubby hand and placed a poison arrow against my chest.
Suddenly, there was a thud on my back window and I looked over my shoulder. A burly man in a brown Gola tracksuit top was eating what looked like a chip muffin drenched in ketchup. He ran round to the driver’s side and asked me to open the window. I reluctantly opened it and he introduced himself as Paul. He asked if I needed some help in reversing the car out of Holmes Street because I had stopped the car in a tight little spot, perilously close to the main road. I said I was okay and he shook my hand. I noticed him moving up very close to me and listening intently as I talked. I knew my voice was getting softer by the day. Paul said he was bored and needed something to do. He also said if I ever needed anything I could visit him in the Atherstone block of Falinge flats. I wound down the window and drove off. As I headed up Spotland Road again, it occurred to me there was a connection, however tenuous, between Paul and a devouring employer like Turner Brothers. Paul was probably unemployed and Turners gobbled up workers and spat them out with ferocious regularity. But what did he do now? Where was the work? What I saw around me in the town wasn’t pleasant – and what was happening to me was even more unpleasant – but Paul had got into my head and got me thinking about something bigger than myself. It was an unpalatable thought but perhaps Turner Brothers had offered something to the town after all: employment.
After a few minutes, I got into the top end of Edmund Street and drove past Spotland Primary School – the place where Wasim spent his early years. I couldn’t help but think of my grandson now. Paul had got me thinking about him plus the dreaded realisation I was going to sleep in his bed. I felt guilty about taking over his room: what if he came back tomorrow? Nadia said he was doing well in Kashmir and wrote letters or phoned most months to tell of his latest tour to a village or fundraising drive. His picture had even appeared in a national newspaper along with the aid agency he was travelling with. In his last call, he told his mother he had been translating for the agency – and that they had even offered him a job as a freelance translator. He said he was thinking of taking up the offer. That was the last update we’d had from him. He was doing good work out there but I wondered if Nadia was punishing him for not coming back? I chose to believe she genuinely wanted me there because I was unwell and needed help.
I drove past Silver Street chapel, which was opposite the school yard, and headed towards my new home. Thankfully, as it was mid-afternoon, there was plenty of room to park my car and that was a massive relief. I pulled in outside the pebble-dash terrace with the Georgian windows and could already see Mrs Gleeson, two doors down, looking out from her front window. I got out of my car and walked up the path towards the front door. I glanced at the front garden – which had a two foot brick wall around it – and pulled out a set of extremely long keys Nadia had given me. She had pointed out the front door key to me but as I aimed for the tiny keyhole in the lime green door, I was so tense that I nearly choked on my saliva which naturally set off a dry, painful round of coughing. I was worried about the neighbours – particularly Mrs Gleeson – seeing me fiddling about so I gathered myself and concentrated harder. Eventually, I got in after three attempts and a surge of relief fizzed through my body. I stepped in and closed the door. I rested my back against it and, even though my bags and boxes were still in the car, I didn’t want to go out there again, at least until Nadia came home. I tried to take a deep breath and looked down into the hallway. Yes, it was familiar but had to become more than that: it had to become my home. I walked past the empty coat hooks and looked at the shiny wooden cabinet to my right with its beige touch-button telephone propped up by two Yellow Pages directories. Nadia had already scoured its pages for solicitors’ firms. I had asked her not to bother: it wasn’t worth the trouble. I headed for the stairs and grabbed the brown handrail while sliding the palm of my other hand across the cool dark blue wall on the other side. After a few steps, a sudden rush of sleepiness hit me and there was only one solution. Every day at this time – about 1.30pm to two – I felt the same tugging so I headed across the landing to Wasim’s bedroom and opened the door. I walked in and sat down on the slightly hard double bed. I took off my shoes and socks and rubbed the soles of my feet into the bushy maroon carpet. I glanced round the sparse room and wondered if I’d ever get to sleep in it. There was a small set of dumb-bells, a pair of ripped Reebok trainers and a black Head bag in one corner near the white dressing table. A swivel chair and small desk were hastily arranged next to the dressing table but looked empty without a computer or laptop. I figured Wasim probably took it with him. A map, about the size of windscreen, was displayed right across the cream-painted wall above the bed rest. It said ‘The Ummah’ in big white letters and it was a map of the world with all the Islamic countries shaded in red; all other countries with sizable Islamic populations were partially shaded in red and the rest of the countries without Islamic populations were left white. I looked at the UK: it was partially shaded in red. I had never seen the map before, probably because I’d never been in the room before. I deduced Wasim was another lost boy in a town full of them. It made me feel even more tired. So I got up and did my final preparations for sleep: windmills of my arms and a few neck rolls. I then stripped down to my white vest and underpants and slipped in to the cold bed: I couldn’t be bothered getting my pyjamas from the car. I pulled the bed covers over my shivering body and sorrowfully looked up at the ceiling. Turner Brothers had taken my house, my health and my dignity. I wondered if my grandson had any dignity left after abandoning his parents. It didn’t matter now: his noble adventure had cost him. This bed was mine.