14 April 2014


The Queen Elizabeth Hospital is between our house and the University of Birmingham; I walk through it once or twice a week on my way to the library. Three interconnected curved buildings, all brand new and white, are surrounded at the entrances by the sorts of English people who always seem to have trouble around them. I remember them from the night that Mia was born, when I walked my labouring wife through the A&E on an early Sunday morning. Today, a man was smoking in a green hospital gown, covered in prison tattoos, a massive cast on his right arm, and an IV stuck in his left hand. I try hard not to judge these people, but only because I grew up saying that I didn't judge people like this. The truth is, I do judge them, tell stories to myself about them, as I walk past. I've never gotten drunk and hit my wife.

Classes are finished now — my first term at Newman University flew by. There is, of course, marking and extensions and e-mails to answer about margins on essays, but when I left the classroom on Thursday, having dispensed the last bit of advice, I felt lost again, like the list of things to do had been cleared and my purpose was gone. I can go home, but there is nothing worse than your father in the house, wandering around aimlessly in his pyjamas, snacking and pretending to be of use. I say, I have to go to the library to get a book about Islam, which I do, but really, what I want is to just wander around outside: sleep in parks and get very, very lost — become for a day the Stephen of another universe, the Stephen who never married nor had kids.

This weekend, I searched around and around for a cheap, small outdoor stove to burn firewood in. I got the kids all amped up about it, telling them how much fun it would be to have fires. I cut brush in the very back of the garden, the sort of American pastime that we all judged George W Bush for taking part in, but which I secretly understand completely, and have felt deprived of for the last year. In Malaysia, we would wait on a Saturday for a man, an Indonesian or Bangladeshi man, on a bicycle to come by and cut the grass for RM10. I would sit jealously inside, fat and white, watching him and thinking that, of the many things Malaysia had taken from me, gardening was the most surprising.

On Sunday, like everything else, I got that small piece of myself back. I spent the day outside: I pruned all the trees and made a pile of branches taller than me. The kids helped me move compost to lift up a few sunken patio stones. When night finally came, I lit the fire in triumph, though I was immediately worried that I would burn down all the houses in the terrace on Victoria Rd, every British man and woman in their houses quietly spiting me for making the neighbourhood smokey.

Neal and I used to make fires on the beach in Niigata, with whoever else was around. We would build them huge, as big as we could, using driftwood on the sand. There was nothing around for miles, just two kids running out and back with bigger logs, more sticks, more brush, as the fire grew higher and higher and higher.

Back in England, I burnt for an hour, pacing around the fire and watching the embers rise up and then die out. A flashback suddenly to burning grass and garbage in front of another terrace house in Taman Sri Minang. I guess I had done some gardening; it wasn't all bad. None of the neighbours there were worried, of course: just perplexed that the fat white man wasn't having the grass taken away. Chinese and Malay uncles sometimes just watching, standing in the street or park, without saying anything. It was hot and the fire made things hotter, but here, in Birmingham, the fire felt good. I stopped pacing when I realised no tragedy was going to befall me, and finally sat down as the fire died down, pulling closer and closer at the embers flickered and glowed and slowly went dark.