Faisal was sweating. The a/c on the overcrowded train wasn’t working, and the bulky overcoat he was sweltering in didn’t help. They’re looking at me – Everyone in this carriage is looking at me! Panic stirred the already-jittery butterflies in the pit of his stomach. He felt sick and his throat was parched. There was a bottle of water in his backpack but no room to manoeuvre.
They’re looking right through me, right through my overcoat. They know!
Asif had told him: If your nerves get the better of you, just breathe. Count to ten. Breathe. Stay focussed. Calm yourself.
After a seemingly interminable approach to Birmingham’s New Street station, the train juddered to a halt with a lazy screech. Commuters squeezed from the doors like so much lumpy toothpaste. Some of them glanced at Faisal and nervously hurried on their way.
They can see! They know!
Faisal was caught up in the tide of travellers, surging up the escalators like salmon heading upstream. So many people going about their daily business with the same dead look in their eyes.
Faisal and the Group were about to change all that.
It was Asif who had introduced him to the Group. “I’ve noticed you,” he’d said, “Coming out of the mosque. You’re a bit of a loner, aren’t you? Keep yourself to yourself.”
Faisal, blushing, had looked away. Asif had large brown eyes and long, curling eyelashes that, on a woman, would have been beautiful… Faisal shifted uncomfortably.
“I want you to meet some of the guys,” Asif had led him aside. “They’re good people. They’ll give you what you lack.”
“Oh?” Faisal had met the beautiful stare. “And what’s that?”
Asif had smiled and lowered his voice. “A sense of belonging.”
The Group met in secret, in someone’s uncle’s warehouse. Faisal was made to swear he would not breathe a word of any of it to a living soul. That was easy – he had always kept his thoughts private and wasn’t close to anyone.
But now there was Asif…
They drilled him for weeks. Every step of the plan, every move was rehearsed and practised. There was even a stopwatch. The date was chosen and the time. The early morning rush hour.
“That’s when we’ll have the most impact,” Asif’s dark eyes were wide with anticipation. “One moment. Our moment – and it will be bright and shining and glorious.”
Faisal squeezed through the ticket gate – not easy, given the overcoat and the backpack. He waddled to his appointed spot on the concourse, near a sandwich shop, careful not to catch the eye of the security staff in their peaked caps and hi-vis tabards. Unsuspecting commuters jostled past, caught up in their individual drudgery. Faisal wiped sweat from his brow. The seconds ticked away.
Across the way, other members of the Group were in place, all in overcoats, all checking their watches. And there was Asif, over at a handbag kiosk. His eyes met Faisal’s. Asif smiled. Faisal’s nausea flipped his stomach and the feeling became something else, something that turned his legs to jelly.
For you, Asif…
Faisal shrugged off his backpack and took out the device he had carried from home. He pressed a button and – Boom! – a disco version of I Am What I Am blasted out. Around the station, members of the Group shed their overcoats to reveal leotards in vivid colours with sequins and feathers. The flash mob began and Asif was right: it was bright and shining and glorious.