The two men frowned at the map. It made little sense and one referred to the detailed instructions he’d taken good care to note down. Hiran needed to make this new life in England work; he had a wife and five children back home, whereas Taj only had two little ones. Hiran suspected he might be taking this opportunity more seriously than his friend.
They’d been given the name of a contact. Apparently they’d find him somewhere in the corridors of the Royal London Hospital... or rather, he would find them. He was called Namzul but they knew nothing more about him, other than what he might be prepared to organise for them. Hiran thought Taj would run scared when the moment came, especially now that they were accommodated after a fashion, with the prospect of work and wages in precious pounds sterling. So be it; for the moment the companionship of Taj gave him courage in this strange world he now walked. He would need it to face the decision ahead of him.
London was daunting, but this part – Whitechapel – felt more like home than anywhere he’d been the past few weeks. He’d travelled overland into Europe, paid his money and been smuggled into England in a container from Calais by friends of friends of strangers who knew lorry drivers who were part of the international racket of human trade. He was put into a ramshackle house – a squat – in a place called Broadway Market, a rundown part of Hackney, not far from the Whitechapel area of London. He shared the squat with a transient population of about fourteen men, not all Bangladeshi; some were Pakistani, there were a couple of Turks, a handful from other impoverished nations. It helped. They were all strangers but they were all here for the same reason – to give their families a chance to break out of the grinding poverty of their lives back home. If he could just stick this out for a year, he and Chumi would save enough to get their children into school. He might be able to start that food stall he knew he could make work if he just had the opportunity and the small amount of capital it would take. He could be happy, feel safe.
‘Look out, mate,’ a man in uniform said, interrupting his thoughts. He seemed to be a guard of some sort.
Hiran turned, startled. ‘Sorry, please,’ he said, anxiety jumbling the language he’d worked hard to get his tongue and mind around. English was so confusing.
Just say sorry for everything, his teacher had once said lightheartedly. If you tread on an Englishman’s foot, he’s the first to apologise. Manners get you everywhere and saying sorry gets you out of most dilemmas.
‘Don’t want you to get knocked down, mate,’ the guard said, pointing to the Audi waiting to get into the Sainsbury’s car park and the driver who looked appropriately furious at her way being blocked. Everyone was in a hurry in London. Hiran wondered if he was going to survive here.
‘Are you lost?’ the guard asked, friendly enough, noticing their map and moving closer. ‘Whoah. That’s a strange look you have there, friend.’ He smiled, now that he was close enough to see Hiran’s different coloured eyes – one chocolatey, one soft green in his brown skin. He was never allowed to forget his defect; many people back home found it hard to look upon him for fear he travelled with an evil spirit. Yet his eyes were the reason Chumi had been drawn to him – they made him appealing and vulnerable, she said. She had never been frightened of him.
‘Please,’ he began again, apology in those strange eyes now, ‘we’re looking for the hospital.’
The guard grinned and gestured past their shoulders. ‘You can’t miss the bugger! Straight through there,’ he said, pointing down the road, speaking loudly, giving plenty of hand signals. ‘Turn right and then look across the road. Big dark-red building sitting opposite all the Paki tents. Er, no offence,’ the man concluded, suddenly embarrassed that he was talking to two men likely to have come from the same region. Hiran had been warned about this. He could hear his teacher’s voice: Everyone’s Paki or Indian, according to the man on the street in Britain, although today’s favoured terminology is ‘Muslim’. Lumps us all in together. If you’ve got this colour skin, you go into one basket whether you’re from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka . . . Don’t be offended and remember, it cuts both ways – you won’t be able to tell whether they’re from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland. They all look the same and will all be impossible to understand, so just accept it.
It was sound advice.
‘Thank you,’ he said several times to the guard, bowing with each utterance.
‘Yeah, okay, mate. No trouble,’ the fellow said, slight bemusement in his expression. ‘Just follow the smell of the curry and you’ll find it.’ He laughed, thinking they would understand his light jest.
Neither did but Hiran nodded and smiled and pushed Taj in the direction the guard indicated. They rounded the corner to see a long row of canopied market stalls selling everything from pirated DVDs to vegetables. Vendors fought for space to display shoes, fish, watches, pulses. Colourful saris hung as beautiful drapes. Every inch of the street was filled with voices, bodies, laughter. Hiran recognised snatches of Urdu among a hubbub of Gujarati and Hindustani. He understood the guard’s quip now, for small eateries selling mainly spicy foods peppered the street, nestled among ‘proper’ shops offering luggage, mobile phones, freakish clothes and groceries. Garishly lit convenience stores promising to sell everything to anyone were open all hours.
Hiran instantly felt more comfortable in this throng. And just as their helpful guard had said, right across the road, towering over the swarm of humanity, was the Royal London Hospital. It was an impressive building, but its glory had faded. Even so it swallowed up dozens of people at a time and spewed out dozens of others from its great arched entrance as an endless snake of bodies crossed the madly busy Whitechapel Road, heading to or from the famous hospital infirmary.
They waited for the walking figure at the traffic lights to flash green and were carried along by the haste of others towards the entry, moving into the less frenzied darkness of the hospital vestibule.
‘Where now?’ Taj asked in Urdu.
Hiran deliberately answered in English. He needed to keep practising. ‘We have to find the west wing basement. It’s near the library and the prayer rooms.’
They looked up at the signs affixed to the dingy yellow walls and were relieved that they were repeated in Urdu among other languages.
‘Downstairs, it says.’ Taj pointed to what appeared to be the last glorious element of this decaying building – the sweeping Victorian iron staircase that wrapped itself around the central lacework lift. It was beautiful and Hiran, momentarily entranced by its elegance, had to be urged by Taj to get a move on.
In the basement, any pretence at aesthetics had withered away. A series of bleak, low-ceilinged corridors emanated greyness. A geometric pattern was stencilled, like an afterthought, in a vain attempt at decoration and had failed miserably to compete with the dirty brownish walls that were once presumably a buttery yellow, and damaged floors, repaired with gaffer tape to stop the lino from lifting.
‘What do the instructions say now?’ Taj whispered.
Hiran shrugged. ‘We wait,’ he answered. ‘It’s almost time for prayers, anyway. The prayer room is just over there.’ He motioned with his chin.
Taj nodded, and slid down the wall to sit. Hiran paced the corridor, reaching for the photo of Chumi and the little ones that he kept close to his heart in his shirt pocket. No one was smiling in the photo and their clothes were ragged. And that’s why he needed it . . . needed the solemn image to remind him that he was doing the right thing by being in London, taking all these risks – and especially this next one. This opportunity would make a world of difference to their lives if all went well.
‘Are you coming to prayers?’ he asked.
Taj shook his head. ‘I’m not sure Allah will forgive us,’ he said. ‘I need to think.’
Hiran understood, but he was devout and duly removed his shoes before stepping silently into the airless room. There was only one other man in the west wing who needed to pray. The time went faster if more people gathered for prayers, but today Hiran was happy that the chamber was all but deserted.
He needed to concentrate; needed to beg forgiveness of his god for what he intended to do.
Hiran found himself alone when he emerged from his quiet time and felt better for his communication with Allah. He was convinced his prayers would be answered. In the hallway he found Taj awkwardly shifting from foot to foot, reluctantly keeping company with a man Hiran recognised as his fellow communicant from the prayer room.
‘You must be Hiran,’ the man said in Urdu.
Hiran nodded. ‘Are you Namzul?’ he replied in English.
The man smiled beatifically. ‘I am. Salaam. Welcome to my office.’
Neither of them smiled at his words although Hiran murmured ‘Salaam’ in return. He felt a dampness at his armpits. This was it. Would he go through with it?
‘It’s stuffy down here,’ Namzul said. ‘Why don’t we get some air? Let me buy you both a hot drink.’
Taj said nothing. Hiran nodded. ‘Thank you.’
‘Come,’ Namzul said, his tone avuncular, his smile gentle and his gaze offering sincerity and trust. ‘Don’t be scared. I will explain everything.’
The younger men followed the stranger like children. Namzul seemed to know his way around the hospital corridors, smiling at people, even pausing to talk to a few. One beautiful Chinese woman, carrying flowers into a ward, stopped to exchange pleasantries with him. Namzul gave a deep bow and she smiled widely at his theatrics. Then their guide danced off again, light on his feet. He looked around from time to time with an encouraging smile, reiterating his assurance that they were not to worry.
Suddenly they were pushing through double doors and emerging blinking into daylight. It was sharply cold and Hiran pulled his third-hand anorak closer around his thin body. It had been thrown at him when he’d first arrived by the ‘supervisor’, who oversaw their transfer from France into Britain. He hated the cold and longed for summer; longed harder for his home in Dhaka and for the embrace of Chumi.
They were in a small garden courtyard enclosed by hospital buildings. ‘We’ll talk here,’ Namzul said. ‘Take a seat and I’ll be right back. Coffee?’
‘Thank you,’ Hiran said, nudging Taj to respond.
Namzul danced off, returning swiftly as he’d promised, balancing cardboard mugs with lids and food in plastic boxes. ‘You look hungry. I took the chance with some tandoori chicken wraps. They’re not great but they’re okay; eat, eat.’
He pushed the boxes into their hands, laid out the coffees on the bench and then began digging around in his pockets for sugar sachets and lollipop sticks to stir with.
‘Good?’ he asked them as they bit into their food. ‘They’re supposed to be healthy.’ He tapped his belly and grinned.
Hiran bit into his wrap, finding it fridge-cold and damp. He was grateful for any food in his stomach. Taj, too, attacked his meal with the determination of a famished man. People moved in a steady stream before them, either entering or leaving the hospital’s east wing.
‘Who is this famous person?’ Hiran asked, pointing at the statue they sat near.
Namzul shrugged. ‘Who cares? No one here even notices it. One of the many royals of Britain, I imagine.’ Namzul’s playful manner changed smoothly. ‘Let’s get down to business, my friends. You know why we’re here.’ It was a statement, not a question, but they both nodded anyway. ‘Good. I am purely a middle man,’ he went on. ‘I am not involved in anything other than striking the bargain. I will give you the money but I don’t provide it. That is funded by . . . well, a richer man, shall we say. I bring you into contact with each other and allow the transaction to take place. Do you understand?’
All of this was murmured in Urdu. Again the men nodded. Hiran asked the burning question, even though he felt scared.
‘Ah,’ Namzul said brightly. ‘Straight to the heart of it, eh?’ He laughed, adding in English, ‘No pun intended.’
Hiran wasn’t sure what that meant so he remained silent, watching Namzul carefully. The man drained his coffee and deftly tossed his empty cup into a nearby bin. Once more he became serious.
‘You will be given three hundred pounds each, providing your kidneys are healthy.’
It was a fortune to Hiran. ‘Will they go to fellow Muslims?’
Namzul nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said, quickly, firmly, as though anticipating the question.
Hiran let out a breath. That another of his kind would benefit from his gift was important. That he was gaining financially from giving up something precious that Allah had given him was not irrelevant but it was of less consequence to Hiran. He had sought atonement and felt he had already been forgiven by Allah. But Allah would revoke that if a non-Muslim received part of his body, so he needed to be sure.
‘When do we get the money?’ he asked, knowing his children desperately needed shoes and new clothing.
‘Today, if you both agree.’ ‘You have it?’
‘At my home I do.’ ‘Where do we go?’
Namzul held up a pudgy hand. ‘Let me explain everything. You will be taken by canal boat to Hertford. There you will be met and taken by motor vehicle to a place you don’t need to know the name of. It is about an hour from your pick-up point. At the hospital various tests will be run, none of them too worrisome, to ensure the surgical team know everything about your kidneys and your health in general. It could take several days but you will be well looked after. You don’t have any illnesses I should know about, do you?’
They shook their heads.
‘Anyway, that’s the doctors’ problem, not ours. I will pay you and I imagine you are planning to send the money home, is that right?’
‘Yes,’ Hiran said, ‘to our families.’
‘Then I understand that you will probably want to send the money before your operation?’ Hiran nodded. ‘So I will accompany you to the bank and you can watch me transfer the amount from my account to an account of your choice in Dhaka. That way it’s all neat and tidy. I will even allow you a phone call that I will pay for so you can let your families know that the money has been sent. And then you will immediately need to come with me to the canal boat. A driver will take us there. That’s when I leave you, but the driver will travel with you all the way to the hospital.’
‘And then what happens?’ Hiran asked, his nerves betraying him as he began to feel his throat close, his heartbeat quicken.
‘Well, I don’t know all the surgical terms,’ Namzul said, his voice kind, ‘but you will be in good hands, professional hands. This is England, after all, and you are going to a private surgery. It is a relatively straightforward procedure with few complications, as I understand it. I’m sure you know it is performed regularly in Asia. They will remove one of your kidneys and once you are well enough to be released from hospital, you will be brought back to the house you’re staying in now to recover fully. Don’t worry,’ he continued, seeing Hiran frown, ‘I will look after my fellow countrymen. We are all Banglas, after all.’
‘How long before we are well?’
Namzul tipped his head one way, then another, as though weighing up his answer. ‘Young men like you, I would say within two weeks.’
‘We’ll be able to work?’
‘Light duties, as they say. In a month you can take on normal work and within eight weeks you’ll hardly know it has occurred. The scar alone will tell you it has been done.’ He tapped Hiran’s hand. ‘Nothing to worry about and then we can get you working in the restaurant, as promised.’ He looked over at Taj. ‘How about your quiet friend here?’
‘I’m not doing it,’ Taj answered as they glanced his way. ‘Anything could go wrong,’ he said to Hiran, ignoring Namzul.
‘Nothing will go wrong,’ Namzul insisted. ‘We’ve done this many times. There are many wealthy Arabs who pay handsomely for a kidney. Tell you what – perhaps I can increase the fee a little bit. You boys have been very good about coming to London and not beginning work immediately. I know you’re keen to start earning and this has delayed things a little bit but it’s a fine way to earn a lot of money in one hit. Your wives will surely be grateful. So I’ll show some appreciation. Let’s say three hundred and fifty pounds apiece?’ He looked at Taj expectantly.
‘Taj,’ Hiran began, eyes wide, ‘it is a lot of money.’
‘And we’ve already paid all our savings to get here so we can earn. Now they want part of my body.’ He glared at Hiran before shifting his attention back to Namzul. ‘Four-fifty,’ he said.
Hiran gasped in surprise, but the trader smiled. ‘Quiet but cunning,’ he said. ‘All right, my final offer is four hundred each, but the clock is ticking, boys, and my offers stands only until the banks close at 4 p.m.’ He made a point of consulting his oversized watch. ‘So hurry up and make a decision.’ He took them both in with one sweeping gaze, before flinging his uneaten wrap towards the bin. He looked back at them. ‘What’s it to be?’
They nodded together.
‘Excellent. I need to make a quick phone call and then you can follow me home. It’s just around the corner.’