House call

It’s unusual now – a house call. But I called, yesterday morning, having avoided hospital and threats to call ambulances in the middle of the night. And the woman said she’d arrange a house call.

So I was sleeping when he arrived in the afternoon.
I opened my eyes to a gentle, accented ‘Mrs Stew-ard…Mrs Stew-ard’…
And there he was. To my eyes, shockingly young and shockingly in my room. I momentarily forgot where I was – what he was there for – even how to use my tongue. I stuttered awake. And then felt embarrassed and wrong-footed that some stranger had wakened me. Aware that I must smell sour and sick after a night spent writhing and sweating and pained.
But he seemed aware of that and handled it well. Apologising. Naming himself. Giving me time to find my wits.
A strange intimacy follows. Words. Examinations. Explanations. Some doctors are better than others at this forced intrusion into a stranger’s privacy and space. Some are brusque and almost seemed embarrassed by their proximity to another human being. But he was good. Ease-ful. Extraordinary on reflection.
He confirmed that yes, I’d most likely had another attack. A nurse would take blood. Could I manage to the clinic? Amylase levels would likely be almost normal by now – but maybe liver enzymes would still show some elevations. The figures would be useful. I could take the prescription pain relief he would leave.
He sat back and smiled and asked about the photo on my bed-side table. The kids. For once all together and smiling out at whoever looked. I explained. He told me about his brothers and sisters. Eleven of them. Mostly older. I asked where they were and he explained they were in Islamabad. But that they were Pashtun Afghans – who had fled to Pakistan a long time ago.
I was aware of an internal pause. A moment of deliberation within me. Was that a racist response? That internal fleeting question: what is the right response to that declaration of nationality? Is there a ‘right’ response? Should there be a need for one?
I said: ‘That must be very difficult for you – for your family – to be exiled from your country.’
He nodded vehemently.
‘Very. It is very difficult. My Mother and Father are getting older now and accept that they will die in exile. My younger brother and sisters have not seen Afghanistan. But they feel they are not at home in Islamabad.’
‘Of course, they have had education and freedoms. But it is not the same.’
I asked what his own plans were. He spoke at length about how he wanted to eventually serve his own people. Ensure they received medical care and attention. His Father was not supportive of that. He was an educated man who wanted better for his son than to return to a country in the middle of such upheaval. He explained that his Father had been lucky. He had money. Relatives in Pakistan. An opportunity to start again. That he had fallen out with certain people at home about the way things had to be. I assumed they may have fled during the Russian occupation – but I am not sure it wasn’t afterwards, when the country stumbled further into medieval religion.
I was mindful of the gulf of age and culture and religion between us. There were things that I could not comprehend: the need to uproot; to escape; to live away from what you felt was home.
I imagined that to say you were Afghani involved a leap of faith that the UK listener would not jump to prejudiced assumptions. I said as much and he smiled. I indicated sympathy that any person should feel restraint when talking of their nationality.
He then said: ‘Of course, he is dead now. Or they say he is.’ Initially puzzling me – as I knew Bin Laden was not Afghan. But I understood.
Osama. His briny sacrilegious grave.
I mentioned I had studied Islam. We talked about fundamentalism. Of how – any colour or hue – it is ‘the enemy’ of life itself. From the Christian Crusades to Osama to Westport Baptist Church. All the same.
I quoted Blaise Pascal: Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully than when they do it from religious conviction.

And he quoted from the Koran. I wish I had asked for the citation. But it was the forgiving Koran. The Koran of tolerance. The Koran that I recognised.
We talked about the thousands in Pakistan and in Afghanistan who had been killed by terrorist bombings. Conservatively estimated at 30,000 since 9/11 in Pakistan alone. Bombings and warnings a daily occurrence. Of how the biggest victims were Muslims. That ordinary Muslims had suffered – and continue to suffer a double blow: they were vilified by the Christian West but murdered by Islamic terrorists.
We did not put the world to rights. But in that hour or so that he spent here I was humbled.
And reminded that – for all the world’s divisions – we are all human. Sharing the same ability to bleed; to feel emotion; to cry; to suffer; to love. We are loyal to our families. Want to protect. We feel fear. We suffer. And experience joy.
We wished one another well. The differences between us could not – on the face of it – be greater: a late 20’s Muslim man from a country scape-goated by the West and a 40+ athiest, mother of five. But it is our similarities which will remain my abiding memory.
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