Hassan Abdulrazzak





Tom tried to hold onto the wall but his hand kept slipping. As he stood naked in the bathtub, the German mixer shower pounding his excess fat with water set to thirty-eight degrees precisely, he regretted agreeing to a silk finish for the bathroom wall.
            The Polish painter did explain, in all fairness, that silk paint is ‘smooth’ but Tom had been too absentminded to think about the implication. What with his demanding job, how was he supposed to pay attention to all the seemingly insignificant details of his life?  Silk or matt. Matt or silk. Could it really matter? But then at the time he didn’t foresee the possibility of one day having a dizzy spell in the shower, of his legs actually coming close to almost buckling. He thought ‘my legs are buckling’ then he thought how odd it was to use a word like ‘buckling’. It seemed so archaic, as if intended for someone much older than him, someone with amusing anecdotes about the Second World War.
            The dizziness came on suddenly, accompanied by what Tom would describe years later in a letter to his ex as ‘a dress rehearsal for a full stroke’. Half his face, the left half, went numb and his left arm felt heavy. He clenched and unclenched his fist and slapped his left cheek repeatedly. Could a stroke be warded off by sheer will? If that is the case then why don’t more people fight back in the way he was doing right now? The dizziness intensified, threatening collapse. Tom heard himself muttering a prayer. He felt slightly foolish but thought it was best to pray just in case God felt like asserting his presence through a cerebral haemorrhage.
Luz, Tom’s Mexican wife, once dragged him to a movie about a man who was driving down some country lane in France with his son in a convertible when suddenly he became crippled by a stroke. Apparently the film was based on a true story, if Luz is to be trusted. Tom hated the film and thought it needlessly depressing but he did like the convertible. He came out of the cinema thinking ‘one day I’ll own a car like that’. He never did.
            Tom remembered that he had suggested matt paint to the Polish guy as he accidentally bought one more tub of it than was needed for the living room. The painter, who may not have been Polish at all but from somewhere further east, somewhere less reliable, said in an authoritative voice ‘I can use matt if you want but I tell you, you’ll regret it.’  As his hand slipped for a second time, Tom berated himself for not trusting his own judgment and the voice of his inner decorator. A matt finish would have been cheaper and more sensible.
            Tom was the product of a Christian Science school. That much was apparent even to him. He did go to university and then went on to almost complete an MBA but deep down in the padlocked cellar of his soul, he knew that his higher education did not shape him to the extent his Christian Science upbringing had done.  And although he could laugh at religion as much as any of his co-workers (many of whom, following the current fashion, blamed religion for everything from global warming to terrorism), he knew that the hand print of a thousand school assemblies had left their mark on him like the accumulated dirt behind the radiator of a bargain flat. Religion, unlike dirt, could not be removed by hiring a troop of foreign workers charging reasonable prices.
            The not using of the plentiful matt paint seemed sinful to him as his hand repeatedly slipped on the silk covered walls. This was some sort of punishment for unjustifiable frivolity with B&Q’s own brand.
            Religion is not always about sin. After all, without it he might never have met his wife.
            It was coming up to Christmas and Tom was distracted by the possibility of a new iPhone release. This resulted in him failing to secure sufficient new accounts for his company and thereby receiving an anaemic annual bonus.  After that Tom decided to attend the Alpha course at the Church down the road from his block of flats.
            He had walked past the church every morning on his way to the underground station but never once entered. When he made a botch of things at work, to the point where his line manager had to ask him to step into his cubicle so that he could deride him in a low voice calculated to sound kind but pitched at a volume audible to Tom’s co-workers, when all of that happened and he couldn’t face the Wednesday-is-pub-night crowd, he sought refuge in his local church. It was after all one of the last remaining places that provided entertainment, of sorts, free of charge.
            There he met Luz. What attracted him to her immediately was the fact that she looked stunning as she sobbed.  And she was sobbing, openly and without shame. He imagined himself, for a guilty second, as Christ on the cross in a church painting with distorted perspective. Yes it’s true that as Christ he would have to suffer the inconvenience of dying or dying temporarily but at least he’d finally have the thin physique he had always wanted. Moreover, he would possess the kind of obvious wounds that could elicit sympathy from any woman. Inhabiting the same space as him in this fantasy painting was Luz, dressed as Mary Magdalene; her eyes translucent with tears and her thick red lips slightly parted as she lovingly and reverently stares at his veiled cock.
            During the coffee break, Tom went up to Luz who was contemplating one of the stained glass windows and he braved a phrase in Spanish. Luz laughed and said ‘no my dog is not dead but thanks for asking’. Tom blushed and scratched his head, something he regularly did when embarrassed because he thought the cuteness of it detracted from the sight of his face turning into an overripe red apple. Months later, in bed, Luz explained to him that the gesture is not as cute as he thought it was. In fact, coming from a poor suburb on the outskirts of Mexico City, she had concerns he might be infested with head lice. This puzzled her because Tom’s general appearance did not suggest he wallowed in filth. She also confessed that his fondness for Calvin Klein cologne made her suspicious at first that he might be gay. This was one of the difficulties Luz had in adjusting to London life. All the men seemed so resolutely gay, even the ones who forcefully proclaimed they were not.  For Luz, Tom became more than a lover. He came to serve as a substitute for her family whom she desperately missed.
            Tom thought about sitting down in the bath for a moment but worried he might not be able to get back up. He wanted to call out to Luz then decided against it. Despite his panic, Tom felt grateful to God for striking him down on a Sunday rather than the following morning as he had a Power Point presentation to give at nine. He lifted his left arm slowly as if it was a rusty anchor he was bringing up to the surface of a lake. His palm plopped over the chrome handle of the German mixer shower which he first saw in a showroom and spent two weeks trying to find on the internet for under £300. ‘Waste not, want not’ was a favourite motto of his Christian Science School, hammered repeatedly into the pupils even though the days of rationing were clearly long gone. Tom grew up with a notion of Christ as a thrifty man and therefore despite the way-above-average salary he was earning, the idea of buying something that costs more than £300 without the self-flagellation of a protracted bargain hunt filled him with a quiet terror.
            Everything went dark. This is it, thought Tom, this is how death comes. Then he realised that he had simply closed his eyes so he decided to open them again. Bath tub, shower mixer, the world. It was all still there. He turned off the water with a slight sense of disappointment. The TV in the bedroom became instantly audible.
            When he walked into the room, Luz was glued to the screen as she had been all week. The news had gone into yet another feeding frenzy because the number of people infected with the swine flu virus in the United States had doubled. Of course all week people in Mexico City, where the pandemic started, were reported to be dying in the sorts of numbers that would have caused panic and chaos in any civilised first world country.
            ‘Anything new?’ he asked as he dried his hair with his cute scratching motion.
            ‘A baby died in America.’
            ‘God that’s awful.’
            ‘He was Mexican,’ said Luz.
            ‘Oh! Oh, Ok.’
            An inner voice, an inner voice that shocked him, added ‘well that’s alright then.’ As soon as the thought had entered his mind, Tom played it down by attributing it to the corrupting influence of British comedy. ‘Come on Luz’, he started an inner monologue with his wife. ‘Surely you must see the funny side. You tell me a baby died in the US, I’m concerned. You tell me it’s a Mexican baby, I say well that’s alright then. The studio audience erupt with laughter.’ The particular audience laughter Tom heard in his head contained a shocked, feminine snortle. In other words, an involuntary but morally appropriate reaction to the political incorrectness of the joke. Once again he had his sound religious upbringing to thank for his deftness at handling moral quandaries even when they occurred in his imagination.
            As he was putting on his Primark socks (six pairs for three pounds so why not?), Tom debated whether he ought to tell Luz about the stroke. Surely that’s what it was. A mild stroke. She had to listen. She was his wife after all. He was glad that he had refrained from telling her about his illness immediately after stepping out of the shower. His initial diagnosis of paralysis, predicated as it was on acute observation of alarming symptoms, now lacked the kind of verifiable evidence that would protect it from ridicule. There was little doubt that his revised diagnosis of ‘a mild stroke’ would be better received. A mild stoke was like an English cup of tea: the dark shock of ‘stroke’ tempered by the creamy smoothness of ‘mild’. A phrase designed to raise concern rather than alarm. Luz interrupted his trail of thoughts.
            ‘Tom I found a website that will ship the medicament to Mexico.’
            ‘The flu medicament. You know, the Tamiflu’
            ‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea Luz. What sort of website?’
            ‘I’ve researched it. I was researching it last night while you were in the pub. It’s fine.’
            Luz was studying for a Masters in comparative anthropology. Tom was supporting her whilst she did so. He didn’t mind that as much as men in a lower tax bracket might or so he told himself.  And besides, having a wife studying something that - in his opinion - sounded ridiculous yet intriguing appealed to him.
            ‘How much are they selling it for?’
            ‘Forty-five dollars.’
            ‘What’s that in -‘
            ‘Thirty pounds,’ she snapped.
            ‘Oh, OK. No problem.’
            ‘Thirty pounds for one packet.’
            Tom knew that one packet was only sufficient for one person so he multiplied the thirty pounds by the members of Luz’s family. This kind of arithmetic was easier for him than converting foreign currency into domestic.
            ‘Listen Luz, we’ve already sent one pack by DHL.’
            Tom had to ask his private doctor to make out the prescription. The doctor was Greek so he had no problem writing a prescription for people in Mexico he’d never met. When it came to buying the medicine that was a different matter. A limit had been placed on how many boxes of the antiviral drug could be sold to one customer so Tom only managed to obtain the one box. He was secretly grateful that such a limit had been put in place by his government. Luz’s family were nice enough but there were just so many of them. When the man behind the DHL counter told him how much it would cost to ship the little box containing the ten yellow and grey pills, Tom couldn’t help but whistle. He would have liked more time to research all the other courier services, perhaps even create an Excel sheet for proper price comparison. But then he remembered that Luz viewed this as an urgent matter on account of the people dying and what have you so he grudgingly handed his money to the DHL man.
            ‘So?’ Luz said. There was a definite angry tone to her two-letter question.
            ‘Darling, we don’t even know if the box we shipped has arrived. This stuff is like gold right now in your country. Why don’t we wait until your family confirms they’ve received it?’
            She leapt out of bed, her body uncoiling like a weapon and her breasts swaying with anger.
            ‘I can’t believe you, Tom. If this was your family…’
            ‘I’m just saying, the sensible thing…‘
            ‘Sensible thing? Sensible thing? Fuck you!’
            She slammed the bedroom door so hard, the echo of it was still ringing in Tom’s ears as he chased after her through their apartment.
            ‘Luz, baby. Wait -’
            She turned around and looked straight at him, her eyes penetrating his like a spear thrust by an angel in some Italian painting Tom vaguely remembered from a distant school trip.
            ‘My family might get infected any day now. My sister tried to buy facemasks and couldn’t because every pharmacy in the city has run out. No one has access to Tamiflu and you don’t want to send the drugs because they’ll cost you…what?... two hundred pounds?’
            ‘Three hundred, actually,’ said Tom. ‘Maybe even a little more.’
            What slammed next was the front door. She had changed quickly and filled her handbag with makeup and cigarettes before making her exit. Tom desperately wanted to tell her about his paralysis, the stroke he may have suffered whilst showering, how he nearly slipped because of the godforsaken silk paint. He wanted to share all that with his wife but couldn’t. He had lost the right to do so.
            The apartment seemed eerily silent after she left. He took out a Mars ice cream bar from the freezer and ate it in front of the TV. When night approached and his entire neighbourhood was wrapping itself in the depressing orange glow of twilight, he turned away from the news in search of comedy.


The Game