51. The Persian Smoker

IN THOSE DAYS, WHEN you had something important to do, like interviewing for housemates, and the share house you lived in was too poor or too disorganised for such luxuries as an answering machine, you had to stay in to receive your telephone calls, or else trust that the caller would call again. In those days, people would put up notices on shop windows when they were doing things like interviewing for housemates, and while they waited for respondents to call they would fill the time by doing things like reading long novels that helped them forget their own lives for a time. Novels still had a magical quality to them back then. International telephone calls were expensive, so when your girlfriend went overseas she was likely to call you only every few days, and the days in between would have a dreamlike quality as a procession of strangers traipsed through your dark Finsbury Park flat thick with the smell of dank. Telephones still rang with a startling drrrinng. People then, as now, would often not turn up to appointments, with the difference that in those days you wouldn't have their number, so you would wait, and wait, and wait some more. As now, many poor people in search of a room in a share house had a kind of haunted or harried look to them. One of the respondents who called in response to the notice on the bookshop window had an attractive clipped accent, which was already a plus, clipped accents being in short supply in Finsbury Park. When he arrived, he was accompanied by his brother. They were a study in contrasts. The one, tall, thin, with silver wiry hair, elegantly dressed, quick and with the kind of polished accent that comes with having lived in London for many years. The other was shorter, round-shouldered, his hair was straight and dark and shapeless, dressed in clothes that might have been bought in an Oxfam shop, his gestures were slow and he might as well have been mute. I gave them a tour of the place on our way out to the little garden at the back, which was where I interviewed all the candidates as it was the least dark and dank part of the house. We sat down and the wiry one started talking. They were brothers, he said, brothers from Iran. He was a playwright. I told him I didn't follow the theatre and he said even if I did I probably would never had heard of him. He said their family was Zoroastrian. He began to explain what this meant but I stopped him. I know about the Zoroastrians, I said. He told me he had been sent away from Iran to London as a young man soon after the Revolution. His younger brother had stayed and had ended up in prison, he said, simply for being Zoroastrian. He had only recently been freed and had left Iran and was now looking for a place to live. So you see, said the playwright, I'm not looking for a place for myself but for my brother. The brother, in all this time, hadn't said a word. Does he speak English? I asked. Of course he speaks English, said the playwright, turning to his brother and bending down to look into the brother's eyes, which were downcast. Don't you? The brother nodded, although it didn't seem at all clear to me that he knew what was being expected of him, and that nodding was more a guess at an appropriate response. But, the brother continued, he has been through a very difficult time as a political prisoner. Of course, it will take time for him to adjust. Of course, I said. There comes a point when you are interviewing for housemates when you have decided, usually very early on, but for some reason, we carry on as if our minds are not already made up. We go through the motions. We did a lot of going through the motions in those days. So I asked about his cooking. Yes, said the brother, he is a very good cook. What does he cook? He cooks Persian rice, Persian lamb, Persian soup - you know Persian cooking? I had to admit I didn't. Ah, it's very good. I asked if he had a job, or how he would pay the rent and the bills, and the brother said, I am helping him find a job but in the meantime he is on government support. All the while the person we were talking about was right there in the room with us, being spoken for by his brother, but he seemed to have very little notion that we were speaking about him. The brother then asked to use the toilet, and I gave him the directions. He went back into the house, leaving the two of us together. In those days, many of us smoked, and I lit a cigarette and smoked it in silence. When next I glanced at the silent brother, he had his hand outstretched. You want a cigarette? I asked. I gave him a cigarette and a lighter and he tried to light it with the awkwardness of a novice smoker. I had to help him light it. We then proceeded to smoke in silence. I smoked in the usual way, flicking the ashes on the garden bed beside me, but the silent brother smoked idiosyncratically, holding the cigarette with the thumb and index finger of one hand and ashing it frequently into the cupped palm of his other hand. In the distance, I heard the sound of the toilet flushing. A minute later again, we heard the steps of the lively brother clip through the kitchen towards us. The silent brother stubbed the cigarette out in his hand and tipped the cigarette - the butt and the ashes - into his mouth and swallowed it all. The brother rejoined us. I said nothing about what I had just seen. I wrapped up the interview with some more politenesses - thank you, lovely to meet, I will decide soon, I will call, best wishes - and they left me to my house and my telephone and my life, and I to theirs.