The night train

I cannot remember how long I’ve been in here. The monotonous sound of the train wheels turning incessantly and hitting those tiny separations between rail segments. Lights of forgotten villages flashing across the window. Travelers with faces emaciated by tiredness and loneliness, who move like sleepwalkers through the train, looking for a seat that’s always at the other end of the train.

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The delivery boy

This short fiction is based on a true story.

I started working at 7 am. I never understood why people would order pizza just after they wake up. But they do. My trusted bike helps me rush through downtown traffic. Right now, it is my most treasured possession. Almost part of me.

I’ve started learning German, but I cannot bring myself to speak with customers. Most of them are not keen on making conversation anyway. From time to time, I hear “thank you” or “how is it going” in English. I smile and I nod. There’s no time for more; I’m always in a hurry to the next delivery. This city has an insatiable hunger for pizza.

I like to ride my bike. It gives me the space to think and be on my own. It also gives me the choice not to think, when it becomes too painful. I never listen to music while doing my deliveries. For one, it’s dangerous not to hear well while in traffic. But it’s mostly because I enjoy being alone with my thoughts.

Some of the other pizza guys are looking strangely at me. I can see the questions in their eyes: At your age? Really man? No knowledge of German whatsoever? Where on Earth are you coming from?

Some of them were probably thinking that I landed here to hide from past misdeeds. To start a new life where nobody knows me.

They are almost right. I am hiding my past from the others. Most of the time, I am also hiding it from myself.

Path of light / Rue de la Colline, Brussels / August 2021

The other day, I delivered to a family with three kids. As soon as the father opened the door, three blond heads popped out, hopeful and excited. They were all looking at the three big cardboard boxes in my hands. The smell was unmistakable.

The little one looked up at my face, partially covered by the boxes. He asked me my name. “Sadaat,” I whispered after a pause. I was trying to think of something to tell him when his father asked, first in German then in English, if I needed a glass of water.

I am staying in the hallway with a glass in my hand. Feeling uneasy, looking down. All those meetings with high dignitaries seem to have evaporated. They seem so far away that I can barely place them within the boundaries of my life. I am unable to strike the simplest conversation.

“Engineer,” I say automatically. Then I look up and I repeat: “engineer.” It’s my standard answer when I’m asked about my life in Afghanistan. It has the advantage of not being a complete lie. I did study engineering at Oxford, but I never practiced it. The disadvantage is that it practically begs for the next question: “so how did you end up delivering pizza?”.

Life. The Taliban. Unexpected turn of events. Safety for my family. I start to stutter going through the list. I want to say something without actually saying anything.

Should I talk about how it feels to be held at gunpoint by militiamen right in your ministerial office? About the threats to my family? About the endless flow of favors and money that seemed to be the main occupation of my fellow ministers? What is there to say, really?

I see a flicker of sympathy in his eyes. He understands my discomfort and leaves me alone. Smart guy. He disappears for a minute and comes back, looking a bit uneasy. He has a few banknotes in his hand. He asks me to take them. I can see his embarrassment.

How could I tell him that it makes me sick to see money offered or handed over? How could I explain that it’s what I’ve been running from? That this is exactly what I was facing back there, only it was much more than a few banknotes. So I don’t say anything. I’m late for my next delivery.

Outside, the wind has picked up. Autumn leaves are dancing around in whirlwinds. It’s getting dark.