It was a quiet reopening at the start of term, but sometimes those are the best opportunities to actually chat. A bit of table football and Wii, leftover mince pies, and the happy jokes and comfortable banter that come with shared experience and the security of consistent friendship. All with the familiar background battle over whose phone pumps Afghani music – just a little too loudly – throughout the venue.
One of the volunteers sits at a laptop and informally questions the boys about the Christmas meal we shared in December, gathering their memories to produce one of the most heartwarming narratives I’ve read in a while. From the quieter ones with their kind and gentle presence, to the louder personalities which always turn up at the heart of any commotion, each recollects a happy moment that they’ll store away for future use. Goodness knows where some of them will be next Christmas, but I’m hoping that the knowledge that they’re valued and known will be something that sticks.
Aref has been off the radar for many weeks, but tonight he’s back and it’s a bit of a homecoming. A bit rougher round the edges, he bears the scars of the grubby sleeplessness that comes from a season of sofa-surfing and uncertainty. He shrugs of that period, intimating reluctant stoicism about how things are, before wandering off to while away the evening with clips from You Tube or a game of pool. I wonder if it offers any respite from reality.
Midway through the evening he runs to find me. “Come, Emily, come!” he says, and hurries back to the computers. As we get there he sees the notification that his friend has gone offline and slams his fist on the table with frustration. Nonetheless, he opens up the chat history and – to my delight – I recognise Rahim, one of our youth club who was returned to Afghanistan some months ago, alive and well on Facebook. The familiar format of friendship, with its photos, groups and status updates, makes life seem so normal and him so present.
Aref scrolls through the conversation they’d been having – about life here and about life there. I fight the lump in my throat as I catch glimpses of two young lives, typed in broken internet English, trying to communicate something of their realities; one a stranger in the UK with no room at the inn, the other now back in his homeland where he seems just as displaced as he had been Oxford.
Rahim had asked after everyone at club and if I was there and how I was. ‘She is heer. She isgood’, Aref had replied. That’s when he’d come to get me, and that’s when Rahim had vanished at the other end.
As that disappointment plays out here, I hear a whooping of joy from the other room as the black is potted or a card game is won. Strange how happy and sad exist simultaneously and how quickly things can swing the other way. Life can be funny sometimes, in every sense of the word.
[names – apart from mine! – have been changed]