Miki Lentin

The annual ‘Dinner with Refugees’ Christmas party, held in an opulent house in Muswell Hill was in full swing. Tinkly music played in the background and candles and cards adorned the mantelpiece. Guests arrived laden with hot food wrapped in tinfoil and wore crepe paper Christmas hats that stuck to sweaty foreheads. I was hosting Rashid in my house, a refugee from Iran. He’d never been to a Christmas party before, so I thought we’d go along. Maybe he could make some friends.

“Which one is your refugee?” asked Patrick, introducing himself.

“You mean Rashid?” I responded.

“Yeh, is your refugee here?” Patrick continued, licking his thin cracked lips. A cricket jumper was draped over his shoulders and he was wearing white trousers that hung high on his waist and suede loafers with tassels. He looked almost anorexic, as if he’d been on an extreme diet, or was just unwell.

“He’s over there,” I pointed beyond a group of people who were crowded around a circular glass table covered with food. “He’s got black hair.”

“They all have black hair,” Patrick said.

“He’s the one with the blue hoodie.”

“Oh yeh. Looks like a nice lad. How long has he been with you?” Patrick asked..

“Few months.”

“How’s it going?”

“Good, he’s quiet, all good I suppose.”

“Is he good at anything?” Patrick asked.

“I’m not sure I…”

Before I could answer Patrick continued, “the lad we had was a great cook. He cooked this incredible Syrian lamb dish for us one evening when we had friends over. God,what was it called? It had chunks of braised lamb, like a soup, with yoghurt and pine nuts, spices and chickpeas. Elaine!” Patrick called over to a woman who was standing on the other side of the table, “what was the name of that lamb dish Ali made for us, do you remember?”

Elaine looked over at Patrick and I. Looking like she enjoyed her food, she was bigger than Patrick and wearing a tight fitting silk blouse. Oval tortoise shell glasses sat on her bulbous nose, and her thinning hair bounced from a recent coiffing. Her face was heavily made up as if she was hiding from something. Along with everyone else, she busily filled her heavy green porcelain plate with food. Grilled slices of aubergine sprinkled with pomegranate and parsley, giant couscous salad with almond flakes and roasted squash, and chicken pieces with burst crispy skin, raisins and sumac on a bed of rice.

“Shak… something,” Elaine shouted back at Patrick, returning to her conversation,

“Shakiri”, she shouted again, “Shakriyeh,” she giggled, “I can never remember those funny
names.”

“Yeh, that was it, he was good at that,” Patrick said.

“Come on, I’ll introduce you to Rashid,” I offered.

Rashid was sitting on a heavy plastic dining chair, the kind you find in nouveaux riche wedding venues, balancing a plate of food on his lap. He lifted a piece of crunchy bruschetta covered in roasted cherry tomatoes, garlic and basil to his mouth. It snapped when he bit into it, the topping collapsing onto his plate.

“Rashid,” I said, interrupting his food, “meet Patrick.”

Still chewing, Rashid stood up, holding his plate of food with one hand and shook Patrick’s hand with the other.

“Hi, what is your name?” Rashid asked slowly.

“Patrick.”

“Pat-rick,” Rashid said, rolling the r.

“Yes, it’s Patrick, it’s an Irish name,” he said impatiently.

“Patrick also has a refugee living with him,” I said to Rashid, who simply smiled.

“Well, actually, we don’t anymore. At least not right now, but don’t tell him,” Patrick
interrupted.

“So, what are you doing here?” I asked.

“The food, there’s always good food at these events,” he laughed. “Oh, and the company, something to do. It’s Christmas,” he paused. “Yeh, let’s just say it didn’t work out. The lad left after a couple of months, saying that he was moving in with a friend. One dinner party too many maybe. I invited him tonight actually, thought he’d like to make his Shakiri.”

“Shakriyeh,” I corrected him.

“Yeh, Shakriyeh… and so that he could meet some of the others.”

“Is he here?” I asked.

“Not yet, he might turn up later.”

Rashid sat back down next to another refugee. They both looked straight ahead and poked their food, trying their best not to make eye contact, as if on a first date that wasn’t going well. Same age, probably same journey to the UK, the silence between them seemed like an empty diary, lots to say but no idea where and how to start.

Rashid and I joined a few couples who were grouped together trying to talk and eat while balancing glasses on their plates. As we nibbled, the conversation drifted in and out of local news, antisemitism in the Labour Party, planning applications and school places. Rashid stood straight and stiff amongst us, hands in the pockets of his skinny jeans, nodding politely.

I tried to explain some of the conversation to him, the intricacies of school catchment areas, Brexit, no-deal, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

“It all depends on where they measure the catchment area from you see,” I said, “the Head Masters’ desk or the school gates. I don’t know which one it is, but either way it’s a joke that we have to go through this. And the stress for the families and kids, especially those who move,” I insisted. Everyone nodded in agreement.

Rashid smiled his tentative smile. His dark hair was shaved on both sides, leaving a few short curls on top and his face flushed from the heat of the bright spotlights, that shone from the ceiling of the designed kitchen extension. Walking stiffly, he shuffled as if it was painful for him to bend his knees. He’d had a chest infection for some weeks and started to cough abruptly, so I banged his back a few times, tears welling up in his eyes.

“Have you seen Elaine’s meringues?” Patrick yelped with excitement.

In the centre of the table was a circular mirror serving unit, that reflected the ceiling spotlights and rotated gently on a motor, like in a Chinese restaurant. On a silver serving plater sat a tower of plump white and pink peaked meringues, swirls and swishes of perfectly cushioned pristine baked egg white, one piled gently on the other like an untouched snowy alpine scene.

Waterfalls of chocolate and strawberry sauces trickled through the crevices that had cracked slightly into the meringues, creating a river of sauce on clumps of raspberries that surrounded the bottom of the pile. No one had dared yet spoil the immaculate presentation.

“Elaine’s party piece,” Patrick announced, “she’s won prizes for her meringues you know,” he said proudly. “First at the Church of St John annual baking competition, three years running.”

“They look sensational, what’s your secret?” I asked.

“They are,” Elaine said, now standing next to me. Her breath smelt of garlic and bits
of parsley were stuck between her teeth.

“It’s all in the beating you know, and the timing,” she continued. “Never, never open the oven. Keep it closed, tight and don’t even look to see what’s happening. I’m awfully superstitious that way. Sometimes I hide in the bathroom or the garden when they’re cooking, so I don’t tempt myself to look. One time Patrick opened the oven to have a peek, unable to control himself. Ruined. The whole lot. Ruined.”

“Shall we try one?” Patrick asked, jumping in.

“Maybe one of the, you know, boys should go first,” Elaine said.

“You mean refugees,” I said.

“Yes,” Elaine studied me through her glasses that were as thick as magnifying lenses,
covering her melon shaped face.

Rashid went first. I knew he had a sweet tooth. The crowd hushed in anticipation, now circling the table like an audience watching a spectacle. The music was turned down. I scrunched up my Christmas hat. Elaine passed Rashid a pair of silver tongs that had ‘Elaine Dixon, Baker Supreme, 2013, 2014, 2015’ engraved on one side.

“Please, take whichever one you want,” she motioned to Rashid, holding his arm gently, “and don’t forget the cream and raspberries.” She smiled and clapped her hands lightly like an over-excited child.

Rashid ran the tongs up and down the snowy range, carefully eyeing up his choice, a wide anticipation in his eyes. The small meringues with tiny chocolate coated tips sat at the top of the pile while the heavier ones supported the peaked structure. Rashid went large and pincered a crispy thick meringue the size of a grapefruit on the bottom layer. Slowly he lightly pulled and pinched two of the baked wonders with the tongs, one at a time, like he was extracting milk teeth. Edging them out carefully they made a light raspy sandy sound as they rubbed against the others. He placed the meringues slowly onto his china plate, scooped up some whipped cream and fresh raspberries and dug in. The crowd breathed and returned to their plates of food, the main event over. A toothy smile swept over Elaine’s face.

Rashid passed me the tongs. I went in for my helping and dug deep into the hole that Rashid had made, searching for the thickest, juiciest, stickiest meringue. My hand was deep in the cave when the avalanche began. At first, a few sticky drops of sugary syrup dripped onto my wrist, but as I removed my hand and the tongs, the mountain range collapsed into itself like a volcanic crater. Peaks and edges broke off collapsing into soggy piles of chew sugar in a casserole and cracks of white crumbliness fell away like snowdrift onto cheese boards and into glasses. Pointy peaks of chocolate covered meringues crashed onto plates and cutlery and strawberry sauce cascaded onto the table, and started to drip, one drop of syrupy sauce at a time onto the oak floor.

“I’m so sorry,” I said turning to Elaine.

“Patrick!” she cried, “Patrick, it’s been ruined.”

“It’s OK darling, come on, let’s go,” Patrick said.

“Look, stay,” I pleaded, “it’s been a lovely evening. We can salvage them.” I tried to put the broken shells of loveliness back together while avoiding crushing more chunks of splendour that had fallen onto the floor.

“My meringues,” she looked up at me. “They were meant to be a treat, not for you, for them,” she barked. “I wanted the boys to enjoy them. After all they’ve been through. I just wanted to do something nice, for them.” She was sobbing and tears had filled her lenses like petrie dishes. The guests parted as Patrick and Elaine walked out of the kitchen.

I went to sit next to Rashid who was enjoying digging into the crunchy mess and picking his teeth to remove the chewy bits. Next to me was another refugee dressed in black jeans and a tight black t-shirt. He told me that he was a qualified Karate instructor, but was now training
to be a hairdresser. Rashid and the Karate instructor exchanged a few words in Farsi before slumping back into their plastic chairs.

A new refugee arrived carrying a white oval dish covered in tinfoil.

“What did you bring?” I asked.

“Shakriyeh,” he responded.

Miki Lentin is a Creative Writing MA part-time student at Birkbeck University. He has appeared twice at MIR Live and been long-listed for the Michael McMullan Cancer Writing Prize. He is a Trustee of The Reading Agency, established London’s Knowledge Quarter and is taking a break from travelling to work @britishlibrary @mikilentin

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