Dealing in Dreams
I exit the tube station. My pace quickens, caught in the flow of pedestrians desperate to lead the rush-hour. I don’t know why I am hurrying. It’s just that everybody else is, and it’s catching.
I enter the college and announce my arrival: “English examiner.”
The students have 12 minutes each:
“So where do you come from?”
“I am Kurdish. I come from Mosul, in North of Iraq.”
Important to put them at their ease. “I’ve seen it on the news,” I say smiling.
He pulls out a map and speaks of his homeland.
I check the assessment criteria:
‘USE OF STRESS, RHYTHM, INTONATION AND
I give him grade ‘B’.
“If I pass exam, I will go to university.”
‘GRAMMAR USAGE: COMPARATIVES AND SUPERLATIVES’
“Then I will get a better job.”
“Tell me, why are you learning English?”
“English is international language. Is important for job and business. If want better things.”
I have the power to pass or fail them; a polite linguistic bouncer, who lets them through to pursue hopes for a better life, or shuts them out.
I am a dealer of dreams.
“I come from Iran.”
I smile: “Interesting.”
“So why are you learning English?”
“I am Doctor. If I pass exam I will work in English hospital.”
“And do you work now?”
“I am bus driver.”
“Really. We need lots of bus drivers.”
“I am Turkish, in a Greek part of Cyprus, where there is many persecutions of Muslim minorities...”
Her head is shrouded in a scarf, rich in different colours.
“…but they don’t accept my face...”
She has a beautiful face.
I warmly greet a student from Afghanistan, and we begin…
“The Taliban beat me.” He shows me where his fingernails have been pulled out, and where they cut the muscle on the inside of his knee, to cripple him. “They cut the meat,” he says.
‘ADAPT LANGUAGE IN ORDER TO MANAGE
LESS PREDICTABLE ELEMENTS.’
“I become Asylum Seeker. I go Guy’s Hospital. I have headache all the time.”
Must stick to the syllabus: “What do you do for entertainment at the weekend?”
Words from students fall into my hands. I want to hold them, cherish them. But I feel so clumsy. They slip through my fingers. Like trying to catch rain.
“Do you hope to return home one day?”
“Now that I have been in West, they all think I am rich. They make problems for me.”
“I’m afraid our time’s up. We have to end now.”
“You’re a very kind person,” says an Iraqi.
I blush. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve the comment. He has spoken of his family’s tragedy. I have just sat, listened. And judged. For a moment, my mind thinks with London’s cynicism: Was he fishing for extra marks? But his eyes, wide and pure blue, looking right into me, are utterly devoid of duplicity. We warmly shake hands. He turns. And like commuters on a tube, we will never see each other again. But I still worry for him. London will soon teach him not to use such honest words. We teach them English so that they will learn not to express themselves. London will give him a new language.
I complete the paperwork. The assessments are done. I exit the college, get on a bus and head North. Eventually we get to Blackfriars Bridge. I continue into the city on foot.
I study the passing faces. No-one seems happy. All burdened with their labours on keyboards and the threat of a final phone call. The only animated faces are those yoked to mobile phones. Is this the dream my English learners are reaching for?
And if so, why are we so desperate to protect it?
This city was built on the dreams of foreigners: Roman, Saxon, Norman, and more.
All leaving strains in our language, and our blood. So often it has opened its soul to the dreams of foreigners, without any need to build ramparts against the hopes of those outside. Why, now, do we fear them?
I turn left at Ludgate Circus. My latent worries surface: Will the Central Line be safe? Will my carriage be a terrorist target?
As I walk up the hill I see the familiar towers of St. Paul’s, one with a dominant clock overseeing the hours. I have time on my hands. I decide to go in. As I approach the stone steps, a man with a bundle of magazines says, “Big Issue!” I know I am about to go into a place of worship, so I buy a copy, as if it is some kind of entry ticket.
I pass underneath the tall resolute columns supporting the bold portico, through the door and into the soft gloom. I am embraced by the smell of burning wax, and the lilting sounds of choir boys. Their young voices rise to heaven and descend upon me like a prayer from faith-ful lips. I listen. Feeling unworthy, I try not to engage with what is happening – not unlike an English speaking exam – but there is a pause and the echoed music hangs in the stillness like perfume, before slowly rising away. And for a moment, I am caught up in the silence of dreams.
I walk up the sanctuary that was built out of the ashes of London’s great fire, at a time when its people were stalked by the plague of Nature’s own biological warfare.
This city cannot be destroyed. Surely. The Germans tried. And failed. And now, in the heart of a London once blitzed, I am listening to music from a German composer.
This city cannot die. Its buildings may be scorched, or its people withered by a germ. But it cannot die… Surely.
What keeps this city alive is as enduring and eternal as music. Surely…
Yet I find myself praying: ‘Oh God, let no bomb in a suitcase turn my city into vapour.’