Always On My Mind

I noticed her across the reception area, entering the hall for one conference as I waited to enter another. A smart Asian woman in her fifties, slim with shoulder length hair, a strong nose and delicate lips. I might have brushed it off, but for a moment she looked at me and there was a flash of recognition. It could have been Aisha – if she had still been alive. Then she turned and disappeared into the hall.

I went into my conference, found a seat in space near the back and paid no attention to the presentations. My mind was suddenly filled with an agonising memory from thirty-five years before.

A car radio blaring from up the street, ‘Always On My Mind’ by the Pet Shop Boys. Me banging on a street door, pressing the bell for twenty, thirty seconds, then banging again as I yell “You’ve killed her! She said you would! You’ve fucking killed her!” I step back and look up at a bedroom window, catch an anxious scowl from her father, then see him turn as he pushes another figure away. I yell again: “She said you mustn’t find out! She said you’d do something horrible to her!” Now I see nothing at the window, but I’m aware of people behind me, looking out of other windows and standing in the street, keeping their distance from the mad guy. I go back to the door and ring and bang again. Then a car pulls up outside the house, I look around and see two coppers, male and female, striding towards me. I back away a step but in a moment they’re beside me with one hand each on a shoulder and another holding back my arm, then marching me towards their car. Seconds later I’m in the back seat with the door locked and the male copper in front and leaning towards me.

“We know what this is about,” he says. “We know about your allegations, and that there’s nothing to stand them up, and that you’ve been harassing the family for the past two weeks.”

“They’ve covered it up. If what they say is true they’d let me talk to her. If she is in Pakistan they could arrange a phone call.”

“They don’t want to and don’t have to.”

“It’s because they’ve killed her. It happens. It’s been in the papers.”

“Why? Because they don’t like you? Because you’re white?”


Then his face hardens, fixes me in contempt.

“So stick to your own kind you sick bastard!”

I shudder, now feeling as scared as I am angry, and turn to look towards the house. The female copper is stepping inside, obviously wanting to keep the family out of my sight, but I look up at the window and see another face. It could be Aisha but sixteen instead of twenty, her sister Maira. She looks scared but also curious and stays at the window for half a minute, holding my stare and making me wonder if she would knew what her parents had done. Then the copper places a hand on my cheek.

“Look down! Don’t go staring at them.”

I keep my eyes on my knees for minutes, too fearful to resist the bullying. Then the female copper returns. She’s not aggressive but impatient.

“They don’t want to press charges, but will if you appear here again. I’ve told them what to do to get a restraining order.”

The car pulls away, I catch a couple of curious stares from people in the street, then my mind folds in. I’m dipping my head into my knees and sobbing. That’s what prompts the female copper to suggest they just take me back to my parents rather than throw me into a cell.

Then came the blurred mess of the next two years: tearful conversations with my mum and dad; days that they and my brother kept me in the house for fear of what I might do; so long off work that I was given the push; no interest in friends; medications; sessions with two psychotherapists; then two spells in a hospital where all the sickness was inside the patients’ heads. I was told a dozen times that Aisha was staying with extended family in Pakistan, and never once did I believe it. Memories of the mess were floating in my head when the conference session ended.

I felt a twinge of guilt that I had been sitting there on company time and paid no attention, then wandered into the reception, drank a strong coffee and kept an eye on the door to the other conference. It was still in session, although I could see their refreshments prepared on a table across the room, then the door opened and people began to file out. A few went towards the toilets, most towards the tea and coffee, then I saw her join the end of a queue and kept my eyes on her. She must have been over fifty but I saw the sixteen year-old sister who had watched from the window. It was Maira. Then she looked around, noticed me and immediately peeled away from the queue towards the toilets. I followed several steps behind, thinking I could wait until she emerged, saw her go through the door, then another woman come out.

“Hello! I thought you might be here.”

Her name was Mel. We had crossed paths often, working for two companies that did business together. She had something to talk about, I had to show an interest, then followed as she led me back towards the conference hall. We talked about some past business and some that was in the pipeline, then about the conference and sat together through the next session. I tried hard to concentrate, knowing Mel would want to talk about what was being said and I had a responsibility to respond. But I couldn’t ignore the thought of Maira in the other conference, wondering whether she would risk me seeing her again or had slipped away.

Maybe it would be better if she had left the building, that I would just write off the coincidence and get on with things. That’s what had happened after those two years, when I had heard that Aisha’s family had moved away, accepted that I couldn’t do anything about what had happened to her and went back to living a life. I picked up with a couple of old friends, met new ones, found another job, turned it into a career, and met Caroline. By my early thirties I had a good marriage, a couple of kids and a nice house, and never spoke about Aisha. But I was still scarred by what had happened to her.

The session finished, we left the hall for lunch and I stood with Mel as we ate pasta and salad on a chest height table with no stalls. I managed to keep up a conversation, consoling myself that this was a sign that I was back in control, then she caught sight of someone across the room and asked me to excuse her.

“Lovely to see you again. I expect we’ll meet next month.”

It gave my mind a breathing space, then the doors to the other conference opened and I watched the people emerge. At first I didn’t see Maira and as the numbers thinned I reckoned she had bolted during the earlier break. Then I glanced towards the way out and saw her slipping through the door towards the stairs. I followed, watching as she went through the lobby and into the street, then crossed the road and kept a distance as she walked a hundred yards, looked back once, then went into a café. I waited, reckoning a couple of minutes would give her time to settle at a table, then crossed back over the road and looked through the window. She had her back to me. There was a moment of fear, anticipating a mistake or a drastic reaction from a woman who didn’t want to speak to me, but it was a one-off chance to resolve something that had clawed at me for a long time. I stepped inside, walked to her table and sat to face her. There was a look of recognition, then she closed her eyes.

“It’s Maira, isn’t it?”

Then the eyes opened wide.


“Come on. I know it was a long time ago, but I saw you enough times when you were young. I know it’s you.”

“No, it’s me! Aisha.”

I stared at her, mouth open, no words, my mind knocked into a backwards reel. She gave me a chance to speak then got fed up waiting.

“I know what you think, but my family didn’t kill me. I went to Pakistan and stayed.”

I still couldn’t speak.

“What they told you was true, but it was clear that you didn’t want to know.”

Then I managed to burble.

“But, but …. you didn’t tell me.”

Her eyes dropped for a moment, her lips pursed in an embarrassed sigh.

“I know. But it got to the stage where I didn’t want to talk to you.”

“You didn’t want to talk. But we were ….” I couldn’t finish the sentence.

“I was your girlfriend, for a while, then I decided I didn’t want to be more any more.”

“You mean you dumped me?”

“Of course I dumped you.”


“Because you were such a pillock!”

She closed her eyes, leaned back and let out a long sigh, then pushed her fingers through her hair.

“You were so bloody intense,” she said. “You got clingy. And the longer we were together it was all about how were defying all those racists and showing that white boys and Asian girls could fall in love. I was starting to think that’s what it was all about, that you were trying to make a point to the world, not falling for me.”

“But you didn’t say anything.”

“I did! I tried talking to you but your ears weren’t listening. They were clogged up with all your multicultural idealism. I got fed up with it.”

“So you just left?”

“Exactly.” She glanced away, another flicker of embarrassment. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done it like that, but I just couldn’t face the scene if I told you. I had done enough talking with my family and they said it was best if I went to Pakistan for a while. There were plenty of aunts and uncles back there.”

“But you had said that if they found out everything about us they would kill you.”

“I didn’t mean it like that!”

“But you said it.”

“How many girls say that if their parents find out about something they’ll kill them? It’s a figure of speech. I bet you’ve heard it loads of times and never thought it was meant seriously.”

“But you’re … You know, the whole thing … What some families have done.”

“You mean all the honour killing stuff. So what? You think every Asian family is capable of that. No, most of them think the ones who would do that are crazies. They would never dream of it. My family told you the truth, that I had gone to Pakistan and didn’t want to speak to you.”

I drew a breath, put my elbows on the table and let my face rest against my fists. I had been battered. After a while Aisha must have grown uncomfortable with the silence and spoke again.

“I stayed there for four years, met a nice guy and got married. And no, he wasn’t a cousin. And after a while we decided to come back here. The family had moved up to Birmingham to be well away from you and we joined them. And it’s been good. I’ve had a good marriage, three kids and a decent career.”

I lifted my head. Her expression had softened, less impatient and more apologetic.

“And you went on letting me think that you were dead.”

“I thought about getting in touch, but I knew about the scenes outside the house, my dad calling the police, and that you ended up in a hospital. I thought it was better not to stir things up.”

I stared at her, thinking I should be angry but feeling no fire. It had been sucked out of me. Now she looked seriously sorry.

“I was wrong. I should have found you. It was wrong to let you believe that for all this time.”

I leaned back, let my fists drop onto the table and the emotions dribbled away.

“So I was an irritating pillock?”

Her mouth turned but she didn’t reply. Now she was nervous. I spoke again.

“Well I suppose if that’s how you felt it’s what I must have been.”

It prompted a look of relief. We were silent for a moment, knocked silly by the collision with our past, then over the next fifteen minutes she ate a sandwich, we both drank a coffee and had a conversation. I said yes, I had gone mental after she left, had a couple of bad years, then pulled myself together and got on with life. We told each other the names of our other halves and kids, bits about the work we had done and where we lived – a clear hundred miles away from each other. We didn’t really talk about things we had done together or what I had said to turn her off me, or whatever emotions we had felt. It was friendly but not intimate, and by the time we finished our coffees it was fizzling out. There wasn’t much left to say.

We walked back to the halls together, checked the conference timings and established that mine would be over half an hour before hers – so we wouldn’t run into each other again. Then we squeezed hands, with no suggestions of a kiss, and I went back into the hall.

 I just let everything sink in, accepting that I had made a fool of myself all those years ago, that I probably had been too intense about everything with Aisha, and that she had been right to run away from me – then not find me when she came back to England. I could have got tangled in ‘What ifs?’ and a lot complicated guilt, but it was easier to just accept that I had been pillock. Then I had got through all the mess and done something worthwhile with my life. I didn’t pay much attention to the conference but enjoyed the sense that the remaining scraps of pain had been shaken out of my head. By the end of the session I felt quite relaxed.

When I got home there was music coming from the kitchen – Caroline often had the radio on Heart – and as I moved from the hallway to the door I recognised the song, ‘Always On My Mind’ by the Pet Shop Boys. I stopped, frozen by the coincidence, and my face must have dropped. Caroline appeared and said: “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

I crumpled into a giggle. She placed her hands on my arms and smiled.

“Are you alright? Or has something finally you sent you mad?”

I returned the smile.

“No, I haven’t been mad for a long time, but something has happened.”


“Let’s sit down and I’ll tell you.”

We shared a hug. She knew the old story and now I could tell her the new one. And as she listened, looking curious, then surprised, then amused, I felt very lucky.