When she met Rashid, Anna was already using a shopping trolley to help her to walk straight and to get on and off buses without falling. For several years, her illness had gone undiagnosed. She lived with fear, unable to name what was wrong with her, incapable of predicting what it would do to her next. It made her feel at risk from constant ambush; which, indeed, she was. She was always waiting for the next spectacular breakdown in physical competence.
When she learned that it was multiple sclerosis, her first response was one of relief. At last, she knew. It was, above all, not her fault. It was not some inner defect, or the consequence of some rash action of her own – travelling to Asia without taking proper medical precautions, the outcome of some injudicious relationship. It also meant she didn’t have to reassure people she asked for help that she was not drunk or on drugs. She said: “I’m so pleased that I know what it is.”
By that time, she was living in a small ground-floor flat in Hackney, east London, rented from a housing association. Previously she had lived above a Pakistani grocery, close to Victoria Park, but she found it impossible to negotiate the narrow stairs in the Victorian building, and the boxes of chillis or mangoes made daily life an even greater obstacle course.
Even the new flat was becoming difficult to manage. When she went shopping, she had great difficulty crossing the road. She hesitated in front of the traffic, swaying dangerously at the kerbside. No one knew what desperate effort it took to maintain her balance. People often offered an arm. But sometimes they avoided her, fearing they might be sucked into some limitless need. Occasionally, Anna asked for help.
One day, as she stood on the edge of the road, a young man caught her eye. “Can you help me across the road?” she asked. He knew little English. She tried the Arabic she had studied in Cambridge. It turned out that he was Iranian. He said that his name was Rashid, and he was working in a restaurant while he finished his studies. He offered to carry her shopping to the door. He seemed kind and sensitive. She invited him in for coffee.
He stayed for ten months. He taught her Farsi. He looked after her with great tenderness. He took her out – not only for shopping but sometimes to pubs, occasionally to restaurants. He also became the last sexual relationship of Anna’s life. She felt rejuvenated, desirable and, above all, able – experiences she had not known for years. She was visibly happier; and while she had always been optimistic, she gained a new sense of hope. The future might not be as bleak as the doctors had suggested.
Although Rashid lived in the flat and came home most nights, there were unaccountable absences. Anna gathered that he was working illegally. She didn’t know exactly what he was doing. He was paid in cash. When he came home during the summer, his boots were covered with mud and his hands were sore; she assumed that he had been picking fruit or vegetables. In the weeks before she met him, he had been sleeping on some chairs in a friend’s flat, where they had to stuff the window frames with rags to keep out the draughts and the only heating came from a small gas stove. She knew better than to ask him to give an account of himself, and accepted his comings and goings as part of the price of her new relationship.
Rashid was always thoughtful and affectionate. Although more than 20 years younger than Anna, he was excited by her. When she reminded him how much older she was, he said that when he looked into her eyes, he didn’t see age, he saw the ageless beauty of when she was 19.
Anna understood that his status in Britain was illegal. He didn’t tell her how he had arrived, but he sometimes spoke of the money that he owed to those who had helped him enter the country. He never asked her for anything. She was living on disability benefit and shared with him what she had. Occasionally he brought her small presents – flowers, a book of poetry he thought she might like.
Anna knew that without him she would have been forced into long-term hospital care much earlier. For her, Rashid prolonged a moment of freedom and enhanced her life. He was her carer and lover. She rejoiced over a gift that she had ceased to expect from the world.
After almost a year, he came home anxious and preoccupied. His absences became longer. The early spontaneity had vanished. He seemed frightened of unexpected callers. He stood as if poised for flight at any unexpected knock on the door. When her friends came, he would disappear. She described him as her phantom lover.
One night, she observed that he had taken a small case. His shaving materials and toothbrush had gone from the bathroom. That night, he didn’t return. Nor the next.
Early one morning, before dawn, Anna was woken by the sound of breaking glass. The front door was splintered. Her bedroom door was thrown open. The flat was swarming with police. “Where is he? We have reason to believe . . . It has been reported . . . You are harbouring . . . It has come to our attention . . .”
Anna struggled out of bed, saying that she didn’t know what they were talking about. “I’m severely disabled,” she said. “I don’t know what crime you think I’m capable of.” They searched the flat and found some of Rashid’s clothes. “Who do these belong to?” they demanded. “They’re my brother’s.”
Outside, a small crowd had gathered. They were hostile to the police. “Poor thing.” “Can’t you see what a state she’s in?” “What’s she done, robbed a bleeding bank?” “Haven’t you got anything better to do than ransack the flat of a disabled woman?”
The police asked her if she knew of someone with a name she had never heard. She said truthfully: “I don’t know him. What is he supposed to have done?” “If you don’t know him, that’s no concern of yours.” After an hour, they left.
She never saw Rashid again. Two months later, there was a postcard with no date and no address.
Not long afterwards, Anna went into a long- stay hospital that became her home. Beside her bed, she kept a photograph of herself and Rashid taken in a booth at a railway station. She said: “He gave me an extra year of life.”
He worked not only as an agricultural labourer and in a restaurant, but also as her unpaid carer. He saved the state money.
None of this weighs in the balance against seekers of asylum, even when they provide asylum to others. Whatever kindness they offer, whatever function they serve, whatever economic purpose they fulfil, whatever relationships they develop – this is nothing against the unspeak- able crime of overstaying the grudging shelter they have taken here.