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All in the mind

by  Fredja

Posted: Sunday, February 26, 2017
Word Count: 2507
Summary: A woman befriends an illegal immigrant. (2500 words)

All in the mind
Stella had been sacked. Austerity apparently demanded her job and after twenty years she was leaving for good – though she was not clear what ‘good’ was going to come of it. She thought she must be ‘in denial’ and perhaps tomorrow she would be back to throw bricks through the windows – but today she was simply driving home a little earlier than usual. She stopped at the supermarket and as she left with a carton of milk and some comfort foods she passed a sign ‘vacancies – apply within’. Three months later she had progressed from stacking shelves to working on the checkout.  
Her shift was over and her back ached as Stella hauled a couple of bulging plastic bags to  her car which was still taxed and insured so she would keep it at least until those expenses came round again. Then it would probably have to go.  A split opened in one of her bags and a jumble of tins and jars clattered to the ground.
‘Let me help’ the voice at Stella’s shoulder had a thick accent and a slight smell of unwashed clothes. 
‘Thank you, that’s very kind’ she said trying to fit the goods back into the torn bag.
‘I get you another bag’ he said and disappeared towards the store.
Stella took one bag to the car and when she returned she saw the tall black stranger filling a cardboard box with her goods.
‘I could not get a bag’ he said ‘but this will help yes?’
‘That will be fine. Thank you again.’
The man smiled, brilliant white teeth in an ebony face. Stella found it difficult to judge his age – somewhere between twenty and forty was the best she could do.  He picked up the box and took it to the open boot of her car. He ran a finger through the layer of grime on the rear window and said ‘next time I wash your car’ and gave her another smile.
‘Yussef’ a short swarthy man shouted ‘get back I need you. Now, quickly!’
He shrugged and said ‘I must go.’
She saw him occasionally after that and always said hello. She remembered his name, Yussef.
On a gloomy day, as autumn swept the leaves along with brisk cold easterly gusts, Stella pushed her carefully budgeted provisions back to her car and then returned the trolley to a storage bay. A scattering of figures cleaned cars. She shivered and wondered whether the water froze  – did the washers have gloves? She could not remember.
At the flat she opened the front door and went to get her shopping from the car. She opened the boot ‘Jesus Christ!’ she stepped back and put her hand to her face.
‘I’m so sorry to surprise you’ Yussef said huddled foetus like behind the bags.
‘Get out!’ Stella gasped at him ‘I’ve never had such a shock in my life. What are you doing here? How long have you been there?’
‘Not long’ he said, clambering out of the car ‘when you took your trolley back I got in. The car was not locked.’
‘Well I’ll not do that again. You frightened me. Why are you hiding in my car?’
‘I must escape. I am a prisoner. Already they will be looking for me.’
‘They?’ Stella said ‘who are they?’
‘The people who brought me here. I paid all the money I had. The war had taken everything and I was afraid for my life.’
‘But you’re in England now’ Stella said ‘you’re safe.’
Yussef laughed and shook his head ‘they took my papers and say I have to work to pay more for my voyage – much more.’
He huddled against the wind and pulled up the collar of a flimsy jacket. ‘What are you going to do now?’ she asked.
’Maybe I can go somewhere better. I don’t know. I am so unhappy. I thought I might go away. I can’t go back.’
Stella picked up her bags and slammed the boot. Yussef sighed and looked at the ground. As she went towards the house he pushed his hands deep into his pockets and, head down, began to walk away.
Stella stood with her key in her hand. Should she do more? She knew nothing about him except he was probably an illegal immigrant, penniless and homeless. She looked up at the upstairs flat. Lights were on, so old Mr Simmons was in.  He wouldn’t be any protection but at least he could phone the police if she screamed. She couldn’t remember seeing a hearing aid.
‘Yussef’ she called out. 
He clasped his cold hands round the mug of tea. No milk, plenty of sugar. Stella busied herself unpacking and trying not to worry about letting a young, male, illegal immigrant into her flat. He was almost certainly Muslim. She suddenly became conscious of her skirt, showing her leg below the knee. Was this tantamount to an invitation to sex? ‘Thank you again’ he said bringing Stella his cup and making her give a little jump of fright. She looked up at him. He was a head taller than her but thinner than at their first meeting.
Her thought were interrupted by a banging on the door. ‘Bloody hell!’ Stella said ‘are we on fire?’
‘It will be them’ Yussef said ‘they must have seen me and found your address. Is there a back way out?’
‘Yes, but only into the garden. There’s a big fence all round. You get in there.’
Stella pushed him into the bathroom as another round of bangs sounded on her door. She took a deep breath and made herself think of what she wished she had said to the HR man who sacked her. She opened the door and went on the offensive.
‘What the hell is all the banging about? What do you want?’ She faced the broad figure of the boss man at the car park.  He glowered at her and tried to see past into the flat. Stella felt that he was on the point of pushing her aside so she stood squarely in the doorway and folded her arms.
‘I know you’ she said ‘you work at the supermarket car park. Well you’ve never cleaned my car so I don’t owe you anything. What do you want?’
‘One of my workers has stolen money from me and run off. He was seen near your car. He is here yes?’
Stella stood a little taller ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no one here except me.’
The man fidgeted and looked back to the road where someone taller and broader leaned against a car. Something was said in a language Stella did not understand and the man by the car walked towards the side of the house and the gate to the rear.
Stella began to be seriously worried. She stepped forward.
‘I want you and your friend to get off my property now.’
The man ignored her and tried to peer through the front room window. There was a noise from the flat. ‘What is that?’ he said and stepped closer. Stella moved in front of him ‘it was the cat’ she said standing her ground.
‘Now listen’ Stella said ‘my brother is a policeman. I’m going to call him and, for a start, get him to check your car. Is it taxed and insured, do you have a driving licence, does it have an MOT?’ The man turned and looked at her frowning. Stella pressed on ‘and those people at the car wash. Do they all have work permits? Do you keep records of what you pay them? Are they all getting the minimum wage? Do you collect tax and national insurance from them? Does the place they stay in have safety certificates for gas and electricity?’
There was a pause and she sensed his uncertainty ‘No?’ she said ‘Oh dear. It looks like you’ve got a bit of work to do then doesn’t it?’ She stared at him until he looked away. ‘I will find him’ he said then spoke to the other man and they drove off with a squeal of tyres, leaving a faint smell of burnt oil on the night air.
Yussef jumped when Stella, still shaky at the knees, opened the bathroom door. ‘It’s OK, they’ve gone’ she said ‘they seemed really keen to find you. You’d better stay a while in case they’re still around.’
So Stella concocted something from rice and tuna then made custard to have with a tin of fruit. ‘It’s not Jamie Oliver I’m afraid’ she said.
He looked at her puzzled ‘It was very nice’ he said ‘we get very little. They would not let us take old food from the store.’
Stella shook her head ‘Probably health and safety’
Yussef said ‘yes safety is a problem. The place we stay is often attacked. People throw eggs at the door. A window was broken a few days ago. I feel afraid to go out. It is almost as it was in my home except there are no guns.’
The idea of guns hadn’t occurred to Stella. She hoped Yussef was right. ‘They said you’d taken some money.’
Yussef nodded ‘Yes, about £300.’
‘Wow, no wonder they wanted to find you. I didn’t know car washing paid so well.’
‘It is from the drugs we sell.’
‘What!’ Stella spilled some coffee ‘what do you mean ‘drugs.’’
‘When you ask for carwash you say you want special premium wax, I ask how many coats – one is 10grams, 2 is 20 grams and so on. I get the marijuana from Gregor – the man who was here – and you pay me as if paying for the car wash. Today I had several clients. Gregor was looking for me when I got into your car.’
‘So he has more to worry about than sorting out his MOT.’ Stella said.
Yussef frowned ‘sorry I do not understand.’
‘Never mind’ she said ‘but I see why they are anxious to get hold of you.’
She knew she should tell him to go but it was raining again and the local louts might be as hard on him as Gregor.  She took a deep breath and suppressed images of police standing over her bloodied corpse saying ‘she invited a man she hardly knew into her flat – she was asking for trouble’.  But he seemed so forlorn and desperate. ‘Look’ she said ‘the long distance coaches won’t start until the morning so why not stay here on the couch? At least you’ll be safe and warm.’
She gave him an old duvet and said brightly ‘I’ll just brush my teeth.’ In the bathroom she turned on the tap while she had a pee and the fears began to come back. What was she doing? When she came out she went into the kitchen and slipped a knife under some washing and went to her room. ‘Goodnight’ she said and quickly went into her room. It had no lock and she thought for a moment about escaping through the window but she told herself not to be silly, Yussef was frightened, alone and harmless and not a manipulative crook out to murder her in her bed. But she still took the chair from her bedside and wedged it beneath the door handle.  It wouldn’t be much of a barrier but she might have the chance to scream before an attack came. She decided to change into trousers and stay fully clothed.
She heard the toilet flush and movement on the other side of the door. She gripped the knife and listened, holding her breath. After some muffled shuffling there was silence. So she climbed into bed and lay clutching her knife and watching the door handle.  Belatedly she thought of her phone – it was, she realised, in her desk drawer in the sitting room along with her bank details and some cash. Stella wondered about going to get them but how would she explain being dressed, what if it provoked him?
She decided to stay in her room and pretend to sleep. If he tried to get through the door she would be ready with her knife. It was a boning knife, very sharp. She lay quietly listening.
A robin chirped in the garden. Stella awoke with a start. There was some light, it was after six. The chair was still wedged under the door handle . She listened carefully but could hear nothing. She really needed the toilet. What if he was getting washed or still asleep? He could have been thinking of her all night and be ready to try his luck now.
At last she could wait no longer and opened the door with a breezy ‘good morning’. Yussef was not there. She caught sight of herself in a mirror, tousle haired and, she saw, still wielding a knife. ‘God, I look crazy’ she thought.
After she had been to the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face she remembered her phone and money. They were untouched. The duvet he had used was folded neatly on the sofa. In the kitchen under the sugar bowl ‘Thank you’ was scribbled on a scrap of paper attached to a £50 note. 
Stella made coffee and toast. In the calming light of day she was glad she had trusted her instinct and even more glad she hadn’t stabbed the poor man to death while he slept. She finished her toast and got ready for work.
As she parked her car Gregor approached. ‘Where has Yussef gone? He demanded.
‘How many times do I have to tell you I don’t know.’ Stella slammed the car door.
Gregor moved closer to Stella and she could smell cigarettes on his breath. ‘He has stolen money from me. He is a thief. You know where he is I think. You help him get away with my money.’
A voice said ‘Are you alright?’ and Stella was relieved to see Harry who worked on the fresh fish counter coming over.
‘This man seems to think I know where one of his car washer people is.’
‘Yes’ Gregor said ‘I think she help him get away. Take him in her car. He has my money.’
Harry laughed. ‘What? You think Stella here, a woman on her own, would let one of those black blokes into her car and then what? Take him home for a cup of tea I suppose.’ He laughed again.
Stella widened her eyes ‘you think I’d let a man like that anywhere near me? Don’t be daft.’
Gregor lit a cigarette to get time to consider. He stared at Stella ‘I will find him. Then I will find the truth’ he said and walked off.
‘They don’t understand us’ said Harry ‘as if any self-respecting woman would go near one of those people.’
Stella gave a little frown. ‘Quite right, Harry’ she said ‘ridiculous.’