Change the Channel / Mohammed Zaahidur Rahman
The forest brought familiar silence.
Since I was a kid, I’ve hated long drives, but my paternal Grandma lives in Birmingham so we went often. The drive was always fraught with shit. My parents would scream and bicker throughout. Neither of them could stand the two hours, shot through as they were with some weird economy of guilt.
‘You and your bloody family…’ Dad blabbered, unprovoked, hunched over the wheel. ‘They’re all evil people!’
Mum leaned forward over the gearstick to get a better look at him.
‘You talk so much rubbish!’
‘I’ve had enough of your nonsense,’ Dad muttered.
‘Oh-oh, have you? You keep bringing things up!’ Mum threw her hands up, exasperated.
Dad craned his neck around to us. ‘Your mum is so stupid, do you know?’
‘Isn’t that right? Aren’t I so stupid?’
We looked ahead at the motorway.
Now that I’ve done it, I see it’s useless to translate their arguments. The English version gets blunted beyond recognition. To be sure, no meaningful depth is lost, as there was none to begin with. It’s just that the cusswords in Sylheti bite eight times as hard. They snarled at each other, eyes flitting between road and face.
During daylight, there was always a point when we drove through Epping Forest and everything would go quiet. The scenery felt like an intermission, interjecting its calm into the tense Land Rover. In autumn, copper leaves spread like opened envelopes at the roadside. Tree trunks rushed by, staccato. I pressed my face to the glass, a hypnotic alien landscape. Can we pull over? Can we pull over?
It happened to all of us at once: everyone would go quiet and look at the trees pushing by. Sunlight leapt through the balding trees, and we’d escape for some minutes. I hummed songs and remembered poems to feel the depth of the silence. I thought of the Kabir poem about the slick doe, bounding across a pond fraught with hunters, dodging their arrows for her little life. It unfolded in slow motion. We all play Bambi at some point, surviving something we didn’t need to see.
In Birmingham, we stayed a couple of days at a time. My parents were hoarders, so we learned to densely pack every piece of our clothes into three precious suitcases. The days consisted of awkward living room scenes and roughhousing with the cousins. Dadu’s unbeatable catfish curry every night and sneaking out to the chippy.
Dadu was a tiny woman with wispy black hair. Her skin was a tender pink where she had vitiligo, and her eyes a gassy blue from the cataracts. She moved very slowly and her fingers were crooked from arthritis.
People say, when she was younger, she used to sing very well. But she never sang to us. She only ever told harrowing tales about her life and cried. She'd grab your arm suddenly while you were watching cartoons: ‘Why don't you visit me more?’ she’d ask, her milky eyes glistening.
Dadu cooked the old things, like tripe and pigeon and catfish with jute leaves. Her mind was still set to another ecology even though she'd lived here decades longer than me. Mum and Dadu reminisced about the Desh, what they used to eat, the six seasons dictated by the paddy harvest.
I always coveted that secret knowledge. It must've felt good, like a hidden superpower, to know the fish, bark, and roots. They mourned the Desh often, and I listened with a keen ear. They sounded like psalms; how shall we eat the Lord's salaan in a strange land?
In primary school, I began to learn about fungus from library books. Then wildflowers and trees, reading Wikipedia pages. There was something religious about it; each plant and mushroom was like a deity, a patron saint, a presence in the woods. Achillea millefolium, Marasmius oreades, Quercus robur—all had character and iconography. Hemlock and deathcaps could kill you, slow and painful. Tansy and wormwood smell sweet and herby. Come autumn, when they grew brittle, I’d crush the dried buds in my hand and sniff them and taste their bitter spice at the tip of my tongue.
At Dadu’s, in the tenement streets of Lozells, Birmingham, we began reciting the names of the nettles, dock leaves, and dandelions, cracking through pavements, nature's asthmatic breath in the city.
From Birmingham to Tower Hamlets, my family grew gourds, nali saag,and beans in gardens and on council-estate balconies. They recreated the ecology they so missed. A song sung bittersweetly against the chorus of deciduous and evergreen on this rainy island. A chorus I learned by heart.
We moved to Leyton in my teens, where Hollow Ponds was only fifteen minutes away. I’d run around and climb trees with my sister Khadija. The gorse cut mazes by the lake, seed pods in the autumn, small purple ears, soft and downy in a nebula of spikes. By then, Khadija and I had begun to hang out in Hollow Ponds regularly, jumping on the 56 over the weekend. I didn't know it was joined to Epping Forest until we walked deep inside, beyond the lake and the papery birches. From the car rides as a kid, I thought that place was an unknowable, untouched ground zero, that you needed a space suit to walk through it.
Khadijah had a boyish bob at that time and wore a lot of horizontal stripes. We used to climb trees and fight with sticks, then hit Johnsten’s cafe for salmon bagels. They packed them generously, a splurge of translucent lox bursting from the sides.
We always ordered more because the climbing would drain us. The low willows were the best. When we got to the inner forest, the ancient trees became vertical and mossy, too dignified for our grubby hands.
In autumn, I saw field mushrooms, turkey tails and porcinis growing out from a bounty of undergrowth. The oyster mushrooms were luminous under an overcast sky, darkening early above muddy trails. Crinkled scrolls of sycamore leaves squeaked and busted underfoot. Rain made the field mushrooms swell and release spermatic perfume.
Life affirmed itself amidst the dead matter, the fertile mud, thick and flatulent.
At madrasa we were always told that Allah was omnipresent in a very scriptural way. But I don’t think I was all that religious then. Here with the plants, we noticed something powerful happening under our feet; you could smell it in the bracken. Something old and potent had gone off in Epping Forest.
The malls and bus stops around Epping are devoid of these functions of death and renewal. Even Whipps Cross Hospital, though nestled in the forest and teeming, stands still with its perennial bricks and linoleum. There is no autumn for concrete and steel. Cities make autumn a comical vestige, an appendix or seventh toe.
As I was finishing up uni, I worked weekends at a curry-house in Essex, a rite of passage. To get there, my uncle drove me through Epping Forest, up Loughton ways and through Debden. We drove without speaking, in our white shirts. My uncle was a burly man with a gold tooth and an unexplained scar running down his face. He’s the kind of man whose phone always rang as he drove.
Cruising through the forest felt like God’s waiting room before a shift, with the trees arching over the dual carriageway. I’d imagine chamber music and then drum and bass, on and off. I watched gusts of gold pixelate the trees. The sound of an engine ate up the unspooling road like a huge piece of grey spaghetti.
I hated my job and tried everything to get my head out of the Hello-sir-what-would-you-like that occupied my days. I inevitably returned to remembering.
On the drive back from Lozells as a child, there were glistening nights with headlights on full beam. I remember Dad nodding off at the wheel while Mum stared worried and angry, with a backseat full of cowering children. They argued to stay awake sometimes. Such was their marriage; bad theatre that lasted too long, too many tactless breaks of the fourth-wall.
I’d focus on the beery orange lamps whizzing by, a countdown ticking to the last second. I tried to guess how many there were, thinking Allah laid them out in a certain number to reassure me that all would pass.
In the darkness on either side of the road, I felt all the lives Epping Forest has seen through with its Neolithic eye. I think the forest decides who it involves. My life, another leaf shed in numberless autumns.