It was only months later, looking back, that Issa realised how close he had come to not going through that door.
The bus journey was bad enough: not only did his nervousness nearly overwhelm him, but he had made the mistake of looking at the front page of the newspaper that some other traveller had left on the seat next to him. Someone attacked and left for dead, this time in Page Hall. As he read, against his will he felt the knot in his stomach tighten. Why did people do things like this? He spent the rest of the journey inside himself, mired in memories that forever threatened to break the surface.
The spell was broken when he got off the bus, and his attention returned to the present, to where he was going.
As he walked, he wondered why he had listened to Justin. That was a lie: he knew why he had listened to Justin. His… friend?… had done so much for him, but he was starting to wonder why he had agreed to spend a Saturday morning, and perhaps others in the future, doing the very thing that usually made him so anxious. Though he had made the occasional friend at school, Issa had spent his time there, at least the time he could remember, trying to sink into the background, and here he was walking towards a place where he would stand out. Not only would he have to speak in front of others, but he knew that the place would be filled with English teenagers of the type that so unnerved him, that he felt so apart from: bright, confident and radiating that easy sense of entitlement that came from knowing that this country was made for you and people like you, that you were meant to be here, that you weren’t some strange, lonely Malian boy blown in on the wind.
With these thoughts shrouding him, Issa turned onto Surrey Street where he paused, realising that he didn’t know exactly where he was going. Walking along more slowly, he looked above the doorways to the various shops until he saw it: above an entrance reached by a few steps was a sign with a cream background and a large blue M, underneath which was ‘The Montgomery’. A few more steps, and he had arrived.
Standing there, all Issa wanted was to turn and go back the way he came, perhaps taking a detour to the Winter Gardens so he could sit on the bench he liked, the one in the midst of the greenery. How could he walk through that door and be among them, exposed, them seeing him for who he was, knowing that he didn’t belong there? He could imagine the silence that would drop when he entered, of them turned towards him, of the instant dismissal that would flash across their faces before they went back to talking.
He also thought of Justin, who seemed so sure about him doing this: ‘I know it’ll be scary, Issa, but think of where it might take you.’ Issa didn’t know why Justin was so interested in him, but he was glad he was. The older man was one of the few people that had treated him as something other than a refugee; Justin seemed to have a confidence in him that he didn’t have in himself, who saw a future that he himself was blind to. If Justin wanted him to do this, it must be for a good reason, mustn’t it?
His thoughts were interrupted by someone brushing past him. Coming to, he saw that it was a boy and girl, roughly the same age as himself, talking excitedly and dressed in the type of casual clothing he could never afford, nor even think of wearing. They went through the door in front of him, and soon their laughter disappeared as the door swung closed. He took one last look back down Surrey Street towards the Winter Gardens and thought of the peace and solitude of his favourite bench. The he turned and, tightening his jaw, went through the door.