A couple shift about under the streetlight outside, then enter the shop. They are dirty people in even dirtier nylon coats, drug addicts who move like ghosts. Farid waves them off. “No,” he says. “No. Go out.” The woman holds on to the man’s sleeve and tugs at him. Her blonde hair is shining, darkened by grease. “Go out now,” Farid says, but the man’s hand appears over the counter, trembling, and the woman opens and closes her mouth as though she has forgotten what else it takes to speak. Her face is raw and cratered, remaining teeth rotten down to pegs the color of bile. She did this violence to herself.
“Please mate,” the man mumbles, and drags a bitten finger under his nose. “Spare us something.”
Farid hates these people. He places a stale kofte meant for the dustbin in the man’s hand, and the pair retreat to the only table in the shop, where they sit and split the lump of meat.
A talking woman pushes the shop door open and leans inside. She has her mobile phone tucked into her hijab, hands free. “Halal?” She interrupts her conversation to ask Farid, who shakes his head. Hassan always answers yes to this question because he has been here too long.
“No bloody halal,” the woman says into her phone and leaves.
“What’s hal-al?” the drug addict woman asks, clearly fortified by her half of the kofte. The couple have finished it and are waiting, for what Farid doesn’t know. How to explain to people like these about lawfulness?
“It is not for you,” he says and turns away.
The doner on the spit doesn’t need shaving but Farid does it anyway to keep his hands busy. It is graceful, the way the long knife glides through the meat, and also how the meat curls and falls into the tray. This is a job Farid likes. He enjoys sharpening the blade beforehand, and bringing it down through the compacted layers in the spirit of Saladin. The drug addicts are watching his swordsmanship like hungry dogs. Do they plan to rob him? He plates some of the shavings and slides the plate along the counter, followed by two dusty cans of the grape drink nobody buys. The couple dive for their scraps and cans and take them back to their dining table. Bowing and shuffling awkwardly, they praise him: thankyoumatethanksthankyouyou’reasaintyouare. Farid tries not to look at them.
There are times when he does not feel like a good man. At night, in the tiny back bedroom of Hassan’s flat, he lies on an inflatable mattress and imagines his cousin’s pregnant wife lying beside him, her swollen belly exposed, taut and smooth. Yara. He whispers her name for himself over and over to own it. She has been kind to him. He pulls her close, wrapping his arms around her and the hidden child, and rests his nose in her long brown hair until the clean scent of it brings on sleep. When morning comes and he is alone again, Farid weeps silently. He rises to pray only when the sound of Hassan starting up the power shower and singing the Beyoncé pop song drags him to his knees. These thoughts, Farid knows, are wrong, and his behavior deeply ungrateful. But he is still a young man. He wonders who will love him in this place.
“Mo’s a fucking prick, Laura, coming down here, starting trouble. A complete and utter twat.”
Two young women have entered the shop. They are arm-in-arm and one has been crying. The other has a tattoo of a tiger on her right breast. It claws an escape out of her top along with the pink arc of her left nipple. Both the drug addicts look up from their meat.
“Burger and chips, please,” the tiger woman asks Farid and slams a five pound note on the counter. “Want anything, Laur?”
The snivelling friend manages a no. Farid stares at her. She is beautiful under the make-up sliding off her face, but he feels she is wasting her beauty on heartbreak, allowing it to shave the light from her skin, to blunt her sharper edges. He tries to memorise her. In a few years she will be ruined, he thinks. Maybe all she needs to help her is a man like me.
“Take a picture, pervert. It’ll last longer,” the tiger woman snaps, and pulls her friend over to the corner where the utter twat is discussed.
Farid splits a bun and slides a frozen disc from a packet onto the griddle. The burgers are not meat, but the customers like them. Hassan says they don’t care what they eat on a Saturday night so long as it is hot and cheap. They are foolish. They have no idea how good kebab can taste, spiced with Aleppo pepper, capsicum or pomegranate molasses, served fresh from white hot charcoal. Farid slides a few more discs on, ready. And some chicken shish, too. He congratulates himself on his preparedness. Maybe these women will notice his skill. He leaves the tiger woman’s order and change on the counter.
“You alright, darling?” The drug addict woman has left her boyfriend sipping from his can and moved over to the beautiful girl. “Men are bastards,” she says in a low voice, and touches her shoulder. “Knock you about did he? Share you about?”
No time for answers. A group of white men bundle through the door. They are loud, and under the tang of oil and fried frozens, Farid can smell the alcohol seeping from inside them, and the sweat and cologne rising from the damp patches on their shirts. He recognizes some of them. Regulars. They tease the tiger: give us a cheeky tit fuck! Then try to comfort the beauty: come on love, it’s not the end of the fucking world. They pretend the addicts are invisible but Farid notices the woman retreat to the safety of the table. Orders come rapid-fire over the counter and he is thankful he put the extra burgers and shish on ahead of time. He works faster than he imagined he could. Flipping and turning. Garlic sauce, iceberg, no jalapeno. Leave off, mate, them green things give me the shits! Chips with loads of salt and vinegar all round.
One of the white men has a belly bigger than Yara’s. “Where’s Hass?” this man asks, then tears into his doner.
They all join in, chanting. WHERE IS HASS? WHERE IS HASS? The chants get louder and louder and one man bangs his thick fists on the display.
“Please,” Farid says. “It will break.”