Facebook. I hate it and yet can’t seem to permanently delete it out of my life. An onslaught of people you have to congratulate for their new kidneys or their new kids or their new cars. I used Facebook to catch up with family, and my communications were usually limited to close relatives.
Today however, I received a message from someone I used to know. The name above the message read: Lucas Kowalski.
‘Hello Shaikha. I hope you are good. I am still in Lincoln. not at factory anymore. I am Uncle now.’
It took me back to the lonely summer of 2008; I had just turned nineteen. I was far away from close friends and the comfort of the family home. Scanning through the few lines of broken English, I began to wonder when the last time I saw Lucas was.
I left the Emirates when I was sixteen to study abroad at the Lincolnshire Regional College. Although it is hard to admit, my family weren’t very lenient with this choice and it took a while to convince my parents to grant me permission. My dad wasn’t very interested in anything his children did and was rarely home anyway. My mum was more worried she would miss me too much as we are very close, but decided it was best I take any opportunity provided for me, including being able to study beyond what the schools in UAE were willing to teach. I chose to enrol in English Literature, Philosophy, Film Studies and Citizenship.
My Granny Tea provided me with a home in the most boring town in East England, the small village of Clamston. It was chalk full of retired folk and suburban families, types who never travelled anywhere further than Canary Islands. It had two churches, one for Protestants, one for Baptists, a convenience store, a pond and a public house. There were no hints of a nightlife, no traffic lights and one station as the way out.
I was far from the distractions of Abu Dhabi. I sometimes forgot what it was like to be back home. In the onset of teenage yearnings and hormonal imbalances, when my friends would buy cheap alcohol off random bootleggers behind the Dana Hotel and find barren spots in the park to drink, where no passers-by would come for hours. The times of house parties, often at the rich, white kids’, with the diplomat parents who were away holidaying, entrusting their seventeen year old with what was basically a mansion. Those were the fun times that I didn’t realise I would miss so much.
In quiet Clamston, it was an hours’ bus ride to college. It was a matter of time before my social life suffered; I spent hours in the college library during any free time to plan coursework and finish assignments to work my way into getting accepted for a scholarship.
My final exam results were satisfying, all Bs and one A; my first choice for a university location was London. I gathered the application papers for student finance and received embittering news.
It firmly stated in the application guide that those who have resided in the U.K. for less than three years would not be eligible for any university fees paid by the government. This was also applied to British nationals unless they or their parents own a property in the U.K. while living abroad. Up until then, I had only lived there for two years. I scoured the guidance pages for hours, trying to find a loophole to no avail.
I hurriedly called the university to let them know I would be deferring my year until September of 2009. I then found a job agency, which apparently was crying out for workers. At the time, I was sick to death of listening to the news constantly reporting about the global recession. I refused to become a statistic in this country that could not find work. I would take whatever work was offered to me. I couldn’t afford to be choosey.
The agency immediately sent me to work on the production line at a cake company, a 4,000 sq ft industrial factory located just outside of Lincolnshire. My shift started at two o’clock in the afternoon and didn’t wrap until ten at night. I learnt a lot on my first day at a proper wage-paying job. I had dabbled in work placements when I was younger, mainly at corporate offices in Dubai, where I would read newspapers, drink hot chocolate and admire the views of the glass towers from the 60th floor of the Emirates Towers while not doing very much work at all. Those were the kind of opportunities you get out there when you are an Emirati woman, especially if you have a private school education. I wasn’t so interested in corporate work at this time. Sure I could of just gone back to the Emirates as soon as possible, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to experience a life that was not open to me there. I wanted to struggle, I wanted a challenge, and I wanted to break the cycle.
I didn’t really know what I was getting myself in for to be honest. This type of work was a completely different ball game all together. This was manual work, hard work, work for the strong, work for the desperate and sincerely not for the work shy. I was given a white t-shirt, an apron, a blue hairnet and a white bakers hat to wear. Latex gloves were stacked in boxes to take as you please. Black safety boots were to be worn at all times.
I was assigned to the conveyor belt, where Katerina, a petite, smiling Lithuanian woman was to guide me on my first week. Together we folded cardboard boxes and stacked them high all around us ready to fill with muffins that were being spat out of the packing machine. We had to be as quick as we could to not cause a huge overflow. We packed up small boxes and then packed them into larger boxes ready for distribution. It was exhausting back aching work, repetitive and mundane. I kept checking the huge clock on the wall opposite us, time seemed to pass ever so slowly and all I kept thinking of was home time. It was just my first day.
Looking around and listening out whenever I could to the calls and talk around me it didn’t take me long to realise that everyone in the factory was foreign. There was Selena, a dark haired and olive skinned beauty from Lithuania. Oksana, a small pixie like eighteen year old from Poland, all able to speak to each other in the same language.
Later that week, I chatted to Katerina and asked her how she came about to the factory. She explained how her, her husband and their two daughters moved from Lithuania, just generally for a better life. The lack of opportunities in her home country was draining and they wanted to provide a better future for their girls. Her husband was also a factory worker. She herself had been here two months; I asked her how she found it.
‘It was horrible, I hated it at first’, she admitted, ‘I would go home every night and cry to my husband how difficult I found the work, I didn’t want to come back. But I am used to it now, even though I am small, I am strong, I have to be. I need the money to look after my children and that is what is most important.’
I nodded in agreement. So I wasn’t just being silly, this work really was pretty shit, but at least if tiny little Katerina could get used to it, so could I. The word privileged creeped into my mind, knowing I didn’t have a family to support and the choice to leave, I never complained out loud about the back-breaking work to anyone again.
After two weeks, the manager informed me I was moving departments, he led me into the kitchen. ‘You will be working in here today, I think you might find it quite interesting’, he smiled. I smiled back; amused at his enthusiasm at how this job could ever possibly be more interesting than it was. I was pleasantly surprised though.
The factory kitchen moved like clockwork. Everything that was being done was to enable the next step. There was Malek in the background at the sinks, singing while he washed the huge baking trays and mixing bowls with a large shower hose. Oksana was speeding about weighing and tipping ingredients into the huge mixer. Yulia and Helen were filling the baking tins with cake batter and helping themselves to toppings like marshmallows and nuts to nibble on and finally, Lucas, who was pushing the tall shelves of raw cake into the large heated ovens for baking. He then pulled the ready cooled racks of freshly baked cakes into the cutting machines and sent off on the conveyor belt for packing.
Something attracted me to Lucas. He was not the most handsome man I had ever seen, but he had a kind, welcoming smile. He was tall and thin with blue eyes that looked at me behind thick-lensed glasses. I would hear him speak with the rest of the factory workers in a language I couldn’t place. Finally, after a long afternoon of rolling out shortbread dough, I stepped into the smoker’s pit where I found him sitting with Malek.
‘Hi’, I began ‘do you speak English?’
‘Yes’, Lucas said, ‘but not Malek, he only speaks Polish, German and Russian.’
‘So where are you from?’
‘Poland, both of us.’
‘So how are you able to speak to the Lithuanian girls? Are they speaking Polish?’
‘No, we are speaking Russian.’
It all began to fall into place now. I thought back to when I did GCSE history at school, learning about the USSR and Poland being liberated in 1989. It naturally seemed like they would all speak Russian. Malek took out a small bottle of red label Smirnoff vodka and, smiling like the Cheshire cat, he offers some to me.
I am put off momentarily by the ease in which they break the rules; they are consuming alcohol on the premises, but as Malek looks about forty I assumed this behaviour cannot be that outlandish. Yes, the work was boring and we probably all hated it, so what was the harm in doing it tipsy, especially if all he had to do was the washing up?
I took the bottle and knock back a shot quickly as I could before I could gag in front of two grown men.
A couple of hours later, I notice the sinks are abandoned. Malek is nowhere to be seen when I drag the washing up for him.
‘Where’s Malek?’ I ask Lucas.
‘He went home, he’s too drunk.’
‘Drunk?’, I sputtered, ‘but doesn’t he drive to work?’
‘Yes’, Lucas replies, unbothered, ‘he drove home.’
I tut prudishly, ‘That is very dangerous you know, he shouldn’t be driving like that, especially if he’s too drunk to stay at work.’
Lucas’ expression becomes pensive in the face of my sincerity and nods in agreement.
Soon we were chatting whenever we got the chance to. I tried to think no one noticed, but they most likely did. I didn’t speak a word of Russian so they possibly used this advantage to tease Lucas about it. We arranged to meet one day, straight after work. It had been a very long shift involving a mass of chocolate and orange flavoured cake bars. The sickly sweet smell of orange syrup wafted through the factory, with no chance of dissipating anytime soon. The odour nauseated me as I tried to get as much done in the batch as possible. My clothes were covered in a sticky chocolate orange mess and I couldn’t wait to be rid of them. To this day, I recall that smell acutely and long after I left the factory. I had a recurring dream I was stuck inside packing chocolate orange cakes for eternity.
That night ended on a positive note, Lucas and I went back to his house where his housemates were having a party. There was a bright atmosphere with an expansive spread of Polish party food and lots of vodka. They took an interest in me, mainly because I think they didn’t know of many British Emirati people residing amongst them. Living in the U.K. must have been hard at that time, I thought. The Eastern European community had been largely ostracised for migrating West. Papers like the Sun or the Daily Mail were no strangers to this, putting out headlines disgracing Polish news outlets for giving tips on how to claim welfare from the state. I never regarded the press too seriously. I was amongst people who all worked hard simply for a better life and my experience of their work ethic and determination only made me feel ashamed that they were in fact working jobs that local people did not want. The factory hired me, so there appeared to be no discrimination involved. I asked Lucas one day if there had been any other British workers during his time there and he said there had been, but they usually lasted about two weeks before quitting.
By August I had been working at the factory just over a month. My younger sister Salama was on MSN messenger chatting to me from my Mum’s house in Abu Dhabi. She asked me about starting university and I let her know I decided to not pursue it this year and instead I was working at the cake factory. To my sister this probably was nothing out of the ordinary, nor any issue to her. To my mum on the other hand, this was a very different scenario. She called me the next day during my break.
‘Shaikha, what is this I hear that you aren’t going to university?’ My mum demanded to know.
‘Well, I thought I would just work for a bit, plus I can’t get student finance because I haven’t been here long enough.’
I had to explain all the implications of not being in the country long enough doesn’t qualify me for the funding.
‘I will get you a scholarship’, she said clearly more distressed as it hadn’t sunk in.
‘I will….talk to the Sheikh.’
This was really embarrassing me now. University was to start next month; there was no way my mum could pull those types of strings at such short notice. We were not a prestigious Emirati family who could make demands at any given time, we didn’t own a house, we didn’t have a housemaid, we had no money, only debt, was I the only one living in the real world? We were nobodies. I knew my mum couldn’t pay for it herself. We weren’t living in poverty, but a single, divorced woman supporting four children was no easy ride financially. We had no help from my father at all.
‘I’m fine, honestly, I deferred the year, so I can go next September, until then I will have to plan it properly.’
I heard my mother’s tone relax, ‘Right, that’s a good idea… I will book you a ticket to come back to Abu Dhabi.’
This was sudden. She booked the ticket for me and told me I’d be flying out in two weeks from Heathrow airport on Royal Brunei Airlines.
I would be lying if I said I was concerned for Lucas and I. I knew we were never going anywhere. I think he did though. Our relationship wasn’t the most complex, when we weren’t at work. We’d spend what little time we had smoking reefer, listening to hip hop and drinking cheap wine straight out of the bottle in his bedroom or in a park near his house.
I was only nineteen at the time and he was thirty, so maybe this was a serious relationship to him. My priority was going to university next September. Back then a year seemed like forever, whereas at his age a year went by as quickly as a month. Our perceptions and plans for our futures were very different. I went to a private school in the Middle East and then to England for my higher education. There was no other plan for me apart from that. I didn’t envision anything else for myself; especially not marriage. Lucas had grown up in communist Poland, from a disadvantaged background and was forced to learn Russian. He worked purely to support his elderly parents back home. He barely had a penny to his name and had also lived in the smallest room of his shared house, on a sofa bed. It would have been easy for me to fit into his life, all I would have to do is give up my ambition and put it all into working to support ourselves and keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. It would be a combined effort.
For Lucas to have a place in my life, it would have been different. He would have to followed me to London, and I just did not see that happening. Plus, I didn’t want it to happen. I wanted the freedom of a new start and nothing holding me back. As I prepared myself for telling Lucas the news that I would be returning to Abu Dhabi, I felt relaxed being able to convey to him the situation was out of my hands and this was for the best.
‘I’m going back to Abu Dhabi,’ I told him one warm Sunday afternoon in late August. We were sitting on a low, stone wall outside a pub in Stamford drinking pints of fruity cider.
‘Ah’, Lucas chirped, a reaction, I learned, that usually occurred when he was unsure of something. ‘When?’
His face dropped slightly and he nodded, ‘I can come with you?’ he asked, in broken English.
‘How? You haven’t got any money’, I replied. It’s true, he didn’t, I had paid for the drinks as usual.
‘Ok, I will come one day and we can get married’ he said, with finality, as if it were all decided.
I smiled, not because I liked what he said, because I knew the chances of that happening were non-existent. Lucas had no idea of the lifestyle I led in the Emirates. I would soon be back with my friends living life in the sun, hitting up beach parties, dancing on the bar during ladies night, after parties in plush hotel suites, magnums of Champagne and shots of absinthe in the VIP lounge of the Emirates Palace. That is what I had planned for my gap year before I go onto higher education. Marriage was definitely not an option. But I didn’t tell him any of this; I think I was too much of a coward to kill his mood.
I nodded, ‘We’ll see.’
When I said goodbye to Lucas, I was sad probably for the wrong reasons. Mainly because I knew we wouldn’t see each other again, yet I couldn’t bring myself to make this clear to him, sad I couldn’t find the bottle to tell him I wasn’t coming back to him. The trouble with relationships when growing up is the naivety of wanting to believe we would meet again and continue our relationship. I didn’t want to think everything we had shared during our time together had been for nothing. Ten years later now, I know how I would have handled it, with more maturity and honesty. Or I most likely would not involve myself with someone I found so disposable. I never wanted to be a woman whose first experience with a man was going to be the one I married. I believe love and sex can come before that, I was happy to experience this relationship when I did, it prepared me for later in life when I would eventually find someone I knew I could be compatible with.
We stayed in touch for a while when I got back to Abu Dhabi over email and text, but eventually I stopped replying. I never told anyone about Lucas either until I got much older. I only told my close friend and sisters who found the whole situation pretty random.
I still didn’t reply to Lucas when he reached out to me on Facebook. I thought it would be better to leave things in the past. I didn’t want to tell him about how great I am doing, in case he wasn’t. He was a good man and I wish him the best, but in reality we were never meant to be.
Edited by Aliya Al Awadhi
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