When I was a teenager, my Grandmother (with whom I spent a great deal of my time) had a stream of lodgers, international students from Staffordshire University, most of them post grads, who rented her spare room. Those few years opened me up to a great variety of opportunities and gave my suburban, middle-class, predominantly white experiences a much needed cultural shake up.
One lodger in particular had a profound effect on our whole family. Josef was Afghanistani by birth, had lived in Russia then The Netherlands growing up, had six degrees, spoke half a dozen languages fluently and could “get by” in about a dozen more. He was studying something computer-related, which was less common in 1997. He introduced my 17 year old self to 6am runs, pre-dawn yoga and tae kwon do, and my 75 year old Grandmother to neat vodka. He entertained me with lengthy Hamlet quotations in Russian and English Romantic poetry and my Grandmother with “day trips abroad”. He was 27, and may have been handsome – to my 17 year old eyes he was just “old”.
One day Josef made my Grandmother a proposition. We’d had a couple of vodkas after dinner and were sitting at the table when he offered to marry me. He assured me that if I came back to Afghanistan as his wife I would never have to lift a finger again. He’d never allow me to dirty my hands working in the garden, and we’d have “a girl” to do dishes and housework. I would accompany him to the shops, but would never have to carry the basket or lift things from the shelves; I would tell him, or better yet, point to what I wanted and he would get it for me. And, of course, he would deal with the money, to save me the maths.
I don’t believe we ever entertained the slightest notion of following this conversation to any conclusion – I’m still unsure just how serious he was being. But watching a lady in a burqa and her husband on the bus today, her covered but for her eyes, him with a basket of shopping in one hand and a “bag for life” in the other, I just pondered for a moment what a different life I could potentially have led.
Josef made my Grandmother’s final few months extremely happy. He was able to care for and challenge her in a way we couldn’t. After she died he visited us one Christmas, but other than that occasion he disappeared as completely as if he’d never been a part of our lives. My family remains half-jokingly, half-seriously convinced that he was a spy…
Like the life I might have led, I guess we’ll never know!