Rhododendrons & Burgers
by Ayman Eckford
“I’m 27 years old Autistic non-binary trans* masculine person who lives in Sheffield like an asylum seeker for 4,5 years. [...] I’m originally from Ukraine. There was a queer event in Juno Books, and then I saw the poster “bread and roses”, so here the idea of this story came from, and then, there was a writing event in the central library, and the story was born. It is also partly based of my own experience (I was living in Urban house that mentioned in the begging, and where main character’s girlfriend is living, and like a main character, I was a trans* kid who understands from early years that I’m not a girl, but couldn’t be myself because of my messy, abusive family).”
Content warning: mention of racist violence, themes of racism, fascism, and transphobia.
I remember the words: ‘bread and roses’. It has been playing in my mind all this morning. I think it has something to do with socialists. Or feminists. Or both. My Mum hates them all, despite being a pretty much emancipated female leader herself, especially after my father got stuck in jail for a hate crime, after attacking a Black migrant man on the streets of London. Since then, she has basically ruled his movement.
I was raised by Nazis. I was raised to hate socialists, feminism, queer people and modernity.
I'm also a trans* boy and the most modern kid you could imagine, because I met my current girlfriend online. She is the reason I’m here today.
The reason why I’m thinking about ‘bread and roses’.
Now I am pedalling to the Urban House for Refugees in Wakefield, holding a huge bouquet of red and pink rhododendrons and a KFC takeout bag. I need rhododendrons to cover my face, so Mum and Sun wouldn’t recognize me. I need the burgers because my girlfriend, Mariam, who lives in Urban House, asked for them: she was fed up with the not-too spicy food they offered to asylum seekers here, and didn't have her own money, so I snatched money and bought her something every time I came.
There is a huge demo near the Urban House today.
Bread and roses.
Well, my motto for today is: rhododendrons and burgers.
Mariam came from Afghanistan when the Taliban took power there again, but she is not conservative as you would expect from an Afghan girl, not at all. She had known that I’m trans* before she came to the UK. We met on a Heartstopper fan forum, and she knew that I was queer. She is bisexual, feminist, and absolutely fine with me being a transgender boy. She accepts trans* folks. Not like my Mum, who is one hundred percent British.
I saw her now, and my heart was pounding like crazy under my Slayer metal band t-shirt.
I saw my Mum and my brother, Nietzsche Sun, standing beside Tommy Robinson and a bunch of other Nazis who came there to protest against refugees.
My folks are leading the protest.
“Great Britain is for British people!” they yell.
Great! My girlfriend is not British.
“The UK is not for freaks!” they row, and I was raised like a girl… A girl who feels that they should have a boy’s private parts, since they were two years old - or even before… What could be more ‘freaky’ than that?
“Refugees aren’t welcome here, refugees aren’t welcome here!” they shout, and I have never felt less British than at this moment.
Rhododendrons are hiding my face. At least my family hasn't seen me. Not yet.
The socialist guys, anti-racist, don't see me as well. It’s good. I would join them if it weren't for Mariam being inside. I’m only sixteen and I don’t want anyone calling the police, because if someone called the police… Well, by the law, I belong to my Mum.
I’m her ‘property’ until I’m 18. There is nothing you can do about it.
I jump off the bike. Cool that I borrowed it from a pal, because I inherited my own bike from my stupid brother, Sun, and so it's painted in SS camouflage colours. It’s too cringy to use it, I feel like I’m burning up with shame every time someone sees me on it! And here, Sun would recognize his ‘masterpiece’ even if he didn't recognize me.
I feel like my heart could jump out from my chest. And I feel dizzy from the flowers tickling my nose. The anticipation and the floral smell won't let me breathe.
Someone yelled at me to piss off from the country, despite the fact that I was born in the UK and have never been abroad - well, besides exactly one short trip to Berlin’s Neo-Nazi March, when I was a toddler, thanks to my parents who have been on black lists everywhere they could be since then!
“Go away, savage!” the guy yells. And I feel a weird kind of pride. Not for being British but because he thought that I’m a refugee, and that I could be savage and dangerous to him. It makes me smile.
I saw the poster in the arms of the guy who pushed me, thinking that I’m a refugee: “it is not the land of milk and honey.” My brother Sun made this poster.
And I agree - there is milk and honey in Urban houses. But when your parents are Nazis, it is not very beneficial, no milk and honey at home sometimes. Or sometimes no home at all, when you're on and off the care system throughout your entire childhood.
Anyway, despite the fact that his namesake had strong individual views, my brother Nietzsche Sun has too much of a herd mentality to see the irony in his poster’s words.
Sometimes I think that the real Nietzsche would be sick of my family and all Nazis who used his name no less than I am sick of them.
“Hi, Savi,” Abdullah, the guy who guarded the facility, waved at me.
“Assalamu Alaikum,” I shouted the Muslim greeting to him. I quickly look behind my back. No, the far-right protesters didn't hear my voice. Mum didn't hear me.
Gosh! Mum would kill me if she could hear that.
Mariam ran towards me, I caught her and swung her in my arms. I am pretty strong and big for my age.
“A big Arian kid” Mum said, only I’ve never wanted to be less Arian than when I’m here, with Mariam.
The rhododendrons fall on the black and white floor, scattered around.
“Savi…” Mariam whispered.
This is my name, Savi. Well, the gender-neutral version of my name that I use. My full name is Savitri Lightning Smith. Dumb, isn’t it?
Savitri is after this woman, Savitri Devi, who believed that Hitler was an avatar of Vishnu.
And the Lightning is after Savitri Davi’s book ‘Lightning and the Sun’ where she wrote this stupid idea about Hitler and ‘predicted’ the end of the world. I’m called Lightning because my Mum hoped I'd grow into a chaotic power, just like she wanted her older son to be the second Hitler, and the second one to be a philosopher.
I smirked. Maybe at least here she was right about me. I wanted to be chaotic, unpredictable and powerful against her movement, but I am scared. My Mum is unpredictable. The way she named me!
Savitri Lighting! And that's lucky, yet. My older brother's name is Adolf Vishnu. And my second brother’s name is Nietzsche Sun. Yeah, things can happen when your parents get into esoteric hitlerism.
I remember our teacher's lips trembling, as if my siblings and I were some kind of nasty insects, when she pronounced our names.
“Why do you all have such stupid names?” other kids used to ask me all the time.
As if we had picked them ourselves.
“Because we have stupid parents!” I used to say. But if even the teachers don't understand, what's there to say about other kids?
As if they chose their parents!
“Savi!” Mariam called my new name over and over again.
And it was so different from the way others said it.
I like how she pronounced it, with her accent it sounds ‘savvy’, like I'm savvy, and super clever.
I hope I won't disappoint her.
Abdullah picked the flowers from the floor and handed them to me.
I gave the bunch to Mariam.
“Sorry for dropping them.”
She nodded and took them.
“Do you like it?” I asked, feeling nervous.
“Of course,” she said, smelling the rhododendrons, and then looking out the window. “I’m scared. So many of them…”
“Half of them support refugees,” I shrugged and took the KFC bag from the floor. “Here. Rhododendrons and bread. I mean, rhododendrons and burgers. I mean, bread and roses.”
“Yeah… bread and roses in a modern version” she smiled; she is much more educated in feminism issues than me. “So, what should we do? Are we going outside?”
She was saying very distinguished English words, trying hard to speak with proper grammar which I’ve never used. Sometimes she would sound too bookish, but I liked it.
She fixed her hijab and stared at me with her huge almond eyes.
“So, are we going?”
I stared back at her. The rhododendrons - my shield, my shelter - were in her hands.
And I realised that she had them in her hands in a broader sense. She came here to live in a free country. To speak up for herself.
“Yes, but…” but I was scared. “Well, do you really want it?”
”Of course,” she said.
“Then we could go…” I caught her hand, ignoring the blood pounding in my temple. “What do you want to say? Or show?”
“I made this poster… that women rights shouldn’t be a justification for Western imperialism. I made it for myself. And for you, I made a poster about queer refugees for you. I used the markers from the craft room… and…” The excitement in her voice suddenly faded. “But you can't possibly go, can you? Because of your parents… Sorry, I didn’t think about that. It is selfish of me.”
I closed my eyes. And imagined us going outside. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d support an anti-racist march. I remembered my Mum calling me during another protest, from the other side of the road, me being anti-racist and her an open Nazi. “Savitri, do you want some water?” my Mum roared from her Nazi crowd, and Sun waved to me, together with other Nazis and I ran away… I ran away because all the anti-racist guys stared at me. All of them, and I felt sick.
They cut all ties with me after that. They thought that I was a provocator. It was horrible.
No, I’m scared not only of the police and my Mum’s rage. To be honest, I’m no less scared of her so-called support.
“I understand.” Mariam said. “I remember how it was, when I was scared the Taliban police would beat me and send me home for being on the protest. And I know that my father is accepting and supportive of me, that my home is safe, but if the police send you back to your home…”
So, she understands! She understands that I’m not my parents.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said abruptly.
“But they… they could ground you,” Mariam began.
“Yes… but I think that would be worth it. And, anyway, I will be 18 in just two years. And I will be free. And I will be able to complete my transition and also, we will be able to marry.”
“Do you reckon they'd let you marry me? The government?” she asked.
“Of course! Why not? And you will be a British citizen. And maybe work in the media and write about Afghan women…”
“Yeah, but –” She looked away. “I don’t think that you would be fine with refugee accommodation. And… well… I have an idea.”
“Don’t worry about the money. We could stay in London with my brother V.”
Yeah, it is true, I’m not the first member of my family to betray Mum’s Nazi dream.
My older brother and Mum’s golden child, Adolf Vishnu, is an autistic computer geek guy who called himself V, acted in the V from Vendetta, because this ‘V’ is his role model. He is estranged from my parents. We haven't spoken to each other in a year, but suddenly, I feel like calling him. Suddenly, I felt that he would understand.
After all, V in the comics supported the queer couple, didn't he?
“I’ve already written to him,” Mariam said and her eyes shone when I mentioned his name.
“Yeah, we have been chatting since you gave me info about him…”
“And I showed him your articles. He said that they are amazing. He thinks you, yourself, are amazing. He would like you to stay with him in London. He has a job with Apple, and he's inviting us to stay with him. He asked not to punish him for being estranged from your parents. He missed his little brother.”
“I don’t believe he missed Sun. They've never got along,” I muttered.
Mariam patted my arm.
“I mean you. He means you. He's missing you, Savi.”
I feel like I’m falling, falling deep down under the ground.
“Yeah, he knew. And he accepted you as a boy. Savi, believe me, your family is much larger than you used to think. You have your brother. And you have me. And my parents. And they understand…”
“They… they do.” I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t say how happy I was.
“V said that he could take custody of you in court if any problems…”
“Wow!” was all I could say.
“Yeah, and my parents… well, they would speak up for us as well.”
“But, do they know that my Dad is in jail for his attempt to kill a black Muslim man? That my mother is… that she is...” I swallowed the lump in my throat.
“That she is a Neo-Nazi leader? Of course! So what? You know that my Uncle is supporting the Taliban, that he is part of the Taliban movement, just like one of my brothers, but you have never judged me for that.”
“Yeah, but I’ve always thought it's different. You are so cool and I…” I blushed red, knowing how moronic I sounded.
“It shouldn’t be different. These cults, like Nazis, like Talibans, tear families apart, but it doesn’t matter who you have blood ties with. In my religion, the Prophet’s companions had Pagan relatives who tried to kill them and the Prophet, peace and blessing of Allah be upon him, but they're still respected Islamic figures.”
I squeezed a rhododendron bud, crushing it in my hand.
"The girl is telling the truth,” Abdullah nodded, smiling.
I know it.
“So, you do not judge?” I asked again.
“Of course not! I love you,” she said. “But we shouldn’t go if you don’t feel safe. Maybe better go move in with V at first, at least speak to him…”
I looked forward, thinking about ‘bread and roses’, thinking about ‘rhododendrons and burgers’: past and present.
If I have anything in common with my family, that would be being an activist. How to take part in the demo and make everyone listen. How to write articles about politics that move people’s hearts. All my life I have been ashamed of these skills, inherited from my parents, from my past, from the Nazis. One of the reasons I have never written the articles under my name, not even under the name Savi.
But the skills were just a tool. Your choice how to use it. My writing skills made Mariam and my own brother know me better, helped them to help me.
Now I could use my skills to speak - or at least to hold the poster and yell - to support my girlfriend.
And if the police came… Well, it is dangerous. It is messy.
I looked at Mariam. And then, I kissed her.
“I love you. Let’s go,” I said, and, before we could think otherwise, before I could feel any fear, we moved forward.
The rhododendrons were left near the security stalls, alongside my cover. Mariam took her poster and handed the other one to me.
The air smelled of burgers and spring.
We stepped outside, into the British land that belonged not just to British people, we stepped forward into the light.