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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Zaid, a short story from Belgium.

Zaid a short story from Belgium.

Zaid, a short story from Belgium.

In the autumn of 2004 I found myself suddenly relocating to Belgium, at the expense of an attractive job offer in Italy. It was one of those major forks in the road, the kind of big decision that could transform a life. Which, for better or for worse, is exactly what it did.  

——

“Mister Lie-ton, so nice to see you!” he purred, in his thick, sticky toffee pudding voice. Extending his hairy arms towards me, he locked me into that familiar bear hug. An endearing staple of any Zaid visit. “Happy Birthday!” I cried and he could only chuckle in reply, his cheeks turning just a touch red. “Thank you Lie-ton, thank you”.

It had been a few months since we’d last seen each other and there was much to catch up on. S and I were not long back from our honeymoon and I was keen to bore him with the photos I’d taken in Morocco.

But knowing Zaid as well as I did, I understood that the first order of business was beer. Not one of those miserable Aldi brand cans that filled his fridge back in Leuven. But a proper Leffe Blonde, the bottle that always made his eyes light up like a kid on Christmas morning. “Show me Morocco!” he exclaimed.

Leffe Blond Belgian beer.

“Ah, Lie-ton” he grinned, delving into his man bag for the cigars I instinctively knew he’d brought. “Please” he smiled, extending the open pack in my direction. He knew I didn’t like them much, but tonight was a special occasion and it simply wouldn’t do for him to smoke alone. “Show me Morocco!” he exclaimed suddenly, wide-armed. “As you wish” I replied, grabbing my laptop as we made our way out to the balcony.

Zaid, a short story from Belgium.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

I’d forged some really close friendships during my time in Belgium. But it was safe to say that nobody compared to the enigmatic, confusing, entertaining, benevolent Zaid. He was the first person I met when I moved into the student house on J.B. van Monsstraat after my breakup with Lucie.

I’d just come back from the supermarket with a bag of groceries and was poking around in the communal kitchen to see if I could claim a cupboard. “Excuse me hello, you are new man yes?” he inquired, with an inquisitive smile. Not at all in the mood for small talk, I nodded, giving him no more than a curt ‘‘yes’’. “I am Zaid”, he said, “I am from Iraq”.

This revelation admittedly stopped me in my tracks, a carton of eggs seemingly superglued to my hand. I’d never met an Iraqi before and my immediate thought was: what the hell is he doing in Leuven? Having introduced myself, Zaid eagerly beckoned me into the chilly hallway.

“This is my fridge!” he told me, swinging the door open to reveal shelf after shelf of beer.

Elsewhere, the side compartments were stuffed with chocolate bars and cold cuts, a joyous carnival of sliced chicken, corned beef and blocks of cheese. “Any times you feel hungry or thirsty Mister Lie-ton, please help yourself!” “Thank you” I said, a little bemused. “You are very welcome here,” he beamed, throwing me a Mars Bar. 

Short story from Belgium

Zaid, a short story from Belgium.

“Ah, Morocco look like good time” sighed Zaid, puffing away on his cigar. It was a surprisingly warm Brussels evening, hence for a while we just sat there enjoying it in comfortable silence. On the day of his 38th birthday, I wondered how much Zaid had been reflecting on his life journey thus far.

On everything he’d been through to get to Europe. About his removed existence in Leuven, the quaint little town that must have felt like light years away from his old life in Baghdad. I guessed he missed his father, who called often from the homeland. Not to mention his dear old mother, who for reasons unknown lived with an aunt on the outskirts of Dubai.

“Lie-ton, what movie tonight?” he asked excitedly, jolting me from my thoughts.

Zaid and I had watched countless films together. And to his credit he was always game, no matter what the genre. However, seeing as it was his birthday, I decided to go for something with a decent amount of action. Not a leave your brain at the door kinda flick, but something with a bit of social commentary. “Falling Down” I told him, after a bit of thought. But before I could say Michael Douglas, he’d scuttled off to the living room to dig the DVD out of my collection.

Zaid-a-short-story-from-Belgium

Zaid, a short story from Belgium.

I was a bit of a hermit during those first months in the student block. My breakup with Lucie was fresh and I didn’t feel much like going out. Most weekends, the Belgian girls that occupied the other rooms went home to their families, which left Zaid and I with the run of the place. He would often invite me down to his room for a drink, offering me Doritos and dried apricots. Maybe some humus-dipped Turkish bread from the local Kebab house.  

During these soirees he’d hit me with a barrage of questions about UK culture. Moreover, he wanted to know about my family and the adventures I’d had in Qatar, Slovakia and India. “Lie-ton, I met Scotch man one time, but I cannot understand him. You speak so clear and why I never see you in the skirt?” Poor old Zaid, I’d told him several times that I wasn’t Scottish. That my family was from London, but now lived in Scotland. It made no difference though, he just couldn’t wrap his head around it.

Zaid, a short story from Belgium.

Zaid a short story from Belgium Leighton Travels

Zaid enjoying one of my home cooked chicken curries.

We eventually became such good friends I ended up knocking on his door most evenings after work, just to check on him. He rarely went out and as far as I could tell had only one friend. His buddy was an older gentleman of an unknown Arabic persuasion who dropped by once a month for a chinwag. The walls were paper-thin, so I could hear their loud, often animated discussions rattle back and forth for hours. 

Whenever I popped my head through his door, Zaid would be listening to the BBC World Service with a beer. Or sat at the little wooden desk hunched over his Flemish studies. Zaid spent hours trying to pick up the language. But his attempts proved even worse than my own, his pronunciation at times indecipherable. “This fucking language so difficult Lie-ton” he complained one day, cracking open another beer. “But if want stay here, I must learn”.

Iraqi flag.

One night the two of us got really drunk and I finally plucked up the courage to ask him how he’d ended up in Belgium. Suddenly, the room went deathly quiet and for a second or two I felt sorry I’d asked. Like I’d perhaps crossed the proverbial line. “Lie-ton” he slurred sadly, staring into his beer. “Life in Iraq very bad and I had to leave or… very bad”.

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to” I said, desperately hoping he wanted to talk about it. “Maybe one day I tell you” he replied, taking a long swig. “But is not good story and you will be shock”. As much as I wanted to hear every last detail, I decided to drop it, figuring we could always revisit the subject later on. 

Zaid, a short story from Belgium.

Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

Michael Douglas: Having a bad day.

“And now you’re gonna die wearing that stupid hat” grinned a bespectacled, gun-wielding Michael Douglas, looking down at the dying old man before him. “Ha ha ha!!!” howled Zaid, slapping his knee, a splash of beer hitting the carpet at his feet. Falling Down was proving a real hit, just as I’d hoped. It was obvious when Zaid was really into a movie, from the way he leaned forward in his seat to the regular yowls of childlike approval throughout.

Michael Douglas Falling Down.

I’d learned a lot about him from our movie nights. Like the time we were watching The Exorcism Of Emily Rose. It was the bedroom possession scene and we were both gripped. The little box of pens moved eerily across the bedside table. Emily’s blanket slid off her body… and then… that awful, deathlike creaking sound. “Lie-ton, the pause button please,” he requested. It came so suddenly and urgently that I found myself as much creeped out by Zaid as the movie itself.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

“You believe this thing?” he asked, placing his beer down on the table. “Uh… not really” I answered, wondering where he was going with this. “At least I’ve never…” “You should believe Lie-ton, one time this happen to me in Iraq. Noisy thing moving and shadow man, everything crazy”. “What did you do?” I asked, not at all convinced I wanted to know.

“Nothing”, he said, stony-faced. 

“Just lie still, close eyes, wait and finally it go”.

Jennifer Carpenter The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Emily Rose: Having a worse day than Michael Douglas.

Another time, halfway through American Beauty, Zaid was visibly disgusted to see Annette Bening’s character Carolyn embark on an extra marital affair with her sleazy business rival Buddy Kane. “If I am married and my wife does this, we finish” he said quietly, fixing me with a grim glare. “And I take everything”.

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in American Beauty

Carolyn in American Beauty: Should be happy she wasn’t married to Zaid.

It was a May evening in 2005 and I was about to leave for Time out on the Square to watch the Champions League final. As usual, I gave Zaid’s door a quick knock before I left to see how he was doing. I could tell something was wrong the moment I saw him slumped over his desk. Head in hands, half a dozen empty beer cans lined up on the windowsill like tin soldiers.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, and he certainly wasn’t shy in answering. “I spend many hours study the Dutch but is no good,” he declared glumly. “No improve”. Poor Zaid, he looked so defected I found myself immediately launching into the old “don’t give up, you gotta believe in yourself” shtick. But he was already moving on to additional woes.

“And I am bad Muslim, Lie-ton. I drink beers and watch videos about fuck womens. One time, I even try the pork. If my mother know, she feel great shame”.

I’d never seen Zaid like this, he was really down in the dumps. So I dragged him out to the pub with me, giving him the background story on the game we were about to watch between Liverpool and A.C. Milan. “I see” he said, clearly happy to be distracted. “So Liverpool is like underdog?”

Liverpool versus A.C. Milan Champions League final May 25th 2005.

The Champions League Final. May 25th, 2005.

There was such a fantastic atmosphere in the bar that night. Consequently, Zaid’s mood lifted and he began cheering along with everyone. Moreover, for every beer I drank, he guzzled three. “Oh Lie-ton I am sorry” he shrugged, as Milan made it 3-0, ending a catastrophic first half for Liverpool. The game had been no contest at all. In fact, it had been so disappointing I suggested we call it a night. But Zaid wouldn’t hear of it, slapping me on the back and ordering another round of Stellas.

Then came the second half and a flutter of polite applause as Liverpool pulled a goal back for 3-1. Minutes later, a genuine sense of excitement rippled across the bar as Vladimír Šmicer’s long range drive flew in for 3-2. Zaid and I could only look at each other with raised eyebrows. “Lie-ton, what happening?!”

Zaid, a short story from Belgium.

Zaid, a short story from Belgium.

There was barely time to answer before Steven Gerrard got chopped down in the area and Liverpool had a penalty. Moments later it was 3-3 and the whole bar erupted in delirium. Except that is for the group of shell-shocked Italians in the far corner.

“Unbelievable!!! … unbelievable!!!” cried Zaid over and over.

Hugging me and hopping merrily from foot to foot, Zaid began ordering more beers and shots with wild abandon. Of course Liverpool went on to win the game on penalties and we celebrated long into the night. He’d never been much of a football fan, but it had obviously been a magical night of escapism for Zaid. 

Liverpool Champions League winners 2005

Liverpool life the trophy on a memorable night.

With Falling Down’s end credits rolling, I figured it was time to give Zaid his birthday present. “Lie-ton, too kind” he hummed, as I produced the orange package from its hiding place behind the Lonely Planet guides. I’d been stuck for ideas that year, but figured one of the giant gingerbread men from The Grand Place would be good for a week’s worth of nibbling.

“Happy Birthday!” I said again and he wasted no time in getting started, breaking off a piece of its chunky head.

Zaid a short story from Belgium.

Zaid on his 38th birthday.

When I began dating S in the summer of 2005, Zaid couldn’t have been happier for me. “Lie-ton, you must marry her!” he exclaimed, a devilish twinkle in his eyes. By the end of the year I’d left the student block to move into the apartment on Muntstraat and Zaid insisted on helping me out. In fact, he pitched in with bubble wrap duties and carried dozens of boxes out to the van.

Short stories from Belgium.

My 27th birthday: July the 8th, 2005.

Over the next months we saw much less of each other. But we did at least begin our movie night tradition, which took place once a month. In the meantime, on my 27th birthday, I was touched to receive a giant cake made to order from a local bakery. Zaid had even gone the extra mile and asked them to write Happy Birthday Leighton across the top in chocolate icing.

Zaid, a short story from Belgium.

Zaid happy Birthday letter.

 

When the suicide bomb attacks hit London that year, a distraught sounding Zaid called me up to personally apologise. “This is not Islam Lie-ton,” he whispered morosely. “These peoples make me shame to be Muslim, please accept my regrets”. I tried to tell him he had nothing to apologise for, but he just kept saying he was sorry.

The following year S and I reluctantly moved to Brussels to be closer to work. Leaving Leuven behind was tough and although it was just a half hour train ride away, I knew I’d be seeing even less of Zaid. Nevertheless, we kept the movie night tradition alive. And of course he was there, suited and booted, when S and I got married in September 2007. “Lucky, lucky Lie-ton” he said, hugging me on the dance floor.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

“Good night” said Zaid, standing in the doorway, the gingerbread man clamped under his arm. “See you later” I replied, as he turned away. Moving down the hallway towards the stairs, he stopped and turned to look back at me, just as I was about to close the door.

“You know Lie-ton, these days I feel more like wanna see my parents. But Iraq too dangerous, so maybe go to Dubai and find my mum”.

“Wow” I said, “that’s exciting… a big decision”. I had so many questions, but he’d caught me off guard and somehow the words just wouldn’t come. In any case he was already off down the stairs and slipping around the corner out of sight.

My lost friend Zaid a short story from Belgium

A month or so had passed when I suddenly thought of Zaid and that it was high time to invite him over for another movie. I was also excited to share our big news. That S and I would soon be leaving Belgium to go and teach English in Beijing. But when I called his mobile, I got an automated message saying his phone was switched off.

When it stayed like this for over a week, I began to worry. So I decided to send him an email. Hey Zaid, have been trying to get in touch. But it says your phone is switched off. Is everything ok?? It was a few days later that I received his reply.

———————

Hi Leighton,

As I told you on my birthday, I wanna meet my parents. That why my phone is out of service. Anyway, we meet with the next few weeks.

Big kiss to S,

Best wishes,

Zaid.

———————

As great as it was to hear from him, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something wasn’t right. Had he gone to Iraq or Dubai? How had he financed this? Sadly, I would never find out. I have no idea if he made it to The Middle East, nor indeed if he ever came back to Belgium. In fact, I never heard from him again. I sent emails and tried to track him down on social media, but nothing ever came of it. Some years later one of my annual “Are you there?” emails bounced back with a message saying the account was defunct.

Time passes.

It has now been over 15 years since the night we watched Falling Down. And while I occasionally fear the worst when I brood over what became of him, it does comfort me a little to think of Zaid as forever 38. A cigar in his mouth, roaring with laughter as Michael Douglas holds up the Whammy Burger joint. Standing in my doorway with a giant gingerbread dude under his arm. A man with a plan he couldn’t share with his friend. Wherever he is, I can only hope he’s well and that he knows how much I cherish those Belgian days, which already seem so far away.

Zaid’ is the sixth and final chapter of my short story collection Based In Belgium.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

Leighton Travels logo travel reports and short stories.

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47 Comments

  • Mary Phillips

    I remember Zaid from your wedding. We were on a train with him either to or from the ceremony. Good story, Leighton. Sad to think you’ve lost track of him.

    March 6, 2016 - 1:21 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      So wonderful that you got to meet Zaid Mary. Thanks for reading the various drafts of this story over the years.

      April 13, 2022 - 9:13 pm Reply
  • Hammerite

    A touching story, will check out more of your stuff.

    March 6, 2016 - 3:40 pm Reply
    • leightonliterature

      Hi, thanks for swinging by the site! Hope you enjoy some of the other stories.

      March 6, 2016 - 3:44 pm Reply
  • natty4t

    What a beautiful story about friends we make in the journey of life. Really hope you get to speak to him again someday.

    March 6, 2016 - 6:59 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks, sadly I’m still waiting but you never know, life often produces wonderful and unexpected surprises.

      April 13, 2022 - 9:14 pm Reply
  • Virginia

    l wonder where Zaid is , disappearing into thin air just like that . He was a good friend .

    April 5, 2019 - 12:39 am Reply
    • leightonliterature

      I like to think he’s safe, well and happy but of course I just don’t know. He was a good friend.

      April 5, 2019 - 12:41 am Reply
  • Marla

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’m sure that wherever he may be, Zaid is remembering your times together fondly as well.

    April 4, 2020 - 11:07 pm Reply
  • pedmar10

    Nice story, and indeed good Leffe Blonde beer lol!!

    April 10, 2022 - 11:34 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading!

      April 10, 2022 - 11:35 am Reply
      • pedmar10

        Always a pleasure.

        April 10, 2022 - 11:36 am
  • kagould17

    A good read as usual Leighton. We never know what will bind us to a friend. Zaid sounds like the perfect friend, always there when we need them. I, too hope all is well with him wherever he may be. Happy Sunday Leighton. Allan

    April 10, 2022 - 2:03 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Allan, I can only hope that he is well and that he managed to find his place in the world. Happy Sunday!

      April 10, 2022 - 2:06 pm Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    One of the best things about travelling and moving around is being about to meet different people. Zaid sounds like an interesting character and it sounds like you made a lot of wonderful memories hanging out with him. Sorry to hear that you haven’t been able to get in touch with him. It does make you wonder what happened. You just hope that he found whatever peace he was looking for.

    April 10, 2022 - 2:19 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Absolutely. On my half-glass-empty days I fear the worst. The rest of the time, I just imagine that he settled somewhere back in The Middle East and, as you say, found his peace. Thanks for reading!

      April 10, 2022 - 2:21 pm Reply
  • Travels Through My Lens

    I enjoyed reading this touching and poignant story. Like you, I hope Zaid is oaky. Thanks for sharing.

    April 10, 2022 - 2:21 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you for reading. I have accepted that I will almost certainly never hear from Zaid again. But as long as he’s safe and happy, it’s all good.

      April 10, 2022 - 3:28 pm Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    Another great story about a wonderful friendship Leighton. Yes, maybe you should just remember the 38 year old Zaid forever (and hope that he’s doing well where ever he is). Oh, btw … can’t believe you were watching that “Exorcism” movie … it will be hard for me to ever sleep after such a movie!!

    April 10, 2022 - 3:07 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I guess you’re not much of a horror fan Corna 😉 ? Thanks for following this Belgian story series. A short break now and then back to the travel reports.

      April 10, 2022 - 3:25 pm Reply
      • wetanddustyroads

        You’re spot on … no horror movies for me … rather give me movies like ‘The Holiday, Mama Mia, The Full Monty, Romancing the Stone’ – you know, chilled out movies (and for a bit of action, ‘Gladiator’ is a favourite). I’m terrified when it comes to horror movies 😉.
        Looking forward to more travel reports, take care 🌞.

        April 10, 2022 - 3:38 pm
  • Toonsarah

    Zaid sounds like a lovely man and such a good friend. I’m sorry that you’ve lost touch with him and don’t know where he is. It makes a good story but it must be frustrating for you not knowing ‘what happened next.

    April 10, 2022 - 4:02 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Sarah, I do keep going back to his disappearance over the years and wandering what happened. Appreciate your contribution to the thread.

      April 10, 2022 - 5:07 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    What a great story about an interesting character. I hope you hear from him one day and find out he is well. Maggie

    April 10, 2022 - 4:42 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Maggie, you never know, although I’m not hopeful.

      April 10, 2022 - 5:08 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    A wonderful story about friends we meet along the way and how they stay with us forever. Wherever Zaid is, I bet anytime he thinks of any of these movies or drinks a beer or watches a game he probably thinks about you and that time you shared in Belgium.

    April 10, 2022 - 5:27 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Oh lord Meg, you’re getting me a little misty-eyed here. Thanks for seeing this Belgian short story series through and for all your lovely comments.

      April 10, 2022 - 5:32 pm Reply
  • Nic

    Lovely story. I was particularly touched with his reaction to the London attacks. He was so right, and yet the world doesn’t always see it that way. Let’s hope one day you can add a final chapter to Zaid’s story.

    April 10, 2022 - 5:34 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank You Nic, I really appreciate your empathy. It is a lovely thought that one day I could update this story with a new ending.

      April 10, 2022 - 5:38 pm Reply
  • travelling_han

    This made me feel quite emotional. He sounds like a wonderful and interesting person, and I hope that whereever he is he is happy 🙂

    April 10, 2022 - 6:35 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Hannah for the read and sympathetic words.

      April 10, 2022 - 6:53 pm Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    You guys were great friends. Sometimes we never really know those we are close to. A similar thing happened to someone I know. One day his great friend just dropped off the face of the Earth. Did Zaid ever say why he left Iraq? In any event, you have wonderful memories. I enjoyed reading your story even though the ending (so far) is sad.

    April 10, 2022 - 8:08 pm Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    I do hope that Zaid is well and happy with life. It’s sad when you lose touch with friends and are left wondering what has come of them. Great story as always Leighton.

    April 10, 2022 - 8:52 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Marion. It’s been enjoyable to put this little chapter of my life to bed. Good times and good people, not forgotten.

      April 10, 2022 - 9:01 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    Oh man you left us with a never ending cliff hanger! But in all seriousness I hope he is doing well and I’m glad your paths crossed. I’m sure you made just as big an impact on his time in Belgium as he did yours.

    April 10, 2022 - 10:19 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Lyssy. You’re right, I didn’t realise that this story is in fact the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers. I can only hope that one day I get to write a happy ending.

      April 10, 2022 - 10:22 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    It’s those friendships that are short, intense, but all the more memorable; that’s why when you lose contact with them without any closure, it can be very confusing, even worrisome. I’ve had a few friendships like that, and while I do think about them from time to time, I assure myself that there was a reason for losing touch and that, wherever they are, they’re doing okay. Things are a bit easier with social media these days, as long as both parties are on them and active, but otherwise we just have to assume they’re doing well. I hope the best for Zaid!

    April 10, 2022 - 11:18 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Rebecca. I did try, some years back, to track him down on social media, but to no avail. I think you’re right, keeping the good memories alive and thinking positive thoughts is the best way to handle it.

      April 10, 2022 - 11:55 pm Reply
  • Obong eno

    Great post, well written, friendship is everything ❣️

    April 12, 2022 - 12:44 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you for reading and for your comment, I’m glad you liked the story!

      April 12, 2022 - 8:56 am Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    You have a talent for describing people so we can really picture them, and seem to make friends easily. I have made a few special friends in my travels, like Zaid, some of which I can find through Facebook, others lost to memory.

    April 12, 2022 - 7:58 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Ruth, that’s kind of you to say. It’s a little sad isn’t it that we lose touch with special people. But it can also fill us with warmth to look back on those times. “Life is full of meetings and partings, that is the way of it” as Kermit the Frog once said.

      April 12, 2022 - 8:20 pm Reply
      • rkrontheroad

        Nice quote. I’m sure it’s heartwarming for you to reprise these stories of good (and sometimes not so good!) times.

        April 12, 2022 - 10:51 pm
  • Memo

    You know the most interesting people and present them in fascinating stories. I swear you are the next Kevin Bacon. I expect to meet some stranger in a bar and discover that we both know somebody who knows somebody who knows Lignon.

    April 13, 2022 - 2:02 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha! Nearly interviewed Kevin Bacon once, but it wasn’t meant to be. Thanks for joining me on this Belgian short story series Memo.

      April 13, 2022 - 9:12 am Reply

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