Rosna Begum

Rosna is a born and raised Londoner, who was a 2019 Finalist at the Write Idea Short Story Prize. She grew up in Whitechapel, which informs her life writing and short stories like Emergency Contact.

Rosna’s worked in the public sector for twenty years, ten of which were in the NHS. She read PPE at Oxford and is currently completing her MA in Creative and Life Writing.


Emergency Contact 


I was the last person you would call in an emergency. I didn’t drive, have anyone else to call or even a topped-up Oyster card. I forgot or couldn’t be bothered to show up for appointments and had exactly £16.60 in my bank account. Life was stripped down to simplicity and structure. I had command and control within the confines of my cramped flat off Cambridge Heath Road, a rare find in an unfashionable bit of East London. My days were compressed into Netflix binges from the comfort of my Mac, in the greater comfort of my duck-feather duvet and stretchy jog pants. The evolutionary benefits of Deliveroo meant that I only stepped out when I absolutely needed to. And that was my painting class on Monday and Friday evenings. Lisa, my therapist, had mentioned it at first, with gentle nudges before blatant conditions to my prescription being signed. She thought it would be good for me to get out of the flat and out of my head. To get a hobby that allowed me to “move slowly and breathe, be more present in the present”. 

I nodded studiously whilst thinking it a load of rubbish. My aching bones did nothing but move slowly. My constant thoughts were nothing but a reminder of my present situation and of course, I was still breathing, wasn’t I? What else was there to learn? Apart from the obvious lesson. Never blow the whistle on your firm or trust your Manager. How quickly the walls went up and authority came down. I was politely escorted out of the organisation, as I was put on “stress leave”, and work-paid counselling until I showed “progress”. And in the spirit of co-operation, as I was determined to get back in, I embraced the damn art class. I told the therapist I’d give it a try. 

‘Great,’ she beamed. ‘Trust the process Mina.’

The class wasn’t unpleasant. It had people I wouldn’t normally choose to spend time with but there was no pressure to make small talk, or pretend to like each other. I could just get on with the task at hand, drowning out the noise from Suzie, the Art teacher’s endless jabbering. What surprised me most was how focussed I got; in mixing and brushing thick oils on canvas, using palette knives and watching colours bleed into each other. There was a satisfaction to creating a finished piece which others in class encouraged and complemented. How refreshing it all was to be in a space, without the toxins and gameplay of office politics. I could hear my monkey mind even quieten a bit during those three hours in class. 

This is also where I met Marco, a dark, bearded and brooding Italian creative, moonlighting as a barista, like a cliché and everyone else in hipster capitals. We’d had a couple of conversations on the way home walking back to Whitechapel Road, as he rolled his bike between us. 

‘So you have a boyfriend?’ 




‘Do you live near Myrdle Street?’

‘Who’s asking?’ I tried not to look alarmed. 

‘Don’t worry,’ he grinned. ‘I’m not stalking you. I live in Fieldgate Mansions. I’ve

just seen you around.’ 

‘What do you think of the class? You enjoying Turner’s sea?’ I asked, hoping to shift the gaze back to him. 

‘It gets me away from serving coffee. I came here two years ago to be an artist but I

spend all my time trying to make the rent, you know? This gives me a chance to create. Have some beauty in my life. But the teacher needs to guide more. She doesn’t teach me to become better at my craft. We are just left alone.’ 

‘Maybe she’s keeping an eye on the phantom paint thief. Even that massive book’s

gone missing!’ He shook his head and looked solemn. ‘People are animals sometimes.’ 

I learned that he was an only child. That his dad back in Rome sometime helped him pay the rent and he worked in Dalston. He was refreshingly direct, when not bombarding me with banal questions of how much rent I paid, how much I earned. He went on about art theory, artists I’d never heard of and the struggle to preserve his creativity from crushing capitalism. I just wanted coffee and cake after class. Great gestures of desire and drama weren’t my thing. But I did like the comfort of being with this talkative stranger and the way he leaned in when I spoke. On that Friday, we shared a slice over our Shoreditch-priced coffees and with my guard down, I gave him my phone number. 

‘You can be my emergency contact,’ he grinned.

‘Well don’t expect me to come running,’ I replied.  

Later that night, my phone pinged and I slid my hand under the sofa cushion to find a text message in capital letters demanding: 


I assumed it was a joke. A flirtational gambit encroaching a boundary I had no interest in encouraging:

‘Haha can’t afford the ransom Marco. You’ve texted the wrong bird mate. See you in

class Monday!’ I replied. An immediate follow up response pinged: 


This was followed by another alert. A picture message, pixelating into a worrying tubular shape that revealed to me instead an index finger, severed nerves at one end dripping with ruby red, the fingernail at the other encrusted in Ultramine and Prussian Blue, colour palettes from the day’s class. 

‘Very Black Mirror man. Not funny.’ I hovered over an emoji, but decided to not trivialize the point. 


I watched the three dots on my phone screen waiting to transmit the next message. Marco knew I was Bangladeshi. He knew the difference. And had taken pride in telling me.



The room was warm though the heating was turned off. I felt the walls closing in as a dead dialling tone got louder. I listened hard. For something, anything, in my mind or a twitch of muscle to tell me what to do. I tried hard to breathe and listen to my body, as Lisa had shown me. But I floated instead and looked down at the mess of scattered ashtrays and rizlas in my living room on the fourth floor. A question occurred if I’d been smoking too much again, as I tapped a ‘Yes’, and felt my limbs heavy, sink into the sofa cushions underneath me.   


A dry choking jolted me out of sleep. Grey light had broken through a parting in the curtains as I rose from the sofa. There was a kink in my neck as the sour taste of tobacco and last night’s memory lingered. I checked my phone and the messages were still there. I resented the tricks my mind were playing on me again. Was this entrapment? Was I being deceived on some malevolent level? Was it just a joke gone bad? I knew twats and had thought Marco wasn’t one of them. I believed that. But what if he really was in trouble and I was the only contact he had in a friendless city? Better to lose my pride than save a life perhaps. But what if this is him trying it on? Then he would have to be told. I refuse to be pushed around by men. Again.  I washed up and remembered to take my blue pills. I tried and failed to count on each exhalation. I needed to nip this in the bud. Who does he think he is? I needed to reassert my boundaries. This was a chance to show progress and the “inner growth” Lisa had gone on about. I grabbed my phone as I pressed dial on Marco’s name. It went straight to voicemail. 

As instant coffee and ten counts of angry breathing later, the phone pinged. A voice memo from Marco. Static white noise blared in my left ear and throaty wailing of heavy metal or a creature in pain, I couldn’t tell the difference. It was an 18 second loop I kept listening to. Why did Marco think this was ok or funny? If he wanted money, he should have checked my bank balance first. I rubbed goose bumps along my arm as I tried him again. Voicemail again. That familiar friend of unease was rising in me. I knew I should do my exercises, but my mind was already in overdrive. Did I overshare? Did I want him to make a move? I could see Marco sitting back with relaxed long limbs, a rolly hanging out of his smirking face. 

A fizz of acid reflux rumbled in my stomach. A tiny thought taunted me. What if he is in trouble?  He’s not my problem. This stranger. If he needed money, that’s his shit. If he thinks this is flirting, then he’s bang out of order. I could just block him. 

But what if? If what? 

I knew on some level I should have gone to the police or reported to some other person to sense check at least. But I couldn’t face another humiliation of not being believed. Of arched eyebrows and condescending voices. I needed something concrete, some evidence. The texts wouldn’t be enough. I needed to go straight to the source. Either way I’d know or get a confession at least. In my hallway, I grabbed a jacket, shoved the phone in my pocket and stepped outside. 

As I zipped up, the grip from my jacket comforted me like a shield against the arctic breeze. It was still early for a Saturday morning and the February sky was a toneless grey. A mist had already dampened the streets and sounds of Whitechapel. The morning vibe had an inner-city serenity. There were few cars out and better still, fewer people, for now. As I turned at the Blind Beggar onto the main drag of Whitechapel Market, stalls were still setting up. Tarpaulin sheets were being shaken off from rain, the sounds of clinking and clunking echoed as metal stall structures went up, and trolley wheels rolled on damp concrete.

I sped up with the conviction that got me out so early. I felt spitting drops on my face along with regret for leaving my own cocoon. The patter of rain picked up rhythm with splashing footsteps behind me. There were a few early birds about including the traders. A quick scan showed me a scattered luminosity from the orange vests of Crossrail, Shoreditch revellers returning home gripping Lucozade bottles and a burqa mum rushing through with a pushchair. I had an urge to look over my left shoulder, at the Royal London Hospital where I had my sessions and two pedestrians slowed down as I interrupted their flow. They were tall, male, pale and heavily built, squeezed into identical jackets with woolly hats hiding their remaining features. The Daily Mail in me placed them as broad-brush ‘East Europeans,’ and they stood out as a displaced duo. What must they have made of the tropical frozen fish stores, strange skinned fruit on stalls and samosas beginning to sizzle in giant steel woks. I enjoyed the thought as they nearly bumped into me. They were awkward and embarrassed as they lowered their heads. 

After a few yards, I turned around to check on them, a guilty pleasure of my own voyeurism. I caught them both stopping in their tracks while one looked up towards the novelty of the helipad. The other caught my gaze. I held it and so did he. Clouds darkened and heavy drops started to beat down as I reached the junction.  I crossed Vallance Road and turned left again to cross the juggernaut of four lanes. The tarmac came alive with the squelch of tyres as the two men waited impatiently behind me to cross too. My stomach tightened as shapes of people started emerging and rushing for cover. There was noise and movement everywhere. I wanted to be inside and away from this chaos of human traffic. Panic was rising and my breathing had sharpened. I remembered my exercises and started counting. I tried to embody Jason Bourne’s stoicism in being pursued at Waterloo station. I could see only one of the men in the left corner of my eye. I picked up my pace on New Road as we approached another junction and took a sharp right onto Fieldgate Street, feeling an imagined victory with my pursuer walking with full force straight on.  I knew this would be a quiet residential street. Like a typical London neighbourhood, the street atmosphere I had turned into quickly switched to a sudden hush around this corner. The silent flashing of neon lights from Tayaab’s restaurant heightened the eeriness of the street. It was still empty before queuing diners arrived, or the dutiful patrons of daily prayers headed to the Mosque next door. I could see only a small gaggle of Imams. On my perpendicular left, on the other side of the road was Myrdle Street, where Marco lived. 

My mind was busy with sentences for Marco and I failed to notice an emerging vehicle suddenly speeding towards me.  An arm pulled me back on the pavement and the remaining Imams silently raised hands in horror. Through the passenger window I saw him. The other guy. The one in the pair I lost earlier. He whizzed by. I remembered his glare and my confidence crashed. I had no idea what I was going to say to Marco or even why I was there. Lowering my head and an embarrassed gratitude to the Imams, I crossed over safely this time and hooked a left onto the pedestrianised street, feeling safe from oncoming traffic, for now at least. 

Fieldgate Mansions was a red bricked Victorian dwelling built with cast iron gates with different entry points. I had an inclination where Marco’s was as this was usually where we parted from our walk at the end of class. He’d always invite me up for a coffee or something, knowing I’d decline and I always hovered a few seconds, tempted to call his bluff before I refused. An elderly lady wrapped in a lilac hijab was just coming out as I held the gate for her, then entered myself with the self-assurance of a local breaking in. I took a chance and asked her in my third-generation Sylheti:

‘Auntie, you know where the Italian lives?’ 

She eyed me up and down. I was conscious at this point that brushing the knots out of my hair that morning might have been a good idea. 

‘Who’s asking? And what are you to him?’ she enquired. 

‘I’m from the Council,’ is all I could muster to give myself some fictional respectability. Yeah, the Council for texting etiquette, an inner voice sneered. 

‘Number 66 at the top.’ She flicked her chin. ‘And ask them why they have to have

so many coming and going? Last night we couldn’t sleep. Italians bitalians.’ And with

that, she was gone with her shopping trolley dragging behind. 

Before I could even bang on the door, it’s clear that it had been left slightly ajar. There were spots of blood on the door. I gently kicked it and it swung wide open. I fought the urge to reach for my hand sanitizer as I surveyed the hallway and stuffed my hands in my pockets instead. It was a narrow, dark abyss of chaos. There were frames hanging onto walls for their life, a flicking lightbulb flashing, bits of clothes, books and boxes strewn over the thick dust of red carpet. I took tentative steps inside. The stench of rotting and decomposed flesh hit my nostrils, before I could see an overflowing rubbish bin through the kitchen doorway to my right. My stomach tightened and I knew I could only do seconds here before my gut gave way. Instinctively, I held my breath as the hallway led me into the heart of the flat. It opened into a space which I assumed was the living room with a bedroom hiding underneath. A flat-screen blared silently. Keith Floyd was swaying on a fishing boat – as did my thoughts on what I was seeing.

I was back in a miniature version of the oil painting class. Canvasses were wallpapered around me covering the windows, adding further darkness to the scene. Several easels holding canvasses were scattered around the space with hundreds of tubes in crates, boxes, carrier bags and whatever surface it could inhabit. Brushes of all shapes and sizes were also in jars, ice cream tubs and cloths of red, yellow, black stains. I stepped in closer, half expecting Marco to pop out from behind the canvass in front of me. It was a Turner replica, one of the many we’d been studying in class. In fact, they were all replicas of the same landscape paying homage to the grey, steamy skies and stormy seas, brushed and scraped with edges on each of the several canvasses. They were stunning and soothing in their craft. On the mantelpiece, I spotted the tome of the Turner Reference book from class, the stamped label of Shadwell Centre on its cover. I also noticed the tubes of white next to it – the ones that had been mysteriously disappearing from Suzie’s class. She even had the cheek to ask me if I’d “accidentally” taken it. I grabbed the reference book and headed home. My sense of dread stabilised along with the anti-climax. 

The rest of my day was a fever pitch blur. I was back in bed with sweat stains darkening the sheets and shivering. Lying on my own, conversations took place between sleep and wakefulness. 

‘Why did you do it Marco? Why would you get involved in a forgery racket like that?’

‘Don’t ask stupid questions Mina.’ 

‘Don’t talk down to me Marco. If I’m stupid then why am I the only number on your phone?’ 

‘It’s easier to have hundreds of friends online. Very few to talk with in real life.’

‘What’s going to happen Marco? Are those two men after you? Fuck. Will they come after me??’

A thundering vibration shook me awake. It took a few seconds to slide my hand under the pillow to locate the offensive button and turn off the alarm. It’s Sunday. A deathly silence in the flat.  I got up. I washed. I took my blue pills. There was nothing else for me to do. 


Monday arrived slowly as did the time for class. And here I am. I’ve dragged myself in. I must tell them, even Suzie. And perhaps also the Police. I’d have to find a way to do it with anonymity. They’ll snigger and think we are lovers or something. Maybe I’ll file a missing person’s report.  

I rehearse a few lines on my way in and imagine taking Suzie aside to a private room. She’ll be dramatic of course but maybe I can get a bit more information from her. He might have contacted her too. I hope so. I walk carefully along the polished parquet floors. The classroom tables are usually arranged in a u-shape, with Suzie in the middle. I’d have to find a way to delicately extract her. I push the heavy door open and there in my usual seat is Marco, with Suzie and others clucking around him. His wrist is in a cast and his thumb conspicuously bandaged up too. There are darker circles under his dark eyes. He’s being served tea with the jumbo packet of Jaffa cakes I bought last week. He looks up, bites his bottom lip and winks. 

Suzie breaks the silence. 

‘Mina, we’re just hearing about Marco’s accident with his palette knife. He’s been in at the Royal London all weekend poor love. We’ll have to move your place today so that Marco can sit here.’ Her voice rises a pitch higher, ‘Is that my reference book you’re holding?’ 

My mouth is dry and an involuntary spasm clenches my fists. I could feel the heat on my cheeks. I want to wrap my fingers around that beautiful porcelain skin, his neck, and squeeze until every, last, gasp, is whispered out.  

‘Hey Marco’ I inhale, exhale. ‘Sorry to hear that.’

He gets up and walks towards me. All pairs of eyes follow him as he approaches in slow motion. He leans in and kisses me on both cheeks. On the second kiss, he whispers:

‘I’m sorry about my friend. He was messing around with my phone when I was with the Nurse.’ His eyes gaze down and take me in. I feel his other hand on my shoulder ‘I know you went to my flat, will you forgive me?’ and I am swimming in the navy black of his pupils. 

‘Yeah sure, no worries Marco’ I reply.

I am relieved in a way. I didn’t report it. I didn’t tell anyone what I thought this time. This is growth. I will tell the therapist how I took a pause. That I knew I would see him in class. I didn’t react or ‘over-identify’ with any of my thoughts. I watched them instead, like clouds, come and go. She’ll like that. This will be my progress. I will trust the process. 

I make my excuses to leave the class early and head to Leman Street Police Station. I have photographs of the living room at least. My mind is made up.