“As long as there’s the sun … the sun!” the voice of Don Peppino Quaglia crooned softly near the doorway of the low, dark, basement apartment. “Leave it to God,” answered the humble and faintly cheerful voice of his wife, Rosa, from inside; she was in bed, moaning in pain from arthritis, complicated by heart disease, and, addressing her sister-in-law, who was in the bathroom, she added: “You know what I’ll do, Nunziata? Later I’ll get up and take the clothes out of the water.”
“Do as you like, to me it seems real madness,” replied the curt, sad voice of Nunziata from that den. “With the pain you have, one more day in bed wouldn’t hurt you!” A silence. “We’ve got to put out some more poison, I found a cockroach in my sleeve this morning.”
From the cot at the back of the room, which was really a cave, with a low vault of dangling spider webs, rose the small, calm voice of Eugenia:
“Mamma, today I’m putting on the eyeglasses.”
There was a kind of secret joy in the modest voice of the child, Don Peppino’s third-born. (The first two, Carmela and Luisella, were with the nuns, and would soon take the veil, having been persuaded that this life is a punishment; and the two little ones, Pasqualino and Teresella, were still snoring, as they slept feet to head, in their mother’s bed.)
“Yes, and no doubt you’ll break them right away,” the voice of her aunt, still irritated, insisted, from behind the door of the little room. She made everyone suffer for the disappointments of her life, first among them that she wasn’t married and had to be subject, as she told it, to the charity of her sister-in-law, although she didn’t fail to add that she dedicated this humiliation to God. She had something of her own set aside, however, and wasn’t a bad person, since she had offered to have glasses made for Eugenia when at home they had realized that the child couldn’t see. “With what they cost! A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” she added. Then they heard the water running in the basin. She was washing her face, squeezing her eyes, which were full of soap, and Eugenia gave up answering.
Besides, she was too, too pleased.
A week earlier, she had gone with her aunt to an optician on Via Roma. There, in that elegant shop, full of polished tables and with a marvelous green reflection pouring in through a blind, the doctor had measured her sight, making her read many times, through certain lenses that he kept changing, entire columns of letters of the alphabet, printed on a card, some as big as boxes, others as tiny as pins. “This poor girl is almost blind,” he had said then, with a kind of pity, to her aunt, “she should no longer be deprived of lenses.” And right away, while Eugenia, sitting on a stool, waited anxiously, he had placed over her eyes another pair of lenses, with a white metal frame, and had said: “Now look into the street.” Eugenia stood up, her legs trembling with emotion, and was unable to suppress a little cry of joy. On the sidewalk, so many well-dressed people were passing, slightly smaller than normal but very distinct: ladies in silk dresses with powdered faces, young men with long hair and bright-colored sweaters, white-bearded old men with pink hands resting on silver-handled canes; and, in the middle of the street, some beautiful automobiles that looked like toys, their bodies painted red or teal, all shiny; green trolleys as big as houses, with their windows lowered, and behind the windows so many people in elegant clothes. Across the street, on the opposite sidewalk, were beautiful shops, with windows like mirrors, full of things so fine they elicited a kind of longing; some shop boys in black aprons were polishing the windows from the street. At a café with red and yellow tables, some golden-haired girls were sitting outside, legs crossed. They laughed and drank from big colored glasses. Above the café, because it was already spring, the balcony windows were open and embroidered curtains swayed, and behind the curtains were fragments of blue and gilded paintings, and heavy, sparkling chandeliers of gold and crystal, like baskets of artificial fruit. A marvel. Transported by all that splendor, she hadn’t followed the conversation between the doctor and her aunt. Her aunt, in the brown dress she wore to Mass, and standing back from the glass counter with a timidity unnatural to her, now broached the question of the cost: “Doctor, please, give us a good price … we’re poor folk ..” and when she heard “eight thousand lire” she nearly fainted.
“Two lenses! What are you saying! Jesus Mary!”
“Look, ignorant people …” the doctor answered, replacing the other lenses after polishing them with the glove, “don’t calculate anything. And when you give the child two lenses, you’ll be able to tell me if she sees better. She takes nine diopters on one side, and ten on the other, if you want to know. She’s almost blind.”
While the doctor was writing the child’s first and last name—“Eugenia Quaglia, Vicolo della Cupa at Santa Maria in Portico”—Nunziata had gone over to Eugenia, who, standing in the doorway of the shop and holding up the glasses in her small, sweaty hands, was not at all tired of gazing through them: “Look, look, my dear! See what your consolation costs! Eight thousand lire, did you hear? A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” She was almost suffocating. Eugenia had turned all red, not so much because of the rebuke as because the young woman at the cash register was looking at her, while her aunt was making that observation, which declared the family’s poverty. She took off the glasses.
“But how is it, so young and already so nearsighted?” the young woman had asked Nunziata, while she signed the receipt for the deposit. “And so shabby, too!” she added.
“Young lady, in our house we all have good eyes, this is a misfortune that came upon us … along with the rest. God rubs salt in the wound.”
“Come back in eight days,” the doctor had said. “I’ll have them for you.”
Leaving, Eugenia had tripped on the step.
“Thank you, Aunt Nunzia,” she had said after a while. “I’m always rude to you. I talk back to you, and you are so kind, buying me eyeglasses.”
Her voice trembled.
“My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it,” Nunziata had answered with sudden melancholy.
Eugenia hadn’t answered her that time, either. Aunt Nunzia was often so strange, she wept and shouted for no good reason, she said so many bad words, and yet she went to Mass regularly, she was a good Christian, and when it came to helping someone in trouble she always volunteered, wholeheartedly. One didn’t have to watch over her.
Since that day, Eugenia had lived in a kind of rapture, waiting for the blessed glasses that would allow her to see all people and things in their tiny details. Until then, she had been wrapped in a fog: the room where she lived, the courtyard always full of hanging laundry, the alley overflowing with colors and cries, everything for her was covered by a thin veil: she knew well only the faces of her family, especially her mother and her siblings, because often she slept with them, and sometimes she woke at night and, in the light of the oil lamp, looked at them. Her mother slept with her mouth open, her broken yellow teeth visible; her brother and sister, Pasqualino and Teresella, were always dirty and snot-nosed and covered with boils: when they slept, they made a strange noise, as if they had wild animals inside them. Sometimes Eugenia surprised herself by staring at them, without understanding, however, what she was thinking. She had a confused feeling that beyond that room always full of wet laundry, with broken chairs and a stinking toilet, there was light, sounds, beautiful things, and in that moment when she had put on the glasses she had had a true revelation: the world outside was beautiful, very beautiful.
“Marchesa, my respects.”
That was the voice of her father. Covered by a ragged shirt, his back, which until that moment had been framed by the doorway of the basement apartment, could no longer be seen. The voice of the marchesa, a placid and indifferent voice, now said:
“You must do me a favor, Don Peppino.”
“At your service … your wish is my command.”
Silently, Eugenia slid out of bed, put on her dress, and, still barefoot, went to the door. The pure and marvelous early morning sun, entering the ugly courtyard through a crack between the buildings, greeted her, lit up her little old lady’s face, her stubbly, disheveled hair, her rough, hard little hands, with their long, dirty nails. Oh, if only at that moment she could have had the eyeglasses! The marchesa was there, in her black silk dress with its white lace neckpiece. Her imposing yet benign appearance enchanted Eugenia, along with her bejeweled white hands; but she couldn’t see her face very well—it was a whitish oval patch. Above it, some purple feathers quivered.
“Listen, you have to redo the child’s mattress. Can you come up around ten-thirty?”
“With all my heart, but I’m only available in the afternoon, Signora Marchesa.”
“No, Don Peppino, it has to be this morning. In the afternoon people are coming. Set yourself up on the terrace and work. Don’t play hard to get … do me this favor … Now it’s time for Mass. At ten-thirty, call me.”
And without waiting for an answer, she left, astutely avoiding a trickle of yellow water that was dripping down from a terrace and had made a puddle on the ground.
“Papa,” said Eugenia, following her father, as he went back inside, “how good the marchesa is! She treats you like a gentleman. God should reward her for it.”
“A good Christian, that one is,” Don Peppino answered, with a meaning completely different from what might have been understood. With the excuse that she was the owner of the house, the Marchesa D’Avanzo constantly had the people in the courtyard serving her: to Don Peppino, she gave a wretched sum for the mattresses; and Rosa was always available for the big sheets; even if her bones were burning she had to get up to serve the marchesa. It’s true that the marchesa had placed her daughters in the convent, and so had saved two souls from the dangers of this world, which for the poor are many, but for that basement space, where everyone was sick, she collected three thousand lire, not one less. “The heart is there, it’s the money that’s lacking,” she loved to repeat, with a certain imperturbability. “Today, dear Don Peppino, you are the nobility, who have no worries … Thank … thank Providence, which has put you in such a condition … which wanted to save you.” Donna Rosa had a kind of adoration for the marchesa, for her religious sentiments; when they saw each other, they always talked about the afterlife. The marchesa didn’t much believe in it, but she didn’t say so, and urged that mother of the family to be patient and to hope.
From the bed, Donna Rosa asked, a little worried: “Did you talk to her?”
“She wants me to redo the mattress for her grandson,” said Don Peppino, in annoyance. He brought out the hot plate to warm up some coffee, a gift of the nuns, and went back inside to fetch water in a small pot. “I won’t do it for less than five hundred,” he said.
“It’s a fair price.”
“And then who will go and pick up Eugenia’s glasses?” Aunt Nunzia asked, coming out of the bathroom. Over her nightgown, she wore a torn skirt, and on her feet slippers. Her bony shoulders emerged from the nightgown, gray as stones. She was drying her face with a napkin. “I can’t go, and Rosa is ill.”
Without anyone noticing, Eugenia’s large, almost blind eyes filled with tears. Now maybe another day would pass without her eyeglasses. She went up to her mother’s bed, and in a pitiful manner, flung her arms and forehead on the blanket. Donna Rosa stretched out a hand to caress her.
“I’ll go, Nunzia, don’t get worked up … In fact, going out will do me good.”
Eugenia kissed her hand.
Around eight there was a great commotion in the courtyard. At that moment Rosa had come out of the doorway: a tall, lanky figure, in a short, stained black coat, without shoulder pads, that exposed her legs, like wooden sticks. Under her arm, she carried a shopping bag for the bread she would buy on her way home from the optician. Don Peppino was pushing the water out of the middle of the courtyard with a long-handled broom, a vain task because the tub was continually leaking, like an open vein. In it were the clothes of two families: the Greborio sisters, on the second floor, and the wife of Cavaliere Amodio, who had given birth two days earlier. The Greborios’ servant, Lina Tarallo, was beating the carpets on a balcony, making a terrible ruckus. The dust, mixed with garbage, descended gradually like a cloud on those poor people, but no one paid attention. Sharp screams and cries of complaint could be heard from the basement where Aunt Nunzia was calling on all the saints as witnesses to confirm that she was unfortunate, and the cause of all this was Pasqualino, who wept and shouted like a condemned man because he wanted to go with his mamma. “Look at him, this scoundrel,” cried Aunt Nunzia. “Madonna bella, do me a favor, let me die, but immediately, if you’re there, since in this life only thieves and whores thrive.” Teresella, born the year the king went away and so younger than her brother, was sitting in the doorway, smiling, and every so often she licked a crust of bread she had found under a chair.
Eugenia was sitting on the step of another basement room, where Mariuccia the porter lived, looking at a section of a children’s comic, with lots of bright-colored figures, which had fallen from the fourth floor. She held it right up to her face, because otherwise she couldn’t read the words. There was a small blue river in a vast meadow and a red boat going … going … who knows where. It was written in proper Italian, and so she didn’t understand much, but every so often, for no reason, she laughed.
“So, today you put on your glasses?” said Mariuccia, looking out from behind her. Everyone in the courtyard knew, partly because Eugenia hadn’t resisted the temptation to talk about it, and partly because Aunt Nunzia had found it necessary to let it be understood that in that family she was spending her own … and well, in short .
“Your aunt got them for you, eh?” Mariuccia added, smiling good-humoredly. She was a small woman, almost a dwarf, with a face like a man’s, covered with whiskers. At the moment she was combing her long black hair, which came to her knees: one of the few things that attested to her being a woman. She was combing it slowly, smiling with her sly but kind little mouse eyes.
“Mamma went to get them on Via Roma,” said Eugenia with a look of gratitude. “We paid a grand total of a good eight thousand lire, you know? Really. my aunt is .” she was about to add “truly a good person,” when Aunt Nunzia, looking out of the basement room, called angrily: “Eugenia!”
“Here I am, Aunt!” and she scampered away like a dog.
Behind their aunt, Pasqualino, all red-faced and bewildered, with a terrible expression somewhere between disdain and surprise, was waiting.
“Go and buy two candies for three lire each, from Don Vincenzo at the tobacco store. Come back immediately!”
She clutched the money in her fist, paying no more attention to the comic, and hurried out of the courtyard.
By a true miracle she avoided a towering vegetable cart drawn by two horses, which was coming toward her right outside the main entrance. The carter, with his whip unsheathed, seemed to be singing, and from his mouth came these words:
“Lovely … Fresh,” drawn out and full of sweetness, like a love song. When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. Although the sun touched only the highest balconies (the street a crack in the disorderly mass of buildings) and the rest was only shadow and garbage, one could sense, behind it, the enormous celebration of spring. And even Eugenia, so small and pale, bound like a mouse to the mud of her courtyard, began to breathe rapidly, as if that air, that celebration, and all that blue suspended over the neighborhood of the poor were also hers. The yellow basket of the Amodios’ maid, Rosaria Buonincontri, grazed her as she went into the tobacco shop. Rosaria was a fat woman in black, with white legs and a flushed, placid face.
“Tell your mamma if she can come upstairs a moment today, Signora Amodio needs her to deliver a message.”
Eugenia recognized her by her voice. “She’s not here now. She went to Via Roma to get my glasses.”
“I should wear them, too, but my boyfriend doesn’t want me to.”
Eugenia didn’t grasp the meaning of that prohibition. She answered only, ingenuously: “They cost a great amount; you have to take very good care of them.”
They entered Don Vincenzo’s hole-in-the-wall together.
There was a crowd. Eugenia kept being pushed back. “Go on … you really are blind,” observed the Amodios’ maid, with a kind smile.
“But now Aunt Nunzia’s gotten you some eyeglasses,” Don Vincenzo, who had heard her, broke in, winking, with an air of teasing comprehension. He, too, wore glasses.
“At your age,” he said, handing her the candies, “I could see like a cat, I could thread needles at night, my grandmother always wanted me nearby … but now I’m old.”
Eugenia nodded vaguely. “My friends. none of them have lenses,” she said. Then, turning to the servant Rosaria, but speaking also for Don Vincenzo’s benefit: “Just me. Nine diopters on one side and ten on the other. I am almost blind!” she said emphatically, sweetly.
“See how lucky you are,” said Don Vincenzo, smiling, and to Rosaria: “How much salt?”
“Poor child!” the Amodios’ maid commented as Eugenia left, happily. “It’s the dampness that’s ruined her. In that building it rains on us. Now Donna Rosa’s bones ache. Give me a kilo of coarse salt and a packet of fine … ”
“There you are.”
“What a morning, eh, today, Don Vincenzo? It seems like summer already.”
Walking more slowly than she had on the way there, Eugenia, without even realizing it, began to unwrap one of the two candies, and then put it in her mouth. It tasted of lemon. “I’ll tell Aunt Nunzia that I lost it on the way,” she proposed to herself. She was happy, it didn’t matter to her if her aunt, good as she was, got angry. She felt someone take her hand, and recognized Luigino.
“You are really blind!” the boy said laughing. “And the glasses?”
“Mamma went to Via Roma to get them.”
“I didn’t go to school; it’s a beautiful day, why don’t we take a little walk?”
“You’re crazy! Today I have to be good.”
Luigino looked at her and laughed, with his mouth like a money box, stretching to his ears, contemptuous.
“What a rat’s nest.”
Instinctively Eugenia brought a hand to her hair.
“I can’t see well, and Mamma doesn’t have time,” she answered meekly.
“What are the glasses like? With gold frames?” Luigino asked. “All gold!” Eugenia answered, lying. “Bright and shiny!”
“Old women wear glasses,” said Luigino.
“Also ladies, I saw them on Via Roma.”
“Those are dark glasses, for sunbathing,” Luigino insisted. “You’re just jealous. They cost eight thousand lire.”
“When you have them, let me see them,” said Luigino. “I want to see if the frame really is gold. You’re such a liar,” and he went off on his own business, whistling.
Reentering the courtyard, Eugenia wondered anxiously if her glasses would or wouldn’t have a gold frame. In the negative case, what could she say to Luigino to convince him that they were a thing of value? But what a beautiful day! Maybe Mamma was about to return with the glasses wrapped in a package. Soon she would have them on her face. She would have … A frenzy of blows fell on her head. A real fury. She seemed to collapse; in vain she defended herself with her hands. It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious because of her delay, and behind Aunt Nunzia was Pasqualino, like a madman, because he didn’t believe her story about the candies. “Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl! And I who gave my life for this ingratitude … You’ll come to a bad end! Eight thousand lire no less. They bleed me dry, these scoundrels.”
She let her hands fall, only to burst into a great lament. “Our Lady of Sorrows, holy Jesus, by the wounds in your ribs let me die!”
Eugenia wept, too, in torrents.
“Aunt, forgive me. Aunt .”
“Uh . uh . uh .” said Pasqualino, his mouth wide open.
“Poor child,” said Donna Mariuccia, coming over to Eugenia, who didn’t know where to hide her face, now streaked with red and tears at her aunt’s rage. “She didn’t do it on purpose, Nunzia, calm down,” and to Eugenia: “Where’ve you got the candies?”
Eugenia answered softly, hopelessly, holding out one in her dirty hand: “I ate the other. I was hungry.”
Before her aunt could move again, to attack the child, the voice of the marchesa could be heard, from the fourth floor, where there was sun, calling softly, placidly, sweetly:
Aunt Nunzia looked up, her face pained as that of the Madonna of the Seven Sorrows, which was at the head of her bed.
“Today is the first Friday of the month. Dedicate it to God.”
“Marchesa, how good you are! These kids make me commit so many sins, I’m losing my mind, I …” And she collapsed her face between her paw-like hands, the hands of a worker, with brown, scaly skin.
“Is your brother not there?”
“Poor Aunt, she got you the eyeglasses, and that’s how you thank her,” said Mariuccia meanwhile to Eugenia, who was trembling.
“Yes, signora, here I am,” answered Don Peppino, who until that moment had been half hidden behind the door of the basement room, waving a paper in front of the stove where the beans for lunch were cooking.
“Can you come up?”
“My wife went to get the eyeglasses for Eugenia. I’m watching the beans. Would you wait, if you don’t mind.”
“Then send up the child. I have a dress for Nunziata. I want to give it to her.”
“May God reward you … very grateful,” answered Don Peppino, with a sigh of consolation, because that was the only thing that could calm his sister. But looking at Nunziata, he realized that she wasn’t at all cheered up. She continued to weep desperately, and that weeping had so stunned Pasqualino that the child had become quiet as if by magic, and was now licking the snot that dripped from his nose, with a small, sweet smile.
“Did you hear? Go up to the Signora Marchesa, she has a dress to give you,” said Don Peppino to his daughter.
Eugenia was looking at something in the void, with her eyes that couldn’t see: they were staring, fixed and large. She winced, and got up immediately, obedient.
“Say to her: ‘May God reward you,’ and stay outside the door.”
“Believe me, Mariuccia,” said Aunt Nunzia, when Eugenia had gone off, “I love that little creature, and afterward I’m sorry, as God is my witness, for scolding her. But I feel all the blood go to my head, believe me, when I have to fight with the kids. Youth is gone, as you see,” and she touched her hollow cheeks. “Sometimes I feel like a madwoman.”
“On the other hand, they have to vent, too,” Donna Mariuccia answered. “They’re innocent souls. They need time to weep. When I look at them, and think how they’ll become just like us.” She went to get a broom and swept a cabbage leaf out of the doorway. “I wonder what God is doing.”
“It’s new, brand-new! You hardly wore it!” said Eugenia, sticking her nose in the green dress lying on the sofa in the kitchen, while the marchesa went looking for an old newspaper to wrap it in.
The marchesa thought that the child really couldn’t see, because otherwise she would have realized that the dress was very old and full of patches (it had belonged to her dead sister), but she refrained from commenting. Only after a moment, as she was coming in with the newspaper, she asked:
“And the eyeglasses your aunt got you? Are they new?”
“With gold frames. They cost eight thousand lire,” Eugenia answered all in one breath, becoming emotional again at the thought of the honor she had received, “because I’m almost blind,” she added simply.
“In my opinion,” said the marchesa, carefully wrapping the dress in the newspaper, and then reopening the package because a sleeve was sticking out, “your aunt could have saved her money. I saw some very good eyeglasses in a shop near the Church of the Ascension, for only two thousand lire.”
Eugenia blushed fiery red. She understood that the marchesa was displeased. “Each to his own position in life. We all must know our limitations,” she had heard her say this many times, talking to Donna Rosa, when she brought her the washed clothes, and stayed to complain of her poverty.
“Maybe they weren’t good enough. I have nine diopters,” she replied timidly.
The marchesa arched an eyebrow, but luckily Eugenia didn’t see it.
“They were good, I’m telling you,” the Marchesa said obstinately, in a slightly harsher voice. Then she was sorry. “My dear,” she said more gently, “I’m saying this because I know the troubles you have in your household. With that difference of six thousand lire, you could buy bread for ten days, you could buy… What’s the use to you of seeing better? Given what’s around you!” A silence. “To read, maybe, but do you read?”
“But sometimes I’ve seen you with your nose in a book. A liar as well, my dear. That is no good.”
Eugenia didn’t answer again. She felt truly desperate, staring at the dress with her nearly white eyes.
“Is it silk?” she asked stupidly.
The marchesa looked at her, reflecting.
“You don’t deserve it, but I want to give you a little gift,” she said suddenly, and headed toward a white wooden wardrobe. At that moment the telephone, which was in the hall, began to ring, and instead of opening the wardrobe the marchesa went to answer it. Eugenia, oppressed by those words, hadn’t even heard the old woman’s consoling allusion, and as soon as she was alone she began to look around as far as her poor eyes allowed her. How many fine, beautiful things! Like the store on Via Roma! And there, right in front of her, an open balcony with a lot of small pots of flowers.
She went out onto the balcony. How much air, how much blue! The apartment buildings seemed to be covered by a blue veil, and below was the alley, like a ravine, with so many ants coming and going … like her relatives. What were they doing? Where were they going? They went in and out of their holes, carrying big crumbs of bread, they were doing this now, had done it yesterday, would do it tomorrow, forever, forever. So many holes, so many ants. And around them, almost invisible in the great light, the world made by God, with the wind, the sun, and out there the purifying sea, so vast … She was standing there, her chin planted on the iron railing, suddenly thoughtful, with an expression of sorrow, of bewilderment, that made her look ugly. She heard the sound of the marchesa’s voice, calm, pious. In her hand, in her smooth ivory hand, the marchesa was holding a small book covered in black paper with gilt letters.
“It’s the thoughts of the saints, my dear. The youth of today don’t read anything, and so the world has changed course. Take it, I’m giving it to you. But you must promise to read a little every evening, now that you’ve got your glasses.”
“Yes, signora,” said Eugenia, in a hurry, blushing again because the marchesa had found her on the balcony, and she took the book. Signora D’Avanzo regarded her with satisfaction.
“God wished to save you, my dear!” she said, going to get the package with the dress and placing it in her hands. “You’re not pretty, anything but, and you already appear to be an old lady. God favors you, because looking like that you won’t have opportunities for evil. He wants you to be holy, like your sisters!”
Although the words didn’t really wound her, because she had long been unconsciously prepared for a life without joy, Eugenia was nevertheless disturbed by them. And it seemed to her, if only for a moment, that the sun no longer shone as before, and even the thought of the eyeglasses ceased to cheer her. She looked vaguely, with her nearly dead eyes, at a point on the sea, where the Posillipo peninsula extended like a faded green lizard. “Tell Papa,” the marchesa continued, meanwhile, “that we won’t do anything about the child’s mattress today. My cousin telephoned, and I’ll be in Posillipo all day.”
“I was there once, too …” Eugenia began, reviving at that name and looking, spellbound, in that direction.
“Yes? Is that so?” Signora D’Avanzo was indifferent, the name of that place meant nothing special to her. In her magisterial fashion, she accompanied the child, who was still looking toward that luminous point, to the door, closing it slowly behind her.
As Eugenia came down the last step and out into the courtyard, the shadow that had been darkening her forehead for a while disappeared, and her mouth opened in a joyful laugh, because she had seen her mother arriving. It wasn’t hard to recognize that worn, familiar figure. She threw the dress on a chair and ran toward her.
“Mamma! The eyeglasses!”
“Gently, my dear, you’ll knock me over!”
Immediately, a small crowd formed. Donna Mariuccia, Don Peppino, one of the Greborios, who had stopped to rest on a chair before starting up the stairs, the Amodios’ maid, who was just then returning, and, of course, Pasqualino and Teresella, who wanted to see, too, and yelled, holding out their hands. Nunziata, for her part, was observing the dress that she had taken out of the newspaper, with a disappointed expression.
“Look, Mariuccia, it’s an old rag … all worn out under the arms!” she said, approaching the group. But who was paying attention to her? At that moment, Donna Rosa was extracting from a pocket in her dress the eyeglass case, and with infinite care opened it. On Donna Rosa’s long red hand, a kind of very shiny insect with two giant eyes and two curving antennae glittered in a pale ray of sun amid those poor people, full of admiration.
“Eight thousand lire … a thing like that!” said Donna Rosa, gazing at the eyeglasses religiously, and yet with a kind of rebuke.
Then, in silence, she placed them on Eugenia’s face, as the child ecstatically held out her hands, and carefully arranged the two antennae behind her ears. “Now can you see?” Donna Rosa asked with great emotion.
Gripping the eyeglasses with her hands, as if in fear that they would be taken away from her, her eyes half closed and her mouth half open in a rapt smile, Eugenia took two steps backward, and stumbled on a chair.
“Good luck!” said the Amodios’ maid.
“Good luck!” said the Greborio sister.
“She looks like a schoolteacher, doesn’t she?” Don Peppino observed with satisfaction.
“Not even a thank you!” said Aunt Nunzia, looking bitterly at the dress. “With all that, good luck!”
“She’s afraid, my little girl!” murmured Donna Rosa, heading toward the door of the basement room to put down her things. “She’s put on the eyeglasses for the first time!” she said, looking up at the first-floor balcony, where the other Greborio sister was looking out.
“I see everything very tiny,” said Eugenia, in a strange voice, as if she were speaking from under a chair. “Black, very black.”
“Of course: the lenses are double. But do you see clearly?” asked Don Peppino. “That’s the important thing. She’s put on the glasses for the first time,” he, too, said, addressing Cavaliere Amodio, who was passing by, holding an open newspaper.
“I’m warning you,” the cavaliere said to Mariuccia, after staring at Eugenia for a moment, as if she were merely a cat, “that stairway hasn’t been swept. I found some fish bones in front of the door!” And he went on, bent over, almost enfolded in his newspaper, reading an article about a proposal for a new pension law that interested him.
Eugenia, still holding on to the eyeglasses with her hands, went to the entrance to the courtyard to look outside into Vicolo della Cupa. Her legs were trembling, her head was spinning, and she no longer felt any joy. With her white lips she wished to smile, but that smile became a moronic grimace. Suddenly the balconies began to multiply, two thousand, a hundred thousand; the carts piled with vegetables were falling on her; the voices filling the air, the cries, the lashes, struck her head as if she were ill; she turned, swaying, toward the courtyard, and that terrible impression intensified. The courtyard was like a sticky funnel, with the narrow end toward the sky, its leprous walls crowded with derelict balconies; the arches of the basement dwellings black, with the lights bright in a circle around Our Lady of Sorrows; the pavement white with soapy water; the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. It was Mariuccia who first realized that the child was sick, and she tore off the glasses, because Eugenia, doubled over and moaning, was throwing up.
“They’ve gone to her stomach!” cried Mariuccia, holding her forehead. “Bring a coffee bean, Nunziata!”
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” cried Aunt Nunzia, her eyes popping out of her head, running into the basement room to get a coffee bean from a can in the cupboard; and she held up the new eyeglasses, as if to ask God for an explanation. “And now they’re wrong, too!”
“It’s always like that, the first time,” said the Amodios’ maid to Donna Rosa calmly. “You mustn’t be shocked; little by little one gets used to them.”
“It’s nothing, child, nothing, don’t be scared!” But Donna Rosa felt her heart constrict at the thought of how unlucky they were.
Aunt Nunzia returned with the coffee bean, still crying: “A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” while Eugenia, pale as death, tried in vain to throw up, because she had nothing left inside her. Her bulging eyes were almost crossed with suffering, and her old lady’s face was bathed in tears, as if stupefied. She leaned on her mother and trembled.
“Mamma, where are we?”
“We’re in the courtyard, my child,” said Donna Rosa patiently; and the fine smile, between pity and wonder, that illuminated her eyes, suddenly lit up the faces of all those wretched people.
“She’s a half-wit, she is!”
“Leave her alone, poor child, she’s dazed,” said Donna Mariuccia, and her face was grim with pity, as she went back into the basement apartment that seemed to her darker than usual.
Only Aunt Nunzia was wringing her hands:
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!”
*The story is taken from Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese. Pushkin Press, 2018.
“I have not yet begun to fight!”
John Paul Jones
The road descends all the way to the sea, as though the whole world was a huge basin where everything drove, sailed, glided and swept down to the bottom. I’m on my way to visit my mother. I’m riding my old green bicycle, peddling happily, gears greased, hands firmly gripping the rusted handlebars. The evening air is humid but a gentle breeze sweeps my hair back and brushes against my face. And when tiny beads of sweat bud on my lips I lick them away, tasting their salinity. I speed past an illuminated billboard on which Mel Gibson grins with a smile once enthralling, but no longer. The first time I saw Lethal Weapon I laughed uproariously at Martin Riggs seated with Roger Murtaugh in the gleaming boat parked on his lawn, because it reminded me of the oval ocean in which father placed me and Eran when we were children. On bright summer days, father would stand outside our window, press his nose against the screen and call out loudly: “Who wants to be Archimedes today?”
“Me! Me!” we’d both shout, quickly undressing and rushing outside in our white underwear and tanned skin to father’s exciting ocean. The tub was already filled to the brim with fresh water, cold at first, from the garden hose. “Today you’ll be Archimedes,” father declared, beaming, pointing to the oval sea, “Get in. Let’s see how much water you’ll splash out today.” Eran followed me down into the depths and the green grass surrounding us was flooded by waves of water in adherence to the incontrovertible truth of Archimedes’ Law, which father patiently explained to us. He handed us the long pole, one end of which was already green with mold and always served as a mast, and tied a square of white cloth to it which had been surreptitiously cut from mother’s old holiday dress. When all was ready he grasped the thick rope tied to the tub’s handle and cried out, “Eran, today you’re Magellan! We’re sailing to Tierra del Fuego!” On another occasion I was Christopher Columbus. We bravely sailed west to discover India and, as always, when it was my turn to be Columbus, father would ask, “Well, my pretty one, what are the names of your three vessels?” and I would quickly clutch the rim of the tub to keep it from overturning because father was already running as hard as he could on the grass around the house, the tub careening, water splashing, me yelling back to him, “Nina, Pinta and Fanta Maria!” and the three of us roared with laughter because that’s what I’d say when I was little and didn’t know its name was “Santa Maria.”
We traveled with father to many faraway lands. We journeyed to Sweden to view the Vasa which had sunk in Stockholm’s ancient harbor with all of its crew and cannon as it set out on its maiden voyage; we sailed from port to port on the magnificent Love Boat and disembarked to tour Puerto Vallarta; and once even reached Polynesia where we embarked in a double pirogue and didn’t tip over. And on one unusually hot day father sprayed us with the hose so we wouldn’t become dehydrated, God forbid, and announced, “Today we’ll sail from Ashkelon to Arcachon and Biarritz, where the rich French people have summer homes.” But I, who’d already studied geography in school, said with an innocent expression on my face, “Dad, that’s not possible. They’re on the Atlantic coast.” Father was briefly mortified but recovered. “Alright, then we’ll go back to earlier times, they’re always fascinating. What do you say, let’s join Odysseus, King of Ithaca, on his journey home from the Trojan War?” My face expressed indifference because I didn’t like wars. I proposed boarding a black gondola on the canals of Venice, “If Eran agrees, of course.” I think that was the year the oval tub grew too small for both of us and father had to sail me first and then my brother. I no longer feared to journey alone to the Cape of Storms, and when we’d rounded the continent we decided unanimously to rename it the Cape of Good Hope. But Eran grew impatient even before we’d gone ashore and stamped his feet, “Enough, Dad, now it’s my turn. I want to go to the Galapagos, to the iguanas!”
We learned about many exotic locations and historic maritime expeditions during the delightful games with father on the lawn. Once Eran asked with a challenging thrust of his chin, “And what long voyages did you make, Dad?”, and father thought for a long moment, while the water in the tub settled, scratching his head as though attempting to remember, “Ah, I went on a long trip in Mauthausen, then a march from Bergen-Belsen, before then I also visited Auschwitz, which was a long time ago and I don’t really remember very well, but what I can tell you is that I was plunged into the eye of a storm long before I ever saw the open sea – “
Eran and I fell silent and our gaiety faded. We were already familiar with these names, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen, and other names of similar places from mother’s whispering to Aunt Lily, one of them crying silently, the other crushing larval cigarette butts in the glass ashtray, fingering a white handkerchief in her lap.
Father saw we’d quieted down and quickly moved to reinvigorate us. He pulled the rope with such strength we almost tumbled from the boat as he began rushing us to Mount Ararat to locate, once and for all, Noah’s lost ark.
Then Eran really got big. Hands, feet, neck, all his clothes and shoes were too small for him and his voice changed and he asked to move to the closed-in balcony, at least he’d have his own room, without me. I kept pace with him, as though we were twinned. I’d already discovered Osnat was using tampons and wondered when my turn would come. Meanwhile, I was wearing a double-A bra and putting on mother’s pink lipstick whenever she left the house.
One day, almost as an afterthought, the tub was shoved into the crawl space under the house, a shady, cool place with a musty odor where mother’s cats would shelter from the heat. Our last voyage in father’s tub was to the Lofoten Islands where the maelstrom, the deadly ocean whirlpool, waited in ambush at high tide. Father told us it was known even to Jules Verne; it was the mysterious whirlpool in which the Nautilus sank – and at night when I lay in bed, curled in a blanket, my nose between the pages of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, I was pleased to learn the French author had been right. And because we had escaped the whirlpool the water in the tub subsided and Eran and I, and father, listened intently to the sirens’ song. Father shut his eyes, turned his ear to the wind and rhythmically stroked his cheek with pleasure. Eran wrung out his wet undershirt with abrupt movements, looked at father, an unfamiliar expression on his face, as if he were seeing him for the first time, and said angrily, “What sirens are you talking about, Dad, it’s only the wind and the crickets!” and turned to enter the house, dripping wet. Then he yelled, in a parting shot, “Why don’t you ever talk to me about soccer?!”
I silenced my brother quickly. As he walked away, I yelled at him that he didn’t understand anything! I still heard them singing, their gentle, tantalizing voices, and still looked up to my father, even though I too began to wonder how he knew so much about brave admirals like John Paul Jones and Captain Cook, about distant seas and exciting missions in places whose names sent chills of pleasure through me and filled me with an urgent lust to see the world.
Mother never swam in the ocean or in the pool and father dared only infrequently to drive our white Susita automobile as far as Beersheba or Tiberias, and even less frequently picked up a book and sat down to read it from cover to cover. “He no longer has patience to read,” mother sighed, tightening a screw in her eyeglass frame with a tiny screwdriver. “They killed his patience.”
At the end of that summer, just before the autumn winds began whipping the tips of the cedars along the border of our fading garden, and just before the spikes of the sea squills began their torturous emergence from the hard earth, at the end of that summer mother ran into the house with a terrified expression in her eyes. She’d been weeding the garden and saw a marbled snake slither beneath the house. Father ran outside, bent down between the oleander bushes and stared for a long time into the narrow, dim coolness between the earth and the house above. When he rose to his feet and saw mother standing at the doorway fingering the hem of her skirt he spread his arms – “there’s no snake there” – but when his glance met her frightened eyes and he saw her shrinking back he crouched again with a sigh and carefully removed all the junk that had accumulated beneath the house through the years: a roll of chicken wire that no one could remember why it had been purchased; Eran’s scooter, which had surrendered all its majesty; and the periscope we had constructed from plywood and mirrors, almost in one piece and perhaps still usable. And when he pulled out the small tub I saw sadly that time had corroded its surface into red-brown rust and had left it pitted like one of mother’s lace doilies that rested on the cushions of the living room armchairs, starched and stiff.
The days passed slowly, then sped on their way. The winds awoke from their summer slumber as though they’d been alerted. Mother picked pomegranates from the tree and placed them in a blue clay bowl that highlighted their pinkish-yellow colors. Most had been attacked by insects, but were still lovely on their surface. The grape arbor still sagged with the weight of lush clusters. Eran and I stretched our hands toward their twined vines, grasped the tendrils and pulled the ripe fruit down into our mouths. When the wagtails returned to peck the earth then autumn had truly arrived and the summer became a hazy memory. The traces of our adventurous journeys in the tub dissipated. Clouds arrived from the sea and clumped in corners of the sky like huddled sheep. Nights were chilly and brought rain. After days of downpours that beat down everywhere with unfathomable intensity the rain was transformed into a whispered, calming drizzle. I wandered outside for hours in my gray raincoat, seeing visions deep within the mirroring puddles. And when a storm arrived to beat wildly against the slats of the shutters, mother said it was the winter’s swan song and how pleasant it was in such weather to be beneath blankets in the eye of the storm. It was mother who taught us that the storm’s eye is the safest place to be at sea during a whirlwind, the exact opposite of what we’d believed, even father, and that ships can sail in the eye of the storm without fear. And so, if that winter’s final rain was a storm, we remained in the calm isle of its eye.
One morning the last orange dropped from the tree in obedience to an unspoken instruction and embarked on its journey of decomposition. Spring was brief that year and the summer very hot and oppressive. Eran was finishing twelfth grade. Every evening he ran a timed hour along the beach. He’d returned from the naval commando team-building exercise bruised and exhausted, and also dirty and somewhat ill, but with a smile of victory on his lips. However, he wasn’t accepted into the naval commando unit and no one could console him, not even his girlfriend Nitza. In the autumn Eran reluctantly joined a different unit, completed the training with distinction, eventually came to terms with the bright red color of his unit’s beret, returned to Nitza, and was killed one dark night in an ambush in southern Lebanon.
Afterwards, a silence descended on the house and never lifted. The sailors and brave discoverers of new lands who filled our childhood sailed away in their ships beyond the horizon, pennants flying, and never returned. We remained planted in the earth. Mother wrapped up her pain and buried it deep within her – “There’s still a child here at home” – while father submerged his rigid denial in the sea’s cold waters, swimming to a small island until his strength gave out or taking long morning walks along the beach, striding beside the waves on the same route Eran took every evening at the end of twelfth grade, pacing pensively, searching for a trace of his son’s footprints, his back bending, his heart unravelling.
I stopped at a red light, brakes screeching. I wiped the sweat from my face and adjusted the straps of my backpack. In the distance I saw the sea’s dusky shadow merge with the sky into a unitary boundless gray entity, pierced by pale starlight and the eyeballs of the round lamps along the promenade curving to the south. When the light turned green I made my way toward the anchorage. The gloomy sea was hidden momentarily by a brighter one: a giant billboard advertising a Greek island holiday.
On one of the few occasions that mother and father had enough money and energy to take a short holiday, the four of us drove to Eilat. The journey was long and enchanting. “It’s like Africa,” said Eran, amazed by the acacia trees struggling to survive in the arid heat, seeming to flee from him as fast as we were driving toward them. Mother told us that the manna eaten by the Israelites in the desert hadn’t fallen from the sky, as is written in the Torah, and that scientists believed that the biblical white material was, in fact, sweet secretions of ants living on the acacia branches. She went on to tell us the meaning of symbiosis, and Eran and I immediately responded, “Ugh, secretions of ants – “, then my brother turned around and swore he saw Lot’s wife. I cried that I saw ibexes leaping on the cliffs.
We reached Eilat hungry and dusty. The Red Sea’s waters were dark blue and the beach curving and golden. An expanse of cloth tents blossomed on the sand. Before it grew dark we also built a tent of flapping piqué bedspreads and broomsticks, near our Susita, and mother gave each of us our favorite sandwich. After eating we entered the water, except for mother. We splashed, swam, insisted we’d seen scorpion fish and parrot fish and took care to avoid being stung by the black sea anemones. All our urgings were useless, mother refused to go in the water. Father gave up first. “Leave mom alone,” he motioned, she’s hopeless, and again wet his black hair. “Did you forget the business with the cats?” We hadn’t forgotten. Mother observed one of the neighbors bathing three kittens in a large metal bucket and wanted to look, and saw their small heads and limbs trembling beneath the shimmering surface. With their remaining strength the kittens tried to free themselves from the grip of the man bent over the pail glancing out of the corner of his eye at the neighbors’ daughter, at mother, “You know what cats do in the garden, wailing all night like they’re being slaughtered? Then they give birth and the kittens bring fleas. It’s the same every year and their mother never learns!” He didn’t release their striped bodies until they grew limp and the water in the pail no longer moved. Since then mother’s fame had spread to all the stray cats in the neighborhood, who came to her for refuge. And since then – so we assumed – mother avoided water resolutely. When the town built a swimming pool she would enter only to her ankles, and never took her worried eyes off Eran and me though we swam like dolphins. Only when father placed us in the tub’s oval sea and became a daring admiral did mother watch us contentedly, seated on the porch stairs.
After Eran had been killed father lost all sense of time. He sat alone in the garden for hours on a wicker chair frayed from age and the sun, slumped in the lacy shade of the Persian Lilac tree, fingering an old piece of rope, as though reviewing all the knots he’d taught us when we were children: fisherman’s knot, overhand knot, reef knot, granny knot. Father’s fingers were thick and nimble. “You already know how to tie your shoelaces, right?” he said the first time he showed us the rope’s wonders, “so you already know one knot!”
When I saw him sitting like that in the shady garden I was horrified and a fist clutched my heart: father had shriveled and seemed so lost he required a lifeline. I imagined him leaning toward me and patiently explaining where to place my fingers and how to form the rope into a loop and where to pull and tighten so the knot would be secure, but I didn’t exactly remember what went where anymore. And so father continued to fade away from us until he silently disappeared from our lives, one moment visible, then illusory, glinting, then quenched in the distance – until he descended into the endless, macabre abyss at the horizon where the sea ended – and was never seen again.
I’m flying downhill on the bicycle, the wind flinging my hair back and cooling my skin. Mother moved away from the old house long ago. Now, though it seems unbelievable, she lives on the sea. Literally on the sea. A man with white hair desired my mother for her silences and the sorrow that withered her spirit, and brought her home to him. The stability mother always sought in a safe harbor she found, as it happened, on the man’s small, rocking boat anchored in the Jaffa marina. “Our house is big and empty, and it’s like a museum,” she sighed to me one morning, “Eran’s gone. Dad is gone. You have your own life, I don’t want to live here any longer. The house is yours now, with all that’s in it, and all that isn’t, it’s all yours. And if you don’t want it either, you’re welcome to sell it. We’ll split the proceeds fifty-fifty.”
Mother didn’t wait for me to sell the house – nor had I decided what to do with it – but packed a few suitcases and moved in with her sister Talma. After a while she also moved from Talma’s because she’d met Herbert. This was the first time she had invited me to her new home.
I arrived at the marina, panting heavily. I tied the bike to a streetlamp and scanned the area to locate the lights of the boat mother had described on the phone. “On the stern is the verse you, Eran and Dad always loved,” she set me a riddle we’d solved long ago, and added, surprised at herself, “You won’t believe the coincidence,” that is – I inferred – the verse was a sign this man was also a kindred spirit. I smiled to myself. For a brief moment my brother and I were again seated in the splashing tub, the sun gilding our heads, and repeated along with father the magical fact that “All the rivers go to the sea and the sea is not full.” My brother and I roiled the water’s surface and were answered by waves rippling outward, and we tried to understand how all the rivers go to the sea and the sea is not full.
I’m standing beneath the streetlamp, my feet in the puddle of light, hands on my hips. Large boats and small fishing craft rock in the marina’s waters. Nearby waves shatter dully against the rocks of the breakwater. The air smells of fish guts mingled with flecks of salt the wind carries to shore. In the deepening darkness I can’t find the boat or the verse on its stern. Only thanks to my cellphone do I find mother and Herbert, who have emerged onto the deck of a shiny white boat and are now waving a flashlight at me. He smiles pleasantly and extends a trembling hand as I climb up to his bobbing home. I look at him with interest, he’s the man who was able to do what father never could – detach mother from dry land.
I follow him down into the boat. Mother’s expression is welcoming, her eyes gleam and she hugs me tightly, “This is my daughter,” she proudly says to her new partner. “I’m pleased, pleased to meet you,” Herbert repeats.
The boat rocks gently and I glance at mother surreptitiously. She looks back at me with unfamiliar confidence. Her eyes tell me everything’s fine. My mind eases, mother has found new love, everything’s fine. Mother gestures and I sit opposite her on the upholstered bench, and Herbert immediately offers hot tea or cool cocoa, whichever we prefer.
I ask mother where they’re headed.
“We’re not headed anywhere, sweetheart,” she calmly replies, “We’re not headed anywhere. Nothing’s changed as far as that’s concerned. I’m not stepping into the water. Herbert assured me the boat is securely tied to the dock, we’ve dropped anchor and the basin within the breakwater is usually smooth as butter. It’s a house, that’s all it is.”
“And I thought you’d finally gotten over that business with the kittens.”
Mother shrugs, “Why would you think that. We’re staying here, and during the winter we’ll move to his apartment in Giv’at Olga. Anyway,” her smile sparkles, “No lands remain for us to discover – “
I thank Herbert as he hands me a cup of hot tea with a charming gesture and asks whether to add a sugar cube and whether I like sailing, or whether I’m “like your mother.”
Mother sips carefully, “No, she’s not like me. I’m something special. I never sought adventure, but who knows? You only live once.”
Herbert strokes her head very gently. I examine the cup in my hand.
“You know, Herbert,” mother says, “One day I’ll find the courage and then the three of us will sail west, perhaps to Ile d’If, opposite Marseille. We could pause near the St. Jean fortress, perhaps Dantès will wave to us through the bars of his cell.”
I stare at mother in amazement. Had she been listening when father read The Count of Monte Cristo to us? I don’t remember her ever reading it.
She smiles at me encouragingly. Father’s image, tall and joyful, appears momentarily between us. Our thoughts drift to Eran who had begun, for a short while, to resemble him, until a large, returning fishing vessel chugs toward us, and as it maneuvers its way into the anchorage the water grows agitated and Herbert’s boat sways.
A striped cat I hadn’t noticed before jumps onto mother’s knees and curls up in her lap like a snail. Its half-open eyes examine me, then close again.
I hear mother ask, “Have you decided what you want to do with the house?” and I, distracted, answer “No, not yet,” thinking about my green bicycle tied to the streetlamp on the pier, and that I’ll soon have to pedal back up the long slope that led down to the marina. Perhaps I should say goodbye, and leave.
*From “A Sensitive Woman”, a collection of stories, (The fifth book by Edna Shemesh, to be published in 2019)
A runner asked me one morning on my way to work, “Hey, you. Can you tell me what time it is?”
I replied, “Ten to.”
“To what?” he asked.
I stared at him briefly. “To eight,” and added an “of course ” under my breath.
Had it been any other time of day, I might not have found it so self-evident. But at eight? When everyone was rushing to get to work on time?
“OK. Thank you. I know neither day nor hour.”
He shook his head and carried on running.
I went on my way, more than a little confused. Questions tumbled around my brain like bumblebees.
“It’s also Wednesday, 18 October. Anything else you’d like to know?”
I toiled away my eight hours and, truth be told, had forgotten all about the incident when I passed the pitch again and spotted the guy still running.
“Hey, you. Can you tell me what time it is?”
“Ten past five,” I replied.
“Morning or evening?”
I found myself staring at him again. “Evening,” I said curtly.
“Thank you. Must run.”
He ran on. I noticed a track on the pitch where he had been circling all day.
I headed home, but thought a lot about the man. Actually, to be honest, I couldn’t get him out of my mind.
For how long had he been running, seeing as he didn’t know what day, let alone time, it was? Had he been running for so long that he had completely lost his wits? Or was he a foreigner? Was he perhaps one of these roaming aliens who had taken human form? Perhaps he was lost. Who knows? Wound up in Gundadalur when he was supposed to take part in some intergalactic marathon. Programmed wrong.
I had always wanted to travel in time like that. But I would want to decide for myself where to go and who to visit.
Later that evening I went for a walk. I hadn’t planned on walking that way, but without realizing I had taken the same route as in the morning. The closer I got to the pitch, the more I regretted my choice of route. I didn’t feel like walking past it, so I just peeked around the corner of the spectators’ shelter to find out whether he might actually still be running.
Sure enough, after a while I saw a shadow passing by down on the track.
What should I do?
Call the police or something? The man was wearing himself down. If he couldn’t stop himself, I had to help him. But I was reluctant to get involved in this strange affair. The shadow passed me again on its endless orbit. I slipped home.
I went to bed, but couldn’t sleep. My thoughts were running in circles. Chasing after that guy. Following him around the track. I tried to guess where he might be now: on the north or east side. Then it occurred to me, and all thoughts stopped in their tracks, he was running the wrong way. Everyone who usually worked out there ran with the sun. Was that why he couldn’t find his way out again? Perhaps there was some way for me to break his orbit.
I sat up and switched on the bedside lamp. I could put down a plank or two across the track to ease him out, without him fully realizing it. Maybe I should do something now, immediately. This was urgent. I thought I remembered seeing two suitable planks in the garage.
I jumped out of bed, quickly put on a pair of jeans and tucked in the large singlet I slept in. Then I rushed down the stairs and pulled the brown leather jacket off the coat hanger. I had a disturbing feeling that this was extremely urgent. As if it had something to do with me. As if it was a matter of life or death.
It was pitch black outside. The lamp post in front of my house was dark.
I fumbled my way towards the garage door, only to remember that we now used a remote. No pulling. I fumbled back in again for the remote. That did the trick. The door rolled up under the ceiling. It was so noisy in the silent night that it made me nervous. At night, when it is quiet, you have to listen. Hear everything that is going on. It is the only salvation.
The light came on automatically and there they were. I pushed aside a few old pots of paint with brushes sticking straight up without support, and grabbed an old newspaper to brush the cobwebs off the planks. The planks were so long that they sagged in the middle when I lifted them. I hesitated very briefly, and then headed for the football pitch.
Of course, I had no way of knowing whether the man was still running, but, if he was, I had to try.
I have always been both night-blind and afraid of the dark, so this was no easy task. I hoped I wouldn’t come across anyone on my way. They might think the planks were a ladder.
I hurried until I neared the pitch. Then I walked more cautiously. But suddenly I ran into a fence—actually, I ran the planks into a fence and dropped them. I felt the burn of splinters piercing my palms. Cursing, I felt my way to the opening. Then down the stairs, along the barrier and over to where I knew there was a hole. I pushed the planks through and listened, stock-still. The quiet seethed in the darkness. Suddenly I heard something. I did. It was so dark there. I heard the breathing before I heard the footsteps of someone running past, panting. I felt the hairs rising on my nape.
The runner stumbled over the planks, groaned, got back on his feet and carried on running. I flinched in sympathy, but thought I had to give it another shot. Some time passed. Then I heard panting approaching again and once again he stumbled over the boards and fell on his face. He whimpered so pitifully that I immediately pulled back the planks and took them home. I threw them into the garage and closed the door with the remote. Getting any sleep tonight was out of the question, so I made coffee and sat down to mull things over. I was in two minds about the whole thing. In the end I was so exhausted that I fell asleep draped over the table. A crick in my neck woke me up, but my first thought wasn’t the pain or that I was late for work now.
I prayed that he had stopped that nonsense.
I rushed to work, passed the pitch; the man was running all the same. My stomach tied in knots.
“Stop it. Stop it!” I yelled silently. He looked up and I felt a jolt when our eyes met. This time he didn’t ask what time it was, he just gave me a pleading look. My eyes welled up. I had never felt more helpless.
I went to work, but couldn’t focus. My thoughts were spinning. I usually had every situation under control, but now it was all a mess. I couldn’t focus enough to sit still. I paced the floor.
Finally, work was over. I couldn’t remember a longer day. Usually, they were over before I knew it. There was only one thing on my mind: getting down to the pitch as quickly as possible.
I had a fierce battle with myself, but finally pulled myself together, turned around and walked up towards the bank. There was an art exhibition I had been meaning to see for a while.
Most of the images portrayed the same thing: the dim outline of a man and a door opening to darkness. One differed. It was just a door, which was closed.
The images unsettled me.
I couldn’t resist any longer, I ran down to the pitch. The weather had been nice in the morning, but now it was windy with sleet. I was soon drenched, but there was nothing for it. My legs were shaking when I finally came to a halt, panting.
My heart sank to the bottom. His gait had changed. He was dragging himself along like an old man.
I built up my courage and approached the barrier.
“Please stop that!” I implored him, when he passed by.
“I can’t. Don’t know how to,” he gasped and his blue eyes were brimming with tears.
I gripped the barrier so hard that my knuckles went white.
The next time he passed, I heard him say: “Some men run in shorts, although they own trousers.”
It sounded apologetic, as though he knew that he was inconveniencing me.
I went home, dragging my feet along with me.
I fixed myself something to eat, but felt like I was chewing paper.
“Stop it, woman. Stop it!” I shouted and startled myself.
I lay down in bed and fell asleep. When I woke up, it was pitch black.
I checked my watch. Two thirty. I had slept enough. I got up, wrapped a blanket around myself, took a CD and put it on. I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes and tried to enjoy the music, but was interrupted by beats, which weren’t supposed to be there. My heart was pounding in my chest and blood was boiling in my ears. Thump. Thump. I listened: that wasn’t just my heart. There was also a knocking at the door.
Who the hell could that be, disturbing people in the middle of the night? I ignored the knocking, but whoever it was, it was not someone easily discouraged. It sounded as though someone was pounding on the door with both fists. I flicked on the light and stood up. I could make out a shape through the pane in the front door. I didn’t like this one bit. I wanted one of those peepholes. I wrapped the blanket tighter around me.
When I unlocked the door, there he was.
I felt immensely relieved, and took a deep breath. He finally stopped. I gave him a tender look and sighed.
He looked exhausted. His face ashen, dark circles under his eyes and drenched in sweat. He was trembling. He had worn out his shoes and his toes were sticking out. I suddenly realized that he was running on the spot. He could barely lift his feet, but he was running. Behind him snow had started to fall.
He tried to say something, but couldn’t speak. Then he cleared his throat a few times.
“Can you lend me your thoughts, so I can escape this?” he asked hoarsely with pleading eyes.
“Yes. If that’s all it takes, then, by all means, do take my thoughts.”
He stopped dead, thanked me and left, and I have to admit that since then I haven’t had a single thought.
But I have taken up running.
A Chapter from the novel, Black Foam
He placed the suitcase lightly into the tray, and then took off to meet it on the other side. However, the soldier across from him waved him back as he scrutinized the screen in front of him. The conveyer belt moved backwards, and as the suitcase emerged from the screener, everyone looked suspiciously at it and its owner. It moved again and disappeared inside the baggage screener. The man crossed over for a second time to wait for it on the other side, but once more the soldier sent it back to where it had come from. The owner of the suitcase wanted to ask what was going on, but by this time the soldier was busy talking to a coworker. He stepped forward slightly, only to receive a stern gesture to stay where he was. Looking in his wife’s direction, he saw that she had finished going through inspection and was anxiously waiting for him.
The line behind him had grown quite long by this time, and impatient grumbles were getting steadily louder. Faced with no other choice, the soldier instructed the man to step aside for his suitcase to be searched by hand, and gestured to those behind him to pass through. Once again, the man looked over to where his wife was standing. She was witness to what was happening, observing his public humiliation as two soldiers gingerly spread out the contents of his bag for all to see, eyeing him warily the entire time.
“Ok. Go ahead.”
After being engrossed in what was happening to the Arab man in the neighboring line, Dawit snapped to attention at the sound of a soldier’s voice. Fearful of meeting the same fate, he placed his suitcase hesitantly onto the conveyor belt, then straightened up in anticipation. He waited for the bag as it passed slowly through the baggage screener, his eyes fixed on the security officer’s facial expression, which registered no reaction. He picked up his suitcase and turned to the officer, awaiting his decision, and saw him wave another traveler through.
He looked back at the Arab, who was still in the same spot, nervously chewing his nails as he watched his belongings being strewn about. When at last he got the signal to gather them up, his fellow travelers were passing through one after another without being stopped by either the machine or the security official.
Dawit felt sympathy toward the man, perhaps because he himself was all too familiar with the taste of humiliation. He had experienced it first in his home country. From there he had fled from the Blue Nile Valley to Northern Ethiopia. When he first reached Ethiopia’s Endabaguna Camp, he had jumped for joy despite his exhaustion after the lengthy, grueling escape. Yet, despite his initial relief and elation, he had grown wearily accustomed to being humiliated anew in his place of refuge.
It was a voyage of desperation that could have had only one of two outcomes: either arrival at the final destination, or death at the hands of border guards. Nevertheless, his existence in the forced conscription camp had become so meaningless that it made no difference to Daoud whether he lived or died. So, when he crossed the border amid scores of others, he was different from all the rest. Unlike them, he paused to look back. He wanted to take in the full reality of deliverance. He wanted to experience what it really felt like to be leaving humiliation and degradation behind once and for all. There, beyond the distant mountains that had drained his strength to the last drop as he had climbed some and skirted others, lay Eritrea. He felt no nostalgia at all. With every step he took on his journey of escape, nostalgic longing had fallen away from his spirit. He’d been purged by his growing distance from the Blue Nile Valley, emptying out his store of pain and distress in the attempt to come home to his spirit before it was caked with scars.
“Hurry up … quick … this way.”
At the entrance to Endabaguna there was something else one needed to be delivered from, namely, an Ethiopian soldier who was using a whip to make new arrivals line up correctly. The whip missed Daoud and hit a woman behind him, who was so taken by surprise that she had no chance to get out of the way. Everybody was lined up in a snake-like fashion so that larger numbers could be accommodated in front of the registration office, and the soldier took pleasure in either keeping the lines in order or scattering them if they got too orderly on their own, finding sadistically artful ways of drawing their curves with his heavy lash.
The registration office served as the entrance to the sprawling camp. Beyond it lay scattered tents of varying sizes, most of them so threadbare that the blue UNHCR logos printed on them were hardly visible anymore. What with the thick crowds lined up in front of him, the slowness of the registration office bureaucracy, and the noonday sun beating down on people’s heads, the time crept by without Daoud’s turn coming. He sat down on the ground and busied himself drawing random circles in the sand. He ran his hand over his knotted black and white woolen wristband. He shut his eyes and saw black. He opened them again, and the sun, which had been lying in wait for him, hurt his pupils. He held his head between his knees and lifted it up again. Then he repeated the sequence, but nothing changed. He was still just as far from the registration office as he had been before.
“Don’t tell them you’re Muslim.”
Keeping his curiosity in check, Daoud resisted the urge to turn toward the source of the lowered voice. As much as he wanted to follow the conversation he’d picked up on between a couple of young men behind him, he was afraid that if he let on that he was listening, they might stop talking.
“Migration organizations won’t pay any attention to your file. I’ve heard that a lot. And they’ll make up excuses without giving you the real reason.”
Daoud knew Endabaguna was nothing but a reception camp and that for some there was a slight chance of resettlement in European countries, while the rest would be distributed among permanent camps in Ethiopia. This was what made him wish he could join in the conversation, make more inquiries. But the whispered exchange was obviously a confidential one. When a silence ensued, Daoud feared that the conversation might still be going on, but too softly for him to hear.
“What to do?”
Rescued by the other young man’s question, he put his senses on high alert. Adjusting his sitting position, he managed to inch slightly backwards, his ears pricked for the answer he was looking for, and which was rather late in coming.
“Do what I did. I got rid of my identity papers and chose a Christian name.”
As sundown approached, Daoud stood outside the registration office, brushing off his clothes as he listened to the question being addressed to him. His head lowered, he gazed at the blank sheet of paper and the blue ink pen hovering over it. Then he lifted his gaze somewhat toward the dark hand with the protruding veins, and from there toward the angry-looking face that was waiting for his answer. The employee repeated his question irritably. As David ran his hand again over his knotted black and white woolen wristband, the employee filled in the box according to what he had heard: “David.”
“Bo’u nelech.” 1 The group coming from Gondar followed the signal from a girl wearing a blue suit and holding a sign that read “Beta Israel” in Hebrew and Amharic. Looking as though they’d stepped straight out of some period of ancient history, this bewildered mass of black humanity piqued the interest of passersby who stopped on both sides to gawk at them, with some of them taking pictures.
In the middle of the group, Dawit pulled his head covering down in an attempt to cover as much of his face as possible. He still felt vulnerable and exposed, as though his features invited attention. For all he knew, his looks called out to passersby, telling them that he was a thief, and in possession of all the evidence of his crimes.
The group proceeded in a semicircular path that ended at a glass door. The door opened automatically, and as soon as it did, cries went up and a commotion erupted. Dawit couldn’t make out what was happening. The group had been thrown into confusion. Some of them wanted to go back inside, but the organizers ordered them to keep going.
“Lama ba’tem?! Lama ba’tem?!” Dawit’s ears were pierced by the screaming of a white girl, who was heatedly asking why they had come to Israel. He looked over at her, only to find her glaring at him. She had picked him out of the crowd to be the object of her enraged stares. Then he stopped hearing her shrieks. He was too busy looking at the greenish veins in her neck that were swollen with rage. When he reached the point closest to her, he averted his gaze and hurried past as her screams tried to overtake him. When he’d gotten some distance away, he looked back to see what was happening behind him. In the process, he bumped into a suitcase, knocking it accidentally out of the hand of its owner, who shoved him and lit into him with curses and insults. Leaning towards a woman next to him, the man grumbled, “These slaves have overrun the country!”
Without a word, Dawit moved quickly away, raising his hands in a gesture of silent apology. Then suddenly the man’s features stopped him up short. It was the Arab who had been searched by the soldiers in such an insulting way.
When he turned to be on his way and catch up with the group, his glance fell on a blue neon sign in bold Hebrew letters: “Broukhim haba’im li Yisrael: Welcome to Israel.”
On Thursday Anna found out that she was pregnant. When she came home from work, she didn’t start dinner but instead sat at the tiny kitchen table, put her gaunt hands on the new oilcloth, and stared at them in a stupor.
Nikolai came home as usual at 9 p.m.
Anna heard him taking off his coat in the narrow, over-furnished hallway. Then she walked up to him, threw her arms around his neck, greasy with ground-in diesel fuel, and held him tightly.
“Kolya, I can’t go on anymore. We have to do it.”
Nikolai sighed and delicately brushed his lips against her pale, thin hair.
“Everything will be fine. Don’t be scared.”
Her arms, like two pale snakes, crawled along her husband’s bony shoulders.
“Why are you trying to calm me down? Did you read yesterday’s ‘Truth’?”
“Of course I did.”
“So what are you waiting for? For them to come for us? Or denounce us as ‘spitters against the wind’?”
“Of course not. I’m just thinking.”
Anna turned away from him.
“You’re thinking… meanwhile He is still on the windowsill. Everyone sees Him.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll do it today. For sure.”
Twilight flattened the city into an uneven multicolored plane of flames that held up a strip of evening sky. The sky, squeezed in between the city and the paint-chipped window frame, quickly grew dark, filling up with acrid fog. The darker it became, the sharper and clearer His profile stood out against the gloomy plane of the city.
Nikolai had noticed before that His knobby, pale rose flesh seemed to light up against the background of the deepening darkness.
Twelve years ago, a tiny rose-colored tuber pushed its way up through the black earth that was packed into a silver flower pot shaped like an enormous wine glass, and Nikolai had been amazed at how quickly it brightened when twilight fell.
That evening the family had been celebrating the Day of the First Sprouting. They’d had to move a chest of drawers to seat everyone around the table. Nikolai remembered turning out the lights, listening to the Anthem and his now deceased father giving the Main Toast. He remembered how they drank wine and took turns shaking drops of wine from the glasses onto the unctuous black fertilized earth.
“Grow for our happiness o’er the centuries! Grow for the death of all our enemies!” Father proclaimed as he turned over his glass third, after the two fat representatives of the DSP (Directorate of Selectional Propaganda) and then quickly leaned over to kiss the tuber…
In three years, He grew by 13 centimeters, and Nikolai could make out the outline of the Leader in the knotty body, which was like an elongated potato. One morning he told his mother. She laughed and pushed Nikolai onto the bed.
“You silly boy! Did you think we didn’t notice?”
And then she added mysteriously, “Soon you won’t believe your eyes!”
And indeed, a year hadn’t gone by before the top part of what seemed at first glance to be a shapeless tuber became round, the lower part widened, and two protuberances pushed out on either side and slanted downward.
Then Father gathered the guests together again, cut his right hand, rubbed his blood into the top of the tuber and announced the Day of Formation.
Over the next two years the tuber grew another 10 centimeters, the rosy head became even rounder, a thick neck took shape, the shoulders became broader and a belly stuck out over the knobby waist.
“It’s the miracle of selection, son!” his father exclaimed, fiddling with his prematurely gray beard. “Only our miracle-working people could have invented it! Just imagine – a living Father of the Great Country! On the windowsill of every family, in every home, in every corner of our boundless state!”
Soon a meaty nose pushed out of the round head, then two swellings indicated eyebrows, a chin jutted forward, and ears appeared. His body, which was in the potting soil up to His waist, broadened and strengthened. A few pockmarks and warts gradually disappeared, and the knobbiness smoothed out.
After another year, lips appeared on the rosy face, brows majestically furrowed and pushed the bridge of his nose in, and his forehead became domed. A ridge with a short tuft of hair appeared at the top of His forehead. His neck was tightly encased in the collar of His field jacket, and his belly was even more solidly rooted in the earth.
Nikolai had already graduated from school when dimples appeared on the Leader’s cheeks, ear cavities were carved out and slight folds appeared in the tightly fitted jacket.
Two years later Nikolai’s father died.
And a year later they celebrated the Day of Enlightenment —two dark little beads pushed up the puffy eyelids. Nikolai had to lead the celebration. He powdered his face and sang the Anthem to the gathered guests. His mother poured a cup of family spit they’d saved up into the pot of the Leader. From that day on they only fed Him spit. And every twelfth day Nikolai gave Him his sperm.
When little bands of military ribbons appeared on His jacked and the end of a pen peeped out of His pocket, it was the Day of Complete Growth. They celebrated it without Nikolai’s mother.
Soon Nikolai married Anna and went to work at the factory.
From her first day in the house, Anna tended Him with great care. Every morning she wiped off the dust, watered the tuber with spit, raked the black soil and polished the silver flower pot until it shone.
And so it went for almost two years.
But on the twelfth June morning terrible news spread across the Land: The Great Leader had died.
No one worked for two weeks — everyone stayed home in a state of shock. At the end of two weeks, after the deceased had been buried, the new Leader ceremonially accepted the Helm. Unlike his predecessor, the new One was tall and thin. He gave speeches, wrote addresses, and spoke to the people. But none of his speeches so much as mentioned the previous Leader who had been at the Helm for 47 years. That frightened people. Some people lost their minds; others jumped out their windows holding on to their potted tubers.
After a month, the new Leader gave an address to the nation in which he mentioned “the former One at the Helm, made former due to necessary but sufficient reasons.”
No matter how Nikolai and Anna struggled to grasp the hidden meaning of those words, it eluded them. The people understood it in two ways and immediately paid for both: people who took their tubers off the windowsills were immediately arrested and people who left them on the sills received a warning. For some reason they forgot about Nikolai and Anna – they weren’t sent the red postcard with a warning and the image of a person spitting against the wind. But that didn’t make the couple happy; it upset them.
A month and a half went by in this information vacuum and tension. Their neighbors continued to be arrested and warned. Soon a directive was issued banning suicide. And the suicides stopped…
Nikolai didn’t notice Anna walking up behind him. Her hands touched his shoulders.
“Are you afraid, Kolya?”
Nikolai turned around. “What have we got to be afraid of? We have the right. We’re good people.”
“We’re good people, Kolya. Are we going to begin?”
Nikolai nodded. Anna turned out the light.
Nikolai got a knife and poked at the tuber to find the waist, and then, after he steadied the shaking of his wiry hands, he made a slit along the waist. His body turned out to be harder than a potato. The tuber weakly cracked under the knife. When Nikolai cut Him, Anna grabbed Him and delicately carried Him in the dark, like a child, to the table. Nikolai got out an eight-liter glass jar with a wide mouth. Anna lit the stove, filled a bucket with water, and put it on to heat.
They sat in the darkness, only illuminated by the weak gas flame, and stared at Him lying there. Both Nikolai and Anna thought that He moved. When the water came to a boil, Anna put it on the balcony to cool, poured it into the jar, added salt, vinegar, bay leaves and cloves. Then they carefully slipped Him into the jar. As He displaced the steaming water, He bobbed as if He wanted to crawl out of the jar. But Nikolai pushed down his head with the metal lid, grabbed the sealer and began to quickly and deftly tighten the lid.
When it was all done, the couple picked up the jar and carefully lifted it up onto the windowsill in the same place. Anna carefully wiped the warm jar with a towel. After a moment of hesitation, Nikolai turned on the light. The jar stood on the sill, its glass sides shining. His bobbing in the water, surrounded by a few bay leaves, was barely noticeable.
“Beautiful,” Anna said after a long pause.
“Yes,” Nikolai sighed.
He embraced his wife and lightly placed his hand on her belly. Anna smiled and covered his hand with her wan hands.
The next morning Anna got up as usual, a half-hour before her husband, and went into the kitchen, turned on the stove and put the kettle on. After that she would usually water Him with the spit that they had saved up over the day. Sleepily scratching herself, Anna automatically reached for the spit cup standing on the shelf and froze: the cup was empty. Anna glanced over at the windowsill and saw the jar with the tuber. She breathed out in relief as she remembered the procedure they’d done the night before. She walked over and put her hand on the jar. She looked out the window. The city was waking up and lights were going on in the windows. But something had changed in the city. Changed significantly. Anna rubbed her eyes as she looked: On the windowsills the silver and gold flowerpots that she was used to seeing since childhood were gone and in their place were glass jars with rose tubers.
A woman is workspace when will someone love you? Have you ever stayed seated in your chair until lunchtime, you drink lots of water- your body took the shape of a chair. A woman in workspace, the space changes, the work changes, companies rise and fall. You can close the door behind you but you will still hear the three-dimensional printer working, it assists in the manufacturing of single models, it saves time, and the cost is low. I remember, I once had a job interview, they designed and built three dimensional-printers like this one there, I didn’t remember they made so much noise. The interviewer looked at my resume and, after asking me a few professional questions, said to me, so, have you ever shot a gun? I told him that I had but only at cardboard targets. A woman in workspace, have you ever loved?
You no longer hear the sound of the three-dimensional printer, it’s the kind of sound you get used to after a few months, the walls are all made of plaster. You can hear everything. You can hear the others sigh. You hear the gate beeping, the entrance gate for suppliers, customers, clients, workers. Some lose their patience and honk their horns, complementing the rhythmic beeping of the gate, at some point one of us opens it. A woman in workspace, sometimes I think I should begin the story here: a woman in workspace with the shape of a chair. A woman in workspace, have you ever loved? The space changes, the people change, the workload is heavier or ends. Sometimes they refurbish the office. They bring potted plants. Launch new software to control the inventory, the processes, to control the files, to control everything really – A woman in workspace, can you hear me?
The CEO jumped on the table and hollered at us. He said: You are not working hard enough. The CEO jumped on the receptionist’s desk and stabilized his. Long white (the desk). He said: We are losing time and you are not meeting the group’s goals. Said: You must retain your focus. He emphasized: Our success is dependent on you and on you solely. Also: You must increase your speed. Then he said: The time is crucial, and I won’t let us enter stoppage time. We stood and looked at him silently. Then he added, over my dead body. Some of us exchanged looks with some of the others. He stood very stable on the desk, with his legs straddled. He talked for half an hour, maybe more. The majority of the things he said was addressed to us, the technology department team. He repeatedly warned us of last minute smugness. His eyes were shining. Then he said, we are one step away from realizing the dream, there is no time to rest. You’ll sleep when you’re dead. He repeated the same sentences over and over again. And all the time he stood on the receptionist’s desk, his legs firm, his hands moving at the speed of his speech, which grew faster and faster. We scattered as soon as he was done. I went back to my cubicle. I passed my manager’s cubicle on the way. He was busy on a conference call. He spoke loudly into a microphone and his ears were covered by large headphones.
We must push up the delivery time, he yelled, his face glued to his computer screen. We must push up the delivery time. I continued to walk toward my cubicle. The open space was very noisy, keyboards and conversations. The coffee corner was empty. When I got to my place and sat in front of the computer, my inbox filled with a lot of new emails. I remembered that I should never start with the emails. I once read a newspaper article about it. Ten Rules to Increase Productivity at Work. Rule number one, never start your day with answering emails. I opened the notebook and flipped through the pages until I got to the last page I wrote in, the one with the to do list. I started to prepare for the meeting. I opened the relevant computer files. One of the neighbors in a nearby cubicle relentlessly pressed his keyboard keys. He was hitting it hard. I was still able to focus. I hit the keys quickly myself. Mine too. The fingers were hitting hard. At the background his fingers were hitting his harder and harder, almost breathlessly. Mine too.
A woman in a workspace Are you breathing? All those lists are going to eventually nail you to the office floor (blue linoleum flooring from the eighties, like the one you had at elementary school, in the gym, I remember how much I liked to high jump, breaking a new record every week.) At least this office has outside windows, the air comes out of the AC but the light is natural. A woman in workspace who since winter began can’t get up in the mornings. A woman in workspace. Do you bleed? I think you’re bleeding and that it’s out of your ordinary dates. Everything always comes on time with you, even though with the years things turn stickier, filled with more life, you don’t excrete it out of your womb, for a while now it’s been coming out of your irises, and every time you look at something it drips off you, you’re shedding salty tears of blood in front of the double screens of the work station. A woman in workspace do you remember how once, not so long ago, you liked meetings and long processes, and to see how they are validated, the things, and your projects, become alive –
A woman in a workspace I tried to take the woman out of the workspace and talk to her when I am in a space that isn’t work.
She didn’t answer.
Around midnight my head hit the pillow and I remembered the fish. I couldn’t remember whether I fed it or not. I got out of bed and took it out of the aquarium. I immediately put it inside a deep plastic box. I went to wash the aquarium, which was very dirty. The fish might have been sick. When I washed the aquarium the bowl slipped through my fingers and broke inside the sink. I left it like that in the sink. I added some food to the plastic box, the fish’s new abode, and it swam. It seemed content, that was always the kind of impression it made. I manage it like I manage all other things. I made a habit to feed it Mondays and Thursdays. The problem is, sometimes it gets difficult to remember when is Monday and when is Thursday. When is the time of the fish. I always confuse dates and schedules. Like with my period. It has always been very regular and I knew how to identify it when it came. Atomic nervous breakdowns, no pain. At some point I downloaded some sort of an application which tells me when it’s due. I write in it what kind of symptoms appear before, during, and after my period. And when I have sex, if I had it, and with whom. The company gave me my cellphone. It also covers my monthly phone bills. Sometimes they switch my phone for me. Not only me, for everyone. The reason is almost always an upgrade. Some other times, when the phone is stolen or broken, they also agree to get another. With some employer’s participation, of course, which is deducted from my wage. A lot of numbers were lost or deleted because of the upgradings. Or the opposite, were doubled or tripled. Mostly I don’t notice it in real time. The main problem remains the dates. The period application synchronizes the last update but sometimes it’s not close enough. In these cases I lose track of it completely.
A woman in a workspace do you get bored? What are you thinking now. I noticed you have 37 unread emails in your inbox. There are also tasks on the whiteboard, it’s your handwriting, and you tried to write clearly. Someone enters your room I think, he’s talking to you now, have you noticed? He puts his hand on your table, reclines, now he’s getting close to your computer screen, he looks at the screen, you talk about a file, now he asks something from you, he asks about something which is under your sole responsibility, he’s asking a very simple question, your lips should have already delivered the answer, it’s time to speak now because he has stopped talking, a woman in workspace, now he’s been quiet for at least five seconds, I know, because it’s approximately the time it takes to say: A woman in workspace –
*An excerpt from Company by Tehila Hakimi, Resling publishing house, Israel, 2018.
I’d only been married six years when I started feeling tired and out of breath, especially when I was going up stairs. At first I thought it was a passing problem that would just go away. But it didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse. After doing all sorts of tests, I was told my heart muscle was weak, and that I’d have to get a new one, or else…!
There was a serious decline in my performance of important duties, the most serious of them being my marital ones.
Even the kids’ loving mother got in the act. “Get a heart transplant,” she said ominously, “or else…!”
I waited for the operation for over two years, during which time my condition got worse. Then somehow or other I got the message that I’d have to bribe the hospital officials if I wanted them to expedite a new heart for me, or else…!
I decided as a matter of principle that I wouldn’t try to bribe anybody, even if I croaked on account of it. It was my right to get the spare part my body needed by honorable means, and I was damn well going to hold onto it! So, things got complicated, and it looked as though it was going to be nearly impossible to get what I wanted.
Around that time, my dad discovered he had a relative who’d been buffeted about by one storm wind after another since the first Palestinian Nakba 1 until he’d finally washed up on the shores of Denmark.
My dad sold the last piece of land we owned. Then, with the money from the sale plus donations from good-hearted folks, I took off for Denmark to see his relative, and my wish came true faster than I would ever have expected. Somebody crashed his car into a snowplow and his brain stopped sending and receiving signals, so they removed his good heart and transplanted it into me, in place of my lousy one.
While I was in the hospital, I received a visit from the girlfriend of the heart’s original owner, whose name was Felix. She figured that from now on she had a share in my body, so she started hugging and kissing me, and I returned the sentiments quite enthusiastically.
From the time Felix’s heart was planted in my chest, I lost control over my feelings, which started overflowing every which way. I noticed that unlike before, I’d started falling with the greatest of ease into love’s snares and temptations. When I remembered my sickly, dried-up old heart, I’d think ruefully, “Damn you! You stood between me and happiness!”
As long as I live, I’ll never forget the favor that Dane did me. After I left Denmark, his girlfriend went on emailing me. She’d ask me how her boyfriend’s heart was doing, saying, “I hope you won’t be too hard on it, Abdul!” She’d send him a birthday card every year, and on the anniversary of their first physical intimacy, she wrote, “This was the night when we first made love, Babe, and we were happy even in a snow drift!” As weird as it sounds, when I read her letters, “his” heart would start racing and nearly leap out of my chest. It was like having an island with self-rule inside my body!
I started liking Danish canned meat and fish, as well as Danish dairy products. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to crave things like that in the days of the old heart, and now I was addicted to them! But the real turnaround involved football matches. After siding automatically with teams from Third World countries like Cameroon, Iran and Egypt, I found myself rooting with a vengeance for the Danish team. This irritated friends and relatives, who viewed it as a step backwards ethically speaking, and as a sign of hostility towards liberation movements. As such, it was clear evidence that I was biased toward the European Union, with its wishy-washy position on our cause. Not only that, but if I saw a bottle of vodka on some store shelf with a picture of a couple of stags on its label, my mouth would water as though I knew what it tasted like. But for the grace of God, I would have gotten hooked on the stuff!
My fellow countrymen, pessimistic as usual, expected me to kick the bucket right away. They’d say naïve things like, “That Scandinavian heart won’t work in Abdullah’s body. After all, he’s an Arab!” I found out that a poet friend of mine had started composing an elegy for me so that my death wouldn’t take him by surprise. He also wanted to make sure it was worded just right when he delivered it at the memorial service he was going to organize for the express purpose of having a chance to read the poem. But I disappointed the poet and my esteemed compatriots. In fact, I started attending their funerals one after another, and earning a heavenly reward for each one. I’d often hear somebody say with my own ears, “We expected this to happen to Abdullah, not to so-and-so.”
To spite these folks who’d expected my rapid demise, I went to a big-time insurance company and took out a policy on my heart. In fact, I insured every one of my body parts. In the process, I learned that insurance companies hold Scandinavian hearts in high regard, and that they’re prepared to insure them for five years renewable provided that you get them retested. By contrast, they refuse to insure Taiwanese or African hearts despite the fact that studies have shown African hearts to be of high quality even though they’re cheap.
News got out to the effect that secret negotiations had taken place between the African Union and the German conglomerate Siemens, which had plans to establish a monopoly over African hearts given their low prices, and then use them in heart transplants for Europeans and Americans.
I started grooving to Danish music, which I hadn’t been able to stand before that, and I got all excited about hearing the Danes compete in the Eurovision song contest. Then one day, and without any prior planning, I walked into the Danish Embassy and started shouting like a madman at the top of my lungs, “Birruh biddam nafdik ya Andersen! (We’d give our heart and soul for you, Andersen!)” It turns out that this Andersen guy was a candidate at the time for the position of Speaker of the Danish Parliament. In any case, I didn’t snap out of it until the embassy guard, thinking I was getting ready to commit a terrorist act, intervened. I was insulted and slapped around, and a file was opened on me, and the only reason I ended up being released was Felix’s heart. The Danish Ambassador in Tel Aviv put in a good word for me and gave me a warm hug. And once he understood what had motivated me, he kissed me right on the scar from my heart transplant.
But on my way home I got into a horrible crash that put me in a coma for two weeks. The accident smashed me to smithereens and nearly every part of my body, even the family jewels, went out of commission. The insurance company went to work without delay, and started sending me to all sorts of places for treatment. My first stop was the United States, where I got a basketball player’s legs, and left nine centimeters taller. From there I hobbled to the UK, where I got myself a pair of arms that were in good shape apart from the fact that the left one had a naked girl tattooed on it. I also got a pair of kidneys of Indian origin. The family jewels came from a Dutch guy who’d given them up to join the female camp. The tongue had been pulled out of a French hooker’s mouth, and I was supplied with magnificent amber eyes that had belonged to a Samba dancer in Brazil. So, I went back to the way I had been, or maybe even better than before.
The only problem I hadn’t anticipated was that I started being slow to respond when my name was called. I noticed a lot of people complaining, saying, “Why don’t you answer? Don’t you hear us calling you!?” When I heard the name Abdullah, I’d start looking around, thinking Abdullah was somebody else! After some consultation, my friends and loved ones made a decision: The only solution was for them to start calling me Abdu Felix. Then I’d know who they were talking to! And sure enough, my heart would leap when I heard this name, and I’d snap to attention right away.
Over a period of months, people got used to the new me. Even my mom and dad, who put up fierce resistance at first, had to resign themselves to the status quo in the end and started calling me by the new name: Abdu Felix. When my dad uttered it for the first time, we locked glances, my Brazilian eyes fixed on his misty Arab ones, and there was a sad quiver in his voice. As he listened to my French way of pronouncing things, he trembled as though he were grasping hot coals until I thought he was going to throw up. I knew then that he realized I wasn’t the same old Abdullah, the son he’d always known, the fruit of his loins. And every now and then I’ll hear him ranting, “Abd Felix, Felix … Felix Abdu, Felix Felix!”
*Published in al-Quds al-Arabi and Kull al-Arab newspapers.
The first thing that happens, you tell me, is that school stops.
We are meeting in a room in a London university so that you can tell me, in anodyne safe surroundings, a bit about your life so far; I say so far because you aren’t old, you are maybe 30.
We meet at the front door and follow the man who’s showing us to the room. We go through several doors and down then up some stairs. We go through a lot of corridors, then some more corridors, then down more stairs and along more identical corridors, then further down again and along a corridor with lagged pipes in the ceiling above our heads. We go through some swing doors, round some corners to some dead ends. We double back on ourselves. The man, who’s not sure where the room is, has to keep pressing codes into doors on our way in and then on our way back out again because we’ve come the wrong way or taken a wrong turning.
Eventually we find the room we’re being lent for the two hours. It’s a room with some tables pushed together and two or three chairs in it. There’s a window with a view on to bricks and the side of a building. You put your bags down, one on each side of you, and we sit down at the pushed-together tables.
You begin to speak. You speak as if picking your way over broken glass. You are graceful in the speaking. You are a small man, dainty even, and gentle. You’re so small that the two quite small rucksacks you’ve got with you seem large beside you.
Later, when we leave this room and go back up through the maze of university corridors, you and your rucksacks keep getting caught in the swing doors because you aren’t strong enough to hold them open; the door hinges are stronger than you.
Here’s what you tell me. It’s all in the present tense, I realise afterwards, because it is all still happening.
So: the first thing you remember knowing is that there isn’t any more school. Your mother dies when you are three, you don’t remember. You never see your father, so you can’t remember him. You know, from being told, that your father’s family fought with your mother’s family; his were Hausa, hers were Christian. So you get given by your father’s family to a man in the village and for a short while there’s school under the great big tree, where you sit in the shade on the ground and the teacher sits on a seat and you get taught letters and reading.
Then the school has to have money so the man you’ve been given to takes you to the farm.
You are six years old.
There is definitely no school on the farm.
There is cocoa, there are bananas and plantain, and the harvests run from January to December. The older kids, seven or eight and upwards, drag and carry the sacks. The younger ones, like you when you arrive, do the bagging and drying. Cocoa, you explain to me, has to be dried twice. You have to climb the tree, cut the pods, break the shell with the seeds inside then pour them into the baskets, then there’s the spreading them out to dry on the leaves or on the tables. The sacks of seeds are as big as you are. You drag these sacks back in the heat. The only clothes you’ve got are made from the sacks you drag, shorts sewn from sack. It’s hot there. Not like here. You look out the window at the bricks. Not like when it’s hot here either; there on the farm it’s the hottest that hot can mean.
You arrive at the farm when you’re six and you run away when you are 21. That’s not the first time you’ve run away. The first time you’re 15. Hunger. Beatings. Headaches. You have a headache, you have it quite often, and you have to have the right medicine or leaves for it or you hit the earth.
One day when you’re 15 and the boss isn’t there, you just go. You get out. There’s a road. You follow it. It isn’t a tarmacked road like here, you tell me. It’s kind of a dirt or dust, an earth road. Anyway the boss catches you on that earth road. There are beatings for a week, and every day between the beatings you’re out to work again carrying the firewood on your head, sometimes five miles, sometimes eight, and at the end of the day the boss coming in to the room with the sleeping mats in it saying how you’re not making him enough money and beating you again.
There’re always beatings.
A man sometimes comes to the farm, he’s in the removing business, he comes to remove the stored beans. He sees the wounds on you when you are 20, 21. He says to you on the quiet, Beaten again? You need to get out of here, he says, or you’ll die.
You think about the boy called Nana, who was beaten so much that he hit the ground. He didn’t wake up. He didn’t respond. He just lay there. You went to work, you came back, he wasn’t in the house any more. Some days later you were told he was dead and that’s when they started to lock you all up at night.
You put your head in your hands, here in the nondescript university room, all the years later, in London.
A very difficult time, you say. A very very difficult time.
I’ve been working here for a long time and I know what I’m talking about, the man says. You’ve got to get out of here.
He says he is going to help you out.
I watch you remember, now, without knowing it’s what you’re doing, the wounds you had then. Your left hand goes to your right forearm, then to your right leg. I notice there’s a scar on your forehead too, the size of a walnut shell, like someone’s at some point scooped a handful-sized piece out of you.
The man tells you to go, when everyone else is busy eating, to the latrine, and when no one can see, to go through the hedges at a certain place. He tells you where the footpath is. He tells you to follow the footpath all the way.
It’s eight hours to the village. It’s a day when the boss and his wife aren’t at the farm. You go to the latrine. You push through the hedges. You find that path. You walk till it’s dark. You meet nobody. You walk till you get to a village. A woman is cooking under a shade. She sees you. She asks you where you are going. You tell her the man’s name and she takes you to a house.
You sit in this house and you hope you won’t be killed.
You wait there for four hours. The man comes. He says that because they’re already looking for you he has to move you tonight.
You walk almost the whole night to get to a town. You are there in a room for a week. Then the man comes back and another man with him. The other man takes your photograph. We are going to take you somewhere, he says, where you are going to be safe. This is where the white people are, do you want to go there?
You are in the town where the lorry station is for a month until the man comes back with a car. He tells you not to worry. He tells you this all the way through the local villages, all the way to the proper road. You never see that brown earth road again. From now on, instead, you see a lot of lights. Then there’s no lights, then lights again. Then you’re standing at the counter in the airport at the man’s side and there’s a girl, and another boy, and the man.
Say nothing, he says. If they ask you who I am to you, say I am your uncle.
When you get to the other airport, though, it isn’t London. You don’t find out for quite some time. It’s just a shut room that you’re in, and a warehouse. Much later you get to know that it’s called Luton. The shut room is all mattresses on the floor and there are six others and you in the room. There are girls in the room above, men in the room below. That night they give you all chicken and chips and tell you the work will start early so you’d better be ready.
A van comes at 4am. Someone opens the front door. The back of the van, with its door open, is right up against the front door. You and the others get in one by one. The van door closes. It’s dark in the van. You get to the warehouse. You hear the warehouse door go up. The van goes in. The warehouse door comes down again.
Room, van, warehouse. Warehouse, van, room. Four in the morning. Nine at night. Packing shoes. Ladies bags. Sorting dresses. Cleaning microwaves. They give you a cloth for this. Cleaning TVs. Cleaning fridges. They give you a roll of white rubber to wrap the electric things. They give you a winter jacket, one pair of jeans and a towel. They give you two shoes. They tell you it’s cost them a great deal of money to bring you here. They say you’ll be working till you’ve paid it all back. There aren’t beatings but there’s shouting. There is a lot of shouting.
Room, van, warehouse. Warehouse, van, room. Five years. Most weeks all week, 18 hours a day. You sit in silence, now, with me. You hold your head in your hands.
You meet a guy, you tell me. He’s the driver. He takes a liking to you. He says he can get you out of there and find you a cleaning job in London. You trust him.
You say the word trust and it is as if your whole body fills with pain. You sit silent again for a moment.
Then London. One place to the next, one place to the next. But you go to a church. You make some friends at the church. You tell them about your life. They tell you there are things that can be done to make this better. You can write to the Home Office, they tell you, and explain to them what’s happened to you, and the Home Office will help you sort this out.
You do it. You write to the Home Office.
They come. They arrest you.
They put you in prison for six months because the passport you’ve got is the wrong kind.
First it’s prison, then detention. That takes two years. Then they release you for six months. Then they arrest you again. Back to detention, another six months. Then they release you. Any moment now they can arrest you again. They say: We have accepted you are a victim of human trafficking. But to go back to Ghana? You have nobody there to go to. Indefinite leave to remain. That means they’ll arrest you again. They can, any time. We accept you are a victim of human trafficking. But we need to reconsider the case.
Most of all, you tell me, you want to go to school. Right now you are in a house belonging to a man from your church, and the man who has the house lets you live there. You do cleaning, do errands, you help look after the baby. It is kind of him to let you stay. There isn’t any money. You sleep in the lounge when they’ve gone to bed. There is a chair you can sit in. You just stay at the house, that’s what you do all day, except for the days you have to report. There isn’t any money for any rail or bus tickets. This is sometimes a problem. Central London to East Croydon is a long walk.
You want most to go to college, you tell me in that university, in the room borrowed for two hours. But colleges need ID. The piece of ID you have, the colleges tell you, isn’t enough for colleges.
You don’t tell me about what detention is like until we walk back up to street level through the interminable swing doored corridors, up staircases that lead to other corridors.
You stop in the middle of a corridor. You look at me and you say: you would ask God not to send your enemies to detention, where fellow human beings treat you not like human beings.
And being out of detention, and knowing they can put you back in detention? It is all like still being in detention. Detention is never not there.
You have seen things, you tell me, with your own naked eyes. The room there in detention has a window, sure. But a window without any air. The only place air comes in is the gap under the door. And the door in detention is an iron door, and when they come to lock it they bang it. They do it on purpose, to make the great noise that it makes. And there’s no privacy in detention. There’s no religious privacy. This is a terrible thing, you say. And there’s no medication guaranteed in detention. Not even for epilepsy, your headaches. Prison is better. At least in prison there is something to do. But not at the removal centre. They call it the removal centre, you know?
You raise your eyebrows at me.
Removal, you say. When you arrive they remove you from a life. Then they remove your phone from you. They make sure it isn’t the kind with cameras. They take it away for several days, and they put it ‘through security’.
But still, I’m thinking to myself as you speak. It can’t be that bad. It can’t be as bad as prison. And surely there’s a reason to take a phone away to check it. It’s for security, isn’t it? It doesn’t sound so bad. It doesn’t sound so rough, not really, and there’s a window. Albeit a window that doesn’t open. A window, all the same.
I am an idiot. But I’m learning. A mere hour or two with you in a university room and I’m about to find out that what I’ve been being taught is something world-sized.
Later this same day I will go and visit, for another couple of hours, what it is to be a detainee, in this day and age, in our country. No, not even that: what I’ll go and visit is only what it’s like to visit a detainee.
I’ll take the train to the removal centre you told me about, the very place where you’ve been detained then detained again, then any minute now might be detained again.
It’s a place so close to a runway that the sound of the planes taking off and landing is its only birdsong. There’s a jolly painted sign above the visitor centre reception desk. PROPERTY CHECK-IN, it says with a big painted tick, for correct, next to it. It’s the first thing I see. Is it a joke? Is it supposed to put people at ease? It’s an obscene irony, and, as I’ll find, maybe the most human thing in the process it takes to visit someone here. There are creatures painted, too, on the back wall of this check-in building, and some toys on the floor beneath them for visiting kids. The painted creatures are meant to be Disney jungle creatures but one looks anguished, as if in pain, and one has huge ferocious teeth.
Everywhere else there are bright information posters proclaiming in words and symbols how people of all origins, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations will be treated equally here.
I will have to fill in two forms. I will get given a bright red wristband. VISITOR, it says on it. (Anna, my companion for the afternoon, is a regular visitor of the detainees held in the centre, and will warn me with some urgency not to lose this wristband.) I will have to empty my pockets into a locker, all the pennies and the five pence pieces, all the bits of tissue, crushed receipts, even the little balls of fluff in the linings of the pockets. I will lock the locker door on my own ID, on everything that proves I’m me, and will get given a number instead and a lanyard. Visitor Lanyard 336.
I quite often get given lanyards in my job. At literature festivals they’re used as passes into all the events or the hospitality and the green rooms. I throw away several lanyards a year without thinking. This one, the one I’ll be given this afternoon, will render every other lanyard I’ve ever been given and ever will be given from now on nothing but a frippery. The little plastic wallet it’s in will be bent as if it’s been twisted over and over in someone’s hands, chewed by a hundred nervous people or their children – a beaten-up lanyard, a lanyard with a history. I will have to go through a guarded door and then through an airport scanner – no, something much more down market, scale down your vision, more like a body scanner would have been if this was back when I was in my twenties, 30 years ago, and was ill and was claiming invalidity benefit at the DSS and part of that process of signing on had ever involved being body scanned. Before this, a man will write down my number. He will check that I’m me from a photograph that’s already been taken, a minute ago, front of house, by a security camera. After it, a woman will come out of his glass-barrier office. She will make me take my boots off. She will thump them, shake them upside down. She will go through all the pockets of the coat she’s made me take off with more thoroughness than I’ve ever had at any airport. She will find a pencil sharpener and a spare coat button in a little button envelope in my inside pocket. She will hold them both up.
Were you going to use this sharpener to sharpen a pencil and write on this envelope? she will say. No, I’ll say. I didn’t even know that envelope was in there.
As I say it I will feel guilty, though I’m telling nothing but the truth.
She will put the things on a table by the scanner machine.
They may or may not be there when you come out, she’ll say. We take no responsibility for what’s left here.
Then, after she’s searched me from head to feet, the woman will unlock a door and we’ll go into a waiting space and the woman will open another locked door on the other side of the room which will open into a yard with a razor- wire fence so high and encircling such a tiny yard space that it would pass as a literal example of surreality.
Then she’ll unlock another door and we’ll pass into the Visitor Centre H-Block.
There will be placards everywhere. Inside the H-Block the placards will all be inspirational messages about how good the teamwork and the care are here.
Up some stairs there’ll be another security check.
Altogether there are four security checks, before you can visit someone here. Then a man will unlock a door into a big square room, somehow both bright and dim, with blue carpet tiles, blue chairs. We will be shown to a seat. The form we will have signed says we have to take the seat we are shown to, and no other seat. We will do as we’re told. Someone will unlock a different door behind us. The man we’ve come to visit will be shown through this different door.
No, not a man, something closer to a boy – a sweet tired boy, not much past adolescence. He is Vietnamese. He will find his painstaking way in English for just over an hour, telling me he is embarrassed not to be better at speaking it. I will tell him not to worry, that my Vietnamese isn’t up to much. He will laugh at this. The laugh, like a clear little torchbeam, will light up the true and profound state of this young man’s dejection. Anna will tell me later he spoke no English when he arrived here, and the epic nature of the story he tells me in hard-won broken phrases, of the one-and-a-half months hidden in the back of a lorry it took to get him here, will be pretty clear even though all the time I’m trying to listen to him all I’ll be able to hear are the guards of this place, three or sometimes four of them, rattling their keys and their keychains incessantly up and down the length of the room, though there’ll be no one here to guard but us and one other family on the cheap blue seats.
Airless, the room, and its windows barred and perspexed – and suddenly I’ll understand what you were telling me this morning, about how a window, when no air can come through it, isn’t the same thing as a window. You didn’t even mention the bars.
I will ask the boy I’m talking to if the windows in this room are the same as the window in his room. Yes, he’ll say. Do they have those bars on them? I’ll say. He will nod gently. I will ask him what the food is like here. The guards, male and female alike, will walk up and down, shaking their keys. It’s okay, he’ll say.
He’ll have his dictionary in his hand, a Pocket Vietnamese- English paperback. Its spine will be several times broken. The guards will jaunt up and down the room, joking with each other over and above our conversation and the whole time I’m there I will feel the paper edge of my VISITOR band round my wrist rough under my sleeve – I say paper, but I suppose I mean plasticised paper, because later when I try and rip it off I can’t, it won’t tear, and I’ll have to remove it with scissors – I will feel it keenly, the whole time, the reminder that I can leave. I will long to leave.
Meanwhile the young man will be looking overjoyed at the slip of paper Anna has given him, which means he can receive a little blank notebook she’s brought for him, though he won’t see it for several days because it’s got to go ‘through security’, though already we will have spent quite a long time, when we arrived in ‘check-in’, filling in forms about the notebook and having the notebook weighed and processed. He will say, several times, how delighted and grateful he is to have had visitors. Two visitors! Anna came! And another person! Like he can’t quite believe his luck. Again this moment of brightness will mean I catch the real low ebb of his spirit.
He will tell us in broken English that his mother, at home, is ill right now, how she doesn’t have a phone, and how someone from home has phoned him and told him. He will tell us he told his friend to tell her how he is fed and has a bed to sleep in. He doesn’t want her to worry, he will say. He will rub his forehead with his thumb between his eyes above his nose, trying to get to the right words. He will struggle, again, for polite enough, good enough words of apology about his English not being better.
Then it’s back to the H-Block reception and back through the barbed wire coiled yard. The man unlocking the doors will small-talk Anna and me about the weather. It’ll be a grey, grey English day, the day I go to the detention centre. My pencil sharpener and button will still be on the table and, as we go out, Anna will tell me she is surprised I managed to get through and keep both my pairs of glasses since, a couple of weeks before, she’d been disallowed a pair of clip-on shades she sometimes wears over hers and they’d sent her back to ‘check-in’, made her check in all over again.
We’ll go out to the carpark in the regular noise of the planes, another taking off, another one landing as we drive along the barbed wire airport fences through the new no-man’s-land.
After I get home, because I’ll finally have sensed the real depth of depression in the young man I’ve just met, I’ll do a bit of digging around in what information there is, to see if there’s such a thing as therapeutic help for people in detention.
Even if you’re traumatised? Even if, when you arrive there, you’ve seen deaths, been tortured? It isn’t provided. Even if you’ve got a mental illness? Like schizophrenia? Surely the place is full of people with post-traumatic stress disorder? Since nobody leaves home for no reason. Nobody crosses the world crushed in a crate in a lorry, drinking his own urine for one-and-half months; nobody gets flung on a plane from one trafficking destination to another, without terrible mental consequence.
For terrible mental consequence what there is is isolation, where the light is on 24 hours a day, where there’s no sheet on the bed and nothing else in the room, and where Security check on you every 15 minutes.
When I find this out, I’ll think of you and the epilepsy, and the beatings, and something you said in passing about how difficult, in detention, it is, to get the simplest medication.
Anyway, I’ll be out of there, and on my own safe way home. Anna will drive me to the station. When we get there, she’ll lean over, open the door for me and thank me for making the journey today.
Me? I’ll say. Making a journey? Today?
I’ll think of the young man in the lorry. I’ll think of you on all your roads, the road between the gone school and the farm, the first dirt road the time the boss caught you, the ground coming up to meet you when you fell with the headaches, the footpath to the village, the brown earth road you didn’t see again when the road to the airport took you to another country.
I’ll think of me asking you if you ever had visitors in your own time at the removal centre, and of how your face softens when I do for the only time in our talk.
Yes, you say. Mary.
Then you don’t say anything else.
This morning, in the university room, just before we attempt to find our way again around that building, I ask you if you’ll mind showing me the piece of paper that they give you as the proof of who you are – the proof that’s not enough, when it comes to ID, for colleges.
I watch you go through your bags. I realise, by the length of time it takes you to find it, that it is a very painful thing I’ve asked you to do. The longer it takes the more terrible I feel for having asked you to find it and show me.
But there it is at last. You unfold it there between us. It’s an A4 piece of paper, a photocopy whose ink is creased and flaking, beginning to disintegrate in the folds.
I pick it up. I hold it in my hand.
What kind of a life are we living on this earth when a photocopied piece of paper can mean and say more about your life than your life does?
On the train home this evening, I’ll think of the moment you say to me, as we’re saying goodbye: people don’t know about what it’s like to be a detainee. They think it’s like what the government tells them. They don’t know. You have to tell them.
On that train home, and all these weeks and months later, I’ll still be thinking of the only flash of anger in the whole of your telling me a little of what’s happened to you in this life so far.
It was a moment of anger only. It surfaced and disappeared in less than a breath. Except for this one moment you’re calm, accepting, even forgiving – but for these six syllables, six words, that carry the weight of a planet, weight of the earth – yes, earth, like those roads there under all our feet, whatever surfaces we cover them with, under all our journeys, the roads you walked between one place and another in the mix of fear and hope and the dark falling.
But when I came to this place, when I came to your country, you say.
I sit forward. I’m listening.
You shake your head.
I thought you would help me, you say.
That winter, like every winter before it, my father woke early each day and turned up the thermostat so the house would be warm by the time my mother and I got out of bed. Sometimes I’d hear the furnace kick in and the shower come on down the hall and I’d wake just long enough to be angry that he’d woken me. But usually I slept until my mother had finished making our breakfast. By then, my father was already at Goodyear, opening the service bay for the customers who had to drop their cars off before going to work themselves. Sitting in the sunny kitchen, warmed by the heat from the register and the smell of my mother’s coffee, I never thought about him dressing in the cold dark or shoveling out the driveway by porch light. If I thought of him at all, it was only to feel glad he was not there. In those days my father and I fought a lot, though probably not much more than most fathers and sons. I was sixteen then, a tough age. And he was forty, an age I’ve since learned is even tougher.
But that winter I was too concerned with my own problems to think about my father’s. I was a skinny, unathletic, sorrowful boy who had few friends, and I was in love with Molly Rasmussen, one of the prettiest girls in Glencoe and the daughter of a man who had stopped my father on Main Street that fall, cursed him, and threatened to break his face. My father had bought a used Ford Galaxie from Mr. Rasmussen’s lot, but he hadn’t been able to make the payments and eventually Mr. Rasmussen repossessed it. Without a second car my mother couldn’t get to her job at the school lunchroom, so we drove our aging Chevy to Minneapolis, where no one knew my father, and bought a rust-pitted yellow Studebaker. A few days later Molly Rasmussen passed me in the hall at school and said, “I see you’ve got a new car,” then laughed. I was so mortified I hurried into a restroom, locked myself in a stall, and stood there for several minutes, breathing hard. Even after the bell rang for the next class, I didn’t move. I was furious at my father. I blamed him for the fact that Molly despised me, just as I had for some time blamed him for everything else that was wrong with my life—my gawky looks, my discount store clothes, my lack of friends.
That night, and others like it, I lay in bed and imagined who I’d be if my mother had married someone handsome and popular like Dick Moore, the PE teacher, or Smiley Swenson, who drove stock cars at the county fair, or even Mr. Rasmussen. Years before, my mother had told me how she met my father. A girl who worked with her at Woolworth’s had asked her if she wanted to go out with a friend of her boyfriend’s, an army man just back from the war. My mother had never agreed to a blind date before, or dated an older man, but for some reason this time she said yes. Lying there, I thought about that fateful moment. It seemed so fragile— she could as easily have said no and changed everything—and I wished, then, that she had said no, I wished she’d said she didn’t date strangers or she already had a date or she was going out of town—anything to alter the chance conjunction that would eventually produce me.
I know now that there was something suicidal about my desire to undo my parentage, but then I knew only that I wanted to be someone else. And I blamed my father for that wish. If I’d had a different father, I reasoned, I would be better looking, happier, more popular. When I looked in the mirror and saw my father’s thin face, his rust-red hair, downturned mouth, and bulging Adam’s apple, I didn’t know who I hated more, him or me. That winter I began parting my hair on the right instead of the left, as my father did, and whenever the house was empty I worked on changing my voice, practicing the inflections and accents of my classmates’ fathers as if they were clues to a new life. I did not think, then, that my father knew how I felt about him, but now that I have a son of my own, a son almost as old as I was then, I know different.
If I had known what my father was going through that winter, maybe I wouldn’t have treated him so badly. But I didn’t know anything until the January morning of his breakdown. I woke that morning to the sound of voices downstairs in the kitchen. At first I thought the sound was the wind rasping in the bare branches of the cottonwood outside my window, then I thought it was the radio. But after I lay there a moment I recognized my parents’ voices. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but I knew they were arguing. They’d been arguing more than usual lately, and I hated it—not so much because I wanted them to be happy, though I did, but because I knew they’d take their anger out on me, snapping at me, telling me to chew with my mouth closed, asking me who gave me permission to put my feet up on the coffee table, ordering me to clean my room. I buried one ear in my pillow and covered the other with my blankets, but I could still hear them. They sounded distant, yet somehow close, like the sea crashing in a shell held to the ear. But after a while I couldn’t hear even the muffled sound of their voices, and I sat up in the bars of gray light slanting through the blinds and listened to the quiet. I didn’t know what was worse: their arguments or their silences. I sat there, barely breathing, waiting for some noise.
Finally I heard the back door bang shut and, a moment later, the Chevy cough to life. Only then did I dare get out of bed. Crossing to the window, I raised one slat of the blinds with a finger and saw, in the dim light, the driveway drifted shut with snow. Then my father came out of the garage and began shoveling, scooping the snow furiously and flinging it over his shoulder, as if each shovelful were a continuation of the argument. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew that it was red and that he was probably cursing under his breath. As he shoveled, the wind scuffed the drifts around him, swirling the snow into his eyes, but he didn’t stop or set his back to the wind. He just kept shoveling fiercely, and suddenly it occurred to me that he might have a heart attack, just as my friend Rob’s father had the winter before. For an instant I saw him slump over his shovel, then collapse face-first into the snow. As soon as this thought came to me, I did my best to convince myself that it arose from love and terror, but even then I knew part of me wished his death, and that knowledge went through me like a chill.
I lowered the slat on the blinds and got back into bed. The house was quiet but not peaceful. I knew that somewhere in the silence my mother was crying and I thought about going to comfort her, but I didn’t. After a while I heard my father rev the engine and back the Chevy down the driveway. Still I didn’t get up. And when my mother finally came to tell me it was time to get ready, her eyes and nose red and puffy, I told her I wasn’t feeling well and wanted to stay home. Normally she would have felt my forehead and cross-examined me about my symptoms, but that day I knew she’d be too upset to bother. “Okay, Danny,” she said. “Call me if you think you need to see a doctor.” And that was it. She shut the door and a few minutes later I heard the whine of the Studebaker’s cold engine, and then she was gone.
It wasn’t long after my mother left that my father came home. I was lying on the couch in the living room watching TV when I heard a car pull into the driveway. At first I thought my mother had changed her mind and come back to take me to school. But then the back door sprang open and I heard him. It was a sound I had never heard before, and since have heard only in my dreams, a sound that will make me sit up in the thick dark, my eyes open to nothing and my breath panting. I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say that it was a kind of crazy language, like speaking in tongues. It sounded as if he were crying and talking at the same time, and in some strange way his words had become half-sobs and his sobs something more than words—or words turned inside out, so that only their emotion and not their meaning came through. It scared me. I knew something terrible had happened, and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go to him and ask what was wrong, but I didn’t dare. I switched off the sound on the TV so he wouldn’t know I was home and sat there staring at the actors mouthing their lines. But then I couldn’t stand it anymore and I got up and ran down the hall to the kitchen. There, in the middle of the room, wearing his Goodyear jacket and work clothes, was my father. He was on his hands and knees, his head hanging as though it were too heavy to support, and he was rocking back and forth and babbling in a rhythmic stutter. It’s funny, but the first thing I thought when I saw him like that was the way he used to give me rides on his back, when I was little, bucking and neighing like a horse. And as soon as I thought it, I felt my heart lurch in my chest. “Dad?” I said. “What’s wrong?” But he didn’t hear me. I went over to him then. “Dad?” I said again, and touched him on the shoulder. He jerked at the touch and looked up at me, his lips moving but no sounds coming out of them now. His forehead was knotted and his eyes were red, almost raw-looking. He swallowed hard and for the first time spoke words I could recognize, though I did not understand them until years later, when I was myself a father.
“Danny,” he said. “Save me.”
Before I could finish dialing the school lunchroom’s number, my mother pulled into the driveway. Looking out the window, I saw her jump out of the car and run up the slick sidewalk, her camel- colored overcoat open and flapping in the wind. For a moment I was confused. Had I already called her? How much time had passed since I found my father on the kitchen floor? A minute? An hour? Then I realized that someone else must have told her something was wrong.
She burst in the back door then and called out, “Bill? Bill? Are you here?”
“Mom,” I said, “Dad’s—” and then I didn’t know how to finish the sentence.
She came in the kitchen without stopping to remove her galoshes. “Oh, Bill,” she said when she saw us, “are you all right?”
My father was sitting at the kitchen table now, his hands fluttering in his lap. A few moments before, I had helped him to his feet and, draping his arm over my shoulders, led him to the table like a wounded man.
“Helen,” he said. “It’s you.” He said it as if he hadn’t seen her for years.
My mother went over and knelt beside him. “I’m so sorry,” she said, but whether that statement was born of sorrow over something she had said or done or whether she just simply and guiltlessly wished he weren’t suffering, I never knew. Taking his hands in hers, she added, “There’s nothing to worry about. Everything’s going to be fine.” Then she turned to me. Her brown hair was wind-blown, and her face was so pale the smudges of rouge on her cheeks looked like bruises. “Danny,” she said, “I want you to leave us alone for a few minutes.”
I looked at her red-rimmed eyes and tight lips. “Okay,” I said, and went back to the living room. There, I sat on the sagging couch and stared at the television, the actors’ mouths moving wordlessly, their laughs eerily silent. I could hear my parents talking, their steady murmur broken from time to time by my father sobbing and my mother saying “Bill” over and over, in the tone mothers use to calm their babies, but I couldn’t hear enough of what they said to know what had happened. And I didn’t want to know either. I wanted them to be as silent as the people on the TV, I wanted all the words to stop, all the crying.
I lay down and closed my eyes, trying to drive the picture of my father on the kitchen floor out of my head. My heart was beating so hard I could feel my pulse tick in my throat. I was worried about my father but I was also angry that he was acting so strange. It didn’t seem fair that I had to have a father like that. I’d never seen anybody else’s father act that way, not even in a movie.
Outside, the wind shook the evergreens and every now and then a gust would rattle the windowpane. I lay there a long time, listening to the wind, until my heart stopped beating so hard.
Some time later, my mother came into the room and sat on the edge of the chair under the sunburst mirror. Her forehead was creased, and there were black mascara streaks on her cheeks. Leaning toward me, her hands clasped, she bit her lip, then said, “I just wanted to tell you not to worry. Everything’s going to be all right.” Her breath snagged on the last word, and I could hear her swallowing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She opened her mouth as if she were about to answer, but suddenly her eyes began to tear. “We’ll talk about it later,” she said. “After the doctor’s come. Just don’t worry, okay? I’ll explain everything.”
“The doctor?” I said.
“I’ll explain later,” she answered.
Then she left and I didn’t hear anything more until ten or fifteen minutes had passed and the doorbell rang. My mother ran to the door and opened it, and I heard her say, “Thank you for coming so quickly. He’s in the kitchen.” As they hurried down the hall past the living room, I caught a glimpse of Dr. Lewis and his black leather bag. It had been years since the doctors in our town, small as it was, made house calls, so I knew now that my father’s problem was something truly serious. The word emergency came into my mind, and though I tried to push it out, it kept coming back.
For the next half hour or so, I stayed in the living room, listening to the droning sound of Dr. Lewis and my parents talking. I still didn’t know what had happened or why. All I knew was that my father was somebody else now, somebody I didn’t know. I tried to reconcile the man who used to read to me at night when my mother was too tired, the man who patiently taught me how to measure and cut plywood for a birdhouse, even the man whose cheeks twitched when he was angry at me and whose silences were suffocating, with the man I had just seen crouched like an animal on the kitchen floor babbling some incomprehensible language. But I couldn’t. And though I felt sorry for him and his suffering, I felt as much shame as sympathy. This is your father, I told myself. This is you when you’re older.
It wasn’t until after Dr. Lewis had left and my father had taken the tranquilizers and gone upstairs to bed that my mother came back into the living room, sat down on the couch beside me, and told me what had happened. “Your father,” she began, and her voice cracked. Then she controlled herself and said, “Your father has been fired from his job.”
I looked at her. “Is that it?” I said. “That’s what all this fuss is about?” I couldn’t believe he’d put us through all this for something so unimportant. All he had to do was get a new job. What was the big deal?
“Let me explain,” my mother said. “He was fired some time ago. Ten days ago, to be exact. But he hadn’t said anything to me about it, and he just kept on getting up and going down to work every morning, like nothing had happened. And every day Mr. Siverhus told him to leave, and after arguing a while, he’d go. Then he’d spend the rest of the day driving around until quitting time, when he’d finally come home. But Mr. Siverhus got fed up and changed the locks, and when your father came to work today he couldn’t get in. He tried all three entrances, and when he found his key didn’t work in any of them, well, he threw a trash barrel through the showroom window and went inside.”
She paused for a moment, I think to see how I was taking this. I was trying to picture my father throwing a barrel through that huge, expensive window. It wasn’t easy to imagine. Even at his most angry, he had never been violent. He had never even threatened to hit me or my mother. But now he’d broken a window, and the law.
My mother went on. “Then when he was inside, he found that Mr. Siverhus had changed the lock on his office too, so he kicked the door in. When Mr. Siverhus came to work, he found your dad sitting at his desk, going over service accounts.” Her lips started to tremble. “He could have called the police,” she said, “but he called me instead. We owe him for that.”
That’s the story my mother told me. Though I was to find out later that she hadn’t told me the entire truth, she had told me enough of it to make me realize that my father had gone crazy. Something in him—whatever slender idea or feeling it is that connects us to the world—had broken, and he was not in the world anymore, he was outside it, horribly outside it, and could not get back in no matter how he tried. Somehow I knew this, even then. And I wondered if someday the same thing would happen to me.
The rest of that day, I stayed downstairs, watching TV or reading Sports Illustrated or Life, while my father slept or rested. My mother sat beside his bed, reading her ladies magazines while he slept and talking to him whenever he woke, and every now and then she came downstairs to tell me he was doing fine. She spoke as if he had some temporary fever, some twenty-four-hour virus, that would be gone by morning.
But the next morning, a Saturday, my father was still not himself. He didn’t feel like coming down for breakfast, so she made him scrambled eggs, sausage, and toast and took it up to him on a tray. He hadn’t eaten since the previous morning, but when she came back down awhile later all the food was still on the tray. She didn’t say anything about the untouched meal; she just said my father wanted to talk to me.
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m eating.” I had one sausage patty and a few bites of scrambled egg left on my plate.
“Not this minute,” she said. “When you’re done.”
I looked out the window. It had been snowing all morning, and the evergreens in the backyard looked like flocked Christmas trees waiting for strings of colored lights. Some sparrows were flying in and out of the branches, chirping, and others were lined up on the crossbars of the clothesline poles, their feathers fluffed out and blowing in the wind.
“I’m supposed to meet Rob at his house,” I lied. “I’ll be late.”
“Danny,” she said, in a way that warned me not to make her say any more.
“All right,” I said, and I shoved my plate aside and got up. “But I don’t have much time.”
Upstairs, I stopped at my father’s closed door. Normally I would have walked right in, but that day I felt I should knock. I felt as if I were visiting a stranger. Even his room—I didn’t think of it as belonging to my mother anymore—seemed strange, somehow separate from the rest of the house.
When I knocked, my father said, “Is that you, Danny?” and I stepped inside. All the blinds were shut, and the dim air smelled like a thick, musty mixture of hair tonic and Aqua Velva. My father was sitting on the edge of his unmade bed, wearing his old brown robe, nubbled from years of washings, and maroon corduroy slippers. His face was blotchy, and his eyes were dark and pouched.
“Mom said you wanted to talk to me,” I said.
He touched a spot next to him on the bed. “Here. Sit down.”
I didn’t move. “I’ve got to go to Rob’s,” I said.
He cleared his throat and looked away. For a moment we were silent, and I could hear the heat register ticking.
“I just wanted to tell you to take good care of your mother,” he said then.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. “What do you mean?”
He looked back at me, his gaze steady and empty, and I wondered how much of the way he was that moment was his medication and how much himself. “She needs someone to take care of her,” he said. “That’s all.”
“What about you? Aren’t you going to take care of her anymore?”
He cleared his throat again. “If I can.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why are you doing this to us? What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on,” he answered. “That’s the problem. Not a thing is going on.”
“I don’t know what you mean. I don’t like it when you say things I can’t understand.”
“I don’t like it either,” he said. Then he added: “That wasn’t me yesterday. I want you to know that.”
“It sure looked like you. If it wasn’t you, who was it then?”
He stood up and walked across the carpet to the window. But he didn’t open the blinds; he just stood there, his back to me. “It’s all right for you to be mad,” he said.
“I’m not mad.”
“Don’t lie, Danny.”
“I’m not lying. I just like my father to use the English language when he talks to me, that’s all.”
For a long moment he was quiet. It seemed almost as if he’d forgotten I was in the room. Then he said, “My grandmother used to tell me there were exactly as many stars in the sky as there were people. If someone was born, there’d be a new star in the sky that night, and you could find it if you looked hard enough. And if someone died, you’d see that person’s star fall.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“People,” he answered. “Stars.”
Then he just stood there, staring at the blinds. I wondered if he was seeing stars there, or his grandmother, or what. And all of a sudden I felt my throat close up and my eyes start to sting. I was surprised—a moment before I’d been so angry, but now I was almost crying.
I tried to swallow, but I couldn’t. I wanted to know what was wrong, so I could know how to feel about it; I wanted to be sad or angry, either one, but not both at the same time. “What happened?” I finally said. “Tell me.”
He turned, but I wasn’t sure he’d heard me, because he didn’t answer for a long time. And when he did, he seemed to be answering some other question, one I hadn’t asked.
“I was so arrogant,” he said. “I thought my life would work out.”
I stood there looking at him. “I don’t understand.”
“I hope you never do,” he said. “I hope to God you never do.”
“Quit talking like that.”
“Like you’re so smart and everything. Like you’re above all of this when it’s you that’s causing it all.”
He looked down at the floor and shook his head slowly.
“Well?” I said. “Aren’t you going to say something?”
He looked up. “You’re a good boy, Danny. I’m proud of you. I wish I could be a better father for you.”
I hesitate now to say what I said next. But then I didn’t hesitate.
“So do I,” I said bitterly. “So the hell do I.” And I turned to leave.
“Danny, wait,” my father said.
But I didn’t wait. And when I shut the door, I shut it hard.
Two days later, after he took to fits of weeping and laughing, we drove my father to the VA hospital in Minneapolis. Dr. Lewis had already called the hospital and made arrangements for his admission, so we were quickly escorted to his room on the seventh floor, where the psychiatric patients were kept. I had expected the psych ward to be a dreary, prisonlike place with barred doors and gray, windowless walls, but if anything, it was cheerier than the rest of the hospital. There were sky blue walls in the hallway, hung here and there with watercolor landscapes the patients had painted, and sunny yellow walls in the rooms, and there was a brightly lit lounge with a TV, card tables, and a shelf full of board games, and even a crafts center where the patients could do decoupage, leatherwork, mosaics, and macramé. And the patients we saw looked so normal that I almost wondered whether we were in the right place. Most of them were older, probably veterans of the First World War, but a few were my father’s age or younger. The old ones were the friendliest, nodding their bald heads or waving their liver-spotted hands as we passed, but even those who only looked at us seemed pleasant or, at the least, not hostile.
I was relieved by what I saw but evidently my father was not, for his eyes still had the quicksilver shimmer of fear they’d had all during the drive from Glencoe. He sat stiffly in the wheelchair and looked at the floor passing between his feet as the big-boned nurse pushed him down the hall toward his room.
We were lucky, the nurse told us, chatting away in a strange accent, which I later learned was Czech. There had been only one private room left, and my father had gotten it. And it had a lovely view of the hospital grounds. Sometimes she herself would stand in front of that window and watch the snow fall on the birches and park benches. It was such a beautiful sight. She asked my father if that didn’t sound nice, but he didn’t answer.
Then she wheeled him into the room and parked the chair beside the white, starched-looking bed. My father hadn’t wanted to sit in the chair when we checked him in at the admissions desk, but now he didn’t show any desire to get out of it.
“Well, what do you think of your room, Mr. Conroy?” the nurse asked. My mother stood beside her, a handkerchief squeezed in her hand.
My father looked at the chrome railing on the bed, the stainless steel tray beside it, and the plastic-sealed water glasses on the tray. Then he looked at my mother and me.
“I suppose it’s where I should be,” he said.
During the five weeks my father was in the hospital, my mother drove to Minneapolis twice a week to visit him. Despite her urgings, I refused to go with her. I wanted to forget about my father, to erase him from my life. But I didn’t tell her that. I told her I couldn’t stand to see him in that awful place, and she felt sorry for me and let me stay home. But almost every time she came back, she’d have a gift for me from him: a postcard of Minnehaha Falls decoupaged onto a walnut plaque, a leather billfold with my initials burned into the cover, a belt decorated with turquoise and white beads. And a request: would I come see him that weekend? But I never went.
Glencoe was a small town, and like all small towns it was devoted to gossip. I knew my classmates had heard about my father—many of them had no doubt driven past Goodyear to see the broken window the way they’d drive past a body shop to see a car that had been totaled—but only Rob said anything. When he asked what had happened, I told him what Dr. Lewis had told me, that my father was just overworked and exhausted. Rob didn’t believe me any more than I believed Dr. Lewis, but he pretended to accept that explanation. I wasn’t sure if I liked him more for that pretense, or less.
It took a couple of weeks for the gossip to reach me. One day during lunch Rob told me that Todd Knutson, whose father was a mechanic at Goodyear, was telling everybody my father had been fired for embezzling. “I know it’s a dirty lie,” Rob said, “but some kids think he’s telling the truth, so you’d better do something.”
“Like what?” I said.
“Tell them the truth. Set the record straight.”
I looked at my friend’s earnest, acne-scarred face. As soon as he’d told me the rumor, I’d known it was true, and in my heart I had already convicted my father. But I didn’t want my best friend to know that. Perhaps I was worried that he would turn against me too and I’d be completely alone.
“You bet I will,” I said. “I’ll make him eat those words.”
But I had no intention of defending my father. I was already planning to go see Mr. Siverhus right after school and ask him, straight out, for the truth, so I could confront my father with the evidence and shame him the way he had shamed me. I was furious with him for making me even more of an outcast than I had been—I was the son of a criminal now—and I wanted to make him pay for it. All during my afternoon classes, I imagined going to see him at the hospital and telling him I knew his secret. He’d deny it at first, I was sure, but as soon as he saw I knew everything, he’d confess. He’d beg my forgiveness, swearing he’d never do anything to embarrass me or my mother again, but nothing he could say would make any difference— I’d just turn and walk away. And if I were called into court to testify against him, I’d take the stand and swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, my eyes steady on him all the while, watching him sit there beside his lawyer, his head hung, speechless.
I was angry at my mother too, because she hadn’t told me everything. But I didn’t realize until that afternoon, when I drove down to Goodyear to see Mr. Siverhus, just how much she hadn’t told me.
Mr. Siverhus was a tall, silver-haired man who looked more like a banker than the manager of a tire store. He was wearing a starched white shirt, a blue-and-gray striped tie with a silver tie tack, and iridescent sharkskin trousers, and when he shook my hand he smiled so hard his crow’s-feet almost hid his eyes. He led me into his small but meticulous office, closing the door on the smell of grease and the noise of impact wrenches removing lugs from wheels, and I blurted out my question before either of us even sat down.
“Who told you that?” he asked.
“My mother,” I answered. I figured he wouldn’t lie to me if he thought my mother had already told me the truth. Then I asked him again: “Is it true?”
Mr. Siverhus didn’t answer right away. Instead, he gestured toward a chair opposite his gray metal desk and waited until I sat in it. Then he pushed some carefully stacked papers aside, sat on the edge of the desk, and asked me how my father was doing. I didn’t really know—my mother kept saying he was getting better, but I wasn’t sure I could believe her. Still, I said, “Fine.”
He nodded. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “I’m really terribly sorry about everything that’s happened. I hope you and your mother know that.”
He wanted me to say something, but I didn’t. Standing up, he wandered over to the gray file cabinet and looked out the window at the showroom, where the new tires and batteries were on display. He sighed, and I knew he didn’t want to be having this conversation.
“What your mother told you is true,” he said then. “Bill was taking money. Not much, you understand, but enough that it soon became obvious we had a problem. After some investigating, we found out he was the one. I couldn’t have been more surprised. Your father had been a loyal and hardworking employee for years, and he was the last person I would’ve expected to be stealing from us. But when we confronted him with it, he admitted it. He’d been having trouble making his mortgage payments, he said, and in a weak moment he’d taken some money and, later on, a little more. He seemed genuinely sorry about it and he swore he’d pay back every cent, so we gave him another chance.”
“But he did it again, didn’t he?” I said.
I don’t know if Mr. Siverhus noticed the anger shaking my voice or not. He just looked at me and let out a slow breath. “Yes,” he said sadly. “He did. And so I had to fire him. I told him we wouldn’t prosecute if he returned the money, and he promised he would.”
Then he went behind his desk and sat down heavily in his chair. “I hope you understand.”
“I’m not blaming you,” I said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
He leaned over the desk toward me. “I appreciate that,” he said. “You don’t know how badly I’ve felt about all of this. I keep thinking that maybe I should have handled it differently. I don’t know, when I think that he might have taken his life because of this, well, I—”
“Taken his life?” I interrupted.
Mr. Siverhus sat back in his chair. “Your mother didn’t tell you?”
I shook my head and closed my eyes for a second. I felt as if something had broken loose in my chest and risen into my throat, making it hard to breathe, to think.
“I assumed you knew,” he said. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Tell me,” I said.
“I think you’d better talk to your mother about this, Danny. I don’t think I should be the one to tell you.”
“I need to know,” I said.
Mr. Siverhus looked at me for a long moment. Then he said, “Very well. But you have to realize that your father was under a lot of stress. I’m sure that by the time he gets out of the hospital, he’ll be back to normal, and you won’t ever have to worry about him getting like that again.”
I nodded. I didn’t believe him, but I wanted him to go on.
Mr. Siverhus took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “When I came to work that morning and found your father in his office, he had a gun in his hand. A revolver. At first, I thought he was going to shoot me. But then he put it up to his own head. I tell you, I was scared. ‘Bill,’ I said, ‘that’s not the answer.’ And then I just kept talking. It took me ten or fifteen minutes to get him to put the gun down. Then he left, and that’s when I called your mother.”
I must have had a strange look on my face because the next thing he said was, “Are you all right?”
I nodded, but I wasn’t all right. I felt woozy, as if I’d just discovered another world inside this one, a world that made this one false. I wanted to leave, but I wasn’t sure I could stand up. Then I did.
“Thank you, Mr. Siverhus,” I said, and reached out to shake his hand. I wanted to say more but there was nothing to say. I turned and left.
Outside in the parking lot, I stood beside the Chevy, looking at the new showroom window and breathing in the cold. I was thinking how, only a few months before, I had been looking through my father’s dresser for his old army uniform, which I wanted to wear to Rob’s Halloween party, and I’d found the revolver tucked under his dress khakis in the bottom drawer. My father had always been full of warnings—don’t mow the lawn barefoot, never go swimming in a river, always drive defensively— but he had never even mentioned he owned this gun, much less warned me not to touch it. I wondered why, and I held the gun up to the light, as if I could somehow see through it to an understanding of its meaning. But I couldn’t—or at least I refused to believe that I could—and I put it back exactly where I found it and never mentioned it to anyone.
I didn’t tell my mother what I had learned from Mr. Siverhus, and I didn’t tell anyone else either. After dinner that night I went straight to my room and stayed there. I wanted to be alone, to figure things out, but the more I thought, the more I didn’t know what to think. I wondered if it was starting already, if I was already going crazy like my father, because I wasn’t sure who I was or what I felt. It had been a long time since I’d prayed, but that night I prayed that when I woke the next day everything would make sense again.
But the next morning I was still in a daze. Everything seemed so false, so disconnected from the real world I had glimpsed the day before, that I felt disoriented, almost dizzy. At school, the chatter of my classmates sounded as meaningless as my father’s babble, and everything I saw seemed out of focus, distorted, the way things do just before you faint. Walking down the hall, I saw Todd Knutson standing by his locker, talking with Bonnie Zempel, a friend of Molly Rasmussen’s, and suddenly I found myself walking up to them. I didn’t know what I was going to say or do, I hadn’t planned anything, and when I shoved Todd against his locker, it surprised me as much as it did him.
“I hope you’re happy now,” I said to him. “My father died last night.” I’m not sure I can explain it now, but in a way I believed what I was saying, and my voice shook with a genuine grief.
Todd slowly lowered his fists. “What?” he said, and looked quickly at Bonnie’s startled, open face.
“He had cancer,” I said, biting down on the word to keep my mind from whirling. “A tumor on his brain. That’s why he did the things he did, taking that money and breaking that window and everything. He couldn’t help it.”
And then my grief was too much for me, and I turned and strode down the hall, tears coming into my eyes. I waited until I was around the corner and out of their sight, then I started running, as fast as I could. Only then did I come back into the world and wonder what I had done.
That afternoon, my mother appeared at the door of my algebra class in her blue uniform and black hair net. At first I thought she was going to embarrass me by waving at me, as she often did when she happened to pass one of my classrooms, but then I saw the look on her face. “Excuse me, Mr. Laughlin,” she said grimly, “I’m sorry to interrupt your class but I need to speak with my son for a moment.”
Mr. Laughlin turned his dour face from the blackboard, his stick of chalk suspended in mid-calculation, and said, “Certainly, Mrs. Conroy. I hope there’s nothing the matter.”
“No,” she said. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
But out in the hall, she slapped my face hard.
“How dare you say your father is dead,” she said through clenched teeth. Her gray eyes were flinty and narrow.
“I didn’t,” I answered.
She raised her hand and slapped me again, even harder this time.
“Don’t you lie to me, Daniel.”
I started to cry. “Well, I wish he was,” I said. “I wish he was dead, so all of this could be over.”
My mother raised her hand again, but then she let it fall. “Go,” she said. “Get away from me. I can’t bear to look at you another minute.”
I went back into the classroom and sat down. I felt awful about hurting my mother, but not so awful that I wasn’t worried whether my classmates had heard her slap me or noticed my burning cheek. I saw them looking at me and shaking their heads, heard them whispering and laughing under their breath, and I stood up, my head roiling, and asked if I could be excused.
Mr. Laughlin looked at me. Then, without even asking what was wrong, he wrote out a pass to the nurse’s office and handed it to me. As I left the room, I heard him say to the class, “That’s enough. If I hear one more remark . . .”
Later, lying on a cot in the nurse’s office, my hands folded over my chest, I closed my eyes and imagined I was dead and my parents and classmates were kneeling before my open coffin, their heads bowed in mourning.
After that day, my mother scheduled meetings for me with Father Ondahl, our priest, and Mr. Jenseth, the school counselor. She said she hoped they could help me through this difficult time, then added, “Obviously, I can’t.” I saw Father Ondahl two or three times, and as soon as I assured him that I still had my faith, though I did not, he said I’d be better off just seeing Mr. Jenseth from then on. I saw Mr. Jenseth three times a week for the next month, then once a week for the rest of the school year. I’m not sure how those meetings helped, or even if they did. All I know is that, in time, my feelings about my father, and about myself, changed.
My mother continued her visits to my father, but she no longer asked me to go along with her, and when she came home from seeing him, she waited until I asked before she’d tell me how he was. I wondered whether she’d told him I was seeing a counselor, and why, but I didn’t dare ask. And I wondered if she’d ever forgive me for my terrible lie.
Then one day, without telling me beforehand, she returned from Minneapolis with my father. “Danny,” she called, and I came out of the living room and saw them in the entryway. My father was stamping the snow off his black wingtips, and he had a suitcase in one hand and a watercolor of our house in the other, the windows yellow with light and a thin swirl of gray smoke rising from the red brick chimney. He looked pale and even thinner than I remembered. I was so surprised to see him, all I could say was, “You’re home.”
“That’s right,” he said, and put down the suitcase and painting. “The old man’s back.” Then he tried to smile, but it came out more like a wince. I knew he wanted me to hug him and say how happy I was to see him, and part of me wanted to do that, too. But I didn’t. I just shook his hand as I would have an uncle’s or a stranger’s, then picked up the painting and looked at it.
“This is nice,” I said. “Real nice.”
“I’m glad you like it,” he answered.
And then we just stood there until my mother said, “Well, let’s get you unpacked, dear, and then we can all sit down and talk.” Despite everything that had happened, our life together after that winter was relatively peaceful. My father got a job at Firestone, and though for years he barely made enough to meet expenses, eventually he worked his way up to assistant manager and earned a good living. He occasionally lost his temper and succumbed to self-pity as he always had, but for the rest of his life, he was as normal and sane as anybody. Perhaps Dr. Lewis had been right after all, and all my father had needed was a good rest. In any case, by the time I was grown and married myself, his breakdown seemed a strange and impossible dream and I wondered, as I watched him play with my infant son, if I hadn’t imagined some of it. It amazed me that a life could break so utterly, then mend itself.
But of course it had not mended entirely, as my life had also not mended entirely. There was a barrier between us, the thin but indestructible memory of what we had been to each other that winter. I was never sure just how much he knew about the way I’d felt about him then, or even whether my mother had told him my lie about his death, but I knew he was aware that I hadn’t been a good son. Perhaps the barrier between us could have been broken with a single word—the word love or its synonym forgive—but as if by mutual pact we never spoke of that difficult winter or its consequences.
Only once did we come close to discussing it. He and my mother had come to visit me and my family in Minneapolis, and we had just finished our Sunday dinner. Caroline and my mother were clearing the table, Sam was playing on the kitchen floor with the dump truck my parents had bought him for his birthday, and my father and I were sitting in the living room watching “Sixty Minutes.” The black pastor of a Pentecostal church in Texas was talking to Morley Safer about “the Spirit that descends upon us and inhabits our hearts.” Then the camera cut to a black woman standing in the midst of a clapping congregation, her eyes tightly closed and her face glowing with sweat as she rocked back and forth, speaking the incoherent language of angels or demons. Her syllables rose and fell, then mounted in a syntax of spiraling rapture until finally, overcome by the voice that had spoken through her, she sank to her knees, trembling, her eyes open and glistening. The congregation clapped harder then, some of them leaping and dancing as if their bodies were lifted by the collapse of hers, and they yelled, “Praise God!” and “Praise the Lord God Almighty!”
I glanced at my father, who sat watching this with a blank face, and wondered what he was thinking. Then, when the camera moved to another Pentecostal minister discussing a transcript of the woman’s speech, a transcript he claimed contained variations on ancient Hebrew and Aramaic words she couldn’t possibly have known, I turned to him and asked, in a hesitant way, whether he wanted to keep watching or change channels.
My father’s milky blue eyes looked blurred, as if he were looking at something a long way off, and he cleared his throat before he spoke. “It’s up to you,” he said. “Do you want to watch it?”
I paused. Then I said, “No,” and changed the channel.
Perhaps if I had said yes, we might have talked about that terrible day he put a gun to his head and I could have told him what I had since grown to realize—that I loved him. That I had always loved him, though behind his back, without letting him know it. And, in a way, behind my back, too. But I didn’t say yes, and in the seven years that remained of his life, we never came as close to ending the winter that was always, for us, an unspoken but living part of our present.
That night, though, unable to sleep, I got up and went into my son’s room. Standing there in the wan glow of his night light, I listened to him breathe for a while, then quietly took down the railing we’d put on his bed to keep him from rolling off and hurting himself. Then I sat on the edge of the bed and began to stroke his soft, reddish blond hair. At first he didn’t wake, but his forehead wrinkled and he mumbled a little dream-sound.
I am not a religious man. I believe, as my father must have, the day he asked me to save him, that our children are our only salvation, their love our only redemption. And that night, when my son woke, frightened by the dark figure leaning over him, and started to cry, I picked him up and rocked him in my arms, comforting him as I would after a nightmare. “Don’t worry,” I told him over and over, until the words sounded as incomprehensible to me as they must have to him, “it’s only a dream. Everything’s going to be all right. Don’t worry.”
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Glossolalia by David Jauss
The nighTMaRe always sTaRTs in the same way: a big man standing at the foot of my bed, shouting at me. ‘Get up! Hurry hurry hurry! Pack up your stuff! We’ve come to take you away.’ I call out to my parents, but they’ve disappeared. My little brother starts yelling, but the man just shouts again.
Sometimes it’s a nightmare, and sometimes it’s for real.
The first time it ever happened, it was for real, but it felt
like a nightmare. I was only eight, and my brother was seven. We were fast asleep in bed in our house in Bradford, when suddenly the light was switched on and the big man in a uniform was standing there. In fact there were four men in the room, all wearing the same dark uniforms. I tried to scream, but it just came out as a squeak.
‘Where are you taking us?’
‘We’re taking you home.’
‘But this is my home!’
‘Don’t argue. Just get your clothes on, and pack what you need.’
‘Where are my mum and dad?’
‘They’re downstairs. No, you can’t talk to them. Just pack
up all you need to take for your whole family.’
I was only eight, so I had no idea what to take. I took my favourite toys, and some bed-sheets and towels that were in the room, but I didn’t think of taking clothes or anything useful. My brother was screaming. I asked to go to the toilet, and I had to leave the door open, so they could watch me. That was horrible. When we’d finished packing, we were taken downstairs where our parents were being watched by four other officers – two per person, so there were eight altogether in our little house that morning. My mother was crying, but I couldn’t comfort her.
We still weren’t allowed to talk to our parents, but then we were all quickly bundled outside into a van. It was still dark outside. The van had a wire cage in it, and we were locked in the cage as though we were wild animals or something. It felt terrible.
‘We’re taking you home,’ they kept saying, as we drove away and left our home behind.
Later I found out that they weren’t policemen or soldiers at all, they were called ‘escorts’ and they worked for a private company that is contracted to the government. I don’t know who draws up the guidelines for how they should treat people they are deporting, or keeps a check on how they behave. It seems a bit incredible that they thought they needed four grown men to manage me and my seven-year-old brother – we were so dangerous!
Hours later, we arrived at a place called Yarl’s Wood. We were given a bag to take in what we needed, and my parents got upset that we had packed so much useless stuff. But of course we didn’t know what to take. My first impression of Yarl’s Wood was a funny smell, like a hospital and long grey-painted corridors with lots of doors that had to be unlocked and locked each time you went through. We were given two adjoining rooms, my parents in one, my brother and me in the other, all the furniture was bolted to the floor and there were bars on the windows – but one of the worst things was they could just come into your room at any time. We had no privacy. If I stood on tiptoe and held onto the bars I could see a small playground down below enclosed by high walls. That was the only place we could be allowed to feel like children.
We stayed 24 days in Yarl’s Wood. Each day started with a roll-call at 6am when they marched into our rooms and counted us: one, two, three, four. Breakfast was from 7:30 to 8am, it was always the same: eggs, toast, cornflakes, in a big canteen and everybody sat with their families. That sounds quite nice, doesn’t it? But it was actually quite scary, because there was often someone who was screaming, or panicking, or having a tantrum, and banging and shouting. Once we overslept and missed breakfast, and that meant we would not have anything to eat until lunch at one o’clock. Then my dad lost it and started shouting and crying. It was terrible to see him like that. My parents were quite good at hiding it, but suddenly at times like that you realised the stress they were under.
At that time, I didn’t know anything about their application for refugee status and why they kept on getting turned down – I just knew what it felt like to be eight years old and not know where we were going or why my parents were so upset, or when the big man out of my nightmares would appear again at the foot of my bed. Later on, I learned that my parents couldn’t stay in the former Soviet country where they came from, because my mum is a Christian and my dad is a Muslim, and mixed marriages are not allowed and people said they would kill us. When my brother and I went to school, some kids would always pick a fight with us, because our parents were different.
Everybody in Yarl’s Wood was in the same situation or worse, they did not know whether they would be allowed to stay or what would happen to them if they were sent home. Some people went a bit crazy, and my mum got sick with asthma and high blood pressure and panic attacks; she got very thin and nervy and she didn’t seem like my mum at all. Whenever she went to the medical centre, they said, ‘Are you sure you’re not just making it up? Go and take a paracetamol.’
It was me that had to look after her, and I had to be like a grown up even though I was only eight.
During the day, we spent our time in the library or the playground, or sometimes we went to school. It wasn’t a proper school, we didn’t learn anything, we just did things like colouring-in to pass the time, but one of the teachers was nice and encouraged us. Most of the security guards just shouted at us like we were just animals.
One day in the dining room I met a young Kurdish girl, and we made friends. She was so funny and lively, she wasn’t scared of anything, and that made me feel better, and after that we stuck together.
After about three weeks, we suddenly got news that Mum and my brother and I could be released. It felt good to be free, and I was so glad to say goodbye to Yarl’s Wood. Little did I know that I would see that horrible place again. We were taken back to our house in Bradford, but our dad was not allowed to come – they took him to a place near Oxford. Being at home without him was scary, because we never knew when we’d see him again. Mum was crying all the time, and she got very dependent on me, even though I was classed as the dependant.
Then after about three months, it happened all over again – the banging on the door at 6am. The big man at the foot of my bed shouting, ‘Quick, hurry, get up and pack! We’ve come to take you home!’
This time they took us straight to the airport, where we met up with our dad. The guards were shouting at us, saying, ‘If you try anything, we’ll have to handcuff you.’ So we didn’t struggle, we just got on the plane, and I don’t know what happened next, because I fell asleep, and when I woke up we were in our country.
It felt so strange being there – although they said we were going home, it was not like being home at all but somewhere strange and unfamiliar. When we got back, Mum blacked out and was rushed to hospital, and we were separated from our dad; we had nowhere to go so we just kept on moving around to different people’s houses.
Then Mum tried to come back to England again. I was so happy to be back in Folkestone again, because I felt safe. This time we were not sent to Bradford, we were sent to Wales. Mum started to cry at first because it was unfamiliar, but it was very nice. I went to school and started to make friends. Everything seemed normal, but Mum kept saying, Don’t buy anything new, clothes or toys, don’t get too settled, because we may have to move soon!
But that wasn’t the end of the nightmares. They carried on, always a bit different, but always the same. One night I had a dream that I was lying on a sofa in the dark when a man walked in and started shouting to get up and hurry, they were taking us home. I woke up screaming, then I realised that it was just a dream, and I fell asleep again. Then it happened again, and this time it was real. It was the same thing over again. This time there were six people all in the bedroom, including a woman who was taking photos of us, and Mum was once more on her own downstairs while we packed.
They got us into the caged van – but this time we only went as far as the police station. Mum told them we hadn’t had a reply to our letter – our case was still pending – and they made us wait inside the van while they checked, so we were taken back home.
That time of waiting was the worst, or maybe it was because I was older and could remember more. I started to be scared of everything; I had the nightmare early every night. My brother started wetting his bed. Mum was anxious and got very thin. She kept the door locked all the time, and wedged it with a rolling pin.
Then a couple of months later, it happened all over again – the banging on the door in the early morning, the shouting, the packing, the caged van. Only this time, one thing was different. I had a friend at school, and I managed to ring her, and she told her parents, and lots of people came from all over the area and gathered outside our house, protesting and pleading with them to let us stay. It felt much better, because we were no longer alone, but people could see what we were going through. It didn’t make any difference, we still had to go. They took us all the way back to Yarl’s Wood. They wouldn’t even let us get out to go to the toilet, and Mum was so embarrassed because she weed in the van.
Once again we were in Yarl’s Wood. To my delight my old friend was there too. She said it was the fourth time they were trying to deport her. But this time it was different. Far more people were now aware of the situation in Yarl’s Wood, through the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders and there was a big campaign building up with people including Natasha Walter and Juliet Stephenson, for women and children not to be held there. Through them we were also put in touch with a solicitor, who had more experience of immigration law, and wasn’t just trying to take our money and do nothing. I found out later that there had been a big campaign for us in Wales, too.
In spite of all that, though, we were still told to prepare ourselves for deportation. We got all packed up and I said goodbye to my friend. This time, I told my mum, I wasn’t just going to go quietly, I was determined to protest. At 2:30 in the morning they came and took us out to the airfield. I was praying that the flight would be cancelled, or that we would get a letter at the last minute. Then just as they opened the door of the van, the guard’s phone rang. Everything went quiet. ‘Yes,’ I heard him say. ‘Yes.’
Our deportation had been cancelled. Our new solicitor had succeeded in stopping it at the last minute. Mum fainted. I just sat in the van holding my breath until the plane took off without us.
We were taken back to Yarl’s Wood, and everything seemed as before for a couple of weeks. Then one day we were called by the teacher to go to reception. I was terrified because I was sure it would be something bad. But we were told we would be going back to our old home in Wales.
It was lovely being back in our old house, and seeing my friends, and all the people who had been campaigning for us and signing petitions for us while we were away. While we were in Wales, we also got news from our dad. He was in France, and he had been given refugee status there, and he would apply for residence to come to the UK. In 2009 we were all reunited. Now I’m a student in my third year at LSE, reading law.
So you might think this is a story with a happy ending, and in a way it is. But in a way, I feel I was robbed of my childhood, I was forced to grow up and have to deal with things no child should have to deal with. Whatever people think about the rights and wrongs of immigration, it can never be right to treat children like this. From time to time I still wake up in the night shaking with fear when I hear a loud banging or shouting. But then I realise it’s only a nightmare.