My beautiful Jadatti, white hair poking from her hijab, cooking mamounia for us all. Mama and Papa were still with us then, the whole family together. Her face was wise, wrinkles hewn from watching her country at war. She would hug me close and tell me that all would be well. She’d fill up my beautiful blue bowl.
And I could believe that all would be well.
Using the sliver of light, I can see the darkened outline of the door. The watery shaft of whiteness squeezing beneath gives maybe five percent illumination. Edie would be proud of me working out five percent. I hated percentages. And the word, illumination.
‘It’s a top notch one,’ she’d say.
But five percent is enough. Squeezing my eyelids almost together, the rectangular shape of the window is just visible. Curtains, big and heavy, nailed across it. Red, blood red, curtains with tassels around the edge, and a pattern. The tassels are starting to come apart, some threads hang lower than others. The smell that lingers in the fabric, that aroma of fried kubbeh and kabsah, it was our happy food. It transports me back to my shack in camp, to the white tarpaulin ceilings with red Safe for Children logos flapping up in the hot, dusty wind. When the direction changed, deflated by the gusts, the tarpaulins would press down on us. It sounded so scary that sudden crack, and the flicking movement would make us all laugh out loud. Moments of those long days when I could forget I was alone.
I ache for the wind to press down on me now.
Voices echoing outside my room cause my stomach to heave. Quiet talk in low tones. They laugh sometimes, spit and cuss, complain the price is too high.
I cannot recall how my laugh sounds, how to make that noise.
It has been silenced by the unwelcome learning.
The scraping of dirty stubble against my cheek leaves my skin hot and red and raw. What a man weighs, heavy against my body, squeezing out the life I have left. The smell of them – hair tainted with cigarette smoke, with grease, with engine oil.
Kisses forged through moustached mouths, blackened teeth, tobacco-tasting tongues. The grunting heave as they squirm. Low voices full of syllables and sounds from worlds I have not known.
They never say my name.
Their noises remind me of those nights in camp. Different languages swirling around in the wind, odd words making sense. Amena used to remind me of how I’d arrived at camp. My feet bled on the walk. Dust created red crusts inside my sandals. A sharpened pencil still clutched in my hand. She told me how her family would want her to get to Europe, finish her education.
‘It is all I can do to make them proud, now they are gone,’ she’d say.
Together with Edie, she was my new family.
They must’ve overheard her chatter about going to school in England.
‘We can fast track you,’ they’d promised. ‘Our friends will sort your papers and places in good schools, find your families. Come.’
Edie’s words haunt me still. Warning we should trust only the aid workers. We’d giggled when we first met her. Our new carer, she said. She made us sound precious with that word, safeguarding.
Alone on this filthy bed I wonder did Edie look for us, report us missing next day when we didn’t turn up for her kabsah? When our shack was silent and empty?
When the bowl arrives at the end of each day, the door opens just enough to slide the food across the floor. The five percent light is turned back on. Then, the click of the lock. I sweep my hand over the cool tiled floor to locate the bowl. It’s never the kubbeh they cook for themselves. As I eat, the darkness is my friend. Today’s semolina is as tasteless as yesterday’s and it encrusts the rim, but still takes me back to Jadatti’s mamounia.
Served in my blue glazed bowl, topped with cinnamon and pistachio nuts. Its sweetness lingering in my mouth, to be followed by a kiss, a rain of kisses, as she’d tell me that I would become our country’s next president, or maybe a pilot or an architect.
About the Author:
Alwyn was a teacher for 39 years before deciding to return to formal learning through the MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University. She works for Unicef UK, promoting children’s rights in education settings. She is a keen on social justice and work-life balance, not necessarily in that order! Alwyn enjoys the gym, walking her dog and being life-long learner. She won the Evesham Festival of Words Short Story Competition 2019.