The check point is approaching. It always scares my boys. It scares us too, but we have to put on a brave face for them. The men are heavily armed and have their faces covered in black and white checkered cloths. No one has ever seen their faces, or no one has ever lived to tell. They don’t say a word, just gesture each passing car to stop and check ID papers. The lucky ones are allowed to pass with a single glance. The not so lucky ones… The crowd of bullet riddled cars grows by the week, in the desert beyond the checkpoint. My heart beats faster as we approach. I see my husband’s knuckles turn white as he tightens his grip on the steering wheel and feel my boys tensing and crouching deep into the back seat, not daring to even whimper.
“It’s alright my loves, don’t be scared we are almost home”, I say in a gentle voice giving them a large reassuring smile. But they know it’s fake.
“The papers”, my husband instructs me keeping his voice strong and calm as I open the dashboard to take them out.
I can see a nerve pulsing red hot in his temple. My heart is beating so fast now that I fear it tear away my chest and end up splattered all over the windscreen. My scalp feels like it is singeing but I dare not touch my scarf or even loosen it. My husband rolls down the window holding our documents for the man to take, but he ignores them. He peers in, the long nozzle of his gun half way in front of my husband’s face. His eyes are bloodshot as he peers intently at our faces. I hear my boys let out a hiccup trying to stifle their cries. With sudden harshness, the man jerks open the door and drags my husband out of the car.
NO STOP! I cry out but I know it is without sound. The men are shouting and more are running towards our car. The car darkens as they surround it. My boys are screaming. I scream, even louder, to drown out the sound of rifle butts hitting my husband’s body. I scream to drown out his cries of pain. I scream to drown my boys’ terrorized screams. The back window shatters and a rifle appears. I try to scramble to the back to protect my boys. But something is holding me, pinning me down. I scream to free myself. I scream to drown the repetitive dull thudding of the rifle firing. I scream to drown the sudden silence inside the car. I scream as I wake up drenched in a cold sweat and shaking.
I lay there; trembling; unblinking; every nerve in my head throbbing. My fingers are frozen in a death grip clenching at the bedsheet. I smell the metal residue and blood, feel it crusting the inside of my throat. With an enormous effort I pry my fingers open and clutch the glass of water on floor next to the mattress. I push myself up to drink but spill most of it. Letting the glass fall, I crawl towards the curtain-less window. I push it open and inhale the wet air in deep raspy deep breaths. Filling my lungs and throat trying desperately to rid myself of the arid taste and smell. A gust of air showers my face and the droplets sting like pins. I gulp in more of the cold air and my heart finally starts to resign. I collapse against the window sill and cry silent tears. For my boys. For my husband. For their lives and for mine.
The mobile phone chimes; startling me. I must have dozed off sitting by the window. I reach out and grab it. It is my support worker, from the asylum settlement program.
“Hello…Hi, Sarah,” my voice sounds raspy and heavy, “No, I’m fine. I just woke up…Yes I took the medication…Yes I slept well… No I did not have any bad dreams… Yes I will be ready…OK…Yes in an hour…Good Bye.”
Sarah is taking me furniture shopping today. They gave me this flat two months ago, when my claim was granted, along with some extra money to buy some ‘essential items’. There was already a mattress and it was enough for my needs. I had no desire to fill a house where I did not belong, with trivial bits of furniture. But Sarah had insisted that I do so. It would give me a sense of ownership she had said. A sense of belonging. How can someone who has lost everything ever feel they belong. I had felt a vindictive anger brew up in my stomach at the time. To think that pieces of this world would be enough for me to belong. But it is hard to disagree when you had no will to assert yourself. The same feeling is brewing again, but I have no strength to encourage it. Instead I pull a jeans and t-shirt from the black bin bag on the floor and drag myself to the bathroom.
The cabinet mirror is not really a mirror. It’s a sheet of reflective metal, speckled with rust and cloudy. I wipe it to try and see myself. I once had lustrous black hair and eyes full of life. Both are now prematurely grey and lackluster. A deep sadness is etched into the very pores of my face. I stretch my lips in a smile. The teeth are still the same; white and perfectly aligned but the smile is forced and joyless. I close my eyes summoning up the faces of my twins at their tenth birthday. I see them laughing and try to mimic their delight but my laugh is hollow. Mirthless. Dead. I open my eyes and my reflection starts to distort. I rub the mirror again and again and again, but it’s no use. It feels like I am looking at myself in a rapidly moving stream as my features ripple and mangle, distorting my individuality. This is not me. I see her baring her teeth at me. She raises a fist and starts bangging on the mirror. I am afraid she will break it. She opens her mouth wide and starts to scream. I press my hands hard on my ears. My ear drums start to ring and I feel something hot and sticky trickle out of my ears.
The flat’s intercom is buzzing. Loud and consistent. The screaming has stopped. I look at my palms expecting them to be covered in blood but they are clean. I examine my ears in the mirror. Nothing. The buzzing has stopped and my mobile is ringing now. I step out and check the screen.
“Sarah, hi, sorry I was in the shower. I will be down in a few minutes,” I say hurriedly and end the call before she can insist on coming up.
We stop at Starbucks on the way to the discounted sofa warehouse. I order a large black with a shot of espresso hoping it would quell the consistent throbbing in my temples. The two paracetamols I had dry swallowed before leaving had done no good. Sarah’s cheerful chatter was beginning to feel like drums being played by a toddler. Nevertheless, I smile and reply; mostly in single syllables.
The warehouse is cavernous with endless rows of sofas. A woman in a black shirt and trousers greets us at the door saying they have a huge sale on and the sofas are cheaper than even before. Her name tag says she her name is Sally. Sarah smiles are starts talking with her, their tone replete with a mirth I fail to grasp. I am no stranger to furniture shops. It was, after all, our family business. My father was a true artisan and sofas were his forte. A sofa is where life happens, he used to say. His shop once ripe with the smell of wood and upholstery, is now nothing more than a distinct memory of rubble with him buried underneath. I jump as a hand touches my shoulder. Sarah is looking at me expectantly with a patient smile. Her eyes are kind but I feel an anger rise up in me. An anger edged with the sharpness of utter disdain.
I take a gulp of my almost cold coffee, ‘Sorry, did you say something,’ hoping to disguise the tremor in my voice.
“Why don’t you look around,” Sarah says rubbing her hand on my forearm. She does this a lot perhaps thinking it’s a reassuring gesture, “Take as long as you like, there is no hurry.”
Her hand is still on my forearm. I pull away, as politely as I think is possible, and with a nod move towards the interior of the shop thankful that Sarah wasn’t following.
I walks almost aimlessly navigating through the maze of sofas thinking how pointless it is for me to be here. I know I will not choose anything. There is hardly a crowd but eventually I find myself completely alone. I look at the sofas around me. Linen, velvet, leather. Maroon, aubergine, tan, beige. Plain, patterned. The words amble across my mind, then my eyes settle on a small two seater tucked behind a massive dark grey sectional.
Sitting on a mahogany claw feet frame is a cheerful floral print with large crimson flowers on an off-white base. The back is shaped to mimic the soft undulation of a wave and it is decorated with gold studs all around the edges. An exquisite blend of artistry and artisanship, Walidi had said. I stare at it not sure of what I was seeing. I move closer feeling my forehead crease into a frown. This sofa…it’s mine. My father’s voice echoes in my head again. A gift for my beautiful daughter to always remember us in her new home with her husband. Given to me on tulba; the day I had agreed to marry Katib. Part of my life and home for 12 years…12 happy years. I touch the armrest tentatively at first then press down hard, wanting to make sure it was really there. Satisfied, I hurriedly sit on the edge of the seat so as if ensure its actuality. I bend forward to give a sniff. Impossible!! I know my eyes are as large as fifty pence coins. The whiff is a combination of nutty, pungent odors mingled with a distinct warm note of a very familiar cologne. Fresh from the workshop. No fresh from walidi’s workshop.
“Hanna, are you OK,” Sarah voice cuts through my thoughts like a sharp knife. The knife cuts through the calm, I was feeling, and bares the raw anger buried just beneath its surface, “Is this the sofa you like…it’s a bit old fashioned don’t you think…but it’s nice…oh and a bargain…should we get this one then”.
I pull in a long breath and smile at her, “Yes, let’s get this one.”
The sofa arrives three days later. The twenty fifth of the month. Somehow it feels important to remember the date. The delivery men find it easy enough to carry it up the five flights of stairs and are happy to indulge me when I take time deciding where to place it. I finally settle on the wall opposite the east facing window. Sarah calls to ask if the sofa has arrived and if I wanted to go buy a coffee table to go with it.
“Next week,” I say making an excuse about not feeling too good.
She says she is free all day next Monday. I accept and hang up before she can ask me anything else.
I sit on the sofa looking out the window. At home I liked to sit on the sofa and look at my beautiful garden. I had one of each; fig, pomegranate and lemon. The walls were covered with delicate white Jasmine and their scent would fill my living room every morning. The concrete view that I look at now irks me but I try to ignore it by conjuring the image of my garden. How long I sit there I am not sure but a rumble in my stomach rouses me out of my reverie. There is nothing other than eggs, milk and maybe some butter in the fridge. Eggs, milk and butter. I laugh out loud remembering the week after our wedding, when we had moved into our new house and someone had been kind enough to bring us eggs, milk and butter, having forgotten the bread. We had made scrambled eggs eating them straight from the frying pan and drinking the milk from the bottle. Katib had told a joke and I had laughed so hard that milk had sprayed out of my mouth all over the sofa’s armrest. We had spent the rest of the night looking for detergent in the boxes and cleaning the armrest till the stain was gone. The wet patch had taken a few days to dry out completely but had left a water stain on the delicate fabric. I feel a joyful warmth fill my soul and warm my skin. I get up to go to the kitchen to make myself some scrambled eggs and drink milk from the bottle. I laugh.
I wake up with a jolt. Something has woken me up. Not a dream. I haven’t dreamt in days. The room is really bright. Must be noon. It feels like I have lost sense of time. How long have I been sleeping for. I am so thirsty. I sit up feeling stiff in the neck and legs and wished I hadn’t fallen asleep on the sofa. I twist my neck to try and loosen the knots and my eyes fall on the armrest. The cloth is looking a bit dull and the golden studs decorating it have lost most of their luster. There is an irregular dark edged mark covering most of it, faded but distinct. I trace my finger over it trying to find its place in my memory bank. Something comes up but it is imperceptible. My forehead creases and I open my mouth to put the fleeting memory into words so as to catch it but it is already slipping away. A loud thud on the kitchen window makes me jump and I remember that I am thirsty.
I look out the kitchen window but can see no source for the noise. I marvel at how bright the sun is as I fill myself a glass of water. So bright that I find it difficult to look out the window without squinting. I gulp down the glass and fill myself another. As I turn towards the living room, I see something on the musty cream carpet a few feet away. I stare at the object for a few minutes, how? I put the glass on the kitchen island and walk forward till I am standing just inches away. Markers, one red and one blue, chunky ones made especially for little fingers. One red one blue. One red one blue. One red one blue. I bend down and pick them up.
“One red one blue, one red one blue, one red one blue,” I whisper as walk back to the sofa.
These are their favorites. Hani and Hisham, my beautiful boys. I remember my first ultrasound when we had found out it was twins. After four miscarriages, it is hard to believe. A true miracle. But the pregnancy is so hard. Countless trips and overnight stays at the hospital. They are born just short of thirty weeks; so small and fragile but so very strong. My tiny mutahibs. I smile as I picture their tiny faces inside the incubators, the day they come home wrapped in warm white blankets, the day they first smile at me.
I let out a blissful sigh, “Countless, countless…my beautiful precious boys. Umi loves you”.
I roll the markers in between my fingers. They are three years old and have just discovered their love for drawing. They hide behind the sofa to draw on its back and on the wall, running away giggling when I find them. Their playful shrieks and the patter of their tiny chubby feet ring in my ears and I smile. You better run or I will catch you and eat you. I pull the cap off the red marker and write Hani on my left palm then I do the same with the blue and write Hisham on my right palm. My eyes transfix on the names unblinking and I feel my heart swell with love. So much love that I know it would fill the universe a hundred times over. I know the loves peeks through my eyes and I don’t want it to escape. I press my palms on my heart, close my eyes tightly and lay my head on the sofa. I smile because I feel their warm breaths on neck and their collective hearts beating against mine. My beautiful beautiful boys.
My eyes are open but all I see is black. My eyes to adjust after a while and shapes start to reappear. Must be a moonless night because outside the window it is pitch black. Did I doze off again? I feel disorientated like I am not anchored in my surroundings, even though I recognize them. I stumble towards the faint outline of the kitchen island and rummage inside the drawer. Finding the candle, I light it with a match. I pry open the kitchen window and stick my head out. Nothing. Not a sound, not a flicker, not a breath of air, not even a speck of light. Death would be louder and brighter than this. The thought jumps in my mind and makes me shudder. I close the window quickly and the movement makes the flame trembles dangerously. I blanket it with my hand to prevent it from blowing out. An unnerving sense of being unsettled is creeping over my skin, slowly seeping into every pore; robbing mind of clarity. Something behind the sofa catches my attention. A movement, my breath catches sharply in my throat. I crouch to peer behind it and see marks on the wall. I push the sofa to make space and examine the wall. Lopsided circles, rows of uneven triangles, wobbly lines, scribbles. All in red and blue. Where did these come from? I trace each shape with my finger trying to understand if they mean something. It feels like they do. I feel the uncertainty in my gut subsiding and words forming on lips. Words or names. I try to speak them, all the while tracing the shapes when the candlelight falls on something written at the very edge of the wall near the door. I scooch over and see names written on the wall. Hani, Hisham, Hanna, Katib. I say the names out loud. Once, twice, thrice, four times; louder each time. On the floor I see mounds of melted candle wax and black scorch marks on the wall. I drop a few drops of candle wax on the mound and stick my candle on it. I remember.
The raids have been going on for weeks now. Every night the city is plunged into a deathlike darkness, only disturbed by sharp hissing and brief flashes of bright yellow. This is the only place the boys feel safe. We talk; we play games; we colour, trying to keep them occupied. I see them jump at every sound but they put up a brave face. They smile and laugh though their eyes are masked with the fear of a knowing that I am afraid to think off. I spy something under the sofa and bend forward to retrieve it. A tin box with their names written on it with permanent marker. I open the lid and rummage through the contents. A case full of pencils and markers, an array of loose Lego, batman and superman figurines and at the very bottom a scrap book. Hani finds two pieces of yellow card inside his study drawer and decides he wants to make a family scarp book with it. Together they find some white paper and magazine pages to use. I cut holes and thread the papers together with some thick string.
“Hani and Hisham”, I read the bubble writing on the cover and open it gently.
I chuckle. No Umi, not these, Yes these, Umi always wins. I stick pictures of them as babies on the first page while they give me a sullen look that makes me and Katib laugh out loud. 21-06-2008 – Hasim & Hisham born to Hanna and Katib – OUR ANGLES. They stick our wedding photo on the next page. Their favorite. Me in a white net dress and Katib in a smart black suit. The love we feel for each other radiates from it. The perfect picture caught at the perfect moment. I flip the page and it’s the boys at their first birthday. Two chubby round faces smile at me sitting on high chairs with a large blue cake in front. The page is crowded with names of people who come to the party. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Names that are now beginning to fade in memory just as they are on the page. The scrapbook goes on, page after page of our lives together stained with candle wax and bleeding marker ink. When the photographs are gone, they start writing. Scribbles of daily events and hope and longing, finding comfort in the simple act of putting word to paper. Their ten life years of life recorded in just two. I come to the last page. 06-2018. We have to go out today to get food and it’s too dangerous for us to stay behind. Me and Hasim are always scared when we leave the house but we are brave for umi and baba. We know they are afraid too. Tears fall from my eyes and stain the ink. I let them fall and smudge the words for they are too painful to read. The candle is almost gone now. I close my eyes and let it die out.
Sarah had had a heavy knot in her stomach all weekend. She knew it wasn’t physical. It was the feeling she always got when she felt anxious about something and she had been feeling anxious about Hanna since the day they had bought the sofa. Something about her demeanor wasn’t right. Hanna had been struggling since the day she had arrived and no amount of medication or care had helped. She had been doing everything she could to support Hanna, but there was so much she could do.
She had wanted to reach out all weekend, but it had been her daughter’s birthday on Saturday and a family bar-b-que on Sunday. Monday morning she had woken up at five with the knot feeling even tighter. As soon as the clock chimed six she had called Hanna knowing she would be awake to pray but her call had gone to voicemail as did all the subsequent ones she made every half an hour. By eight her anxiety had transitioned to full on dread and by half past she had let herself in to Hanna’s flat using the spare she had for emergencies.
The paramedics said Hanna had been dead for at least twelve hours if not fourteen. She had cut both her wrists but the cuts weren’t deep enough to bleed profusely and it had probably taken her three days to bleed out. She would have been delirious during the time, fading in and out of consciousness and in a lot of pain. The police arrived then the coroner, while Hanna’s body lay there getting colder by the minute. The sun had gone down by the time they put the body in a black body bag to take to the morgue. Sarah stood, sadly peering at the only piece of furniture in the flat. An ornate two seater with large crimson flowers that have bleed all over the pale off-white base.
Author Notes: My name is Zehra Sikander with Zara Alex being my pseudo. I am have recently rediscovered my love for writing. Along with writing short stories I am also in the process of putting together a YA sci-fi novel. This story is inspired by my work with immigrants from war torn countries who come to the UK seeking safety.