No ‘U’ Turn
by Esraa M.R. Khalouf
In the depth of the Seven Seas
A Sinbad I became
And drowned at an early age
My own sin was curiosity, freedom and hunger
To know more
The full moon drew back
And the arrows of it thrown, hit me home
My heart ached
Burdened with memories of them
The black taxi stopped in front of the revolving door that led inside. The driver was silent for seconds to reorganize the flow of his words before the actual utterance.
“This is Henderson Hall. Welcome to Newcastle!”
He smiled and handed me the receipt.
In Syria, he would have asked me all those annoyingly curious questions about what I study and for how long, if I had friends or family here and whether I needed any help carrying the bags to my room. But he didn’t ask anything and I didn’t volunteer talking. I did ask if he was a local, and I knew he wasn’t from his features. Then I was silent again.
“17 pounds, please”
I paced slowly towards the entrance walking like a fat penguin hampered by the three bags and the quilted jacket. The gloves I put on arrival were torn in one place leaving a river mark; there was a red line across each palm very clear after I took the gloves off. If Mom was here, she could have said: “It’s the simple process of friction. This is normal if you don’t change bags regularly.”
She just didn’t say that now as I waited at the door. Literally, I waited for the door to revolve and suck me in. It was 7:30 p.m. and silence ruled the place. I could still hear some people inside, but I was scared to enter the new ‘home’. I was lonely; no moon in the sky, and that was all I knew.
I turned the key in the whole one time only. I didn’t want to feel the shock falling on me so I put the right foot first and slowly announced my arrival: Assalam Alaikum. The first thing I saw was the bed. Only the bed and no one to answer my greetings back!
I closed the door again and turned on a small lamp by the bed. I sat in a praying position to feel the emptiness to recall his warmth.
“Dad … how many do you think were lost in the accident today?”
“Let’s just not talk about this while we eat, shall we? It’s not healthy”
The hours I spent tumbling on my bed, reading Pablo Coelho and still not being able to sleep were heavy. That bed was warm; too warm to sleep in.
“Dad, I don’t want to go to England”
“What! Why did you bring me here then?”
“I’m sorry Dad. Very much sorry”
Eight people died that day, 14 were sent to the ICU. We were saved.
Just a week ago I carried another list of disappointments up north. Aleppo received me with empty hands; it was a mutual understanding between me and my city. The British council and the Visa Centre were closed and there was nothing I could do. The scrap of paper flapped in my face marking the defeat. Three words signed the end of the statement: ‘Until Further Notice’.
This bed received me bluntly. I was tired of all the struggle and sweat, of arriving two months late than all the students here. My fully packed bags and the labor to avoid the strange looks of the old residents tired me. The bed was another merciless element; to receive me so coldly. I wasn’t too shocked to see it was naked, no sheets, no pillow, no nothing. I was just disappointed. I slept the night well, though, covering my whole with pieces I carried from home. I nestled near the radiator and hummed Dolly patron’s Coat of Many Colours in a low voice. No one could hear me and I didn’t need any more light; I knew that no one will be here anyway.
Intoxicated into Daydreaming
Task one: get a quilt (done)
Task two: get to know people (done)
Task three: get to wake up (not sure what’s a dream?)
On the airplane last week, I searched for an empty paper or any vacancy to write on. I stopped searching when I saw the pink handkerchief a Japanese friend gave me. It lost the smell it had before I departed. I wrote down a verse from the Quran: “And He is with you wherever you are”. On the airplane, I tried harder to hide the tears; looking
down at my feet and counting silently the toes. One, two, twenty and then I counted again; three rounds. I pulled the headscarf tighter around my face squeezing the thoughts inside again, dried the drops with the inky handkerchief and fell asleep. I won’t be home for another year and 4 months.
In the dream, the lady in the airlines company said something before handing me back the signed paper and the ticket bill.
Her blue eyes stared with ugliness and her very big mouth said: “Let them taste of your feet!”
She held the blue pen – the same she used a week ago to write the same bill– and crossed out the word Damascus; twice. Later, Dad told me that he paid 26000 Syrian Pounds, the equal amount of 250 pounds, to amend the simple mistake of using the pen instead of reprinting the whole shame.
Today, I was supposed to open my bank account. I took the bus to Eldon Square and lost myself among the crowds. It was two weeks before Christmas and I was the least homesick wretched I could be. I arrived at the bank after questioning and walking round in circles. The lady with the name tag that read ‘Jane’ but meant nothing specific to me asked for my passport. In return, my ID should have meant nothing specific, nothing special to her.
“Oh! You’re Syrian!”
The lady at the bank with the name tag that meant nothing to me apologized repeatedly. She tried to explain it in simple words so that I don’t stumble on two difficulties, her Geordie accent and the banking terms.
“You see, Darlin’, your country and our country are not good friends at the moment. It’s funny how I am saying this, but any transaction, money transfers, between… I mean sending or receiving any amount of money from or to Syria will not be possible now. Any other place in the world will be fine, but not Syria for now, unfortunately. I’m very sorry”.
I took my passport and smiled at her, hoped that Jane and I were ‘friends’ at least. Hoping!
She said it herself; it was a mere political issue and we had nothing to deal with it so I nodded and left still half-pleased.
Last week’s dream repeated itself to torture me amazingly, the whole of it.
The Entrance to the South
Dad kept repeating the same verse over and over. To me he was either being possessed or turned handicapped all of a sudden; lost his tongue abilities after the crashing sound. We were pulled out, I couldn’t recall how now. It was pitch black even before he buried my head in the corner where his chest and left arm joined. Under his armpit, I hid my head forcedly.
“Don’t look”, he ordered with the voice of a scared child. I never heard my father talk like that. He kept repeating “ya lateef, ya sattar” and his heartbeats went abnormal.
The palm he laid on my shoulder for a while started to comfort me. I felt it shivering when he patted: “Don’t be scared…, are you?”
“No, Dad. I want to see”
The prayers on his tongue were mispronounced and the sound they made was a marble changing colors and rolling down an empty street.
“Dad, I want to SEE!”
He kept me close to him, but let my head free. Half scared I peeped. A not-yet-dead man was flopping down the road between the remains of the cars. Another was struggling out; blood running and flesh ripped of the shoulders and the chest. Cattle
screamed for a minute or two and then silence ruled over us all. I saw the police men running the opposite way. Their long guns dangled on their backs, the mouth of each machine pointed up to heaven. They started calling someone on their pocket phones and radios. They ran the opposite way!
“Dad… why did they…? There’s a dead man calling …”
Dad put his palm on my mouth now.
I clutch him, pull him closer and squeeze it all out.
“Baba… Baba… why?”
I hush in the dark place my dad gave me again. The teeth start to tick tock against my will grinding as I gripped harder.
“Don’t look. Let’s just go”
I don’t know how much I cried after that. A liter or two… ten! I didn’t know. I was ever bad at math, bad at violence scenes in movies, and I was just stupefied.
The North and its Blues
I was stupefied. Another flashback fit hit me as odd things kept following me even here. Here in England, news of assault, news of disappearance, racial attacks, strange deaths kept following me. Even here.
Zoe put her palm horizontally across her mouth, stared at my reaction from behind her dim glasses. I knew something was wrong and will come out soon. The shock made my mouth open; I couldn’t finish my meal.
What do you mean she fell from Claremont Tower? Was it suicide? Did someone push her?
Zoe tried to explain in simpler English, her Chinese eyes on the verge of tears.
“She was a Chinese student, but I didn’t know her. Alex just told me but I’m not sure it was suicide… I can’t imagine how her parents will receive the news!”
No one knew the truth; no pictures were there in The Courier when the dead girl took a small corner up the front page. Ben was silent, with his red ears, and alarmed. I felt sick and left the dining table to the loo.
The next day in the postgraduate suite Enas said that the last thing seen of a Bahraini student was a jacket laid on the railings of the Tyne. Just one day before Christmas.
What do you mean he’s disappeared? You mean someone could have harmed him, kidnapped him?
Enas turned her lower lip inside out. She tilted her head and sighed out: “Imagine what his Mom could do when she finds out!”
I decided to stay with another friend during Christmas. Henderson Hall was too empty and too dull; all students were either touring Britain or visiting their families. In Fatima’s house, I turned the TV on fishing for news about home. Fatima told me to take the tea to the table. I did it quickly and silently. I turn the voice louder; here I would feel safe and happier. Tonight there would be loads of shows about Christmas sales and the Boxing Blessings. An Indian student was shot dead in the head and the police did not eliminate a racist motive. This was in Manchester, but no one couldn’t disbelieve it.
On Boxing Day, two others were shot in London, Oxford Street. One died, the other badly injured.
Fatima imitated the receptionist from the other room. “What was that, Daalin?”
I turned off the TV and told her nothing. It’s just not very good to watch TV while eating supper, is it? It’s not very healthy after all!
I smiled at her as we ate.
Before I went back to the Halls, I took a silent walk by the Tyne. I was determined to face my fear and daydreaming. But I hated the chili-flavored wind and I hated the lonely walk to the river; too self-conscious and afraid to lose my way back to Bus Number 1. The seagulls hovered over the twinkling surface of the Tyne mocking me in a nasty way. Their voices and hunger disgusted me. I sprinkled bread crumbs in a circle. They mounted me like a statue, standing still for some seven minutes, but the seagulls ate away my fear. Relieved and moved by this pause of time, I cried. I couldn’t write poetry, I couldn’t write about home when I was miles away. The stress was mounting as the deadline to hand in the assignments approached. I was yet determined to break some rules and leave no trace of me.
I was too desperate for a change of air so I left Newcastle for two days; I wanted to feel that scared again. I took the journey to London on a cheap yellowish bus. But then, nothing changed. I still lingered on false imaginations and faulty news I read on my phone. I walked empty streets and saw empty faces and on the second day I decided to return. On the way up north to the place I call home for now, I lost too many things back there. Two of my relatives passed away; two uncles. A cousin was taken to the place metaphorically called ‘the place behind the sun’ which is nowhere known to anyone. Two months later, just two weeks from now he was released. The place behind the sun disfigured his facial features. My sister said that I would still recognize him when I go back. A friend is still there. I wonder what the sun and all that lies behind it could do to him now. Whether he’s alive or… sun burnt.
On that way up north, leaving Homs and the tanks hidden behind brownish bags of cement and sand, the bus stopped suddenly. It was the third time now. We were closer to Hama and another flock of khaki tanks were visible in spite of the darkness. The front lights of the bus streamed into the officers’ eyes penetrating them; merciless lights. I wasn’t afraid until he came up onto the bus. Only one of them was sent up. He screamed “ IDs” at us and we all obeyed.
“Are from Homs, anyone from Hama?”
My heart ached…
He went easy on the ladies so he didn’t stare too much into my ID. No one satisfied his thirst for a fight, not even verbally. We all sat our seats back and waited for him to get down. He wasn’t more than 25 years or something, but even Dad looked a bit worried at the sight of the long weapon he was fixing over his shoulder. I am not good at arms names, but it might have been an AK-47. Then the too young officer went down, disappointed as I was. He said the word “CLEAR!” to the outside and we were flowing on the road again.
We drove off again; towards the other human barrier ahead of us, to Idleb.
Those repeated visits between the capital and Aleppo in the North were a pain, to Dad specially. He used to close his eyes and lay back most of the time.
Not here now. The A1 to the North seemed a longer road without him.
Dad went through series of blood-pressure changes and dizziness. I could do nothing but turn away and cry. On those narrow roads I developed the skill of one-eye-dropping. Dad sitting on the aisle seat to my left, I would lean against the window, 30 degrees between my head and shoulder, and let go of all the tears to the right. I managed my one-eye tear dropping well; not the memory fits yet.
I wondered what I could tell Ms. Wilkinson about me when I meet her the first time.
“ How are you?” She might say and I’d answer: Long story!
But that might be uncomfortable for both of us. I might as well just laugh and tell her I’m terribly fine, now that I can imagine very little about her possible reactions: boredom, shock, indifference, serious sympathy, or speechlessness. I was almost sure she’d ask me about Syria on our first meeting and I’d just say… or I’d rather keep my mouth shut.
I was told to.
Those rides always ended in black, night falling on me and him, clutching to each other’s hands and running home from the bus station. It took 20 minutes to be home, but still, it always ended in darkness.
The Way Back Up North
On the A1, the skyline clouds appeared far away from my window, but I could still make out the line of the vapor trail with my forefinger on the windowpane. Soon we’ll be headed into the narrow road after the security check point and the road will narrow itself more. It was used mainly for cattle and motorbikes, but now two-way moving lorries are heading north and south; their way in and out. Further away the skyline becomes fader, spirited away. The vapor trail lost hope on survival, too.
I’m not there anymore, so why am I dreaming?
Every minute on the A1 to Newcastle kept me tied, firmly stuck to my chair and always on the alert. The roads that lead INTO and OUT OF are confusing, aren’t they? The human mind didn’t come up with roads with no clear destinations yet. How come they
still cannot make up a road that can lead anywhere? I pity the limitedness of it all. With every minute I kept daydreaming, I was revealed.
Don’t stop please, you don’t know what can happ…
The yellow cheap bus stopped suddenly and I was shushed by the snow flaking at the window. I closed the eyelids and squeezed the balls in.
I’m not going to die here. I’m not going to die here.
I didn’t manage my flashback fits well and I squeezed more. Nothing happened. Silence and snow made a perfect purification song and I drowned.
Mr. Driver, what’s the matter?
The passengers started mumbling; “Snow!… Oh look, the Snow!”
I opened my eyes slowly still afraid to wake up and see all is red.
I wiped the foggy window like a half-lived dream, one hand mark pleading for oblivion.
It flaked down answering my questioned prayer.
Am I dead already?
I sniffed and sniffed harder. I am well-trained. I didn’t cry from both sockets. Just on my right side, a small stream of salty dreams made a line across the window, flowing down from the hand mark. The cheap yellow bus started to move slowly among the other cars on the A1.
Soon, it was all white. I was ‘home’ for now.
This story came 2nd in the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts International Student Short Story Competition 2012.