I can tell it like a story that happened long ago, time blunting the edges of the past.
I can say it quietly to myself, all of it, exactly how it passed, just like one of Mama’s stories.
Mama often told us stories of her village when it rained. It is raining so hard now that the windows of my office become solid grey squares, obscuring my view of the London skyline. The office empties for lunch making it possible to hear the hum of the air conditioner and the traffic on rain slicked streets below. My lunch sits untouched in a plastic carrier bag, contracting inwards like a wrinkled vacuum around the condensation of my water bottle.
I try hard not to think of her these days, but today I keep my eyes closed a little longer when I blink, listen to the finger taps of rain on the glass and let my mind fill with the vision of Mama’s almond eyes and cinnamon skin.
Back home, she would always begin, her accent wrapping around the 'o' in 'home' making it full in her mouth like an orange. This isn’t rain she would tell us, slipping into Creole to describe how back home, la pluie battre fort, slapping her palms together to emphasize how solidly the rain beat down.
Though my twin brothers and I understood Creolewell, her stories were always recounted in English; the broken way she pronounced ‘vill-age’ as though two separate words was all it took for my mind to conjure up a small collection of homes fashioned out of breeze block with corrugated metal roofs, incongruously nestled amongst palm trees and sugar cane taller than any man. With those two syllables alone I emerged into the village of Mama’s childhood, where waxy banana leaves provided a sparse canopy against the lashing rain and women kissed at the sight of the new moon for luck. Nobody lingered outside after sunset for long. Everybody in the village knew better than that.
I miss her so desperately on days like this that my chest hurts. Sometimes I catch myself absentmindedly rubbing at my sternum to soothe the ache. It has become easier to not think of her at all but on days like today when thoughts of her obtrude my thoughts however hard I try to not let them, I try to remember her as she was. It has been so long since I have seen her face in the flesh that my memory has transposed her image with those from her high school photographs taken long before she came to England. Memories of my fifth birthday now feature Mama in looped pigtails and a stiff pinafore, skinny faced with arms to match; sepia tinted Mama lighting the candles on my Technicolor cake.
I was thirty last week.
There were no candles to blow out.
My brothers visit her every month. They tell me I should visit too before she is gone. I haven’t told them about the last time I went to that place, on my own, walking up to her smiling face. I smiled back at her, and for a moment the staff, the other patients, even the placid green walls of the care home fell out of focus and all I saw was her.
Layla? She had said, I have a daughter with that name, she is smaller than you, much smaller. Have you seen her? I don’t know where she’s gone.
Whenever it would storm, Mama would make a pot of vanilla tea and huddle us so close to her we could smell the Pears soap she washed her face with each morning. Shall I tell you a story?She would whisper, eyes wide. In my village when I was little, I saw one. She would recount her tale, the same one we heard many times before. We still gasped in unison when she told us how she ventured outside after sunset, so greedy for the tamarinds on the tree at the back of her house that she could not wait until morning. Shaquil and Adil were seven and I was ten. She would have been about the same age as me, and whilst I struggled to pull myself up on the rope in gym class, I listened in silent pride as Mama described how she shimmied up a smooth tree trunk.
She ignored the distant sound of her mother’s voice calling for her, pausing for lengthy periods at great height until she plucked at the fruit resembling an umber broad bean, cracking one end of the rind between her teeth then sucking out the bittersweet flesh. She told us how she thought nothing of the footsteps below crushing the discarded pods, so distracted she was by her full stomach and the soporific heat swathing her in its balmy embrace. It must be her mother, she thought, she must have found her and was waiting for her to get down from the tree. Except when she did look down, it was not the top of her mother’s head that she saw, but an elongated face, gaunt and expressionless, staring up at her. This figure came up higher than the sugar cane, the face ageless, genderless, neck craned back at an angle so sharp surely no man could achieve it. She knew at once what she saw: djinn.
If Papa was home he usually interrupted by this point. The tropical air that enveloped us during Mama’s recount evaporated into Papa’s baritone. The palm trees, the red earth that clung to the day’s heat long into the night all fell away at a single syllable from Papa, bringing my brothers and me back to the cramped living room of our three-bedroom maisonette with nothing more than yellowing woodchip wallpaper to look at.
What if the djinnhad followed her? He would say, his tone typically irate. They can do that, you know, take a liking to someone, follow them, try to keep them for themselves. Mama would only tut at him. Tutting, he could ignore.
It was that winter days before my eleventh birthday that she began to slip away.
Steam billowed from Mama’s iron before rushing to the windows and frosting its panes, gently erasing the scene of the teenagers gathered at the council estate playground. The living room smelled of hot cotton. She always ironed in the living room while I sat nearby and read. Every now and then the ceiling came alive with thuds, the filament rattling in the light bulbs as my brothers played in their room above us. When she was done she would leave our clothes in neat piles on the sofa and go to the kitchen to make a start on dinner.
With Papa at the market the twins and I occupied ourselves with a cracked plastic sled that we found by the communal bins. We took turns to slide down the stairs; their little bodies still padded out with the remnants of early childhood whilst my childhood dissolved into lengthened out limbs, lean and smooth which provided little cushioning as I thudded down each step. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until the aroma of charred roti bled into the cool air of the hallway.
What have you two done now? I asked.
They looked at me blankly. We hurried to the kitchen to find Mama, stood by the sink, stray wisps of hair escaping the tired headscarf she wore for cooking. Her hands were suspended mid-air, covered in flour and remnants of the sticky dough she had been kneading. She gestured towards the sink with an incline of her chin. My brothers pushed me aside to get the first look. Mama kept glancing between the doorway and red digits of a radio alarm clock which she kept in the kitchen on low volume for most of the day.
He would be back any minute now.
The chatter of radio DJ’s abated the silence in their diminished tones. My brothers walked up to the sink, grabbing the edge of the basin with both hands then stood back, hands rigid as though the sink was charged with an electric current.
We didn’t do that!
Adil, the eldest by two minutes spoke on behalf of them. Without expression Shaquil slowly raised his arm and pointed it towards me like a mute automaton. Adil continued,
She must have done it!
Layla? Mama asked softly.
The sultry perfume of basmati rice boiling on the stove humidified the air. Small hairs around my forehead contracted into curly wisps around my face.
I walked over to the sink and saw it: Papa’s freshly ironed work shirts neatly folded and soaking wet. I opened my mouth to say something but the words got stuck. My defense amounted to a pleading look towards Mama whilst shaking my head.
The DJ’s were laughing now.
Keys jangled followed by the heavy slam of the front door. Carrier bags scraped along the hallway, too narrow for both Papa’s portly form and the mass of groceries he carried with him. Mama backed into the alcove of the utility area. Papa placed the bags onto the kitchen counter then stood rubbing his weathered hands; the taut handles of the plastic bags carving new lines of fate into his leathery palms.
Soon he would wash his hands.
He lifted out the soggy shirts, clenching them tightly.
Who? He asked, holding the shirts up, water streaking down his arm, quenching his ashy elbows. Before my brothers had a chance to speak I pointed at them. With his free hand Papa slapped both boys then threw the shirts at Mama’s feet. She looked down at the nascent pool of water etching closer to her slippers. Her feet remained as they were.
Mama told me once when we were alone how she always knew she would come to England. A fortune teller had told her so when she was a teenager. She paused after saying this, pulling the bed covers from the sudsy bath water, and then began grating the squelching sheets against the washer board. Soothsaying was haram, forbidden. I closed the bathroom door and took my place by the sink, one sock damp from the puddles on the lino.
The fortune teller was a widow, childless. She lived in the village next to Mama’s. She told me how some days she would save her bus fare and walk the journey home, plaited pigtails gleaming in the sun like the backs of beetles, the dirt road coating her socks and lower legs in ferruginous dust. The bus fare was given to the widow who wove a hair from Mama’s head through her wedding ring and watched as the concentric circles spoke to her of a journey to Europe, to England. You will leave this village and have an adventure.
When Papa arrived at her childhood home asking permission to court her, twelve years her senior and settled in England for the past couple of years, there was no hesitation. They met for the first time in the company of her parents, sisters, aunts and uncles. Mama, a teenager then, looked down coyly at her cup of tea as the adults spoke for her; the reflection of her eyes wavered in the steaming liquid and in it she saw the widow’s ring spinning. They were engaged before the pot of tea had a chance to get cold. He went back to England the following week, promising to return for their wedding.
An adventure, Mama said as she scrubbed and grated the bed sheets with such force I felt certain she would tear them.
We ate dinner that night in near silence; my parents nimbly pushing rice into their mouths with fingertips and thumbs, my brothers and I with spoons. I had no appetite and had been chewing the same mouthful for so long that all I was left with was gluey tasteless stodge. One of the shirts clung to the radiator in the same room as us, the carpet beneath it darkened with dripping water. Nobody spoke of the shirts. Nobody spoke at all. Each time I looked at my brother’s faces, a ruddy cheek each, my throat felt too thick to permit the passage of the starchy slush and so I continued to chew.
Nobody spoke after the plates were cleared. There was only one explanation for the bad behaviour of the twins as far as Papa was concerned. There wasdjinnin the house. No, the shirts would not have happened if the family was more pious. We laughed too much, he told us. Did not think enough of the after-life. And so, after dinner the radio was switched off.
We sat on prayer mats in the front room. The lights had been dimmed and the room smelled of jasmine. Mama sat on the floor, her face neatly framed by a maroon headscarf. Her full cheeks made her look like a Babushka doll when she smiled. The only sound in the room came from the clicking of Papa’s prayers beads. He passed them so quickly between his fingers it was hard to believe he had time to recite a full supplication before moving on to the next bead. A curling ribbon of smoke from an incense stick floated towards me, dissipating into scrawling threads that resembled crooked fingers before reaching my face. Papa began to recite prayers in a tranquil tone. I mouthed along but words did not follow. My eyes were tired. In the dim light, the woodchip wallpaper took on the appearance of tiny maggots and I had to blink several times to stop them from writhing around.
That night I lay flat on my back looking at the strange shapes cast on my ceiling by the headlights of passing cars; the shadow of a passer-by, stretched long and thin by the of the street lamp. These incoherent shapes slid into solid forms as black gave way to dreaming.
Long crooked fingers braid long black hair. The hair was mine. I did not turn around but allowed the fingers to continue until the braid tapered to a halt. I dreamt I was in the living room and could hear a kettle whistling. The crooked fingers returned, stroking the back of my head. Without turning, I knew it was Mama. She stroked my hair, gently bringing the braid to life as it wrapped around my waist like a thick black snake. The whistling kettle undulated into the plaintive wail of a baby.
I woke to the sound of a cat screeching below my window. Early dawn washed my bedroom in a cool blue. I thought I heard a faint whistle coming from outside my door, but could not be sure if this was just an aftertaste from my dream. I went to the door and pulled it open an inch, and saw her walking out of her room. She was walking on tiptoe taking small certain steps across the landing towards the spare room. That room contained nothing more than a rickety bed, suitcases and oversized cooking pots.
A thin shaft of light cut a line on the landing where Mama left the door to the spare room ajar. I followed the path of light, tiptoeing like I had seen Mama doing. As I approached I could hear her; shush shush shush along with the rhythmic creaking of wood. As I came closer to the room, the creaking and shushing became more agitated. My slender fingers made contact with the door and all sounds ceased. I held my breath and pushed it open.
Mama was sitting on a suitcase, arms cradled at her waist like a ballerina, rocking gently back and forth, one breast exposed. I tried to say ‘Ma’ but my throat closed up with tears. She looked up at me then, slowly raising a bent finger to her lips. Shhh, she said, and then looking down into her empty arms, you will wake Layla.
That morning once everyone was up, the twins came to find me. Monday. They should have been getting dressed into their uniforms but instead they were stood in my doorway. The way they said my name made one word a complete sentence. I followed them down to the kitchen.
Nail trimmings in the butter dish.
After the shirts, the twins would be first to receive blame if Papa had seen it. My mind played a trick and for a moment I thought I heard Papa. I slid the butter into the bin and replaced the dish on the dining table while Mama showered upstairs. Nobody spoke a word.
Once home from school that day Mama lifted my lunch box and tutted at the weight it. She sighed and tutted again.
Why didn’t you eat lunch for, hmm?
One hand held the lunch box, the other an upturned palm with fingers splayed at the ceiling. I looked down at my tight shoes trying to imagine what the girl who wore them before me looked like. I could hear her opening the lunchbox and examining the uneaten contents.
Layla, what is this?
I didn’t need to look up to know what she was holding. The white bread, now a compact squidgy block in oily cling film, oozed a vivid green. The unmistakably tang of washing up liquid wafted out of my bag. The thing I could think of was, I didn’t like my sandwiches.
Mama exhaled through her nose, took her time doing so. She was thinking but said nothing to me. She began to unwrap the cling film. I went to stop her and took the lunch box and the sandwiches. She grabbed my arm firmly.
I can do it, Layla. Go and take banana from fruit bowl.
She sounded sad but her face was vacant. I stood aside and watched her unwrap the film a little then go to the butter dish. She looked down at her nails cut right down to the quick and forgot I was there. I didn’t want the banana. I hid my face so she wouldn’t see it crumble and went upstairs.
I was ravenous that evening. We waited for Papa to take his seat at the table. It was Mama’s habit to ask him what he wanted to drink before serving the rest of us. But rather than call him Taleb, she called him ‘Papa’. I thought I must have I misheard, but she asked him again calling him ‘Papa’. Even the twins stopped talking this time. A heaviness settling in my stomach, filling it entirely leaving no room for appetite. We all looked at Papa.
Bring me some water, he said, bringing his glass down hard against the table top, either out of frustration or to jolt Mama out of her confusion.
Adil and Shaquil broke into fits of laughter. Condensation gathered in nervous sweat-beads on the glass of water. Mama was undeterred by the laughter and spoke in Creole about her day, talking about an old widow she visited after school. She sounded so young. Mama continued to smile at him, and I realised that she couldn’t see him anymore, not properly. She was seeing her past now, like something magical had happened inside her head and she was able to time travel back to that moment. It was us who had the problem because we couldn’t see what she was able to.
Papa stood and faced her. His eyes grew so wide that the irises appeared to shrink. She did not move, did not flinch. She did not understand. It must have happened quickly because he hit her only four times in the face. The twins were not laughing anymore. They sat still, heads bowed like they were praying in assembly. I wondered whether they were privately communing, hearing each other’s thoughts, comforting one another. I shouted their names loudly in my mind trying to break into their mental conference but they didn’t look up at me. I should have done like my brothers and looked away. I counted the blows to distract me from Mama’s quavering voice, trying to order the chaotic moment into consecutive numbersas Papa lashed solidly into Mama’s face.
1, 2, 3, 4.
Finally, Mama shouted his name and the spell was broken, she was back in the present.
A pool had appeared beneath my brothers’ chairs.
Shall I tell you a story? About a woman who slipped away. On days when it rained she told her children tales of her younger days. And then a storm settled in her home that picked things up and put them down again where they didn’t belong. It was the djinn, they said. The djinn, she echoed. Yet the storm within her raged on. More things moved, the wrong things were said and so they prayed more, prayed harder. The television went, next the radio. Colouring was forbidden. Anything raising a smile was treated with caution. But the storm did not move, it only grew. When the woman tried to make vanilla tea by placing an electric kettle on the gas stove, she slipped away and disappeared completely.
I was a teenager by then, when they came to take her away. After that whenever it stormed I would sit in the spare room alone and listen to nothing but the rain.
Long wet streaks line the floor to ceiling windows of my office and I remember her beautiful hair, her full cheeks. I stare absentmindedly out of the window until the rain subsides once more to tapping. The hum of voices in the office grows as people filter back in from lunch. An office worker I do not recognise is at the desk closest to the door. He must have been sitting there the entire time but I am only just noticing him now.
Even from where I am sat I can tell he has a long torso from the way that his head rises above the others. I cannot place his bony face with the hairline starting so far back that I am not sure at first whether he has hair at all. He seems so familiar though I am certain we have never met. He is looking directly at me and when I stare back he does not look away.
Yasmina Floyer Yasmina Floyer is an English tutor and writer based in London. She holds an MLitt Creative Writing from Glasgow University and her writing is published in various anthologies and journals both online and in print.