Every Tuesday morning Katib sat on the bench opposite Chalkwell Hall, idling until his Dad went out to meet his clients. The park was teeming with baby strollers and dog walkers, scurrying like ants on the footpath under the late morning sun. The drifting smell of wood burning from the groundkeeper’s yard mingled with the uplifting freshness of cut grass.
It wasn’t cold enough for the heavy, goose down jacket Katib was wearing but he was reluctant to take it off now he could feel the sweat patches clinging underneath. But he’d unzipped the front as he sat down on the bench, watching a white couple passing by briskly. They did the exaggerated heel lifting goose step that old people did in lieu of getting into a proper trot. He made a mocking snort, loud enough to be heard, before giving an exaggerated slow head shake.
The lithe man with the grey-streak hair looked around at him, about to make some paternalistic admonishment. Katib gave him a hard look, his shoulders relaxed. As the man turned back and walked on, Katib made some parting tuts and spat on the ground in front of him, turning his attention to the phone he slid out of his pocket.
The Voice said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” She wasn’t wrong.
The screen of his phone had a hairline crack and with the sun-glare it made it nearly impossible to work out what its older generation display was showing. Katib knew the necessary swipes and twitches without even looking. Plugging the jack into the base and popping the earbuds in, he waited for the tremor of drums and thick, distorted bass.
“Dip him in the river he who loves water,” said the Voice.
Katib turned up the volume. Weaving his head gently out of rhythm, his shoulders hunched forward, he dropped back the thick jacket’s hood with a flick. His thumb swiping through the tracks, their names illegible, sampling a few seconds before ditching one and moving on to the next. He favoured the slow build ups and heavy drops but the random playlist wasn’t delivering. Too many shrill, up tempo party tunes and prematurely booming floor fillers. Finally, after the sixth or seventh slide of his thumb, a more rewarding piece with a melancholic violin played.
It reminded him of his sister Nawal playing. Yet, she wouldn’t have a clue, he thought, about nothing to do with a decent bit of music. Despite her being the one on a scholarship, up in Manchester. When she wasn’t home getting under his feet that is. She loved to play all that sad wailing ‘ethnic’ music. Even their Dad, who at least was born out there, didn’t go in for that khara. Tragically clichéd finding your roots nonsense, Katib thought. “You’re from Southend, luv,” Dad would say, “Not from bloody Aleppo.”
The violin gave way to some real basic rhythms tapped out on drums and a subtle electronica vibe on synths. He couldn’t remember hearing this one before. Grooving, mainly for show when sitting outdoors, gave way to some focused, motionless listening. He leaned on the mossy back of the bench and tilted his head towards the sun. Eyes closed, he let the sunlight form a red blanket over his face, its warmth complimented by a cool gust of early spring wind. Determining to really let the music flood in attentively, his mind stubbornly drifted. His thoughts scattered fragments, bobbing on the surface of his consciousness before fleeting. The Voice threatening to intrude. He kept Her at bay with snippets of chatter and pictures of his mates, his sister, his Dad; even his mother. His forehead was getting sticky and the beads of sweat dripped down the side locks of his dark brown hair; streaming down the gap between jacket and neck. Frustrated, he pulled the buds out of his ears, sun-dazzled eyes peeping open, pressing his lips together and clenching his jaw.
Facing him, watching as intently as a young child staring at the gorilla enclosure in the zoo, he saw a girl out on a run in a black tracksuit with pink-laced trainers. Her head slightly tilted, she pursed her lips. Her finger tips swept the gold-blonde fringe out from in front of her eyes. She gave him a long look and he didn’t mind.
The Voice, saccharine and dull, returned, “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.”
The girl’s zipped-up body-warmer hugged her torso tightly. He guessed she was a bit older than him, but not by much. She snapped her fingers in his face when his eyes lingered.
“Hey, whatcha listen to?” Her accent thickly foreign with a sing-song lilt.
He withheld a rude dismissal which was his first impulse. He turned the cracked phone towards her and merely shrugged.
She let out a bleat-like giggle and shook her head, causing her ponytail to gently swing behind her. “You enjoying it, I can tell.”
He squinted at her, his bleary vision forced into focus.
“You had a face. How do you say?” She searched beyond him. “Beaut-vific? Like a church statue.”
“Wouldn’t know about that.” He fumbled in his jacket pocket for papers and rolling tobacco. “My family are Muslims.” He put his full attention to his hands preparing a rolled-up cigarette. He wasn’t sure whether he was bothered by her bringing religion into the conversation. Or by the blatant lie he had told her. His family were about as much practicing Muslims as Dawkins. Distracted, he was rolling a dog-eared fag and felt witless in front of this strangely self-possessed girl.
“And you?” Giving the impression it wouldn’t matter in the slightest to her either way. Her accent placed her as a recent arrival to ‘cosmopolitan’ Essex. He wanted to come out with some Hezbollah mullah bullshit. But the feeling passed lamely by.
“Nah,” he put the drooping roll-up to his lips. “I’m not into all that.” It took three strikes of his cheap lighter to get it going. She started looking behind her and he wondered if she was losing interest. He hoped for, and knew he would regret, her leaving now. Instead, she just sat next to him without even so much as a “do you mind?”
“I see you around.” She was matter of fact about it. “Same spot, every Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Same time too.” She leaned back on the bench, her arms stretched and draped behind her. He leaned forward to inhale tobacco smoke like it was a spliff. He made unobtrusive efforts to blow the smoke away from her. “So, I wondered,” she went on, “You know? Why not Monday? Or Friday?” She came forward and looked at him directly, her smile revealing a little jagged set of teeth. They weren’t straight, the canines jutting oddly forward but he could tell she didn’t smoke or drink much coffee. He licked his own tar-stained teeth. Self-conscious, he became aware of the bittersweet smell of his own drying sweat. He shifted back from her.
“Be-cause,” she said, “I think: Maybe Saturday, Sunday you don’t need to be in park at all. Maybe no school on weekend. But why not Monday and Friday?” She moved back to give him more space but her posture remained relaxed.
Confident of herself, he thought. He resented that, especially now his body was clinging awkwardly to his clothes; his odour reminding him of the bins round the back of his uncle’s shop. “Nosy, aren’t you?” He placed his right knee on the bench as he turned to her. “What makes you think I want to tell you anytin?” He inflected the last word like the estate kids. Her disbelieving smile made him feel like a fake.
“You don’t have to tell me,” she looked around conspiratorially, “but you should be. Authentic. Yes?” She paused. Wearing a smile bordering on smugness, she went on “You live,” she gestured out of the park, “Cedars Drive, yes? Not, not in Rowntrees.”
“You been following me?” His hands slowly but assertively shooing her. He snagged her hand in his swing. A glancing touch of her cold bony, yet soft fingers. She wasn’t fazed by it.
“No. I live up the corner. I see you sometimes go into house.” She resumed her laddish lean on the back of the bench. “I see you with pretty young boy sometimes too. Take him for school, I think.”
He shrugged. No mystery given the uniform his brother wore. He walked him most mornings, telling his Dad he’d be off to college afterwards.
“So, what makes me so fascinating then?” He couldn’t find the right balance between dismissive and inviting. Fumbling with the lighter, he relit the dead smoke.
She watched him absentmindedly, taking her time to respond. “I don’t know. Nothing, maybe.” As she spoke his shoulders sagged and he put the unevenly burnt roll-up to his lips. “Something, I guess. Here I am. Talking.” His face lifted as she continued, “You never answered my question.”
“Nobody home.” He dragged smoke through his lips and out of his nostrils. “House to myself.” He found himself studying her face with its puffy high-boned cheeks, alabaster white skin and light freckles. She noticed. He swivelled his legs outwards towards the green. The cigarette was burning the outside of his fingers now, so he flicked it across the path and on to the grass ahead. Smoke trails rose for a few seconds before the remnant dew snuffed it out.
They sat in silence, looking out, not together but not exactly apart. The hollow Voice rattled in his head, “Joys impregnate, sorrows bring forth.”
The foot traffic died down as lunch time drew near. The sky had darkened, threatening rain. Katib fumbled in his pockets and began building another cigarette. When he put the finished roll-up to his lips, he realised he wasn’t exactly uncomfortable with her sitting next to him.
“I like it here.” She pulled up a leg on to the bench and wrapped her arms around a knee, hugging her chest.
He gave a slow double nod and inhaled from the more robustly constructed cigarette.
“I’m Zofia, by the way,” she stuck her hand out, smothering the intimacy.
He turned to her and looked at the hand with the mild disdain reserved for teachers at morning registration.”Katib.” He turned back to stare at the green again.
A roly-poly grandma waddled after her terrier, chasing it, huffing and puffing behind. The dog’s leash swinging in her hand as she called after it. “Doogie” or “Smoochy,” he couldn’t tell. The dog had run up to where they were sitting. It came sniffing round the bench and he let out a tobacco-stained hand for it to lick. He didn’t mind dogs. If growing up without being allowed any pets had left him wanting one, he was quickly disabused of that notion when he saw owners picking up the dirt their pets left, scooping the filth into those see-through plastic bags. No thanks, Katib thought. Still, the cheeky little mutt had personality and that went a long way. He was trying to remember what old film that line was from when he noticed Zofia standing and straightening out her joggers. “You off?” He was nonchalant as they come, he thought.
“Yep.” She did some exaggerated stretches, heels to thigh and twisting at her hips; fast stepping on the spot. “See you around.”
He watched her jog away, giving the dog a few strokes on the head until the wheezing owner caught up. “Good dog,” he told the dog, eyes following Zofia down the path.
The woman was beetroot coloured, panting for breath between her words, “Say. Thank. You. To the nice. Young man, Dougie.”
The dog lifted its head onto Katib’s knees as his owner reattached the leash. It made a ticklish rumbling noise that may have been gratitude. Katib gave the dog a nod and a pat before getting up. He walked out of the park in the opposite direction to Zofia.
Pan lid clattering, supper was placed hastily on a silicon hot pot mat. Dad blew on his scolded fingers and muttered a muted curse. Nawal, wearing her red headscarf loosely, brought a big plastic serving spoon from the kitchen and gave the pot a stir. The wafting smell of cumin and cinnamon was followed by a sharp, zesty citrus trace. Katib felt the drool forming at the corner of his mouth. The Voice said, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”
His uncle Said was watching him and gave a soft backhander to his shoulder, “Don’t they feed you at that school of yours?”
Nawal gave him a look laden with meaning as she stirred the sprinkled pine nuts through the dish.
“Nah, uncle.” Katib grabbed a spoon and began twirling it on his yellow-tipped fingers before realising and covered his hands with the sleeves. His uncle gave him a knowing smile. Katib and his uncle had shared the odd joint on a Saturday afternoon, whilst earning some spending money at his uncle’s workshop. “Nothin’ choice and too bloody expensive besides.”
His uncle was a tall man, who used to be a bit of a player but now that he was bald and fat with no wife or kids of his own, he spent more time at Katib’s house than his own. He still dressed like he was living in the halcyon days of cocaine and loud shirts with big collars. The only concession to modernity and his middle-aged girth was the slack jeans and comfortable but squeaky Clarks he wore.
The dining area of the living space was separated from the tartan fabric sofas and decade-old TV by an archway which had accrued open boxes of transient goods and washing, drying indoors on a white plastic clothes horse. The fold out oak table was permanently extended to squeeze in the five of them on a day like today, when Katib’s older sister was home. That meant something better for dinner than the usual take-outs and oven-cooked ready meals.
“How come you only put on a decent grub when Nawwy is here, Dad?” Katib was helping himself to the lentil and rice dish, dolloping thick Lidl Greek yoghurt on the side of his plate.
His father was a good foot shorter than his uncle Said, leaner but just as bald. The thick moustache and dark creases beneath the eyes made him look much older than his brother though. More than the two-year biological difference. “I have to teach her, don’t I?” He addressed his answer to Nawal. “How else she gonna make a good wife for a husband? Boiled pasta and sauce from a jar ain’t gonna get her a doctor!” Dad’s self-satisfied chuckle a contrast with the sardonic exhalation from his sister.
“As if.” Nawal adjusted her headscarf and sat at the table.
Katib noticed she was wearing a purple sports jersey with the insignia of her university, busy bees racing to the sunrise. She was in the rowing or cycling team or something like that. He was sure it had been mentioned before so he wasn’t going to ask about it now. The Voice said, “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”
His sister served their little brother first before giving herself a dainty portion.
“Nawwy is going to be a famous musician. That’s right, isn’t it Nawwy?”
Halim had to pipe in now, Katib thought. His little brother’s perfectly symmetrical olive-skin face and babyish oval-shaped eyes made every human being with a set of ovaries coo over him. Nawal was no exception and he milked it for all it was worth. Always getting help with his school work. Never getting into trouble despite being a daydreaming fool who was constantly tardy.
“Doctors be lining up to marry her!” Halim’s broad grin indicated he expected kudos for this defence of his sister.
“Halim, a woman doesn’t need to marry to make something of herself.” Nawal looked just like their mother when she put on that sincere lecturing tone. “This is the Twenty First Century. A woman can do any kind of work she wants and support herself. Inshallah.”
“Yeah but what about babies? You don’t want babies, Nawwy?” Halim looked a tiny bit grief-stricken at the thought. Katib noticed the way his Dad looked at his uncle when Nawal brought God into the conversation. There was the slightest shrug of the shoulders from his uncle.
“I’m too young to worry about all that. Now eat your food and stop asking silly questions.” Nawal made sure to heap some salad on Halim’s plate and when she tried to do the same with Katib’s, he guarded his plate with one hand and pulled it back with the other. Nawal gave him a roll of the eyes but said nothing.
His younger brother was still in his school uniform, a dark navy jumper with an embossed badge, over a white collared shirt. He was wearing his long winter trousers, covered in mud streaks from sliding down the grass banks on the way home. Halim was the beautiful baby of the family and his developing love of sports gave him a fit, athletic build. He was always smiling at people, eager for their affection in return. He made friends easily. Katib was not immune to these charms and that, and perhaps Halim’s impression of helplessness, explained why Katib never felt any jealousy. If there were any tensions between the siblings, it was always between Katib and his older sister.
“You’re deep in thought, brother.” Nawal saw him staring past Halim, who was flicking lentils around his plate. She sounded more Mancunian every time she came home. He noted she had left another Koran on the otherwise empty bookshelf behind the dinner table. Dad had moved the last one into the cabinet in the sofa side of the room.
“Headscarf is new on you, sis. You workin on being a right god-botherer then?” His Dad gave him a look that even at sixteen years old, still sent a shiver of terror down his spine. Katib just couldn’t help himself though. Their grandfather was a card carrying Communist when he came to England and both his Dad and his uncle had been raised as committed anti-theists.
“Come now, Katib,” uncle Said interjected before their Dad said anything, “Nawal, let’s have a nice meal, yeh?”
Katib shrugged and languidly scooped a spoonful of the Mujadara into his mouth. He slouched and his eyes rarely left the food in front of him. The tension around the table was punctuated by Nawal’s short, sharp jabs of cutlery on her plate. He vaguely heard his uncle ask her something; there was no audible response but the clanging stopped. The room was silent except for the distrait humming of Halim as he chewed. The Voice, motherly and patient like a lullaby, “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.”
Just as Katib couldn’t stand it anymore and was about to excuse himself, there was a knock on the front door. A skittish rat-tat-tat-tat rather than the eager thunk of one of their neighbours coming ’round to collect a parcel left by the postman. Katib was first out of his chair, mumbling “I’ll get it,” and already out the door before Nawal stood up, turning the Yale lock and working the door handle.
“Oh, you.” Katib was surprised to see the blonde-haired girl from the park, now wearing a red leather jacket, face made up in a way that suggested she was on her way out to something social. “I mean, hey. What’s up?”
She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a yellow plastic tobacco pouch and offered it to him. “This.” She was more subdued than he remembered her being in the park. Not as cockily self-assured. “You left. On bench.” He took the nearly empty packet from her gingerly, almost snatching it in the end.
“Thanks.” He noted her chin was quivering slightly. They stood there, him spread in the doorway; her with hands in her pockets, standing on the step.
“Who is it, Katib?” His father called from the dinner table.
Unsure how to respond, Katib turned his head back and shouted, “A friend. Just a friend.”
He noticed her quickly fading smile as he turned back to face her.
“Invite them in then, you dolt! Plenty of food. Your sister is barely touching hers.”
He gave a shrug and pointed behind him with his thumb. She nodded without hesitation. He stepped out of the door frame and positioned himself sideways, back to the wall, letting her in. He closed the front door behind them. As she walked into the room where his family was sat eating, he heard his father speak first, “Ah, so you’re Katib’s friend! Hello love, what is your name then?”
“Zofia, nice to meet you. Thank you.”
Chairs shuffled around the table and a fold out seat was placed in the gap. As Katib re-entered the room, his uncle gave him an unsubtle wink and touched his nose. The pleb, Katib thought.
“I’m Katib’s dad, Nusrah. And this is Nawwy. Sorry, Nawal. His sister. And my brother, Said. And this is our young man, Halim. Say hello, this is Zofia.”
There was a chorus of hellos. Food was dished out on a plate and set before her by the time she had taken her seat. Katib zoned out whilst the inevitable torrent of questions came. “How do you know Katib?” “What do you think of the food?” “Where do you live?” “Where do you go to school?” “What do your parents do?” “What are you studying?” “That’s a nice accent, where are you from?” And so on, and so forth.
Zofia handled the interrogation with a warm grace, even getting a few bites of food in. She tittered when uncle Said told one of his godawful jokes. She didn’t say anything when Dad talked up how hard-working Polish people were. Of course, Nawal couldn’t resist setting her Dad straight about what shouldn’t be said or thought nowadays. Katib didn’t interrupt, sitting passively, focused on his food. Chewing slowly, deliberately, stealing glances at Zofia’s blue-green eyes framed in thick mascara.
The meal came to an end and Katib helped take dishes to the kitchen. Dad insisted they bring out tea and baklava for their guest. When Zofia tried to help, she was waved down emphatically. Sweet smelling black tea in short glass cups was brought out for everyone except Halim. There was a comfortable quiet as they digested and sipped. Halim excused himself and went to play on the Xbox. When Dad, Nawal and his uncle got into one of their discussions about politics, Katib and Zofia sat quietly, nodding in agreement at whoever turned to them for their opinion. Oblivious to his family talking past each other and the fulmination from the TV speakers, Katib and Zofia looked at each other, slowly finishing the last of their tea.
“Going out.” Katib got up abruptly bringing the conversation about the Euro or some such to an end. Putting on his jacket as he stood, he signalled to Zofia, who followed suit.
“Thank you, very much.” She beamed a smile at Dad and uncle Said. “You make me feel very welcome.”
“Anytime kiddo.” Uncle Said cheerily shook her outstretched hand, pulled her in and gave her a hug. “Always nice to meet one of Katib’s friends.” There was a distinct emphasis on the word friends that was hard to miss.
“Yes,” Dad, trying too hard, had a Cheshire cat grin, “you are always welcome in our home.”
Nawal gave Zofia an overly complicated three-kiss combo followed by a squeeze of the forearms as they went to the door.
They walked wordlessly towards the park. Katib spoke first, “Sorry about all that.”
“No,” she smiled at him, “your family is very nice. Friendly.”
He gave her a noncommittal shrug and checked the time on his Rotary watch. “Gate will be closed now. But I know another way in. Come.”
They found the hole in the park’s fence and clambered through. They spotted the rising vape clouds of a group of huddled ‘Year 11s’ on the nearest benches and headed in the opposite direction. He sat down first, bum on the back edge, feet planted on the seat. She sat on the seat and used the arm rest to lean on, facing him. The Voice said, “Excess of sorrow laughs, excess of joy weeps.” She was closer now.
He looked intently ahead, pretending to examine the billowing branches of the tree on the other side of the path. He felt her eyes scanning his profile. He glanced at her as she mouthed words in preparation to speak.
“What is it?” He spoke first.
He turned to face her. The angle, higher up on the bench, felt inappropriate. He slid down and mirrored her posture, stiffly resting on the arm of the bench.
“Today. This evening. It was very nice. I am glad.”
He bit back a snarky response, lamenting that would always be his first unfiltered reaction. “Yeah, it was alright.”
She appeared to shrink but that private smile remained on her lips. “No, I mean it.” She repeated, “it was very nice.”
“Suppose so.” He hadn’t really thought about it. Not consciously. It wasn’t terrible, that was for sure. “Yeah, suppose it was nice enough.”
She was waiting for something but he didn’t know what more he could say. Situations like this made him anxious. He got confused. The Voice deserted him. Better to say as little as possible, he thought.
“I have been. Not been.” She struggled.
His face softened, statutory indifference and coolness unnecessary, confronted as he was by her vulnerability.
“Well, not been feeling, I guess. Detached. Like a kite let go in storm. Wanting, not to feel. At all.”
He couldn’t make sense of her but he didn’t want to interrupt. He put a hand on her shoulder. Her eyes sparkled.
“Silly. I am not sure why I speak to you like this. You don’t know me.”
“It’s alright,” he rubbed her shoulder. He couldn’t help that the sensation felt sensual. He tried to focus on her face and reign in his wayward thoughts.
“I have been feeling very sad.”
He caught himself in the third-person when he saw the trail glistening down her cheek. His thoughts had wandered to some future encounter, her lips on his and her breasts close by. He felt shameful, aroused. His mouth now dry, he could do no better than ask, “What’s the matter?”
“It’s long story. Difficult.”
Determined to be a better version of himself, he focused intently on the moment and slid himself around to comfort her. One arm supporting her neck and gripping her shoulder, the other resting and patting her hands which were folded on her knees.
“Maybe another time, I will tell you.”
They sat listening to the buffeting wind and the drifting sound of giggling kids in the other corner of the park. Eventually, she took a hand from underneath his and wiped her face, gave a decisive sniff and looked pleased with him.
“My mom used to get sad too,” he said turning towards the tree again. He felt a compulsion to share, to settle the debt of intimacy. The Voice listened. “Got real’ bad with it in the end.”
It was her turn to put her hands on Katib’s. He didn’t say anymore. He took her hand and held it. They sat, talking a little, until the wind was too cold to stay any longer.
Walking in the light drizzle of the March morning, Katib let his brother go ahead as they navigated the railings with the rest of the herd. The Voice felt detached from him, “What is now proved was once only imagined.”
Some of the parents making the morning ramble to the academy insisted their offspring avoid the puddles. And the older youth hanging back with their smokes. On the way, a boy with an unkempt hedge of an afro gave Katib a respectful nod. The zig-zag path downhill led to the pedestrian subway where, inevitably, Katib would see a few old schoolmates who had stayed on to do their A-levels at his old – and Halim’s current – school. He kept interactions brief. No need for all that insincere “how you been?” and “what you up to?” blather. He’d see these kids around the rest of his life, he was sure. They were still in school but they weren’t moving any further away from the A217 than him.
The herd had slowed as they reached the bottom of the hill. Crowding at the entrance, traffic into the subway was near a standstill. A pair of excited black girls, loudly talking a mile a minute raced out. Katib couldn’t make out what the commotion was all about but he started shoving his way towards Halim. Making fists, he felt the strong urge to close the gap between them. A thumping heart and jaw stiffening anxiety told him to make sure his naive fool of a brother didn’t get himself drawn into any trouble. As he got to the mouth of the tunnel, there was no effort by the herd to keep moving. They had formed a spectators’ ring outside, tip-toeing to see what had brought everyone else to a stop.
“Yo, stay where you at!” Katib peered over the crowd, shouting at his brother beyond them. A few of the parents walking the younger children had gathered inside and were standing over something, protecting peering eyes from whatever might distress them. Katib guessed some dead homeless person or messed up junkie. Halim had got in-between the circle of parents to look and turned back to call Katib over.
“Come! It’s her!” He waved excitedly at his older brother.
Katib took a few quick paces, jostling through and elbowing his way into the parents’ circle. Sitting in the urine soaked tunnel, propped up against the graffiti covered walls, a ghostly pale Zofia clutched her stomach. Katib scanned for blood but there were no stains, no congealed blotches he could see.
“Shit,” he kneeled beside her but didn’t dare touch. Her glassy eyes flickered but there was no sound except the arrhythmic beat of her light panting. Her face looked drained and as he got closer he noticed the red leather jacket, silver-grey blouse and blue jeans she was wearing last night were dishevelled but not torn or damaged. Her hands clasped to herself, giving him the creeps with every strained wheezing breath.
“You ok?” He felt dumb asking but he didn’t know what else to say.
The Voice said, “The eagle never lost so much time, as when he submitted to learn of the crow.”
A light flickered in her face and she turned upwards to look at him. He could see clearly her eyes were raw with long-dried tears. Her thin lips had a purple hue; he couldn’t tell if that was lipstick or bruising. She gave a tame shake of her head. He reached out a hand and grazed hers, fingers touching on the outside. The artificial light in the subway flickered and he felt it was just her and him in the spotlight. The Voice said, “Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth!” He pleaded for Her to be silent.
The light flickered again and he snapped back into the crowded situation. The Voice said, “The soul of sweet delight can never be defiled!”
He turned to the parents who were watching with masks of concern and shouted, “Somebody fuckin call an ambulance! Whatcha all doin standing here? Call a fucking ambulance!”
If one of the grown-ups had responded, and Katib wasn’t sure but they might’ve said something, he was lost looking at Zofia’s crumpled body. Worry, fear then anger had shifted to pity. He took her near-frozen hands, squeezing them in his own. Stroking her damp cheek, he hummed. A melody which he had used to soothe baby Halim when he wouldn’t stop crying for anyone but Katib. “It’s gonna be alright,” and he believed it, somehow. “They’ll get someone to make it alright.”
Her face a succession of recognition, sorrow and disinterest. He sat close, her body inviting him. He held her, resting his chin on her head. As he pulled her closer to him, he rubbed her arms, inducting life back into her. The strong prevalent odour of piss was mixed with an acerbic metallic scent. He looked down, spotting the dark wet patch where she had been seated. Instinctively, he tightened his hug.
“Gone,” she managed to speak as Katib could hear the crowd shifting to accommodate approaching authority. “Free,” she didn’t cry. Her words matter of fact.
Once again, Katib didn’t know what to say. The Voice silent. He waited for the paramedics to come. They lifted her up on to a stretcher and he walked with them, holding her hand. The female paramedic with the bob cut gestured for him to get on-board and he did, telling Halim to get on to school. As the door to the ambulance closed, the Voice said, “The crow wished everything was black.”