by Jan Woolf
A winter’s day in 2008, in Dalston, London
Zeina wakes, and, remembering, keeps her body as still as she can. She lifts her hand to snap on the bedside light, gently turning her head towards the photograph in the thin green frame. There they are, David and Roseanne on the beach, Roseanne sitting on her father’s shoulders, clasping his hands, her chin resting on top of his head, grinning at the photographer – at Mummy. ‘See you both later,’ she whispers, sliding her hand under her white cotton nightshirt. Her fingers find the wad of bandage on her abdomen, just under the place where the ribs part. She presses gently. Not as sore as yesterday. Good. The Doctor was right; a drugged sleep would help her heal enough to get through the day.
‘The painkillers will knock you out Zeina, you will not even dream.’
‘I have not dreamed since the accident, doctor.’
‘If you can call war an accident.’
‘But it is an accident that I was born where I was – no?’
‘And at that time.’
An accident too that she was not with them when it happened, but out buying fish for dinner, red snapper to go with the aubergines growing on the balcony. It was raining at the time.
How considerate of them. Here, have a bomb but we will save you the bother of putting out the fires. Maybe the Americans told them, OK bomb, but check the weather. Be as kind as you can. Remember their human rights. Remind them we are only after terrorists – so nothing personal.
It looks like a scorpion, she’d told the doctor as she studied the row of stitches. ‘So it does,’ he’d replied apologetically, ‘I am sorry we don’t have the most up to date equipment.’
‘Never mind, it will heal well enough and for long enough.’
The last time she’d been cut and sewn was Roseanne’s birth five years ago. A big baby, flopping out of her like a fish in a swoosh of blood and water, David catching her, wearing his mask and scrubs. ‘Welcome to the world Roseanne,’ he’d cried in his joy. Clever David, a nice old Lebanese name they could agree on, but with a nod to Rose, his English mother. Then he’d laid their baby gently on the place where the scorpion now lurks.
She checks the time on her wristwatch. Half past six, a while yet before the winter dawn lightens the curtains of David’s boyhood bedroom. She presses another painkiller from its pack, sending it to the back of her throat with a sip of water, then slips into a doze, one that has her here in London, and there - in the milk – white air of a Beirut morning. For chosen people can be in two places at once.
She opens her eyes and covers the bandage with a cupped hand, as if helping something hatch. But it hurts now, hurts like hell, and she takes her attention into the pain. She feels feverish too, but never mind, God wants her work, just as He’d wanted David’s as he’d laboured over the flesh of her countrymen. Mother-in-law, or Rose – as she’d never managed to call her – will be knocking at the door soon asking why she isn’t up and off to the day centre. You’re lucky to get free health care, she’ll say, with that look on her face. Mother-in-law! That comfortless woman in the baggy flowered skirt and brown cardigan, her mouth turned down like a cod’s, eyes cold, the hair a pile of artificial brown curls. If it wasn’t for you, she’d accused her. The old conversation loops in Zeina’s head.
‘My son was a fine doctor’.
‘Yes, he was.’
‘He would have come home.’
‘But he was bound to meet someone. We are in love.’
‘He could have loved somebody here, in England.’
‘We have a child. Your granddaughter.’
‘Not any more.’
Mother-in-law would have felt better in Beirut, wailing with the others, not suffering in silence with knotted lips.
‘Zeina?’ The voice from the other side of the door is harsh, still accusing If it wasn’t for you.
‘Go away, I am ill.’
‘You’ll lose your place at the daycentre.’
‘Good.’ As Mother-in-law’s steps recede, Zeina laughs, but her laughter makes the scorpion dance, so she drags her hand from forehead to chin to wipe the smile from my face as David used to joke when he made funny faces for Roseanne.
She closes her eyes again, the better to imagine everything in their tiny Beirut flat. The ottoman by the wall where they used to sit in the evenings, the shadows pouring down the walls like water as night fell. That painting they argued about. But at least it’s gone now – ha. She sees the corner where Roseanne played with her dolls, can almost smell the lamb simmering with spices and okra, the perfume of flowers drifting in through the windows. Not like Mother-in-law's house with its whispering judgements and stale air.
She’d spent months here, drifting through the city like dust passing through open fingers. She thought she would feel better with Mother-in-law, that shared grief would make them closer. But Mother-in-law could not hold her, could not even touch her and sent her to a doctor for the pills that made her feel buried alive. And then she’d met the other doctor at the daycentre, the man who’d given her life purpose. She takes another painkiller and settles as comfortably as she can, to wait for the day, to turn into the evening, that will take her to her darlings. And finally, she sleeps.
There were no dreams, but there were voices.
It was regrettable that civilians were caught up in this.
He could have stopped it!
Thank God you were together when the shell found you. I know that you would have been holding Roseanne.
He prolonged it.
That she had her face pressed against that warm place by your neck.
He delayed the ceasefire.
That you had scooped her up and made it a game.
He too has children – does he not?
That Roseanne felt no pain. Or fear.
Time to get up and start the business. Her body feels heavy, so does her head. She’d been told there might be infection; but that she'd be OK for long enough to do her work. She looks at the photo again, which seems to shimmer, become more vivid: her daughter’s eyes brighter, her husband’s smile broader. See you soon, they say.
She moves her legs to the side of the bed and stands as shakily as a colt, then walks slowly towards the mahogany dressing table. She rips the nightshirt at the neck and it falls at her feet. The low mirror reflects her drooping breasts, strong thighs, the dark triangle of hair – and the pad of dressing above her navel. A curious picture, obscene really, she thinks, as she lifts the edge of the dressing. The ridged flesh beneath the stitches is pink and puffy, darkening in the centre like a piece of crackling. She takes a new dressing from a pack, sticks it in place and reaches for the neat pile of clothes on the chair. First the underwear: black pants, and the matching bra that David liked, make a bizarre frame for the dressing – a surrealist picture that no-one will see, not even the forensic scientists.
For there will be just be a mess of flesh, bone and pieces of fabric, just like there were in the block of flats. She thinks back, remembering old Mother Ghulab weeping, and turning what looked like a piece of red pottery over and over with her fingers. It was a part of her son’s skull. How she envied her that part of her child. She had none of her’s. Roseanne is dancing with the atoms. Mother Ghulab told her that she’d stopped believing in God.
‘I never used to,’ she’d replied. ‘But it’s different now – for if there is no God how can I see David and Roseanne again? Of course I believe in God.’
Just like he does.
She picks up a light blue shirt and eases it on as she might a coat. Buttoning the cuffs, she notices how fine her hands are, the nails beautifully pared, the blue veins fanning out over the back of her hand in a fine delta of blood. Then she bends – carefully – reaching for her socks, but the stitches pull. No socks then, she'll save the effort for her trousers, a pair of loose black ones, not too tight. So no, she won’t be looking fashionable, more like someone who got on the guest list through the – what did they call it? – community arts inclusivity policy. How pleased they will be to see her at the important Multi-Faith Reception, especially in the scarf. She drapes a black cardigan across her shoulders and checks that the invitation, to Zeina Baker, Daycentre is in the shoulder bag hanging on the hook behind the door. She takes a lipstick from the dressing table and turns it over and over in her hands. Sugar Plum, the one David told her looked so sexy with her heavy black hair. And then she brushes it, the way he liked, back from her forehead, behind her ears. Dropping the lipstick into her bag, she decides to put on the scarf, presently coiled in the cardigan pocket, later. Then she sits on the bed and taps a number into her phone. She'll grab her bag and slip into the loafers waiting by the door as she leaves. It doesn't matter that she has no socks. Doesn't matter at all.
She turns to pay the driver.
‘You alright love?’
‘Yes, thank you,’ she says, smiling at the man, whose face looks strangely like a potato. He might say to the press tomorrow, it was me that brought her. And to the police, yes, she did look ill.
‘Your invitation madam?’ says a young man at the door. Zeina dips her hand into her bag and she shows the invitation like a pass at a checkpoint, which is where she supposes she is. Doctor Anwar had told her she was a soldier.
‘No plus one?’ says the young man.
‘I’d have died and gone to heaven to get one of my mates in here tonight.’
‘Sure would, can I ask you to step through security?’
She manages to walk graciously enough through the high metal arch, a wedding arch she feels, for she is soon to be joined with David. A woman with a wand waves it around her body. Zeina winces as she pats her down, but she keeps the pain out of her face. The woman smiles and nods her through.
‘Thank you, where is the toilet?’
‘Over there, madam.’
Other women are fixing their hair, freshening their lipstick. Zeina looks into the mirror, her face is grey and clammy, her lips as pale as the flanks of the dead. Her fingers search for the Sugar Plum. They find it, and she caresses the small metal cylinder with her thumb. But it stays at the bottom of her bag. For inside the blob of pink wax is the detonator that will explode the tiny bomb planted in her abdomen. One twist, and boom. She takes the scarf out of her pocket, the scarf that Mother-in-law had given her – the only thing she’d given her – a shiny one, with pictures of London landmarks: Big Ben, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace.
She dips her head in homage to what she is about to do, then drapes it over her head and around her neck, making tiny sparks of static electricity as the cheap fabric reacts with her hair. Of course he will want to be seen shaking the hand of a woman from a day centre, wearing a scarf. Then she will reach into her bag for the Sugar Plum. He’ll think it’s for the photo that she wants of them together. One twist and —
It should kill him and a few others: advisers, press, hangers-on, so yes, she will hurt some innocent people, maybe one of these women here at the mirrors. Just as the innocent, like David and Roseanne, die everywhere else in wars he either starts or cannot stop.
She slips slowly into the chatter of the reception, looking for the man with the suntan, before the septicemia gives her a mundane death, the wrong death. But whichever it is to be, she knows, not one more day will she feel the fat toad of grief squatting on her heart. No more pain in her body or in her mind, or ever again in this world. ‘David, Roseanne, I am coming,’ she whispers, taking the canapé she cannot swallow.
Marx Memorial Library is delighted to announce a series of readings from fiction writers considered on the left. Creative writing has always mirrored and energised our movement, from Shakespeare to AL Kennedy. Each month a fiction writer, dramatist or poet will read from current work and discuss their writing processes with the audience. These sessions are ideal for avid readers as well as writers. Do bring along questions and an open mind.
In February we will be joined by writers Jan Woolf and Anne Aylor. Jan Woolf is currently writer in residence at the Marx Memorial Library. Her first collection of short stories Fugues on a Funny Bone was published in 2010 with Muswell Press, and many others with New River Press and International Times. She is working on her first novel, Hannibal and the Masked Girl, set in Tate Modern in 2003, where a painter plans a citizen's arrest of Tony Blair.
Her plays Sphinx and Porn Crackers were produced at the Hackney Empire, and You Don't Know What You Don't Know at the Royal Court in 2013 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Her latest play The Man With the Gold was started on an archaeological dig in Jordan 2013, and being prepared for a run in 2019, the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles that divided the Middle East.
Jan also has a campaigning history: a leading member of the Free for All museums campaign, founder-director of the recently re-launched Left Book Club and cultural coordinator at noglory.org where she has many articles and reviews.
Anne Aylor is a professional writer and teacher who has had short stories and poems published by the Arts Council of Great Britain, Oxford University Press, The Literary Review, London Magazine and Stand Magazine.
Her first novel, No Angel Hotel, was republished in 2012 in a new revised edition. Her second novel, The Double Happiness Company, was published in 2011. She is 90,000 words into her third and is working on a fourth.
A number of her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio. In 2008 she was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and in 2011 for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2014 she was the winner of the Historical Novel Society Short Story Award.
Her stage play, Children of the Dust, won a playwrighting competition and was co-produced by the Soho Theatre and Theatre Warehouse, Croydon.
She worked in post-war Bosnia where she practised Chinese medicine and taught ballet. She taught ballet at Morley College in London and is a member of PEN and 26. In 2007 she was a shortlist judge for the story competition held by the Wimbledon Book Fest and in 2011 she was the judge in the Peter Barry Short Story Competition.