‘A Breath, a Bunk, a Land, a Sky’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
I stop. Look up. This sky is crammed with clouds and a taunt of blue.
I steal a breath. It carries the weight of water and smells of rain. Rain!
‘Thank you for flying with us.’ The air hostess is like Hollywood. I do not know what to do with her smile.
I climb down the stairs. Yellow lights flash. Trucks beep. A man in a fluorescent jacket waves small round bats in the air. Planes wait in line like obedient dogs.
A gust of wind tries to snatch the scarf from my head. I am caught between the bliss of a cool breeze and fear. Fear has travelled here with me. We have been joined for some time now, his hand in mine, mine in his, no space between us. I call him a he because of the first time we met.
My feet touch the tarmac.
‘New Zealand,’ Tarek whispers behind me.
‘Yes,’ says his wife, Aseel, who is beside me. She tries to take my hand, but fear already holds it.
I did not know Aseel or Tarek before last week. Nor any of the others. We were chosen by someone somewhere, who put our names on a list, stitching together our lives like ragged edges of skin.
On the other side of the airport, beyond officials with important ink, the quiet is too loud. Something bad is going to happen, even though Helen, the woman in charge, chatters as if everything is fine. As if the quiet is not the same quiet as that of a family hiding in the darkness of a cupboard. As if it is not the same quiet as those seconds after the sirens, but before the blast. As if the quiet is not the same quiet as a young girl praying inside her head, because even a whisper is too loud.
We are driven by bus. I am thankful that I am not seated beside the window. There is glass in the frame.
Everywhere I see colour which reminds me of Teta’s crockery: white and blue and orange and yellow. There’s also the television-green of grass hiding the earth and holding down the dust. Perhaps the dust has been swept away by the grandmothers.
We arrive at the centre. A gate clangs behind us and for the first time, fear loosens his sweaty grip.
‘This way, please,’ sings Helen, her hands explaining her words.
We stop outside a big hall with too many windows. Inside there are people with well-fed bellies and warm eyes. The men’s chests are brown and bare; the women’s arms naked.
I glance around. Have the soldiers seen?
I forgot. No soldiers.
Helen talks and a tall, thin man with hollow cheeks repeats her words in different languages. She talks. He talks. He talks some more.
I am afraid of what their words might mean.
Then, as if someone has changed channels, I hear, ‘…are so pleased to welcome all one-hundred-and-forty-four of you to New Zealand, your new home. You must be tired and hungry. Some of you have been travelling for many days. Soon, you will be shown to your–’
I start to cry — my language. It is my house, my bed, my blanket. Words are all I have brought with me.
Aseel puts her arm around me with the care of a parent. I am ashamed of my tears.
‘…your new accommodation for the next six weeks. But first, a traditional New Zealand welcome.’
A shell sounds the alarm.
One man moves towards us. His eyes drive through the air like bullets. His hands tremble as they run up and down his wooden weapon. His grass skirt lifts as he lunges.
I cry out.
Aseel pulls me closer.
A chant drowns my cry. Then another. And another. We step forward slowly into the sound.
Later a woman with char-black lips and a stained chin stands in front of me. She leans in. Her nose is warm. She smells kind.
We share a breath.
Vambo and I walk into the dining room. We have been at the centre one week. She and I share a bunk bed. She sleeps on top.
Vambo is from Zimbabwe. She has more years than I, and happiness inside of her. She does not cry out in the night.
We stop what we are trying to say. It is the smell that catches us — cinnamon, apricots, anise and lamb. It is so long since I have tasted lamb. My stomach wakes up.
‘Tonight our friends from Algeria have cooked for us,’ says Babak, the man who can speak many languages. ‘Each Friday our evening meal will be in the tradition of one of the nations represented here.’
The Algerians are the first to cook in the kitchen with pots the size of bathtubs and a refrigerator bigger than a bedroom.
‘Thank you,’ we say with our newly taught words — so many accents stirred into one.
I savour the soft, sweet meat, the scattering of almonds, the apricots and dates –– apricots and dates! Can you imagine!
I find a cinnamon stick buried beneath the meat and suck it like my father used to do.
Later, I dream of him. In my dream he moves as if he is alive, pruning my grandfather’s olive trees, while Mahdi — my brother — and I pretend we are cats. Meow, meow. I wake up laughing. Tears also run from my eyes.
Vambo is not confused by this. I like her. She has shining skin, her face like a black sun, and she speaks New Zealand well.
‘Good morning,’ she says slowly.
‘Good morning,’ I repeat.
‘Goodnight,’ she says slowly.
‘Goodnight,’ I repeat.
Every morning I watch her climb down from the top bunk. Wide feet, plump calves, big thighs. Her belly has wavy lines across it like an exercise book.
I made lines like that on my mother’s belly. Mahdi made more. New lines each time her belly swelled and shrank. Where are those who drew on Vambo’s belly, now?
Vambo’s laughter spreads like the sea at high tide, gushing through the quiet, right up to the centre’s gate. This place is so quiet, except for Vambo’s laughter and the sound of the children tossing a ball into a hoop. Playing ball does not require one language. Nor does music.
When Vambo and I wait our turn to see the doctor, she sings softly. The fear inside me vies with her sweet African song. He wins, knocking on my ribs and scrambling up my throat. He will show the doctor where he and he and he first forced their way in.
‘Can I make you a cup of pee?’ I say to Vambo, as I get out of bed. We have a kettle and two cups in our room.
When Vambo stops laughing, she says pee is the yellow water you pass in the toilet. ‘Tea is the drink you make by soaking leaves in boiling water.’
I cover my mouth with my hand, but my smile creeps past it.
We have been at the centre three weeks.
The noise has grown, now that everyone is learning to speak the same language. In the corridor, I hear Aseel and Tarek talking to Helen about the dinner we Syrians will prepare tomorrow after school.
‘I am thought, please, we have to made fattoush. Why not,’ Aseel says.
Helen agrees this is a good idea.
‘Yes, I think we will make fattoush,’ she says, correcting Aseel without correcting her. ‘Remember to get your list of ingredients into the kitchen early.’
‘I think we will make fattoush,’ I say to myself. ‘I think we will make fattoush.’
Everyone at the centre goes to school between nine and three. Our ages are spread from seven to seventy-four. I like school: the straight rows of desks, the alphabet, the order. It reminds me of a city with roads and buildings and buses.
I like English too, even though it can be confusing. When Mrs. Porter asks me to collect leaves for her art class, I bring her some teabags. And when Dago tells me mince and ‘pees’ are on the menu, I do not want to go to dinner.
‘What work would you like to do when you leave here?’ Helen asks.
I cannot answer. What am I to say? I am here because someone somewhere signed a piece of paper. That person must decide, yes?
‘You will need to keep studying English,’ she says, ‘but you are a fast learner — one of our top students, in fact. Once you can speak fluently, you will have the opportunity to do many things. You might want to study further. Go to university, perhaps.’
My eyes close and open, close and open. A choice. It feels too wide — like the New Zealand sky. When a bomb explodes, there is no choice.
Pictures of my mother flick in front of me: her long neck, wise eyes, her cold stethoscope moving up and down my back, searching for the answer to my cough. ‘Breathe in. Breathe out.’ Her torch peering into my mouth, looking for the answer to my sore throat. Her hands, slaughter-red, trying to cover the hole in Mahdi’s head.
‘I would be . . . I would be . . . I would be a doctor,’ I say carefully. Then immediately I am ashamed at my impudence.
Six weeks do not take up much space on a calendar, but they can be as packed full as a lifetime.
‘I would like to go to Britomart.’
‘Where is Mr. Smith’s office?’
‘Three rubbish bags, please.’
This is New Zealand English I am speaking.
‘Take five apples out of the basket. How many are left?’
This is me (or do I say, this is I) helping Mrs. Porter teach the younger children mathematics.
The quiet is not so loud anymore. I listen to it more easily.
My laughter has arrived too. Vambo called it back.
Some days I feel like Aleppo. But this new country is starting to grow like grass over the rubble and broken bits.
For our final meal at the centre, there is much celebration: singing, dancing, a feast. We wear our names on badges and sit beside someone we have not sat beside before. I join a family of five from Ecuador. Their youngest eats under the table, his arms looped around his mother’s legs. When someone in the kitchen drops a pan, he starts to scream and does not stop, so his mother must carry him outside.
And now Vambo and I and the rest of the one-hundred-and-forty-four stand again in the hall with wide windows as the tangata whenua — the first inhabitants of this land — invite us to travel beyond the gate.
I do not want to leave this place.
My new home is in Orakei. I share a unit with Manal and Yusra from the Sudan, and Layan from Palestine. Manal is bent at the waist, though his arms are as strong as any young man’s. When we first meet, he is digging up the thin corridor of soil down the back of the property, preparing it for vegetables. His wife, Yusra, reminds me of Teta, with her lopsided busyness; one of her hips does not work. Yusra smells of eucalyptus oil, which she combs through her long grey hair every morning.
Layan has nearly the same number of years as I, but she is like a bird, flying off whenever I get too close.
My first night in Orakei, I cannot sleep. I miss Vambo’s snores. I miss the gate. I miss Mrs. Porter. These ‘missings’ I add to the others that already lie at the bottom of the deep stone well in my chest. If I put my ear to the well, I can hear Mahdi’s meows.
On my second day outside the centre, a lady called Rachel Jones comes to collect me in a shiny blue car, which purrs like the ice-cream churner my father bought my mother for her fortieth birthday. Rachel Jones has hair the colour of ghee and always looks hungry for air.
She pulls me into her big bosom. ‘Welcome to our beautiful country,’ she says, her words finding a way around her breaths. ‘I am your New Zealand family. Here to help you settle into your new life.’
New life. Everything here feels new. Like it has just left the shelf. Maybe that is why New Zealand has this name.
First we go to the bank where a man in president’s clothing opens an account for me. He tells me that a small amount of money will land in the account every month. I am ashamed. I must work hard to make him proud.
Then we go to the supermarket and Rachel Jones stands beside me while I pay for a packet of mince, one eggplant, two tomatoes, and . . .
‘Three rubbish bags, please,’ I say to the man at the checkout.
He hands me three rubbish bags.
Ha! I chew my lip to hide my smile.
Vambo and I speak on the phone every week. She has a job working on the roads, swivelling a sign which says STOP and GO.
I wait for more. There is no more. Vambo’s job is STOP and GO.
‘Do you miss your work from before?’ In Zimbabwe, Vambo worked at a university.
‘Imagine if I’d had this sign there,’ she says, with big whoops of laughter. ‘My students would have been in no doubt as to whether or not they had passed my course.’
Soon Rachel Jones has found me a job. I catch a bus every morning to an old woman’s house. She has ninety-two years on the calendar and skin as thin as filo pastry.
Each day I sponge down her body with warm soapy water. I pat her dry, taking special care of the crack between her buttocks and the scaly moon of skin under each tired breast. After this, I dress her in fresh clothes and prepare her food. Before I go, I give her five tablets – one white, two blue, two yellow – and I put out the rubbish.
‘Thank you, Jane,’ she says.
‘My name is Safiyya,’ I say. ‘Sa-fi-yya.’
But each day it is the same. Where is Jane I wonder?
In the end, I become Jane, because it makes the old woman happy. And for five hours every day, I have a name that is easy to pronounce — one that speaks of oats porridge, pale skin, and wooden-slat houses. A name that waves a flag in red and white and blue.
Sometimes I try to own Jane for a day, or even an entire week. But it is as if I have taken off my headscarf. Safiyya is the basket that holds all of me in its embrace. When I have been Jane for too long, an emptiness climbs inside my head and my heart.
After five hours with the old lady, I catch a bus to my English class in the city.
‘One ticket to Wellesley Street, please.’
And on Fridays, ‘One ticket to Britomart, please,’ for Friday prayer.
Tarek and Aseel knock on the open door. Aseel is carrying a small tray of fresh dates.
‘Come in! Come in!’ I say, my taste buds already agitated.
Aseel gives me a hug. She smells just as she did two years ago — like a mother — and for a moment my heart hiccoughs.
She and Tarek live in Wellington. They are visiting Auckland for the weekend, so we are having a two-years-in-New-Zealand party.
‘This is Yusra,’ I say.
Yusra turns and smiles. She cannot leave the stove or her stew will burn.
‘And this is Layan.’
Layan is sitting at the table slicing carrots into small, orange suns. Her sleeves go right down to her wrists, covering the marks where she sometimes puts the blade to her skin.
Manal walks through the back door, his shirt a hammock for the potatoes he has harvested. The air around him smells of freshly turned earth.
He shows his wife his haul. She nods.
Manal is a magician. Each week we eat so many vegetables from the small strip of land: cabbages potatoes, beans, broccoli….
We even have enough to share with our neighbours who are now at the door. They arrive at the same time as Rachel Jones who introduces herself.
‘Kip and Meilani,’ they say in return. ‘And our son, Josh.’
Rachel Jones crouches down. ‘Hello, big boy.’
When she is upright again, she hands me an empty plate. ‘For you, Safiyya.’
Then she is laughing. She laughs until her face is the colour of roast quinces and I am worried that she has left no room for breathing. She is teasing me, of course. I made this mistake when I was new to the country. Bring a plate does not mean bring an empty plate. And come for tea does not always mean a cup of tea.
Rachel Jones goes back to her shiny blue car and collects her real offering — a lemon meringue pie! Lemon meringue pie is one of the best things about New Zealand. Also the quietness. Ha! The ocean and green hills too, although I cannot be alone with their beauty for too long, otherwise a darkness begins to bloom inside of me.
Finally, just when I am beginning to worry, I see Vambo at the door. I thought she had forgotten.
She is smiling, but it is as if politeness pulls the strings.
‘Come in. Come in. I was getting worried.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, ‘I forgot the dish I made at home.’
I think she is teasing, like Rachel Jones, because she has smudges of white flour on her shirt and flecks in her hair. I suspect she has baked us some of her delicious beer bread. But Vambo does not bring a warm loaf out from behind her back; and later, when her hands do come out in front, I see that they are shaking.
It is a happy gathering. We eat too much and laugh even more. And then I share my news.
‘I am accepted to study nursing.’
Everyone gasps and looks to Rachel Jones who nods like a proud mother, confirming this impossible news.
‘I thought you want to be a doctor,’ says Layan. This is the first time she has spoken at the meal.
‘I hope for it to be possible after I have been a nurse for a time,’ I say.
Vambo does not stay for coffee. She is working the late shift at a warehouse, packing boxes. I walk outside with her. ‘You are quiet today.’
She pushes out a Vambo laugh. ‘No worries. All good,’ she says, like a proper Kiwi.
But it is the first time in our friendship I feel I own more strength than her.
As she turns and walks down the pavement, I see that there is white flour down her back too.
‘Forfeit! Forfeit!’ the group cries. And Kate is made to push a box of matches along the carpet with her nose.
Fifteen of us are at Kate’s grandparents’ house in Mangawhai for her hen party. Her grandmother has made a feast for the occasion: white-chocolate cupcakes, cucumber sandwiches, asparagus wrapped in blankets of bread, caramel clusters, slices of watermelon, strawberries dusted with icing sugar.
The silliness of the games reminds me of our wedding traditions where unmarried girls try to pinch the bride’s knees and stand on her toes to guarantee that they too will get married.
Kate and I started nursing school together. It will be five years this March. We have so many stories to tell.
After tea we climb the dune behind the house. I have never seen such a dune in New Zealand before. At the top I feel as if I have climbed into the sky. On one side is the ocean; on the other, houses and an olive grove. An olive grove! My mind runs like unspooling thread. Who would have thought that a pocket of grey-green trees on a sandy slope could invite such rich memories?
As I sit on top of the colossal, wind-worried wall of sand, the sun bakes my back; warm grains of sand run through my fingers; birds glide across the blue; and straggly olive branches bend in the breeze. I am in Syria.
We are sitting on the itchy brown blanket, while Teta unpacks the picnic. I can smell lemons, garlic and crushed mint.
Behind us are two basins brimming with olives. After lunch, my father and grandfather will finish the harvest.
My mother lies back and looks up at the sky. She does not smell like the hospital today, but of rosewater and roasted pistachios. She has been helping Teta prepare the picnic.
A single cloud hangs in one corner of the sky.
‘What shape do you see?’ asks my mother.
‘A cat,’ Mahdi shouts. Mahdi is obsessed with cats.
‘I can see an olive,’ I say, flinging one at my brother. It hits him on the cheek and he starts to cry.
‘Sorry,’ I say with a grin. Then he is hurling handfuls at me.
Fortunately Teta’s kibbeh and man’oushe and basbousa interrupt our war, and we gather around the piled plates of food.
The sun bakes my back; birds glide across the blue; warm grains of sand slide between my fingers; and straggly olive branches bend in the breeze.
‘Come on, you dreamer,’ Kate shouts. The others are already stumbling down the dune. Kate’s mother too.
‘Good evening, Mr. Stormwall. How are you feeling?’
I pull the curtain around his bed, including his wife in the hospital-green cocoon.
‘Have you managed to pass urine yet?’
‘I think that’s a question for the doctors, don’t you?’
‘She is a doctor, Jim,’ his wife says tightly.
Mr. Stormwall glances at me side-on. ‘I mean a proper doctor.’
‘I’m just going to percuss your bladder,’ I say, lifting his pajama top.
He does not object, but his distended abdomen stiffens against my touch.
‘Where you from?’ he says through line-straight lips.
He sniggers. ‘Glenfield! I meant which country.’
My tapping elicits dullness almost up to his navel.
‘Unfortunately, Mr. Stormwall, your bladder is distended again.’
‘I could have told you I needed a piss without you pretending to be some water diviner.’
‘It’s a likely side effect of all the medication you are on,’ I say. ‘I’ll get one of the duty nurses to reinsert a catheter while I take another look at your drug schedule. We can’t discharge you until you’re able to pass urine on your own.’
‘Send a white nurse, not some f’ing foreigner.’
‘Language, Jim,’ Mrs. Stormwall says. ‘Language.’
Outside, it is disconcertingly dark. Daylight Saving ended last week but still I keep expecting the sun to be out when I head home. It’s like that with any loss. It takes time for the mind to move forward when all it wants to do is hold onto what’s already gone.
Joel, one of the surgical registrars, is also waiting for his ride. He shares his packet of salt and vinegar crisps with me while we wait.
‘Had a ruptured triple A come in this morning,’ he says, rubbing his eyes. ‘Textbook presentation. Back pain, blood pressure in his boots, pulsating belly . . . Had him in theatre in under twenty and still we didn’t–’
A car pulls up. The woman at the wheel waves.
‘That’s me,’ Joel says, stepping forward and opening the passenger door. ‘Have a good one.’
He gets in, gives the woman a kiss, then they are gone.
It is a moonless, starless night. I am not anxious. The most dangerous thing to fall from this sky is rain.
My phone lights up.
How was your day?
It is my boyfriend, Liam.
Could have been better. Yours?
Quiet so far. Just a few meds to chart and usual IVs to replace.
He is on nights, so we are like passing ships.
Miss you too. See you for breakfast x
There is a toot as my taxi pulls up, the light box off.
I climb into the front seat. ‘Hello, you.’
Vambo’s taxi is like a papoose, warm and smelling of Vaseline.
‘And how are you today, Doctor?’ she says with a weary, end-of-the-day grin.
We are going to her apartment for dinner. I haven’t seen her in over three months, although we speak on the phone often.
Vambo’s new apartment is on the other side of the city. The elevator is out of order, so we climb the fire-escape stairs. Twelve flights. The stairwell stinks of urine.
This flat is smaller than the last. One cramped room for her couch, dining table, and kitchen. It’s darker too; the building next door blocks out the city’s lights. But Vambo has again made her place bright with coloured cloths and cushions, and a string of wooden beads suspended from the doorframe.
As she peels potatoes to add to the peanut stew, I sit on the couch and we talk like sisters. Sometimes we are silent, but our silences are never uncomfortable.
I need the toilet and have to go through Vambo’s bedroom to get to it.
There is a children’s book on her bedside table.
I pick it up. Something falls to the floor.
A photograph of a young Vambo dressed in graduation cap and gown, next to a bamboo-straight man with deep dimples. Three small children squashed in front, all with Vambo-wide smiles. Behind them, an African sky.
I slip the photograph back between the pages and position the book on the bedside table, the way I found it.
An African sky.
A Syrian sky.
A New Zealand sky.
All of a sudden I am struck by the thought that Vambo and I have shared the same sky from even before we knew each other. So have I with Rachel Jones and Tarek and Aseel and Kip and Josh and Babak and Meilani and Mr Stormwall and Liam and Joel.
There is just one sky.
‘I feel like a sloth,’ I say, on my return to the kitchen. ‘Isn’t there anything I can do to help?’
Vambo shakes her head and hands me a mug.
‘Potatoes still have about ten minutes to go, so I’ve made us a pot of pee while we wait.’
I look up. Her eyes are twinkling with the tease. And we both start to laugh.
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