#KoraliFiction: I Have No Clue What This Is
Male' f***ed up.
Evening was settling in; it had torched the sky and was bleeding it dry of all light but for the stars, those soft white pinpricks, gathering in strength, in numbers. There at the docks it was relatively quiet, the water lapped at the boats, at the edge of the concrete platform which served as a walkway. I stood there, waiting for Ismail. Some boat crew, presumably new, were snapping pictures of the deep indigo dome overhead with its purple, orange and crimson clouds. Behind me, the occasional roar of a passing motorbike. The Maghrib prayer calls had subsided.
I called Ismail again but received no answer. Annoyed, I went to the edge of the walkway; the water was just a few feet below. I could touch it with my toes if I wanted to. Hanging from the edge of the walkway. Should I? The water looked tempting. Calm, glistening, like a lake of oil, a giant mirror to the sky that broke into crimson slivers whenever a boat stirred.
Just to wet my toes then, I thought. I turned around with my back to the boats, kicked off my sandals, got down on my knees and grabbing the concrete, began to lower myself down to the water.
Then it happened. Like a movement just outside your field of vision, I sensed the concrete stretching to enormous proportions below. I was hanging by my fingers over a great and terrible height. I felt this; it seemed a pure, brute fact, like my very existence, clear and distinct, one whose weight had seeped to my bowels, my marrow. I did not look down, I could not, I knew, if I were to live. My heart was a vicious beast in my ribs. I shuddered and in a supreme effort of the mind, I willed my arms to raise my trembling body. They did not. Somebody called out: “Hey,”. I grunted and tried swinging my leg onto the walkway; I was successful, and I dragged myself from the brink of the precipice, trembling, quivering, like a fevered animal. I lay there on the ground, my frantic breaths the only sounds in the universe.
I didn’t hear the phone. It must’ve rung a hundred times. Then there were hands pulling me up, shaking me. I heard him then.
“What the hell happened man?”
I looked behind me; the boats were still there, rocking gently in the darkening water. Everything was just as it had been, earlier, in the beginning.
“Can we just get the hell out of here?” I mumbled.
“Sure,” he said, drawing out the word, looking at me with apparent concern. “But are you OK?”
“Let’s go grab a bite,” I said. “Please.”
“If you’re up for it.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
He shrugged and got on his bike. I jumped behind him and then we sped off into the deepening twilight.
All the places we went to were closed.
“That’s odd,” Ismail remarked. “It’s not even prayer time yet.”
“Yes,” I said. “Something’s amiss here.”
I felt it again, the uncanniness, the horror of that moment; and the fear that it had somehow crept from my head to transfigure our pedestrian world.
The only place that seemed open in this little city, which we knew like the voices of our mothers, happened to be a pharmacy. It was in an unfamiliar little alley, not far from the only private hospital in town.
“Perhaps they’ll have something edible,” said Ismail. He parked the motorbike close to the entrance.
“And something to drink,” I said getting off.
I went inside; it was much bigger than it had appeared from the road. The interior was awash with bright, fluorescent light. Tall white racks, so tall that I could not see their summits, populated the place. The racks, full of jars, created narrow aisles barely wide enough for a person to pass through. I wanted to get to the counter to talk to the pharmacist. I walked for perhaps a minute through an aisle passing row upon row of those jars, which were label-less and contained a clear colourless liquid. I paused to take a picture of them with my phone.
A throat was cleared.
“Don’t take photos, please.” The voice was deep, courteous, but there was an undertone of something hostile; a hint of violence that could manifest itself in some fearful form if you did not comply. I turned around to see a short, thickset man with a broad forehead and a fleshy mouth. His eyes were small, peering out from behind a pair of old-fashioned gold rimmed spectacles.
“Do you have any snacks here?”
The man was silent and he stared at me, a look of complete, unblinking seriousness on his face. It was as though I had requested the most precious of things in his life and he was judging whether I was worthy.
“Come with me,” he said finally and blinked. I followed him with quick steps; he was a fast walker. The racks with their mysterious jars made room for him, they seemed to bend around his frame as we walked. He turned right and left and darted through endless aisles and I lost all sense of direction and followed him with the kind of desperation that a winged insect would have for a travelling flame.
Then he stopped. I almost bumped into him, my legs skidding across the smooth tiled floor. Before us was a large door.
“You’ll find what you need there,” he said, pointing at it, but keeping a distance.
“Thank you,” I said and twisted the handle.
The heat struck me as soon as I opened the door. Beads of sweat began to form almost immediately on my forehead, my neck, across my back. It was a small, narrow room. There were display cabinets on one side filled with food, and a counter at the end, manned by a red haired white woman. There was one other person in there, a young woman with fair skin.
“The cupcakes here are to die for,” she said as I approached her with a thick Scottish accent. She seemed unaffected by the heat. A white woman in this inferno, cool as a bucket of molten ice.
“I’m thinking of getting something savoury,” I said. Her face was freckled, dozens of them plagued her big boxer’s nose. Not very pretty in a conventional sense. But she had large soft brown eyes.
“Are you Scottish?” I asked feeling stupid once the words left my mouth.
“Oh yes,” she said. “I wonder what gave it away.”
“We’re a dying breed,” she smiled.
My phone rang. It was Ismail.
“What the hell are you doing man?”
“I’m about to buy some croissants.”
I hung up.
“Are you new in town?” I asked her.
“No, I’ve been here a couple of years,” she said.
“I’m Ibrahim by the way,” I said extending my hand.
“I’m Hagar,” she said, taking my hand in hers. Her palm was dainty, soft, with a luxurious fleshiness.
“I come here when I don’t feel like cooking. And god knows I hardly ever do.” She laughed unaffectedly exposing rows of long, even white teeth.
I laughed too, but a bit self-consciously, then asked the red-haired woman if I could have two chocolate croissants and a bottle of water. “Sure,” she said and got them out of the display.
“Would you like me to heat them up?” she asked.
“No, it’s fine.”
She placed them in a bag and gave it to me with a bottle of mineral water.
“I thought you were getting something savoury,” Hagar remarked.
“Change of plans,” I said. “It was nice meeting you Hagar,” I said.
“Likewise,” she said.
“It’s a bit hard to get to this place though isn’t it?”
“Not if you’re on foot,” she replied, grinning.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s easy if you walk, but with those one ways, you know, it would be hard getting here on a motorbike or a taxi.”
“What about the pharmacy?”
“The one that’s behind the door.”
“This door?” She pointed to it.
“It opens to the road, you know.”
“Look, if you’re pulling my leg…”
“Just see for yourself,” she said. “Who’s pulling whose leg, I wonder.”
I opened the door and sure enough, it opened into the little alley. And Ismail was waiting on
the motorbike nearby. I made a gesture with my hand to Hagar, it was intended to be a wave but the shock had affected it somehow, made it graceless. I hurried towards Ismail.
“I thought you’d never come out,” he said.
“I’ve got the grub.”
I was very unsettled by what had happened, but Ismail did not seem to have noticed anything out of the ordinary. I thought I would just keep my thoughts to myself. We rode near the hospital and shared the pastries and the drink underneath a sodium light, Ismail trying to make light-hearted chatter. But perhaps my responses were too indifferent, too curt, for Ismail eventually stopped and gave me a quizzical stare.
“What’s going on with you man? You seem out of it.”
“It’s just, you know, I feel like I’m a complete stranger here.”
“Everything seems to be in a weird way, just fundamentally skewed somehow.”
“Yeah,” he said finishing off his croissant in a big mouthful. “I’ve felt that sometimes. But it goes away, the less you think about it.”
“It’s in my bones man. I can’t seem to shake it off.”
“Don’t think,” he said after a moment. “Just be.”
“Yeah, yeah. Don’t give me that Zen bullshit.”
Ismail rolled me a smoke and we puffed in silence, not an uncomfortable silence, but a silence just the same and it struck me how odd that was. At this time. In this place. Where were the masses? What the fuck was everybody doing tonight?
“I have to go,” Ismail said. “You want me to drop you off somewhere?”
“Near my mum’s, if that’s OK.”
“I’ll drop you off near the train station then.”
“Near the what?”
“The station, the train station.”
“We have a fucking train station on this goddamned island? Why on earth would we need one?”
He looked at me, frowning.
“We’ve had that station for, like, ever. It’s the legacy of our first president. Jesus, man. What’s up with you?”
“The first president?”
“Yes, Amin. The Maafannu-Henveiru train station. We’ve been going on the train since we were kids.”
“The Maafannu-Henvieru train station,” I mumbled. “Yes, I remember. But it never came into fruition. The whole idea was abandoned by Amin’s successor and nobody took it up again.”
“Just get on the bike and I’ll drop you off there,” said Ismail. “Christ, man.”
We sped through the streets, there was virtually no traffic but for the odd motorbike. No cars. Night had fallen and the city seemed to be in an eerie slumber.
Ismail stopped near a large Victorian building that dwarfed everything else in the area. A welcoming light radiated from its windows and fell on the small lawn outside. I was flabbergasted.
“You know your way home?” Ismail asked when I got down.
“Do you know your way home? You want me to come with you?”
“No, just tell me.”
“Walk about two hundred metres along the platform and look for a red exit sign on your right. Say hi to your folks. And take care of yourself.”
“I will. Oh, man, where the fuck am I?”
I went in through the main entrance and found myself amid a throng of people who were moving in the opposite direction. There was a peculiar smell in the air, like burnt popcorn. I bumped my way forward, looking for the exit sign that would lead me to my ancestral home. The sound of trains as they clattered on unseen tracks mingled with people sounds: footsteps, exclamations, the rattle of luggage on tiles, the cries of children and the chime of announcements filled the cavernous interior, echoing, reverberating; it was too much, much too much for a small island city such as mine and it threatened to overwhelm me, to paralyse me with the sheer magnitude of its incongruity with what I had been accustomed to.
But I had to keep focussed. I wove my way through the people and found the sign. It pointed to a corridor at the end of which were a pair of red doors with steel handlebars in their middle. I went through them and found myself in a house that I knew, but a house that by all rights should not be there. The faded, patterned wallpaper, the asparagus carpet, the narrow hallway that lead to the living room where once upon a time my friends had gathered, got stoned and talked the night away; there was no place for that in this city.
My phone rang. It was Hagar! But how had she got my number? And why did her name show up on the screen?
“Hello,” I said.
“Have they come yet?”
“Have they come?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Good, it means they haven’t. Now, get out of the house and come near the Gardens.”
I knew where that was. I started to walk towards the front door. Daylight streamed in through the glass on either side of it creating bright pools on the carpet. Just as I was turning the handle, someone rang the doorbell. I opened the door and a horde of old women, their faces indistinguishable from one another, began to slip past me into the house, croaking in weathered voices “Agnes, Agnes, where is Agnes?” and the stink of old age, of stale breath, urine and death began to permeate the place. I did not know if they had touched me physically, but even by their mere presence they had altered me somehow and I was frozen by the door, the sunlight now fading, all the light in the world now dying; they were bleeding me dry, these old bats, their voices speaking as one, some name, a name I recognised but could not place; they were taking over.
Something had to be done. With the last of my strength I screamed “She does not live here goddamn you,” and began to run, my legs taking long desperate steps, out into the lawn and towards the Gardens, it was as though the air had become viscous, running those few yards to the Gardens took it all out of me, and finally I collapsed near its entrance, black stars blooming in my vision, crowding together, becoming one.
“Hey,” I heard a voice in my ear. “Snap out of it man.”
I felt something cold and wet against my face. I opened my eyes and Ismail was bent over me with a bottle of water in his hands. I got up unsteadily to my feet. I spotted Hagar, she was standing behind Ismail, her brow furrowed.
“You should’ve got out sooner,” she said. I nodded and inhaled deeply the sweet scent of the air, delicately fringed with the pine and rose smells of the Gardens. The sun was out; it was a beautiful afternoon.
I looked towards the house again; its red brick walls were almost entirely covered with vines and creepers, bougainvillea and blue pea erupting from the green in a mad rush of colour. There was no hint of the old women.
“Well, it’s all behind us now,” I said, taking out my phone and photographing a moment, a resplendent moment in a world whose inherent strangeness was something that I could not attempt to understand or articulate, only approximate and accept as a given.
We entered the Gardens together.