The woman on the phone repeats my name and waits. My knickers hang by my ankles as the both of us listen to my strained breathing a moment longer. I press the phone closer until I find the whoosh of my heartbeat in my ear. The woman on the phone is trained for this. The last of the day’s light sinks beneath the only window in here; a rectangular slit covered in frosted glass. Magreb. Sunset prayers. Somewhere else, my family will be washing their hands and face one by one in ablution. My father begins to recite the adhan, calling my family to prayer.
Making themselves pure.
Hot water fills the copper veins of this house, bringing it to life in a series of clicks and creaks; the whale song on dry land that I know so well. A miniature flamenco doll faces me, head covered in a black gauze veil, protecting my family’s modesty beneath her full skirt. She is undeterred by the stale stench of my urine that catches in my throat. My head falls between my knees raising goose bumps on my thighs, reminding me of my half nakedness. I try not to imagine my body warping out of shape as I wait in the dimming light.
I look to the thin white stick in my trembling fingers and see for the third time this week a solid cross. The doll continues to smile her idiotic little smile. The woman on the phone asks gently, Samira, would you like to go ahead with the appointment?
Yes. Yes please. Tomorrow lunchtime is fine.
Two heavy knocks on the door in front of me. My sister asks what is taking me so long. Do you want a lift to work or not? She shouts. I have to answer her, but am afraid that if I open my mouth to speak I’ll be sick. She tells me she will wait for me in the car.
The street lights flicker on as I walk out of the door, like eyes blinking, taking a good look at me. Head bowed, I duck into the car. Rhia starts the engine then turns to me. You don’t look that unwell, she says, next time you can get the tube.
Her lack of concern hangs between us for a moment, then I let it go, lean my head against the cool glass, teeth chattering to the whirring engine.
Since she could speak, she has spoken her mind, whilst I preferred to listen. It’s not her fault, I tell myself, that she speaks to me the way she does. Rhia was never far when our mother reminded me of the features I inherited from our father: my ears that stuck out, my coarse hair, my wide forehead. Always in that order; ears, hair, forehead – before finally adding: you should have been a boy. You look nothing like me, Samira, Mother would always say. Unlike Rhia.
It’s okay to laugh, Rhia, it doesn’t count if it’s true.
Perfect Rhia. Princess Rhia.
Who rolled up her school skirt well above her knee as soon as she got on the bus. Who kissed the boys with her tongue at the back of the music huts thinking I could not see. Who slicked on lip-gloss in the girls’ toilets as she laughed with friends: head thrown back, mouth gaping open, teeth smooth like the inside of a shell, silent for a beat before her husky laugh echoed off the walls. She looked most beautiful to me like that. She didn’t even notice me standing there. I always had to say her name at least three times to get her to hear me, so it rolled off my tongue as RhiaRhiaRhia. I stood by the sinks invisible to her, staring at the subtle rhythm of her pulse along her throat. Is she really your sister? She looks nothing like you.
Sat in traffic, my sister applies pink lip gloss then waves the sticky wand toward me. Chemical raspberry rivals with the pine air freshener. The red light somehow amplifies the cloying scent and I have to turn my head away.
I look out of my window to the driver in the next car; a young man a bit older than me, in his thirties maybe, talking on the phone. I imagine the conversation he’s having. He is speaking with his girlfriend. They are happy, their lives free of complication. He laughs the sort of laugh you see on the adverts, lines creasing his face in a perfect symmetry of happiness, then he hangs up. I am certain he is going home to cook a meal for her, he will light candles, it is their anniversary. Two – no three – years today. He will propose tonight.
The lights change to amber. Rhia keeps hold of the gloss as she releases the hand-break and says, you might actually get some attention if you made a bit of effort, you know.
In my white coat I am anonymous. I spend the beginning of my shift alone in the windowless lab. The lights are dimmed, throwing into relief the electric glow at the base of the scopes. I begin by cross checking blood types, a task I have performed hundreds of times. A technician I do not recognise hands me the case file of a young boy, along with his blood films which I affix into place at the base of the microscope. Habit compels me to lean my weight forward so that the edge of the counter digs into the tops of my thighs, steadying myself before I peer down the scope.
Cases like this one leave their aftertaste long after my shift is finished. Much later, when I am watching television or queuing at the supermarket, I will see a young boy that fits the mental image I have of this patient. It is then that I will remember looking down the scope at his slides thinking how his very blood cried for him. In amongst the regular indented discs is a large colony of cells, shaped like teardrops. Dacrocytes. I will tell myself that this is only a job, that these things happen. Life’s so unfair, his parents will hear over again.
I think of my own blood, increasing in volume in the coming weeks and in that moment I’m convinced that I feel heavier. Not possible, I know this.
I note my findings in the patient’s file, log them onto the system and move on to the next task. I will be sent the young patient’s marrow next. Little slivers of him will appear beneath my gaze. Pieces of him, in a form he will never see, will be produced for my inspection. Piece by piece I will study him, witnessing his body turn against him.
It should be no surprise to me that what comes from within us can be our undoing. If I could take what is embedded in me now and bind it to a slide, peer down at the mass of cells multiplying like a disease, I would not hesitate to put it beneath my heel and grind it back to sand.
My father would tell me that these thoughts are haram. Forbidden. Every soul has it’s time to be here and to leave. What is done cannot be undone.
I look to clock on the wall, the second hand gliding rather than ticking. Tomorrow. The sooner the better.
I am waiting. It is already hot for May. From the shaded bench I have a clear view across the green at a row of Georgian townhouses where the clinic resides, its grey glossed door glaring white in the sun. A group of mothers gather at a picnic bench not far from where I am sat, their buggies turned inwards in a semi-circle. The small comfort I had taken in the knowledge that I far from home evaporates as soon as I look around.
These mothers know. Huddled together, conversations barely audible, I am convinced they know. They are talking about me, about what I have done. About what I am going to do. The homeless man meandering across the green clutching a litre bottle of Shandy knows. The pigeons pecking at the overflowing bin know. Their eyes dart around me and then to one another as they take tentative side steps away from me.
A woman from one of the nearby offices walks over the Green holding her shoes in one hand as blades of grass submit beneath her bare feet. She removes her jacket and drapes it onto the ground. She knows. She sits facing me, white headphones disappearing into her puffy blonde hair, head swaying. She unbuttons her blouse revealing a tired looking bra. The mothers are still talking. People walk past her as they cut across the grass. She undoes her skirt rolling it down to her knicker-line then sits on her jacket, reclining onto her elbows and closes her eyes, head turning to the light of the sun like a dandelion. The skin of her stomach is taught, hip bones protruding from the top of her skirt. No one sees her. Nobody touches her. Cars rush past and more people fill the green space. The sun reflects off the woman’s pale skin giving her an ethereal glow. She has become a ghost, I think to myself. The mothers on the bench stand up in unison and reclaim their buggies and I wait to see if one of them will walk through her.
The clinic doesn’t smell of the dentists, but of magnolia. A stocky candle burns quietly on the reception desk. Name please, the receptionist asks the screen in front of her. I give her my name and take a seat in the waiting room, grateful to be the only one here. From the window I can see the patch of green and search for the woman with the dandelion hair. She is gone. Old magazines are arranged onto a low coffee table. I thumb through the pages of one of them, thinking I will find the dandelion women. It is not until I allow myself to relax slightly that I notice something astringent cutting through the magnolia. A reminder of what I am here to do. Astaghfirrullah. May God forgive me.
Many weeks ago I stood in the corner of Rhia’s room, watching. The girls Rhia has known since school, the ones she calls her ‘sisters’ were sat on her bed. Our parents were not due back for another couple of nights. We are going for dinner, Rhia lied when she noticed me, barely bothering to conceal the whiskey bottle. You should come. It was the same every time our parents went back home. Come, Sam, you’ll love it, she would say.
Astaghfirullah. May God forgive you, Rhia.
A few weeks ago, stood in her room, I waited for her to notice me.
They stared. Rhia asked if I was sure. I walked over to her, took the cup of whisky and cola from her hand, grimaced as I drank it down. She sat me in front of her mirror, painted my eyes bold and then my lips until they glistened. I looked just like her. One of her friends pressed another drink into my hand and laughed when I gagged. Once I was dressed she gave me another, impatient for me to finish it.
The cool night air on my bare legs made me tug at the hem of the borrowed skirt. I could not figure out how Rhia was making the floor tilt that way and took firm steps to level myself. When we arrived at the nightclub, Rhia made her way around the hall and I followed. She greeted people I did not recognise with over-familiar hugs, her hand languishing on the forearm of one, then the shoulder of another. Rhia looked back at me and told me to relax, pressing her glass into my hand, told me to just try. Ok, I said, finishing the drink.
The lightness came quickly, mutating the once annoying jolts from strangers into welcomed caresses. I saw Rhia dancing between two men, head thrown back exposing the smooth line of her throat and though I could not hear her, I knew she was laughing.
He asked for my name, ethanol thick in his breath as he leaned in so close his voice buzzed in my ear. I wanted him to do it again. Sorry? I shouted over the music. Your name? He asked. You’re gorgeous, what’s your name? I smiled at him and laughed at jokes I could barely hear, throwing my head back, arms draped over his shoulders. I lost sight of Rhia, but it didn’t matter because he was looking at me now.
Let me walk you home, he said.
My face has smudged, I thought, catching my reflection in the black mirrored door as we left. I couldn’t feel the cold but he put jacket over me anyway, cigarette smoke clinging to the leather. I didn’t mind when he slipped his arm around my waist. We had turned onto the bicycle path that ran parallel to the park, the street lights too far behind us to see anything. This was not the way home. I can’t remember whether I thought this or said it out loud.
His hands, grunts, liquor-stench, burning, pain, scream, muffled.
Jacket-less and shivering, cigarette smoke followed me the rest of the way home.
The candle on the desk is now a deep pool of melted wax. A woman that I did not notice come in, is sitting opposite me. She is dressed far too warmly for the weather – in a large grey sweater. I realise she is hiding too. The receptionist calls out, Samira Waheed, the consultant will see you now.
My mind got stuck on the borrowed skirt and my smudged face, on how many units I had to drink that night. I began to estimate my blood alcohol level. The consultant tried to interrupt at this point, but I told her I am a scientist. I said that I wasn’t stupid and I knew what I was talking about. I knew what she was thought of me, I knew exactly what she thought. I was breathing deeply when I was done.
She said, it’s not your fault, and then she reached her hand across the desk. Over and over, these words in my head, and then her cold fingers clasping my limp hand. Not my fault.
Tell someone, she said to me, or had she asked me to? Was she asking me to tell someone?
Have you told someone?
You should tell someone.
I look back across the green to the townhouse, searching for the window looking into the waiting room, hoping an answer could be found in its single pane glass, but the sun has dipped low behind the building, leaving only shadows.
I sit on the bench until the heat of the day has completely thinned out. What is done cannot be undone.
I press my hand into the doughy flesh of my tummy, wanting to feel the submerged whooshing heartbeat that I heard in the consultant’s room. She turned the volume higher. I have an entire ocean within me, I think.
My fingertips press on until it starts to hurt. Not possible, I know this. It will have to be enough for me to know that the rhythm is nestled deep within.
The battery on my phone is dying but I still call through. After a few moments, Rhia picks up.
We both listen to the sound of my breath slowing down, steadying.
Rhia repeats my name and we both wait for me to begin.
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