Not in this family 

Gayle held the pot to her abdomen as she stood in the middle of the front garden.

“How about here, Sophie? What do you think?”

Sophie contorted her mouth and looked down at the gravel space that was plugged with tufts of grass. Then she shrugged.

“Okay.”

“I think this is a good spot,” added Gayle. “It’ll get plenty of light.” She bent down slowly, her hands trembling a little under the weight. But she managed to set the plant down and then straighten up. Only then did she realise she had broken a sweat across her forehead.

“Mum,” uttered Jane, by her side. “You should’ve just let me…”

Gayle hissed and backhanded the air as if preventing the words from ever arriving. Jane shrunk and Gayle had to bite down on the scorn that threatened to leave her lips. Was she ever going to toughen up?

Gayle returned her attention to Sophie.

“You must remember to water it everyday, especially when it’s hot. Then, one day it will grow into a bright, yellow sunflower.”

“Say thank you, Grandma,” murmured Jane.

“Thank you,” replied Sophie, twisting on the ball of her foot and breaking into a grin.

Gayle looked at her fresh, sun-blushed face and then to the gap in her lower front teeth, which Sophie tongued habitually as if it was the source of some new and delightful flavour.

Jane smiled back, feeling satisfied. It seemed the spirit had merely skipped a generation.

“Well, it should brighten things up a bit,” said Jane, with a sigh.

Her gaze wandered upwards to the gritty facade of the new house and suddenly, Gayle wanted to tell her how it was so much more. How the flower was a symbol of hope, of a new beginning and soon, how it would be something to remember her by once the thing or things, growing inside her, took hold.

But she didn’t, of course. It wasn’t the way. Not in this family. She could only give her doe-eyed daughter a hard look as she turned to her, side on.

“Cup of tea?”

“Thought you’d never ask.”

Strength in numbers

I had the opportunity to spend this Christmas in Italy with my partner’s family. It was one of the last traditional events I had yet to experience over there and I hoped that taking part might enable me to experience a little more of what Italian culture was all about.

After a spectacular flight across the sun-blushed peaks of the Swiss Alps, I landed at Malpensa airport and successfully made my way to meet Veronica at the local train station outside of Lake Como.

As is the custom whenever I visit, we went for a quick aperitivo at her dad’s bar, then it was time to head to the family’s apartment for dinner. Soon after arriving, however, I began to notice a tendency for all members of the family to outwardly express an opinion on everyone else’s business. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed this and as I discovered, it wasn’t only confined to the Mulas household.

On reflection, it seemed to me that this (admittedly irritating aspect) came down to that most well-known feature of any Italian home; the dinner table. Throughout my stay, every lunch and dinner was eaten around the table with just about every member of the family in attendance from two to 65 years-old. And it was here that anything and everything was discussed, whether it was what to have for dinner the next evening, the best route to take to town or what a certain child should or shouldn’t be doing. No one was safe.

I’m a fairly independent person and am used to making my own decisions, so I initially found this a challenge. Even just getting out of the door was often delayed by an impromptu debate on what we ought to be wearing and if it was this place we were going, shouldn’t we go another day or take so and so with us. Nevertheless, as the days passed, I began to see a deeper reasoning to this approach and I found myself thinking back to something her dad once said.

A few years ago, I went to the wedding of Veronica’s oldest sister in a village near Rome. On the way home, we were sitting in the airport with her parents, waiting for our respective flights. The news was showing on a big screen, flashing up the usual ominous world events and I mentioned how nice it was to have been away from all that. Her dad gave a dismissive wave at the television and said something that stayed with me; “all that matters is that you stick together.”

The notion of the family unit was central to virtually every activity that took place within the home. When the table needed to be laid, everyone helped out, if a child started crying, others were ready to offer a hand or some advice. Inevitably, this attitude spreads out to neighbours and other relatives who, like long lost friends, would stop and chat in the street or the hallway or simply turn up, unannounced.

Not only that, but this group mentality puts everyone on an equal footing, including children who, from day one, are initiated (kicking and screaming) into the etiquette of Italian social life. This was apparent when we went to dinner at a friend’s. Naturally, the evening took place around a large table with a family of six. Everyone helped out with the preparation and, perhaps most crucially of all, every opinion was listened to, including the children’s.

The last notable instance was during a visit to an aunt and uncle’s house. Their son, a reedy man with a grungy biker look, had not long come out of rehab and was now living in an annex at the back of the house. He struck me as a gentle yet melancholy soul who had clearly lost a large part of his life, but with a supportive family network around him, it seemed to me that he couldn’t be in a better place to rebuild his life. I wondered how he might have turned out if he was shoved into a one-bed flat somewhere across town or bunched together with other recovering addicts.

With such loving and devoted family around you, there’s little you can’t get through, even if it does mean having to put up with everyone’s point of view in the meantime. It certainly brought out an affection for my nearest and dearest when I returned home and I hope to hold onto that impression, even without the addition of an enormous dinner table.

Today, the sky is ours

Their chanting beat against the morning stillness as Ahmed rolled the tyre along with a steady brush of his hand.

The youngsters grinned like it was a new game, but the older ones knew better. This was their duty.

Tarek looked back at the pillars of black smoke rising above the buildings. He was used to seeing the street burn when the government­­ jets came, but this was different. Today, they were the ones making the fires.

At a crossroads, Ahmed lay the tyre on the ground. The other children stood back while Tarek tipped the bottle of kerosene over it. When it was lit, another plume erupted, turning the air a dirty brown.

The children looked at each other, their stained faces fierce and proud while men and women cheered them on. Victory is ours, they cried. You’ve won back the sky.

This was inspired by a recent news story about children in Aleppo setting fire to tyres in order to try and stop bomber jets from attacking the city: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-war-aleppo-no-fly-zone-children-burn-tyres-a7167991.html

The burning path

I’ve been tinkering away on this for a long while now and have decided its probably as finished as its ever going to be. I would like to submit it to some competitions so any  feedback is appreciated.

“Come on, out you get,” said a voice as torchlight spilled beneath the trailer. Khalid looked across at Amal, his bodyshape wedged in the gutts of the lorry.

“Move, then,” he muttered.

They dragged their bodies across the greasy tarmac to find the guards waiting beneath a floodlight, caps casting shadows across their faces. 

“I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?” said one of them, jabbing Khalid in the stomach with a baton. Meanwhile, Amal squirmed nervously next to him. “What’s the matter?” said the guard, shifting his attention. “Thought we’d let you off?” The baton thudded against Amal’s ear with a muted slap. Another blow landed on his shoulder and he cried out. He lifted his arms up and the guard kicked him in the leg. Amal staggered, but stayed upright. That’s something, thought Khalid.

The guards marched them away from the quayside, past the line of lorries until they were outside the main gates. Khalid looked back and caught sight of the cranes and their blinking lights towering above the dock. They used to seem a lot brighter, thought Khalid.

“I want to go home,” mumbled Amal, dabbing at a bloody nose with his sleeve. Then his little body began to shake as the tears came.

“Well, you can’t,” replied Khalid. “You know what happens if you do.”

Amal sniffed hard and looked about, defiantly. “Where are we going then?” They started down the road towards the seafront, past groups of people huddled on the parched bank, eyeing up vehicles. Khalid looked for a familiar face, but their gazes travelled through him, seeking out a rattling lock or a nod from a sympathetic driver. Then a voice called. Khalid looked and saw Fadel squatted over a tree root. A cigarette burned between his fingers.

“When did you get back?”

“Yesterday.”

“What’s with the hair?”

Khalid shrugged. “People look different over there.”

“Who you with?”

“My brother, Amal.” Amal wiped furiously at his eyes.

“This is Hasan,” said Fadel, tilting his head to a scrawny kid in a grey tracksuit next to him. “He’s from my village.” Fadel passed round the cigarette and Khalid took it, observing the smouldering end like it was the tip of a sharp knife. “You’re supposed to smoke it.” Khalid pretended to inhale before passing it back. “What did you do there?” asked Fadel, smoke drizzling from his mouth.

“Farmwork, mostly. Sold some things.”

Hasan leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “You should have done what my brother did and marry a Spanish woman, then you can get any job you want.”

“No, you can’t,” replied Khalid.

“I’m telling you. When we make it, you can come and stay with us. He’ll get us jobs.”

“Where does he live?”

“Madrid, I think.”

“How will you find him?”

Hasan stared back, resolutely. “God willing.”

“What about you, Khalid?” asked Fadel.

“I had an apartment for a while.”

Hasan nodded, eagerly. “I want a penthouse. And a garage for all my cars.”

Fadel flicked the butt to the ground and smiled. “I can live with that.”

The chatter of voices and ringing cutlery was the first thing to hit Khalid as they arrived on the promenade. The smells reached him soon afterwards and pangs of hunger jabbed at his stomach.

“You shouldn’t smoke,” said Amal, frowning.

“So?”

“Mum wouldn’t like it.”

“She’s not here, is she? So, you remember what I told you? If you forget what to say, just hold out your hands, like this.” Khalid made a bowl shape and Amal copied him. They were about to approach the first set of tables when Fadel shouted from down the street.

“Forget it. They don’t give us shit anymore. We’ve got a better way.”

Khalid and Amal followed him to a side road lined with refuse bins. Hasan was crouched amongst the rubbish. A piece of cloth hung from his hand.

“Want some?” he asked. “It makes you brave.” He pressed it to his face and drew in a breath before passing it to Fadel. Even in the shadows, Khalid thought their eyes looked larger.
“Get ready to run,” said Fadel, with a rubbery grin. He sauntered up the lane to a metal door that was ajar and slipped inside. Moments later there was a shout and he reappeared with a stick of bread and an armful of fruit. Then they were all running.

“What does it say?” asked Amal, looking at the dim shapes scrawled on the wall.

“It’s just people’s names.”

“The ones who made it, you mean?”

Khalid nodded.

“Does that mean yours is there too?” Khalid ignored him and took another bite of bread, but his mouth was too dry to chew it. Along the beach, fires were starting to come to life and silhouettes of men gravitated towards them like nightly spirits. Amal stared wide eyed at the flames.

“It’s not safe to be with the older ones,” said Khalid.

“Why?”

Khalid looked across at the driftwood shacks next to the seawall, their polythene sheets flapping in the breeze. Shame prickled at his skin.

“It’s just not.”

“So, how long did it take you to find work?” asked Hasan, tossing an apple core towards the breakers. Khalid tried to think back, but already it was a blur. Buses, fields, faces with no names all melded together in a patchwork of moments. Only the part where they came to take him away was still vivid as a photograph.

Amal sprawled next to him, eyes almost shut. “I don’t like it here,” he murmured. “How long do we have to stay?” But Khalid didn’t answer. All he could do was stare at the blackwashed sky and dig his fingers into the sand, hoping for the memory to pass.

 

Why

 

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“Why?” screams Charlie. “Why?” His little voice wavers into falsetto tones as he swings his bag against a parked car.
“Because I already bought you one, now come on!” She senses eyes on her, but they’re nothing new, like a lifetime of mosquitoes.

Charlie’s wailing seems to take the capacity out of his legs, so she drags his flaying body along behind the pushchair. Meanwhile, Hayley starts to mimic her brother and the noise jabs. “Shutup, both of you!”

The sun is heating up the hard ground and sweat breaks out in the creases of her body. Strangely, the chorus of yelling from behind the gates is a comfort, absorbing her own wretched voice. She watches Charlie traipse into the melee of children with a gaze that’s already fading.

Back home, busted toys and unopened bills pave the way to the kitchen. She finds a half-pack and lights one up, sucking hard at it like its fresh air while she checks her phone for anything. In the background, Hayley is screeching again, but its her own whys that reverberate the loudest against the flaking walls.