Excerpt from Chameleon in my Garden by Nita Nicholson (Austin Macauley - May 2014)
No word of him
Neda was two, and a bit. That little extra mattered because, until very recently, she had not spoken a single word her mother understood – nothing even vaguely approaching a child’s mutation of something recognisable – not ‘mama’ or ‘papa’. Her life so far had been a predictable pattern of sleep, food and play, with her mother anticipating all her needs; she had no need of speech.
It had worried Sally that her second child never called for attention. Knowing she was content did nothing to reassure her. Perhaps her over-diligence had worked too much like clockwork. She knew Neda was capable of speech because she had heard her chatting away quite fluently with a little Gujerati-speaking playmate who lived next door. Together they had made up a whole new language of which not even the smallest fragment or morpheme was understood by either set of parents.
Since her birth in distant Libya, in Al Baitha in the hills of Cyrenaica, English and Arabic had swapped positions like dancers in a quadrille. On her mother’s knee, English had been the most intimate, with Arabic the ambient background music. Then, as she mingled with the larger family in Benghazi, Arabic had come to the fore and her mother tongue receded. As her mother’s running commentary, English was reserved for moments of intimacy, not for social mingling. Now in England, English was dominant again and Neda’s passive Arabic was fading fast, though it figured on occasions when her father was at home.
Neither language had absorbed her attention like this wholly self-tailored toddler tongue, a multilingual hybrid which had encompassed all her desires and supported creative play. It had sufficed – until her nursery friend left one day for Glasgow. Then, of course, unnourished, it fell away like pieces of a broken shell. There was only English for the most part to get along with.
Her brother, Nizar, being just that little older, could model the sort of language she would understand when they played together. He was not troubled by her silent company; he had a captive audience. His chatter in the English of their mother’s stories, the wordplay of meal routines, was familiar. His guiding interjections as she rummaged through the toy basket were suddenly more meaningful. Then there was the more mysterious language her mother used for telling stories about the shiny items she kept in a wooden bowl – things like discarded buttons, Christmas cracker gifts, fossils, shells and shiny pebbles.
But now, there came the absence-of-language times, more frequent than before, times when her mother seemed to keep her own counsel as, between chores, she rested in the window seat. Sometimes Neda joined her there and watched the birds her mother must be watching. Silences were easy; but a little disconcerting. So when words did appear, they seemed like invitations to join in the wonder of things and Neda began to play with words, mimicking their stressed syllables, seizing on all that was salient about them and especially those little snippets that tripped easily off the tongue.
It was April 1973. Apart from the rain slashing at her bedroom window, it was quiet inside the apartment. Too quiet. Neda had been tucked in bed but was wide awake, listening. She called out for her mother who came to tuck her in for the second time. Her short dark curls framed her chubby face as she settled back on the pillow. Her eyes, large and inquiring, didn’t look like they would close any time soon. With her chin up and eyes laughing, it was plain to see that she had inherited the lush features of her Libyan grandmother, now left behind in Benghazi.
Neda’s apple-rosy cheeks just asked to be squeezed. Sally sang a nursery rhyme then kissed her ‘sweet dreams’. She set the nursery chimes to calm her, knowing that Nizar slept soundly and would not easily be wakened.
Neda kept still in the position she had adopted when her mother had cuddled her with the blanket pressed gently round her shoulders. She was listening out for voices in conversation, one in particular – the one that had been missing now for far too long – her father’s voice.
It had been days, perhaps even more than days, certainly longer than usual, since she had seen him, or heard him coming in, late as usual. A long time after she had gone to bed, the front door would close behind him with the softest of clicks. He would, it seemed, mostly be away and only ever dip into her life after a long time of not being there. Whenever she did hear him arriving home, sleep came right away. In the morning, she would be able to snatch a little of his time and attention. He would chuck her chin and give Nizar a high five; but only to dash away for another long not-being-there, leaving his green coffee mug steaming on the kitchen counter. The world outside the front door would always spirit him away.
But this time was not like the other times. His slippers were where he had left them in the hallway, still undisturbed, still neatly aligned. Letters meant for him were piling up on his desk, unopened. He had been away for that long. Her mother was restless, too preoccupied for chatting. Neda knew something was amiss, though Sally had said nothing to make her think so.
Then, as she lay listening, she heard someone clattering dishes in the kitchen, the noisy way he always did so that she was sure it must be him. She sat up to hear better, and decided she would burst in and surprise him. He would laugh, and lift her up, jog her up and down and swing her round like a carousel. He might even pinch her nose and squeeze her hands, plant kisses on her cheeks.
So she crept along the passage, pausing where she knew a floorboard creaked. It was her mother’s voice that called out, “Now, who is that? Who is not asleep yet? Is that you, Neda?”
Finding herself discovered, Neda pushed the door and called out ‘boo’ all the same, rescuing as much surprise as she could from too-soon discovery. It wasn’t her father in the kitchen after all.
Sally saw her disappointment and understood. She held her close, whispering “Not yet, my little one. He’s not home yet. But he will come soon, I promise you. After all, what would we do without him?”
Neda dragged her mother round the apartment, finding all the things that belonged to Saad – “Daddy’s towel, Daddy’s slippers, Daddy’s book, Daddy’s coat, Daddy’s mug, All Daddy’s!” – until she felt disheartened by the absence of an answer to the question. As Sally tucked her back in bed, with the chimes playing by her pillow, she succumbed to sleep.
Neda would never ask again about her father. He was gone for good, for sure. People simply disappear like that, inexplicably. This is how things are, just as perplexing as other things that go missing in the world. It was a cruel caprice and a child must just accept. Things were just that way.
For Sally, it was the end of another day of longing for Saad, of waiting for any kind of news of him, listening to the radio, hoping for something to emerge in the news on the hour, at every hour. The many reasons that crowded in her head for what might have detained him were too dire to contemplate for more than a flashing second. But she returned again and again to all the possibilities. There were letters from the hospital asking for an explanation. She had no answers. There was no information to be gleaned from the international section of the news which seemed never to report on Libya. There were phone calls from friends enquiring, but none from him or his family.
“What would we do without him?” she had said. What will we do? was really the more pressing question slowly forming out of her distraught confusion. Managing without Saad was inconceivable. How much longer could she keep up the facade that everything would soon or ever return to normal? The tone of hurt in Neda’s voice had shaken her pretended serenity. It was time to face up to the consequences of Saad’s decision to make the visit, or go back home – which it was she could not say. Whether or not he intended to return, she might have to carry on without him. She would have to carry on alone.
She had not agreed with Saad’s decision to return to Libya, if only for a short visit. But an invitation to advise on the founding of a heart hospital in Tripoli had been too important, too enticing, to resist. She had argued passionately against it. It isn’t safe and you know that, Saad. Why would you take the risk and leave us here?
He had dismissed her pleading as emotional, irrational even. Libya was a place he knew well, better than she did. He would be safe amongst his own people, with relatives he could trust. Furthermore, it was an invitation from a distant uncle, in the Ministry of Health; that fact alone would guarantee his safety. An uncle would never put a nephew’s life in jeopardy. People are basically good, despite what you may say, he had said. In any case, I’m needed there. You don’t need to worry – it will only be a few days, not a week even. He had been so sure.
Now it had been long enough with no word from him to suspect things might not have been as Saad had imagined. Either he was detained there, held against his will, or he had deserted them, intentionally. Had he not considered the consequences for their children? The apartment was not theirs. The hospital was waiting for the rent. The letters were sounding impatient and taking on a detached administrative tone.