I remembered the day I cracked. It was Sunday 11th September, the first day of term. I was in my kitchen scrubbing clean pans with the window ajar. The sound of bristles scraping on empty pans was interrupted by the grinding of metal gates opening, school bags screeching along the floor and the clamour of children’s voices shouting to be heard above the beeping school buses. I slammed the window shut and ran upstairs to my bedroom to seal out the day. I drew my curtains but as I looked out of the window, I couldn’t avoid the scene unfolding below. I watched even though I didn’t want too. I saw mother’s hastily stuffing lunches and homework into bags, tucking in school shirts, tying plaits and smudging fingers over cheeks as they sent their hareems of children off to school. They waved, watching the buses pull off down the street and eventually turning out of view.
The chaos lasted only a few minutes. Gates closed. The street was quiet once again. The silence crept up from the streets and seeped into the room. I looked around, an unnerving feeling settling with the silence as I realised I was in the wrong room.
My tiny baby was in my stomach, fluttering like a bird’s wing trapped inside me. I had stopped shopping midway through choosing her pram. Holding onto her, coaxing her, telling her that I was going to take care of her. Which blanket would she like? What colour would be her favourite? Would this one feel soft enough against her skin? Everything we had chosen together that day was laid out in this room like a play set; untouched, ready to begin a life. Except something was missing. Her baby shoes. Satin white booties with a big pink bow, I hadn’t taken them out of the cream shoebox.
Afsa appeared at the door, her face sullen as though she was watching the baby sleeping in the cot, learning to crawl on the woollen rug, rocking her in the chair. “Where is the shoebox?” I said.
“I don’t know madam.”
“Why has someone taken my baby’s new shoes?”
“I don’t know. I will look.”
Afsa hurried down the long hallway passing one empty bedroom after another. There was something about her footsteps echoing in the corridors. The emptiness of the room. The hollowness. I slipped my abaya over my bed clothes, opened the front door to the courtyard garden, passing the dry fountain and was beaten to the gates by Afsa running ahead of me to unlock the heavy wrought iron gates cut between the concrete walls around the house.
“Madam, I should come with you,” she said, slipping a prayer shawl over her hair. “Let me fetch your shoes.”
She darted off inside to get my shoes and I took that moment to escape out onto the street. I followed the white stripe along the edge of the grey concrete road, running barefoot past a blur of villa’s, walls, gates and Emirati flags licking the rooftops in red, green, white and black.
The tops of the villas peeped out revealing fancy brickwork, ornate metal balconies sitting on top of the roof gardens like beautiful tiaras. Outside the gates, squares were dug out from the concrete and planted with chilli’s, tomatoes and pomegranates. Baby palm trees stuck out razor sharp leaves. My lungs felt squeezed of air. I slowed down and knelt on my knees as teardrops fell and vanished into sand impressed with tiny footprints.
At the end of the street, something made my skin cold. It was a white shroud, wrapped around what appeared to be a body. A tiny body. I turned around and ran in the opposite direction, trying to retrace my steps. I turned until I had no idea where I was and became lost down a dead end. I clambered over the sand, its firm lumps rising from the earth, falling under my feet as they slipped down the side of it. My legs were tired. The air heated up. The sun bore down relentlessly burning all the clouds from the sky. I slumped down against a telegraph pole; the only sign that people lived close by. My eyes opened and closed as I imagined the barren desert, miles of sand rising falling. Buried.
Damp. Cold. A voice I recognised. It was Afsa. She must have followed me. She pulled me to my feet and tipped water over my face. I limped alongside her, my feet cut from the stones. Exhausted I fell into bed floating between an endless desert of swelling mounds the size of shoe boxes.
Streaming sunlight broke my slumber with Afsa parting the curtains, “Wake up, madam. You have a gift.”
I knelt down and undid the ribbon. I lifted the lid. I don’t know what I expected to find inside but it surprised me. At the bottom of the box was a pair of walking shoes. Black with thick, cushioned soles. My size. I slipped them on. I walked around pressing down my foot purposefully to check the fit. I walked down the hallway, passed the kitchens and walked out of the backdoor. I kept walking. The sun was subdued by a roll of clouds and the street stretched out in front of me. Behind the villa’s the mountain’s silhouette cut clearly against the sky. The cool winter breeze blew through my scarf, the same breeze which had blown the sand to the edges of the roads. Wherever it settled, green plants sprung up and bushes thick with thorny leaves and rose-coloured flowers thrived amongst stacks of bricks and cement blocks. Big pots of industrial paint stood next to half-painted concrete walls. Outside them, palm trees were covered in fine, powdery tile dust as if snow had fallen on a small patch of the desert. Opposite the dust covered palms, an imposing grey building made of three concrete floors, a roof and stark columns connected uninhabited rooms. Those that were finished were decorated with ceramic water jugs framing the doors where uplighters and lamps hung along the walls. Arabic signs stuck in the sand, ‘Family homes to rent’.
I went walking every day after that, watching as the street shifted around me. Something about the sound of life roused me, the hum of the street cleaning truck, the sound of rakes on crispy fallen leaves, the hammering of metal and the birds swooping from the sky, chirping in the early morning sunlight. The days lullaby soothed me into feeling safe. So safe, I had forgotten the street of the shroud until I stumbled on it obliviously one morning.
It was like any other street in my neighbourhood, half-built and half lived in. It stood at the bottom of the road on a slight incline, so I couldn’t see past it. I walked closer. It seemed as if past the villa with the shroud, the world dropped off. The sky was its only backdrop. A vast breadth of heavens surrounding it. Damp skin. It was tightly wrapped. Perfectly formed ears. Not even the winter breeze stirred it. Closed eyes. I don’t know what colour they were. I was now standing right next to it. Jet black hair. Lots of hair. Thick and wavy, just like mine. White shroud. I touched it. It was warm underneath. She was gone. I reached out…
“Sabah Al Khair.”
Startled, I withdrew my hand.
“Do you want to see what is inside?” The gardener said, untying the rope at the top. I held my breath. My heart thumped in my head, I felt nauseous as I watched the fabric drop. My eyes took a while to register what I saw. Wooden stacked bark. Tough, pointed leaves. Jewels bunched together in a cluster underneath.
“This stops the birds,” he said gesturing to the fabric and tying it back into place.
Speechless, I carried on walking. I veered off the road heaving my heavy footsteps over deep drifts of sand. I rushed across a road, darting between cars and yellow buses all passing me in a bustle of beeping horns. I stood still as the world spun around me. My eyes hadn’t left the scene before. I hadn’t caught my bearings when a voice interrupted me.
“Do your children go here?”
She repeated the question. It rang through the chambers of my brain, asked so many times that my response was automatic.
“No, I don’t have children.” But this time, the statement felt different. Sharp. Clear. I waited for a heavy thud to land on my heart. I waited for the world to heave and sigh. But nothing happened. The sun didn’t fall from the sky. The clouds, despite their frailness, remained suspended above. The mountains stood firm on the horizon. Solid. Imposing. Firm. They stopped me from spinning.
“Do you want twenty?”
I looked at her strangely, until she repeated herself. My lips parted but no words came out.
“We desperately need teachers.”
She carried on talking. I nodded. I think my lips pursed into a smile a couple of times. Vacantly, I said goodbye and she headed inside the school.
When I returned home, I walked into my baby’s room and emptied the brand-new bedding and piles of clothes. I called the local charity to come and collect the furniture. When it was being removed, a small cream shoebox appeared, previously hidden under the sofa. I dusted it off and handed it to the removal team. When they had gone, all that was left was the four painted walls, the large window overlooking the street and dust particles falling in the sunlight.
The summer came. My walks stopped as the sun rose earlier and more intensely. The flowers and plants died, the sand became too hot to walk on. The schools closed. Afsa left to spend the summer with her family. I was awoken each morning only by the sound of worshippers before dawn. The call to prayer sounded from the illuminated minarets. The sound of footsteps in the dark walking towards the mosques. In my home, I joined them. After, I unlocked the door to my library and sat amongst books stacked high to the ceilings, the smell of walnut wood and dust filling the room, the mirrored windows dulled the sunlight as it rose to light the way for the worshippers returning to their homes. Before the morning had woken up, I had started my day.
September rolled around again. The sound of school children filled the air. I opened my windows wide to let the life in. I wrapped my abaya around my clothes and gathered a stack of books under my arm. I slipped my new shoes on and opened the gates. I wandered down the streets, through the buses and beeping cars, past the unshrouded palm tree, its dates already plucked. The fallen ones poked out of the soil, beginning to split and sprout. Patches of terracotta sand whipped around the edges, the first winter rains had rolled in and as I walked, I saw tiny white flowers climbing from underneath buried sand. Their green stems scattered all over the sands turning them into a delicate carpet of green and white.
Arriving at the school, I waited in reception until I heard, “Ayesha?”
I nodded and followed the chattering assistant down the winding school corridors. We eventually stopped at the doorway of a classroom. Inside, it was full of children. They stopped to look at me. “This is Miss Ayesha.”
At that moment, I realised who I was supposed to be. Who my mother had named me after. I remembered the footsteps I follow.