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There was no last image of Khadija to behold. This is what René thinks as she taps the door of a flat in north London. The wars – in René’s case, the battle she’d lost with Belle, for Khadija it had been the annihilation of her country – had confirmed the mild fraudulence of their friendship, so there were no goodbye photographs, no embraces in front of palms. They had been faceless to one another since René had left Somalia over twenty years ago. Had René not seen an article about Khadija’s missing son, she wouldn’t be here. Those boys, their sons born days apart, for months they had carried them in fierce, swelling drums.
René knocks again as an image throws itself across her mind, one she clings to at times, it has become an emblem. In the dark of that doomed country, a Somali soldier sat whimpering at her front gates, the neighbourhood madman, a wreck from the Ogaden war of the late 1970s. In the next frame René gets down from her car and embraces him, wipes his face, the most Magdalene gesture she’ll ever perform in her life. But did it ever happen? In front of Khadija’s door, the door to her diminished, exiled world, René can’t tell if it is the high lyricism of the mind. Would she have hugged a bloody, sobbing man, even before the age of knives and explosives? She feels a glow of shame, the way she has told tales of their three hardy years in Mogadishu, grown solemn at the loss of her wedding ensemble and books, as she hears Khadija’s footsteps approach the door.
And there she is, splendidly grown. Adorned, East African, sharp-nosed, and smudged kohl saddening her eyes.
“So you are here, René.”
A softening, stumbling, and clutching occurs. In her arms, René remembers shock and loss. The last time they had been in a room together – Khadija’s breezy house on the grand, sea-bound incline of the city – their small sons had been on straw mats on the tiled floor, one fair-skinned, one gaining colour, and pink grapefruit juice had been served by the maid in glasses rimmed with salt. Work gossip had been suspended, for René received a phone call – strange, in her friend’s house, via an implement that rarely worked – it was her father.
She’d caught a plane home the day after.
Two decades on René is good at walling up, deflecting. She’s dealt with Belle’s death. Around her Khadija smells mature, of organs and flesh, pleasing and unpleasant at the same time. René loosens against her body, she is testing herself, wondering what she will feel an hour from now, she wants to establish affection beneath the long span of time. Nothing has remained of those two young women or that breezy cantilevered house built by Italians, it is now rubble and twisted girders.
“It is good of you to come. The police were here again this morning. They’ve taken his computer and some of his clothing.”
“Oh God, Khadija.”
But anything René can say feels like a savage shortfall, wide of the mark. Even the word God feels slovenly.
Khadija leads her to the kitchen where she is in the process of boiling shai; two mugs sit on the counter. She asks after René’s husband and son, and René feels her weightless life well up behind her. Nothing that has happened to them since resembles those three years. After she and her son flew out for Belle’s funeral, she had never gone back. It was judged too dangerous. In fact, John had been shipped out with just his swimming bag after the tanks came in – they’d unwisely stayed on in a rundown villa on the President’s road. The stories René heard went from John’s 1930s ex-US Embassy desk being sawn in two and carted down the road to their watchman Elmi taking the bullet in his abdomen that killed him while defending the car René used to drive to the beach. The story about Elmi was true. Devastated, René had also felt a pitiable, weird pollution at the idea of quat-high soldiers in her hot bedroom at the rear of the house, pulling clothes off hangers in her lopsided wardrobe and stretching out her thongs and bras. She’d lost track of John’s whereabouts for days until they located him in Mombasa. And then all he could tell her in this wild, keening voice – he’d been on helicopters and a frigate – was that one of the house-girls had stuck her thumbed copy of the Koran in his swimming bag that morning as if she’d known.
René has this book in her handbag right now. It was designed to be a conjunction, a part of the circle, but it has begun to feel leaden, even stolen. A bleeding vessel Khadija won’t want in her hands.
Khadija passes her the steaming cup, and René is embarrassed by all that drama now. There had been no risk for them, they were cushioned expatriates. By the end they’d grown used to being waved through roadblocks by the red berets and seeing the main thoroughfares whitewashed before the last foreign cavalcades. Then they started halting Land Cruisers and cocking Kalashnikovs at drivers. Belle died in London, and René left. Just months before the collapse, René’s husband John had lent his grey wedding suit to a French journalist he’d warmed to, who asked to borrow it for a trip to the north, where he’d lined up a big interview with a Hargeisa warlord. He was one of the early Western deaths. Shot in his car as he waited for some trigger-happy sixteen-year-old to open the gates. John’s version of this story slithered between appropriated bravado and a revulsion he would revisit, as though he’d seen the blood splashed on the glass; he told it at almost every dinner party they’d been to ever since.
When Addey calls again, Khadija answers, wishing she had left the phone in the front room. But she always answers because Addey survived stomach cancer and is getting heavier by the day on the couch. Addey, who never had children, thinks that Khadija must simply telephone her son Omar, and tell him to come home. Or refuse to answer the police at the door. Khadija presses her phone to her ear and listens to Addey’s shrill voice. This time Addey reminds her to call back later with a description of René, an old colleague from their office who will visit in the afternoon. You must tell me how has she aged, okay? If she has she pulled back her face, no? Back home Khadija had never much listened to Addey, who lived in a shed behind the President’s Palace with a scattering of goats. Infertile women could spread their disease. While Khadija and her husband Osman lived in a broad villa over the sea, pressed into the tumbling hillside, and how the whites gasped as they walked stiffly onto the terrace. (We have local friends! Look at us!) Khadija had not disliked René’s husband, John, who once, in her kitchen, had accidentally brushed a hand over her buttocks. Then sprang back agonising, a proposal dangling in his eyes. But over here, in these burdened cities with their rain showers and soft-soiled parks, there was a social levelling and the decades had rotted through you so you kept with those you knew. Addey had nearly died with stomach cancer, so there had been no other option but to become sisterly.
As she listens, Khadija wonders whether she should say that the police had been kinder this time, but that would have invited further talk concerning Addey’s skewed ideas about authority. It was a configuration between Khadija and the police officers now, occurring on faces and through the eyes, then trapped on paper, driven off up the street and leaving silence, the worst of it falling into the newspapers where her son’s photo was shown. They were always watching deep into you, shoulders hoisted, jaws secured, as if there were truths at the back of you which when stared at long enough would spring forth and surrender to new owners. Half an hour ago there had been another female officer sitting opposite her while her son’s bedroom was overturned. The boots had trudged out with boxes. Tea with canned milk had been refused. The officer asked further questions about Omar, watching every flex of Khadija’s skin, sliding her clotted blue eyes under the surface. Saying sentences with the words your culture and your religion while Khadija maintained her son was an astonishing man, a great help to her, devout and good at basketball, none of which could or couldn’t be proved. It drove Khadija into a frenzy and was no good prelude to René’s monumental visit. The policewoman said – and this she will repeat to her husband Osman if he bothers picking up late tonight – that Omar hadn’t done anything yet but there were suspicions and it wouldn’t be in Khadija’s interests to hold anything back.
She tells Addey nothing. Addey says she has a new series of cramps along her right side and what could that mean? Could it be the cancer coming back?
Addey begins to litter her talk with images of their colleague René, who had been swift and purposeful in all things, except the management of her husband with his covetous eyes and the sister who had died tragically, hadn’t she?
“Please sit down.”
Khadija’s arm guides René to a pillowy velour settee, the same type every Somali home possessed in Mogadishu. Even René’s rented villa had had a quartet of them she’d transferred to the unused garage downstairs, home of the watchman Elmi and his two wives. There is firmness in Khadija’s voice, or is it fatigue from dealing with questions, with the distrust of others and its bladed edge? Khadija sits close to her, close enough to touch René’s knee with her sleeved arm, close enough for René to smell the reaches of her breath. She knows Khadija is all but alone here. Two years into the war, she knows they obtained visas to Sweden, where her husband and twin daughters still reside. Khadija has been in London a few years now, with Omar, the son the police are looking for, the one whose photo caught René’s eye.
They sip their tea. It floods through René; she has not tasted these spices since she lived in Mogadishu. She looks further around the room. A wall unit with a framed photograph of the united family in Sweden. A rangy Omar and two shoulder-height girls in pullovers and jeans, Khadija with whipped-up, lustrous hair and traditional dress; her husband solemn, the hair has abandoned his shiny temples and his glasses are smaller, frameless. On another wall is a canvas of a nomad’s dromedary with the curved struts of the family home strapped to its hump. A naïf, dying Somalia, beneath a sky now scored by fighter planes. There is a map of Britain taped up like a new kingdom – emerald and smoky blue with circles drawn around the big cities: Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham. There is a poster of Bob Marley. Damp patches.
“It has been long, René. Many years. So many things have happened to us all.”
This was a trait of Khadija’s that René remembered. A stepping back, a disassociation, her way of speaking as though she were observing her own life. Khadija’s eyes look more recessed than they once were, as if they would refrain from seeing, as though she is tired of seeing. One eye weeps a little and she wipes it with a cotton handkerchief. René is relieved that she wears no headscarf or veil.
“It all comes back to one, doesn’t it?” Khadija says.
René’s mind harks back to the old town, the chalk-white filigree archways over doors, the minarets; always the sea, glittering and lashing and humping over the arm of the breakwater she had never ventured along, not once. All destroyed. The concrete combustion of the ministries, the dark men in too-big suits ordering about drivers in pillbox caps; the ancient santoni with their squared-off hennaed beards, and always the kneeling, the muezzin, the pale heels and rows of praying men. To think it had given her peace, sung through her.
There were nights when she awoke, when she took the spiral staircase up to the flat roof. The muezzin would ring out – an ascension pealing in the dark – first the mosque after the market towards the coast, then a choral raft of them across the rooftops, over the hill raised behind the city. She would stand there in the wind, feeling at peace with herself, with John and the fibre of their marriage, with her place in the cosmos. She would see Elmi – murdered for her fucking car – prowling beneath the palms with his wooden club.
Khadija looks at her slowly, and René feels as though she has been caught out. She knows the country was already imploding at the time, and she knows next to nothing of the decades that followed for her. She wants to ask of Omar, the youth in the newspaper photograph, the baby she had inhaled. Her mind is ploughing through it – those three years they had lived in Mogadishu had been charmed, charged. The slowness of movement. All movement glutinous in the heat. But every instant they had lived had surely been a preface to this.
“You do remember the old streets of Xamar?” Khadija says. “Do you remember our beautiful city? How we would walk to the Croce del Sud for drinks?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And our women the white men would leave their wives for. Immediately, and without shame?”
“This is nostalgia, isn’t it? The Italians say, nostal-gee-ya. I wonder if it could have ended any other way than this. I wonder if there is any other way to change a stubborn regime. They said it was oil in the north. They said it was the Russians. I say we were a foolish people, a foolish devilish people.”
Khadija stirs her shai, gold rings on swollen fingers, passing René a teaspoon to dissolve the sediment of sugar in hers.
“Have you ever wondered what really happened to us after you all left? I mean the Westerners, most of our ministers, and even the press?”
This unexpected openness stills René.
“For months we stayed in our houses. Those back streets – the trail you used to walk along from your house to mine – there were soldiers there, in the trees and behind the walls. A body would lie in the dirt for days, eaten by dogs.
“We could not sleep because the men would be rounded up as conscripts at dawn, taken from their beds, their women screaming. You know that had started before you left. Brothers, uncles, almost all of our men.
“There was no electricity. No water. The dysentery was very bad. Many of our children died. I buried Omar’s young brother in our garden. I buried my second son myself.”
Khadija is proud of this, her hands flinch.
“His name was Abdi.”
“I do remember that day, that phone call. Your sister has been gone 23 years now. Such a loss for you. As one ages.”
René’s sister Belle had flown out for two weeks when she and Khadija were both expecting, and René took time off work. She hadn’t really wanted Belle to come – her sister only thrived when she was the centre of all attention – but Belle said she needed to and booked the flight. As soon as Belle arrived she picked up a urinary tract infection and was laid low with drugs. The light hurt her eyes. René, who’d hoped to be shepherded a little, found herself looking after the older sibling she would lose the year after – reading her short stories and articles, bringing her pompelmo juice in bed. Belle and John had an endless dinner-table flirty thing going on, which René didn’t mind so long as John ravished her afterwards, and she made sure her sister could hear her cries.
“Go easy,” John would say, as he cupped her mouth. These days, when René relives those scenes, she feels like a murderer and she can see Belle shutting her ears in bed.
The women didn’t look like sisters. Unlike René, Belle was tall and narrow-hipped, she’d let her hair grow past her bottom but kept it rolled up and pegged to her head with chopsticks or pens. When they were younger they’d been certain their mother had fallen pregnant by another man and married their father in haste, but after her death he announced that the couple had been virgins at the altar, twins for life. René, too, had inherited this strand of defiant, comradely love, while Belle had never found purity or permanence in her rapports with men. She had been luckless, but René thought obstinately so, she saw things crookedly and told René her marriage was a facile, composed arrangement, which made René roll her eyes. When Belle was there, she and John saw none of their foreign or Somali friends but lunched with her, listened to her. René took Belle to the Baia Felice, a sparse terrace restaurant on the beach, and Belle threw up afterwards, she grew yellow and feverish within the hour. After that they stayed home and Belle lived on cooked rice that smelt of mould and Lipton’s tea drenched in lemon and sugar. They lay sweating on cloth-covered divans René had bought from outgoing expats, in the high-ceilinged living room with its barred windows and swinging bottle green shutters that crashed against the outside walls. They spoke little, listening to pickups revving up the hill or conversations of people drifting down to the central market. In the early evening, the warbling voices of Somali singers performing at the roofless National Theatre carried into the room. Belle said her dream would be to sit at a performance and understand the words. She mocked René for the partition she had placed between herself and local life. The noisy city air crossed the dusty mosquito screens and John would wander back into the room after his nap, cradle René’s head, and ask her what was for dinner.
One night a bullet screamed past the window above their heads, and Belle was suddenly in the bedroom doorway. René beckoned her over – they were three shapes in T-shirts – and Belle snuggled behind her sister’s body while René lay face to face with her husband, who froze. They listened to the crack of gunfire down in the marketplace until it left off. Soon after the lonely muezzin called across the night.
Another morning the house-girl brought in her niece, a little girl in a cream dress with flounces whose mother had died of infection following childbirth. She presented the girl to them after their breakfast coffee and asked Belle if she should like to have her, take her home with her. Her name was Honey. Belle stared at the frightened, lovely creature, and her face broke. René led the child into the kitchen and scolded the house-girl.
Days before her departure, the worst of Belle’s ailments had passed, and René wanted to take her somewhere beautiful that she would remember. Khadija – who’d listened more than once to René’s stories about her difficult older sister – suggested the grapefruit plantation at Afgooye, just beyond the city. There was an old Italian farmer with his Somali wife. They were happy to have visitors, they would gladly sell them baskets of pink grapefruit.
René drove. John was concerned as she’d rarely driven so far alone, with no male or driver. But this made René more determined to set out with her sister. Soon after the heat of the day was over they left the city, reaching the river Shabelle as sundown approached. They found their way up the trail to the flat house, the black woman and the white man sitting on rattan chairs on the veranda. René who spoke some Italian sat with the elderly couple, while Belle walked along the aisles between the laden trees. The light fell. When mosquitoes started biting her legs, René felt uncomfortable; they said there was no malaria here but she was carrying a child, she felt she was being irresponsible. But Belle had still not come back by the time the car was loaded with baskets of grapefruit and the old couple had been embraced. René, panicky, went amongst the low trees calling her name – Belle! Belle! – as the damp air gathered. Then Belle appeared close by, and threw an arm around her shoulders.
A year later she was gone. She took something at a club, she used to do it a lot, then went outside to ride it through, collapsed on a footpath. Got up and walked into the path of a car. It was that simple. Belle’s trials were over. There’d been a patch of depression a few years back, after which her group from the clinic had gone hiking numerous times in Wales. Belle had always said she wanted her ashes scattered over those mountains.
René follows Khadija’s eyes to the front window of the ground floor flat, the window is full of buildings and clouds. She thinks, God, how she must miss the sea! The jagged, green-cobalt Indian Ocean she used to have dancing at her feet. Their mugs are half-full now. Her shai is lukewarm. The cinnamon and cloves and spoonfuls of sugar have started to taste sickly. Khadija lifts out of her chair and returns with a fan of digestive biscuits on a plate. She is not hungry, but René’s hand reaches out. At her feet, in her handbag, lies the copy of the Koran John discovered all those years ago, with its fluid lines and thumbed-through pages. On the dark blue cover an elliptical scroll encloses worn golden script, on each page inside the text is cordoned by a filigree border. John used to turn it over in his hands as a badge of his escape – those days of being herded, guarded, then landing in a hotel suite. But afterwards René had hidden it from him, and herself, it was the song of those days, it was suffocating.
René leans down rummaging in her bag, not sure whether she can do it. Bring this book onto the table between them, next to the plate of biscuits, with its depth charge sounding in all directions. Inside the book there is a square of notepaper covered in flurrying handwritten script. René still doesn’t know whether it is a plea for help, or copied verse, or even an insult to John and herself for abandoning their staff. It was never deciphered. She touches the spine, feels the grooves of the sewn pages. It’s not right, it’s not the right moment now, perhaps later. Perhaps she will hand it to her as she rushes away, or leave it on the doorstep.
Khadija, after a silence, has begun a rundown of the locations of her siblings and cousins, scattered across the globe in Italy, Canada, Sweden, the USA. Relatives had spidered back and forth over the past two decades, visas had been sought, babies including Khadija’s daughters had been born in crisp climates where camels resided in books and zoos. René tries to imagine this dismemberment of family – a husband raising siblings in another language, daughters who would grow up without their mother’s hands in their hair, a troubled son whose clothes have just been boxed by police. Who could have foreseen this vast undoing? When at the outset there had been other raw, flagrant concerns?
René met Khadija when they were young, childless wives unused to marriage, they were embassy secretaries, typists, editors of shoddy letters from their bosses. Khadija was a translator from Af-Somaali to English. She would read the local newspaper covered in vehement Latin letters pronounced with a rough grating along the throat, sighing and head-shaking in the corner. Then her eyes would drift over the Arabic version, and she would write some notes. Aloof towards the two other Somalis – Addey and Zeinab – she looked with weary disinterest over the European women. This is why René was drawn to her. She knew Khadija had studied journalism in Ceausescu’s Romania but had never been allowed to exercise her craft.
There was an extraordinary morning in the office, when at break the senior Italian secretary brought forth a bottle of chilled prosecco with a half-dozen plastic cups. It was to celebrate her divorce from a Somali army general, whose family had fought hard to have their daughter circumcised. The woman had won: The teenager was flying out to Rome the following day to complete her schooling. The quickly-consumed alcohol had the women tipsy and nattering in a flood of Italian and English that René couldn’t always understand. Addey, who was noisiest, said that of course they had all been circumcised! Of course! And that there were endless infections after menstruation and intercourse! Endless! What could one expect? With just one tiny exit left for bodily needs once the tissue was sewn! The other women rocked and laughed, and Addey’s dimples were sunken into her cheeks while her earrings shivered. A plate of Khadija’s goat meat stew was handed around with fermented bread – skillet-fried on one side, a grey surface on the other – and as fingers were dipped and mouths wiped, René pictured John plunging through her webbed flesh, and her own aunties stitching her up after the horror of the wedding night or presumed conception. Newly married Zeinab said that it was agony. Before they returned to work René stared at each of them drinking shai with henna trills along hands and forearms, flashes of yellow gold from stretched ear lobes, while imagining these women in intimacy, with husbands all of whom she had met, negotiating these tripwires, blacking out in pain and the sperm on its river upward. She thought that the territories of womanhood extended further than she could imagine.
René had never shared any of this. With John or Belle or anyone. It was a truth she felt inside of her; privileged knowledge. After the fragrant, brakeless moments of her own orgasm she would think of occlusion and rupture, and she would feel a terrible liberty from the plateau of her female world, and her flesh would burn while her mind thrashed over this persecution.
Khadija does not mention that Addey now lives two suburbs away in a tidy brick house. Since she found out Addey was in London a year ago, they have seen each other just three times. The women are used to staying in their homes. Khadija feels uncomfortable sitting before her bloated friend who constantly nurses her belly, measuring squirms or spasms within. Addey’s first husband was thrown off the top of a transport truck piled high with goods, headed for the Juba region. Her new husband dresses her well, and now it is Addey who has a house with a garden and a flight of stairs. Her favourite dress colour is red, threaded through with gold, and she catches a taxi to her doctors’ appointments. Khadija’s husband Osman is a tired ophthalmologist sharing a practice in Malmo. This is why Khadija prefers to hear Addey’s voice small and contained within her mobile phone. She needs no further ruin, and Addey, for all her fired cooks and snacking, has shocking breath. What will she tell Addey of René? That they have hugged. That the son is at university. That she is still married to the man who used to study their rumps and breasts while shaking their husbands’ hands. Khadija can smell no bitterness on her person, just perfume and a large, schooled dog.
Now that she has spoken of the child, Khadija has entered a fog of silence. Why had she told René these things? How she had failed to feed her second son. How she had buried his corpse in the garden. The child had hardly grown. Her milk had ceased. His eyes would not look away from her, saturated with dark colour and darker knowledge. When he departed she was relieved, she had already chosen the young palm tree where the soil was soft. Probably, she knew it would affect René in a shocking way and mark Khadija as inhuman, which had been enforced and then become.
Only when the rains had passed and the soil had hardened and turned to dust would she agree to leave the house, to attempt to escape from the ruined city. Until then she would walk through the drenched garden each night and stand before the sturdy palm with her son bleeding into its roots. Touch the woven carapace of the trunk, stroke the dripping bladed fronds, before Osman called her inside angrily.
All those months the sea had been noiseless and remote, far below the snicker of guns. Inside their bodies were covered in the sheer white powder of hunger, their skin crackled to touch, they slept. It was better not to talk, better to listen. Listen for fences being scaled or the bleating of a young man soon to die. A bullet ricocheted off window bars into the chest of her elderly house-help, who was lamenting, as always, the state of their poor people. Osman placed her body in a wheelbarrow in the street after nightfall. A week later the body was removed.
When the car came that took them to Kismaayo, Khadija was certain they would be slaughtered along the way, for it often happened. At a roadblock just beyond the city, Osman was pulled from the vehicle and made to kneel on the ground, encircled by gun barrels, by thin, quat-crazed soldiers. She covered her son’s eyes, and Osman quickly looked at her, then at the earth. He was kicked over and told to get back into the car, to get moving fast, to get out of the country. He climbed in next to the driver. He smelt of urine and terror.
“The police think my son is in Birmingham. They say there is a group of similar young men. They have been influenced in a bad way. There are relations of ours in Canada. It would have been better for us in Canada.”
“Omar and his father do not get along,” Khadija continues. “That is why I brought the boy from Sweden. But even here he has abandoned his studies.”
“There is an evil cloud now,” she says. “The young men are drawn to it.”
René remembers when it started, that cloud. She remembers Khadija talking in the office. Saying her younger brother had changed, saying he had told her to cover herself, to wear socks with her sandals so that men would not see her ankles, to wear long black sleeves in the heat, cover her hair and the edges of her face. She said he had called her his biological sister. René knows that Khadija and this brother are now estranged.
“Perhaps,” she says. “We are no longer the same people.”
The year they were expecting both women had stopped working. René went home to her local hospital and had as close to a water birthing as she was allowed. Khadija had gone to Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu, where a Cuban-trained obstetrician had used old-school forceps that left dents in the baby’s soft skull. René remembers removing her blotchy, blinking newborn from the air-conditioned car when she came back and the unveiling of these creatures on Khadija’s endless matrimonial bed. Two plucky apricots pattering within rib cages, plump arms rowing the air. The dark, the light. Flickering eyes that bore all the data of the men they would become. Omar, with his oiled skin and hair and doll-like eyelashes; there had been moments when René had hugged him too long.
“Come,” Khadija says. “Come and see what they have done to my son’s room.”
They walk together to the slim bedroom with a window onto the corridor between houses. The wardrobe doors are open, the few shirts remaining on wire hangers are pushed to one side. A pair of monstrously long gym shoes lie on the carpet. There is an empty space on the desk where Omar’s computer would have been, drawers full of undergarments and socks have been emptied onto the bed. The room smells of male sweat, of containment, of compression.
The women stand there looking at the disturbed furniture.
They return down the hall, and Khadija branches off to the kitchenette where René hears a saucepan filled with water and a gas flame ignited. She stands above the velour sofa. She had given herself an hour, but she will stay. She tries to think of laying a child within the earth. Her own son. Aligning limbs, correcting the tossed cranium. Refuting help. Pitching soil. Arranging a row of bricks above the slumbering body to ward off starving dogs. After Belle died, René had never again fallen pregnant and all treatment had failed. Sometimes, René resented her own son because he was all that there would ever be, and everything had to be refracted through him. Her son had no interest in their Somali interlude at all.
She hears Khadija in the passage, hears the clinking of fresh cups. She closes her eyes. Now the room is full of sea air and brittle light, and the terrace drops away over a surge of breakers and two infants are babbling on unrolled straw mats. René is holding a phone receiver in her hand, and she cannot breathe.