You looked out the window and, not for the first time, thought about how wrong the weather forecast had been. You knew the weather forecast because mother had looked it up. She always had the strong sense that something would go so wrong, especially on important days. She needed to be prepared for every predicament. They had said that it would only be partly cloudy.
Yet the world blurred outside, under the glossy cover of the downpour, the narrow ditches at the side road overflowed with dark water. Motorcyclist - possibly friends or family of the departed- gathered under a shade, waiting for the rain to subdue into drizzle maybe. To hope for the rain to end altogether, was to hope for too much.
Had this been a simple drive past the airport, you might've liked the rain. You might've liked to watch the water batter against the windows and drench up the highway, while you sit inside the car, shielded from the chaos. Your brother was at your left and a large suitcase was at your right. It was so big that it blocked the window. You had to look through his, and he pinched you whenever you leaned too close to his side.
The entrance to the airport was at his side as well. And there you could see a dozen other families like yours, cars lined up, trunks open and luggage carried out and placed on bellhops. Someone had to keep an eye on the luggage at all times because the entrance of the airport was filled with crowds that swarmed like flies to a stick of honey and within those crowds were beggars and thieves. It was easy to steal something in this horde. Here amidst the teary goodbyes and anxiety at an uncertain future, here where the noise of chatter dissolved into the buzzing of bees, here it was easy to lose a grasp on location, for it was a thresh hold into other worlds, it was far easier to lose luggage.
And with the rain, the rush to get through was so much worse. You could feel the anxiety radiate off your mother, who sat at the passenger seat, she rapped her short nails against the dashboard, craning her neck to see the line at the security checkpoints. The noise of her fingernails grazed across your mind and you felt anxious too.
She spoke to the driver, "damn the rain..... There aren't enough bellhops, I can barely see… Why don’t the security guards tell them to go? Why do they linger here? How long will they cry and wave? When my husband went abroad, I didn’t cry and press my face against the glass to watch him go--here, Anouka you hold onto the passports. Do not lose them."
You held them with so much ferocity as if they would grow wings and fly away. You thought of pickpocketers and thieves and when the driver carried out the suitcases, you fixated your eyes upon the stack, counting them again and again. You hated your brother for lazily hanging off the bellhop and pressing the buttons of his game boy. He had managed, even then to barricade himself against all streams of thoughts and emotions of other people, something you had never learned to do. You viewed the world through the periscope of your mother’s thoughts, but not him.
It didn’t matter anymore, for soon the plane crossed the oceans and you met your father at the gates of a foreign white country, and he was there with wiry arms that collected all three of you. And mother’s anxiety seemed to fade away, father was the cool balm to mother’s prickly heat. In his presence, she smiled wider, so wide that the sides of her eyes crinkled as if she were looking directly at the sun. Even here her happiness was strained, you noticed. No more did she bear the toll of caring for children by herself, now it was the toll of living in a foreign land, the toll of reconnecting with a husband who had for most of her life only existed in Skype calls.
You felt anxious for her, but it only lasted a minute, for England unfolded before your eyes. Spots and lines of light reflected off the darkened car window, and you pressed your face against it, your eyes drinking in the sight, like the people outside the airport back at home had. Were they too trying to see a glimpse into this other world? But they stood at the gateway, you were already beyond it. How lucky you were to see all this, while they could only imagine as they stared at the receding backs of the ones who were leaving?
And what did you see? A city dense with buildings, adorned in lights, in billboards, little coffee shops lining cobblestone streets, table sets and chairs were arranged outside and people, sat out under a gunmetal sky, enveloped in the smoke of their cigarettes. The joy in them nearly deafened you.
"Well children," father said, his voice was clear now that it didn’t hold the static noise from Skype calls. You caught his eyes in the front view mirror, they were deep-set, like Nathan's. "What do you think of Brighton?"
"I thought we were in London," Nathan said
"There’s more to England than just London, silly," Mother said. There was such an ease to her voice that you had never heard so distinctly before.
"Huh," Nathan said, both confused by her tone and this new revelation.
"Dear God, boy," father gave an exasperated sigh "try not to display such idiocy when you start school. I trust Anouka to have some wits at least."
"Yes of course," your mother assured him.
And you felt already the weight their gaze settle on you. The city around you unfurled itself and kept doing so as if it had no horizon, it went on forever, covering the expanse of the whole world. And you were just a speck within its folds.
In truth, you were only terrible at school for the first year. You got better as the years went by, you got so good that you won prizes, certificates and more, but in your mind, you felt as though you were still living that first horrible year.
You heard your name being called out in the ceremony, to receive some prize or the other and as you'd walk up to the stage, your mind would wander back to that one time you got detention for failing to complete homework for a week consecutively. You sat by yourself in a classroom all afternoon, your face red and tear-streaked with humiliation. You couldn't understand. You couldn’t understand French, or about the Tudors and the industrial revolution. The teachers spoke so fast and with such thick, strange accents, their words just bled onto each other. It made no sense. They made you feel stupid.
Your father picked you up, he was angry and embarrassed. He said nothing in the car but as soon as the door of the tiny apartment shut behind him, his words spilt out. One arrow after the other.
"Why can't you make some effort? It's not that you aren't bright, Anouka. It's all a lack of effort. Every day I come home and I see you and Nathan watching the bloody TV, waste of your goddamn time! Don’t you understand? We, people like us do not have the privilege to take things easy, we work hard, harder than anyone here and even then, our work may never amount up to anything. It's not enough to work hard, there are enough people who work hard. You have to work harder than them. You have to be the best of the best. Because what comes to other people freely only comes to us with a cost. I know how these companies work, they hire 5 white people and 1 brown person. Don’t you see the places people like us have in this world are thoroughly limited? Open your eyes and look, this country is nothing to be fascinated by--”
"I want to go back home!" You burst out. He went quiet. You thought he'd hit you. He did not like to be interrupted when he ranted and raged.
"If she wants to go back...you should let her." It was your mother, appearing at the passage between the tiny living room and kitchen. There was a silent plea in her voice, a look about her that said 'I hate it here. The children hate it here. Please just let us go back, we cannot fit into the moulds you set for us.'
She was such a bird-like woman nowadays, you never knew she was so meek, but the presence of a husband had coaxed out so much softness and gentleness in her now, that you barely recognized her. This woman who had cultivated intensity in you had become the pillowy leg rest of a man. There was a strain between your parents now, you had noticed it but did not understand.
Father made a step towards her and you thought he would hit her. That one jerk of his body towards her, it made the wind knock out of your lungs. But he stopped and you suddenly took the chance to speak.
"No, its fine. We do not need to go back, I will work hard, very hard, every day, I promise father."
And you would keep your promise. And you would try to forget that under your skin, there was a person so different from what he willed you to be, it was the very thing your mother had done.
And you get handed over a tiny gold trophy because you kept that promise.
Yet In your mind, you are still sobbing in the sunset's reddish hue that came through the windows of the detention classroom, in your mind, the detention never ends.
After the ceremony, you sat outside, on the steps leading to the school entrance. You were waiting for your mother, she was going to take the tube and come pick you up. You imagined all the possible scenarios she may have encountered, all the confusion brought upon by communication barriers. You had written down on a paper, which trains to take, which stop, which bus. Everything. She understood only half of it but she still insisted on coming all the way to pick you up.
"We'll celebrate," she said "Just you and me." Father would be busy at work and Nathan would be smoking at the alley beside the animal shelter, where he volunteered.
In truth what was there to celebrate?
You traced a finger on the edge of the tiny ornament trophy and felt the urge to throw it down the stairs. This stupid piece of metal, was it really worth the trouble and inconvenience of your mother having to haggle her way up to the school? So much effort and strain for this gaudy scrap of nothing.
You heard someone clear their throat behind you and realized that your hand was outstretched, ready to hurl the trophy out of existence. You brought your hand towards your torso, holding the metal against your chest and turned around. A lanky boy came over and sat beside you, his long limbs folding, the trousers were frayed at the knees. You were certain you had seen him kneeling outside classrooms countless times. His face was like all their faces, but the freckles were concentrated more so around his nose, and tufts of his brownish-yellowish hair fell on his wispy brows. His eyes were inky black and they glinted like those of a deer.
"Your Nathan's sister," he said as a way of greeting.
"Yes." You stated. It was the most obvious thing in the world, who else's sister would you be? Here, where they were only two brown students. You looked ahead. The side of his knee brushed against yours and you adjusted your skirt as if to barricade your skin.
"Uh-- I...good job on getting that," he said gesturing to the hated trophy "It must have been real hard."
You said nothing. You wondered if he would ask you why you tried to throw it.
“You waiting for someone?" He asked.
"My mother," you answered, "and you?"
"I'm not- I'm not waiting for anyone." He said, "my ma finishes up work at around six, so I head home before that."
"Could I ask you something?" He asked, you nodded in surprise. He was looking right at your face, holding the plane of your vision within his.
"Why are you always so tense?" He asked.
"What?" You bleated
"You just seem tense, Anouka, all the time," he said. He pronounced your name with that foreign enunciation that was growing familiar. Still, it sounded almost musical the way it unfurled from his mouth. He was smiling with his eyes, one eyebrow subtly lifting. You looked away, ahead, anywhere but at him.
There, across the front lawn of the school, behind the gates, your mother stood.
"I must go." You said suddenly getting up and running down the steps and the path to the gates, you ran as if the hounds of hell were nipping at your heels.
"Who was that boy?" Your mother asked.
"A classmate." You said, brushing the matter aside entirely. "How was the train ride? You didn’t get lost, did you?"
You had picked a little restaurant close by, and when the waitress asked your mother if the two of you would dine outside, your mother looked at you wordlessly and you spoke for her. You ordered a pizza and your mother grudgingly ate a slice. There weren't any Indian restaurants in these parts, and even those, she complained about.
"I didn't get lost," she said defensively, "you and your brother treat me as though I'm an idiot."
She marvelled at the trophy and upon seeing her smile, you were glad that you didn’t throw it away.
"When we go home, I'll put it in the glass cabinet, then everyone can see." She said.
There was no glass cabinet back at their tiny apartment, she was talking about home home. That other country where the weather was never in accordance with the forecasts, and where the greater masses watched at the airport as a handful of them departed.
You realized that you no longer thought of life back there, but seeing that wistful look on your mother's face, you understood that she thought of it all the time. Sometimes she spoke of it, of the house you all had left behind. It was beside the street that was next to the railway tracks. Every time a train went by the whole house shuddered and you could see the throng of people clinging onto the railings at the sides.
"Here," she said, taking out an envelope from within her bag "This is for you."
A hallmark card, within it she had written in clumsy handwriting, 'well done Uhnoka.'
You felt your bottom lip quiver and blinked, trying to force the tears to not spill. Ridiculous!
You wanted to cry now, of all times? And why? Because your mother did not know how to spell your name? Because she knew that if she had written it in her language, you would not have been able to read it? Because the gulf between you and her had become so wide?
Your mother made a noise of surprise and your breath hitched, believing that she saw your watery eyes. You looked up at her. The suddenness of the movement caused a tear to slip down and you hastily wiped at your cheek, yet she was not looking at you, she was looking beyond you.
"Is that your father? I believe it is." She said. You whipped your head around and as clear as daylight, you could see your father, tall and broad-shouldered with the wiry arms that could hold them in security. He was seated at a table outside, his greying hair brushed impeccably to the side.
"Has he come here for his lunch?" She wondered out loud "but I...I packed it for him-- do you reckon he knew we'd be heading here? Shall I call him?"
"No wait," you said, your eyes fixated on the scene you saw before you. A slender blonde woman came up to your father, she was dressed in work attire, the hem of a black pencil skirt brushing against white skin of her calf, a velvety blazer hugging her torso. You saw your father grin a boyish upon seeing her. She bent down, placing her lips over his and she sat down beside him. Their hands laced together.
You turned back to face your mother with widened eyes. You felt feverish and your skin was icy, you felt you would vomit out all your food.
You wanted to believe that it wasn't him but it made too much sense. And your mother was oddly quiet, perhaps more embarrassed by the blatant display of romance that she had seen in films, than hurt by this new revelation. She lowered her head for just a minute, before raising it to meet your gaze. Her eyes were as empty as that trophy.
She must’ve known. She must’ve at least suspected. Father liked all things of the western world, that other country and its people were too primitive, too frustrating for him. You saw him the way your mother saw him, as the provider of security and demander of obedience. Beyond that, you never understood him.
"I do not like this food," she said simply "Eat as much as you can for now and then we shall go back home."
You nodded. You did not know what she meant by home at this point.